The Letter of Paul to the Galatians Online Commentary (14)
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 continued Paul’s examination of Abraham, but also claims that Christ “redeemed” his followers from the “curse” of the Law. In the thirteenth study in the Galatians online commentary, we looked at Paul’s claim that God’s promises were to Abraham and his “offspring,” with a twist on the meaning of “offspring.” The fourteenth entry, found below, examines Paul’s question, in light of his claims about the law, as to why God gave the law.
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 (3:19-20) part 4.
19 Why then the law? It was added because of transgressions, until the offspring would come to whom the promise had been made; and it was ordained through angels by a mediator. 20 Now a mediator involves more than one party; but God is one. (NRSV)
Paul has been lead quite naturally to an important question given what he has said about the Law of Moses previously. So Paul asks the question that must have been on the first hearers’ and first readers’ minds, just as it is on ours: “Why then the Law?” (Galatians 3:19)
Paul answers his question straightforwardly, which is not to say in a manner that leads everyone to agree on the meaning of the simple phrase: the Law “was added because of transgressions,” or “for the sake of transgressions” (Galatians 3:19). The Greek is tôn parabaseôn charin and scholars have proposed three possible interpretations of these three words:
1. The law was added due to the reality of transgressions which necessitated the giving of the law until the offspring would come;
2. The law was given to increase transgressions until the offspring came (see Romans 4:15);
3. The law was given to keep transgressions in check until the offspring came.
It is possible to see 1. and 3. together, that is, since there were transgressions it was necessary to give a law to restrain them, but 2. must be seen alone if the purpose of the law is to increase or produce transgressions. This is one reason for rejecting 2., that the law was given to produce transgressions, given that transgressions already existed apart from the law and no law was needed to create them (only to evaluate and judge them differently). I think 3. especially comes to the fore in light of Galatians 3:23-25, which we will examine next entry, and which indicates that the law was intended to restrain transgressions until the coming of the “offspring” or the Messiah. This indicates that the law had an essential and functional role to keep transgressions in check.
The task or work of the law was completed when the “offspring would come to whom the promise had been made” (3:19). The coming of the offspring means that the law in Paul’s thinking had a limited role chronologically as well as theologically and that its purpose has now been reached. This is not so much a negative evaluation of the law, though many of Paul’s Jewish peers would certainly have disputed this, as a positive evaluation of the role of the Messiah, Jesus Christ and the fulfillment of the promise to Abraham, as we saw in the previous entry, through Jesus’ coming.
On the other hand, when Paul reflects common Jewish belief at the time that that law was “ordained through angels” (3:19) - a tradition developed from Deuteronomy 33:2, 33:23 (LXX) and Psalm 68:17 and found in Josephus, Ant. 15.5.3, Jubilees 1.27-29, Acts 7:53 and Hebrews 2:2 – it does seem that this comment is intended to diminish the law in light of the coming of the “offspring.” The law was given by an angel not directly by God, unlike Jesus who comes directly to the people from God or the promise which was given directly by God to Abraham.
The phrase “by a mediator” has also been a difficult phrase to understand, though most commentators have opted to understand the “mediator” as Moses, the one to whom the law was given. The basis for this emerges from Leviticus 26:46, Numbers 36:13 and Deuteronomy 5:4-5 and Philo explicitly calls Moses a mediator in Philo, Moses, 2.166.
When Paul adds, “now a mediator involves more than one party; but God is one” (Galatians 3:20), what is Paul’s purpose? He has already said that the law was given through angels to a mediator. There are two ways, I think, to understand this, as noted above:
1. Those who follow Jesus and are in the promise have direct access to God through Jesus without need of a mediator;
2. The law needed the mediation of angels and Moses for the people of Israel, while God gave the covenant promises directly to Abraham.
I am not certain which one makes the best sense of the verse, it seems both are possible, but it does appear that Paul’s general point is that direct access is gained to God through Jesus Christ, even if Paul has in mind that the covenant promises were made directly to Abraham. Since it is the “offspring” to whom God’s promises to Abraham’s are ultimately directed according to Paul, either 1. or 2. takes us to the unmediated reality of Jesus Is this more a negative statement about the law or a positive statement about direct access to God through Jesus according to the covenant promise? Given Paul’s rhetorical battles with the Galatians and the interlopers in the community, it must be both negative and positive.
Next entry, Was the Law opposed to God’s promises?
John W. Martens
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