The Letter of Paul to the Galatians Online Commentary (21)

In the first entry in the Bible Junkies Online Commentary on Galatians, I discussed introductory matters concerning the founding of the churches to the Galatians, the situation when Paul wrote to them, when the letter might have been written and the type of letters which Paul wrote, based on the common Greco-Roman letters of his day. In the second post, I considered the basic content and breakdown of a Pauline letter. I noted the major sections of the formal letter structure and, in the context of each section, outlined the theological and ethical (as well as other) concerns of Paul, including some Greek words which will be examined more fully as we continue with the commentary. In the third entry, I looked at the salutation, which is long for Paul’s corpus (only Romans 1:1-7 is longer) and briefly commented on the lack of a Thanksgiving, the only letter of Paul’s which does not have one. The fourth entry discussed the opening of the body of the letter, a significant part of the letter especially in light of the absence of a Thanksgiving. In the fifth entry, I examined the beginning of the opening of the body of the letter, in which Paul describes his background in Judaism and I placed this in the context of Judaism in the Hellenistic period. In the sixth post in the online commentary, I continued to look at Paul’s biographical sketch of his life, this concerning his earliest life as a Christian. In the seventh post, I examined what Paul says about his subsequent visit to Jerusalem to see the apostles and the Church in Jerusalem. In the eighth entry, Paul confronts Cephas about his hypocrisy in Antioch. 

The ninth blog post started to examine the theological argument in one of Paul’s most important and complex theological letters. In the tenth entry, Paul makes an emotional appeal to the Galatians based on their past religious experiences and their relationship with Paul. In the eleventh chapter in the series, Paul began to examine Abraham in light of his faith. The twelfth blog post continued Paul’s examination of Abraham, but also claims that Christ “redeemed” his followers from the “curse” of the Law.  In the thirteenth study in the Galatians online commentary, we looked at Paul’s claim that God’s promises were to Abraham and his “offspring,” with a twist on the meaning of “offspring.” The fourteenth entry examined Paul’s question, in light of his claims about the law, as to why God gave the law. The fifteenth chapter in this commentary examines the function of the law, while the sixteenth post studied how the members of the Church are heirs to the promise.

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In the seventeenth entry, I observed what it means to be an heir in Paul’s theological scenario. And in the eighteenth installment, Paul transitions back to his relationship with the Galatians, but before he concentrates on this in full, he returns to the issue of the stoicheia, commonly known as the four cosmic powers, earth, air, water and fire. In the nineteenth blog post, Paul relies on his personal relations with the Galatians to draw them to his point of view. In the twentieth entry, Paul speaks of an allegory of Hagar and Sarah. The twenty-first chapter in the series, found below, finds Paul speaking against circumcision.

4. Paul’s Letter to the Galatians  

d) Body of the Letter (1:13-6:10):

iv) Theological Teaching (2:15-5:12): Against Circumcision(5:2-12). 

2 Listen! I, Paul, am telling you that if you let yourselves be circumcised, Christ will be of no benefit to you. 3 Once again I testify to every man who lets himself be circumcised that he is obliged to obey the entire law. 4 You who want to be justified by the law have cut yourselves off from Christ; you have fallen away from grace. 5 For through the Spirit, by faith, we eagerly wait for the hope of righteousness. 6 For in Christ Jesus neither circumcision nor uncircumcision counts for anything; the only thing that counts is faith working through love. 7 You were running well; who prevented you from obeying the truth? 8 Such persuasion does not come from the one who calls you. 9 A little yeast leavens the whole batch of dough. 10 I am confident about you in the Lord that you will not think otherwise. But whoever it is that is confusing you will pay the penalty. 11 But my friends, why am I still being persecuted if I am still preaching circumcision? In that case the offense of the cross has been removed. 12 I wish those who unsettle you would castrate themselves! (NRSV)

Paul changes to a more personal tone when he begins to speak against circumcision, connecting his theological claims more directly to his relationships with the Galatians. Paul is characteristically blunt, saying that “if you let yourselves be circumcised, Christ will be of no benefit to you” (Galatians 5:2). Paul claims that “Christ will be of no benefit” if they are circumcised, not because circumcision is of itself more than an indifferent (adiaphoron, see Galatians 5:6 below) from Paul’s point of view, or negates the saving work of Christ in bringing the Galatians into the covenantal family, but because the Galatians are insisting that circumcision is essential to salvation for the men of the community, perhaps (especially?) including newborn infant boys. If the claim is that salvation in Christ for these male members of the community is dependent upon circumcision, then this would account, I think, for Paul’s hostile tone: nothing need to be added on to the work Christ has accomplished.

