This blog, by Richard Fellows, discusses historical questions concerning Paul's letters, his co-workers, Acts, and chronology.

Thursday, February 26, 2015

Gal 2:18; 1:8; 5:11 and the rumour that Paul is preaching circumcision

Here I will argue that in Gal 2:18 Paul is (amongst other things) denying the rumour that he has returned to preaching circumcision.

Gal 2:18-21 Gal 5:11 Gal 1:8
18 But if I build up again the very things that I once tore down, εἰ γὰρ ἃ κατέλυσα ταῦτα πάλιν οἰκοδομῶ, But my friends, if I am still preaching circumcision, why am I still being persecuted? But even if we or an angel from heaven should proclaim to you a gospel contrary to what we proclaimed to you
then I demonstrate that I am a transgressor.
let that one be accursed!
19 For through the law I died to the law, so that I might live to God. I have been crucified with Christ; 20 and it is no longer I who live, but it is Christ who lives in me. And the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me. 21 I do not nullify the grace of God; for if justification comes through the law, then Christ died for nothing. In that case the offense of the cross has been removed.

The majority of commentators agree that "the very things" in 2:18 refers to Law observance in some sense, at least for Gentiles. Paul is then saying "If I build up Law observance, which I once tore down, then I demonstrate that I am a transgressor." Now, this sounds very much like Gal 1:8 and Gal 5:11, as can be seen in the table. All three texts bring up the scenario of Paul preaching circumcision/Law observance, and all three have the form of a condition - an "if" statement. Paul's discussion of the crucifixion of Christ in 2:19-21 parallels his mention of the cross in 5:11b. Furthermore, the words "then I demonstrate that I am a transgressor" in 2:18b parallel "let that one be accursed" in 1:8b. These parallels demand that the texts be interpreted together.

Both 2:18 and 5:11 are first class conditions. The protasis in first class conditions is frequently a statement believed by the audience, but not by the writer/speaker (e.g. 1 Cor 15:13). It is never a purely hypothetical statement believed by neither the writer nor his audience, as far as I can see. For a complete list of NT first class conditions, see Ruben Videira-Soengas. So, either Paul or the Galatians believe that he is building up Law observance again, and that he is now preaching circumcision. Since Paul did not believe these things, it follows that at least some of the Galatians did. So, in 2:18, as in 5:11 Paul is opposing the rumour that he supports Law observance/circumcision. This is a new proposal, I think, and I anticipate four possible objections:
1. "Paul's opposition to circumcision would have been clear to all, so no Galatians could have believed that he was now supporting circumcision."
Paul had delivered the decisions of the Jerusalem church leaders, confirming Gentile liberty (Acts 16:4). He had acted as a messenger, and a messenger (apostle) was expected to deliver his message whether he approved of it or not. The Galatians had no way of knowing whether Paul's support for Gentile liberty was genuine or whether he had merely been trying to please the Jerusalem church leaders. It seems that the agitators proposed the latter. I have argued this in detail here.
2. "The "I" in 2:18 could ever to Peter rather than to Paul."
This seems unlikely since Peter has not been named since 2:14 and it would be difficult for the Galatians to realize that Pal is referring to Peter here. Also, why would Paul not simply name Peter here? It has been suggested that Paul is being diplomatic by alluding to Peter indirectly using the first person singular, but if Gal 2:11-14 is about Peter, it is hardly diplomatic towards him!
3. "The "I" in 2:18 could refer to the Galatian addressees, rather than to Paul."
It is, of course, possible that Paul is offering himself as an example for the Galatians to follow, and that he wants them each individually to identify with the "I" (Gal 4:12). However, it is unlikely that the "I" does not include Paul here. When Paul uses building metaphors, as he does in Gal 2:18, he is invariably talking about the building of the community, rather than about individualistic convictions. He uses οἰκοδομέῶ at Rom 15:20; 1 Cor 8:1, 10; 10:23” 14:4, 17; Gal 2:18; 1 Thess 5:11 and οἰκοδομή appears at 1 Cor 3:9; 14:3, 5, 12, 26; 2 Cor 5:1; 10:8; 12:19; 13:10; as well as Eph 2:21; 4:12, 16, 29. In each case the metaphor is for the building up of others in the community. Therefore we should paraphrase 2:18 “If I again build up a community based on Law observance, which is the very thing that I once tore down, …”. This makes perfect sense if Paul is the “I”, since he is the architect of the communities that he forms. But it is hard to see how the “I” could refer to the Galatians. It would need to represent each Galatian acting individually (otherwise why not use second person plural), but this is tension with the fact that the metaphor is about mutual up-building.
4. "You are mirror-reading Gal 1:8; 2:18; and 5:11 and mirrors can be placed at all sorts of angles. Could it not be coincidence that these texts can be seen as Paul's denials of a rumour that he was preaching circumcision?"
My method has controls. In Paul’s other letters there is no text that can be read as a denial that he preached Law observance. Such texts appear 4 times (Gal 1:8; 2:5, 18; 5:11) and only in the letter written to the province where he had circumcised a disciple. This is surely no coincidence.

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