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In the Letter to the Galatians, the apostle Paul writes:

Galatians 5:7-12: "You were running well; who hindered you from obeying the truth? 8This persuasion did not come from Him who calls you. 9A little leaven leavens the whole lump of dough. 10I have confidence in you in the Lord that you will adopt no other view; but the one who is disturbing you will bear his judgment, whoever he is. 11But I, brethren, if I still preach circumcision, why am I still persecuted? Then the stumbling block of the cross has been abolished. 12I wish that those who are troubling you would even mutilate themselves" (emphasis added).

These words seem a bit out of character by Paul. Do we know if there is a reason for such strong language? I believe I must be missing something.

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GAL 5:12 As for those agitators, I wish they would go the whole way and emasculate themselves!

There is quite a bit of debate among scholars as to what Paul meant here. The Phillips New Testament states, “I wish those who are so eager to cut your bodies would cut themselves off from you altogether!”

Other scholars believe that Paul was referring to the act of castration. They think Paul was saying, “I would that those who want you circumcised were castrated themselves.”

Regardless of which of these meanings is correct, it is clear that Paul was wishing that the Judaizers were removed from the Galatians so that they would no longer be a problem to them.

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  • Imagine a circumcision. One bit is discarded. That's the bit Paul wants them to be. 'I would they would cut themselves off' refers to the discarded bit.
    – Nigel J
    Aug 11 '21 at 17:29
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It was more of his habitual wordplay or connecting chains of thoughts using same word, here cutting or mutilation for circumcision. He is cursing them that they should emasculated themselves. This pertains more to the the wordplay than cursing. The cursing is not serious but rhetorical. I am searching for the particular name of that wordplay technique but haven't found it yet.

Danker lexicon:

ἀποϰόπτω [ἀπό, κόπτω] cut off Mk 9:43, 45; J 18:10, 26; Ac 27:32; mid. in special sense castrate oneself, have oneself castrated Gal 5:12 (cp. Deuteronomy 23:1).

             BDAG3:

to cut so as to make a separation, cut off, cut away

ⓐ of body parts (Hom. et al.; Hdt. 6, 91 χεῖρας; Diod S 17, 20, 7 ἀπέκοψε τὴν χεῖρα; Dt 25:12; Judg 1:6f; Jos., Bell. 6, 164, Vi. 177) Mk 9:43, 45 (Epict 2, 5, 24 of ἀποκόπτειν the foot ὑπὲρ τοῦ ὅλου; cp. Ael. Aristid. 48, 27 K.=24 p. 472 D.: παρατέμνειν one limb ὑπὲρ σωτηρίας of the whole body); ear J 18:10, 26 (on the implications of mutilation cp. Lev 21:16–23; BViviano, RB 96, ’89, 71–80). Private parts implied make a eunuch of, castrate (Lucian, Eunuch. 8; Cass. Dio 79, 11; Dt 23:2; Philo, Leg. All. 3, 8, Spec. Leg. 1, 325; Theoph. Ant. 3, 8 [p. 222, 3]) mid. (Epict. 2, 20, 19; §317; Rob. 809) ὄφελον καὶ ἀποκόψονται would that they might make eunuchs of themselves Gal 5:12. So interpr. by many since Chrysostom and Ambrosiaster, also PDebouxhtay, RevÉtGr 39, 1926, 323–26 (against ChBruston, ibid. 36, 1923, 193f); GDuncan, Gal ’34, 154; 161.

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    +1 I was thinking along the same line of reasoning :)
    – Tony Chan
    Aug 11 '21 at 14:44
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In ministering to the Galatians who were gentile converts, Paul encountered interference from those that taught that circumcision was a requirement for salvation. The false teaching troubled (inflicted emotional distress and confusion on) the new converts.

...there be some that trouble you, and would pervert the gospel of Christ. Galatians 1:7

Seeking the help of his fellow ministers, Paul, along with Peter, James, and Barnabas shared in a collaborative letter to the Galatians how to overcome the legalistic teaching and emotional distress.

Forasmuch as we have heard, that certain which went out from us have troubled you with words, subverting your souls, saying, Ye must be circumcised, and keep the law: to whom we gave no such commandment: Acts 15:24

The collaborative letter reassured the new converts that Paul, Barnabas, and the others had no association or harmony with those teaching circumcision, and that they should consider their teaching subversive and without authority.

I would they were even cut off which trouble you. Galatians 5:12

Paul’s reassurance ministered freedom from bondage to the Galatian believers so that the false teachers would be “cut off” (not by the intention of bodily harm, but) from access to inflict emotional distress by false teaching. He was then able to teach them the details of serving and correcting one another in love, and of living quality lives of spiritual fruitfulness.

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Note the context of the early part of Gal 5:1-4 -

It is for freedom that Christ has set us free. Stand firm, then, and do not be encumbered once more by a yoke of slavery. Take notice: I, Paul, tell you that if you let yourselves be circumcised, Christ will be of no value to you at all. Again I testify to every man who gets himself circumcised that he is obligated to obey the whole law. You who are trying to be justified by the law have been severed from Christ; you have fallen away from grace.

Paul is quite frustrated to the point of being angry! He is being very frack and blunt - the grace of Christ has no value to people who try to earn salvation by the works of the law (including circumcision). Because, "Therefore no one will be justified in His sight by works of the law." (Rom 3:20).

Paul then takes the legalistic argument of working for salvation (instead of by grace) to the extreme to make a point. His statement in V11, 12 -

Brothers and sisters, if I am still preaching circumcision, why am I still being persecuted? In that case the offense of the cross has been abolished. As for those agitators, I wish they would go the whole way and emasculate themselves!

That is, if your are trying to earn God's favor by circumcision, why stop at circumcision? Why not go the whole way and cut the whole thing off?!

The point is clear - no matter how much we do, we can never earn God's love because we already have it. The above just show how stupid and fruitless the legalists are!

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  • Very interesting response. + 1.
    – Xeno
    Aug 11 '21 at 6:07
  • @Dottard - Would the act of placing wedding rings on fingers be stupid to earn a spouse's love? - Should not the verbal vow of love for one's spouse be enough instead of the stupid notion of rings? - Perhaps physical signs of one's devotion actually matter in a physical world to help remind others of one's spiritual bond to their family. Aug 11 '21 at 13:11
  • @חִידָה - I fully agree - symbolism is VERY important! Further, I have no problem with those who are circumcised (it provides some important practical functions that are of great benefit.) The problem with Paul was his frustration with those who insisted that it is essential to be one of God's people. The Jerusalem council disagreed and said it was unnecessary. Paul was angry with who still insisted upon it.
    – Dottard
    Aug 11 '21 at 21:34

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