Tuesday, November 14, 2006

Were the Galatians already circumcised? VII

This is the seventh post in the current series and it follows on from Were the Galatians Already Circumcised? I, Were the Galatians Already Circumcised? II, Were the Galatians Already Circumcised? III, Were the Galatians Already Circumcised? IV, Were the Galatians Already Circumcised V and Were the Galatians Already Circumcised VI.

If some of the Galatians were already circumcised when Paul heard news of the situation in those churches, what are we to make of Galatians 5.2, often held to be evidence that they had not yet submitted to circumcision?
Gal. 5.2: ἴδε ἐγὼ Παῦλος λέγω ὑμῖν ὅτι ἐὰν περιτέμνησθε Χριστὸς ὑμᾶς οὐδὲν ὠφελήσει

Behold I Paul am saying to you that if you are circumcised, Christ will be of no benefit to you.
According to the standard grammars, Paul is here using a future more vivid condition (ἐὰν + subjunctive in the protasis; future indicative in the apodosis). The protasis here does not describe an unreal condition. Quite the contrary. So a cavalier argument of the kind often found in the commentaries, to the effect that Paul says "If . . ." and so the Galatians are not getting circumcised will not work. But there is a useful question to be asked about the tense of the subjunctive περιτέμνησθε here. If Paul had wished to speak about the possibility of the Galatians getting circumcised, one would have expected him to have used the aorist subjunctive rather than the present subjunctive, to have said, "If you get circumcised . . .", not "If you are circumcised . . ." In short, there is no good reason to see 5.2 as evidence against the thesis I am forwarding.

Nevertheless, I think the question being asked here is a useful one because it reminds us to use our imaginations about the situation in Galatia, and here I think it is necessary to make some distinctions that are seldom made in the literature. We need to bear in mind that we are talking about a sequence of events:

1. Paul visits Galatia and establishes churches there
2. Paul leaves Galatia
3. Paul's opponents begin to influence the Galatian churches
4. Someone in Galatia begins to travel to sends Paul news of what is happening
5. The Galatian arrives with news
6. Paul composes the epistle to the Galatians
7. The epistle begins its journey to Galatia
8. The epistle arrives in Galatia.

Now one of the difficulties Paul faced was that he could not phone up the Galatians, or email them, to find out about their current status at the point that he was writing (still less what their status would be after they had received the letter). Already some time has gone by between the news leaving Galatia and arriving with Paul. What this all means is that writing a letter like Galatians is a difficult business because hoping, guessing, praying comes into the conceptualization of the situation, and to some extent Paul has to hedge his bets. He is writing (6) just after stage (5) above, in response to news that is already dated (4), conveying his letter in the knowledge that the process in Galatia will have developed still further by the time of the letter's receipt (8). Some of the difficulties of interpreting the background of Galatians emerge from this. When we are reconstructing the background of Galatians, we are essentially using the letter to find out what the news was that Paul received, (4)-(5), something that is a little difficult because Paul is anticipating further developments, (4)-(8).

With that in mind, my hypothesis is that the news that Paul has received is that a substantial number of Galatians have been circumcised. We are looking at a process already underway at the point when the news left Galatia and began its journey to Paul. Paul no doubt hopes that the process has not progressed as far as it might have done by the time they receive the letter, but he fears that it may have done. The way he deals with this situation is always to talk about the process in the present tense:

1.6: μετατίθεσθε, you are turning away
3.3: ἐπιτελεῖσθε, you are completing in the flesh
4.10: παρατηρεῖσθε, you are keeping days and months and seasons and years
6.12: ἀναγκάζουσιν, they are compelling you to be circumcised

The implications are clear: those who are on this path, who are being righteoused by the law (5.4), are separated from Christ; they have fallen from grace. But Paul would not have written the epistle if he did not think that some kind of change of path was possible, some kind of reintegration of those who were sowing to their own flesh (6.8) into a community which, he hopes, still contain those who are "spiritual" (οἱ πνευματικοί, 6.1). Sadly, though, Paul suspects that his work in Galatia has all been in vain. He is once again in the pain of child-birth for them (4.19), an image that speaks of anxiety and uncertainty lest this birth is abortive. Paul's hope for a change of course is "in the Lord" (5.10) but the evidence that Paul lost the church in Galatia (see Paul's lack of travel plans in Galatians, Paul's loss of Galatia I and Paul's loss of Galatia II and related posts) suggests that the change of course in fact never took place.


Eric Rowe said...

Mark, you might be the only biblioblogger whose blogging on substantive exegetical issues actually gets more prolific in the week leading up to SBL.

r10b said...

Mark, I am thoroughly enjoying this series. I think you have argued your case very well. However, the case you make here in VII seems the weakest to me.

I am unqualified to make a counter argument on Greek tenses, etc. Nonetheless :-), the phrase, "if you are circumcised, Christ will be of no benefit to you" sounds to me more like a warning against possible future action than a curse on present condition. The "will be" is more crucial than the "if you are" in my mind. You say that Paul would better have said "if you get..." to express (what you say is) the aorist subjunctive. But if Paul were truly addressing those who have been circumcised he could have said, "for you who have been circumcised, Christ is of no benefit" and left no doubt.

But my real problem with your postion (as I understand it) is not the linguistics but the theology.

Paul could not have said, "Christ will be of no benefit to you" who have done this or that, and remained consistent with his own expressed teachings. Those who have been deceived into committing some act are not beyond the reach of God's grace (thank God). But those who, having heard Paul's warning against the continued practice of the old covenant rituals, remain unconvinced of the sufficiency of Christ, to them, indeed, Christ will be of no benefit.

But in all other points I am convinced of your position.