The Letter of Paul to the Galatians Online Commentary (17)
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 examines the function of the law, while the sixteenth post studied how the members of the Church are heirs to the promise. This, the seventeenth entry, observes what it means to be an heir in Paul’s theological scenario.
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? (4:1-7) part 4.
1 My point is this: heirs, as long as they are minors, are no better than slaves, though they are the owners of all the property; 2 but they remain under guardians and trustees until the date set by the father. 3 So with us; while we were minors, we were enslaved to the elemental spirits of the world. 4 But when the fullness of time had come, God sent his Son, born of a woman, born under the law, 5 in order to redeem those who were under the law, so that we might receive adoption as children. 6 And because you are children, God has sent the Spirit of his Son into our hearts, crying, "Abba! Father!" 7 So you are no longer a slave but a child, and if a child then also an heir, through God. (NRSV)
In the previous entry, Paul focused on how disciples of Jesus became heirs to the promise of Abraham. In this passage, Paul further continues his explanation of the law as having a limited function by drawing on the reality of a child in antiquity coming to maturity. This depiction continues to draw on the well-known role and function of the paidagôgos, the person, generally a slave, whose task was to guard a boy until he reached maturity. Paul sees the law as the paidagôgos whose role has reached an end since the follower of Jesus, through faith in him, has become an adult, free from the constraint of the paidagôgos. In fact, Paul says, such a person is now an “heir” (klêronomos) to all of the promises given to Abraham.
Paul says, “My point is this: heirs, as long as they are minors, are no better than slaves, though they are the owners of all the property” (Galatians 4:1). This connects to the paidagôgos because every boy under the authority of the paidagôgos, the law in Paul’s narrative, was a minor. Paul actually uses the word nêpioi here, which literally translates as “infants.” It was often the case that free children, as noted before, remained under the authority of slaves who were their paidagôgoi, but it is somewhat hyperbolic of Paul to say that such freeborn children “are no better than slaves.” Free children, when the time came, were simply much better off than slaves, but the point is a rhetorically powerful one: What is an heir who cannot inherit? Now that the time of maturity has come, the inheritance has also arrived.
Paul does complicate matters, though, when he speaks of heirs as remaining “under guardians and trustees until the date set by the father” (Galatians 4:2). The image of the child under “guardians and trustees” goes beyond the image of the paidagôgos because when a child reached maturity and freedom they were free of the authority of the paidagôgos, but that did not mean they were considered free adults or heirs to the property. Especially if the father was dead, they would be placed under “guardians and trustees,” which could last into a child’s twenties. Paul does not propose the “death” of God here, naturally, but perhaps estrangement would be a proper way to speak of this need for “guardians and trustees.” It might also be seen to connect with Paul’s later language regarding adoption by God of the followers of Jesus into the family of Abraham (and so God’s family). This raises the question of whether the father from whom people are estranged is the same father who now adopts them, but in Paul’s view this seems entirely possible to me.
Paul’s metaphor continues, however, in an even more complex direction when he says that “so with us; while we were minors (nêpioi again, “infants”), we were enslaved to the elemental spirits of the world” (Galatians 4:3). It would seem that the law functioned as a paidagôgos, a guardian and a trustee, but now also “the elemental spirits of the world.” This is a strange verse, not because of the imagery of the minor being “enslaved” - this is hyperbole as I mentioned, but balanced by Paul’s contrast between being a minor and gaining freedom as an adult heir in his earlier usage – but because of the use of stoicheia. Stoicheia generally is thought to refer to the four elements of the world – earth, air, water and fire – which were worshipped or considered by some in Paul’s day as gods. If the Law of Moses is not here being considered as pagan gods, it seems that such cosmic powers functioned as the equivalent of the law prior to the coming of Jesus in Paul’s understanding. It is hard to believe many faithful Jews of Paul’s day found this an acceptable equivalence.
Still, Paul’s multivalent metaphor continues to build: “when the fullness of time had come, God sent his Son, born of a woman, born under the law” (Galatians 4:4). The “fullness of time” is definitely a Jewish religious notion, adopted by the early Christians, that since history is in God’s hands, nothing occurs without God’s knowledge and functions as a part of a “plan” for humanity. This biblical notion permeates all of Paul’s writings, but is particularly powerful in this section of Galatians. The “fullness of time” was that particular time when Jesus was sent, born as a Jew under the Law of Moses, to allow for humanity to come to maturity. Particular is the key word here, for it is the particularity of Jesus as a Jew which allows for humanity to be adopted into the Abrahamic covenant.
Interestingly, to my mind, Paul speaks of Jesus’ incarnation as allowing him “to redeem those who were under the law, so that we might receive adoption as children” (Galatians 4:5). Interesting, since Jesus’ task was not simply to redeem those “under the law,” but all humanity. Is this why, however, Paul has spoken of the stoicheia as an equivalent “enslaving” force to the law, in order to include all of the nations? This seems probable to me, though since the Galatians are enamored of the law, it could simply be that Paul wants to stress that they, like the Jews and all others, are now free from it in their maturity.
Though Paul has transitioned here to some extent and returned to earlier issues and language- it is those under the law who were in need of redemption, or freedom – there is no question that freedom and redemption are intended for all humanity. In the same way, all are intended to gain adoption as children. The word “adoption” (huiothesian, “sonship” literally)reflects Greek conceptions regarding adoption, since these were far more common practices in Greek and Roman society.
The term huiothesian occurs only in Paul in the NT. The use of huiothesian demonstrates that the followers of Jesus have been adopted through divine initiative by God. There are a number of aspects to this adoption, however, which must be stressed. Though adoption was of sons almost without fail in Greece and Rome, the language in Paul must refer to both males and females and might help to make sense of Gal 3:27 that there is no longer male or female, slave or free, Jew or Greek in the Church, for all are equal members of God’s family. Second, adoption in Paul’s letters, especially Galatians and Romans, must be seen to have two levels, namely, adoption into the family and lineage of Abraham and, as a result, the adoption of this covenantal family into God’s family. Third, such adoption is due to the son Jesus Christ, though it is not clear from Greek, Roman or Jewish precedents how the natural son would be the means by which others were adopted into a family. Most often it is the lack of a natural son which leads to adoption, but in Paul’s understanding Jesus’ natural sonship is what allows others to become sons and daughters of the father and heirs to his promises. It is not clear what historical precedent there is for this conception of adoption, apart from the covenantal language of Gen 15 and 17 in which all one’s heirs become receivers of the lineage, but Paul speaks of the “Spirit” as significant for such adoption.
This gets to the heart of Paul’s language in Galatians 4:6-7, “And because you are children, God has sent the Spirit of his Son into our hearts, crying, ‘Abba! Father!’ So you are no longer a slave but a child, and if a child then also an heir, through God.” It is the experience of the Spirit, recall, which Paul wants to utilize to draw the Galatians back to the Gospel in 3:1-5. Unless they had had this experience of “adoption,” Paul could not utilize the image successfully. It is this conformation to the Son, through the Spirit, a transformation only completed at the eschaton, which allows Christians to be adoptive members of God’s family. That is, it is the “Spirit of his Son” which is transformative and allows all those who are Christians to claim the membership as adopted children in God’s family. It is the cry of Abba which points to the participation of Christians in the sonship of Jesus Christ, since the phrase “Abba, Father” (abba ho pater)is elsewhere found only in Mark 14:36 on the lips of Jesus.
Next entry, more on the stoicheia.
John W. Martens
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