Friday, November 29, 2013

Exegetical Notes on Galatians 6:11-18

Text

11 Ἴδετε πηλίκοις ὑμῖν γράμμασιν ἔγραψα τῇ ἐμῇ χειρί. 12 Ὅσοι θέλουσιν εὐπροσωπῆσαι ἐν σαρκί, οὗτοι ἀναγκάζουσιν ὑμᾶς περιτέμνεσθαι, μόνον ἵνα τῷ σταυρῷ τοῦ Χριστοῦ μὴ διώκωνται. 13 οὐδὲ γὰρ οἱ περιτεμνόμενοι αὐτοὶ νόμον φυλάσσουσιν ἀλλὰ θέλουσιν ὑμᾶς περιτέμνεσθαι, ἵνα ἐν τῇ ὑμετέρᾳ σαρκὶ καυχήσωνται. 14 Ἐμοὶ δὲ μὴ γένοιτο καυχᾶσθαι εἰ μὴ ἐν τῷ σταυρῷ τοῦ κυρίου ἡμῶν Ἰησοῦ Χριστοῦ, διʼ οὗ ἐμοὶ κόσμος ἐσταύρωται κἀγὼ κόσμῳ. 15 οὔτε γὰρ περιτομή τί ἐστιν οὔτε ἀκροβυστία ἀλλὰ καινὴ κτίσις. 16 καὶ ὅσοι τῷ κανόνι τούτῳ στοιχήσουσιν, εἰρήνη ἐπʼ αὐτοὺς καὶ ἔλεος καὶ ἐπὶ τὸν Ἰσραὴλ τοῦ θεοῦ.
17 Τοῦ λοιποῦ κόπους μοι μηδεὶς παρεχέτω· ἐγὼ γὰρ τὰ στίγματα τοῦ Ἰησοῦ ἐν τῷ σώματί μου βαστάζω.
18 χάρις τοῦ κυρίου ἡμῶν Ἰησοῦ Χριστοῦ μετὰ τοῦ πνεύματος ὑμῶν, ἀδελφοί· ἀμήν.

Translation

11 See with what large letters I write to you by my own hand. 12 As many as wish to make a good showing in flesh, [they are] those compelling you to be circumcised, only so that they might not be persecuted by the cross of Christ. 13 For the circumcised themselves do not keep Law but wish you to be circumcised, so that in your flesh they might boast. 14 May it not be that I should boast except in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom the world have been crucified to me and I to the world. 15 For circumcision is not 'something' nor uncircumcision but a new creation. 16 And as many as hold to this canon, peace be upon them and mercy and upon the Israel of God.
17 Finally let no one cause troubles to me: For I bear the scars of Jesus in my body.
18 The grace of our Lord Jesus Christ [be] with your spirit, brothers: Amen.  

Comments

We come now to the final verses of the letter. Despite colourful suggestions for verse 11, the plain meaning is difficult to overturn – that Paul now personally writes with large letters, i.e. Paul himself is writing the original autograph at this point and his own handwriting is distinctive and larger than whatever secretary he is employing, and this is a sign of authenticity. Does the aorist need any particular explanation? I wouldn’t think so.

In verse 12, then, Paul begins a recapitulation of the dominant conflict his epistle has engages in.  By identifying the group firstly as ‘as many as wish to make a good showing in the flesh’, Paul continues his polemic strategy. He expresses an interpretive baseline understanding of their actions (the desire for public acceptance and reputation), and then subjoins this with the defining clause, ‘they are the ones compelling you to be circumcised’. The third clause gives their purpose, but by preceding this with μόνον he qualifies it entirely, so that this is their whole goal in doing so, that they might not be persecuted by the cross of Christ’. Their purpose is ultimately about their own avoidance of suffering in the public sphere, not about those they compel to be circumcised. ‘by the cross of Christ’ here should not be understood as the means or instrument of persecution, by any means, but is causal (one might translate ‘for the cross of Christ’; personally I would express it as something like “through the fact of their allegiance to the reality of the cross of Christ as shorthand for the counter-world message of the gospel”). Paul characterises them as self-centered in their desires.

