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by Al Maxey

Issue #781 ------- September 4, 2019
Lust and self-mutilation are closely related impulses.
There are also self-mutilators among knowers: they
do not want to be creators under any circumstances.

Friedrich Wilhelm Nietzsche [1844-1900]

Apostolic Call for Self-Emasculation
Reflective Analysis of Paul's Wish in Galatians 5:12

I have always found it somewhat interesting that over the centuries a great many artists have chosen to depict the apostle Paul with a sword in his hands. One will also find paintings where he is holding a knife. These artistic renderings reflect to some degree the popular perception of this apostle during that period of time in which these paintings were produced. Paul was a warrior for the Lord, engaged in a daily life-or-death struggle with the forces of evil. Thus, he armed himself with "the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God" (Ephesians 6:17b). Paul was fearless when it came to confronting the enemies of the cross, and at the end of his life he could confidently say, "I have fought the good fight, I have finished the course, I have kept the faith" (2 Timothy 4:7). Paul was armed, and he was willing to use that weapon in battle with the forces of evil. When thusly engaged with these opponents of the faith, Paul was also known at times to be extremely blunt and coarse in his verbal assault against them, much as the prophet Elijah had been with the hundreds of false prophets he took on, mocked, and then slaughtered with a sword on Mt. Carmel (1 Kings 18:20ff; see my study of this in Reflections #31 - "The Fine Art of Godly Mockery"). The biting sarcasm and mockery of this apostle as he fought for the cause of Truth is evidenced in a number of places in the New Covenant writings, and we will take a look at one of those in this current issue of my Reflections.

The NT epistle known as Galatians was the very first of the 27 books of the NT canon to be written. Most scholars believe it was written by Paul around the year 49 A.D., just prior to The Jerusalem Conference that was held in 50 A.D. (see Acts 15). Within this first of Paul's writings we find prominently displayed his passion for the Gospel with which he had been entrusted by the Lord. He was willing to, and indeed did, confront any and all who were threatening that Gospel message (whether their threat was intentional or unintentional). He took on Peter and Barnabas, for example, because "they were not being straightforward about the truth of the Gospel" (Galatians 2:14). Indeed, Paul "opposed Peter to his face, because he stood condemned" (vs. 11). I dealt in quite some depth with this apostolic confrontation in Reflections #492 ("Walk Thou Straight-Footed: A Critical Apostolic Confrontation"). What was the problem that prompted Paul to pen this first book of the NT canon? It was the rise of legalistic, patternistic thinking which, if not opposed quickly and firmly, would undermine our very blood-bought freedom in Christ Jesus. We are saved by grace through faith. Period! Yet, this was being challenged (just as it is today, by the way). Paul wasted no time going after it, and he did so with a ferocity that has, quite frankly, shocked a lot of disciples over the centuries. At the very beginning of his epistle he pronounced a strong curse (an "anathema") upon anyone who taught contrary to the Gospel he had proclaimed. Paul knew that he would take some heat for his strong approach, so hastened to add that he was not seeking the favor of men, nor was he seeking to please men. He answered only to God (Galatians 1:10). Those who spurned God's grace in order to focus on the works of mere men were not just wrong, Paul stated, they were "fallen from grace" and actually "severed from Christ" (Galatians 5:4). This was serious; this was life or death; this was a salvation issue. Paul didn't beat around the bush. He got in people's faces and he unloaded on them.

It is hard for people to fully understand or appreciate Paul's attitude and actions here if they are unaware of the overall context of this strong confrontation; a context that would lead to The Jerusalem Conference. I would urge a careful reading of my treatment of that context in the following three studies: Reflections #202 ("Epistle to the Galatians: Magna Charta of Christian Liberty"), Reflections #215 ("Embracing Another Gospel: Analyzing Apostolic Authorial Intent in the Admonition of Galatians 1:6-9"), and Reflections #308 ("The Circumcision Party: Legalistic Partisanship Within the Early Ekklesia of God in Christ"). With this background now in mind, it will be much easier to fathom the depth of fury that welled up inside of Paul at the growing departure he was witnessing from the glorious Gospel of God's Grace: a fierce fury that prompted him to say something truly shocking: "As for those agitators, I wish they would go the whole way and emasculate themselves" (Galatians 5:12, New International Version). Notice the wording of a few other translations, some of which are even more blunt than the NIV, while some have sought to tone down the wording:

  1. Amplified Bible - "I wish that those who are troubling you (by teaching that circumcision is necessary for salvation) would even (go all the way and) castrate themselves!"
  2. Contemporary English Version - "I wish that everyone who is upsetting you would not only get circumcised, but would cut off much more."
  3. American Standard Version - "I would that they that unsettle you would even go beyond circumcision."
  4. New American Standard Bible - "I wish that those who are troubling you would even mutilate themselves."
  5. Revised Standard Version - "I wish those who unsettle you would mutilate themselves!"
  6. New Revised Standard Version - "I wish those who unsettle you would castrate themselves!"
  7. English Standard Version - "I wish those who unsettle you would emasculate themselves!"

