July 15: Galatians 3:19-20

The next three daily notes will explore Galatians 3:19-25, as a supplement to the series on “The Law and the New Testament” (see “Paul’s View of the Law in Galatians, chapters 3-4 [Argument 3]”). These verses deal with the purpose of the Law (Torah), as understood by Paul. Through most of Galatians, Paul has been describing what the Law is not: our faith in Christ, our righteousness (being made/declared just by God), the blessing and promise to Abraham—all of these are entirely separate from the commands and regulations of the Torah. This might, naturally, lead one to ask: “why then did God give the Torah and require that it be observed?” It is this question which Paul addresses in Gal 3:19-25—”(For) what (purpose) then (is) the Law?” (v. 19).

Paul gives a similar form of question in 1 Cor 3:5; Rom 3:1. For the same type of fundamental question in Greek philosophy, see esp. Ps-Plato “On the Law ” (Minos 313 BC, 314 B, 316 E). For Jewish statements on the nature of the Law, and in defense of it, cf. the Epistle of Aristeas §§128-171, Philo On the Decalogue 2; on the primary (positive) role of the Torah in Judaism, cf. Josephus Against Apion 1.42; m. Aboth 1.2; 3.21; 6.1, 6, 7, 9; Aboth R. Nath. B 18. For these references, and others below, cf. Betz, Galatians, p. 162ff.

Galatians 3:19-25 may be divided as follows:

    • Vv. 19-20: Statement of two-fold purpose:
      (1) for “transgressions”, and
      (2) to serve as a “mediator”
    • Vv. 21-25: More detailed explanation:
      (1) to enclose all things “under sin” (vv. 21-22)
      (2) to function as a paidagogos (vv. 23-25)

Verses 19-20

These verses provide defining statements on the question regarding the Law, similar to those found in Greco-Roman literature and philosophy—see especially Epictetus Dissertations 2.16.28, also e.g. Plato Laws 9.880; Aristotle Politics 3.11.4 (1287a 25ff); Cicero De leg. 1.6.18. In verse 19, four principal statements (actually a twofold pair of statements) may be delineated (I am here generally following Betz, Galatians, pp. 163-164f):

    • It was set forth on behalf of transgressions… (v. 19b)
      • …until the seed should come to whom it was promised (v. 19c)
    • (It was) arranged/ordered through Messengers [i.e. Angels]… (v. 19d)
      • …in the hand of a Mediator (v. 19e)

Each of these will be examined in turn:

Verse 19btw=n paraba/sewn xa/rin prosete/qh, the terms being dealt with in reverse order:

    • prosete/qh—the compound verb prosti/qhmi basically means “set (something) toward [i.e. beside]”, often in the sense of adding/joining it to something else.
    • xa/rin—an accusative form of the noun xa/ri$ (“favor”), used as an (improper) preposition; literally, something like “in favor of”, but here, more accurately, “for the sake of, on account of, on behalf of”.
    • tw=n paraba/sewn—the noun para/basi$ is derived from parabai/nw, “step along” (that is, “step beyond”), i.e. “trespass, transgress”; here “the transgressions” is in the emphatic position.

What is the force of xa/rin (“on behalf/account of”)?—i.e. is the Law in response to (existing) transgressions, or is it for the purpose of bringing about transgressions? Though Paul does not state it as such here, “transgression” probably relates to the Law/will of God generally, rather than the Torah specifically. As indicated, there are two ways of understanding this phrase:

    • The Law was given for the purpose of curbing/punishing transgressions and protecting against them; this accords with the traditional Jewish view of the Torah as a fence/guard against sin and impurity.
    • Paul, however, uses the “fence” idea in a very different way, referring to the Law as enclosing human beings in sin (v. 22), in the sense of enslavement. As such, the Law effectively adds to the sinfulness of humankind (which Paul expounds in Romans [3:19-20ff; 5:20; 7:7ff; 11:32]).

There is an interesting parallel (including use of the verb prosti/qhmi) in Philo, On Joseph §31, where he speaks of the specific laws of cities being added to the (already existing) law of nature; similarly, Paul seems to view the Torah commands as increasing and making more manifest the (already existing) sinfulness of humans.

