Paul as Reparative Reasoner: Group Rivalry in Galatia

Susannah Ticciati,
King?s College London


One of the most significant things I gained as a student of David Ford was community. It is no accident, then, that the initial thoughts for this paper were generated in a reading group made up of three of David?s former students. Rachel Muers, Chad Pecknold and I met frequently over the course of several months to wrestle with and puzzle over Paul?s letter to the Galatians. [i] It was in this laboratory that the letter became both more puzzling, but also for the first time genuinely significant for me. The following, as well as offering a reading of the letter, is also an attempt to begin to theorise about the hermeneutics involved in this discovery of significance. It does so with the aid of categories suggested by another member of David?s wider community, Nicholas Adams, who himself developed these categories in the context of the practice of scriptural reasoning, drawing in particular on the work of Peter Ochs. My reflections are an attempt to work through, tease out and clarify this communal labour. My approach, which draws on historical-critical insights as part of a broader endeavour to read scripture for its theology, is something which has principally been fostered by David, who has always sought in his work to hold together theology and exegesis.

By way of anticipation, it is also no accident that the focus of my interpretation is itself community: Paul is addressing problems that have arisen within his Galatian congregations, which is tearing the community of Christ followers apart, and his letter has as its purpose the healing of the suffering caused, by way of reflection on what it means to belong to the community of Christ. What is the identity of this community?

Before turning to these issues, I will set my interpretation in its hermeneutical context.

Pauline scholarship today seems to me to be describable in terms of two opposing tendencies. My bold claim in this paper will be that it is the inability to bring these two tendencies into proper relation with one another that has resulted in the dearth of current theological readings of Paul — readings of Paul as the living word of God for us today .

These two tendencies are the following. 1. Paul is read as speaking for his particular context, with particular categories which are appropriate for this context. For instance, he is not concerned with the human being in general, but with Jews and Gentiles; he is not concerned with human deeds in general, but with the Jewish law and its particular prescriptions. 2. Paul is read as delivering universal principles: How the generic sinful human being is to be saved? Is it by his own deeds or by the grace of God? The argument is about a dynamic or pattern which is universally applicable, not contextually specific. Works of the law signify human deeds in general; the problem of the salvation of the Gentiles becomes the problem of the salvation of humankind in general.

The problem with the former is that it entirely prevents Paul from speaking beyond his own context; his categories become by definition ungeneralisable, such that no pattern or logic can be discerned in his distinctions. What meaning, then, can his words have for us? They can be of antiquarian interest only. The problem with the latter is that it irons out all difference between Paul?s categories and the reader?s, overlooking the contextual nature of his claims and so failing to understand how their meaning depends on and derives from this context. Supposedly universal, they will in fact be interpreted according to the reader?s context, a context which will be mistaken for that which is universally valid. To read Paul for universal principles, moreover, overlooks the irrevocably historical nature of God?s revelation.

We might initially map these divergent tendencies onto the divergence between the New Perspective in Pauline scholarship on the one hand (which has so admirably brought our attention again to the historical specificity of Paul?s claims), and readings of Paul labelled as ?Lutheran? on the other hand (with their all-encompassing anthropological claims regarding salvation). And this would not be too far off the mark. However, the situation is more complicated. It is true that in Luther?s hands Paul?s historically specific polemic is turned against the Catholic Church of his day, as well as others whom he tars with the same brush (Jews and Muhammedans). It becomes applicable across the whole of the spectrum of the human race to the extent that it is united in its sinful attempt to justify itself before God. However, it would be too quick to say that this ?universalism? has a timelessness which evacuates God?s revelation of its historicity, because Luther?s polemic must also be seen in its very specific historical context, and is not meant as a timeless statement about the human race. But it may be fair to say that when Luther is absorbed into ?Lutheranism?, or any rigid repetition of Luther?s formulae, then such timeless, bland universalism is the result.

