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Who is Galations 6:13 referring to?

Galatians 6:13 | NIV

[13] Not even those who are circumcised keep the law, yet they want you to be circumcised that they may boast about your circumcision in the flesh.
  • Did Elijah or John the Baptist not actively observe Torah?
  • Did Paul's own mentor Rabban Gamaliel not actively observe Torah?
  • Did James the brother of Jesus not actively observe Torah?

If Paul is not referring to the prophets, the sanhedrin or church leaders, then who is Galatians 6:13 referring to?

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    'Those who are circumcised' is the class of all circumcised persons. A subset of that class are attempting to persuade gentiles to be circumcised. I think that is extremely clear from the text. Paul refers copiously to the law in his epistles and it is abundantly clear that none keeps the law, according to Paul's writings. – Nigel J Jan 28 at 20:35
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Gal 6:13 is discussing a group of people who wanted the new Gentile Christians in Galatia to keep the Jewish law of sacrifices and be circumcised. The Jerusalem council decided (correctly) that this was unnecessary.

despite this, there were some were still urging that the old Jewish ceremonial law be kept and observed.

Gal 6:12, 13 makes this quite clear:

Those who want to make a good impression outwardly are trying to compel you to be circumcised. They only do this to avoid persecution for the cross of Christ. For the circumcised do not even keep the law themselves, yet they want you to be circumcised that they may boast in your flesh.

Note that Paul makes it quite clear that no one can keep the law of any description perfectly as Barnes comments here:

For neither they themselves who are circumcised - The Jewish teachers, or perhaps all Jews. It was true in general that the Jews did not wholly and entirely obey the Law of Moses, but it is probable that the apostle refers particularly here to the judaizing teachers in Galatia. Keep the law - The Law of Moses, or the Law of God. Paul's idea is, that if they were circumcised they brought themselves under obligation to keep the whole law of God; see the note at Galatians 5:3. But they did not do it.

(1) no person perfectly observes the whole law of God.

(2) the Jewish nation as such were very far from doing it.

(3) it is probable that these persons did not pretend even to keep the whole Law of Moses.

Paul insists on it that if they were circumcised, and depended on that for salvation, they were under obligation to keep the whole law. But they did not. Probably they did not offer sacrifice, or join in any of the numerous observances of the Jewish nation, except some of the more prominent, such as circumcision. This, says Paul, is inconsistent in the highest degree; and they thus show their insincerity and hypocrisy.

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"those who are circumcised" refer to the teachers of the different gospel, the "Judaizers". Please see my answer to your other question on Gal 1:7-9.

From the Anchor Yale Commentary on the Galatians by J. Louis Martyn on Gal 6:12-13:

Reading 6:12–13 in the context of these earlier references, we see that, just as the Teachers are persecuting Paul, so they themselves would be subjected to persecution were they to follow his example, preaching the cross in such a way as to forgo the demand that Gentiles be circumcised. Presumably, then, their persecutors would be the False Brothers and their cohorts in the circumcision party, persons now possessing considerable power in the church of Jerusalem (Comment #46). In fact, Paul says, intent on escaping that persecution, the Teachers are constructing a sheltered position by boasting to the False Brothers that they are succeeding in circumcising a large number of Gentile converts (6:13). In reporting to the False Brothers, the Teachers may be saying in essence:

We are proud of the fruit of our mission, no less here in Galatia than elsewhere. Many of the Galatians, although previously misled by Paul, are now being circumcised, are keeping the food laws, and are observing the holy times, thus coming under the blessed wings of the Shekinah. God be praised!

Whatever the language, Paul sees in it a falsification of the truth of the gospel. He responds, therefore, with biting sarcasm, saying to the Galatians: “The Teachers are not really concerned with your welfare (4:17). They are actually interested only in currying favor with a powerful group in the Jerusalem church, thus avoiding the wrath of that group.”

