Galatians 3-6

Good morning! Paul begins today’s second section of Galatians (chapters 3-6) by writing, “You foolish Galatians!” We may feel like fools trying to get Paul’s analogies and arguments, but you needn’t be a logician to make sense of the general claims here. Paul’s basic argument is that by faith in Jesus Christ, divine grace covers a person and she is set free from the obligations of religious law. Believers use their freedom in Christ not to gratify every selfish pleasure, but to bear one another’s burdens. Furthermore, the physical and spiritual differences between people become inconsequential, since all are one in Christ.

Paul uses several Torah allusions to support his viewpoints. Abraham is commended in Genesis for his faith, and Paul argues that the faith he exemplified was Christian in origin, though it was veiled until Christ came to show it openly. By contrast, Moses gives the law 430 years later, a count that probably comes from the generational lineages traced in Genesis. The law became necessary because faith was insufficient for earlier Hebrews, but now that Christ has come openly, the law is no longer needed. Paul’s lamentable riff on Hagar as a slave and Sarah as a free person attempts to use them as metaphorical symbols of the law and freedom, but Paul ignores so much of their stories that he’s clearly only interested in them as set pieces for his logic. This effectively subjugates both women—again—to the will of a man, and I find that hard to bear without mention. Needless to say, these are later interpretations of Scripture that do not take the Bible as literal fact but interpret it anew for different circumstances.

One passage which many egalitarians will recognize is Galatians 3:27-29, which proposes that to be baptized into Christ is to erase divisions. “There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.” This can be a helpful frame for those who seek equality, but only to a point. An essay in Dale Martin’s brilliant book “Sex and the Single Savior” points out that Paul was not claiming equality between these identities, though we may use him in this way now. Rather, Paul believes that every person baptized puts on something of a “Christ suit”, becoming the “better” of each pair in the meantime. Women become men, Greeks become Jews, and slaves become free when they are “clothed…with Christ”, who was a free male Jew. Those of us who want to argue there’s nothing inherently better about men than women using this passage should do so advisedly, because the context of the passage argues otherwise.

I’ve already commented with the Gospel of John about the problems with putting “Spirit” and “flesh” as opposites (as Paul does at the end of Galatians 5), so let me mention two other things I find challenging about Paul’s logic here. First, Paul uses “the law” only in a negative sense here, as something which either (at minimum) compensates for human deformity or (at maximum) magnifies human depravity to such an extent that humans are “driven into the arms of grace”. Fans of Calvin’s “third use of the law” like myself argue that the law also serves a positive function of guiding the best ways to live, which is overlooked here. Second, Paul pens this paean to freedom (as opposed to enslavement by earthly laws such as those that require circumcision), but such liberating freedom can also be isolating and anti-communal. Paul does advise “bearing one another’s burdens” yet it feels more optional than required, especially given how ardently he advocates that through faith there is absolute freedom. History and current events show all too well that renegade individualism has a tendency to thumb its nose at the common good, and it’s always the poor and marginal lives (that Jesus came especially to heal) which bear the cost of such “freedom”. We must not read Galatians apart from other Pauline passages which talk about radical interdependence in “the body of Christ”. [stepping down from the soapbox] Happy reading!

Read Galatians 3-6.

(Note that the link here is only to Galatians 3-4. For copyright reasons, you will need to click the button at the bottom of the linked page to read chapters 5 and 6.)

Please join discussion of this passage at the Daily Bible Facebook group, or comment below. The passage for tomorrow is Ephesians 1-3. Thanks for reading!

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