The Irony of Galatians: Paul's Letter in First-Century Context

The Irony of Galatians: Paul's Letter in First-Century Context

The Irony of Galatians: Paul's Letter in First-Century Context

The Irony of Galatians: Paul's Letter in First-Century Context


Intra-Jewish conflict in Paul's communities.


Galatians delivers Paul’s response with an ironic edge. Like a deeply disappointed parent who has caught his or her adolescent in the act of compromising closely held principles, the consequences far more dangerous than the child seems to realize, Paul immediately attacks his addressees’ new interest as betrayal: “I am surprised that you are so quickly defecting.” As will be discussed in detail, this rebuke, like others throughout the letter, is shot through with Socratic irony, exposing the victims’ naïveté undermining their perception of the situation, rhetorically asking in effect: “Who do you think they are?” “Who do they think they are?” “Who do they think you are?” or perhaps best, “Who do you think you are?”

The author’s anguish is palpable; he cannot get to Galatia to set things straight, but the need is urgent; his children threaten to harm themselves with a change of course imagined to be benign. A letter holds his hopes. The addressees ought to know better, behave appropriately; are they really that ungrateful for the good they have received at his, much less Jesus Christ’s, expense? Of this “other message of good” he has already warned them; it is bad news instead, undermining the very meaning of the death of Christ for themselves (1:6–9). “Do they think God’s grace shown toward them in the past is now insufficient?”

The time for reasoned argument is past; the addressees stand before Paul’s letter without excuse. Ironic rebuke freezes the scene for the victim, clarifying the issues beyond doubt, framing forever the expected, appropriate response. But, ironic as it may be, the interpreter is left instead chasing irony’s oscillating shadows, wondering, What did the Galatian addressees know? And whom? Who had persuaded them to depart from the appropriate course set out by Paul? In what way? For what reason? Why would they consider it now, after having begun the course? Did they really think their faith in Christ was now in vain?

Apart from a shared context, irony can easily go unrecognized. When this happens, instead of being uniquely suited to clarify, it can obscure. Thus, it should surprise no one to learn that, if the interpreter wishes to hypothesize and test a proposal for constructing the context of the original author and audience of a letter of ironic rebuke, he or she will need to attend, simultaneously, to Paul’s employment of irony at the . . .

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