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Acta Theologica

versão On-line ISSN 2309-9089
versão impressa ISSN 1015-8758

Acta theol. vol.29 no.2 Bloemfontein Dez. 2009


The interpretation and translation of Galatians 5:12



D.F. Tolmie1




As is evident from commentaries on Galatians and from various English translations, scholars do not agree on the meaning, rhetorical labelling and translation of the wish expressed by Paul in Galatians 5:12 (). In this article various interpretations of this verse are considered; its rhetorical labelling is discussed; and suggestions are made as to the best way in which it may be translated into English.

Keywords: The Letter to the Galatians, Galatians 5:12, Interpretation, Translation, Sarcasm

Trefwoorde: Die Brief aan die Galasiërs, Galasiërs 5:12, Interpretasie, Vertaling, Sarkasme




In Galatians 5:2ff., towards the end of his letter, Paul switches to a new rhetorical objective, namely to convince the Christians in Galatia to act in a particular way: They should not succumb to the pressure that his opponents in Galatia are placing on them to be circumcised; in future they should avoid them; and they should live according to the Spirit.2 In 5:2-6, the first section of this part of his letter, he begins by warning his readers not to be circumcised under any circumstances. In verses 2-4, three warnings are used to this effect, which are then followed by a positive exposition of his own views in verses 5-6. This section (5:2-6) is followed by another section, 5:7-12, in which the dominant rhetorical strategy changes to that of vilification of the opponents, with various strategies being used by Paul to achieve this effect.3 The latter section is then concluded in verse 12: . This sentence is the focus of this article. As will be shown, it can be interpreted and translated in different ways. furthermore, its rhetorical labelling is approached in different ways by scholars. Accordingly, in this article the meaning and rhetorical labelling of verse 12 will be considered in depth. furthermore, various translations will be compared and suggestions will then be made as to the best way in which to translate the verse into English.



The wish expressed by Paul in Galatians 5:12 ( ) may be classified as an attainable one.4 When one considers the interpretation of this verse, two expressions in particular deserve further scrutiny, namely and . I will begin with the second one. The words are used by Paul to describe his opponents in Galatia in a very negative way. BDAG () describe the meaning of this word, which is also used in the New Testament in Acts 17:6 and 21:38,5 as follows: "to upset the stability of a pers. or group, disturb, trouble, upset" (their emphasis), while Liddell and Scott () describe it as "unsettle, upset". Louw and Nida (1988:288) place the word in a semantic domain that they describe as "hostility/strife" and in a sub-domain indicating "rebellion": "to cause people to rebel against or to reject authority." Thus, Paul is using a very negative description of his opponents - naturally so, because he is still continuing his vilification of them; at the same time, he is portraying the Christians in Galatia as their victims. According to him, the opponents do not have any good motives; in fact, they are destabilising the situation in the Christian congregations in Galatia.

The other concept in verse 12 that deserves attention (- future middle of ) is normally used in the sense of "cut so as to make a separation, cut off, cut away" (BDAG ; their emphasis).6 Some examples from the New Testament and the LXX:7 In Mark 9:43 the word is used to refer to the cutting off of someone's hand and, two verses later, to the cutting off of someone's foot. In John 18:10 and 18:26 it is used to refer to the cutting off of the right ear of the servant of the high priest, while in Acts 27:32 it refers to the cutting off of the cords of a boat. In the LXX it is used several times in a similar way: Deuteronomy 25:12 (cutting off of someone's hand), Judges 1:6-7 (cutting off of someone's thumbs and big toes), 2 Samuel 10:4 (cutting off of garments), and Psalm 76:9 ("cutting off" of God's mercy). As these examples show, the word was often used to indicate the cutting off of body parts. In some instances it was also used in such a way that the cutting off of a man's private parts was implied, for example in Deuteronomy 23:2: . 8 Translated literally, the word should be rendered in this instance as "the one (of whom it) had been cut off." Outside the New Testament, the word is sometimes used in a broader sense to indicate that something has been terminated. Stählin (1979:851-852) provides the following examples: termination of hope (Apoll. Rhod., IV, 1272), of pity (76:8), of one's voice (Dion. Hal. Compos. Verb., 14) and of a period in time (Arist. Rhet., III, 8, 19).

