Castration Consternation: Paul’s Cutting Remark in Galatians 5:12
At first blush, Paul’s wish that his opponents castrate themselves prompts the charge of “conduct unbecoming an apostle and a gentleman.” On closer inspection, however, it illustrates how ignorance of context can evoke mistaken conclusions about the attitudes and intentions of characters in the Bible.
This brief essay seeks to demonstrate that the divinely commissioned “apostle to the Gentiles” is not here lowering himself to the gutter-language rants of a shock jock. Rather, against outward appearances, he is making a VERY powerful rhetorical point. To put it another way, Paul’s eyebrow-raising language was not a mean-spirited ad hominem, but a carefully chosen metaphor aimed precisely at the error being propagated by the purveyors of a false and treacherous “non-gospel.”
For those unfamiliar with the heretical hornet’s nest this misguided group of Jewish Christians stirred up among Paul’s Gentile converts at Galatia, I offer the following condensed version. After Paul had evangelized the Galatian region on his first missionary journey, during which time he had brought many Gentiles into a saving relationship with God through his “by grace, through faith, not of works” gospel, a certain group of Jewish Christians came from Jerusalem and infiltrated the churches of Galatia in order to, as Paul wrote, “spy on the freedom [they had] in Christ Jesus and to make [them] slaves” (Galatians 2:4).
To put the matter more clearly, these troublemakers tried to convince Paul’s Gentile converts that they were not fully saved unless they followed all the prescriptive regulations that were a part of Jewish national life. Three practices stood out from among all the others as identifying a Jew as a Jew: Sabbath observance, kosher dietary restrictions, and the dreaded “C” word (no, I don’t mean calories!). Forgive me for cutting up, but we are talking here about the Jewish rite of circumcision.
For these “Jew-makers,” requiring the Gentiles to become fully law-abiding Jews right down to the rite of circumcision was not merely a matter of theological arrogance (“You can’t be saved unless you’re AG or Baptist or Catholic or Dispensationalist or . . .). No. It goes much deeper than this. This misguided and mischievous band truly believed that they themselves had skin in the game. So what led them to this conclusion? The answer, at least in part, lies in the combination of two factors: the ethnic roots of Christianity and the checkered history of the Jews.
Christianity began as a Jewish sect, pure and simple. Non-Christian Jews referred to Christians as the “sect of the Nazarenes” (Acts 24:5). Its founder, Jesus of Nazareth, was a Jew, his top 12 disciples were Jews, and the vast majority of his early followers were Jews (The Gentile “mission” did not really catch fire until Paul). The New Testament gives no evidence that either Jesus himself, or the Twelve, or any other ethnically Jewish Jesus-followers, including the apostle Paul himself, ever ceased to think of themselves as Jews.
Paul and his Gentile Christian converts failed his opponents’ “letter-of-the-law” litmus test for distinguishing “insiders” from “outsiders.” Ironically, it was these “Jew-makers” themselves who stood on the outside. With their “Christ + Law” salvation system, they fared no better than all their counterpart “denominations” within Judaism, each of which in its own way had veered off course from ancient Israel’s YHWH-faith.
Jesus demonstrated that membership in the family of God had never been strictly a matter of a genealogical connection with Abraham. Only those who spiritually share the same faith as Abraham are the true Israel. Thus, some ethnic Jews are actually outsiders and some Gentiles are insiders. Although Jesus’ ministry was, by the Father’s plan and by his own admission, “only to the lost sheep of the household of Israel” (Matthew 15:24), from the beginning of his ministry he clearly understood that Gentiles would be part of that household. God called Israel out from the nations in order to be a light to the nations. All sects within Judaism had lost sight of this mission . . . except one, namely, the sect of the Nazarenes. Jesus’ command to preach the gospel to “every creature” was realigning God’s people with ancient Israel’s YHWH-faith. Only those who put their faith in his person and work have an eternal inheritance with the true Israel.
Redirecting the first-century expressions of Judaism from their destructive path was not an easy task. Jesus appealed, pleaded, warned and taught them, and, more importantly, modeled what true citizens of God’s kingdom should be and do. He chided the most highly influential sect, the Pharisees, for focusing on the letter of the law, yet violating the very spirit of it. He taught people by example that the “traditions of men” (those elements that were added by religious leaders as a protective device, or as some have described it, “a hedge around the law”) did not have binding authority over people. In fact, Jesus charged that in demanding such rigid adherence to these practices, the Pharisees were loading people down with heavy burdens, yet not lifting a finger to help (Luke 11:46).
Now our Lord taught by example, not merely by words. He simply did not allow himself or his followers to be fettered by these meticulous, man-made rules. By acting in flagrant disregard for these “traditions” (but not, importantly, the moral laws of God), Jesus enraged the other Jewish leaders. But this rage was not simply because he was disobeying them and undermining their authority. It was at least that, to be sure. But the dynamic here goes much deeper than that, and it is precisely what we see at work in the situation at Galatia. So the question is, “Why were the Jewish leaders so upset that Jesus was influencing Jews to violate their laws?”
