For The Someday Book

Book Review: Galatians Re-Imagined

Posted on: August 15, 2014

Galatians Re-Imagined: Reading with the Eyes of the Vanquished, by Brigitte Kahl, Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 2010, 413 pp.

Galatians Re-ImaginedThis is one of the most scholarly works I have endeavored to read in a long time. I heard Walter Brueggemann discuss it at a talk in February, and it sounded fascinating. Since I had a preaching challenge on Galatians during March (an ecumenical Lenten series with six preachers in consecutive weeks preaching on the same text in Galatians 4), I decided to give it a try. I read about two-thirds of the book in time for the sermon preparation, but it took another two months to finish the rest of it. It was intense reading, and completely worth it.

Brigitte Kahl aims to revolutionize our understanding of the letter to the Galatians by setting it in the context of the Roman empire and re-imagining the heated debate about followers of the Law and the Spirit. Her evidence and her argument are dense and complex, but compelling. It fits within the larger movement of biblical scholars to re-inscribe the New Testament books in their context of the Roman Empire, not just Judaism. By examining the Roman context of art, rhetoric and social status, Kahl connects the first century Galatians to the Gauls, the iconic vanquished people upon whom the Empire was built. The outcome is a reading of Galatians as a radical call from Paul for all subjugated peoples (Galatians, Jews, slaves, women and Others) to unite in the way of love and peace set forth by Christ, over and against the Roman way of power, conquest and violence. This has critical importance for understanding the idea of justification by faith rather than by works of the law.  That idea has been a bulwark of Protestant theology and a weapon against Judaism, and it traces its biblical roots to Galatians.

To put Kahl’s argument simply (and it is not a simple argument), what if the Law that Paul opposes so vigorously in Galatians is not the Torah, but the Roman law that governed every aspect of daily life in the Mediterranean? The opposition that he establishes, then, is not between various ways of following God, but between those who follow the path of violence and conquest as a means to power, and those who subvert the domination systems by forming allegiances among vanquished peoples, not to exact revenge or exercise power, but to show that the Law (of Rome) is powerless over them by living as one community together.

Kahl arrives conclusively at this interpretation through what she calls a “critical re-imagining.” This critical re-imagining examines the Roman context with breadth and depth—looking closely not just at written materials, but at the wider environment, including rituals, public spaces and works of art. Kahl dedicates much of the book to an analysis of the Great Altar at Pergamon, a giant mythological symbol of the Roman quest for power that she sees as key to unlocking the ideology at work in Paul’s environment. While she returns to the Great Altar as an image, illustration and interpretive key throughout the book, she builds her case in a variety of ways. She begins with a chapter on the images of Dying Gauls in Roman art, establishing the Gauls as the prototypical barbarian Other whose conquest gives life and legitimacy to Roman power. She then connects this need for a vanquished Other to the Galatians, tying them together with the Gauls through a shared Celtic history and reputation as ruthless, lawless and threatening order.

From there, Kahl dedicates an entire chapter to a semiotic analysis of the Great Altar at Pergamon, showing how its representations inscribe necessary hierarchies. She then dives deep into analysis of Roman imperial religion and imperial power in Galatia during the time of Paul, including civic construction projects and cultural manifestations intended to instantiate and legitimate Roman rule.

The fifth chapter tackles the issue of circumcision in Galatians. This chapter felt like the biggest interpretive stretch to me, but she won me over. Kahl returns to the Great Altar at Pergamon to discuss resurrection. How can the defeated Gauls find resurrection? By submitting themselves to the law of Rome. Circumcision for the Gentiles of Galatia, she argues, is a form of submission to Roman law, because it would give them protected status as Jews, the only religious minority not required to submit to imperial religion. It would be an obedience to the Roman law, an attempt for resurrection and new life in the Roman system.

The appropriate form of association and community between Galatians and Jews under Roman auspices is totally dependent on the imperial intermediary. The divine Caesar alone was entitled to set the terms and conditions for licit interactions between Jews and Galatians, not his crucified antagonist.
Messianic Galatians who still had their foreskins yet did not participate in civic and imperial worship because of their allegiance to a God other than Caesar were an anomaly that challenged the most fundamental principles of the imperial cosmos. (242)

Rome rules by dividing conquered people against one another, but Christ’s word of love unites them together to subvert Roman power and victory with unity and mutuality.

Only in Chapter 6, with this enormous background, does Kahl begin to comment directly on a reinterpretation of the book of Galatians, section by section. By her reading, Galatians is laying claim to an alternative way of life based on mutuality over against Roman law of conformity and conquest.

Justification by faith is the foundational proclamation that Christ-faith cannot coexist with the old separation between us/Jews and them/Gentile sinners, which builds up again what was torn down by and in Christ. … Faith, on the other hand, equalizes self and other and puts both into a horizontal relationship of community and solidarity without  “boasting.” (280)

The concluding chapter looks at the way Nero used Christians to replace the Gauls as the vanquished ones, blaming them for the great fires that destroyed Rome in the first century. Although she does not cite him, this argument reminds me of Rene Girard’s work on how community identity is built around a scapegoat, who is blamed for all the problems and whose sacrifice is key to establishing order and peace.

Kahl’s argument is dense, detailed and profound. I have not done it justice in this short review, but it is well worth your time and investment to read if you care about Pauline studies and New Testament interpretation. Her argument is absolutely compelling to me, but I struggle with how to make use of it in the context of preaching. How can I possibly undo years of preexisting ideas about Paul, justification by faith, the conflict between faith and law, and everything else, without resorting to a work as lengthy and detailed as hers? I’m not sure, but I’m trying even now as I preach a series on Paul’s letter to the Philippians.

 

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About Me

I am a full-time pastor in the United Church of Christ, mother of a young child (B.), married to an aspiring academic and curmudgeon (J.). I live by faith, intuition and intellect. I follow politics, football and the Boston Red Sox. I like to talk about progressive issues, theological concerns, church life, the impact of technology and media, pop culture and books.

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