After checking scores of translations and versions, I discovered that the most commonly used terms in this verse are: castrate, mutilate and emasculate. A few follow the lead of the King James Version, which kept it very general and a bit ambiguous: "I would they were even cut off which trouble you." This incorrectly suggests the phrase is in the passive voice. It isn't. It is in the middle voice. It also diminishes the force of the wish of Paul. "Greek scholars are pretty well agreed that the passive rendering of our Authorized Version, 'were cut off,' cannot be defended" [The Pulpit Commentary, vol. 20, p. 248]. Dr. Charles Ellicott agrees: "The Authorized Version is undoubtedly wrong here" [Ellicott's Commentary on the Whole Bible, vol. 7, p. 457]. The use of the passive voice would suggest that this "cutting off" would be done by others to these people who were troubling the brethren with their legalistic teaching. It is from this incorrect use of the passage by the KJV (and by a few other translations that followed its lead) that some commentators have come to believe Paul is talking about excommunication or disfellowship. In other words: a disciplinary action by the church upon those who were causing trouble. Again, however, the passive voice is NOT used here. The middle voice is being used, which means the action of "cutting off" is being performed on the troublers by the troublers themselves! "In Galatians 5:12 the middle voice is used in a sarcastic wish for the self-castration of Paul's adversaries" [Exegetical Dictionary of the New Testament, vol. 1, p. 133]. Dr. Marvin Vincent, the noted Greek scholar, concurs: "More correctly: 'would cut themselves off'" [Vincent's Word Studies in the New Testament, vol. 4, p. 162].

The Greek word used by Paul in this verse is "apokopto," which means "to cut off parts of the body; to make a eunuch of, castrate" [Drs. Arndt and Gingrich, A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature, p. 93]. In that same source we find this further comment with respect to Galatians 5:12 - "'would that they might make eunuchs of themselves'; and so it has been interpreted by many since Chrysostom and Ambrosiaster" [ibid]. Dr. Joseph Henry Thayer is of the same view, stating the word means, "to cut off; amputate; mutilate themselves (or cut off their privy parts - Gal. 5:12)" [Thayer's Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament, p. 63]. Dr. Thayer states that those who view this as Paul's wish "that they would cut themselves off from the society of Christians," are "incorrect" in that interpretation [ibid]. This word appears only 6 times in the NT, and is the same Greek word, by the way, used when Peter cut off the ear of Malchus (John 18) and when Jesus said that one should cut off his hand or foot if it "offend thee" (Mark 9). Used in the middle voice, it is a self-mutilation. Also, keep in mind the whole context of Paul's remark in Galatians 5. He is discussing those who are pushing circumcision as a legal requirement for salvation. The context is of a man's "privy parts," upon which a cutting off is performed (circumcision). Paul is sarcastically suggesting that if severing some of one's "privy parts" is good, then surely severing it all should be even better! Right?! If not, why not?! Yes, Paul is mocking the legalists, but he is also completely fed up with them. This remark was more than just sarcasm, it was also a reflection of his inner outrage against these "accursed" ones who were determined to lead those free in Christ back into religious bondage. Nothing triggered this apostle's righteous indignation more quickly than this, and Paul was not one to suppress expression of that emotion. Therefore, he adamantly refused to "yield in subjection to them for even an hour, so that the truth of the Gospel" might not be compromised (Galatians 2:5).

