A Historical Commentary on St. Paul's Epistle to the Galatians

By W. M. Ramsay

Part 2

Historical Commentary

Chapter 52

Personal Recapitulation (Gal 5:2-12)

This paragraph is personal and parenthetical. The allusion to the yoke of bondage which the Galatians were about to put on themselves, leads Paul to insist once more on the terrible danger of the step and the ruinous consequences that must follow from it. The paragraph is very closely akin to Gal 3:1-6.

You know, says Paul, that your salvation comes through faith. The proof that you have faith lies — in having faith. But, if you yield to their persuasion, and suffer yourselves to be circumcised, you cease to have faith in Christ, you cease to benefit by His grace, and Christ will no longer profit you, as I protest and reiterate: in that case you put your trust in the Law, and you must trust to it alone, and be a slave to it in its entirety.1 In itself the act of circumcision has no effect; it is nought; but your accepting it now is a proof that you no longer trust to Christ, that you no longer have faith.

Lightfoot is, indubitably, right in taking the emphatic “I, I Paul,”2 as “an indirect refutation of calumnies”. “I, I Paul, who have myself preached circumcision forsooth, who say smooth things to please men, who season my doctrine to the taste of my hearers, I tell you, etc.”

Gal 5:7-9. How has this awful change happened, when you were running the race so excellently? Who has had such influence over you? Who has bewitched you? I marvel that you are so irrational and inconsistent with yourselves (compare Gal 3:1). You may be sure that no person who has thus prevented your progress can be a messenger of God (as you once thought that I was). It is not a strong party that has thus acted; but if they once establish a footing among you, then, you know the proverb — a little leaven!

Gal 5:10. But Paul then goes on to express his firm confidence in the judgment and faith of the Galatians. They have been momentarily deceived, but they assuredly will not permanently entertain different views from those which they recently had. Thus the doubt and perplexity which he expressed, Gal 4:20, the apprehension lest his work among them had been in vain, Gal 4:11, are dissipated. He knows whom he is addressing; he sees into their soul; and, as he looks, his doubts about the issue disappear.

Gal 5:10. Punishment must follow: he that has troubled the Galatians has earned his reward, and must submit to it: he has perverted the Gospel of Christ (Gal 1:7), and will pay the penalty, however great and important a position he occupies in the Church. This last expression favours Lipsius’ view that a single Jew of some standing had come to Galatia and caused the whole trouble.

Gal 5:11. Being thus carried back to the same topic as in the opening paragraph, Gal 1:6-10 — the presence of the disturber — Paul glances, as in that passage, at the charge which had wounded him so deeply — viz., that in his conduct to Timothy (Act 16:3) he had been a time-server, shifting his principles to suit his surroundings, preaching circumcision to some, though he refused it to others. As for me, he says, if I preach it, why do they still continue to persecute me? Of course, if I am preaching it, then the cross which so scandalises them, the cross which is their stumbling block, has been done away, and they have nothing to complain of in my preaching.

Does Gal 5:10 point to punishment from man, and hint that the offender should be dealt with publicly by the Galatian Churches? Surely not. The judgment is left to the hand of God. Then in Gal 5:12 Paul recurs to this thought of the punishment awaiting the guilty party, “I wish,” he says, “that those who are turning your moral constitution3 topsy-turvy would inflict the proper penalty on themselves, and cut themselves off.”

In spite of the almost complete unanimity of the recent authorities that Gal 5:12 refers to a different kind of self-inflicted injury, viz., mutilation such as was practised in the worship of the Phrygian goddess, I venture to recur to the rendering of the Authorised Version.4 I doubt whether even on this point — the one about which alone Paul shows real anger — he would have yielded so completely to pure ill-temper as to say what this favourite interpretation attributes to him. It is true that the ancient peoples, and many of the modern peoples in the same regions, resort to foul language when they express anger, in circumstances where Anglo-Saxons have recourse to profane language.5 It would be mere affectation to try to deny or conceal that, on the current interpretation, Paul uses a piece of foul language in the ordinary style of the enraged Oriental, who, regardless of the utter unsuitability of the expression employed, heaps insult on his enemy, animate or inanimate, man or brute, seeking only to be foul and insulting, and all the better content the more he attains this end.

There would be nothing suitable, nothing characteristic, nothing that adds to the force of the passage, in the act which, on the ordinary interpretation, Paul desires that this grave Jew of high standing should perform on himself. It was expressly forbidden by the Law of Moses. The scornful expression would be a pure insult, as irrational as it is disgusting.

But the Authorised Version gives an excellent sense, adding distinctly to the force of the paragraph. The proper punishment for disturbing the Church was that the offender should be cut off like a useless member: and the wish is expressed that he would cut himself off. But the objection is that this sense cannot be justifiably elicited in Greek from ἀποκόπτεσθαι: the word in the middle voice is quoted only in the sense of “mutilate oneself,” or “cut oneself (in mourning) i.e., mourn for”.6

The objection has some ground, but is, I think, not conclusive. The word σκάνδαλον in Gal 5:11 suggests7 to Paul the words of the Saviour (Mar 9:43) ἐὰν σκανδαλίζῃ σε ἡ χείρ σου, ἀπόκοψον αὐτήν.8 He therefore continues in Gal 5:12 the thought of Gal 5:10 — I wish they would cut themselves off. If he presses further than was customary the use of the middle form of the verb, he is not out of harmony with the spirit of the middle voice, and he perhaps trusted to the Galatians also recognising the reference to the Saviour’s words.

But those who maintain the customary interpretation must recognise what is the character of the thought and language attributed to Paul, and should not try, with Lightfoot, to explain it away by saying that this mutilation “must at times have been mentioned by a Christian preacher”. Certainly, he sometimes mentioned it along with other enormities in the pagan ritual; but that does not justify him in expressing the hope and wish that a fellow-member of the Christian Church would voluntarily commit this crime upon himself Dr. Sanday sees that the expression would be indefensible, and can only be regretted.


[1] On this see LIII.

[2] Ἐγὼ Παῦλος is stronger than “I, Paul”; to use ἐγώ in Greek is emphatic, but to use “I” in English is necessary, and carries no emphasis.

[3] Ἀναστατοῦντες carries a political metaphor, as Lightfoot rightly sees.

[4] So, too, the Revised Version in text.

[5] The traveller in the East knows that the use of profane language, objectionable as it is, constitutes a really great step in civilisation and refinement, compared with the unutterable hatefulness of the style of objurgation used by the angry Oriental. The same was the case in ancient times; and it is almost amusing to observe how, from ignorance of this fact, the commentators treat, for example, Catullus’s objurgations against those whom he disliked as sober testimony to their moral character. Catullus would have said much the same about his petorrita, if it broke a wheel, as he says about his enemy, regardless of the meaninglessness of the expression.

[6] In the latter sense the simple κόπτεσθαι is usual: the force of ἀπό is lost in it.

[7] The fact that the word is used in a different relation in the one case and in the other furnishes no argument against the suggestion. In 5:10 the thought of the suitable punishment, severing from the Church which the offender has wronged, is in Paul’s mind. In 5:11 the word σκάνδαλον comes in. The juxtaposition suggests that saying of Jesus in which σκάνδαλον is in juxtaposition with cutting off.

[8] Compare 5:45 (of the foot). Mat 18:8 reports the same saying, but uses ἐκκόπτειν in place of ἀποκόπτειν. Paul thought of the saying in Mark’s form.

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