The Birth of Jesus in Romans 1:3-4 & Galatians 4:4-5

We are blessed with such wonderfully vivid and detailed accounts of the Nativity, it is rather surprising that, apart from these Infancy Narratives (Matt 1-2, Luke 1-2), there is scarcely any mention of Jesus’ birth in the New Testament at all. To judge from the book of Acts and the Letters (Epistles), the Virgin Birth was not an essential component of the earliest Christian preaching (kerygma) and teaching (didache). This should serve as note of caution for theologians and apologists today against exaggerating the importance of the doctrine. On the other hand, a number of scholars have questioned whether the apostle Paul, for example, even knew of (or accepted) the Virgin Birth as such: traditional-conservative commentators generally take for granted that he did, some critical scholars have their doubts; there is precious little evidence, looked at objectively, to decide the issue either way.

In the Pauline Letters, there really are only two passages which speak of the birth of Jesus—Romans 1:3-4 and Galatians 4:4-5.

Romans 1:3-4:

These verses—part of the opening greeting in vv. 1-7 (a single Greek sentence)—are regarded by many critical scholars as an early credal fragment which Paul has incorporated. The basis for such a view is two-fold: (a) the formulaic structure of the verses, and (b) a number of words and ideas which do not occur elsewhere in Paul’s letters (at least the ‘undisputed’ letters), such as Jesus as the ‘son of David’ (but cf. 2 Tim 2:8). There is a very precise parallelism to these verses, which makes for a powerful christological statement. To establish the context, I would outline verses 1-7 as follows (joining elements I have highlighted in bold):

  • V. 1: Paul, a servant [lit. “slave”, dou=lo$] of Christ Jesus—(a) called (to be) an apostle; (b) set apart unto the Gospel [lit. “good message”] of God
    • V. 2: which He announced [lit. “gave as message”] before(hand) through His foretellers [i.e. Prophets] in (the) holy Writings
    • V. 3-4: about His Son …{see below for these verses in detail}… Jesus Christ our Lord
      • V. 5: through whom we have received grace and ‘apostleship’ unto (the) hearing of trust [i.e. ‘obedience of faith’] in/among all the the nations, under His name
        • V. 6: among whom even you [pl.] are called of Jesus Christ
          • V. 7: to all (the ones) who are in Rome, (be)loved of God, called holy (ones)…

Note the structure of verses 3-4:

peri\ tou= ui(ou= aut)tou=
…(about) His Son

tou= genome/nou
the (one) coming to be
{aorist mid. participle}
tou= o(risqe/nto$
the (one) set by boundary [i.e. appointed] (to be)
{aorist pass. participle}
e)k spe/rmato$ Daui\d
out of [i.e. from] (the) seed of David
ui(ou= qeou= e)n duna/mei
(the) son of God in power
kata\ sa/rka
according to (the) flesh
kata\ pneu=ma a(giwsu/nh$
according to (the) Spirit of holiness
e)c a)nasta/sew$ nekrw=n
out of (the) standing up [i.e. resurrection] of (the) dead [pl.]

  )Ihsou= Xristou= tou= kuri/ou h(mw=n
Yeshua Anointed {Jesus Christ} our Lord

“His Son” and “Jesus Christ our Lord” form an inclusio, within which we find credal statements summarizing the “two natures” of Christ—his humanity (“seed from David”) and his deity (“son of God…”). The italicized portions above on the right are thought by some scholars to be Pauline additions to the (earlier) line; in any event, the phrases do expand and qualify the formula (on the “Son of God” side). A close study reveals a number of interpretive difficulties (such as the meaning and force of the participle o(risqe/nto$), complicated by the possibility of two layers of meaning at work—that of Paul and that of a (possible) earlier credal formula. Unfortunately a detailed exposition will have to wait for a later article (cf. the standard critical Commentaries).

