St. Paul mosaic

Studying Galatians 3 18-29

It’s been a long time since we studied anything from Galatians! But we’re returning to Galatians for the next three weeks, starting with digging into Galatians 3:18-29 for Sunday, May 15. [Evidently the curriculum powers that be think chapter 5 is the most important part of the book, though, because that’s what we’ll be spending most time on, once again.] Some questions on the text are here. Here are a few notes on this week’s text:

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BACKGROUND AND CONTEXT: The short New Testament book of Galatians is

  • An undisputed Pauline epistle (letter);
  • In ancient Greco-Roman letter form [starts with a “from” and “to” section, followed by greetings, the body of the letter, and concluding with some more specific instructions, and longer or shorter more personal greetings];
  • from the 40s-50s CE [according to the usual introductory study Bible notes];
  • addressed to “the churches of Galatia” – so, we think, intended to be circulated among several local communities; Galatia is part of what we think of now as Asia Minor, or a region in modern-day Turkey [there’s a nice article, with map, at Bible Odyssey];
  • focused on a specific issue, as far as we can tell: a disagreement with what seems to be a teaching circulating in these churches, that seems to demand the circumcision of the Gentile Christians for … some vital purpose. [How we describe that purpose is already a decision we make about the text, I’ll just point out.]

Galatians is a key text for Protestant “salvation by grace through faith, not works” theology. This will probably affect our reading. It’s also a particularly central text for fueling simplistic and negative Christian notions about Judaism, and the relationship between Judaism and Christianity. We ought to be aware of that, too. Let’s remember that Paul is fighting a political and theological battle with opponents within the early Christian movement. If we think of how people represent their political and theological opinions on Facebook these days, it might give us a clue about how to read Paul here.

We’re reading a few verses from about the middle of the letter. Paul has greeted the churches, expressed his astonished dismay that they’re listening to other people instead of him, and [have we paid attention to this enough?] presented his own Jewish credentials at some length. [Maybe the message being: “It’s hardly like anyone can really accuse me, Paul, of not being a good Jew!!”] But, at the end of chapter 2, this presentation concludes with his adamant statement “I have been crucified with Christ” and “I do not nullify the grace of God” and the point that “justification” comes by faith in Christ, not the “works of the law.” [Galatians 2:15-21]

Then, he proceeds to shame the Galatians for being foolish and persuaded by other people’s demonstrably foolish ideas, the foolishness of which he proceeds to demonstrate. In the course of this demonstration, he turns to the example of Abraham, and God’s promise to Abraham, and how this promise is related to “the law” given at Sinai. We are picking up part of this discussion, with the implications Paul draws from it. He will develop those implications further in chapter 4, by drawing an elaborate analogy between the controversy in Galatia, the notions of slavery and freedom, and the story of Abraham, Sarah, Hagar, Ishmael, and Isaac.

Then he will develop the implications of specifically Christian freedom associated with “living by the Spirit” at the end of the letter. [So, we can stay tuned for chapter 5, which is our portion for the next two weeks.]

People who don’t like Paul get some fuel for their dislike from the language in this letter. He holds himself up as an example, and specifically claims his teaching is correct and the nameless others’ teaching is messed up. In other words, his rock-solid confidence in his understanding of the gospel is front and center. This annoys some readers. It’s as if he thinks he’s right and others are wrong, which is not very post-modern of him, and which can sound arrogant to us citizens of the 21st century. On that score, we might pay some attention to the datum that Galatians is in the Bible, and nothing by Paul’s opponents seems to be, with the arguable exception of the book of James. Whoever picked the canon seems to have sided with Paul here.

Part of our text – Galatians 3:23-29 – is the Revised Common Lectionary’s epistle reading for 12th Sunday in Ordinary Time (C). So it’s just the whole analysis of the promise to Abraham and the allegory of the law that you wouldn’t know was in the Bible if all you knew were the lectionary. Should Bible Content Examinees be warned? Or would we all be happier to live in blissful ignorance of texts with particularly woeful histories of anti-Judaic interpretation?

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CLOSER READING: The demonstration Paul is working on in this text really begins back in verse 6 – by invoking kinship with Abraham, the recipient of God’s promise. Then it zeroes in on the nature of inheritance in verse 15, and proceeds to extend that discussion. By coming in at verse 18, we miss a bit of Paul’s reasoning here. The large point seems to be that the Gentiles have Abraham as an ancestor, through Christ, the “offspring” who is the “real” child of the promise, and by faith in Jesus Christ [or by faith, in Jesus Christ – which might or might not be subtly different].

