“Listen! I, Paul, am telling you that if you let yourselves be circumcised, Christ will be of no benefit to you. Once again I testify to every man who lets himself be circumcised that he is obliged to obey the entire law.” Galatians 5:2-3 NRSV
This statement written by the Apostle Paul to the Galatians, in which he prohibits them from being circumcised (becoming Jewish) has had countless pages written about it. Brigitte Kahl, Professor of New Testament at Union Theological Seminary has recently contributed to the literature exploring Galatians in her book, “Galatians Re-Imagined – Reading With The Eyes of the Vanquished”. This blog is based, in part on her groundbreaking work.
Kahl’s work focuses on the relationship between New Testament texts and the Roman Empire. It goes without saying that the New Testament was written within the Roman Empire, but often theologians and Biblical scholars have not explored the many implications of this fact.
Who were the Galatians?
Kahl makes the case that we should think of the Galatians as a large group of people, including Gauls and Celts who had been very resistant to the advance of the Roman Empire in the centuries leading up to the time of Paul. She writes,
“Like the Greeks before them, the Romans knew the land inhabited by the Celtic peoples as barbarian territory par excellence. It was populated by a particularly hostile race who, after five centuries of godless and irrational onslaughts against the sacred shrines and foundation of Greco-Roman civilization, had at last been subdued and assigned their place within the god-willed system of worldwide Roman rule, whether in Italy or Spain, Britain or France, Greece or Asia Minor. Galatians/Gauls retained a notoriously indomitable tendency toward lawlessness which lurked always just beneath their newly civilized demeanor…”
Many enduring remnants from Antiquity illustrate the conquest and violent annexation of the Galatians/Gauls/Celts into the Roman Empire. Paul was writing to these strong, yet conquered people.
A word about circumcision
Circumcision was the mark of the covenant for Jews. If you needed to prove that you were a Jew in the first Century, you didn’t reach for your I.D. – you lifted your robe. Paul argues in this letter that Gentile Galatians should not be circumcised, but he does not argue for an end to circumcision for the Jews. In fact, he has an entirely new community of faith in mind.
“There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus. And if you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham’s offspring, heirs according to the promise.” Galatians 3:28-29
Paul envisions nothing less than new creation in which both Jews and Gentiles find ‘oneness’ in Christ Jesus. This vision however, of circumcised Jews and uncircumcised Gentiles becoming one in Christ had some serious ramifications for the Galatians.
In 64 B.C.E, Israel was conquered by the Romans and became a province of the Empire. Some accommodations were made to allow the Jews to continue to worship in their synagogues and in the Temple in Jerusalem, even though Israel was now a province of Rome. One of the most striking of these was that the Jews agreed to fund and offer sacrifices, prayers and honorary dedications to the Empire and the Emperor twice daily from within the Temple in Jerusalem! In exchange, the Jewish people were not required to take part in imperial sacrificial cultic practices in other Roman cities.
Roman citizens however were required, in various ways and at many specific times, to voice and demonstrate their allegiance to Caesar. The Roman Empire was considered a divine empire, and the Emperors considered “sons of God”.
William Barclay writes of the obligation placed on male citizens of the Empire:
“So, in the end, the worship of the Emperor became, not voluntary, but compulsory. Once a year a man had to go and burn a pinch of incense to the godhead of Caesar and say, ‘Caesar is Lord.’” Juxtapose this confession to something Paul wrote to believers in Rome:
“that if you confess with your mouth Jesus as Lord, and believe in your heart that God raised Him from the dead, you will be saved” Romans 10:9
For a Roman citizen to confess Jesus as Lord required the de-throning of Caesar as lord for that person. There was no way around it. You had to choose who your Lord would be. Jesus or Caesar.
Can you see now why Galatian men might have wanted to be circumcised?
If they could have been circumcised, they would have become Jews in the eyes of the empire, and there were accommodations for Jews such that they could avoid confessing allegiance to the emperor and the empire. Lacking these accommodations, Galatian believers would be faced with a sobering choice; confess Jesus as Lord and face the wrath of the empire, or deny Jesus as Lord and remain a subject of Rome. Paul was indeed asking for a dangerous allegiance to Jesus.
Why would Paul place this difficult demand on Galatian men?
Being a Pharisee, Paul was intimately familiar with the Jewish Scriptures. Both he and Peter identified the post-resurrection time they were living in as “the last days”. Peter said as much at Pentecost when he said, “this is what was spoken through the prophet Joel: ‘In the last days it will be, God declares, that I will pour out my Spirit upon all flesh…” Acts 2:16-17
These Hebrew Scriptures foresaw the time Paul was living in and described it in Scriptures like this one in Isaiah 2:
“Now it will come about that in the last days the mountain of the house of the Lord will be established as the chief of the mountains, and will be raised above the hills; and all the nations will stream to it.”
All the nations will stream to the house of the Lord. The Hebrew prophets didn’t foresee a time when all the nations would become Jewish (circumcised). They foresaw a time when all the nations, meaning uncircumcised people groups, would come to the chief of the mountains…the mountain of the house of the Lord.
Paul, believing that the cross & resurrection marked the transition to the last days now expects the nations, as nations to stream into the new creation, the new covenant kingdom where there is neither Jew nor Greek, and where Jesus, not Caesar is Lord. This is the nature of new creation.
Many Gentiles made the dangerous confession that Jesus is Lord in the face of the Roman Empire. This is what it meant to be a witness to the resurrected Lord of lords, and many of these faithful witnesses died horrible deaths for making the Jesus is Lord confession. The Greek word that we translate as “witness” is “martys” where we get the word, martyr.
What about today?
Living in the United States in 2016, I see large parts of the church jockeying to gain a seat of influence at the political table of empire. It is usually done with good intentions, but when Jesus was tempted to go that route he refused. He said, “My kingdom is not from this world.”
Instead of the political table of empire, Jesus is inviting the nations to a different kind of table; a table of bread and wine, a table that unites all under the dangerous confession that Jesus is Lord, a table that invites a dangerous kind of allegiance to a different kind of King, with a different kind of kingdom. Isaiah saw it and wrote…
“Many peoples shall come and say, “Come, let us go up to the mountain of the Lord, to the house of the God of Jacob; that he may teach us his ways and that we may walk in his paths…they shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks; nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more.”
Isaiah saw it. Jesus saw it. Paul saw it. Can you see it too?
This blog is condensed from a message of the same name. The entire message can be seen here.