July 18: Galatians 3:26-29

This note provides a more detailed analysis of Galatians 3:26-29 (spec. vv. 27-28), the verses which conclude the argument of Gal 3:15-29 (on this, see the article on “Paul’s View of the Law in Galatians”). The overall section is an argument from Scripture regarding God’s promise to Abraham; it is important to follow closely Paul’s line of reasoning, noting especially the careful manner in which he identifies traditional (ethno-religious) aspects of Jewish identity with believers (Jew and Gentile) in Christ. There can be no doubt that Jews would have found such a transferred application as unacceptable, even offensive; Jewish Christians may have found difficulty with it as well. Even today, for somewhat different reasons, well-meaning (and culturally sensitive) Christians are reluctant to use any terminology which suggests that Christianity replaces Israel/Judaism in God’s order of things. This issue will be touched on at the end of the exposition, below.

Verses 26 and 29 bracket this section with a pair of related, parallel statements:

    • Basic statement (v. 26)—”You are all sons through the trust in (the) Anointed Yeshua”
    • Recapitulation (v. 29)—”If you are of (the) Anointed, then you are {the seed/heirs}…”

The statement of v. 29 differs in two respects: (1) it is conditional (“if [ei)]…”), and (2) Paul uses a pair of traditional Israelite/Jewish expressions which qualify believers as “sons”:

In between, we have vv. 27-28, which may well reflect a (pre-Pauline) baptismal formula; in any case, the statement in v. 28 is clearly tied to the ritual of baptism, as similar formulations in 1 Cor 12:13 and Col 3:11 would indicate (see Betz, Galatians, pp. 181-4). The (traditional) language and imagery has already become standard in these early passages, as the phrasing in v. 27 suggests:

“For as many of you as have been dipped/dunked [e)bapti/sqhte] into (the) Anointed [ei)$ Xristo\n], you have sunk in(to) [e)nedu/sasqe] (the) Anointed”

    • Identification of the symbolic ritual
      —dipped/dunked into Christ
    • with being clothed, i.e. initiation rites
      —sunk in(to) Christ, as into (i.e. putting on) a garment

While largely foreign to Western culture today, this (ancient, mystical) language of initiation is important in several respects:

    • It prefigures and anticipates (future) death and judgment before God.
    • It establishes and confirms for the believer/initiate a present reality and experience of future blessedness (with God)—for early Christianity the emphasis was more on salvation than beatitude/blessedness (but note, esp. the Beatitudes of Jesus [on these, cf. my earlier series]).
    • This reality and experience is understood primarily in terms of religious (and spiritual) identity. The removal of clothing (i.e. the old self/nature) to enter the water, followed by the application of new clothing (such as a clean white garment), concretely symbolizes the realization of this new nature.

In verse 28, Paul concisely and dramatically describes the effect of the ritual—that is, the formulation of this new identity. He does this first with a series of negative propositions (likely using traditional language):

ou)k e&ni “in (Christ) there is no”… (the negative particle ou)k is emphasized—”there is no…”)

—”no Jew and no [ou)de\] Greek”
—”no slave and no [ou)de\] free (person)”
—”no male and [kai\] female”

Then this is summarized under a single positive statement:

“For you all are one in (the) Anointed Yeshua”
pa/nte$ ga\r u(mei=$ ei!$ e)ste e)n Xristw=|  )Ihsou=

This compact formula includes three themes which are central to Paul’s theology, and which are emphasized throughout Galatians:

    1. “All” (pa/nte$)—that is, all believers without distinction, socio-religious status, etc., and especially with no distinction between Jews and non-Jews (Gentiles).
    2. “One” (ei!$)—this unity/oneness is a vital theme in Galatians, though this may not be so obvious from a casual reading—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).
    3. “in Christ” (e)n Xristw=|)—this is the climactic expression and is central to Paul’s thinking: the new identity (and unity) of believers is in Christ—cf. Gal 1:22; 2:4, 16-17; 3:14, 26; 5:6, and often throughout the other letters.

A difficult point of interpretation in verse 28 is the precise force of the three negative propositions—how literally should one take these, and how do they apply in practice? It is not possible to deal with this enormous socio-religious question here; I would only state that the tendency has been to limit or qualify Paul’s statements, by reason, practical necessity, and comparison with other passages in his letters, especially in regard to biological (gender) distinction (“male and female”). This, I fear, turns the thrust of Paul’s statement in Galatians rather upon its head. First, it must be recognized that Paul states clearly here that the old natural and social categories do not apply to the new identity in Christ, according to three representative examples:

    • Ethno-religious: Jew/Greek
    • Socio-economic status: Slave/Free
    • Socio-biological distinction: Male and Female

Churches and commentators today can accept the elimination of the first two distinctions much more easily than the third, especially since Paul himself appears to apply it inconsistently—if the Jew/Greek and Slave/Free distinctions do not (apparently) have any effect in terms of the role and status of believers in the Christian community, how can the Male/Female distinction continue to be observed (as Paul instructs, in various ways, both in the undisputed and disputed letters)? This is a most pointed (and relevant) question for churches in our society today, and one which ought to be studied and grappled with fairly, objectively, and without prejudice, in the spirit of the very unity Paul declares in vv. 27-28. That Paul may intend the Male/Female distinction as a special case is, perhaps, indicated by the slight variation in formula:

    • “There is in (Christ) no Jew and no [ou)de\] Greek” (similar for Slave/Free)
    • “There is in (Christ) no ‘Male and [kai\] Female'”

It would seem that he is not so much eliminating a socio-biological distinction as the existent duality (i.e. the distinct role and status in society and the community). If so, it would be a strong argument against the approach taken (and/or retained) by many traditional-conservative churches and groups, in relation to the role of women in the Church. However, we ought to be cautious about reading too much into this difference in the text. Either way, I would fully affirm, in the words of commentator F. F. Bruce (The Epistle to the Galatians [NIGTC] 1982, p. 190), that any apparent or supposed restrictions on the roles of women in the other Pauline epistles (e.g. 1 Cor 14:34f; 1 Tim 2:11f) “are to be understood in relation to Gal 3:28, and not vice versa“.

If we should re-examine vv. 26-29 as a whole, in light of the preceding analysis, it seems clear that Paul is actually making three statements regarding religious identity:

V. 26: “You are all sons (of God) through trust in Christ
V. 27-28: “You are all one in Christ” (symbolized through the ritual of baptism)
V. 29: “If you are of Christ…” (this last being conditional, according to the first two statements, cf. above)

This brings us back to the concluding statement of verse 29, where the new identity (which is of/in Christ) is identified with the old (and distinct) ethno-religious identity of Israel/Judaism—the seed/heirs of Abraham, including God’s promise (and blessing) to him. This conclusion to Paul’s argument would seem to make clear that this traditional Jewish religious identity and understanding actually applies only to believers (the ones trusting) in Christ. As hard as it might be for people (naturally) to accept, the old ethno-religious distinction no longer applies. However, while this idea is clear and definite enough in Galatians, Paul has given the entire matter a somewhat different (more expansive and nuanced) treatment in Romans. There will be cause to refer to this difficult (and sensitive) question again during discussion of the relevant passages in that epistle.

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

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