The Letter of Paul to the Galatians Online Commentary (12)

In the first entry in the Bible Junkies Online Commentary on Galatians, I discussed introductory matters concerning the founding of the churches to the Galatians, the situation when Paul wrote to them, when the letter might have been written and the type of letters which Paul wrote, based on the common Greco-Roman letters of his day. In the second post, I considered the basic content and breakdown of a Pauline letter. I noted the major sections of the formal letter structure and, in the context of each section, outlined the theological and ethical (as well as other) concerns of Paul, including some Greek words which will be examined more fully as we continue with the commentary. In the third entry, I looked at the salutation, which is long for Paul’s corpus (only Romans 1:1-7 is longer) and briefly commented on the lack of a Thanksgiving, the only letter of Paul’s which does not have one. The fourth entry discussed the opening of the body of the letter, a significant part of the letter especially in light of the absence of a Thanksgiving. In the fifth entry, I examined the beginning of the opening of the body of the letter, in which Paul describes his background in Judaism and I placed this in the context of Judaism in the Hellenistic period. In the sixth post in the online commentary, I continued to look at Paul’s biographical sketch of his life, this concerning his earliest life as a Christian. In the seventh post, I examined what Paul says about his subsequent visit to Jerusalem to see the apostles and the Church in Jerusalem. In the eighth entry, Paul confronts Cephas about his hypocrisy in Antioch.

The ninth blog post started to examine the theological argument in one of Paul’s most important and complex theological letters. In the tenth entry, Paul makes an emotional appeal to the Galatians based on their past religious experiences and their relationship with Paul. In the eleventh chapter in the series, Paul began to examine Abraham in light of his faith. The twelfth blog post, found below, continues Paul’s examination of Abraham, but also claims that Christ “redeemed” his followers from the “curse” of the Law.

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4. Paul’s Letter to the Galatians  

d) Body of the Letter (1:13-6:10):

iv) Theological Teaching (2:15-5:12): Abraham was justified by faith (3:10-14) part 2.

10 For all who rely on the works of the law are under a curse; for it is written, "Cursed is everyone who does not observe and obey all the things written in the book of the law." 11 Now it is evident that no one is justified before God by the law; for "The one who is righteous will live by faith." 12 But the law does not rest on faith; on the contrary, "Whoever does the works of the law will live by them." 13 Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us—for it is written, "Cursed is everyone who hangs on a tree"— 14 in order that in Christ Jesus the blessing of Abraham might come to the Gentiles, so that we might receive the promise of the Spirit through faith.  (NRSV)

Before examining the specifics of this passage, it is important to note that in this section Paul cites, reflects on and interprets four (or five) Old Testament passages, Deuteronomy 27:26, Habakkuk 2:4, Leviticus 18:5, Deuteronomy 21:23, and perhaps Deuteronomy 28:58. We will speak of each of these verses below, but it is Paul’s interpretation of these verses which leads some scholars to call this passage, including what came before and what will come after, a “midrash.” This leads to a good question: what is “midrash”?

It is difficult to define midrash, but rabbinic and biblical scholars seem to know it when they see it. In fairness, rabbinic scholars know it when they see it and biblical scholars tend to see it everywhere. I will depend upon Strack and Billerbeck’s discussion in Introduction to the Talmud and Midrash, especially drawing on pages 254-268, to give a sense of midrash. In addition, I will note James L. Kugel’s work from Early Biblical Interpretation.[1] “Midrash derives from the verb darash ‘to seek, ask’. Already in Scripture the verb is used with primarily theological connotations, with God or the Torah, etc. as object” (255).  In Qumran, Strack and Billerbeck note, the word darash is often used in the sense of “search out, interpret” the law and the commandments (256).  In the rabbinic literature, midrash indicates “research, study,” specifically, again, with respect to the Scriptures or other authoritative texts (256). So, it seems that midrash is the practice of interpretation or study, although it “does not as such imply a particular method of biblical interpretation,” and it comes as well to refer to “the result of interpretation or writings containing biblical interpretation” (256). Kugel notes that it includes both halakhah (legal interpretation) and haggadah (narrative interpretation) (68-70).

