When I write, I’m often of two minds. On one hand, I want to produce careful arguments that are attentive to the texts I examine and the arguments of my opponents. On the other hand, I want to have fun, and this often means exploiting and rejiggering texts to see how their ideas resonate in a new configuration, even if it means running counter to what I know the text is actually saying. I enjoy theology because it encourages both modes of reading.
Now serious theologians don’t often rejigger scripture and other authoritative texts for fun, but they do this sort of thing for strategic purposes. Theology in almost every religious tradition commonly involves approaching new data, not with the attitude that it might falsify one’s closely held views (this is how science operates, at least ideally), but rather that new data must be rejected or somehow accommodated within the framework of closely held views. Sometimes theologians harmonize old and new felicitously, but other times they see no way out of a dilemma but to rejigger authoritative texts. Insofar as I wish to read texts carefully, this is a cardinal sin: How can someone who claims to have such admiration for scripture or another authority do such violence to the text? But insofar as I want to have fun, I delight in these moves. For there is genius even in rejiggering.
Galatians 3: “My Favorite Argument in the Whole World”
This is why I’ve never felt closer to a scholar than when I read E. P. Sanders: “Galatians 3:6-29 is a wonderful argument—my favorite argument in the whole world.” He writes this even though he knows that, by modern exegetical standards, Galatians 3 is an argument that would earn a failing grade if written by any seminarian. Sanders understands Paul to misquote Genesis, taking fragments from different chapters and stitching those fragments together based upon key words that they contain.1 Most interestingly, Paul fudges grammar to insert “Christ” where Christ is not.
Let me explain. Galatians concerns essentially one problem: Do male Christians need to be circumcised? Paul’s answer is an emphatic NO. Christians do not need to be circumcised, and they do not need to become Jews. His opponents disagree, and scripture seems to emphatically support their position:
And God said to Abraham, “As for you, you shall keep my covenant, you and your offspring after you throughout their generations. This is my covenant, which you shall keep, between me and you and your offspring after you: Every male among you shall be circumcised. You shall be circumcised in the flesh of your foreskins, and it shall be a sign of the covenant between me and you. He who is eight days old among you shall be circumcised. Every male throughout your generations, whether born in your house or bought with your money from any foreigner who is not of your offspring, both he who is born in your house and he who is bought with your money, shall surely be circumcised. So shall my covenant be in your flesh an everlasting covenant. Any uncircumcised male who is not circumcised in the flesh of his foreskin shall be cut off from his people; he has broken my covenant” (Genesis 17:9-14, ESV).
I’m not going to rehash every turn in Sanders’s reading of Paul, although I encourage you to read it.2 The cleverest part of Paul’s argument, the part that I think makes Sanders most appreciate Galatians 3 is Paul’s treatment of Abraham’s “offspring” (Greek: sperma3) in Genesis: “Now the promises were made to Abraham and to his offspring. It does not say, ‘And to offsprings,’ referring to many, but referring to one, ‘And to your offspring,’ who is Christ (Galatians 3:16).
Now sperma functions as a collective noun in Greek just as “offspring” does in English. The plain meaning of sperma in Genesis is Abraham’s descendants, and that is how it is generally translated (I just use the ESV because “offspring” conveys the grammatical ambiguity that Paul exploits). So we would not say that, “This is my covenant, which you shall keep, between me and you and your offspring (sperma) after you,” is binding only upon a single person. But Paul ignores the collective usage so he has some basis to conclude that the offspring is Christ. Paul’s reading of Genesis 17 is that God only commands Abraham and Christ to be circumcised.
The Body of Christ
Serious readers of Paul will not find this argument convincing, but Sanders is certainly a serious reader. He’s a leading scholar of Paul. Why then is this Sanders’s “favorite argument in the world”? First we can appreciate the fact that Paul engages directly with Genesis 17, a difficult passage for his position, and finds a creative way to bring it in line with his way of thinking.
But the deeper reason is that Galatians 3 is part of Paul’s wider effort to establish unity in Christian churches:
For in Christ Jesus you are all sons of God, through faith. For as many of you as were baptized into Christ have put on Christ. There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is no male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus (3:26-8).
Unity is a theme he returns to multiple times throughout his letters through what he calls the body of Christ:
- “Do you not know that your bodies are members of Christ?” (1 Corinthians 6:15).
- “The cup of blessing that we bless, is it not a participation in the blood of Christ? The bread that we break, is it not a participation in the body of Christ? Because there is one bread, we who are many are one body, for we all partake of the one bread” (1 Corinthians 10:16-17).
- “Now you are the body of Christ and individually members of it” (1 Corinthians 12:27, also consider 12:12-30 generally).
- “And he gave the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the shepherds and teachers, to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ, until we all attain to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to mature manhood, to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ” (Ephesians 4:11-3).
- “And he [Christ] is the head of the body, the church. He is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead, that in everything he might be preeminent.” (Colossians 1:18, c.f. 2:19).
When Paul completes his argument in 3:29, “If you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham’s seed (sperma), and heirs according to the promise,” he’s saying that all Christians have fulfilled the commandment of circumcision by virtue of taking part in Christ. What’s so remarkable about this argument is that he’s able to take a text that seems quite hostile to his position and incorporate it into his wider theology and aims for Christian communities.
Collective And Singular Sperma?
Sanders doesn’t take Paul’s argument this far, but we can tease out a sense in which the collective-and-singular valence of sperma speaks in favor of Paul’s overall theology. When Paul writes in 1 Corinthians 10:17 that “we, who are many, are one body” (hen soma hoi polloi esmen) he means to affirm the individuality and collectivity of Christians.
But for the purposes of Galatians 3, there can be no multiplicity in the body of Christ if the sperma of Genesis 17 is singular as Paul says it is. The collective cannot have members. For if it is not strictly singular, circumcision is incumbent upon the individual members of the body of Christ. But he isn’t willing to dissolve Christian individuality in the body of Christ: Christians are “heirs” (kleronomoi)—plural—according to the promise to Abraham (Galatians 3:29).
So even if we understand Genesis 17 to esoterically anticipate Paul’s own theology of the body of Christ, it’s still difficult to be convinced by his reasoning. Paul wants to have it both ways. But that need not reduce our enjoyment of his argument in the least. Rejiggering is fun.
- Strategic methods of reading using proof texts, keywords taken out of context, and esoteric or allegorical interpretation were common when Paul wrote.
- Paul: The Apostle’s Life, Letters, and Thought, chapter 18.
- Paul isn’t quoting the original Hebrew of Genesis. He’s quoting the Greek Septuagint, a translation that Paul, like other Hellenistic Jews of his day, understood to be divine.