The Marks of Jesus
On his first missionary journey (ca. A.D. 46-48), in the company of Barnabas, Paul and his friend established several churches in the Roman province of Galatia. Largely due to the archaeological work of Sir William Ramsay, this region is believed to have been situated in southern Asia Minor. It likely involved the churches in Antioch (Pisidia), Iconium, Lystra, and Derbe (Acts 13:14-14:26).
Perhaps a year or two later, the apostle penned a letter that was designed to be circulated among these congregations (Galatians 1:2). Quite frankly, the epistle reveals a certain level of frustration. As Paul concluded his letter, he wrote: “Henceforth let no man trouble me; for I bear branded on my body the marks of Jesus” (6:17, ASV). Several things are intriguing about this text.
First, what is the meaning of this rather sharp admonition: “Henceforth let no man trouble me”? This phrase evidences a certain level of apostolic agitation with his Galatian kinsmen in Christ.
The fact is, this epistle is punctuated with criticism for these saints’ lack of diligence. For example, some were in the process of “removing from” their sacred call, and embracing a perverted “gospel” (1:6-8). The present tense “removing” indicates an apostasy in progress.
False teachers had been imported (2:4), who enslaved and “bewitched” the Galatians with a Judaistic “gospel” (2:4; 3:1; 5:1ff).
As a result, some had turned upon the apostle; apparently some adversaries viewed him as if he were an enemy (4:16), and such “perplexed” him (4:20). He therefore issued this rebuke, charging them to stop heaping “troubles” upon him.
The plural noun “troubles” (kopous) derives from a term that means “to strike.” Here it is used metaphorically for distracting a person’s attention by causing him embarrassment, or precipitating worry. Paul did not need this stress; he had endured trouble enough already!
This thought leads Paul to provide documentation—the visible credentials of his suffering for Christ: “For [gar – introducing an explanation] I bear branded on my body the marks of Jesus.” The present tense verb “bear” suggests that the marks are visible, with almost a challenge—as if the apostle was saying, “take a look at them!”
The term “branded” is not in the Greek text; it has been supplied to represent the action that resulted in “the marks” (ta stigmata – plural). Normally the ASV translators italicized words added to the text; in this case they did not, and their addition may have been somewhat presumptuous. Let us consider some possibilities as to the significance of stigmata.
In the ancient Greek language, stigma could refer to a brand (as when a master branded a slave). It has been suggested, therefore, that Paul’s allusion to stigmata could signify metaphorically that he was the Lord’s “slave.” The apostle on occasion did use doulos (slave) to represent his relationship to Jesus (cf. Romans 1:1; Philippians 1:1; Titus 1:1).
A stigma also could be a tattoo. The pagans sometimes tattooed the names of their gods on their bodies; this practice helps to explain the prohibition in Leviticus 19:28: “You shall not make any cuttings in your flesh for the dead, nor print any marks upon you, for I am Jehovah your God.” It is highly unlikely that the apostle had tattooed words or phrases honoring God on his body. The Hebrews were not to adopt idolatrous practices.
Reflect upon the symbolic references to body marks as tokens of identification in Revelation 13:16 and 14:1. An extended discussion of these practices is found in Kittel and Friedrich (1958, 657-664).
The term stigmata could be used also of scars resulting from wounds. The most common view is that “Paul is most likely alluding to the wounds and scars which he received in the service of Jesus” (Danker et al. 2000, 945).
The Greek literally says “the marks in [en] my body,” which seems to imply more than a superficial surface mark.
The Historical Record
Note how the inspired documentation elsewhere corroborates Paul’s description in this passage.
In Lystra the apostle was stoned. Afterward he was dragged from the city, and left for dead (Acts 14:19). Doubtless scars were left in the wake of that abuse.
At Philippi Paul (and Silas) were beaten with “many stripes” with rods (Acts 16:22). One must reflect upon the fact that while Jewish law limited beatings to forty stripes (Deuteronymy 25:3), the Romans observed no such restrictions!
Elsewhere (cf. 2 Corinthians 11:23ff) Paul writes of receiving “stripes above measure” (suggesting both many in number and great in intensity).
In addition to the generic reference, he received five beatings by the Jews (none of which is recorded in Acts). Each of these produced thirty-nine wounds—thus no less than 195 stripes from these five beatings alone.
Further, three times he was whipped with “rods” (two of these occasions are not elsewhere recorded in the New Testament). This was Roman punishment, and was a violation of Paul’s rights as a born citizen of the empire (Acts 22:25ff).
Not even a skillful surgeon like Luke (Colossians 4:14) could have remedied the terribly disfigured body of God’s noble apostle.
While others might well have recoiled at the thought of such hideous scars, Paul gloried in them as badges of honor for his Master. They were credentials of dedication, and he let them shut the mouths of his whining critics.
Evidence of Inspiration
There is one remarkable thing that we must mention in conclusion. The information regarding this horrible treatment was sketched by Luke and Paul in the most emotionally restrained and abbreviated manner possible.
A modern reporter, or a biographer, would have consumed many columns, or chapters, in graphically describing the details of such abuse. And yet, a total of only six verses in the entire New Testament was utilized in the recording of these abuses. This is compelling evidence of the guiding hand of the Spirit of God in the production of the New Testament documents.
The human psyche clamors for colorful (blood and guts) descriptions of the grossness of man’s inhumanity to his fellows. But these episodes are presented in the most sensitive and reserved fashion. No color, no string of dramatic adjectives depicting the horror of the cruel and vicious persecution. There it is; simply stated—sufficient, but not gory. Paul, the apostle: what a man of God! What a Book, this Bible of ours!
- Danker, F.W. et al. 2000. Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago.
- Kittel, Gerhard and Gerhard Friedrich, eds. 1958. Theological Dictionary of the New Testament. Vol. 7. Edinburgh, Scotland: T.&T. Clark.