On the other hand, writers within the New Perspective are inevitably not content to remain with purely historical claims. Thus, for instance, although James Dunn [ii] critiques an interpretation of Paul?s polemic in terms of the universal ?Lutheran? categories of legalism and grace, arguing that the focus is specifically on the ?identity markers? of the Jewish law and the question of Gentile salvation, he nevertheless goes on to identify Paul?s attack on the works of the law as an attack on ethnocentrism — an equally universal category (and arguably an even more offensive indictment of the Judaism of the day than the ?Lutheran? criticism of self-righteousness). [iii] Daniel Boyarin makes an equivalent move in his distinction between the particularism of the Jewish tradition and the universalism of Pauline theology. [iv]

The problem, then, is not how to hold the divergent tendencies of contextualising and universalising together — indeed, the one seems naturally to spawn the other — but how to bring them into proper relation: how to read for a truth which transcends historical context without resorting to a timeless truth which undermines all historical particularity. How, in other words, do we read the Bible as the word of the living God whose revelation is always irrevocably historical?

I will argue in the following that we may do so by reading Paul as a reparative reasoner ; [v] as one who offers his arguments for the purpose of repair, or the healing of suffering. His argument that justification is by faith is neither simply a claim about Gentile entry into the people of God (a particular, purely contextual claim), nor about the priority of God?s grace over our deeds (a universal claim), but as Paul?s theological reflection on more primary practical responses to suffering that has arisen in the Galatian congregations. The healing of the suffering is primary; the theology is secondary and only has meaning in respect of the concrete healing that is taking place. It cannot be abstracted as timelessly valid.

Therefore, if Paul is to have meaning beyond his own context and for us today, this can be discovered only by way of the identification of analogies between the problems being addressed in the Galatian congregations and problems we find in our communal and individual lives today. Once these have been identified, we may be able to learn from Paul?s responses. We will need to identify patterns underlying series of his responses, and such patterns may have a vagueness which enables them to guide our responses in times and places remote from Paul?s. Paul?s theologising — his moments of insight into the deeper structures of his repair — is precisely this identification of such patterns. Conversely, however, the theological principles that are generated, such as justification by faith, are only abstractions from a series of concrete responses, and so can only be made sense of in relation to these. Moreover, they may not be framed in the most appropriate categories for another time and place. Hence the only way to learn from Paul is to follow his own concrete responses for ourselves, finding when appropriate our own categories to encapsulate the patterns that emerge, and even discovering patterns that Paul himself does not draw attention to. Just as Paul?s theology is specific to the situations he is addressing, so will we have to develop our own specific theologies appropriate to the situations we are addressing.

Problems in Galatia

I will draw on Philip Esler?s social scientific reading of Galatians to identify the specific problems that Paul is addressing. [vi] While I will go beyond, and perhaps in some ways against, Esler?s conclusions in my attempt to identify some of the theo-logic at work, Esler?s approach is congenial to mine precisely because it remains descriptive and does not make premature generalisations and abstractions. It therefore leaves room for the kind of theological reflection I hope to pursue.

Esler relocates Paul in the ancient Mediterranean world. Reading him against this background, Paul?s arguments can be seen to be an expression and product of the group-oriented and conflict-ridden culture of the Mediterranean (p. 127). His purpose, broadly speaking, is to establish the identity and honour of his own group over against the identity and honour of his Israelite rivals. Honour is the primary social value and is a limited good, and must therefore be competed for, one group gaining it at the expense of another in a game of challenge-and-response (pp. 127-28). Paul?s letter is precisely such a bid for honour in response to the group that has gained ascendancy in his Galatian congregations, a group which is probably related to the one with which he had already come into conflict in Antioch, and previous to that in Jerusalem — as he narrates in chapter 2. So this challenge-and-response already has something of a history.

Paul must therefore establish the privileged social identity of his own group over against that of his opponents, which he negatively stereotypes (p. 168). His use of the language of righteousness, according to Esler, is precisely to this end. His arguments are an attempt to wrest righteousness from its natural context within the Mosaic Law, claiming on the contrary that it is a prize of belonging to his congregations of Christ-followers (p. 170). The whole letter is as such geared towards this establishment and maintenance of the distinctive and privileged identity of his Galatian congregations.

