This blog, by Richard Fellows, discusses historical questions concerning Paul's letters, his co-workers, Acts, and chronology. You can visit my web pages here, but note that they are not kept up-to-date.

Sunday, June 19, 2011

Douglas Campbell on Gal 5:11

Here I review Douglas Campell's recent paper, "Galatians 5.11: Evidence of an Early Law-observant Mission by Paul?", NTS 57 2011, p325-347.

Gal 5:11 is an immensely important verse:
But my friends, why am I still being persecuted if I am still preaching circumcision? In that case the offense of the cross has been removed.
ἐγὼ δέ, ἀδελφοί, εἰ περιτομὴν ἔτι κηρύσσω, τί ἔτι διώκομαι; ἄρα κατήργηται τὸ σκάνδαλον τοῦ σταυροῦ.
Here is Campbell's abstract:
Galatians 5.11 refers to Paul ‘proclaiming circumcision’—a proposition that he is concerned to refute because he constructs two compact but powerful inferences designed to falsify it. One argues from present persecution, the other from the cross. Following a precise reconstruction of these it can be shown that the three main previous interpretations of the reference of Paul's ‘proclamation of circumcision’ are dubious, whether in terms of a blatantly false charge by opponents, a phase in Paul's pre-Christian Jewish life, or an occasional apostolic mission to Jews. A fourth, embarrassing reading is more likely, especially when other comparable missionary work is considered. Early on Paul proclaimed a fully law-observant gospel to pagans that included circumcision, but then later revised his praxis.
Campbell shows (uncontroversially) that the original text contained both instances of "still" (ἔτι). He then argues (against J.L.Martyn) that the word has the same meaning (of extension in time) in both cases. Therefore, when Paul writes (5:11a) "if I am still preaching circumcision", he concedes that there was an earlier time, known to the Galatians, when he had actually preached circumcision. Concerning that earlier occasion when Paul had preached circumcision, Campbell lists what he considers to be the only three possibilities:

(1) 5.11a refers to preaching activity by Paul before his call;
(2) 5.11a refers to missionary work to Jews by Paul after his call;
(3) 5.11a refers to an early phase in Paul's missionary work to pagans, after his call, when he did expect his male converts to be circumcised (a phase that has now passed).

Unfortunately, Campbell has overlooked a fourth possibility, namely, that 5:11a refers to a recent episode in Paul's missionary work when he had "preached circumcision".

Campbell argues against (1) by pointing to the growing consensus that Jews rarely, if ever, evangelized Gentiles. He also points out that it is hard to see how pre-conversion preaching by Paul would have been relevant to Paul's debate here.

Campbell finds (2) problematic because it would make the text irrelevant to the Galatian audience. Why would Paul's Gentile addressees have cared whether Paul had preached (or continued to preach) circumcision to Jews? Also, Jews were already circumcised.

Campbell therefore prefers option (3). He suggests that, for a while after conversion, Paul believed that male Gentile converts should undergo circumcision. This means that Paul later changed his mind and Campbell cites several cases in which people have changed their minds on similar matters. He deals with other objections to option (3) and concludes that it is correct.

My assessment of Campbell's paper
The paper provides a good review of much of the discussion of this very important verse. His arguments against the popular interpretations are well made, and convincing. However, I feel that his study is incomplete, in that he has dealt with only a subset of the relevant issues and texts. I also offer some objections to Campbell's reconstruction:

1. If I have read him correctly, he proposes the following sequence of events:
a) Paul converts, b) Paul preaches circumcision to Gentiles and is not persecuted, c) Paul permanently abandons preaching circumcision to Gentiles, d) Paul visits the Galatians, e) the Galatians think Paul is preaching circumcision to Gentiles, but he is being persecuted for preaching a law-free gospel, and he writes the letter.
Paul says that his is "still" being persecuted and that he is not "still" preaching circumcision. As Campbell points out, these two instances of the word "still" must have the same meaning. They must also, surely, refer to the same earlier time, but Campbell's reconstruction does not allow this because he has the persecution begin only after the period when Paul preached circumcision.

2. According to Campbell the Galatians believed the following sequence:
i) Paul preached circumcision, ii) Paul preached a law-free gospel and was persecuted, iii) Paul preached circumcision again.
The Galatians would then have seen two distinct periods in which Paul preached circumcision. It would then be surprising that Paul says "If I still preach circumcision", rather than "If I again preach circumcision", especially as the period of persecution that would intervened between the two periods of preaching circumcision is in view  in this verse.

3. Gal 1:11-12 suggest that Paul's law-free gospel was received by him at his original revelation. Can this objection be overcome?

4. Campbell's reconstruction requires that Paul preached circumcision in the first phase of his missionary career and was not persecuted. However, we know that the persecution started very early (Acts 9:23).

5. Campbell offers no explanation for how the Galatians came to believe that Paul was preaching circumcision at the time of writing (Campbell refuses to appeal to the circumcision of Timothy and on page 339 he seems to assume (against the evidence) that Timothy would have been considered Jewish because of his Jewish mother).

6. Campbell, along with all other commentators, interpret Gal 5:11 in isolation. They fail to see its connection to Gal 5:2-10. I have argued here that the three passages that deal with the agitators, namely Gal 1:1-10, Gal 5:2-12, and Gal 6:11-17 contain the same sequence of thought. Gal 5:11 should be interpreted alongside its counterparts Gal 1:8-9 and Gal 6:17. Rather than being an aside or anomaly, as is universally believed, Gal 5:11 must be central to the background of the entire letter. 

7. On page 344 Campbell writes, "Paul's opponents are, after all, trying ot embarrass him (or worse)." There is no evidence for this. Indeed, 5:11 suggests that the influencers/agitators thought that Paul was on their side. As Nanons, for one, has pointed out, there is no evidence that they challenged Paul's authority, and it is hazardous to assume that they were "opponents".

So, while Campbell has successfully shown that the common understandings of 5:11 are problematic, I do not feel that he has yet solved the problems. I am willing to be corrected, though, and I will invite him to comment.

In my next blog post I intend to give my own interpretation of Gal 5:11.


  1. Hi Richard:

    "To the Jews I became like a Jew, to win the Jews. To those under the law I became like one under the law (though I myself am not under the law), so as to win those under the law. To those not having the law I became like one not having the law (though I am not free from God’s law but am under Christ’s law), so as to win those not having the law." (1 Corinthians 9:20-21)

    Perhaps this is a clue. Paul preaches circumcision (or not object it) to the jews but not to the gentiles.



  2. Hi Xabier. Yes, 1 Cor 9:20-21 explains why Paul circumcised Timothy. This explanation was proposed by Tertullian, I think, and is still very popular. Paul circumcised Timothy so that Timothy could be a "Jew to the Jews" and thereby gain an audience among Jews. Timothy himself was not a Jew.

    In Gal 5:11 Paul refers to a time when he had preached circumcision to Gentiles (or at least to a Gentile). It cannot refer here to the preaching of circumcision to Jews (see Campbell's paper).