Paul, Circumcision, and Self-mutilation in Gal 5:12 (rated PG)

Paul uses the verb ἀποκόπτω in Galatians 5:12 to describe what he wishes those who are troubling the Galatians would do to themselves. Without a doubt this is strong language, expressing something that strikes the reader as revolting: “I wish those agitators would go so far as to cut off their own genitals!” This emotional utterance expresses Paul’s frustration in no uncertain terms. To put it bluntly, why stop with just the foreskin? If cutting off a part of the body is what God wants, go all the way and cut the whole thing off. Beneath the emotion, however, is subtle rhetoric on Paul’s part; it is in a sense a valid reductio ad absurdum because it shows the extreme result of allowing the validity of circumcision. Self-mutilation is the logical end of requiring circumcision for the Galatians to be part of God’s people, but the problem is not in the self-mutilation itself but the result it brings. The word Paul uses here to describe the action of self-mutilation (ἀποκόπτω) is the same one used in the Septuagint to describe particular men who are prohibited from entering the assembly: “A eunuch or man with severed genitals may not enter the assembly of the Lord” (Deut 23:2 in the LXX, Deut 23:1 in the English text). The first group is described with the word θλαδίας, “eunuch,” and the second is described with the word ἀποκόπτω. With this word linkage Paul’s point in his powerful statement is clear: Requiring circumcision in obedience to the Law is a self-defeating proposition. It leads only to self-mutilation, which ultimately restricts one from fulfilling the Law. Circumcision is ultimately a dead end. Those who emphasize circumcision for the Galatians essentially ensure that the Galatians will never be able to fulfill the Law! It is only faith in Christ which leads to fulfillment and freedom; anything else is ultimately self-destructive. For that reason the message of circumcision preached by those who trouble the Galatians should be rejected.