The specific problem that has given rise to this group rivalry in the first place is, according to Esler, the problem of table-fellowship between Israelites and Gentiles. He argues that central to Paul?s gospel is the freedom with which Israelites and Gentiles can be members of the same congregation, engaging in table-fellowship of one loaf of bread and one cup of wine. Such table-fellowship was something which was prohibited for Israelites, perhaps because of the risk of idolatry entailed (it would have been possible for a Gentile at a Eucharist meal to ?[covert] the wine into an offering for his god by making a surreptitious libation from it, thereby putting the Israelite in peril of idolatry? (p. 107)). The solution to this problem advocated by the Israelite-Christian opposition to Paul (probably backed by the wider Israelite community) was to have the Gentile members of the congregation circumcised, effectively turning them into Israelites.

The specific suffering in the Galatian congregations to which Paul is responding is thus that of the unstable and unclear identity of his mixed Israelite-Gentile congregations, which has come into focus around, and dispute over, the central practice of table-fellowship. This has given rise to fierce group rivalry, which is not only affecting relations between the Galatian congregations and Israelite outgroups, but is erupting within the Galatian congregations themselves: ?But if you bite and devour one another take heed that you are not consumed by one another.? (Gal. 5.15). As we have seen, the Israelite solution is to have the Gentile members circumcised. Paul?s solution is to argue for an alternative identity for his mixed congregations which does not require, indeed seeks actively to dissuade, Gentile converts from becoming Israelites.

This analysis identifies the particular problem to which Paul is responding: the unclear identity of his mixed Israelite-Gentile congregations, and the group rivalry this has given rise to; it identifies further the nature of the game which Paul is having to play: a game of challenge-and-response in which he must bid for the honour of his own group, establishing and maintaining its privileged identity as he understands it. What it does not do is ask after the logic of Paul?s response. What is the nature of the identity Paul is trying to establish for his congregations, and how does he hope by its establishment to contribute to the healing of the suffering in the Galatian congregations?

Patterns in Paul?s Response

My argument in the following will be that Paul?s response to the group rivalry that has broken out in Galatia is not only to establish the identity of his own group over against the opposition, but more fundamentally to address the problem group rivalry itself — by subverting it from within. In other words, my claim will be that Paul defines his group in a way that subverts the competitive group culture that he is at the same time operating within. He is at a deep level concerned with the question ?what is a group?? Trying to discern his answer to this will lead to the identification of the following theological pattern: communal identity in Christ is not possessed but received; it is not a human social construct, but a gift from God. This God is not the possession of any one sector of humanity, but a God who transcends human social boundaries. No group, therefore, can claim exclusive possession of this God. Hence identity Christ, received from God, cannot be claimed at the expense of others. It is not divisive but inclusive. Unlike social honour, the primary value of the Christian community is not a limited good, a good which must therefore be competed for. Thus it dissipates and heals group rivalry. Positively, identity in Christ, as that which transcends human definition and social constitution, is excessive identity .

How does Paul argue for this while himself taking part in the group rivalry in Galatia? I will turn now to look in detail at Paul?s arguments.

Subversion of human rivalry

Paul?s opening chapter headlines the issue of human rivalry. Paul is concerned to show that the gospel he preaches is not just another human gospel, in competition with the others on offer in Galatia. It is ?not from men nor through man, but through Jesus Christ and God the Father?? (1.1); it was not received from man, but came through a revelation of Jesus Christ (1.12). On this reading, Paul is not merely trying to establish the authority of his message as something which has God?s direct sanction. Insofar as it addresses the rivalry question head on, his argument here is not merely preliminary or extraneous to the message itself. It encapsulates what is to come: ?Paul?s? gospel, as God?s, is not one rival gospel among others; it transcends and subverts such human rivalry. It is not ?man?s gospel? (1.11) — not even Paul?s (he acknowledges hypothetically in 1.8 that even he could preach something else) — constructed according to human traditions (1.14). In other words, it does not delineate a humanly defined group (definable according to human social boundaries) which competes for honour with its rivals. As the gospel revealed by God it is not owned by any human being, Paul emphatically included. Any attempt to possess God in this way is antithetical to the message of this gospel, which proclaims a God who cannot be possessed. But what this means, as will emerge more clearly in what follows, is that any claim to be the people of God must be self-subverting.

