Commentary on Galatians 3:23-29
When I was beginning graduate biblical studies in the early nineties, this passage from Galatians was a lynchpin in my growing respect for the theology of Paul.
If this baptismal formula were at the core of his values, then he and I could agree about the most important things, and I could be patient in trying to unravel his more difficult counsels. Since that time, there has come to be a more nuanced understanding of “no longer Jew or Greek, no longer slave or free, no longer male and female.” Feminists, African American scholars, and scholars focused on Paul’s Jewishness, and have all contributed to a richer grasp of this familiar and much-quoted passage.
Paul’s apostolic project
Paul did not have a grand plan for social justice. He was not interested in trying to reform Roman laws, institutions, or culture with respect to slave-holding, gender roles, or religious observance. Rather, Paul was focused on creating communities that were outposts of life “in Christ,” assemblies of people relating to one another in a way that was in accord with Christ’s anticipated full entry: the Parousia (1 Corinthians 15:23, 1 Thessalonians 2:19, 3:13, 4:15, 5:23), the Day of the Lord (1 Corinthians 1:8, 5:5; 2 Corinthians 1:14; 1 Thessalonians 5:2), or the Day of Christ (Philippians 1:10, 2:16).
Paul’s apostolic mission was thus to prepare the people in his assemblies (ekklesiai) to relate to one another as though they were in the very presence of God, as indeed he understood them to be when they gathered in Christ’s name. The reconciliation brought about by the cross of Christ invalidated conventional social distinctions within the churches: the distinction of God’s regard for Jews as opposed to Gentiles; the distinction in agency and social standing among slaves, freed, or free people; the distinctions in agency and roles of men and women.
One of the pertinent issues for preachers today is how to express the moral urgency of this reordering of human relationships without the intensity of Paul’s expectations of the imminent Day of the Lord.
Before faith came
Paul uses a variety to metaphors to explain the “new thing” God is doing with Jews and Gentiles. In the present passage, he uses the metaphor of the household moral tutor to describe the role of the Torah in guarding and guiding people in the ways of God’s justice until the time of the Messiah’s coming, when God made a way for all the peoples of the earth (signified here by “Jews” and “Greeks”) to be in right relationship with God.
No longer Jew or Greek
Looking beyond the passage at hand, it becomes clear that Paul did not teach the complete elimination of distinctions between Jews and Greeks. For example, Romans is punctuated with repetition of the phrase, “to the Jew first and also the Greek.” Torah and Temple remained a path of life and salvation for Jews. But God had chosen to make of the cross a means of reconciliation and life together (including meals) for Jews and Greeks on an equal footing before God. We might say that Paul’s insight is concisely contained in the phrase “no longer Jew or Greek.” Instead, his assemblies were made up of Jew and Greek, a distinctive sign of the new and reconciled life poured out through the cross.
No longer slave or free
Even when reading Philemon in the most positive way, as a plea for Philemon to receive Onesimus back “no longer as a slave but more than a slave, a beloved brother” (Philemon 16); and reading 1 Corinthians 7:21 as encouragement for slaves to use their possible freed status to the utmost advantage; one must nonetheless acknowledge Paul’s lack of critique of the institution of slavery itself as contrary to God’s will.
The extent of his vision of the effect of the power of the cross was in abolishing the distinctions between slaves, freed people, and free people before God — and thus the abolishing of these distinctions in Christian community with regard to charisms, leadership, and mutual respect.
The question before the preacher, then, is how the Spirit is continuing to push the life-giving and reconciling effects of the cross into the world that God is saving. What are the consequences of the equality of all people before God, not only in churches but in the world that is the proper object of the good news of salvation?
No longer male and female
Here Paul changes the connection between the pairs of terms. From Jew or Greek, slave or free, he moves to “no longer male and female.” Curiously, in Pauline epistles women seem to disappear almost entirely as women, as they are addressed consistently among the “brothers.”
When women do surface for particular comment in 1 Corinthians 11:2-16, Paul makes a remarkably weak argument attempting to curtail their spiritual practice, relying on the dictates of “nature” regarding hairstyles.
On the other hand, the epistles witness to the many women who had roles of the highest importance as, among other things:
- house church leaders (Chloe)
- bearers and interpreters of letters (Phoebe)
- prophets and leaders of prayer (1 Corinthians 11:5).
Here in Galatians, Paul appears to be critiquing the socially constructed binary of male/female within the churches. As a woman, I wonder whether it felt freeing to be considered as a “brother,” a co-heir of Christ, in early Christian communities. Given the status of adult women as essentially minors under the law, would I have welcomed the agency and full respect that came with being counted among the adult brothers?
Clothed with Christ
Galatians 3:27 is the dynamic heart of the passage, and perhaps the surest foundation for a strong moral interpretation.
As we have seen, from the point of view of a twenty-first century democracy, Paul’s radical reordering of human relationships before God does not now seem nearly radical enough. To understand ourselves as clothed with Christ, who risked himself entirely for God’s purposes, is to apprehend our full responsibility as adult heirs of God, people with both the grace and the responsibility to discern the implications of Paul’s vision in ever-widening circles, preparing the world for the fullness of God’s presence. Since the day of the cross, the power of God has been on the move:
- to call people into dynamic relationship with God;
- to invite us into communities of well-being beyond constricting gender norms;
- and to effect freedom, full agency, and respect for all people.
Blount, Brian K., General Editor. True to Our Native Land: An African American New Testament Commentary. Minneapolis, Fortress, 2007.
Nanos, Mark D. Reading Paul Within Judaism. Eugene, OR: Cascade Books, 2017.
Polaski, Susan Hack. A Feminist Introduction to Paul. St. Louis, MO: Chalice Press, 2005.