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John W. MartensMay 09, 2014
St. Paul Outside the Walls, Rome. January 2013. Photo taken by John W. Martens

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 examined Paul’s question, in light of his claims about the law, as to why God gave the law. The fifteenth chapter in this commentary, found below, examines the function of 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): Why then the law? (3:21-24) part 2. 


21 Is the law then opposed to the promises of God? Certainly not! For if a law had been given that could make alive, then righteousness would indeed come through the law. 22 But the scripture has imprisoned all things under the power of sin, so that what was promised through faith in Jesus Christ might be given to those who believe. 23 Now before faith came, we were imprisoned and guarded under the law until faith would be revealed. 24 Therefore the law was our disciplinarian until Christ came, so that we might be justified by faith. (NRSV)


Paul answered the question “why then the law?” (Galatians 3:19) in the previous entry, which discussed the law’s purpose; in the following section, Paul focuses more thoroughly on how the law functioned in fulfilling its purpose and whether the law was opposed to God’s promises.

Paul begins by asking whether “the law then opposed to the promises of God? Certainly not! For if a law had been given that could make alive, then righteousness would indeed come through the law” (Galatians 3:21).  Joseph Fitzmyer rightly states in the NJBC (787) that the Law of Moses tells people what to do, but that it was not able to give life; this, however, still skips over the most important question raised by this verse: why could the law not give life? Was it not intended to give life since it functioned as a sort of “bridge” to the “offspring” to come? Could God have given a law that could make alive? “If a law had been given” suggests that God did not give a law that was to “make alive,” but could have if that had been the divine plan. E.P. Sanders explains it in this way:

God sent Christ; he did so in order to offer righteousness; this would have been pointless if righteousness were already available by the law (2:21); the law was not given to bring righteousness (3:21). That the positive statement about righteousness through Christ grounds the negative one about the law seems to me self-evident. (Paul, the Law, and the Jewish People, 27)

Paul, says Sanders, understands the limited function of the law precisely because of the saving action of Jesus. Righteousness (or justification: dikaiosynê) was never intended to be through the law. As such, the law cannot be opposed to the promises of God since it was not a part of that promise, which was always intended to come through Christ and be attained through faith.

“What was promised” comes “through faith in Jesus Christ” so that it “might be given to those who believe” (Galatians 3:22). [1] This was always God’s intention. The first part of the verse, however, suggests another reason for (or understanding of) the giving of the law. Paul writes, “but the scripture has imprisoned all things under the power of sin, so that what was promised through faith in Jesus Christ might be given to those who believe” (Galatians 3:22). What exactly does it mean for “scripture” to “imprison all things under the power of sin”?

The first thing to note is that the reason “scripture” imprisons “all things” is so that orin order that the promises are fulfilled by faith. The Law of Moses, that is, is ordered to Christ not itself. This helps, but it does not necessarily make it easier to understand what it actually means for “scripture” to “imprison” “all things under the power of sin.” Two clarifications might help untie this knot. First, Sanders believes that “scripture” here is the equivalent of “law” (PLJP, 66, 87), so we can say that “the law imprisons all things.” Second, the word panta, which is translated as “all things,” might refer either to “all people” or “all creation.” Romans 11:32 indicates that human beings are intended.[2] There Paul writes that “God has imprisoned all in disobedience so that he may be merciful to all.” In fact, Romans 11:32 also allows us to see that “scripture” is the equivalent of “law,” since both indicate the will of God and the purposes of God which are directly referenced in Romans. What is finally so difficult about this verse, then, is understanding that God’s purposes for the law were to imprison people under the power of sin, that is, this was not a bug but a feature.

One question remains: What does “imprison” under the power of sin actually mean? The verb found here is sygkleiô, which refers to something or someone being “hemmed in,” or “enclosed,” or “confined.” It might be that “imprison” raises too many negative connotations about the function of the law that do not fit. Imprisonment is generally seen as punishment, less rarely to protect someone from outside forces which are worse than confinement. It seems, though, that the function of the law was to confine human beings from the worst ravages of sin by protecting them or guarding them under the law until Christ came. That this is the intention, I think will be borne out by Galatians 3:23-24.

