Friday, November 03, 2006

Were the Galatians already circumcised? I

This post begins a series in which I am looking to explore a controversial reading of the background to Paul's epistle to the Galatians. It is related to three recent related posts, Paul's lack of travel plans in Galatians, Paul's loss of Galatia I and Paul's loss of Galatia II, which in turn built on previous posts entitled Does Galatians post-date 1 Corinthians?, Does Galatians post-date 1 Corinthians II, Does Galatians post-date 1 Corinthians III, The Jerusalem Council: Gal. 2.1-10 = Acts 15, The Jerusalem Council: Gal. 2.1-10 = Acts 15: Response to Critics.

My thesis is that Paul's loss of Galatia was already practically inevitable at the point when Paul was composing his epistle because a substantial number of the Galatians were already circumcised when Paul heard the news that was the catalyst for the epistle. He is not writing to them to dissuade them from a course of action that they are merely considering. Rather, he is rebuking them for submitting to a course of action already well underway in the churches. The case for this is cumulative and results from a careful re-reading of Paul's text. I aim to take several posts to attempt to establish this, so I am afraid that I will be asking for my readers' patience as I develop the case. In this post, I would like to look at an important verse:
6.12: ὅσοι θέλουσιν εὐπροσωπῆσαι ἐν σαρκί, οὗτοι ἀναγκάζουσιν ὑμᾶς περιτέμνεσθαι, μόνον ἵνα τῷ σταυρῷ τοῦ Χριστοῦ μὴ διώκωνται

Those who want to make a good showing in flesh, these are the ones compelling you to be circumcised, only in order that they might not be persecuted for the cross of Christ.
Now virtually every contemporary Bible translation takes ἀναγκάζουσιν as a conative present, "they are trying to compel you to be circumcised", but this is one of those cases where the translation is conditioned by the prior reconstruction of the situation of the epistle. [For those who need refreshing, the conative present is, in Funk's definition, "used to refer to an act attempted but not achieved (in present time)."] Because commentators assume that Paul is trying to dissuade the Galatians from being circumcised, they resist the force of what he appears to be claiming here, that the Galatians are being forced to be circumcised. There is in fact nothing in the epistle that suggests that we are dealing with attempted rather than actual coercion, and there is a good deal to suggest that Paul is describing compulsion.

The language of compulsion has an important parallel earlier in the epistle. When Paul is relating the incident at Antioch, presumably included in the epistle because it evokes for Paul a very similar situation to the one that he is now faced with in Galatia, he uses the same language of compulsion. In 2.14, Paul challenges Cephas before them all with, “If you, a Jew, are living like a Gentile and not like a Jew, how can you compel the Gentiles to Judaize?” (Εἰ σὺ Ἰουδαῖος ὑπάρχων ἐθνικῶς καὶ οὐχὶ Ἰουδαϊκῶς ζῇς, πῶς τὰ ἔθνη ἀναγκάζεις Ἰουδαΐζειν;). Now if there is a parallel here between the two occasions, in both the Gentile Church (Antioch / Galatia) is being compelled to Judaize (withdrawing from eating with Gentiles / circumcision) by a third party (Peter and those from James / the influencers in Galatia). In the Antioch incident, the “Judaizing”, specifically involving the compulsion to avoid mixed table fellowship, has already taken place. Likewise in Galatia, the compulsion to Judaize, this time represented specifically in the demand for circumcision, was already taking place.

But just how prevalent is the conative present in the New Testament, or indeed anywhere in Greek literature? Since it is, by necessity, determined by context, this is a tough one to judge, but I cannot find a single example of ἀναγκάζω being used conatively either in the imperfect or the present tenses. Outside of Galatians, ἀναγκάζω occurs in Paul's letters only in 2 Cor. 12.11, γέγονα ἄφρων ὑμεῖς με ἠναγκάσατε ("I have become a fool but you forced me . . .") where it is aorist and clearly used of successful compulsion. There is an alleged conative imperfect use in Acts 26.11, καὶ κατὰ πάσας τὰς συναγωγὰς πολλάκις τιμωρῶν αὐτοὺς ἠνάγκαζον βλασφημεῖν ("And as I punished them often in all the synagogues, I forced them to blaspheme"), but it is unnecessary to translate the imperfect ἠνάγκαζον here with "I tried to compel them to blaspheme". Rather, Luke's pre-conversion Paul was compelling them to blaspheme, i.e. he was compelling them to call on the name of the Lord (cf. Acts 9.14, 21 – those who are persecuted are those who “call on his name”), which, from that pre-conversion perspective from which Luke's Paul is speaking, is constituted as "blasphemy".

But what about other cases? BDAG gives one other alleged example of a conative use of ἀναγκάζω, again in the imperfect, Ps.-Pla., Sisyphus 1, p. 387B, συμβουλεύειν αὐτοῖς ἠνάγκαζόν με, which it translates as “they tried to compel me to make common cause with them”, but again the conative sense is unnecessary, indeed puzzling. In George Burges's translation, this is the context: "For our rulers had a consultation yesterday and they compelled me to consult with them. Now with us Pharsalians it is a law to obey the rulers should they order any of us to consult with them”.

What we have here, in Galatians 6.12, is an indication of the situation as Paul sees it, based on the news that has come to him, and he depicts the scene in the Galatian churches as one in which his opponents are forcing his converts to be circumcised. In future posts in this series, I will attempt to show how other evidence in the epistle points to the same conclusion.


Matthew D. Montonini said...

Interesting post. I decided to check other places where the conative present takes place in Galatians, and I stumbled upon a reference in Dan Wallace's "Greek Grammar: Beyond the Basics" (p.535). He lists the passage you describe (6.12) and cites 5.4 ...hoitines en nomo dikaiousthe "[you] who are attempting to be justified by the Law." I know this text probably bears little significance to your argument because even if one grants a conative usage here, Paul's final pronouncement on the Law would not be affected. I.e. Those who are attempting to be justfied by the Law cannot be, for such attempts "can only end in failure."(p.535)

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Whit said...

Dear Paul, Wish your letter had arrived a bit earlier. Ouch!
Your friends in Galatia

sjgathers said...

Gal. 2.3 and Jos. Ant. 13.318 are also parallels. The latter is Aristobulus I's "compulsion" of the Ituraeans' circumcision.

But I wonder if this gives a misleading impression? They are of course not engaging in forcible circumcision. Rather, the sense is "demand". If this is the case, anankazo has more of this sense than of a compulsion which might imply force, and the conative debate is not so relevant.

But I've still got an open mind (I hope) on this question!

Mark Goodacre said...

Matthew: thanks for that. 5.4 is interesting, and it may be a rare case of Paul using a conative, though he could be saying "you who are being righteoused by the law", thinking along the lines of Phil. 3.6, which does think in terms of righteousness according to the law, but I think a translation like "you would would be righteoused . . ." is better. His repeated point in Galatians is that those who are circumcised are obliged to keep the law, and so here, those who are looking to be righteoused by the law are those who are circumcised. These ones have fallen from grace / have been severed from Christ.

Mark Goodacre said...

sjgathers -- thanks for that. It's an interesting parallel and is similar to Life, 112-3, where Josephus resists forced circumcision. In both places the act of circumcision is connected with remaining in the land. I think it is stronger than "demand", though that is involved. It's along the lines of "obligated", i.e. there's no choice about the matter if one wants to remain in the land. It's compulsion / coercion in that sense. But neither of those places in Josephus is a present or an imperfect and so not, of course, relevant for the question of whether conative.