The subversion at work in Paul?s bid for the honour and status of his congregations can be discovered in his readings of Abraham in chapters 3 and 4.

Abraham as man of faith: faith and law

??Thus Abraham ?believed in God, and it was reckoned to him as righteousness.? So you see that it is men of faith who are the sons of Abraham. And the scripture, foreseeing that God would justify the Gentiles by faith, preached the gospel beforehand to Abraham, saying, ?In you shall all the nations be blessed.? So then, those who are men of faith are blessed with Abraham who had faith.? (3.6-9; quoting Gen. 15.6, then Gen. 12.3/18.18)

Key to the identity that Paul is trying to establish for his congregations is faith, in keeping with Abraham who had faith. Earlier, faith has been contrasted with the law, or the works of the law. ?[We] know that a man is not justified by works of the law but through faith in Jesus Christ?? (2.16). In keeping with Esler?s reading, Paul is clearly attempting to establish the identity of his Jewish-Gentile congregations, defined by faith, over against that of his rival Jewish Christians, who seek to maintain an Israelite identity, defined by law. He seeks to show that it is his Jewish-Gentile congregations, characterised by their faith in Christ, who comprise the true sons of Abraham — for Abraham was singled out for his faith, not for his keeping of the law. And it is they, as a result, who attain the fruit of righteousness — the blessing promised to Abraham?s descendants. This is his bid for the honour of his congregations over and above his rivals. But can Paul?s argument be reduced to this group rivalry? If not, then how does it transcend such rivalry? How, more strongly, does it subvert it?

That we are not dealing simply with a positivistic opposition between faith and law is suggested by the fact that Paul?s supposedly law-free congregations are not so obviously law-free. Or better put, they continue to have some relationship with the law.

?Now before faith came, we were confined under the law, kept under restraint until faith should be revealed. So that the law was our custodian until Christ came, that we might be justified by faith. But now that faith has come, we are no loner under a custodian; for in Christ Jesus you are all sons of God, through faith.? (3.23-5)

The extraordinary thing here is that not only are Paul?s congregations not free of all relationship to the law, but the Gentile members have gained a relationship to the law by virtue of their joining of this community. This verse asserts only a relationship to a law in their past; but even this is very different from being law-free: they have gained a history in which the law plays a central part. They are defined as ones who used to have the law as their custodian. But this relationship to the law also extends into their present. 4:21: ?Tell me, you who desire to be under law, do you not hear the law?? Paul, explicitly here in Galatians 4, but also in chapter 3 and elsewhere, makes his case by arguing from the law ; the law, that is, as Israel?s scripture. Indeed, by arguing that his congregations are sons of Abraham, he seeks to establish for his community a scriptural identity. They are the ones that scripture spoke about beforehand (3.8); scripture tells of their history. This is now their scripture. That they are no longer under the custodian of the law does not rule out this relationship to the law as scripture. Faith, one might say, involves a different way of relating to the law : might we say relation to the law as scripture but no longer as legal code ? We must wait to see how this unfolds below.

