This is my first article on the site and I wanted to thank Chris for the opportunity to contribute. I am by no means an expert when it comes to textual criticism, though I did learn a little bit while in seminary.
In this article, we are going to look at Galatians 5:12 and see whether the modern versions got it right…or not. The issue with this verse is not actually about the original Greek. Both the modern critical and the historic traditional text are identical. This is about translation and interpretation. I should warn beforehand that this will be discussing subjects of a sensitive nature.
So, without further ado, let’s look at Galatians 5:12.
Here is how the KJV renders the verse.
“I would they were even cut off which trouble you.”
And now here is the ESV for comparision (other modern versions have similar renderings).
“I wish those who unsettle you would emasculate themselves!”
As you can see, there is quite a difference between those two. Which one is correct?
First, lets consider the context. The book of Galatians is primarily about how Old Testament ceremonial laws relate to Christians. Do Christians have to keep all of them or are they done away with? The debate centers around gentile circumcision. A group called “judaizers” had come to Galatia and convinced many that to be a true Christian you had to be circumcised (and by implication also have to follow all the other Jewish ceremonial laws like not eating pork). Basically, do Gentiles have to become Jews in order to truly be Christian? Many believe Paul is writing before the Jerusalem Council in Acts 15, otherwise he could have just mentioned it and the letter would have been a lot shorter.
Now Paul has some very harsh words directed at these “judaizers”. He says they preach “another gospel” (Gal 1:6-9) and that they have “bewitched” the Galatians (Gal 3:1). What’s interesting is that these judaizers are not exactly Jews. They believed in Christ, but instead of believing in justification by faith alone, they added the requirements of the Mosaic Law as well. Paul confronts them directly and says they are preaching a false gospel and are not Christian. With this context in mind, lets examine what the passage could mean.
The Greek word here is ἀποκόψονται (apokopsontai). It is a compound word that means “to cut so as to make a separation, cut off, cut away” (BDAG). This leads us to ask, what is Paul referring to? What does he wish to be cut off? The two primary interpretations of this passage are:
- Excommunication. Paul wished that the judaizers would be cut off from the people of God and kicked out of the church.
- Castration. Paul wished that the judaizers would not just cut off the foreskin but…everything.
I have mixed emotions on this one. On the one hand, being “cut off” in the excommunication sense is appealing. It does fit with the context of the book. The judaizers are preaching a false gospel and deceiving the Galatians, so it makes sense that they should be kicked out of the church. The term “cut off” is used quite often in the Bible to refer to excommunication. It is used in the Old Testament to describe someone who was being exiled from the people of Israel for certain sins. On the other hand, many church fathers like Ambrose, Augustine, Chrysostom, and Jerome reference this verse when discussing eunuchs. Thomas Aquinas understood it in that way as well, but then interpreted it mystically. However, during the reformation period Erasmus interpreted it as excommunication and many reformers followed his view. But it should be noted that even Erasmus said that those who interpreted it literally were “non immerito”, “not unreasonable”. Let’s examine what some have said about this verse.
EARLY CHURCH FATHERS
We shall look at just a small sampling of how the early church fathers used this verse.
John Chrysostom (349-407AD)
Chrysostom is a famous 4th century Greek father and provides a great look at how the eastern church saw this text. Chrysostom is famous for following the Antiochian school of interpretation which emphasized literal meaning over the allegorical. He sermons on the book of Matthew provide both commentary and encouragement from the text. His Homily 62 can be found in NPNF1-10, in which he quotes Gal 5:12 while discussing Matt 19.
In section 3 he begins discussing the implications of Matt 19:12,
“For there are some eunuchs, which were so born from their mother’s womb: and there are some eunuchs, which were made eunuchs of men: and there be eunuchs, which have made themselves eunuchs for the kingdom of heaven’s sake. He that is able to receive it, let him receive it.”
