I’ve been reading through Brigitte Kahl’s Galatians Re-Imagined: Reading With the Eyes of the Vanquished. This book is an attempt to understand the historical/social/political context of the recipients of Paul’s letter in Galatia. Starting at 387 BCE, the year Rome was sacked by a tribe of Gauls (the Senones) migrating from beyond the Alps, Kahl traces the military conflicts between the inhabitants of Gaul/Galatia with Rome up until the time of Paul’s writing (around 50 CE, or thereabouts).
Kahl demonstrates that by the time Paul wrote his letter, the Galatians were a vanquished people thoroughly subject to the rule of the Roman Empire, which meant that they were subject to Augustus Caesar who had been declared a god. They had to participate in the Imperial Cult which focused on worshipping this divine Caesar through the celebration of various holidays and festivals at the temple cult. (Justin K. Hardin unpacks this nicely in Galatians and the Imperial Cult. Looking at archaeological evidence, he shows how civic space was dominated by the Imperial Cult – it would have been impossible to live in a city of Galatia without seeing evidence of the cult and being compelled to participate in it.)
Further, however, Kahl argues that the Roman Empire had succeeded in creating an ideology which justified Roman subjugation of the so-called ‘barbarians’. According to this ideology, the civilized Romans were the ones who ought to be on top and it was only right for them to conquer and subdue the uncivilized Galatians. She shows how this was manifested visually, pointing to the statues of the Dying Gauls and the Great Altar at Pergamon. Through these representations of defeated Galatians (or, in the case of the Altar, the depictions were not originally specifically Gauls yet these were appropriated and incorporated into the Roman ‘mythology’ of ‘Galatians as the Barbarian Other’), Rome formed for itself an identity as the overlord of its uncivilized neighbors and also gave the Galatians an identity as nothing more than the a vanquished, downtrodden people.
The picture to the left is of the famous Dying Gaul or Dying Trumpeter. It is one of many depictions like it, as they enjoyed great popularity in the Roman world. It is a Gaul/Galatian in the midst of his defeat – bloody and weakened by the mortal wound in his side made by a Roman weapon. The picture below is known as the Suicidal Gaul. He has just killed his wife so that she won’t be captured by the Romans and he is about to kill himself for the same reason.
Of course, I’ll have to read the rest of Kahl’s book to figure out how she fleshes out the relationship of this evidence to Paul’s epistle to the Galatians. However, it is worth thinking about how Paul’s message about the Good News of Jesus Messiah would have sounded to a people living under Roman oppression. In an age where Caesar was declaring himself savior and lord because he had subdued the barbarians (and thus, in the Roman mind, kept the world in its proper hierarchical order), Paul’s preaching of a Crucified Messiah would have been shocking. For that was exactly what a Messiah was not supposed to let happen – he was supposed to defeat the enemies, not become a vanquished, dying Messiah.
And yet, this is what had happened. Jesus had done the exact opposite of what Caesar had done. While Caesar was pushing his way to the top and styling himself as a god, Jesus, though God, had humbled himself to become a Jewish man in a land where the Jews were numbered among the vanquished. Jesus had submitted himself to his oppressors and died the agonizing, shameful death of a criminal. Through his death, he vanquished the twin powers of sin and death and brought about a victory that is not wrought by setting out to conquer the oppressor with swords and military might.
It was this Messiah which Paul preached. In this Messiah, the Galatians ought no longer to derive their identity as the vanquished subjects of Rome (nor, as we see from Paul’s opposition to Gentile Galatian circumcision, as Jewish proselytes). Their new identity was to be derived from the dying/resurrected Messiah who would created a new humanity and a new world in which the identity of ‘oppressor’ or ‘oppressed’ would no longer be valid (for he had shown them that there is only one true Lord and even he had humbled himself in love for the Other). If they followed him in his scandalous, self-sacrificial way of life, they would be raised with him, participants in this new creation.
As we celebrate the death of our Lord, we rejoice also in his resurrection and pray that we become like him in his death and thereby be raised with him.