If we turn our attention to the use of in Galatians 5:12, it is clear from the context that Paul has in mind the removal of the private parts of his opponents. This can be seen from the fact that he refers to circumcision several times in the previous section (verses 2-6). In the verse directly preceding verse 12, he also refers to circumcision, and more specifically to people wrongly claiming that he was still proclaiming circumcision:

The frequent mentioning of circumcision in the immediate context thus indicates that in verse 12 should be interpreted in the sense of the physical removal of the private parts of the opponents. Literally the word thus means "they will have it cut off." If one reads verses 11 and 12 together, taking particular note of the at the beginning of verse 12, verse 12 may be interpreted as the climax of Paul's argument in this section. In fact, the at the beginning of verse 12 only makes sense in terms of a contrast between and (verses 2, 3, 11), that is, between circumcision and total removal of one's private parts (Stählin 1979:854).

That should be understood in this sense, was already accepted by patristic exegetes such as John Chrysostom (Hom. 5:12), Theodore of Mopsuestia (in Gal.) and Augustine (exp. Gal.).9 It is also accepted by most commentators of our day.10 However, this was not always the case. Some of the early commentators interpreted it differently. As Meiser (2007:253) shows, Pelagius (in Gal.) interpreted the term metaphorically, as referring to the liberation from evil ways, and Maximus Confessor (qu. dub. I,77) construed it as an indication of the hope of penance, whereas Ambrosiaster (in Gal.) understood it as referring to the exclusion of salvation. In the Vulgate it was translated in a more general way (ultinam et abscidantur qui vos conturbant), reflecting an interpretation of in the sense of a removal from the church (Longenecker 1990:234). Erasmus also interpreted it in this way,11 whereas Luther understood it as a reference to utter destruction and translated it as follows: "Wollt Gott, das sie außgerottet wurden, die euch verstoren."12

In this regard, Ramsay also objects to the almost complete unanimity of his time, according to which is interpreted in the sense of the physical removal of the private parts of the opponents. He does not believe that Paul "would have yielded so completely to pure ill-temper ... The scornful expression would be a pure insult, as irrational as it is disgusting" (Ramsay [1900] 1965:439). However, such an argument concerning what would have been proper for Paul to say and what would not (which may also underlie some of the other instances in which scholars make the same choice as Ramsay), is not a good one. In the light of the arguments in respect of the context outlined above, and the way in which the word was normally used in Greek literature, one can safely assume that the best interpretation of the word is that it refers to having one's private parts removed.



If the interpretation of Galatians 5:12 as set out above is correct, the verse can obviously not be taken literally and, instead, functions as an example of a rhetorical technique. If one surveys the literature on this verse, it is striking that scholars label this technique in quite different ways. The following representative list indicates the differences in this regard: "irony" (Lightfoot 1921:207); "schärfster Sarkasmus" (Lietzmann 1971:38); "ein gänzlich irrealer, höhnisch gereizter Wunsch ... reiner Spott und Hohn" (Von Campenhausen 1954:191); "grimmiger Spott" (Schlier 1971:240); "bittere Ironie und ... Sarkasmus" (Rohde 1989:224); "sarcastic and indeed 'bloody' joke" (Betz 1979:270); "sarcastic und dismissive snort" (Dunn 1995:282); "invective" (Witherington 1998:374); "ridiculing curse" (Russell 1998:432); "a rude, obscene, and literally bloody picture at their expense" (Martyn 1997:478); "ein Witz" (Vouga 1998:126); "schlecht[er] Witz" (Mitternacht 1999:85); "voller sarkastischer und bissiger Polemik" (kremendahl 2000:247); and "a joke" (Hietanen 2005:167).

In which way do these labels differ from one another? The primary difference seems to lie in the way in which Paul's objective in this verse is interpreted. Broadly speaking, the interpretations range from a view in terms of which the objective is construed as being more gentle (irony, a joke) to an interpretation which regards it as being much harsher, and even rude (sarcasm, dismissive snort, ridiculing curse). What, then, would then be the best way to label this verse rhetorically? Let us take irony and sarcasm - which seem to represent the opposite ends of the various possibilities mentioned above - as a point of departure. (Of course, strictly speaking, it is not entirely correct to view these two factors as opposites, since nowadays13 sarcasm is quite often regarded as a particular [extreme] form of irony.)

Irony can be generally defined as expressing the opposite of what one actually means (See, for example, Dupriez 1991:243). If one wishes to narrow the definition down a little further, one may follow Dunmire and kaufer (1996:356), who use the following taxonomy of Donald Muecke for the identification of irony: firstly, it is a phenomenon consisting of two layers - one as it appears to be and the other one as it really is; secondly, these two layers are in an oppositional relationship to one another, in the sense that they contradict one another, and are incompatible or incongruous; and, thirdly, a degree of "innocence" is present in the sense that the victim of the irony is not aware of the discrepancy between the two layers, or owing to the fact that the speaker/ author pretends that there is no discrepancy between the two layers. quite often, a further distinction is made between verbal irony and situational irony: In the case of verbal irony, the speaker/author deliberately creates the irony whereas in situational irony a particular situation is perceived by an observer/ reader as being ironic (Dunmire & kaufer 1996:356).