Before we examine those verses, though, we should return to the second half of Galatians 3:22 and a significant translation question. It is clear that the promises come through “faith,” not the law, but whose faith or what faith? This was discussed earlier in the online commentary. There I stated that I would not try to settle the debate at that time, but allow it to play out in the context of the letter itself. The primary issue, I said then, is whether it is Christ’s faith(fulness) that saves us or the Christian’s faith in what Christ has accomplished. The phrase in Galatians 3:22 is the same as it was in Galatians 2:16: pisteôs Iesou Christou. Does thisrefer to the subjective genitive (faith of Christ) or objective genitive (faith in Christ). In one case the accent is on the person’s faith (objective) and in the other on the faithfulness of Christ (subjective). I must say that depending upon context I think both the objective genitive and the subjective context are possible. So what is the case here?

As found in the NRSV, the law functioned as it did “so that what was promised through faith in JesusChrist might be given to those who believe” (or those who have faith). This objective genitive places the accent on the believer’s faith as necessary for obtaining the promise, even though “those who believe/have faith” are already referenced at the end of the verse. The subjective genitive would instead render this phrase, “so that what was promised through the faith of Jesus Christ might be given to those who believe/have faith.” In this case, the phrase pisteôs Iesou Christou would emphasize Jesus’ faith as the means by which the promise is realized and the faith of Jesus’ followers as the means by which they share in the promise through Christ’s faithfulness. It is a difficult choice, frankly, but in this case, I do think the subjective genitive makes the best sense of this passage.

The next two verse continue the explication of the purpose of the law and support the contention that the “imprisoning” function of the law was for the benefit of humanity. Paul writes that “before faith came, we were imprisoned and guarded under the law until faith would be revealed. Therefore the law was our disciplinarian until Christ came, so that we might be justified by faith” (Galatians 3:23-24).

The language of “before faith came,” “until faith would be revealed,” and “until Christ came” indicates that the subjective genitive in Galatians 3:22 makes the best sense of the phrase pisteôs Iesou Christou there. “Faith” functions in Galatians 3:23-24 as a locution for Christ, and is contrasted with the law, whose purpose was to guard, protect, and discipline. The law functioned as a sort of prison guard “before faith came” (Galatians 3:23) and as a “disciplinarian” (paidagôgos) (Galatians 3:24). It is the word paidagôgos that is most interesting, since it is impossible to translate into a concept in English that makes sense of the functions of the “custodian,” “disciplinarian,” or “guardian” of ancient Greco-Roman school boys.

The paidagôgos was a man, usually a slave, whose job was to oversee a boy prior to his reaching maturity. The task of the paidagôgos was to function as a guardian for the boy when he went to school, making certain he did not get into trouble, and to make certain as well that the boy learned his lessons at school. The paidagôgos actually had authority to discipline the boy physically, within limits, even though he was a slave. More will be said about the paidagôgos in the next entry, but important here to stress is that freedom came for a boy from his paidagôgos when he reached the age of majority (usually around 17) and gained the freedom to leave the home without his guardian. This, Paul, says was the function of the law, to protect those under its care so that they could then “be justified by faith” when Christ came. For Paul, this function of the law is now complete.

Next entry, the end of the role of the paidagôgos

John W. Martens

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[1] “Believe,” of course, has the same root as “faith.” It is important to keep Paul’s consistency in usage clear. “Faith” is pistis while “believe” is the verb pisteuô. So, we could say, “What was promised through faith in Jesus Christ might be given to those who have faith” (Galatians 2:22).

[2] Fitzmyer agrees that Rom. 11:32 suggests that “all” is equal to human beings, but believes that because panta  is in the neuter case it might reflect all creation (NJBC, 787).


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