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

By Richards, William A. | Anglican Theological Review, Spring 2003 | Go to article overview

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


Richards, William A., Anglican Theological Review


The Irony of Galatians: Paul's Letter in First-Century Context. By Mark D. Nanos. Minneapolis: Fortress, 2002. xii + 374 pp. $26.00 (paper).

In The Irony of Galatians, Mark Nanos presents a new hypothesis for identifying those in first-century Galatia who triggered the scathing response from Paul preserved in Galatians. Not "outsiders," not necessarily even "opponents," they are, Nanos proposes, moheli-synagogue officers responsible for guiding gentile candidates through the conversion ritual. Galatian Jews, holding office within Galatian Jewish communities, they are simply, and probably with the best of intentions, picking up, after Paul, on those who, because of his preaching, have been attracted to Judaism. As their community's "gate-keepers" they welcome such newly-interested gentile males into full fellowship, using rites with which they are familiar, including circumcision.

Nanos builds his case, first by applying a form of rhetorical criticism to sections of Galatians, then by drawing on a rationale derived mainly from Berger and Lnckmann's sociology of religion. The first section of the book sets out the rhetorical methodology, emphasizing how "irony" was typically signaled in ancient Greek literature-and how such "irony" asks to be read. The middle third of the book reviews "prevailing interpretations" on the way to setting out his own distinctive reconstruction. The last section details the sociological approach Nanos finds useful for establishing the credibility of hypothesis. The final pages summarize the book's argument (pp. 316-321), and I would recommend that a first reader begin there, as an indispensable guide to navigating the rhetoric of rationalization in the main body of the book. (For example, "Ls it not possible that . . . ? Might not . . . ? Is it not probable that ... ? If so ... is it not possible that . . . ? Is it not likely that . . . ?-all on page 184.)

One strength of Nanos's book is in pushing us, reading this ancient letter of rebuke 2000 years later, to reexamine how we know what we think we know-why call those who seem to have provoked Paul "intruders," when they may, in fact, have been as Galatian as his friends? …

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