Circumcision and the Spirit: The Meaning of Pauline Conversion
A very important line of modern Pauline scholarship regards Paul's conversion experience as primary and derives all of Paul's reflections from that fundamental moment. In its religious form, this view is simply that Christ appeared to Paul, and Paul drew the consequences of this revelation. In its secular form, this way of thinking about Paul has been considered most elaborately by Alan Segal in his Paul the Convert (1990). Segal applies insights from the social psychology of conversion and argues by analogy to modern conversion experiences that only after conversion to the new religion does the convert identify what “was wrong” with her previous religion. It seems to me, however, that whether or not converts can account for why they converted or whether or not it is possible to predict who will convert to another religion, it is nevertheless the case that some social or psychological factors must have prepared the potential conversion or mystical experience. In Paul's case, when it is possible to identify a theme of critique of the previous religious system which is plausible in itself—in other words, which corresponds to what we know of that system and corresponds, moreover, to other contemporaneous critiques—it seems to me a violation of Occam's razor to assume that this critique had not motivated the conversion, and not vice versa. While the experience of being in the Spirit as a mystical event is certainly essential in Pauline religion, as my discussion of Galatians 3 below will show, I do not think that Paul's own mystical experience was unprepared for by his past.
The principal area of difference is that I place much less weight on Paul's mysticism than Segal does. Although I am impressed by Segal's argument that Paul provides precious evidence for mysticism in first-century Judaism, I am not persuaded that this is the primary explanatory category for Paul's texts and activities (1990, 34–72). This is not to say that I deny either the reality of Paul's mystical experience or its significance within his religious life; all I would deny is its primacy. For Segal the experience of ecstasy was cardinal, and the christological interpretation a later phenomenon of Paul's experience in a Christian community. This leaves somewhat unexplained Paul's turn to that very Christian community, which Segal argues can be explained through the psycho-sociological study of modern conversion experience: “A convert is usually someone who identifies, at least retrospectively, a lack in the world, finding a remedy in the new reality promulgated by the new group” (1990, 75). My problem is, of course, with “at least retrospectively.” If there were no perception of lack in the world, then why would the convert be a “religious quester” to start with? I think we must begin, then, with the lack, that which I have called the critique. Since I do not imagine that Paul was “psychologically abnormal,” I ask what were the cultural and social conditions that led Paul to have such an experience? None of this, however, denies the reality or the central importance of the mystical experience as providing precisely the solution to the plight.
In an article otherwise quite compatible with the view of Paul adopted here, Segal writes, “Paul himself essentially is converted by his vision of Christ from the perspective of a Pharisee, a right-wing one at that, to a perspective that is more characteristic of left-wing Pharisees and more ‘Hellenistic’ Jews” (Segal 1992). I find this an improbable formulation and strongly prefer a view which would perceive in Paul a conflict to begin with, one which his evident Greek linguistic culture would have prepared, which was resolved by his conversion. In Paul, I argue, the agony preceded the ecstasy. Nevertheless, no rich and responsible reading of Paul can ignore the vital role that pneumaticism does play in his thought, the Spirit not only as a hermeneutic principle but also as a vital force and experience in Christian life. Here, I wish to show that these two aspects of the meaning of “spirit” in Paul are homologous and contribute together to the production of the same system of meanings. N. T. Wright has suggested just the right balance in my view, in defining “Pauline theology”:
If we were to specify the content of this set of beliefs, it would be natural to begin with definitely Jewish categories, since Paul by his own admission continued to understand his work from the standpoint of one who had been a zealous Pharisaic Jew; and that would mean grouping them under the twin heads of Jewish theology, viz. monotheism and election, God and Israel. Indeed, my underlying argument throughout my discussion of Paul, here and elsewhere, is that his theology consists precisely in the redefinition, by means of christology and pneumatology, of those two key Jewish doctrines. (1992a, 1, 7)
Galatians 3 is the chapter in which Paul's pneumaticism, summed up by the phrase “baptism in the Spirit,” is most richly shown, although, interestingly enough, the term does not occur in this letter. The relevant context begins, however, in chapter 2 of that epistle.
