Academic journal article Journal of Biblical Literature

The Covenant of Circumcision (Genesis 17:9-14) and the Situational Antitheses in Galatians 3:28

Academic journal article Journal of Biblical Literature

The Covenant of Circumcision (Genesis 17:9-14) and the Situational Antitheses in Galatians 3:28

Article excerpt

JBL 122/1 (2003) 111-125

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At the annual meeting of the Society of Biblical Literature in 2000, the Pauline Epistles Section devoted a full session to a panel review of J. Louis Martyn's Anchor Bible commentary on Galatians.1 In the session, Beverly R. Gaventa stated that she understood how the antithesis Jew/Greek in Gal 3:28a related to the situation in Galatia but admitted that she could not comprehend how the antitheses slave/free and male/female in Gal 3:28bc pertained to Paul's argument.2 She asked Martyn what Paul meant by these last two antitheses and Martyn responded, "I don't know." Such an honest admission from someone who has devoted years to the study of Galatians emphasizes the difficulty of relating the antitheses slave/free and male/female to the situation in Galatia.

I. The Baptismal-Formula Explanation

In his treatment of Gal 3:28, Martyn follows the common explanation that Paul cites these antitheses by rigidly adhering to an early Christian baptismal formula.3 Martyn comments, "Paul names three of these elemental opposites because he is quoting the formula. In writing to the Galatians, however, he is interested only in the first pair."4 Thus, Martyn explains the occurrence of the three pairs of antitheses in Gal 3:28 because this grouping is how Paul finds them in the baptismal liturgy.5 Martyn concludes that the slave/free and the male/female pair have nothing to do with the situation in Galatia but are only vestiges of the formula Paul quotes to remind the Galatians that the Jew/Greek antithesis is abolished by Christian baptism.6

This baptismal-formula explanation of the three pairs of antitheses in Gal 3:28 is not entirely satisfactory, however, for at least three reasons.7 First, this explanation presents Gal 3:28 as the absolute abolition of the distinctions represented by these pairs of antitheses. Martyn comments, "To pronounce the nonexistence of these opposites is to announce nothing less than the end of the cosmos."8 This interpretation may adequately describe Col 3:11 and perhaps more precisely Tri. Trac. 1.5.132, but the argument in 1 Cor 12:13 presupposes that for Paul the distinctions of these antitheses continue, for otherwise the singular body could not have many members. Even Martyn is forced to admit, "From reading Paul's other letters, we know that the apostle was aware of the fact that even in the church, the beachhead of God's new creation, there were as yet some marks of sexual and social differentiation." Nevertheless, Martyn asserts, "In writing to the Galatians he [Paul] does not pause over that matter."9 The lack of clear evidence for Martyn's assertion leaves open the question of whether Gal 3:28 proclaims the absolute abolition of the distinctions represented by these pairs of antitheses.

Second, the precise listing of the pairs in Gal 3:28 occurs in none of the other passages that supposedly contain this formula.10 First Corinthians 12:13 lacks the male/female pair, as does the list in Col 3:11, which nevertheless adds a circumcision/uncircumcision and barbarian/Scythian pair not present in Gal 3:28. Even the Jew/Greek antithesis, which Martyn identifies as so important to Galatians, is missing from the Tripartite Tractate's (1.5.132) formulation, which adds an angel/human antithesis to the other antitheses found elsewhere. Liturgical and kerygmatic formulas may indeed be flexible in their wording, but such flexibility is not indicative of a fixed baptismal formula that would have constrained Paul to include pairs of antitheses irrelevant to the situation in Galatia.11

Third, the baptismal-formula explanation presupposes that Gal 3:28 is not adapted to the situation in Galatia whereas the other lists are shaped by the situations and contexts in which they occur.12 In contrast to the singular formulation of the other lists, the pairs in 1 Cor 12:13 are plural to fit Paul's emphasis on the singular body's having various members such as Jews, Greeks, slaves, and free persons. …

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