Thursday, September 4, 2014

English: Map of the Letters of Galatia
English: Map of the Letters of Galatia (Photo credit: Wikipedia)



In the first entry in the Bible Junkies Online Commentary on Galatians, I discussed introductory matters concerning the founding of the churches to the Galatians, the situation when Paul wrote to them, when the letter might have been written and the type of letters which Paul wrote, based on the common Greco-Roman letters of his day. In the second post, I considered the basic content and breakdown of a Pauline letter. I noted the major sections of the formal letter structure and, in the context of each section, outlined the theological and ethical (as well as other) concerns of Paul, including some Greek words which will be examined more fully as we continue with the commentary. In the third entry, I looked at the salutation, which is long for Paul’s corpus (only Romans 1:1-7 is longer) and briefly commented on the lack of a Thanksgiving, the only letter of Paul’s which does not have one. The fourth entry discussed the opening of the body of the letter, a significant part of the letter especially in light of the absence of a Thanksgiving. In the fifth entry, I examined the beginning of the opening of the body of the letter, in which Paul describes his background in Judaism and I placed this in the context of Judaism in the Hellenistic period. In the sixth post in the online commentary, I continued to look at Paul’s biographical sketch of his life, this concerning his earliest life as a Christian. In the seventh post, I examined what Paul says about his subsequent visit to Jerusalem to see the apostles and the Church in Jerusalem. In the eighth entry, Paul confronts Cephas about his hypocrisy in Antioch. 

The ninth blog post started to examine the theological argument in one of Paul’s most important and complex theological letters. In the tenth entry, Paul makes an emotional appeal to the Galatians based on their past religious experiences and their relationship with Paul. In the eleventh chapter in the series, Paul began to examine Abraham in light of his faith. The twelfth blog post continued Paul’s examination of Abraham, but also claims that Christ “redeemed” his followers from the “curse” of the Law.  In the thirteenth study in the Galatians online commentary, we looked at Paul’s claim that God’s promises were to Abraham and his “offspring,” with a twist on the meaning of “offspring.” The fourteenth entry examined Paul’s question, in light of his claims about the law, as to why God gave the law. The fifteenth chapter in this commentary examines the function of the law, while the sixteenth post studied how the members of the Church are heirs to the promise.

In the seventeenth entry, I observed what it means to be an heir in Paul’s theological scenario. And in the eighteenth installment, Paul transitions back to his relationship with the Galatians, but before he concentrates on this in full, he returns to the issue of the stoicheia, commonly known as the four cosmic powers, earth, air, water and fire. In the nineteenth blog post, Paul relies on his personal relations with the Galatians to draw them to his point of view. In the twentieth entry, Paul speaks of an allegory of Hagar and Sarah. The twenty-first chapter in the series, finds Paul speaking against circumcision. In the twenty-second blog post, I examined how Paul begins to reflect on the practical, ethical implications for the Christian life. In the twenty-third entry, I examined how the fruits of the Spirit are to impact the social or communal life of the Galatians. And here, in the twenty fourth and final post, I complete the online commentary by studying Paul conclusion to the letter.

4. Paul’s Letter to the Galatians  
e) Closing of the Body of the Letter (6:11-17):
f) Closing (6:18):

11 See what large letters I make when I am writing in my own hand! 12 It is those who want to make a good showing in the flesh that try to compel you to be circumcised—only that they may not be persecuted for the cross of Christ. 13 Even the circumcised do not themselves obey the law, but they want you to be circumcised so that they may boast about your flesh. 14 May I never boast of anything except the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, by which the world has been crucified to me, and I to the world. 15 For neither circumcision nor uncircumcision is anything; but a new creation is everything! 16 As for those who will follow this rule—peace be upon them, and mercy, and upon the Israel of God. 17 From now on, let no one make trouble for me; for I carry the marks of Jesus branded on my body.
18 May the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ be with your spirit, brothers and sisters. Amen. (NRSV)

