July 25 (1): Galatians 6:15

This note (on Galatians 6:15) is supplemental to the concluding article dealing with “Paul’s View of the Law in Galatians”.

Galatians 6:15

This verse represents Paul’s final doctrinal statement in the letter, as he returns with a decisive declaration on the main issue involved—whether Gentile believers ought to be circumcised and observe the Old Testament/Jewish Law (Torah). Circumcision is, in many ways, representative of the entire Torah, the covenant between God and Israel—it preceded the Sinai covenant, and is the fundamental mark of Jewish identity. It is understandable why Jewish believers felt that circumcision should be a requirement for Gentile converts, since early Christianity was born within a Jewish cultural-religious matrix. Paul, in Galatians, is among the very first Christians to argue for a distinctively Christian religious identity—something entirely new, and separate from traditional Judaism. In the conclusion (peroratio) of Galatians, vv. 12-17 of chapter 6, for one last time, Paul contrasts the Gospel message as he understands (and proclaims) it, with that of his Jewish-Christian opponents; the polemic is sharp in vv. 12-14, with circumcision set against the cross of Christ (cf. Gal 2:19-21). The declaration in verse 15 follows:

“For neither circumcision is any(thing), nor (is having) a foreskin, but (rather)—a new formation [kainh\ kti/si$]”

This is the second of three similar statements in Paul’s letters dealing with circumcision, the first occurring in Gal 5:6, and the third in 1 Cor 7:19 (assuming Galatians was written prior to 1 Corinthians); they may be compared side-by-side (in translation):

Gal 5:6

“For in (the) Anointed Yeshua neither circumcision has any strength, nor (does having) a foreskin, but (rather)—trust working in (you) through love”

Gal 6:15

“For neither circumcision is any(thing), nor (is having) a foreskin, but (rather)—a new formation”

1 Cor 7:19

“(For) circumcision is nothing, and (having) a foreskin is (also) nothing, but a guard of [i.e. guarding] the commands of God (is)”

Each statement begins with a declaration that circumcision is unimportant/irrelevant for believers; it is helpful to compare these:

Gal 5:6
ou&te peritomh/ ti i)sxu/ei ou&te a)krobusti/a
“neither circumcision has any strength, nor (does having) a foreskin”

Gal 6:15
ou&te peritomh/ ti e)stin ou&te a)krobusti/a
“neither circumcision is any(thing), nor (is having) a foreskin”

1 Cor 7:19
h( peritomh/ ou)de/n e)stin kai\ h( a)krobusti/a oude/n e)stin
“circumcision is nothing and (also having) a foreskin is nothing”

The two clauses in Galatians are nearly identical; the formulation is a bit different in 1 Cor 7:19, but all three say essentially the same thing—”has no strength”, “is not any(thing)”, “is nothing”. Gal 5:6 qualifies the statement by the expression “in Christ Jesus”, which, of course, is to be assumed in all three forms. That religious, cultural, and ethnic distinctions between Jews and non-Jews (Gentiles) are eliminated for believers “in Christ”—this is an important theme and doctrine in Galatians (see esp. Gal 3:26-28). The use of the verb i)sxu/w, “to have (or use) strength”, in Gal 5:6 is significant; it can be understood two ways: (a) that circumcision has no effect (or power) in the life of a believer (before God), and also (b) that it has no binding force, i.e. believers are not obligated to observe the command. The same is true of being uncircumcised, as the context of 1 Cor 7:19 makes especially clear (see “Did you know…?” below).

The question naturally comes to mind: if circumcision (and uncircumcision) have no power or significance for the believer, than what does have? Interestingly, in these three statements, Paul gives three different answers, here presented side-by-side for comparison:

Gal 5:6

pi/sti$ di’ a)ga/ph$ e)nergoume/nh
“trust through love working in (you)”

Gal 6:15

kainh\ kti/si$
“(a) new formation”

1 Cor 7:19

th/rhsi$ e)ntolw=n qeou=
a guard of [i.e. guarding] (the) “commands” of God

Each of the statements, is, in some way, important and distinctive with regard to Paul’s teaching:

Gal 5:6: pi/sti$ di’ a)ga/ph$ e)nergoume/nh “trust working in (you) through love”—This formula brings together three elements fundamental to the teaching and line of argument throughout Galatians:

pi/sti$ (“trust/faith”), i.e. trust in Christ (cf. Gal 2:16, 20; 3:2, 5, 7-9, 11-12, 14, 22-26); a key premise of the letter is that people (believers) are made/declared just (righteous) before God by trust in Christ, and not by observing the Law. This a dominant theme through the first four chapters (esp. chap 3).

