Notes on Galatians 3:28, part 1

Galatians 3:28

The next three daily notes serve as a supplement to the recent article on Galatians 3:28 in the series Women in the Church, as well as to the study on the subject as it relates to the Pauline letters as a whole, and to the role of women from the standpoint of early Christianity and Gnosticism. Here I will be looking in more detail at three specific aspects of this verse—particularly, the declaration “there is no male and female”:

    1. The background and significance of the statement
    2. The logical consequences and possible interpretation(s), and
    3. Comparison with the Pauline teaching in 1 Cor 11:3ff; 14:34-35, etc

Today’s note treats the first of these topics.

1. Background and Significance

As previously discussed (cf. Part 3 of this series), the three-fold declaration in Gal 3:28 is clearly connected with the rite of baptism: “For as (many of) you as have been dunked [i.e. baptized] into (the) Anointed (One) {Christ}, you have sunk in(to) (the) Anointed [i.e. put him on as a garment]” (v. 27). There are parallels to Gal 3:27-28 in 1 Cor 12:13 and Col 3:11, also associated with baptism. Many commentators believe that this reflects an (earlier) baptismal formula; if so, it is probably not a specific formulation original to Paul, but rather something he cites to support his argument (and for dramatic effect), something which would be familiar (and dear) to recent converts. Let us compare these three passages (note the central statement in bold):

Galatians 3:27-281 Corinthians 12:13Colossians 3:9-11
“For as (many of) you as have been dunked [i.e. baptized] in the Anointed {Christ}, have sunk in(to) [i.e. put on] the Anointed;
in (Christ) there is no Yehudean {Jew} and no Greek, there is no slave and no free (person), there is no male and female
for you all are one in (the) Anointed Yeshua {Jesus Christ}.”
“For in one Spirit we all were dunked [i.e. baptized] into one Body—
(even) if Yehudeans {Jews} and if Greeks, if slaves and if free (person)s
and we all were given to drink of (the) one Spirit.”
“…having sunk out from the old man…and sinking in(to) [i.e. putting on] the new…
where in (Christ) there is no Greek and Yehudean {Jew}, circumcision and foreskin…, slave, free (person)
but the Anointed {Christ} is all (thing)s and in all (things).”

The basic setting is baptism as an initiation rite, similar to many other such religious rituals worldwide. The closest parallels would be from the Greco-Roman (pagan) mystery cults, though one can also cite similarities in a Jewish setting (such as the Qumran community of the Dead Sea Scrolls). We actually know relatively little about the specific ceremonies practiced by the mystery religions; however, note the reference in Apuleius, Metamorphoses 11:24, which involves an initiate in the mysteries of Isis, who has put on robes following the sacred ceremony (cf. also Plutarch, Isis and Osiris 352b; Firmicius Maternus, Error of the Profane Religions §§19, 22). For a (Hellenistic) Jewish use of the same kind of symbolism, cf. Philo, On Flight and Finding §§109-12; Joseph and Aseneth §§14-17. It is likely that early Christian tradition made use of (white) robes to symbolize the “putting on” of Christ.

In such religious initiation, the ritual signifies the establishment of a new identity, and all the more so in the case of Christian baptism—the believer enters the water, dying to the old, and being born (again, spiritually) to the new. Paul clearly connected baptism with the believer’s participation in the death (and resurrection) of Christ (Rom 6:3-11; 8:9-11; Col 2:12ff; cf. also Gal 2:19-20), and this must also inform the baptismal formula used in Gal 3:27-28, etc. Note the parallel between “putting on” (lit. “sinking in[to]”, vb. e)ndu/w) in Gal 3:27 and “putting off” (lit. “sinking out [from]”, vb. [a)p]ekdu/w) in Col 3:9—the believer “puts off” the ‘old man’, the old nature (like a snake shedding its skin), and “puts on” the new nature (Christ). It is this fundamental sense of a new religious (spiritual) identity which provides the context for the three-fold declaration in Gal 3:28 with its repeated use of e&ni (“there is in…”). The reference is to the preposition e)n (“in Christ”, e)n Xristw=|) at the end of the verse, but also to the earlier use of the verb e)ndu/w in v. 27. That verb is usually translated “put on”, “clothe [yourself]”, but, in order to preserve the wordplay (among other reasons), it is better to render it literally, “sink in(to)”. Note how this frames the central declaration:

    • “You have sunk in(to) [e)ndu/sasqe] Christ”—i.e., you are now in Christ (v. 27)
      “In (Christ) there is… [e&ni]”
    • “You are all one in Christ [e)n Xristw=|] (v. 28d)

Baptism symbolizes (ritually) the believer’s union in Christ, which is also to be understood as becoming part of a unity—that is, of all believers, as a single body. This is the point emphasized by the formula in 1 Cor 12:13:

    • “For we all were dunked [baptized] in one Spirit
      —”into one Body”
    • “…we all were given to drink of (the) one Spirit

A comparison between 1 Cor 12:13 and Gal 3:27-28 (perhaps written only a few years apart), indicates that the three-fold declaration in Gal 3:28 ought to be understood in terms of believers being part of the one body of Christ. In other words, the declaration is governed by the overriding idea of our union (together) in Christ; here is the formula:

