Wednesday, November 08, 2006

Were the Galatians already circumcised? II

This is the second post in the current series and it follows on from Were the Galatians Already Circumcised? I.

One of the features that has often been remarked upon in Galatians is its lack of thanksgiving at the opening of the epistle. This is in direct and marked contrast to every Pauline epistle:
Romans 1.8: "First, I thank my God through Jesus Christ for all of you, because your faith is being reported all over the world . . . ."

1 Cor. 1.4: "I always thank God for you because of his grace given you in Christ Jesus. 5 For in him you have been enriched in every way . . . "

2 Cor. 1.3: "Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of compassion and the God of all comfort, 4 who comforts us in all our troubles, so that we can comfort those in any trouble . . . ."

Phil. 1.3: "I thank my God every time I remember you. 4 In all my prayers for all of you, I always pray with joy 5 because of your partnership in the gospel from the first day until now . . . ."

1 Thess. 1.2-3: "We always thank God for all of you, mentioning you in our prayers. 3 We continually remember before our God and Father your work produced by faith . . ."

Philemon: "I always thank my God as I remember you in my prayers, 5 because I hear about your faith in the Lord Jesus and your love for all the saints . . .
The thanksgiving, straight after the standard "grace and peace . . ." is always present (and in the Deutero-Paulines too, Col. 1.3ff, Eph. 1.3ff, 2 Thess. 1.3ff) and its absence only in Galatians makes its readers sit up and pay attention. There is clearly something pretty serious happening in Galatia if Paul is not able to bring himself to offer thanks. Bear in mind that he faces other tough situations in his letters but still gives thanks. In 1 Corinthians, one of the members of the church is living with his father's wife (1 Cor. 5.1-13) and is commended by other members of the church. Paul thinks this is abominable and pronounces judgement. Yet he still has plenty of time to give thanks at the beginning of the letter. In 2 Corinthians, he has all manner of difficulties about his own reputation and authority to deal with, yet even here he finds time for thanksgiving, albeit in relation to God's comforting of Paul and his companions (2 Cor. 1.3-7).

The question that this raises with respect to Galatians is what has happened that has caused such a negative reaction on Paul's part? The common explanation, that the Galatians are contemplating circumcision is not adequate to the task. What Paul in fact appears to depict is a scenario in which the Galatians are being circumcised. He is responding to reported group actions rather than individual contemplations. Notice what replaces the thanksgiving, what sits, in Galatians, where the thanksgiving would be expected to sit:
1.6: Θαυμάζω ὅτι οὕτως ταχέως μετατίθεσθε ἀπὸ τοῦ καλέσαντος ὑμᾶς ἐν χάριτι [Χριστοῦ] εἰς ἕτερον εὐαγγέλιον

"I am astonished that you are so quickly turning away from the one who called you in the grace [of Christ] to a different gospel."
Paul is astonished at what the Galatians are doing, turning away, departing from the one who called them – as he characterizes the situation – to a different gospel. Paul's astonishment is easier to understand if he is reacting to news of a process already underway than if he is reacting to news about the Galatians merely considering this step. Paul is expressing shock here, shock that they are turning away, abandoning his Gospel. Something tangible has happened. Something troubling and decisive has been reported to Paul. Turning away to a different gospel is rhetoric more compatible with action underway than action contemplated. In the next post in this series, I will be looking at evidence that Galatian contemplation is not what Paul is describing.


Peter M. Head said...

Thanks Mark,
I'm sure you are right that it is a process already underway.
But I wonder about the emphasis placed on the lack of introductory thanksgiving - as you have demonstrated this is pretty clear to a reader of the Pauline Corpus; but the original recipients may not have had such a well-formed expectation about the beginnings of a Pauline letter.

Matthew D. Montonini said...

I believe you are correct in assuming that the circumsion of some has already begun.
Granting Peter's point above, (regarding the original recipients), it still seems clear to me that a lack of an introductory thanksgiving was intentional on the part of Paul, regardless of whether Paul's Galatian audience would have picked up on it or not. After all, Paul's comments in 1.6ff, 3.1ff. 4.9, 5.12 are unmistakable, thereby illuminating at least in Paul's perspective the reason for the lack of an introductory thanksgiving.

Anonymous said...

"I am astonished" by the conclusions you draw here. May I remind you of Dahl's essay in Galatians Debate, and my work in Irony of Galatians on how Paul (probably his secretary) is employing the form of ironic rebuke here, and this stereotypical way of expressing disappointment surely cannot hold the kind of information you are atributing to it. By ironically expressing astonishment in this stereotypical usage of "thaumazo," we learn that Paul is not surprised but disappointed, and probably had even taught about this previously (could Paul not anticipate the allure of acceptance by traditional norm of proselyte conversion?). The expression of surprise has the ironic force to shame. Dahl has explained that it is a more common letter type than one expressing thanksgiving. Has something tangible taken place to elicit a "thaumazo" letter? Sure, at least something to which Paul feels compeled to respond. Could that not be news that they were now contemplating that which he had made clear they were not to undertake when he was among them? Have you never used irony with your children (or your parents toward you) for what they are (perceived to be) thinking and expressing or starting toward doing?

The argument you present here is not evidence that the Galatians (or some of them) were already being circumcised or not. It is evidence that Paul employed the form common in letters to rebuke someone ironically by playing at being unable to anticipate a develop that the recipient should recognize immediately they coulld anticipate and likely had, so that they get the rebuke and hopefully take (or continue on) the course the author seeks to have them pursue.

By the way, on the larger question of whether circumcised or not, are you going to address the ritual issue of proselyte conversion? That is, circumcision is but one act in a continuum, a process of identity transformation, and it is a late action. There are many steps likely, over a long period of time, that precede that ultimate step. Does not the evidence you are seeking to explain indicate perhaps pertain to an initial point of "turning" toward that outcome, rather than having completed the course?
Mark D. Nanos