Commentary on Galatians 4:4-7
Our celebration of Christmas is built upon a Christian theological tradition that drastically differs from Paul’s apocalyptic Jewish theology that we see in Galatians. But also, our traditions are built upon interpretations of Paul’s theology, many of which misunderstood his Jewish context and specifically gentile audience. How can this more accurate and challenging understanding of Paul’s theological argument help us proclaim the “fullness of time” that we just heralded in the celebration of Jesus’ birth?
Context matters: Gentiles, adoption, and Galatia
Readers tend to perceive Paul’s letter to Christ-followers in Galatia as an “angry” letter: “You foolish Galatians! Who has bewitched you?” Paul writes in 3:1. It appears (based on what Paul says in the letter) that Paul and the Galatians disagree over a question with major theological implications: if gentile Christ-followers now have faith in the historical God of Israel, then to what extent are these gentiles accountable to Jewish law, part of God’s covenant (through Moses) with the descendants of Israel?
Paul firmly believes, although God’s covenant—including the law—remains holy and firm for Jews, that gentiles, though once accountable to law, have a new path to show faith in God through Jesus Christ’s faith (see Galatians; Romans 3:21–31). Gentiles, Paul argues, need not follow the law; in fact, he believes it is nearly impossible for gentiles to follow a covenant that was never intended for them, which is why God provided them a different path through Jesus as the Christ (christos, the Greek translation of the Hebrew messiah).
This theological concern about gentiles’ relation to Jewish law appears to have been widespread, since Paul touches on it in most of his authentic letters. Paul is especially angry with the gentiles in Galatia because it sounds like he taught them his way and then some of them decided they disagreed after they heard other teachers. These teachers seem to have convinced some Galatian Christ-followers that gentiles should follow at least some portions of Jewish law, including the command of circumcision (removing the penis’s foreskin). Galatians is Paul’s passionate theological response to what he has heard of their differing theological arguments.
This context is critical for understanding 4:4–7. When Paul writes of Jesus, “But when the fullness of time had come, God sent his Son, born of a woman, born under the law, in order to redeem those who were under the law, so that we might receive adoption as children” (4:4–5), he specifically speaks about the redemption of gentiles. Paul’s “we” includes himself to rhetorically bring his audience into agreement with him (even though Paul is not part of this gentile group in need of redemption).
Paul’s theology aligns with ideas that were common in apocalyptic Jewish texts and thought: God is coming to bring justice to the world, and gentiles currently face God’s wrath because they are incapable of faith in God—making them also incapable of following the law (see Romans 1:18–32). God’s covenant with Abraham, however, promised to make him the “father of many nations.” In Greek, the term “nations” (ethnē) is the same term used for “gentiles” (the translation of the Hebrew goyim).
Paul believes that Jesus’ appearance in the world (including his death and resurrection) signals that this apocalyptic moment has come: God’s judgment and justice are imminent. “The fullness of time” is now, and this means gentiles have a path to display faith in God. Paul likens this path for gentiles to adoption in 4:6–7 (see also Romans 8:12–17). In doing so, Paul adopts a metaphor from Roman imperial life and law.
Adoption in the Roman world legally brought children (mostly sons) into the official lines of the Roman household. Adoption was critical for inheritance and preserving the Roman bloodlines and chain of control. It is the same with Paul’s adoption metaphor into God’s household. “So you [gentiles in Galatia] are no longer a slave but a child [huios, “son”], and if a child then also an heir, through God” (4:7). Adoption is ultimately about inheritance: sons inherit; enslaved people do not.
Though it sounds liberating, Paul’s use of enslavement should give pause. Paul’s use of adoption assumes that child/son status is inherently superior to that of enslaved persons. By saying God adopts (faithful) gentiles into God’s lineage (with the material benefit of inheritance), Paul does not dismantle the household system that keeps others enslaved. As with Roman law, adoption confirms the household hierarchy. Though Roman law permitted Roman householders to adopt enslaved people, this was extremely rare in practice.
Romans mostly used adoption to confirm elite status on folks who were already of good Roman blood—some of whom may not have been a direct relation to the adopter. This fits Paul’s apocalyptic theology described above. Just as Rome (theoretically) made a legal path for enslaved people to become part of the Roman household, God has made a path for gentiles, through Christ, to become part of God’s justice. There is hope here, but it is important to remember that this metaphor retains the hierarchy of the household that keeps some people enslaved.
Paul’s Roman context and apocalyptic Jewish theology differ from Christian theology in the present. As we continue to celebrate Jesus’ birth, understanding Paul’s context and theology can help us recognize and avoid ways we might talk about “the law” in passages like Galatians 4:4–7. Christian and Christmas readings of this passage have a long history of assuming that Jesus replaces the law, rendering Judaism obsolete (Christian supersessionism). These theological assumptions lead to anti-Judaism.
Though our theologies and worlds differ from first-century Rome, we can also recognize resonances. Understanding the logic behind Paul’s adoption metaphor helps us to see the differences between ancient and contemporary practices around adoption. When we see how Paul’s metaphor makes assumptions about the value of being a “slave” versus a “child” that retain an oppressive hierarchy, we discover ways to investigate the systems of power that we assume in our own language.
In what spaces might we need to reconsider how we talk about families? What hierarchies do our own metaphors leave in place? Who are we leaving out when we use the language of “family” or “adoption” to talk about our communities and congregations? Exploring these questions beckons us toward the fullness of time when God’s justice becomes fully incarnate around us.