Abraham?s excessive identity: law and promise

Paul?s argument concerning Abraham in chapter 3 continues in vv. 15-18 with the distinction between promise and law. The law that comes 430 years after the promise made to Abraham is clearly to be identified as the Sinaitic Law, the law as legal code (and not as scripture as a whole). It is this which the promise predates and exceeds. Israel?s identity, as it is traced back to Abraham, thus exceeds its identity as specified in and constituted by the legal code. Paul?s Israelite rivals, so we infer, want to restrict God?s people to those who live by the law — whose lives are regulated by the legal code. It is for this reason that they seek to compel the Gentiles in Paul?s congregations to be circumcised. Paul, by contrast, argues that the identity of God?s people goes deeper than its legal identity, being rooted in God?s promise to Abraham. This transcends any legal identity and so cannot be made conditional on obedience to the law.

How might such an argument be intended to subvert the culture of group rivalry which Paul inhabits? The legal code might be said to be that which identifies a natural, inner-worldly community, defined by politics and cult, and therefore a community limited to one sector of humanity. Paul?s argument is that the identity of the people of God, as sons of Abraham, exceeds any such limited community. It exceeds, more broadly, its identity as humanly defined — its social and political constitution. Mapped onto Paul?s contrast in chapter 1, the legal code (when detached from the promise) characterises man?s gospel — a gospel of human construction; and the promise characterises the gospel which cannot be owned by any particular human community, pointing to the God who cannot be possessed.

This would suggest that the Abraham of faith is an Abraham of excessive identity : Abraham cannot be claimed exclusively by any group. He has an identity which transcends any humanly constructed identity. But this means that any group claiming Abraham as their ancestor must be self-subverting as a humanly constructed group — as a group over against others. This is what it means to say that they are justified by faith and not by works . To be justified by works would be to claim righteousness on the basis of one?s social identity: ?I belong to this group, therefore I am justified.? To be righteous by faith means, by contrast, to be constituted by God?s promise, which exceeds group identity; and so to have an excessive identity , an identity which transcends any human definition. More concretely, this identity is to be the recipient of God?s promise. Such an identity is received but not possessed.

A subversive reading of Abraham?s genealogy

Paul elaborates his argument that Abraham cannot be claimed exclusively by any group by way of a reading of Abraham?s genealogy.

?Abraham had two sons, one by a slave and one by a free woman. But the son of the slave was born according to the flesh, the son of the free woman through promise. Now this is an allegory: these women are two covenants. One is from Mount Sinai, bearing children for slavery; she is Hagar. Now Hagar is Mount Sinai in Arabia; she corresponds to the present Jerusalem; for she is in slavery with her children. But the Jerusalem above is free, and she is our mother.? (4.21-26)

Paul identifies his rivals as sons according to the flesh (cf. vv. 28-29). Moses and the law, here represented by Mount Sinai and the present Jerusalem, are associated with Hagar and slavery. Paul?s own congregations, by contrast, are identified as sons according to the promise, and so sons of the free woman, the Jerusalem above. Is this just another rivalrous bid for honour? It might seem so until we notice that the opposition is asymmetrical: whereas the slave woman is assigned both a name and a place, the free woman is assigned neither (other than the Jerusalem above, which serves simply to exacerbate the contrast by not being locatable). The genealogies would seem to follow different logics. That from the slave woman can be traced through name and place; it is a genealogy of natural descent, issuing in a humanly defined identity. It is predictable and closed. The promise, by contrast, cannot be confined to the humanly predictable; it instantiates a genealogy, not of natural descent, but of unexpected non-sequiturs.

The quotation of Isaiah 54.1 in 4.27 serves to intensify the oddity of the genealogy of the promise: the many children of the barren and desolate one exceed the children of her that is married. Just as in Romans chapter 11, where contrary to nature Gentiles are grafted into the olive tree, so does Abraham?s genealogy multiply ?contrary to nature?. Grace reaches to places where it was not expected, exceeding natural boundaries. The pattern of God?s election is to confound human expectation, such that the promise cannot be confined to the humanly imaginable. Thus to claim Abraham as one?s father is not to exclude others from one?s family. If God?s promise extends even to the Gentiles, then who does it not extend to? Thus to claim to be a son of Abraham is not to claim a privileged human identity, but to point to one?s reception, beyond this, of a promise which is in principle extended to all. It is therefore not to claim possession of anything, but rather to subvert the claim that Abraham as father can be possessed by any one group over against another.