Paul ups the ante, in a sense, stressing that the implications for the choice of circumcision transcend the simple rite itself: “Once again I testify to every man who lets himself be circumcised that he is obliged to obey the entire law” (Galatians 5:3).  The better way to translate “obliged to obey the entire law” is obliged to “do the whole law” (5:3: holon ton nomon poiēsai). Paul is consistent in using the verb “to do” when he speaks of the law apart from Christ and its demands, which indicates that every particular element of the law must be observed. Recall that Paul has already argued in 3:10-14 that this cannot be done, but even more he says to those who desire circumcision: “you who want to be justified by the law have cut yourselves off from Christ; you have fallen away from grace” (Galatians 5:4). Paul sees circumcision as a fundamental rejection of the righteousness and grace – key theological terms from earlier in the letter - which come through following Christ. The verb used in the phrase “have cut yourselves off from Christ,” seems to be a play on the physical cutting involved in circumcision and perhaps it is.  The basic rendering of katargeō is usually “to make something powerless, or ineffective,” but it is possible that the sense of “removed yourself from Christ” is in play here, which would be a corollary to the removal of the foreskin. “Cut yourself off” simply makes the image clearer.

Paul then returns to a basic statement of the hope in Christ, declaring that “through the Spirit, by faith, we eagerly wait for the hope of righteousness. For in Christ Jesus neither circumcision nor uncircumcision counts for anything; the only thing that counts is faith working through love” (Galatians 5:5-6).  This what I meant above by saying that circumcision is an adiaphoron, or “indifferent,” as Stoic philosophers claimed of those things which were morally insignificant. Paul does not use the term here, but this is the implication of his stance. Not circumcision or akrobystia (literally “foreskin” or figuratively “uncircumcision”) matter at all, but only “faith working (energoumenē) through love (di’ agapēs).” Paul manages to pack into this verse two of his central theological concepts:faith and love; but what is interesting is how he uses the verb “work” not to speak of the Law of Moses, but of how faith is enacted through love. Usually, as seen in entry 10, “work” or “works” has a negative sense, but not when connected to faith and love, the work by which Paul understands entry into the covenant through Christ.

At this point, Paul turns to a general accusation against the Galatians and the interlopers (about whom I speak in entry 4 and elsewhere) whom Paul believes must have led them down this errant path. He writes, “You were running well; who prevented you from obeying the truth? Such persuasion does not come from the one who calls you. A little yeast leavens the whole batch of dough” (Galatians 5:7-9). In some ways, though, Paul is not blaming the Galatians, but treating them indeed like children who are not capable of making their own choice.  Paul is giving the Galatians an out, allowing them to blame the interlopers who came into the community for their errors, which also allows them an excuse for their own choices and a way back into Paul’s good graces. The proverb, “A little yeast leavens the whole batch of dough,” is also found in 1 Corinthians 5:6 and here must indicate that if they allow the interlopers a foot in the door, they will take over the whole house and community.

Finally, Paul turns to encouragement, and disdain of the interlopers, writing that “I am confident about you in the Lord that you will not think otherwise. But whoever it is that is confusing you will pay the penalty. But my friends, why am I still being persecuted if I am still preaching circumcision? In that case the offense of the cross has been removed. I wish those who unsettle you would castrate themselves!” (Galatians 5:10-12). Paul hopes that the Galatians will heed his advice, especially about the attempt of the interlopers to win over the whole community, and his confidence must be that they will see Paul’s point of view and return to the Gospel he preaches. He also wants them to “pay the penalty,” whatever that might be. At least a part of the interlopers’ entry into the community must have been their claim that Paul himself was divided about circumcision – “why am I still being persecuted if I am still preaching circumcision?” – but he assures them that he would not be persecuted in his ministry if he still preached circumcision. At the end, Paul breaks out perhaps his most sarcastic comment –saltiest and most sarcastic? – when he says that he hopes those “who unsettle you would castrate themselves.” Ouch, at every level! This indicates Paul at the end of his rhetorical tether, though I think he has chosen this phrase rationally (obviously also because of the knife and genital imagery) to shock the Galatians. Having reached this angry crescendo, though, to where will Paul turn next? He must feel he has done his job successfully, for he will next write on what it means to live in the freedom of Christ, which comes from faith working through love, not the works of the law such as circumcision.

Next entry, Paul speaks of the ethical implications of freedom in Christ

John W. Martens

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