This is why it is so difficult to define. Since anyone who comments on Scripture is in some manner interpreting the text, is any biblical interpretation midrashic interpretation? Midrash might be considered as a sort of religious interpretation which plays on themes and verses which share these themes to draw out some new, or hidden, meaning in texts which make sense particularly for the interpreter’s own context or religious needs. As Strack and Billerbeck stress, “Midrash is not “objective” professional exegesis – even if at times it acquires such methods, knows the philological problems as well as the principle of interpretation in context (i.e. the explanation of Scripture from Scripture), and also manifests text critical interests” (259). As such, modern readers today might find that ancient writers, such as the rabbis or Paul, pull passages from their context, whether that of a biblical book, or from historical context, in a way that would not be acceptable today.

Underlying such practice however is a sense of the connectedness of all Scripture, since it is written by God, and, before the rise of historical consciousness, a means to connect seemingly disparate passages together in order to solve textual issues for the ongoing life of the Jewish people. “Midrash arises out of Israel’s consciousness of an inalienable solidarity with its Bible; midrash therefore is always realization, and must discover ever afresh the present significance of the text or of biblical history” (259).  What Paul is doing in Galatians 3, therefore, I would argue is a common Jewish practice of midrash, making sense of the biblical passages in light of present conditions, which include for Paul the person of Jesus Christ.

Naturally, Jews in Paul’s day, as of course today, would vociferously disagree with much of what Paul says about the Law in Galatians, but they would have recognized what he was doing in his interpretation. Kugel notes that commonalities found in interpretation of certain biblical passages, such as a verse from Genesis, located in Jubiliees, the Old Greek of the Pentateuch, Philo of Alexandria and the New Testament might not be dependent upon direct borrowing but on “a common store of midrash that circulated in Jewish communities” in Palestine and beyond (71). This is the interpretive context into which Paul’s reflection on Abraham, Jesus, the law and faith places us.

 

Paul says that “all who rely on the works of the law are under a curse; for it is written, ‘Cursed is everyone who does not observe and obey all the things written in the book of the law’” (Galatians 3:10). Note that this verse parallels Galatians 3:7 in which the “sons” of Abraham are those who are hoi ek pisteôs, “those out of faith,” or “those who believe.” The Greek in 3:10 speaks of those who are ex ergôn nomou, “those out of the works of the Law.” The verb “rely” is not present in the Greek. Those who believe, or have faith, are children of Abraham, while those who “are out of the works of the Law” are under a curse. Paul has drawn this conclusion from his use of Deuteronomy 27:26, which he cites and which indicates that the “curse” is that one must “observe and obey all the things written in the book of the law.” I want to note here, though, that the key verb, in infinitive form, is poieô, “to do” and which is translated with emmenô, “to remain faithful, obey,” as “observe and obey.” Awkward though it may be, it is important to note that a literal translation would focus on “remaining faithful in order to do” all the things of the Law. I will bring up the verb “to do” again and explain why I think it is significant for Paul. Here, I just want to note the first point Paul makes:

  1. 3:10: Paul understands the curse of Deuteronomy 27:26 as the demand to do every word of the Law.

In the following verse Paul states that “now it is evident that no one is justified before God by the law; for ‘The one who is righteous will live by faith’” (Galatians 3:11). The central verse here is Habakkuk 2:4, which stresses that righteous people (ho dikaios)live by faith (ek pisteôs), as Paul has stated earlier in the letter, and that the Law does not “justify” or “make righteous” (dikaioutai).  Paul’s point is straightforward here:

2.        3:11: The righteous live by faith not the Law.