Life in the flesh versus life according to the promise

But what does the distinction between life according to the promise and life according to the flesh look like in practice? There are several places from which we glean how Paul views life lived according to a purely human identity.

?It is those who want to make a good showing in the flesh that would compel you to be circumcised, and only in order that they may not be persecuted for the cross of Christ. For even those who receive circumcision do not themselves keep the law, but they desire to have you circumcised that they may glory in your flesh.? (6.12-13)

They compete for their honour, seeking to bolster their identity, by compelling the Gentiles to be circumcised. They are dependent for their identity on these others, without whose approval and compliance it will remain precarious. Such a situation is described well by Rowan Williams, who is drawing on Ernest Becker: ?Our problem is ? the overcoming of dependence by dependence . ? To shore up our sense of independence, we intensify our dependence on those external factors which assure us of worth or meaning, while denying more and more stridently that we are involved in dependence at all.? [vii]

Not only is the independence achieved an illusory good, creating a vicious circle of attempts to secure it, but the others over against whom this independence is achieved are turned into mere instruments, conscripted into the projects of others. This is captured by Gal. 4.17: ?They make much of you, but for no good purpose; they want to shut you out, that you may make much of them.? Described here is mutual instrumentalisation. The Galatians and the Israelite Christians enter into relationship with one another only in service of their respective identities. Each is defined exclusively in terms of the other. They are means to each others ends. Members of each group are reduced to pawns within the other group?s world, objects of manipulation and abuse. In other words, the relation is not one of embrace in which the other is accepted in all her unpredictable otherness; she is consequently ?shut out? in her true otherness. The groups are locked in a demeaning and self-evacuating battle. As Paul later says of the Galatians: ?But if you bite and devour one another take heed that you are not consumed by one another.? (5.15)

What, by contrast, does life lived according to the promise look like? What does it mean to receive and acknowledge one?s excessive identity? The outworking of this identity, as Paul understands it, is described in chapters 5 and 6. ?For you were called to freedom, brethren; only do not use your freedom as an opportunity for the flesh, but through love be servants of one another.? (5.13); ?Bear one another?s burdens, and so fulfil the law of Christ.? (6.2). Initially striking is the paradoxical nature of this task: true freedom is expressed through slavery. Having drawn a contrast between slavery and freedom, assigning the former to his rivals and the latter to his own congregations, Paul complicates this simple contrast. As he plays the game he also subverts it from within. The identity he is rejecting is precisely the games-playing identity. But the only way he can show this is by taking up the language and turning it on its head. The opposition between freedom and slavery is reconfigured, subverted and transcended. True freedom is not set over against true slavery or service. The opposition only exists from the point of view of the world of slavery.

But the new kind of slavery is very different from the old. The old involves competitive identities in which each instrumentalises the other, reducing the other to an object. The new involves an existence, not in defence against the other, but for the other. Mutual devouring is transformed into mutual giving, where each recognises the other as subject who addresses me: where each is loved as oneself (5.14), as another I. Fundamental to this shift is a recognition that we are constituted precisely in relation to each other. Rowan Williams again describes the crucial distinction. Following Sebastian Moore, he suggests that ?our need to imagine ourselves as agents or givers [is] a need to know we exist for another .This is a crucial insight: it implies that to imagine ourselves as agents by imagining ourselves as self-regulating individuals is to misconceive our fundamental need, which is for identity in relation, conversation, mutual recognition. ? To think ourselves as agents or subjects is to think of ourselves as addressed or contemplated. [viii]

A logic of dispossession and excess

But this shift — from envisaging others as in competition with me to envisaging our agency and freedom as mutually constitutive is rooted in another, more fundamental, recognition: that of our ultimate rootedness in God, dependence on whom is freedom and not slavery. In the terms of Galatians, it is God who justifies — by our faith in him (3.8). It is God?s promise to Abraham and God?s blessing of the nations in Abraham (3.8) that establishes an alternative genealogy and alternative logic. It is only in the light of this promise that we may come to recognise the other as having an identity which is not in competition with mine. It is the excessive nature of the promise, overflowing into the unlikeliest of places, which subverts the competitive group culture by overcoming the either/or of human identity and establishing instead a principle of abundance and non-exclusivity.