a)ga/ph (“love”)—love is an important motif in the exhortation section of the letter (Gal 5:1-6:10), with its emphasis on believers demonstrating (sacrificial) love to each other; the so-called “love command” (Lev 19:18; Mark 12:28-33 par) represents the only “Law” that believers are obligated to observe (Gal 5:13-14, cf. Rom 13:8-10), presumably to be identified with the “Law of Christ” in Gal 6:2.

e)nerge/w (“work in”)—the term “work” is important in Galatians; Paul repeatedly refers to “works [e&rga] of the Law” (i.e. doing/observing the Law/Torah), Gal 2:16; 3:2, 5, 10, as contrasted with trust in Christ and the Gospel; note also the parallel expression “works of the flesh” (Gal 5:19). For the believer, it is God and the Spirit which works (Gal 2:8; 3:5).

Gal 6:15: kainh\ kti/si$ “a new formation”—The noun kti/si$ is derived from the verb kti/zw, “to form, found”, as with a city/settlement or building, etc.; more generally, it can have the sense of “produce, make”, etc., i.e. “create”, in reference to God’s creative power. Often the expression here is translated “new creation”, sometimes influenced by the idea of regeneration or “new birth”; however, for Paul, I believe the emphasis is rather on a new identity for the believer in Christ. The expression is also used in 2 Cor 5:17:

“So then, if any (one is) in (the) Anointed [e)n Xristw=|] he is a new creation/formation [kainh\ kti/si$]…”

The dualism of old vs. new is an important aspect of Paul’s theology and anthropology, cf. Rom 6:6; 7:6; 1 Cor 5:7-8; 2 Cor 3:6, 14; 5:17; Col 3:9-10; Eph 2:15; 4:22, etc.

1 Cor 7:19: th/rhsi$ e)ntolw=n qeou=—The noun th/rhsi$ is related to the verb thre/w, “(keep) watch, guard”, and so primarily means a “guard”, i.e. as in a prison; however, it can also have the more general, abstract meaning of “keeping, holding”, etc. The noun e)ntolh/ literally refers to something laid on someone to complete, i.e., an order, charge, duty, etc.; it is often translated “command(ment)”, and, in the plural, in a Jewish context, typically refers to the commands and regulations of the Torah. At first glance, this seems to be an entirely different emphasis than in Galatians; the idea of “keeping the commands” (of the Torah) is altogether opposite of what Paul teaches for believers there. Since, in 1 Cor 7:19, he has just stated that “circumcision is nothing”, it is most unlikely that the “commands of God” here are synonymous with the Torah commands. More plausibly, it could refer to the moral/ethical commands, especially of the Decalogue (cf. Mark 10:19 par; James 2:11; Rom 13:9). However the qualification “of God” for Paul probably carries the sense of the true commands (cf. the parallel expression “the Law of God” in Rom 7:22, 25); the overall context of Paul’s teaching—especially in Romans and Galatians—would identify the true command(s) with the so-called “love command” (cf. “the Law of Christ”, Gal 6:2), in which, according to the teaching and example of Christ, the entire Law is summarized and fulfilled (Gal 5:14; Rom 13:8-10). The problem with the context in 1 Corinthians, is that Paul brings up the question of circumcision only in passing; it is not central to the teaching and argument of chapter 7, which involves practical instruction and advice regarding marriage and marital status among believers.

It is interesting that in Gal 5:6; 6:15; 1 Cor 7:19 Paul does not simply say that “circumcision is nothing”, etc.; instead, he adds that “(having) a foreskin [a)krobusti/a] is (also) nothing”, etc. The statement in Gal 5:6, that “(having) a foreskin has no strength” (just as circumcision “has no strength”) is especially unusual from our vantage point today. However, as Christianity spread throughout the Gentile (Greco-Roman) world, instead of Jewish pressure on Gentile believers to be circumcised, there would be the opposite cultural pressure on Jewish believers to hide their circumcision. Paul would have been aware of this dynamic, especially in a Greek city such as Corinth. In 1 Cor 7:18, Paul urges that those who have been circumcised (i.e. Jewish believers) ought not to “pull (a foreskin) upon” (e)pispasa/omai) them. In the Greco-Roman world, operations were available for Jewish men to ‘restore’ the foreskin (epispasm) or otherwise hide the effects of circumcision.

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