Chrysostom said that Jesus is not saying we should make ourselves eunuchs, because to do so is a curse. He then uses Paul’s words in Galatians 5:12 as support for it. The whole paragraph says:
“For this intent therefore He brought in those others, even that He might encourage these, since if this was not what He was establishing, what means His saying concerning the other eunuchs? But when He saith, that they made themselves eunuchs, He means not the excision of the members, far from it, but the putting away of wicked thoughts. Since the man who hath mutilated himself, in fact, is subject even to a curse, as Paul saith, “I would they were even cut off which trouble you.” And very reasonably. For such a one is venturing on the deeds of murderers, and giving occasion to them that slander God’s creation, and opens the mouths of the Manichaeans, and is guilty of the same unlawful acts as they that mutilate themselves amongst the Greeks. For to cut off our members hath been from the beginning a work of demoniacal agency, and satanic device, that they may bring up a bad report upon the work of God, that they may mar this living creature, that imputing all not to the choice, but to the nature of our members, the more part of them may sin in security, as being irresponsible; and doubly harm this living creature, both by mutilating the members, and by impeding the forwardness of the free choice in behalf of good deeds.”
John Trapp in his commentary quotes Chrysostom elsewhere as saying:
“Ver. 12. I would they were even cut] Not circumcised only, cut round, but cut off, Non circumcidantur modo, sed et abscindantur. (Chrys.)”
Ambrose is a famous western church father. His preaching was primarily responsible for the conversion of Augustine to Christianity. Ambrose wrote several doctrinal and ethical works in his life. In his book “Concerning Widows” Chapter 13 (which can be found in NPNF2-10), Ambrose condemns those that would make themselves eunuchs. He says:
“76. The case is not the same of those who mutilate themselves, and I touch upon this point advisedly, for there are some who look upon it as a holy deed to check by the evil violence of this sort. And though I am not willing to express my own opinion concerning them, though decisions of our forefathers are in existence; but then consider whether this tends not rather to a declaration of weakness than to a reputation for strength. On this principle no one should fight lest he be overcome, nor make use of his feet, fearing the danger of stumbling, nor let his eyes do their office because he fears a fall through lust. But what does it profit to cut the flesh, when there may be guilt even in a look? “For whosoever looketh on a woman to lust after her hath committed adultery already with her in his heart.”6 And likewise she who looks on a man to lust after him commits adultery. It becomes us, then, to be chaste, not weak, to have our eyes modest, not feeble.
77. No one, then, ought, as many suppose, to mutilate himself, but rather gain the victory; for the Church gathers in those who conquer, not those who are defeated. And why should I use arguments when the words of the Apostle’s command are at hand? For you find it thus written: “I would that they were mutilated who desire that you should be circumcised.” For why should the means of gaining a crown and of the practice of virtue be lost to a man who is born to honour, equipped for victory? how can he through courage of soul mutilate himself? “There be eunuchs which have made themselves eunuchs for the kingdom of heaven’s sake.””
Other church fathers wrote similarly on the subject. The reformers however had quite a different view.
The reformers seem to shy away from the early church’s views and interpret the passage in a more metaphorical fashion.
Martin Luther famously wrote a commentary on Galatians. He recognizes the allusion to circumcision, but then still interprets it as being cut off spiritually. He says:
It hardly seems befitting an apostle, not only to denounce the false apostles as troublers of the Church, and to consign them to the devil, but also to wish that they were utterly cut off–what else would you call it but plain cursing? Paul, I suppose, is alluding to the rite of circumcision. As if he were saying to the Galatians: “The false apostles compel you to cut off the foreskin of your flesh. Well, I wish they themselves were utterly cut off by the roots.”
We had better answer at once the question, whether it is right for Christians to curse. Certainly not always, nor for every little cause. But when things have come to such a pass that God and His Word are openly blasphemed, then we must say: “Blessed be God and His Word, and cursed be everything that is contrary to God and His Word, even though it should be an apostle, or an angel from heaven.”
This goes to show again how much importance Paul attached to the least points of Christian doctrine, that he dared to curse the false apostles, evidently men of great popularity and influence. What right, then, have we to make little of doctrine? No matter how nonessential a point of doctrine may seem, if slighted it may prove the gradual disintegration of the truths of our salvation.
Let us do everything to advance the glory and authority of God’s Word. Every tittle of it is greater than heaven and earth. Christian charity and unity have nothing to do with the Word of God. We are bold to curse and condemn all men who in the least point corrupt the Word of God, “for a little leaven leaveneth the whole lump.”
Paul does right to curse these troublers of the Galatians, wishing that they were cut off and rooted out of the Church of God and that their doctrine might perish forever. Such cursing is the gift of the Holy Ghost. Thus Peter cursed Simon the sorcerer, “Thy money perish with thee.” Many instances of this holy cursing are recorded in the sacred Scriptures, especially in the Psalms, e.g., “Let death seize upon them, and let them go down quick into hell.” (Psalm 55:15).
