Galatians 4:8-5:1

Paul begins this next section by comparing the Galatians’ interest in the law of Moses to the stoicheia (the natural elements), which were sometimes treated as gods (see A.A. Long and D.N. Sedley, The Hellenistic Philosophers. Vol. 1. Cambridge, 1987, 280-89). The comparison is clear enough, but how far we have moved from Paul the Pharisee for him to be able to compare the Galatians’ concern with "special days, months, and seasons" to pagan worship (4:8-11).

Paul then moves to a personal plea, asking that the Galatians remember Paul and their relationship, how he brought them the Gospel in spite of physical infirmity, and asking them not to fall for the "sweet nothings," if I may paraphrase it so, of those who have come to Galatia with another Gospel (4:12-18). He then draws a remarkable image of being in childbirth once again with his "little children" (4:19). It is a striking image, but not the only maternal image in Paul’s letters (see 1 Thess. 2:7). Paul sees himself not only as the spiritual father of his converts, but also on occasion as their mother. Since Paul often uses images of "immaturity" and "maturity" in Christ, this might make sense, as the mother in the ancient world had specific responsibilities with younger children, while the father became more engaged in the raising of older children. Whatever the social realities of first century parenting, Paul has a parental care for all of his converts and Churches, which is the reason, I believe, that he finds their abandonment of him so perplexing. If need be, though, he will give birth to them again in Christ.

Next Paul moves to an allegory for those "who want to be under the law" (4:21), in which he contrasts the slave woman, Hagar, and her child, with the free woman, Sarah, and her child. It seems likely that Paul is using the images and narratives of Abraham, Sarah and Hagar, both here and earlier in the letter, in a direct response to those who have come to Galatia with "another Gospel" and their readings of Genesis and the necessity of circumcision and the law. Paul, remarkably, equates Mount Sinai, the law of Moses, with slavery in this allegory, while "the son of the freeborn through a promise" is "Jerusalem above," either equatable with Jesus Christ himself, or the freedom and salvation he offers (4:21-31). Paul ends the passage by saying, "for freedom Christ has set us free; so stand firm and do not submit again to the yoke of slavery" (5:1). Is it any wonder that nascent Christianity ultimately could not grow in the bosom of Judaism? Paul’s understanding of the freedom that Christ has gained for all men and women simply burst the boundaries of Jewish particularism, at least as Paul grasped it. Yet, we might ask ourselves : to what extent do we today experience in the Church freedom from the law? If the insight had validity in a first century context, with the Church struggling to define itself, what relevance does it have for the lived faith of Christians today?

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John W. Martens

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