As one examines the broader context of time, place and culture, and of the history and religions of those who lived at that time in the area known as Galatia, one will discover rather quickly that this comment by Paul would have had special meaning to his readers; a meaning and significance largely lost on those today who don't take the time to do some research. This was an area where the goddess Cybele was worshipped, whose priests were eunuchs. Not only the priests, but also many of the devout followers of this goddess, would show their love and devotion to Cybele by self-mutilation (known as "sacred castration"). "This was a recognized form of heathen self-devotion to the god and would not be shunned in ordinary conversation. This explains the freedom with which Paul speaks of it to his Galatian converts" [Dr. Kenneth S. Wuest, Word Studies from the Greek New Testament, vol. 1, p. 146]. This "practice of self-mutilation on the part of some of its devotees was a matter of universal notoriety, and we may confidently assume that the apostle, when in the neighborhood, heard frequent mention of those 'apokopi,' as they were called" [The Pulpit Commentary, vol. 20, p. 248]. This is a form of the very Greek word Paul uses in this passage. It was used by design. His readers would have gotten the point. "The Galatians, who knew about these priests, could not miss his inference. If salvation depended on the merit of a physical operation (i.e., circumcision), then why not go all the way and castrate yourselves like the heathen priests? Wouldn't this more drastic rite give greater assurance than the Jewish custom? It is a coarse illustration, but dramatically real to the Galatians" [Maxie D. Dunnam, The Communicator's Commentary: Galatians, p. 104]. "None of the Galatians, therefore, could misunderstand Paul's ironic, and perhaps humorous, remark here" [James Burton Coffman, Commentary on Galatians, p. 93]. I'm not so sure I would label this comment "humorous," as Coffman did. Rather, "it was a piece of contemptuous sarcasm which exhibits the passionate feeling of the apostle caused by their unceasing efforts to undermine the Gospel for the sake of a mere mark in the flesh" [The Pulpit Commentary, vol. 20, p. 271].

Paul has gotten a lot of "bad press" for this remark in Galatians 5:12. Many feel such a comment was "beneath him," that it was beneath the dignity of one who was an apostle of the Lord. He shouldn't be talking like that. It was too coarse; too crude. This is the very reason some, appealing to the wording of the KJV (which got it wrong, by the way), believe Paul was just saying these people should be removed from the church, or, if you accept the middle voice (which is the one used), they should remove themselves from the church. Such troublers of the church are not likely to do the latter, and the former is not the appeal Paul made. Yes, Paul said what he said. And there has been severe heartburn over that for centuries. Albert Barnes (1798-1870) said that those who see this as a remark about self-castration have espoused a "monstrous interpretation of this passage," even though he admits that it is the view of many of the early church Fathers and, "to my amazement, I find that this interpretation has also been adopted by" some of the great Greek scholars in their lexicons [Barnes' Notes on the Bible, e-Sword]. The vast majority of Greek scholars, however, differ with Barnes. They believe both the text and context, even the history and culture of the time, make it a certainty that Paul was speaking of actual self-mutilation. "The Galatians were necessarily familiar with it, and it can hardly bear any other sense" [Dr. W. Robertson Nicoll, The Expositor's Greek Testament, vol. 3, p. 185].

Yes, Dr. Marvin R. Vincent may well be spot on when he writes that this statement in this passage is "perhaps the severest expression in all Paul's epistles" [Word Studies in the New Testament, vol. 4, p. 162], and Adam Clarke has rightly observed that "this saying has puzzled many" [Clarke's Commentary, vol. 6, p. 411]. Yet, "the great danger in which Christianity was placed by the Judaizers made such a severe statement necessary. The man who could beseech his converts with the meekness and gentleness of Christ, could also deal in a most severe way when the occasion for such treatment presented itself. The whole expression shows that circumcision had become for Paul a purely physical act without religious significance, and, performed for such a purpose as that for which the Judaizers used it, it became a bodily mutilation not different in character to the mutilations of the heathen religions" [Dr. Kenneth S. Wuest, Word Studies from the Greek New Testament, vol. 1, p. 147]. "Paul spoke out of a concern for the Gospel of Grace and for God's Truth" [The Expositor's Bible Commentary, vol. 10, p. 491]. In the translation notes of the 1599 Geneva Bible, this was written next to Galatians 5:12, "An example of a true pastor inflamed with the zeal of God's glory, and love for his flock." Although I don't particularly care for the analysis of Paul's character by Dr. Charles Ellicott, I do appreciate his concluding thought: "A highly nervous and excitable constitution such as his, shattered by bodily hardships and mental strain, could not but at times impair his power of self-control. It is to be noticed, however, that his indignation, if it sometimes carries him somewhat too far, is always roused in a worthy cause. Such momentary ebullitions as these are among the very few flaws in a truly noble and generous character, and are themselves in great part due to the ardour which makes it so noble" [Commentary on the Whole Bible, vol. 7, p. 457].

