Tom Holland on Paul’s Letter to the Galatians

COWEN: Which Gospel do you view as most foundational for Western liberalism and why?

HOLLAND: I think that that is a treacherous question to ask because it implies that there would be a coherent line of descent from any one text that can be traced like that. I think that the line of descent that leads from the Gospels and from the New Testament and from the Bible and, indeed, from the entire corpus of early Christian texts to modern liberalism is too confused, too much of a swirl of influences for us to trace it back to a particular text.

If I had to choose any one book from the Bible, it wouldn’t be a Gospel. It would probably be Paul’s Letter to the Galatians because Paul’s Letter to the Galatians contains the famous verse that there is no Jew or Greek, there is no slave or free, there is no man or woman in Christ. In a way, that text — even if you bracket out and remove the in Christ” from it — that idea that, properly, there should be no discrimination between people of different cultural and ethnic backgrounds, based on gender, based on class, remains pretty foundational for liberalism to this day.

I think that liberalism, in so many ways, is a secularized rendering of that extraordinary verse. But I think it’s almost impossible to avoid metaphor when thinking about what the relationship is of these biblical texts, these biblical verses to the present day. I variously compared Paul, in particular in his letters and his writings, rather unoriginally, to an acorn from which a mighty oak grows.

But I think actually, more appropriately, of a depth charge released beneath the vast fabric of classical civilization. And the ripples, the reverberations of it are faint to begin with, and they become louder and louder and more and more disruptive. Those echoes from that depth charge continue to reverberate to this day.

March 23, 2023