This coming Sunday, the lectionary offers us a final section from Paul’s letter to the Galatians (6:1-16). In recent blogs on this letter, we’ve seen that Paul writes to the churches in Galatia with passion. He can be aggressive and cutting with his language. He writes as a person deeply convinced about what he is saying, intensely aggrieved by the resistance he has encountered, and fully committed—heart and mind, body and soul, and all his words—to the message he brings.
Paul was an innovator. Nowhere is this evident more than in his letter to the Galatians. It is clear that Paul knows, and appreciates, the worth of the Jewish tradition and culture in which he has been raised. In his letter to the Romans, he quotes a number of the Ten Words, which sat at the heart of the Law (Rom 13:9–10) and he praises these commandments as “holy and just and good” (Rom 7:12).
Paul’s own heritage as a Pharisee (Phil 3:5; Acts 23:6; 26:5) shaped the way that he valued and used scripture. His understanding is that Jesus has brought the Law to its final, climactic fulfilment (this is how teleios should be rendered in Rom 10:4; and see Gal 5:14; Rom 13:10). And yet, in writing to the Galatians, he criticises them for their adherence to this same Law.
We have noted in an earlier blog post that Paul argues that the gospel he proclaims brings believers into the unity of being “one in Christ” (3:28). This unity overshadows all divisions—as the most famous words in this letter declare, “there is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female” (3:28). The incorporation of Gentiles into the community alongside Jews was fundamental for Paul.
Yet Paul shows awareness of a significant threat against this unity in Galatia; it has arisen through the insistence of teachers who do not have Paul’s way of seeing things, who insist that true faith in Jesus requires, first of all, circumcision. This is the group which Paul calls “the circumcision faction” (2:12; compare Acts 15:1, 5). They are advocating that the sign par excellence of being a Jew (for males, st least)—that of circumcision (Gen 9:9–14; Lev 12:1–3; Josh 5:2–9)—must continue to be practised by those who come to faith in Jesus.
Paul was always on high alert regarding people teaching differently from him (see Phil 1:15–18, 3:2–4; 2 Cor 10:5, 12, 18, 11:4–6, 12–15; and perhaps reflected in the ‘slogans’ of 1 Cor 6:12–13, 7:1, 8:1–2, 10:23). Here, he criticises the teachers in Galatia because they want their followers to be circumcised (6:12)—although he notes that they themselves, surprisingly, “do not obey the law” (6:13). This contradicts Paul’s understanding that every circumcised male “is obliged to obey the entire law” (5:3). But they teach that circumcision is necessary for (male) followers of Jesus.
Paul’s problem, of course, is that he himself is circumcised, as he mentions at Phil 3:5 (a fact which he omits when he rehearses his past at Gal 1:13–14). How can he advocate the opening of the faith to those who are not circumcised, when he himself bears this sign of the covenant?
He boldly insists that the Galatians “become as I am” (4:12), and yet threatens that “if you let yourselves be circumcised, Christ will be of no benefit to you” (5:2). The believers in Galatia , it would seem, were Gentiles who had previously worshipped “beings that by nature are not gods”, namely, “the weak and beggarly elemental spirits” (Gal 4:8–10). What applied to these Gentile converts must be different from what is the case amongst Jewish converts, Paul maintained.
Paul makes his case against circumcision for converted Gentiles by re-interpreting the scriptural passage which lies behind this Jewish custom. It was Abraham who was the patriarch to whom the requirement of circumcision was first commanded, to be a sign of the covenant (Gen 17). So the story of Abraham needs to be addressed.
It is striking that Paul explains the story of Abraham without once mentioning circumcision (3:6–18). According to Paul, it is the faith of Abraham, in believing God’s promise, which secured him righteousness (3:6–7) and opens the promise to Gentiles (3:8–9). It is that promise which is now fulfilled in Christ (3:13–14, 16, 29). This compact argument in this letter would form the basis for the more expansive exposition that Paul,provides in his letter to the Romans.
Circumcision is central to the Law, and the Law is the basis of the promise that God has made, to Israel, and then to believers in Christ. Paul asserts that the Law supports the promise, in its role as a paidagogos (3:21–24). This word described a position in Greek society in which a tutor both instructs and disciplines a young man until he reaches his maturity. Now that maturity has arrived, in Christ, the paidagogos is no longer needed (3:25).
Paul has earlier asserted that doing “the works of the Law” does not result in justification (2:16); he cites Hab 2:4 to affirm that “the one who is righteous will live by faith” (3:11)—the same scriptural text which forms the basis for his argument in Romans. Does he portray the Law as now completely irrelevant? He does not draw this conclusion, and insists that “the Law is not opposed to the promises of God” (3:21).
Paul supports his position with an argument drawn from “the Law”, that is, Hebrew scripture—the accounts of the two children of Abraham (found in Gen 16 and 21) provides an allegory for the two covenants made by God (4:21–31). Believers are heirs of the free woman, Sarah; Jews are heirs of the slave woman, Hagar. This leads to a firm rhetorical conclusion for the Galatians: “for freedom, Christ has set us free” (5:1).
The point fits well with the situation which he addresses; it does a disservice, however, to his opponents, who were putting a position that had long been supported by Jewish tradition and scripture. And if Paul was really wanting to create unity within the church, then he has unfairly caricatured and marginalised those who came to Galatia, teaching about the Law.
Paul’s language is intensely passionate in this letter; when he describes the earlier stage of his relationship with the Galatians, his emotions are dominant (4:12–20). They once had much goodwill towards him; he claims that they were willing to tear out their eyes and give them to him (4:15). Paul here refers to his “physical infirmity” (4:13; see also 6:17); is this infirmity the “thorn in the flesh” to which he refers at 2 Cor 12:7? Although this infirmity tested the acceptance that the Galatians felt for Paul (4:14), they did welcome him “as an angel of God” (4:14).
Now, he fears that he has become “an enemy” (4:16), yet he still feels “the pain of childbirth” for them (4:19) and admits he is perplexed about them (4:20). They “bite and devour one another” and risk consuming one another (5:15).
All of this is Paul at his most impassioned, pleading what may well be a lost cause in Galatia. He notes that they have fallen back into their pagan ways (“enslaved to beings…that are not gods”, 4:8–9), mixed with practices that seem more Jewish (“special days, and months, and seasons, and years”, 4:10). Their previous religious practices may well have contained a combination of such aspects; this phenomenon, known as syncretism, was well-known in the Hellenistic world.
Undeterred by the complexities of the debate concerning the Law in 3:1–5:1, Paul presses on to sound a further notes of liberty and unity in his letter. The call to freedom (5:1, 13) is a platform for ethical guidance, grounded in love (5:13–14), manifested in living by the spirit (5:22–26), not by the flesh (5:16– 21). This ethic requires them to “bear one another’s burdens “(6:2) and “work for the good of all” (6:10). In this way, they will become “a new creation” (6:15).
And so it is that Paul concludes, neither circumcision nor uncircumcision is anything; but a new creation is everything! (6:15). The gospel which brings liberation in community (3:28) will also lead to liberation for the whole creation (6:15).
Based on material in PAUL: an exploration, by John Squires and Elizabeth Raine (self-published 2014; revised 2018).