Calvin follows Luther in his commentary on Galatians.
His indignation proceeds still farther, and he prays for destruction on those impostors by whom the Galatians had been deceived. The word, “cut off,” appears to be employed in allusion to the circumcision which they pressed. “They tear the church for the sake of circumcision: I wish they were entirely cut off.” Chrysostom favors this opinion. But how can such an imprecation be reconciled with the mildness of an apostle, who ought to wish that all should be saved, and that not a single person should perish? So far as men are concerned, I admit the force of this argument; for it is the will of God that we should seek the salvation of all men without exception, as Christ suffered for the sins of the whole world. But devout minds are sometimes carried beyond the consideration of men, and led to fix their eye on the glory of God, and the kingdom of Christ. The glory of God, which is in itself more excellent than the salvation of men, ought to receive from us a higher degree of esteem and regard. Believers earnestly desirous that the glory of God should be promoted, forget men, and forget the world, and would rather choose that the whole world should perish, than that the smallest portion of the glory of God should be withdrawn.
Let us remember, however, that such a prayer as this proceeds from leaving men wholly out of view, and fixing our attention on God alone. Paul cannot be accused of cruelty, as if he were opposed to the law of love. Besides, if a single man or a few persons be brought into comparison, how immensely must the church preponderate! It is a cruel kind of mercy which prefers a single man to the whole church. “On one side, I see the flock of God in danger; on the other, I see a wolf “seeking,” like Satan, “whom he may devour.” (1 Peter 5:8) Ought not my care of the church to swallow up all my thoughts, and lead me to desire that its salvation should be purchased by the destruction of the wolf? And yet I would not wish that a single individual should perish in this way; but my love of the church and my anxiety about her interests carry me away into a sort of ecstasy, so that I can think of nothing else.” With such zeal as this, every true pastor of the church will burn. The Greek word translated “who trouble you,” signifies to remove from a certain rank or station. By using the word καὶ, even, he expresses more strongly his desire that the impostors should not merely be degraded, but entirely separated and cut off. (87)
What is interesting is that it seems like Calvin thinks Chrysostom meant excommunication too, yet Chrysostom’s Homilies on Matthew imply otherwise. Though, Calvin might be referring to a different work of Chrysostom that I am not aware of or Calvin admits Chrysostom is referring to castration, but just disagrees with him. I’m not sure of the answer. What should be noted is that both Luther and Calvin seem to be more interested in an apology of Paul speaking a curse upon the judaizers. Their concern is that it sounds like Paul is condemning the judaizers to hell, rather that hoping they repent. However, if the passage referred to castration, a long defense of that would not be necessary. Castration is certainly a horrific thing, but it is not eternal damnation.
Long story short. There is some merit to it referring to castration. That is how the early church fathers saw it. But is that the end of the story? Were the reformers just trying to avoid an embarrassing subject? What is the correct answer? An interesting parallel exists in Deut 23:1,
He that is wounded in the stones, or hath his privy member cut off, shall not enter into the congregation of the LORD.
The LXX (ancient Greek translation of the Old Testament) uses the same Greek word as Galatians 5:12. There is no doubt that this verse is referring to genitalia. The LXX and the New Testament uses this Greek word several more times to refer to cutting off body parts, (toes, hands, and feet), as well as for cutting off clothes and a rope.
On top of that the word is in the middle voice. That means the verb describes something the subject does to himself. So Paul is either saying he wishes the judaizers would excommunicate themselves or that they would cut off…their own manhood. Yet, in the context of the passage, it seems odd that Paul would say that he wished the judaizers would just go away. These people were causing serious harm to the Galatian church and leading many away from the truth faith. With all that said, I think castration is the likely meaning of the text.
However, there is something else we need to consider. While all translations must interpret to some extent, the goal should be to keep things as close to the original text as possible. If it is ambiguous in the original, then, if possible, it should be ambiguous in the translation. The KJV does that by translating the word directly (though the NKJV is actually better by saying “cut themselves off”). This would keep the translation as unbiased as possible. A footnote could then be added saying “or mutilate/castrate themselves”. This would be my recommendation. It ensures both positions are represented, while keeping the base translation as unbiased as possible.