Wiley offers a new reading of the circumcision controversy in Galatians, the fruit of reframing Paul’s letter in three ways. First, she places the letter in its historical context, identifying the Galatians as Gentile converts. Secondly, she advocates a nonsupersessionist reading of the text and guides the reader through the scholarship of Stendahl, Davies, Segal, Dunn, and others who have revolutionized Pauline studies by emphasizing the Jewish matrix of the Pauline literature. Finally, she employs the tools of gender analysis and the feminist hermeneutic of Elisabeth Schüssler Fiorenza to challenge the androcentric readings of Galatians that have dominated the tradition.
Approaching the text from these three angles of vision, Wiley presents the circumcision debate as a conflict of two forms of Judaism, not a struggle between the new religion of Christianity (a term, she notes, that Paul never used) and a legalistic Judaism of works-righteousness (a religion, she notes, that exists only in Christian polemical theology, not in historical reality). At issue in Galatians, she maintains, is not the triumph of Christian grace over Jewish law, but rather the transcendence of social, class and gender divisions. The Torah-observant Palestinian disciples of Jesus who advocate the circumcision of Gentile converts violate the eschatological equality of men and women with their insistence on an initiation ritual restricted to males.
The contribution of Wiley's book is her reframing of the letter to the Galations and her ability to ask a new question of the text. The androcentric exegetical tradition has been inattentive to the implications of Paul's opposition to circumcision for gender relations. Wiley documents this lacuna and rightfully raises and probes the issue.
The book could be strengthened by clarification of the thesis. "I will argue," she states, "that Paul's opponents' position threatened the redemptive equality symbolized by baptism and made real by its performance" (p. 3). Here she suggests that circumcision de facto violates gender equality, even if Paul in his own androcentrism was inattentive to this dimension of the circumcision conflict. Elsewhere, however, she implies that Paul himself was cognizant of the gender divisions created by the practice of circumcision and opposed the practice for that reason. His judgment on those who would reestablish gender spheres in the Galatian community "is severe: 'You have cut yourselves off from Christ; you have fallen from grace’ (5:4)" (p. 103). Her case for the first version of the thesis is much stronger than her case for the second, since, as she acknowledges, Paul does not explicitly state that the role and status of women are a factor in the circumcision debate.
Despite Paul’s silence, Wiley finds evidence for her case in Gal 3:28. Together with Stendahl, Lampe, Betz, and Dunn, she reads Paul’s affirmation that in Christ “there is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female” as evidence that baptism radically reshaped the social order. She also cites Pauline texts that give women places of leadership and a charismatic authority. She does not, however, discuss 1 Cor 11:3, which states that a husband is the head of his wife, nor 1 Cor 14:34-36, which admonishes women to keep silent in church. And, although she references Daniel Boyarin’s A Radical Jew: Paul and the Politics of Identity, she does not address his position that Paul is a Hellenistic Jew with a theology of spirit-body dualism who understands baptism as a momentary pneumatic and ecstatic experience. For Paul, Boyarin argues, baptism generates a new creation that effaces the ontological differences of Jew/Gentile and male/female in a manner that cannot be fully realized in the corporeal level of human society where sex/gender distinctions are maintained. Wiley presumably disagrees with this position since she emphasizes the social implications of Gal 3:28, but her case would be stronger if she included a critique of Boyarin and an alternative explanation of 1 Cor 11:3 and 1 Cor 14:34-36.
A wrinkle in Wiley’s argument is that she does not reconcile her position that circumcision would violate the social exercise of gender equality in Paul’s community in Galatia with her portrayal of Diaspora Jewish life at large. There, she explains, women had leadership roles in synagogues and other opportunities that their counterparts in Palestinian Judaism with its strict Torah orthodoxy did not share. Why, one wonders, was circumcision such a threat to the egalitarianism of Paul’s community in Galatia if it was not an obstacle to some degree of egalitarianism in Diaspora Judaism at large?
Despite these limitations, Wiley's book explores an important dimension of the circumcision debate in Galatians that has been neglected in the androcentric tradition. She also raises a timely issue. The ink spilled on the “letters to the editor” page of my diocesan Catholic newspaper in response to an op-ed piece questioning the routine circumcision of male newborns demonstrates that Paul’s first century church in Galatia is not the only religious community to face questions about the meaning of circumcision.