The promise is an enormously big idea here; it is repeated six times in these few verses, and in verse 29 is vital to establishing the identity of the baptized Christians“heirs according to the promise.”

The concept of “grace” surfaces right away, too, as part of the talk of being “given” – which describes the promise to Abraham, and which builds on the Greek root charis, free gift. In v19, “the law” comes to us literally “thanks to,” by the grace, of transgressions. Ironically.

Commentators point out that how Paul thinks this works depends on which verse one reads, and where (e.g., here in Galatians, or in Romans). “The law” seems to have been given to train people about what transgressions even are, and / or also to restrain them, and / or also to provoke people to them. In other words, the effect of “the law” is ambiguous in Paul. Or, perhaps it has more than one effect.

Verse 21 always seems to be translated as “against” or “opposed to” the promises of God, but the same preposition there is translated “according to” in plenty of contexts. Just saying. To me it reads like almost a play on words here.

Verse 20 is a little odd. The point might be that “the law” comes by way of a mediator – either Moses, or the angel who delivered “the law” to Moses, if we go by that story – but that “the promise” comes direct from God to Abraham. But … Calvin, along with the author of 1 Timothy (2:5) … oh, wait, Paul … describes Jesus Christ that way, too, as a mediator. So how much do we want to make out of this point?

Verse 22 seems to use “scripture” as a synonym for “the law.” Which is just a reminder that Paul does not seem to be aware that he is writing “scripture” here.

The Greek grammar of vv23-25 seems especially hard. Revised English Version translates vv23-25 like this:

Before this faith came, we were close prisoners in the custody of law, pending the revelation of faith. The law was thus put in charge of us until Christ should come, when we should be justified through faith; and now that faith has come, its charge is at an end.

I make out v24 to say “unto / into Christ.” Probably the “should come” being implied, but there’s no verb in the text. So I might translate v24 “… so thus the law had become our tutor, unto Christ, so that we might be justified by faith.”

Then, I might read this as Paul saying that the prior training of “the law” makes faith in Christ more possible. Maybe because that prior training enables us to see and appreciate Christ’s excellence, and recognize Christ as the revelation of God, and believe Christ. But that’s me. [And possibly also the theologians who like to talk about “salvation history,” and the ones who like to say the whole Bible is about Jesus?]

The concept of the “tutor” or “trainer” or “disciplinarian” or however we want to translate that important Greek term paidagōgon might also remind us that “the law” is not a great translation for the Hebrew word Torah, despite its common use. A better translation would be “instruction” or “teaching.” Which could have been what Paul would have had in mind here.

Verses 26-29 seem to refer back to the assertion in verse 16, that Christ is the “offspring” to whom “the promise” to Abraham referred. Then, whoever is baptized “into Christ” becomes one with that “offspring,” and so, by that identity with/in Christ, “the seed of Abraham according to the promise.”

It seems curious and possibly significant to me that v28 lists the specific categories it does – Jew/Greek, slave/free, male/female. Because coincidentally (?), Blessing the Holy One our God Sovereign of the Universe for not having made me a gentile, a slave, or a woman is famously or infamously part of the content of orthodoxly Jewish morning prayer. That content is Talmudic, according to the internet, but I haven’t been able to confirm that it would have been customary in Paul’s time. But if it had been customary in Paul’s time, we might get the idea that Paul is making a specific point here. Specifically contrasting the potentially boundary-dissolving effect of faith in Christ relative to the potentially boundary-reinforcing effect of observing “the law.”

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One last thought: examples matter. The specific examples of “the law” we have in mind seem to matter a lot for how we read Paul’s discussion here. Circumcision is one thing. Or celebrating the Festival of Booths, perhaps. But Christian readers seldom seem to think Paul is talking about shaking off the bondage of the Ten Commandments or Deuteronomy 6:4 or Leviticus 19:18 here.

Christians still seem to think we should not murder people – unless we think WWJD would sometimes OK that? Well … maybe Christians and others have had some serious arguments about that, after all. Maybe we are in the middle of one of those at this very moment. Nevertheless: we all seem to make distinctions between “the law” Paul is talking about here and “the law” he isn’t. And we all mostly seem to think it’s still important to observe [some] scriptural instruction, at least as a guide to decent human behavior, if not as a “means of justification.” And we mostly do not seem to think, or ever to have thought, that “freedom in Christ” means freedom to act like sociopaths.

Or even not to say “please” and “thank you.” Which recognition ought to modify any conversations we have about “legalism” when we discuss this text, it seems to me.

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Saint Paul writing

Images: “Saint Paul mosaic,” by Enfo, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons; “Saint Paul Writing His Epistles,” Valentin de Boulogne, public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

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