I will close this study with an excerpt from a book written by a dear friend of mine: Dr. Dallas R. Burdette (who blessed me by writing the Foreword to the second of my four published books: "One Bread, One Body: An Examination of Eucharistic Expectation, Evolution and Extremism"). The following analysis is quite insightful and serves as a cautionary call to each of us as we seek to faithfully represent our Lord in our journey through this life. "Paul stresses in this section, as well as the book (Galatians) as a whole, that salvation is in Christ alone by grace alone through faith alone. In my fifty-seven years of ministry, I have discovered that the greatest enemies of the faith are not unbelievers, but believers. I still witness, almost daily, the persecution of Christians who are free by the people who desire to remain under bondage. Many within these distinctive churches are brutal in their attack against anyone who advances that salvation is by grace alone through faith alone. Just as the religious people opposed Paul, so today, many religious leaders still persecute anyone who dares to teach what the book of Galatians espouses: justification by faith. It is in Christ alone that one can inherit the promises. Many Christians still fail to understand that the salvation that Paul preached was a salvation by grace through faith. We must put our trust in God through Jesus Christ. For it is only in Him that we can inherit God's promises and receive God's grace and obtain freedom from God's wrath. In the words of Leon Morris (in his book Galatians: Paul's Charter of Christian Freedom, p. 156), 'Justification can come about only because of what Christ has done. Therefore to seek it by law is to reject God's way of justification'" [Dr. Dallas R. Burdette, From Legalism to Freedom: A Spiritual Narrative of Liberation, p. 329-330]. The very first book penned of the 27 documents that comprise the NT canon was a strong assault against legalism and those who were promoting it. Paul was bold and he was blunt; he had to be. Brethren, so must you and I be, as we today, some 2000 years later, still face those who would spy out our liberty so as to bring us into bondage. Paul got in their faces and unloaded on them. May we do no less when His Truth and our freedom come under attack!!


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Readers' Reflections

From a Reader in Canada:

Hello my brother! I just read Reflections #780 ("Faith-Testing Near-Death Narrative: A Reflective Examination of Genesis 22:1-19"). Another great article! I often thought of Isaac being in his 20's or 30's, and thus more than strong enough to resist his father's effort to offer him as a burnt offering. The love they shared had to be what is called today "the next level." In this study you have made clearer so many wonderful points for us to now ponder further. I also taught from this passage many years ago. Here was my thought on this story about Abraham and Isaac: What God asked of Abraham defies logic, law and love. Logic says don't kill your only son upon whom rests the promise. Law says you should not kill or murder. Love says I can't kill my only son! BUT, faith says we must walk in His will, even when we can't see at the time where God is leading us or what His purpose may be. We trust He will do good, even if that good is not achieved in our own time frame. Love ya, brother!

From a Reader in California:

Brother Maxey, your latest Reflections titled "Faith-Testing Near-Death Narrative" is quite simply a masterpiece! Indeed, many of these biblical stories are so familiar to us that we simply shrug when we hear them like they're nothing. What an excellent job you did of putting us in the various shoes of all those involved in that narrative! It is important for us all to remember that we live in a different time with very different views and attitudes than those held by ancient peoples. Some of these stories can seem extremely strange and downright weird when viewed through our lenses -- especially those found in Genesis (including Adam & Eve, the Flood, Lot & his daughters, and many others). However, as you pointed out, we are so accustomed to these stories that they lose a degree of impact. For example, if one had never heard of Christianity, what would they think if someone told them they had been "washed in the blood of the Lamb"?! We even sing songs about this! Thank you, Brother Maxey, for taking the time to deconstruct this important story, and for presenting it to us anew, so that we might view it with fresh eyes! May Almighty God continue to bless you, brother! -- PS: I like how you often use The Message. It is such a useful tool for reading the Bible in a fresh way!

From a Reader in Iowa:

Al, I always look forward to your latest Reflections, and I really appreciate your in-depth study in each one. Thank you!!

From a Reader in Unknown:

Al, I'm a long-time reader and appreciator of your work, and was wondering if you are familiar with Dr. Jordan Peterson, the Canadian clinical psychologist and professor at Harvard University and University of Toronto. He has been making quite an international stir recently with his lectures on his book "12 Rules for Life." All his lectures are on YouTube. One series is on Genesis, and he plans to do one on Exodus soon. He looks at the stories there from a psychological perspective rather than a religious one, although he has great respect for the religious impulse. I think you would like to know him. I think he is "not far from the kingdom."

