Friday, November 10, 2006

Were the Galatians already circumcised? III

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

One of the weaknesses of many readings of Galatians is that they imagine the Galatians "contemplating" or "thinking about" the message brought by the influencers, as if they have listened to a series of sermons and have now retired for a fortnight to meditate on the practical application to them as individuals. Whenever anyone attempts to describe the background to the epistle, it is usually construed in terms of this Galatian contemplation, and it is thought that Paul is speaking directly to people still in the process of thought. This supposed background is problematic. The letter does not sound like it is addressed to groups of people who are thinking about taking action. Indeed Paul's very criticism of them is that they are not thinking at all:
3.1: Ὦ ἀνόητοι Γαλάται, τίς ὑμᾶς ἐβάσκανεν, οἷς κατ’ ὀφθαλμοὺς Ἰησοῦς Χριστὸς προεγράφη ἐσταυρωμένος;

O foolish Galatians! Who has evil-eyed you, before whose very eyes Jesus Christ was publicly portrayed as crucified?
This key verse comes after Paul’s chapter-long discussion of what happened in Antioch and Jerusalem and marks the point at which Paul is resuming his direct assault on his former converts, for the first time addressing them directly as “Galatians”. The word he uses to qualify "Galatians" is ἀνόητοι, usually translated "foolish", but meaning something like "unthinking". He uses the term again in 3.3, οὕτως ἀνόητοί ἐστε; ("Are you so foolish?"). Far from thoughtfully engaging on the possibility of circumcision, the Galatians, in Paul's rhetoric, are not thinking at all. Whether Paul's characterization of them is accurate or not, it hints that the basis for Paul's criticism is not intention but action. It is not that they are thinking about circumcision but that they are getting themselves circumcised.

The point is further clarified by Paul’s attempt to get the bottom of what has happened here. After calling them foolish Galatians, Paul goes on to ask, in the standard translations, "Who has bewitched you . . . ?" The reference is to the practice of giving someone the evil eye (See Mark Nanos, "The Social Context and Message of Galatians in View of Paul’s Evil Eye Warning (Gal. 3:1)"). Paul is attempting to explain what the Galatians have done in the light of the ancient world’s notion that they are victims of someone’s evil eye. In other words, Paul is attempting to make sense of what is going on in Galatia by appealing to magical practice. His rhetoric illustrates his conviction that they are victims who are being cajoled into making a decisive step. We will turn next to evidence that that illustrates how the Galatians were already "Judaizing".


Matthew D. Montonini said...

Good stuff, Mark. I look forward to the rest of the posts.

Anonymous said...

First, thanks for noting my essay! But I must say, I do not think that Paul addressing them as ἀνόητοι lends any support to your argument. It connotes shamelessness, that is, thinking wrongly from the accuser's (Paul's) point of view, and in that sense failing to think (meaning, to think correctly, with the accuser's way of thinking). The idea is that they are perhaps being effected by something since otherwise they would be expected to think otherwise (like the accuser thinks), not that they are not thinking versus thinking. My essay explains some of the implications that Paul is springing on them in this accusation, which is also in the style of ironic rebuke in this comment, and the rhetorical question style of the following sentences too (vv. 1-5 form a unit of ironic rebuke).

Anyway, the bottom line is that your argument does not forward your thesis as far as I can see. It does tell us that Paul is upset by developments among the recipients, and he seeks to make them suspect that those influencing these develoments are not doing so in the helpful or benign way that the addressees have supposed, but rather from self-interest, from the envious motive to put the recipients in their place (implying to put the Galatian recipients under themselves, since not circumcised, like those influencing them are).

Actually (although I was not yet thinking this way when I began to write this reply), I think this piece of evidence in Gal 3:1 works against your thesis that some of the Galatians to whom Paul writes have already been circumcised. If already completing proselyte conversion (circumcision), then this would eliminate that which Paul accuses the influencers here of doing, of "evil eying" the addressees; that is, of the influencers "envying" (=begrudging) the Galatian addressees for claiming to have the gift of the Spirit reserved for those who are circumcised children of Abraham. That seems to depend on the addressees not yet being circumcised, but being instead non-Jews who should not be entitled to have the Spirit and miracles in their midst. In the eyes of the influencers, the addressees are but Johnnie-come-latelys for making such claims when they have not yet undertaken the ritual that gives them the right to do so. (Whether the influencers have such malevolent motives is beside the point; Paul's accusation is calculated to make the addressees suspicious of the influencers' motives. That is what evil eye accusations are all about!)

The point is, 3:1 suggests that the addressees of Paul's letter are not yet "complete" by the standards to which the influencers subscribe, but to which the addressees are apparently attracted now, to Paul's dismay. That means that the addressees are not yet circumcised, as far as Paul is concerned. His ironic rebuke is calculated to undermine any steps in that direction by undermining the addressees' trust in the influencers' message as if it offered the promise of good news; that is, for how to become complete and thus their claims (based on the action of the Spirit and miracles in their lives; v. 5) completely accepted by the influencers as legitimate signs that the addressees are indeed fellow children of Abraham with the influencers.

I do not mean to say it is impossible that some Christ-believers Paul left behind in Galatia have become proselytes (been circumcised), but I do not think that they constitute Paul's addressees in this letter, who are instead considering this course in a way Paul does not want to see develop into undertaking it. Instead, he wants them back on the course they had begun under his counsel (5:7-10).

A question for you, Mark, is how Paul can express in 5:10 that he is confident they will remain on his (non-circumcision) course (to stay on it after hitting an obstacle along the way, i.e., contemplating a detour; v. 7) if they have already become circumcised? (I don't mean that Paul is merely expressing this rhetorically, with which I would agree; but the basis of this rhetorical challenge, is it not predicated on them not having already taken another course in such an irreversable, severing way?)

Fellow want-to-undertand-Galatians guy, in good will,
Mark D. Nanos

Stephen C. Carlson said...

A question for you, Mark, is how Paul can express in 5:10 that he is confident they will remain on his (non-circumcision) course (to stay on it after hitting an obstacle along the way, i.e., contemplating a detour; v. 7) if they have already become circumcised?

I think that getting back on the course means to stop circumcising new people. Paul is perfectly happy with people remaining the way that they are (eg 1 Cor 7:19-20).

Anonymous said...

I don't understand your comment. Now the addressees are not only circumcised, they are the circumcisers? This must assume no kind of Jewish context for circumcision, which is a ritual process with special people trained in the ritual of circumcision to exercise the practice on the initiates? Aren't you confusing the identities in your post? Moreover, a bump in the road is the language of being in a process that can change, whereas to have been circumcised is a pretty permanent completed change (I know it can be reversed, but you are not suggesting that is Paul's message, esp. with appeal to 1 Cor 7).

Stephen C. Carlson said...

As I understand it, Paul's not asking anyone to reverse their circumcision. Rather, he does not want the Galatians to continue on their policy of circumcizing proselytes; cf. Gal 5:2 περιτεμνησθε, a present subjunctive, not aorist.

Note also that this verb is middle, so I don't need to take a position on who the actual circumciser or mohel is, because this is not in focus here.