“For through the Law I died to the Law”
For through the Law I died to the Law, in order that I might live for God. I have been crucified with Christ; and it is no longer I who live, but Christ lives in me; and what I now live in the flesh I live in faith in the Son of God who loved me and gave himself up for me.
Paul's paradoxical formulation here is a crux. What does it mean to say that through the Torah he died to the Torah? My suggestion is that this must be understood in the light of Paul's paradoxical opposition of the true Torah to that which is understood as Torah by other Jews, as we have seen in our reading of Romans 2 above. Paul's whole argument there is that there is a true Law (the Law of faith; 3:27), and that this Law is different from the false Law of the observances of physical rites and the trust in physical genealogical connection. The true Law is the spiritual, allegorical, inward interpretation of the external, which is only its sign. In our verse in Galatians, Paul is arguing exactly the same proposition and giving it its christological foundation as well. Through the true meaning of the Law, which was revealed in the crucifixion and resurrection of Christ as a hermeneutic key and as a mysterious transformation, I have died to the old (mis)understanding of the Law as the outward observance which makes one (so I thought) a real Jew. Paul is referring here to the christological apocalypse he experienced and which, I will argue, the Galatians experienced as well. This interpretation is certified by the phraseological identity of the ἐν ἐμοί both places (Betz 1979, 124). This is gnostic in the etymological sense of a knowledge which transforms the person of the knower entirely. Bultmann's descriptions of the Hellenistic mystic fit Paul perfectly at this moment:
Man is related to the other world by participation in it. Something in him has come from that other world, that world of light. Depending on which mythical or cultic tradition determines the thought patterns, it is there from the very beginning as a primeval portion of light that has descended into matter, or it is the result of some change or influx due to a sacrament or an ecstatic experience. This something in man is regarded as the essential element in the one born again. And yet it has no necessary connection with the empirical man, with his acts and his fate. (1967, 19–20)
This is very close indeed to the Pauline discourse on the meaning of dying with Christ as an ecstatic experience and baptism as a sacrament in Galatians.
Paul follows this with a remarkable and necessary corollary to his argument. His Jerusalem opponents could certainly have argued something to the effect that while it is true that Christ's coming has redeemed the spirit, we who still dwell in flesh must observe the Torah in order to control the flesh and make it as well obedient to God's will. Paul counters this by saying that the very dwelling in the flesh is only apparent. In reality, he is no longer living in the flesh but in a hidden spiritual existence called Christ living in me. A passage from the Corpus hermeticum, Chapter xiii, cited by Bultmann, provides an extraordinary parallel (however Bultmann himself quite puzzlingly fails to note this parallel):
Seeing in myself an immaterial vision, produced by the mercy of God, I have left myself in order to enter into an immortal body, and I am now no longer what I was, but I have been begotten in the intellect. This cannot be taught, and it cannot be seen by means of the material elements through which we see below. This is why I am no longer concerned with this initial created form which was my own. I have no more color, cannot be touched, and do not extend in space; all that is foreign to me. Now, my child, you see me with your eyes, but what I am you cannot understand when you look at me with your body's eyes and with the physical sight. It is not with those eyes that anyone can see me now, my child. (Bultmann 1967, 18–19)
Note the extraordinarily clear platonistic influence on this passage as well. Although Paul has not physically died, it is Christ who lives in him. He was crucified with Christ, and he has been transformed into the sort of being that Christ was, only apparently fleshly but through faith entirely spiritual. Observances in the flesh would seem, then, totally irrelevant. “The practical consequence of this can be either libertinism or asceticism” (Bultmann 1967, 21). It is easy to see how the Corinthians “misunderstood” such preaching.
“Having begun in the spirit, are you now finishing up in the flesh?”
You foolish Galatians! Who has bewitched you, before whose eyes Jesus Christ crucified was so vividly portrayed. This only do I want to learn from you: did you receive the Spirit by works of the Law or by the hearing of faith? Are you so foolish? Having begun in the spirit, are you now finishing up in the flesh? Have you experienced such things in vain? If so, it really was in vain. Does he, therefore, who supplies the Spirit to you and who works miracles in you [do so] by works of the Law or by the hearing of faith?