Why did Paul charged them with not keeping the law if they were teaching the Gentiles to follow the OT law, even in the new covenant? Two possible explanations from the same commentary on Gal 6:13 on the phrase "do not even keep the Law themselves!":

Two possible readings of this charge are worth mentioning. (a) Pursuing their mission in Gentile lands, the Teachers may find that they cannot keep every commandment. Writing in the second century, Justin has the Jew Trypho (whom he places in Ephesus) say that it is impossible for him truly to sacrifice the paschal lamb, for that precept of the Law can be performed only in Jerusalem (Justin Dial. 46). (b) Alternatively, the Teachers may be like the Jewish Christians criticized in the epistle of James, who to some degree pick and choose among the commandments, deciding—for whatever reasons—which ones they will observe (Jas 2:10; 4:11). In the Note on Gal 5:3 we have already mentioned the possibility that the Teachers are extending to the Galatians a certain flexibility, requiring circumcision, food laws, and the observance of holy times, while leaving aside numerous other parts of the Law. Perhaps the Teachers are allowing themselves a similar flexibility, being nevertheless convinced in their own minds that they are fully observant of the Law.

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No one can keep the law, and no one has ever been able to keep the law, with the one exception of Christ, of whom the law is a prophecy. As is written:

“And all Israel transgressed your law and turned aside so as not to listen to your voice, and so the curse and the oath which was written in the law of Moses, the servant of God, has been poured out upon us, because we have sinned against him." Dan. 9.11

And again

"Egypt, Judah, and Edom, and the Ammonites, and Moab, and all those who are trimmed to the side, those who live in the desert, for all the nations are uncircumcised, and all the house of Israel are uncircumcised of heart.” Jer 9.26

And also Jer 17.9

The heart is deceitful more than anything else, and it is disastrous. Who can understand it?

Jesus, speaking to the Pharisees:

‘Did not Moses give you the law, and yet none of you keepeth the law? Why go ye about to kill me?’

The only possible way to keep the law today, or in the day of Moses, or in the day the letter of Galatians was written, is by faith in Christ, relying on his obedience of the law rather than your own efforts.

All of us have wandered about like sheep; we each have turned to his own way; and Yahweh let fall on him the iniquity of us all.

He was oppressed and afflicted, yet he did not open his mouth; he was brought like a lamb to the slaughter, and like a sheep is dumb before its shearers, so he did not open his mouth.

Only Christ has kept the law and only Christ keeps the law today.

Return, we beseech thee, O God of hosts: look down from heaven, and behold, and visit this vine: and the vineyard which thy right hand hath planted, and the branch that thou madest strong for thyself. It is burnt with fire, it is cut down: they perish at the rebuke of thy countenance. Let thy hand be upon the man of thy right hand, upon the son of man whom thou madest strong for thyself. So will not we go back from thee: quicken us, and we will call upon thy name. Turn us again, O LORD God of hosts, cause thy face to shine, and we shall be saved. Psalm 80.14-19

In that sense, all Christians who are crucified with Christ and are "quickened" with Christ born in them keep the law perfectly as well, because Christ is the prophecy and fulfillment of the law, but this is the only possible way to keep the law, and this has always been the only possible way to keep the law.

The idea that there is a middle category of "observant" people who take a handful of the commandments (skipping the animal sacrifices as the Temple was destroyed, and half the feasts, and the sabbath years and jubilee years because of loopholes) and do their best, and that such behavior is acceptable for keeping the law from their own contrivances and the little sparks they have kindled -- this not treated kindly in either the law or the prophets, as the law can only ever be kept by faith in the Holy One, not by our own efforts:

But the word of the LORD was unto them precept upon precept, precept upon precept, line upon line, line upon line, here a little, and there a little: that they might go, and fall backward, and be broken, and snared, and taken. Is. 28.13

And again:

Who is among you that feareth the LORD, that obeyeth the voice of his servant, that walketh in darkness and hath no light? let him trust in the name of the LORD, and stay upon his God. Behold, all ye that kindle a fire, that compass yourselves about with sparks: walk in the light of your fire, and in the sparks that ye have kindled. This shall ye have of my hand, ye shall lie down in sorrow. Isa 50.11

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