In Paul’s concluding admonitions (6:11-17), he omits his usual greetings to those he knows in the community, instructions regarding the greeting of visitors, treatment of authorities within the community, or details concerning his own travel plans to take one last opportunity to encourage the Galatians to turn from the law and those who would guide them to it. He first assures the Galatians that it is he who is responsible for the letter by authenticating it: “See what large letters I make when I am writing in my own hand!” (Galatians 6:11). Paul’s letters were written largely by a secretary (amanuensis), but in some letters Paul will note that he is now personally writing. I suspect that he actually writes the whole of the rest of the letter, since v. 11 is a notice that he has now taken up the pen, not that he is putting it down; that is, I think this is more than a “signature,” although this, naturally, cannot be proven. 
Following this, Paul quickly returns to the theological themes that dominated the letter, not as developed arguments but as ad hominem claims and restatements of his conclusions. Paul says that “It is those who want to make a good showing in the flesh that try to compel you to be circumcised—only that they may not be persecuted for the cross of Christ. Even the circumcised do not themselves obey the law, but they want you to be circumcised so that they may boast about your flesh” (Galatians 6:12-13).  While these are not Paul’s most intellectually compelling verses, there are a handful of assertions made here: 1) those who want you to be circumcised want to make a good showing in the flesh; 2) they want to avoid persecution; 3) they do not obey the whole law; and 4) they want to boast about your flesh. 
Claims 1) and 4) might be considered together: Paul sees circumcision as a “good showing” or boasting in the flesh. Paul seems to believe that following the law is perhaps to convince other Jews who still follow the Torah that both the interlopers and the Galatians Christians are loyal Jews. I am certain that from their point of view, the issue would be following the Torah, not for the purposes boasting or a “good showing” as Paul asserts, but to be loyal to God’s commands. It is a fundamentally different starting point that Paul and his opponents have.  In light of Christ, Paul sees the Torah as fulfilled, while his opponents understand that the coming of Christ has not annulled the need to do all of the commandments. 
This leads to claim 3), namely, that no one can do all of the commands of the Torah (see also Galatians 3:10-14). Paul is also saying, though, that either those who are attempting to follow the Torah in Galatia are not required to follow all of the Torah or that those who have encouraged them to follow the Torah are not following the entire Torah (though it is possible that Paul includes all Jews in this claim).[1] I opt for the latter reading, that is, that even those who insist on circumcision do not follow all of the commandments, whether Paul intends this to be a practical observation (“I have not witnessed anyone who follows all of the Torah”) or a theoretical claim (“No one is capable of following all of the Torah”). 
Paul also makes an additional claim, 2), that the interlopers in Galatia are attempting to avoid persecution by following the law and not following it out of true desire. This is a claim that is impossible to test without their side of the story, but we do know that Paul as a former persecutor might have his own self in mind as he makes this charge. Paul knows both the mind of the persecutor and then later that of the persecuted, but without other evidence it is difficult to know whether Paul is projecting his own experience. The Galatians and those who are pressuring them to follow the Torah might be doing so because they believe it is the correct thing to do.
Again, it is a fundamental difference in how Jesus Christ is evaluated. For Paul, anything other than Christ is boasting or an attempt to make a “good showing,” for Paul declares “may I never boast of anything except the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, by which the world has been crucified to me, and I to the world. For neither circumcision nor uncircumcision is anything; but a new creation is everything!” (Galatians 6:14-15).  In light of the surpassing value of Christ, the law in a sense is an indifferent for Paul, for “a new creation is everything.” This new creation (kainê ktisis) transcends distinctions of circumcision and uncircumcision. In fact kainê ktisis is a reality imposed on the believer, “a new ontological reshaping of human existence…through an energizing principle that re-creates life” (Fitzmyer, NJBC, 790).  For Paul, the dispute with the Galatians suggests that kainê ktisis is lacking among them.
Paul categorizes what he has just said regarding circumcision, and his teaching in the letter as a whole, as a “rule” (kanon). It is adherence to this rule that will lead to peace: “As for those who will follow this rule—peace be upon them, and mercy, and upon the Israel of God” (Galatians 6:16).  The category “the Israel of God” is what is difficult to define in this verse. Paul invokes peace and mercy (modifying Psalm 125:5, 128:6) upon “those who will follow this rule” and it seems on a second group “the Israel of God.” Are these two different groups? Or are they the same group with different definitions offered? It seems as if Paul is using the term “Israel of God” to define all of those who are a “new creation,” that is, that those who “follow this rule,” whether Jew or Gentile.
And he closes this section with a personal plea: “from now on, let no one make trouble for me; for I carry the marks of Jesus branded on my body” (Galatians 6:17). This is Paul’s ultimate argument closer, that he carries the stigmata of Jesus upon his body. Such stigmata in Paul’s day were often “brands” burned in the flesh, designating someone as property of another, a slave, or marks which designated a religious adherent. Recall that in Galatians 1:10 Paul calls himself a “slave of Christ.” The stigmata which Paul carries are certainly the wounds from the beatings and whippings and stonings he has suffered as an apostle and missionary for Jesus. They mark him as a slave and a true devotee. 
This complex letter ends with a simple, unadorned grace, with one interesting addition. Paul writes, “May the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ be with your spirit, brothers and sisters. Amen” (Galatians 6:18). Shaye Cohen notes that this is the only letter in which Paul in the closing benediction “refers to his addressees as brothers; Paul wishes to end on an irenic note” (The Jewish Annotated New Testament: Galatians, 344). This is a subtle point, but an interesting one. Does Paul still consider the Galatians members of his family? Yes, he does, in spite of all he has said, consider the Galatians his brothers and sisters.
Some final thoughts on the whole letter will be offered in the next days.
John W. Martens
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This entry is cross-posted at America Magazine The Good Word



[1] Shaye J.D. Cohen, in The Jewish Annotated New Testament: Galatians, writes of Galatians 6:13: “Even the circumcised, lit., “even those who are being circumcised,” Galatian Christians who follow Paul’s opponents. The variant, “even those who have been circumcised,” may refer to Jewish Christians. Do not themselves obey the law, if referring to circumcised Galatian Christians, the verse implies that they did not, and apparently were not expected to, observe the entire Torah  (see 5:3); if to Jewish believers in Christ, perhaps Paul is alluding to Peter’s alleged failure to observe the law (2:14) or something similar” (343). I think the second option is more likely, but that Paul might be alluding to Jews in general, not just Peter or other Jewish followers of Jesus.