Whereas irony is usually described in terms of broad categories such as those outlined above, sarcasm is normally identified more narrowly. for example, Dupriez (1991:407) defines it as: "Aggressive, frequently cruel mockery."

When irony and sarcasm are being correlated by scholars, the same tendency can be seen:

Irony is always a discrepancy between what is said literally and what the statement actually means. On the surface the ironical statement says one thing, but it means something rather different. In a light-hearted, laughingly ironical statement, the literal meaning may be only partially qualified; in a bitter and obvious irony (such as sarcasm), the literal meaning may be completely reversed (Brooks and Warren 1979:479).

In this regard, kreuz and Glucksberg (1989:374-386)14 argue that in the case of sarcasm, there is a specific victim of the ridiculing, whereas in irony there is no particular victim.

For the purpose of this article, I will thus proceed from the point of departure that the main difference between categories such as "irony", "joke" and "sarcasm", in the context of a rhetorical labelling of Galatians 5:12, is related to the level of harshness that one detects in this verse.15 If one regards it as a mild form of irony or a joke, the effect is viewed as rather innocent. for example, Hietanen (2005: 167), who regards the wish expressed by Paul as a joke, describes its effect as the creation of a pause - "a presentational device" as Hietanen calls it - which generates "relief and a pause." On the other hand, if one views Paul's utterance in terms of a harsh form of irony, e.g. sarcasm, its aim is perceived to be much less innocuous.

To make a decision in this regard, it seems best to investigate the context within which Paul's pronouncement is used.16 If one looks at Paul's rhetorical strategy in the section directly preceding verse 12, he seems to be quite agitated. for example, in verses 2-4 he employs three very strict warnings:

If you let yourselves be circumcised, Christ will be of no benefit to you; Everyone who lets himself be circumcised, is forced to obey the entire law!; You who want to be justified by the law have cut yourselves off from Christ! You have fallen away from grace!

The content of these warnings indicates a high level of distress.

Furthermore, in verses 7-12 Paul also uses various strategies to vilify his opponents (see footnote 3 of this article for details). The aims of vilification, a widespread phenomenon in early Christian epistolography and in the Mediterranean world, can hardly be described as innocent.17 The repeated use of vilification as a rhetorical technique in these verses is thus also indicative of a high level of agitation on Paul's part. further evidence in this regard is the fact that Paul even threatens that the opponents will be punished by God (verse 10). Thus, the general atmosphere of verses 2-12 seems to be of such a nature that it is unlikely that Paul would be using irony in a light-hearted way in verse 12. His utterance in verse 12 should thus rather be classified as a harsh form of irony, namely as sarcasm.

Why would Paul be using sarcasm? Besides the fact that sarcasm may provide a way of expressing his bitter feelings regarding the opponents, it is also a powerful technique for increasing the distance between his audience and the opponents: Against the background of public disgust for rituals such as emasculation, he uses this verse to create disgust towards the opponents (Betz 1979:270). There may possibly be one or two underlying notions embedded in Paul's use of sarcasm in this instance, namely that if they were emasculated, they would become like the priests of Cybele (who were willingly castrated), or that (in terms of the Jewish law) they would (ironically!) have to be excluded from the worshipping assembly18 (see, for example, Dunn 1995:283 and Jónson 1965:267-268). However, there is no real need to posit such allusions here (as, correctly, pointed out by Bruce 1982:238; cf. also Betz 1979:270). The primary aim of Paul's utterance may thus be identified as a sarcastic dismissal of the opponents' insistence on circumcision.



The best way to translate Galatians 5:12 will now be investigated. Below is a representative group of English translations19 which will be used as an indication of how Bible translators render this verse. In the evaluation of these translations, the fact that different translation strategies were followed will be kept in mind. for example, consideration will be given to the question as to whether the translation strategy followed required the translators to keep as close as possible to the source text, or whether they had more freedom to take the reception of the translation in the target culture into account. The evaluation will be based on the viewpoints expressed earlier on in the article and will focus on the various facets that have been highlighted thus far. It will conclude with a suggestion as to the best way in which the verse can be translated.

I would that they that unsettle you would even go beyond circumcision (ASV).

My desire is that they who give you trouble might even be cut off themselves (BBE).

I would that they would even cut themselves off who throw you into confusion (DBY).

I would they were even cut off, who trouble you (DRA).

I wish those who unsettle you would emasculate themselves! (ESV).

I would they were even cut off which trouble you (kJV).

Would that those who are upsetting y