Galatians 4:4-5:

These verses occur about halfway through the main portion of the letter (3:1-4:31), which is effectively a long exposition of the principal theme (stated powerfully in 2:15-21): that in Christ believers are freed from the burden (and curse) of the Law (the Mosaic covenant and legal code). More specifically, Gal 4:1-7 expounds the argument in 3:26-29, which can be summarized as follows: in Christ we are children (and heirs) of God according to the promise made to Abraham (that is, by faith); we are no longer in slavery (to the Law), but are free. Paul will develop this theme further in a subsequent argument (the allegory in 4:21-31)—Hagar/Sarah, slave-woman/free-woman, earthly-Jerusalem/Jerusalem-above, Sinai-covenant/new-covenant, slave-children/free-children. In 4:1ff, the argument is adapted by the illustration of the heir who is not yet of age: while still a child he is under the tutelage of servants and guardians (the Law), which means he is still under a kind of ‘slavery’ (even though the true heir). Paul is aware that this illustration would seem to apply only to Israelites (Jews), and so extends the analogy with the truly provocative idea that the Law is comparable to the “elements (stoixei=a) of the world” which hold both Jew and Gentile in (equal) bondage (v. 3). However, this period of ‘bondage’ lasts only until the appointed time (v. 2) the Father has set: once the heir comes of age, he is truly free and inherits everything which belongs to the Father.

This is the context of Gal 4:4-5, verses which, like Romans 1:3-4 (see above), are sometimes thought to reflect an earlier credal statement. There is certainly a strong symmetry and parallelism, with structure and wording which might lend itself well to preaching and basic instruction (catechism):

o%te de\ h@lqen to\ plh/rwma tou= xro/nou
e)cape/steilen o( qeo\$ to\n ui(o\n au)tou=
but when the fullness of time came,
God set off from (him) his Son

geno/menon e)k gunaiko/$
geno/menon u(po\ no/mon
coming to be out of a woman
coming to be under (the) Law

i%na tou\$ u(po\ no/mon e)cagora/sh|
i%na th\n u(ioqesi/an a)pola/bwmen
that he might buy out [i.e. ransom] the (ones) under (the) Law
that we might receive from (Him) the position of son

Verses 6-7 function in a similar manner, and serve to summarize the entire argument. Here I outline verse 6 chiastically:

But because you are sons (o%ti de/ e)ste ui(oi/)

God has set out from (him) the Spirit of his Son
e)cape/steilen o( qeo\$ to\ pneu=ma tou= ui(ou= au)tou=
into our hearts crying (out):
ei)$ ta\$ kardi/a$ h(mw=n

“Abba, Father!” (abba o( path/r)

I treat verse 7 as a parallel chiasm:

Therefore no longer are you a slave (w(ste ou)ke/ti ei@ dou=lo$)

but a son (a)lla\ ui(o/$)
and if a son (ei) de\ ui(o/$)

(Then) even an heir [lit. lot-holder] through God (kai\ klhrono/mo$ dia\ qeou=)

Relation of both passages to Jesus’ birth:

In each passage, one particular phrase can be isolated:

  • “[His Son] the (one) coming to be out of the seed of David” (tou= genome/nou e)k spe/rmato$ Daui\d), which is qualified by kata\ sa/rka (“according to [the] flesh”)—Rom 1:3
  • “[His Son], coming to be out of a woman” (geno/menon e)k gunaiko/$)—Gal 4:4

In both instances the key verb is an (aorist middle) participle of the verb ginomai. There are two closely related verbs—gennaw and ginomai—both of which have the basic meaning “come to be, become”, and both of which can have the sense of “coming to be born“, though the former (gennaw) tends to carry this meaning more specifically than the latter. Some scholars have thought that the use of ginomai here may suggest knowledge of the virginal birth (or conception) of Jesus—that is, a normal human birth would more likely be indicated by gennaw. However, there are number of instances where a ‘normal’ birth/begetting is expressed by ginomai—cf. John 8:58; Wisdom 7:3; Sirach 44:9; Tobit 8:6, etc. Moreover, it seems clear enough that the context of verse 4, with the parallel participles of ginomai, refers to the human condition in general, rather than to a special form of birth:

geno/menon (“come to be”)

e)k gunaiko/$ (“out of a woman”) u(po\ no/mon (“under the Law”)

For the phrase “come to be (born) out of a woman” as a locution for human nature or the human condition, see also Matthew 11:11 (gennaw rather than ginomai).

Interestingly, in the second-century both Rom 1:3-4 and Gal 4:4-5 were cited by theologians and apologists for this very purpose—namely, to confirm that Jesus was truly born as flesh and blood (i.e., that he was fully human). This was done to combat the “gnostic” or otherwise heterodox (docetic) view that Jesus was only partially, or only seemed to be human—cf. Irenaeus (Against Heresies III.22.1, V.21.1) and Tertullian (On the Flesh of Christ §20, 22). One also finds variants in both passages, where gennw/menon is read for geno/menon, further emphasizing the reality of the birth.

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