The history of the Jews is a checkered one to be sure. The Hebrew Bible reveals a consistent cyclical pattern. When God’s people were living in accordance with his moral laws (not necessarily, the meticulous, scrupulous practices that progressively became attached to it) they lived in freedom and prosperity. When they got complacent, then ignored and later flagrantly violated his moral laws, God allowed neighboring foreign powers to dominate and abuse them (and that is putting the matter mildly. Jewish people died in these political takeovers, in fact, lots of them!)—First the Egyptians, then the Assyrians, then the Babylonians, then the Persians, then the Greeks, then the Ptolomies of Egypt, then the Seleucids of Syria, and finally, after a brief, but strife-filled period of self-rule, the mighty iron fist of ROME pounded them into a political submission that lasted until midnight May 14, 1948.
As each generation of prophets looked back over their history, they noticed an invariable one-to-one correspondence: every engagement from foreign armies happened when Israel was engaging in flagrant immorality. When the logical consequences of their deviations from the moral laws of God (PC-speak for “SIN”) resulted in painful judgment, they cried out to God for deliverance. Invariably, God, being of kind, gracious, and loving disposition, raised up a leader and delivered them from the yoke of their adversaries. At each of these cyclical post-judgment junctures, God’s chosen servants led the people in revival and renewed adherence to his moral laws. This prosperity continued until they got lax, ignored, and eventually repeated their flagrant violations of God’s laws, and the cycle continued—right up until New Testament times.
By the time of Jesus, each of the sects within Judaism had its own ideas about how to deal with this cyclical problem. The Sadducees (the theological “liberals” of their day) were composed largely of the ruling elite whose lifestyle under the Romans was happily embraced. They did not believe in the resurrection of the dead. They lived a life of prosperity in the present. They believed the adage “you gotta go along to get along.” So they went along and got along . . . with their Roman imperial master.
The reclusive Essenes were at the opposite end of the theological spectrum. They believed that the Jewish people had strayed so far from God’s moral will that only direct, divine, extra-terrestrial intervention would usher in God’s kingdom. They also believed that the arrival of this heavenly being was directly contingent on the establishment of a meticulously pure Jewish community. So they isolated themselves at Qumran and punctiliously followed daily baptisms and dozens of other purification rituals, hoping to evoke divine deliverance.
The Pharisees, who had the largest influence on the Jewish “common folk,” were the conservative evangelical pastors of their day—highly respected and, dare we say, “revered.” Like the Essenes, they strongly urged a scrupulous observance of the law. Realizing that excessive “wiggle room” makes people less attentive to the boundaries of the law, the Pharisees tightened the requirements of the law. Not only did this make people daily aware of the boundaries, it accommodated the tendency of human nature to “cross the line” of the more restrictive (but man-made!) requirement, without crossing the line of the boundary that God had established. In this way, the ENTIRE NATION would be spared the judgment of God that inevitably would come if God’s people didn’t give obedience to his laws (witness their multi-millennial track record).
This skin-protecting zeal may parallel the motives of Paul’s opponents in Galatia. These “Judaizers” wanted to prevent Gentile CHRISTIANS (a JEWISH sect) from apostasizing and bringing God’s wrath on all of them. So, you might say that they urged the Gentiles to sacrifice their skins to save the skin of the nation.
With this context in mind, we are now in a position to understand Paul’s wish that the Judaizers would castrate themselves. I will offer two suggestions here—the first is somewhat speculative, though it may be nevertheless in play.
The Judaizers (for reasons noted above) were trying to force the Gentile Christians to be circumcised (perhaps even by the Judaizers’ very own hands!); Paul may be saying in effect, I wish they would turn the knife on themselves, and since they have already had skin removed (and they believe that act has added to their stockpile of righteousness), how much more righteous will they become if they go the whole way to castration! On this view, the comment is grossly hyperbolic and stingingly sarcastic—but note that it is not spoken to the Judaizers (or, at least not directly); it is expressed as a wish. But why would Paul wish for them castration, specifically? This brings me to my second suggestion.
My second suggestion is far less speculative. Paul believed that, by preaching this “false gospel,” namely, that salvation depends NOT ONLY on faith in Christ BUT ALSO on following the LAW (which for them included both of what moderns distinguish as “moral” and “ceremonial” laws) the Judaizers were influencing the Gentiles in a theological direction that threatened their very salvation. For Paul, any “Christ Plus” gospel was no “gospel” at all. Diminishing the supreme value of Christ’s work on the cross is anything but “GOOD” news.
So why the specific wish for castration? Why didn’t he wish, for example, that all their livestock simultaneously got diarrhea? (Sorry!) Because it would not have achieved what Paul really wanted. You see, messy bovine “residue” would have kept them out of church only one Sunday, max. However, if the Judaizers are castrated, Jewish law forbids them from ever gaining entrance to the synagogue, and more importantly, from gaining a gullible Gentile Christian audience when they got there!
Thus, the premise that Paul had specific rhetorical reasons for choosing the barbaric act of castration as his prayer-wish for the Judaizers is far more tenable than the supposition that he used the castration-wish with malicious intent. He wanted to silence their influence over his Gentile converts and, at the same time, convince them of the error of their thinking by a carefully chosen reductio ad absurdum argument.
Takeaway: Understanding the geography, history, cultural values, and language of the Biblical world is essential for getting the message straight. Experts in these fields of study do a great service for the community of faith and, indeed, for the world. Why would we not want to make use of the best tools in the box? I close with a few helpful resources:
- Bell, Albert A., Jr. A Guide to the New Testament World. Scottdale, PA: Herald Press, 1994.
- Malina, Bruce. J. The New Testament World. Louisville, KY: Westminster/John Knox Press, 1993.
Rob Starner © 2015