Verse 19c—”until [a&xri$] (the time in) which the seed should come, upon whom the message has been given”. There are two main points to this phrase:

    1. It establishes a clear (temporal) limit to the Torah—cf. Gal 3:23-25; 4:1-5; also Rom 10:4.
    2. It emphasizes again (Jesus as) the promised seed, v. 16; the verb e)pagge/llw, “give/announce a message upon (someone/something)”, is usually rendered as “promise, give a promise”, and often in the sense of a promise [e)paggeli/a] given by God.

There are, subsequently, two interpretive (related) points of contrast or conflict:

    1. Contrast with the traditional Jewish view of the eternal nature and validity of the Torah—e.g., Sirach 24:9; Wisdom 18:4; 2/4 Esdras 9:37; 1 Enoch 99:2; Assumption of Moses 1:11ff; Josephus, Against Apion 2.38; Philo, Life of Moses II.14; cf. also Matthew 5:17-19.
    2. Contrast between faith/promise and (works of) the Law—Paul’s familiar theme in Galatians.

Verse 19d—”ordered/arranged through Messengers”. The verb diata/ssw means “arrange (or set in order) throughout”, and is often used in a legal sense—within the New Testament, cf. 1 Cor 7:17; 9:14; 11:34; 16:1; Titus 1:5; Acts 7:44. On the idea that heavenly Messengers (“angels”) mediated the revelation of the Torah, see Acts 7:53 (and v. 38); Heb 2:2. This seems to be a natural product of associating the older divine Theophany (Exod 19:9ff) with Angels in Jewish tradition—Ps 102:20; 103:4 LXX; Jubilees 2:2ff; 1 Enoch 60:1ff; cf. Josephus Antiquities 15.136, and, in early Christianity, Hermas Similitudes 8:3:3. In some anti-Jewish and “Gnostic” (Marcionite, etc) literature, these become fallen angels or demons, e.g. in Barnabas 9:4; Ps-Tertullian Against Heresies 3, and Epiphanius Panarion 28.1-2 (on Cerinthus). There was, at times, a similar Jewish caution against ascribing to Angels/Powers what is due to God alone (e.g., Philo On the Decalogue §61). Paul appears to move between these two aspects of mediatorship—positive and negative—in his argument here, with an emphasis on angelic/human mediation as being in contrast with direct revelation from God (cf. Gal 1:1, 12; 2:1, etc).

Verse 19e—”in (the) hand of a mediator”, a mesi/th$ being one who is (or stands) in the middle, between two persons or parties. The Torah was delivered into the hand of a mediator (i.e. Moses) to give/announce to the people. We are accustomed to think of a mediator in the positive sense, especially when referring to the mediating/atoning work of Christ (cf. the Moses/Jesus parallels in Acts 3:22-23 [citing Deut 18:15-19] and 7:35-50). However, here the sense is rather more negative, the mediation of the Torah moving further away from God—to divine/heavenly messengers (angels), and then to a human being. This also sets the stage for specific argument regarding the nature of a mediator, in verse 20.

Verse 20—”and a mediator is not of one [e(no\$]”. We have here a clever bit of wordplay:

    • Basic definition: “A mediator is not of one (only)”
    • Transformed into: “A mediator is not of one (i.e. God)”

This transformation occurs by way of the concluding phrase: “but God is one [ei!$]”—this equation (one = God) may be substituted into the prior phrase => “a mediator is not of God”. In other words, Paul is establishing a clear contrast between an angelic/human mediator and God. This implies and reinforces the limited and ‘inferior’ nature of the Torah, compared with the direct revelation of God (in Christ); for a similar contrast, see Isa 63:9. On Jesus as the mediator of a new (and better) covenant, cf. Hebrews 8:6; 9:15; 12:24, and note also 1 Tim 2:5. The oneness of God is also important for Paul, and is a theme that is emphasized at numerous points throughout Galatians: there is only one Gospel (Gal 1:6-7; 2:5), one promised seed (Gal 3:16), parallel to the one Spirit (Gal 3:14; 5:22). Furthermore, the entire argument of Gal 3:15-29 climaxes with a powerful statement of the union/unity of believers in Christ (3:27-28).

References marked “Betz, Galatians” are to: Hans Dieter Betz, Galatians, in the Hermeneia series (Fortress Press [1979]).

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