From a Minister in New Zealand:

Al, great article on Abraham and that amazing chapter (Genesis 22). If only more people in the church realized the simplicity of a faith that leads to obedience. I was just thinking this week: sometimes I wish I could have lived in the time of Abraham or Job. There would be less doctrinal quibbling and squabbling. I have just been rereading a little book I acquired titled "A Brief Synopsis of the Public History of the Church" by G.H.S. Price (1950). I almost burst out laughing by a statement on page 48: "But the truth of pardon and salvation through faith in Christ without works of human merit was too simple and too Scriptural to be tolerated." This was during the time of the Wesleys. Have a good week!

From a Reader in Tennessee:

Great study on Abraham and Isaac. I never think of this story without reciting in my mind a verse from the song "Highway 61" by Bob Dylan. It goes like this: "God said, Abraham, kill Me a son. Abe said, man, you must be putting me on. God said no. Abe said what. God said, you can do what you want, but next time you see me coming you better run. Abe said, God, where do you want this killing done? God said, down on Highway 61." Soldier on, brother!

From a Reader in Georgia:

"Faith-Testing Near-Death Narrative" is outstanding ... as usual. I have just a few thoughts: ONE: How unique was it that Abraham heard the voice of God. So many people today believe their only instructions come from the pages of a bound collection of books. No wonder so many struggle with various life decisions: they don't recognize God's leading and speaking in our hearts. But, once you know that God is indeed leading you, it makes a big difference. TWO: I find it interesting that the location was a few days travel away. Abraham had time to think about what he was doing, and he had time to back out. Maybe if he could have just walked outside the tent and done it quickly, he wouldn't have had time to doubt. God surely does have His ways. THREE: Thank you for pointing out what most don't: that Job wasn't the perfect, obedient person that most make him out to be. He went along at first, but the more things strung out, the more angry and frustrated he got. I find it heartening that God allowed him to vent. Yes, God sure did put him in his place, but think about that: a Creator who took time to listen, and then to teach through the moment. More people would benefit from a more accurate reading of Job. FOUR: I had a lady once thank me for being her "ram in the brush." I thought that was a strange comment until she explained that the ram was there for Abraham as a substitute and help. I thought it was quite the compliment. More of us need to be "rams in the brush" for our friends. Again, great read, my brother!

From a Reader in Arkansas:

Al, you mentioned in the "Readers' Reflections" section of your last Reflections that Olan Hicks had died. I had not heard that, and I find myself in tears as I write. I hope he left this life peacefully and in no pain. I spent a lot of time with him some 20 years ago, and I studied many hours with him. If it wasn't for me finding him through one of his books on MDR, I suppose I would still be upholding the old traditional ultra-conservative Church of Christ teachings today. I was out of touch with him since that time; maybe just an email or two through the years in which he always expressed his kindness and gentleness toward me. I shall always feel indebted to him. He literally changed my thinking and my life for the better.

From a Reader in Texas:

Brother Al, I hope this Labor Day finds you in great joy and surrounded by the love of family and friends. I previously wrote to you describing a series of studies our preacher, Rick Fyffe, is doing concerning the traditional practice of our fellowship and what the Bible really says. This series is titled "Bible Basics 101." Yesterday's sermon (September 1, 2019), which should be available by Wednesday on our congregation's web site (Southeast Church of Christ; they are also on Facebook), may be the best sermon I have ever heard from one of "our" fellowship's preachers. He has been discussing the role of women in the church for four weeks now, and even though he planned on this one being the last one about women, he will need another week to wrap the topic up. I am not studied enough, and have never heard anyone talk about the last four words of 1 Corinthians 14:34, but his conclusion came across as absolutely correct, and it has led me to do some more study. I often read without seeing things, so it is likely your response will be, "I covered this in Reflections #---," thus showing me that it was right there in front of me the whole time, but just not seen by me. Anyway, he brought my attention to the last four words: " the law says," and stated that the Torah was the basis for this statement, and that the submissiveness was not to "all men," but to their husbands. I think if you watch this when it comes available, you might want to share the link with your readers. I have not seen so many people in a congregation of the Churches of Christ so edified and lifted up in my lifetime, and in the first service there was tremendous applause and cheering! Brother, the message that some of you are preaching and teaching is finally getting out!! We love you! Have a great day!

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