Is the οἱ περιτεμνόμενοι of v13 middle or passive? I have translated simply ‘the circumcised’, referring neither to ‘those that have been circumcised’ or ‘those that circumcise themselves’, because the whole point of the Judaising group is to convince Gentile-background believers to become circumcised so that they are effectively Jewish-proselytes. By subsuming their Gentile background into a Jewish identity, they remove the scandal of the cross and form one new community of Jewish believers in the Messiah, not the one new community of Jews and Gentiles who follow the Messiah. It is, from this view, a moot point whether the participle is taken as middle or passive, since those who receive circumcision are by so doing entering the community of those who practice circumcision among themselves.

Nonetheless, Paul’s overall identification of this group is as a third party, to which his Galatian addresses are not (yet) beholden). His critique at this point is their failure to keep the Law. We have already traced Paul’s argument throughout Galatians that keeping Law qua Law is doomed to failure, is the cause of Curse upon those who fail, and is a theological and salvation-historical misstep for Gentile background believers to undertake. Here he simply reiterates that they fail to keep it, which is damning since their whole case is built upon the attempt to keep it. Despite this hypocrisy, Paul writes, they desire these Gentile-background believers to be circumcised, which is equivalent to entering into the Mosaic covenant and proselyte Jews and so committing to keeping the Law, again not for the sake of these ‘converts’, but for the sake of this Judaising party. It would add to the prestige, influence, dominance, and so ‘rightness’ of the Judaising position.

In contrast, Paul presents his own position in the same terms, that is, in terms of the basis for his claim to honour and status. For Paul, in v14, there is no basis for such a claim, “except the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ”. The introductory “may it not be” has both genuine optative force – it expresses Paul’s desire in the matter, but it may also be seen as an expression here that contrasts the whole of Paul’s platform, in contrast to the Judaisers. Whereas their ground of boasting is the Law as Mosaic covenant and winning converts to that, Paul’s ground of boasting is the cross, as metonym for the salvific event of the death of Jesus. But the relative clause that follows must further qualify our reading of this claim, “through which I have been crucified to the world and the world to me”. Firstly, while οὗ may strictly look back to Ἰησοῦ Χριστοῦ or σταυρῷ, the latter seems far more likely. Secondly, while it overwhelmingly true that claiming the shameful death of the cross as the grounds of boasting is itself an inversion of the whole honour-shame schema, the relative clause actually goes further. Glorying in what is shameful (the cross) is inversion, but when Paul adds the relative clause, it means that in the honour-game of Greco-Roman society, Paul has exited the game with a null score. It is the ultimate failure and the ultimate zero. But, complementing this, the world has been crucified to Paul – in Paul’s eyes the world itself has been brought to absolute nothing.

This is not to say that the honour-shame dimension is the only one operating here, rather I an  highlighting that this is the end of the game for both sides, Paul no longer contests in the world’s honour-games, and Paul no longer cares anything for those honour-games that continue in the world.[1]

More broadly, Paul’s claim continues the theme explored elsewhere of being co-crucified with Christ. Paul represents his union with Christ as one of union with him in his death, and that co-crucifixion effects Paul’s translation from the realm of the world and all its values, while the world as a systematic entity opposed to God is entirely dead to Paul. In this claim, Paul is paradigmatic for the believer in general.

Verse 15 strikes a resonance with 5:6, and reminds us that in a letter in which Paul rails so fiercely against those pressing for, and those desiring to undergo, circumcision, that it is not the actual fact or state of circumcision that is the issue. Indeed, when we read this against Acts 16:3, Paul’s extreme relativisation of the practice of circumcision lays bare the theological rationale that informs both his attitude here and there.
This is borne out by the verse. One could re-arrange it as three propositions

Circumcision is not a ‘thing’
Non-Circumcision is not a ‘thing’
The fact of a new creating is a ‘thing’