Paul is arguing here that the Galatians have partaken of exactly the same sort of transformative experience that Paul himself underwent, and now, in contrast to him, they wish to nullify it. He “does not deny the grace of God. For if justification came through Law Christ has died in vain” (2:21), but they, by their desire to accept the Law, do deny the grace of God and show that Christ has died in vain.
I suggest that this “before your eyes” suggests a platonic “eyes of the mind,” in which visions are seen. Paul's depiction here is the implementation of enargeia. In any case, the analogy between Paul's own vision of the crucified Christ and that of the Galatians is enhanced by the use of ἐν ὑμῖν, “in you,” which echoes the ἐν ἑμοί by which Paul describes his own experience. The “hearing of faith” has been much discussed (Hays 1983, 143–45). Does this refer to God's act of proclamation (which the Greek allows) or the human act of hearing? I think that it is both, understood as a single act. Paul exploits the very ambiguity of the Greek in order to make an extraordinarily rich and multivalent claim. This “hearing,” because it is “of faith,” I would suggest is a hearing with the ears of the soul—like the seeing with the eyes of the mind. God declares, and the humans hear, in one soteriological (and mystical) moment of Paul's preaching and the Galatians' baptismal response. This double motion of God's faith and human faith will connect the rest of the chapter as well. In Abraham we find both the promise, which will be fulfilled through the coming of Christ into the world, and the faith in the promise, which is fulfilled by people entering into Christ faithfully. The beginning and the end of Galatians 3 hold together perfectly, as Hays has already argued, albeit on somewhat different grounds (1983, 193–214). Because the spirit is given through faith and not by works of the Law, therefore, “There is no Jew or Greek in Christ,” ἐν Χριστῷ, which I take to be virtually equal in force to “in the spirit,” ἐν πνεύματι.
The ratio, spirit is to flesh as faith is to law, is here made absolutely explicit, thus establishing the dualist movement of Paul's thought. “Spirit” here is functioning in two very closely related senses, which contribute enormously to the effectiveness of the argument. On the one hand, obviously, Paul is referring to the Holy Spirit which manifests itself as a gift in the life of the Galatian community, but, on the other hand, he coordinates with it spirit as one of the poles of the dyad: flesh / spirit. We then get another one of the analogical equations that Paul, following common Hellenistic usage, finds so useful—and so obvious that they often do not need to be explicitly drawn. Cosgrove remarks that “The Spirit/ flesh antithesis is put to a wide variety of uses by the apostle; it is not simply another way of expressing the polarity between faith and works of the law” (1988, 46). True enough, but at the same time, I would argue that whenever Paul uses a dichotomy of this sort—and spirit/flesh is one of the most powerful for him—all of its associated, analogical dichotomies are being called into play at the same time. Since “flesh” means literal observance (works) and especially circumcision in the flesh, “spirit” means faith, so it is absurd in Paul's view, almost a contradiction in terms, to expect manifestations of the Spirit to be the product of works. They belong on opposite sides of the dualist hermeneutical structure. I think we do better to listen closely to the rich overtones of Pauline language, the way its polysemy increases its power, rather than trying to resolve the ambiguities at every moment.
The final two sentences, which have been the occasion of much exegesis, make perfect sense on my reading, for as I have argued, Paul's concern is that any notion of the obligatory nature of physical observances makes nonsense of the completion of the meaning of such observances in the spiritual signifieds. So if the Galatians now accede to the notion that they must be perfected “in the flesh,” they would render the gifts of the spirit “in vain.” “If so” then means, “If you do this thing and have yourselves circumcised.” Since the Galatians have not yet done so, it is simply a conditional. If they do not make this grave error, then it will not have been in vain. I would tentatively suggest that Paul's opponents here had been promoting a doctrine that vision in the Holy Spirit is only available to the circumcised.