Book recommendation: Galatians Re-Imagined

This week, I’ve been working my way through Brigitte Kahl’s Galatians Re-Imagined: Reading with the Eyes of the Vanquished, and I recommend it heartily to all those interested in liberation readings of the New Testament. In my own attempts to develop a liberation reading of Paul, Galatians, with its seeming anti-Judaism, has proven to be a major obstacle — but Kahl’s book provides a lot of resources for radically rethinking the traditional reading. What she ends up with is basically in the tradition of Neil Elliott’s Liberating Paul, but along the way Kahl provides a lot of information that was new to me. Here are a few of the key facts.

  • Romans identified the Gauls as an archetypal force of disorder and lawlessness, almost as a kind of terrorist race of the ancient world.
  • Roman iconography, from the Great Temple at Pergamon (a major focus for Kahl) to the virtual iconography on Aeneas’s shield in Virgil, continually played up the defeat of the Gauls and drew analogies with the defeat of the Giants by the Olympian gods — in other words, the image of defeated Gauls was part of imperial political and religious propoganda alike. (Along those lines, Kahl discusses Roman religion in ways that will be familiar to readers of Richard Horseley, et al.)
  • There was a diaspora consciousness among Gauls, who lived through out the Roman Empire — the Greek term for Gaul was “Galatian,” and the Galatians in Asia Minor were not clearly distinguished from those in western Europe. Gaul/Galatians kept up their druidic religion and language as well, in a close analogy with the Jews.
  • Jews and Gauls had been in contact in many ways throughout the Roman period — and in the clusterfuck that ended Nero’s reign, Jews, Gauls, and Christians were all scapegoated as subversive to the empire.

Throughout, I was waiting for the punchline — yes, this is all well and good, but you have to explain the significance of the circumcision issue in this context! And she does, claiming that Paul’s problem isn’t with circumcision as such, but with what it would signify: namely, an attempt to become “officially” Jewish and hence have official permission to abstain from imperial worship, whereas Paul wants the Gaul/Galatians qua Gentiles to resist the emperor-cult.

Again, this fits very well with the classical liberation reading of Paul pioneered by Elliott, who claims that Paul is actually a kind of radical Jew who wants the Jewish community to abandon its compromise position within the Roman Empire. Yet the specificity of focus on Galatians made the reading more convincing to me than Liberating Paul was. In fact, the specificity of focusing on a particular ethnic group in the Roman context, rather than taking the standard approach of assuming Jew vs. Gentile was the only significant ethnic difference (since Gentiles are presumably all Hellenistic or whatever), was revelatory. It appears that Paul found the Gaul/Galatians, in their ethnic specificity, to be particularly fitting allies — perhaps explaining his extreme anger when they fail to follow through.

So in essence, I strongly recommend this book. Kahl does rely overly heavily on diagrams (above all “semiotic squares”) that I found distracting and contrived, and she arguably goes into a little bit too much detail in describing all the artwork, etc., but the book overall is a tour de force.

4 thoughts on “Book recommendation: Galatians Re-Imagined

  1. Yep, I’ve been strongly recommending that book ever since I read it. It’s worth noting that she is not alone in making that point about circumcision. For example, it was made previously in (another very good book) Hardin’s “Galatians and the Imperial Cult.”

Comments are closed.