What hangs on τί in this verse? I would suggest that Paul here is using a compact expression to indicate something like “a reality worthy of consideration”. This is why the actual physical status of being circumcised or not doesn’t matter one whit, and why Timothy can be circumcised, because it doesn’t matter, and why Gentile-background believers can remain uncircumcised, because it doesn’t matter, and so on. What does matter? The reality of the new creation. It is not immediately clear whether this should be read as individual, or as humanity, or as universe, but my inclination is towards the later. There is a universal-in-scope new creation, new reality coming-into-being through the coming of the Messiah, and its sweeping scope radically alters the conditions of absolutely everything, not least the relationship of believers to God, no longer exclusively through the Mosaic covenant, but through Jesus Christ.

Once this reality is grasped, what circumcision matters becomes apparent. In the Galatian context circumcision signifies an embrace of the Law as law, and so a failure to understand the significance and consequence of the new creation. Whereas in Acts 16 the unimportance of physical circumcision at all renders the choice to circumcise Timothy understandable – it doesn’t signify re-embrace of the Mosaic Law as Law at all, but a concession for the sake of removing stumbling blocks.

Verse 16 begins to transition into a closing blessing. The initial relative indefinite “as many as” refers to those who hold to this “canon” (rule; I just preferred to hold on to the archaising ‘canon’ in my translation). What is this ‘canon’? Most readily it should be understood as the principle expressed in verse 15, which represents in a very fundamental and compressed form one of the underlying tenets of Paul’s theology. To grasp this rule is to grasp the singular gospel of Paul’s preaching, looking back to his bombastic opening in 1:6-9. So it is those people who receive the blessing of peace and mercy.

What then of the construction “and/even upon the Israel of God”? There are two intertwined questions, (1) who is the ‘Israel of God’? (2) is this group co-terminous with ‘however many hold to this canon’? (thus shaping the translation of καί.

Despite the emphasis that I have maintained upon Jew/Gentile distinctions within Paul’s addressing of us/you within this letter, Paul’s theological drive is to represent JBBs and GBBs as one new humanity united in the Messiah under a covenant and set of promises that precedes the Mosaic Law and sees Gentiles as incorporated into the Abrahamic promises. This, in keeping with the sense of “all Israel” in Romans 9, and the thoughts expressed by Romans 9:6 and 11:26, leads me to conclude that the Israel of God here is synonymous with the (newly constituted) people of God.

The phrase Τοῦ λοιποῦ is a standard way of entering into a concluding section. Here that section is quite short. Paul gives an injunction followed by the reason. In an epistle shaped primarily by the conflict with Judaisers over and about the Galatian churches, Paul expresses the injunction that no one should ‘cause him troubles’, or perhaps in a more vernacular strain, “give him grief”. The grounds are expressed simply as “I bear the scars of Jesus in my body”. But what on earth is Paul talking about?

Firstly, we can easily lay aside importing back any modern connotations of stigmata into this verse. Paul uses the words to indicate scars or marks caused upon his body, and the reference is likely two-fold. One, he refers the physical sufferings he has endured as a slave of Christ as a mark of his allegiance to and participation in the sufferings of the Christ. Two, the marks indicate his possession as a slave owned by his master. Indeed, these two references are one and the same thing for Paul – his sufferings are the mark that he is a slave who belongs to Christ, and they are thus the proof of that allegiance.

In stark contrast to the nothingness of circumcision and non-circumcision, these physical marks do ‘mean’ something – they indicate Paul’s clear position as both slave, and so also representative, of Jesus (cf. the argument through chapters 1-2).

Finally Paul closes with a benediction, verse 18. The grace of the opening benediction (1:3) is repeated, though without the elaborations of the introduction. “with your spirit” substitutes in for the more common “with you”, but without much change in meaning. Paul’s letter closes with the confirmatory ‘Amen’, his hearty affirmation of all that he has said, and most of all his prayerful declaration of grace to them.



[1] I do not mean ‘games’ here as if there are actual games, I simply mean that the conduct of humans in competing for, accumulating, defending and attacking, honour, may be understood overall as a ‘game’. 

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