In other words, it is only because I first receive my identity from God, before I even begin the search for it, that I do not need to guard my identity against conscription into the projects of others. For in transcendence and excess of these human negotiations and constructions of identity is my non-negotiable identity rooted in God. As Williams says: ?[b]efore we are looked at, spoken to, acted on, we are , because of the look, the word, the act of God. ? [Our] reality is not and cannot be either earned by us or eroded by others.? [ix] God alone is the guarantor of my own identity in excess of these creaturely negotiations, because ?God alone is beyond the precarious exchanges of creatures who need affirmation. With God alone, I am dealing with what does not need to construct or negotiate an identity, what is free to be itself without the process of struggle.? [x]

The logic of non-competition goes hand in hand with the logic that has been gradually emerging in the course of this paper: that of dispossession and excess. My possession of something means that someone else doesn?t possess it: it is always at the expense of others. An identity which I receive, by contrast, is a gift which may also be given to others. It therefore exceeds boundaries. More than this, it subverts such boundaries, dispossessing me of that which I claimed as mine at the expense of others. In the present connection, just as I cannot claim exclusive possession of Abraham, so I must recognise that God is not just my God; he is not just the God of ?his people?. As this God he is also the God of others, his promise extending beyond and exceeding any humanly constructed bounds. To be the people of God, therefore, means precisely to be dispossessed of this God, to ?be prepared to lose the God who is ?our? God?, as Williams puts it. [xi]

But this may allow us to draw some conclusions about this people?s relationship with the law. Could it be that Israel?s vocation as the people of God is ultimately worked out in terms of its being dispossessed of the law? This would not mean cut off from all relation to the law; but it would mean relating to the law differently. The law has up to this point acted as a boundary marker, precisely to separate Israel off from the nations. But the law also points to the God who is also God of the nations. How can this law be read in a way which recognises that it may also be read by others; that it may signify differently for these others? How, in other words, can the law be a sign of excess? I have suggested above that Paul?s solution to this is to suggest that the law is no longer operative as legal code, but is nevertheless still operative as scripture. It is no longer prescriptive; but it may serve as a narrative and ethical resource, with the potential for multiple signification. [xii]

This logic of dispossession and excess is worked out by Paul in terms of identity in Christ. ?I have been crucified with Christ; it is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me; and the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me.? (2.20). Being crucified with Christ, on this interpretation, is to die to the antagonistic struggle between creatures. It is to die to the logic of competitive agency and to discover a deeper mutuality in Christ. In Christ one is no longer set in opposition to different others, but discovers there a deeper unity. ?There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is neither male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus.? (3.28) Christ is the excessive identity of both the Jew and the Gentile, transforming self-enclosed, mutually exhaustive relations into relations in which each party, in its true otherness, always signifies more. Christ is this excessive significance.

Paul?s ?solution?

This identification gives us the key to Paul?s ?solution? to group rivalry in Galatia. At base, this rivalry is being caused by the way in which the Jew/Gentile distinction is being conceived and enacted. Paul?s ?solution? is intrinsically bound up with the ?overcoming? of this fundamental division in Christ. However, all that has already been said by way of explication of Paul?s arguments should prevent us from reading this ?overcoming? as the replacement of the particular, distinctive identities of the Jew and the Gentile by a ?universal identity? in which all particularities are ironed out. [xiii] The unity of Jew and Greek in Christ is not the unity of sameness; it is rather a unity in which difference no longer means opposition.