Verse 12 in some ways repeats the point of the previous verse, drawing on Leviticus 18:5, to show that “the law does not rest on faith; on the contrary, ‘whoever does the works of the law will live by them.’” Paul’s point is to stress that the Law must be done, note again the Greek verb poieô, which he contrasts with faith, as exclusive modes of righteousness. It should also be noted that the point of Leviticus 18:5 in its context is that doing the Law brings life: “You shall keep my statutes and my ordinances; by doing so one shall live: I am the Lord.” Paul’s point is different than that of Leviticus:

3.       3:12: The Law rests on doing the things of the Law, which is not faith (the righteous live by faith).

Paul then says that “Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us—for it is written, ‘Cursed is everyone who hangs on a tree’” (Galatians 3:13). As we saw in 3:10, the “curse” as Paul outlined from Deuteronomy 27:26 was having to follow every aspect of the law, but by becoming a “curse” for us, as found in Deuteronomy 21:23, Paul is suggesting followers of Jesus are “redeemed” from this “curse.” How this is the case is not clear, for Paul has brought together two different “curse” verses. The passage from Deuteronomy 21:23 refers to anyone who is executed and displayed publicly for all to see, a common enough practice in the Roman period when crucifixion was common and public, but known before this historical period also. The body of the condemned criminal is cursed and could defile the land. By becoming this specific “curse” somehow Jesus has “redeemed” his followers from the general “curse” of the Law. To “redeem” (exagorazô) here has the sense of purchasing from enslavement, so that Christ’s act on the cross has had the impact somehow of relieving Christians from the need, it seems, to do all the requirements of the Law, namely, Christ has “freed” them from this demand. The connection of the Law, even in this sense, with slavery is something that would be rare in any other Jewish midrash, but it seems difficult to avoid this implication in Paul. There are two points, I think, which arise from 3:13:

4.       3:13: Christ redeemed us from the curse (which is obeying every word of the Law)

5.       3:13: How? By becoming a curse for us, which changes the meaning of curse, for the curse Jesus became is related to “one who hangs from a tree.”

Why did all of this take place? Paul wraps this up directly: “in order that in Christ Jesus the blessing of Abraham might come to the Gentiles, so that we might receive the promise of the Spirit through faith” (Galatians 3:14).  This does take us back to the previous installment, in which we saw in Galatians 3:8-9 that Paul understood that the promise to Abraham that all the Gentiles would be blessed in him was fulfilled with the coming of faith in Christ. The “curse” of the Law, in Paul’s understanding, is that every element of the law must be done by those who follow it, but since Christ “redeemed” everyone from this “curse,” it is faith that brings the blessing and the promise to the Gentiles. This leads to the final point:

6.       3:14: Since people have been “redeemed” from the “curse” (which is obeying every word of the Law) by Christ it is now possible for the Gentiles (and Jews) to receive the blessings of Abraham through faith in Christ.

Here is a question to consider: does Paul believe that Christians are freed from the Law or from the curse of the Law? While it might seem to be an insignificant question - do not both forms of “freedom” lead to the insignificance of the Law? - I think it is important. One answer suggests the Law has no remaining purpose, while the other indicates that the Law remains active in some way or form. This is where the use of poieô (“do”) twice in this passage is important, and   will become even more important as we continue to read Galatians. Stephen Westerholm published an article “On Fulfilling the Whole Law (Gal. 5.14)” which claimed that Paul consistently uses the word poieô (“do”) of those who must follow every dictate of the Law, but always uses the word plêroô (“fulfill”) to describe what Christians are said to accomplish through Christ with respect to the Law.[2] What “fulfill” the Law means is not easy to determine, but it is certainly not nothing. We will spend more time on this question when we come to Galatians 5:14.

Next entry, the Promise to Abraham.

John W. Martens

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This entry is cross-posted at Biblejunkies

 



[1] The book is co-written with Rowan A. Greer, but Kugel writes the section dealing with Jewish interpretation.

[2] In Svensk Exegetisk Arsbok 51 52 (1986-87) 229-237.

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