    • V. 28a: “in (Christ) there is no Jew and no Greek”—religious/ethnic distinction
    • V. 28b: “in (Christ) there is no slave and no free (person)”—socio-economic distinction
    • V. 28c: “in (Christ) there is no male and female”—social (and biological) distinction

This makes for a powerful statement and strongly suggests that our new identity in Christ somehow transcends, or renders invalid, the normal distinctions and characteristics of our (previous) way of life. The problem is that Paul, in his letters, really only discusses the first of these—the religious (and ethnic/cultural) distinction between Jews and non-Jews (“Greeks”, i.e. Gentiles). This is a central theme, especially in Galatians and Romans, and Paul argues forcefully that the “new covenant” in Christ effectively abolishes the old. Perhaps the most direct declaration along these lines is in 2 Cor 3:1-18 (esp. verses 6-11, 12-16); while Ephesians 2:11-22 neatly sums up the Pauline teaching, with the idea that Jewish and Gentile believers have become “one new man” in Christ (vv. 15-16). Thus, while Jewish and Gentile believers, respectively, might (voluntarily) continue to observe certain customs, these cannot—and must not—create division or separation within the body of Christ (cf. Gal 2:11-14; Rom 14, etc). In every way that matters, there is no difference whatever between believers, from an ethno-religious or cultural point of view.

The same would certainly apply to socio-economic distinctions, such as slave vs. free, rich vs. poor, etc., though Paul says relatively little about this. According to the narratives in Acts, many of the earliest converts in Paul’s missionary work were from the upper levels of society (16:13-14; 17:4, 12, 34, etc), but certainly from the middle/lower classes as well (cf. 1 Cor 1:26ff, etc). In dealing with the social situation of slavery in the Greco-Roman world, Paul tends to downplay any possible revolutionary aspect to the Christian message (1 Cor 7:21-23; Col 3:22-4:1; cf. also Eph 6:5-9; 1 Tim 6:1-2; Tit 2:9-10); social change would occur naturally, through conversion to the Gospel, rather than by active efforts to change the laws and structure of society. More commonly, Paul uses slavery/freedom as a motif for the Gospel itself—human beings are in bondage under sin (and the Law), and only through trust in Christ and the work of the Spirit do we find freedom (cf. Rom 6:15-23; 8:1-17; Gal 2:4; 3:21-26; 4:1-7, 8ff, 21-31; 5:1). In the letter to Philemon, there is a moving account of a runaway slave (Onesimus) who has become a believer, and is now returning to his (Christian) master. This illustrates the dual (and somewhat paradoxical nature) of the relationship between Philemon and Onesimus—on the one hand (at the social level), they remain master and slave, but on the other (in Christ) they are brothers and equals.

This brings us to the thornier question regarding the social (and biological) distinction of male and female—do these no longer apply to believers in Christ, as the declaration in Gal 3:28c suggests? I have already addressed this in Part 3 of the series (“Women in the Church”), but it will be useful to supplement that discussion with a few points here.

  • The expression “male and female” (a&rsen kai\ qh=lu) refers not only to the conventional, social difference(s) between men and women, but also to the essential physical/biological differences.
  • Almost certainly it alludes to the creation account in Genesis (1:27; 5:2); the significance of this will be dealt with in the next note. It is interesting that in 1 Cor 11:2-16 (also 1 Tim 2:11-15) the creation narrative is used to make virtually the opposite point—that gender distinction is to be preserved in the Church, with women (it would seem) in a subordinate role.
  • The context in Galatians is important—Paul is arguing that believers are the true heirs of Abraham (to the promise of God), which means, according to the cultural background of the illustration, that believers are sons. But clearly, this is not to be taken literally; believers—men and women both—are “sons” in this sense. It is not a question of gender (in spite of the traditional gender-based language).
  • Beyond this, Paul is definitely speaking of a new situation for believers. Again, this is especially clear from the surrounding context:
    —Believers are no longer (ou)ke/ti) bound under the old way of things (3:25; 4:7)
    —This old condition is described as being under (u(po/) the authority (i.e., bound, enslaved) of the old order—the Law, sin, death, etc. (3:10, 22-23, 25; 4:2-5, etc)
    —The old order of things involves “the (arranged) elements [stoixei=a] of the world” (4:3, 9; cf. Col 2:8, 20), which certainly includes the (fallen, corrupt) order of creation
    —But believers are freed from the old order (3:21-26; 4:1-11, 21-31; 5:1ff, 13); this freedom is in relation to the presence and work of the Spirit (3:2ff, 14; 4:6, 29; 5:5, 16-18ff), which is not tied to the created order (cf. John 3:3-10)
    —This new condition (and identity) in Christ, and through the Spirit, is defined as a new creation (6:15; 2 Cor 5:17; Col 3:10, also Eph 2:15; 4:24)—which suggests that the old (created order) has passed away or been completely transformed (cf. also Rom 7:6; 8:19ff; 1 Cor 5:7)

All of this sounds impressive, but what does it actually mean for believers? What are the consequences of this new condition or new identity? This must be addressed in two parts: (a) how extensively should Gal 3:28 be applied at the religious (and spiritual) level, and (b) what are the practical implications for Christian life and community? These questions will be dealt with, in turn, in the next two notes.

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