Paul?s response to group rivalry in Galatia, in other words, is not simply to step outside of it, constructing a harmonious alternative from scratch. Rather, he subverts it from within. But this has significant ramifications for his relationship with his own Jewish tradition. He does not step outside of it and start again from scratch — in Christ. Instead, he understands Christ as an agent of repair — one who has come to heal this tradition from within. While this healing may involve radical disruption, reconfiguring the tradition?s most fundamental categories, it does not involve jettisoning and starting again. Thus, Paul proceeds, not by rejecting Israelite particularity, but by arguing that Israel?s identity is not confined to a natural, inner-worldly community, defined by politics and cult, by law as legal code; by arguing that the true Israel is not confined to one sector of humanity, whatever the disputes over how to define this one sector.

We see how particularity is retained in the following ways. His new community has Abraham as its father; it has a specific genealogy. In this community the Israelite law is not simply replaced by faith, but is transformed into a sign of excess. More specifically, the community?s self-understanding is worked out by a continued grappling with the law as scripture. Paul seeks to show that his community is the true continuation and outworking of the people of Israel — even if this continuation and outworking involves subversion. Instead of shedding particularity, this community transcends from within its particularity the distinction between Israel and the nations, between Jew and Gentile. It does so, however, not by wiping out the distinction between Jew and Gentile, but by setting in motion a dynamic crossing of the boundaries.

In sum, the logic of dispossession is not a logic of replacement, and the logic of excess is not a logic of universality. Paul?s logic is a logic of repair , rooted in Christ, the healer of the people of Israel and the healer the nations. My reading of him as reparative reasoner has sought to do justice to this by being attentive to the particular problems he is addressing and the particular ways in which he responds, seeking the deeper theological patterns of his reasoning only as they emerge out of these particulars.

Ways forward

I have not attempted in this paper to move from the problems Paul was facing in Galatia to analogous problems faced by us today. However, the particular categories I have used to delineate his theology already contain within themselves implicit attempts to identify such analogies. To read Paul according to categories not his own — i.e. to read Paul at all with interpretive understanding — already presupposes analogies between his situation and ours. The ability to identify in Paul?s arguments concern over boundaries is no doubt linked with our inhabiting of a pluralist culture which in its own way is also concerned with boundaries. Thus it will not be surprising if Paul has something to say to us about something like inter-faith dialogue, a concern which was not his own but may be found to have analogy with his own concerns. Perhaps even more obviously, our reading of Paul in terms of the relation between particularity and universality will have ramifications for the problem of supersessionism today. It is for the purpose of tackling such current problems that Paul must be read: as the living word of God for us today.


[i] I draw in this paper on an unpublished piece produced from these meetings by the three participants, entitled ??For Freedom Christ has Set Us Free?: Galatians, Semiotics and Abusive Relations.?

[ii] See, among other works, James D.G. Dunn, The Epistle to the Galatians (London: A. & C. Black, 1993).

[iii] Cf. Stephen Westerholm, Perspectives Old and New on Paul: The ?Lutheran? Paul and His Critics (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Eerdmans, 2004), pp. 250-51.

[iv] See Daniel Boyarin, A Radical Jew: Paul and the Politics of Identity (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1994).

[v] I owe this concept to Nicholas Adams.

[vi] Philip F. Esler, Galatians (London: Routledge, 1998).

[vii] Rowan Williams, ?On Being Creatures?, in On Christian Theology (Oxford: Blackwell, 2000), p. 70.

[viii] Ibid., p. 71.

[ix] Ibid., p. 72.

[x] Ibid., p. 72.

[xi] On Christian Theology , p. 99.

[xii] One potentially interesting corollary of this understanding of law — as scripture which is also read by others, and read differently — is that it has to acknowledge the ongoing possibility of reading it as legal code. The route that Rabbinic Judaism took is different from Paul?s, but it may have been an attempt to repair the Jewish tradition analogous to Paul?s, resulting also in an understanding of the law as sign of excess.

[xiii] Contra Boyarin, A Radical Jew .

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