Born of a Woman: Analysing Galatians 4:4 in Theological Context

After all of the drama of the last few days, maybe now is a good time to get into the actual issue at hand; what exactly does Paul mean in Galatians 4:4? Given the last few posts have been only tangentially related to what is actually the core of the issue, I think now is the perfect time to go through the offending passage and see what Paul means in this seemingly innocuous verse.

As I went through in the last couple of posts, the passage in Galatians 4:4 is a commonly cited passage which scholars point to in order to show Paul made a reference to a historical Jesus. However, it is important to note that Paul never specifically says that Jesus was born of a human, biological mother. Instead, what he wrote is that:

But when the time had fully come, God sent forth his Son, born of woman, born under the law (Galatians 4:4 RSV)

Given what Paul writes here, the most common interpretation of this, is that the phrase Paul uses in Galatians 4:4 is a typical Jewish circumlocution for a human person being born in a normal fashion. For instance as I have already gone through, as Bart Ehrman argues:

Paul tells us that Jesus was born of a woman (Gal. 4:4; this, of course, is not particularly useful datum—one wonders what the alternative might have been!),

Jesus: Apocalyptic Prophet of the New Millennium (p. 79)

Equally, as already noted, as James Dunn puts it:

He [Paul] mentions that Jesus was “born of a woman” (Gal. 4.4), a typical Jewish circumlocution for a human person. 

The Theology of Paul the Apostle (p. 183)

While I could quote scholars all day from various different theological backgrounds (for a couple of other examples, see here) which say the same thing, it is not controversial to point out that the most commonly accepted interpretation of this passage is that Jesus was born of a biologically human mother. However, in order to answer the question of whether this interpretation is the best explanation of this verse, it is important to understand this verse in context because one might argue that this verse says something maybe not different to, but certainly more than that Jesus was born of biologically human woman.

For instance, perhaps the most famous proponents of the notion that this is not talking about Jesus being born of a biological mother is Richard Carrier, Earl Doherty and Thomas S. Verenna who argue (in slightly different variations but virtually the same thing) that this is not referring to a biological mother but instead, that Paul is talking about an allegorical mother. For perhaps the best explanation of this outside of Carrier’s book, see here. However, given the context, while one may not necessarily agree that Paul is talking about an allegorical woman or non-literal birth, one could argue that he is saying saying something more than just recalling a mundane and inconsequential passing reference to a seemingly unremarkable, quotidian fact, that Jesus was “born of a woman”, as Ehrman rightly points out: one might wonder what the alternative would have been! This means, in order to understand this, let us consider where this verse lies in contextThus, to begin understanding this in the context of Galatians 4, we need to understand Paul’s theology as a whole. 

Paul on the Purpose of the Law

To begin understanding the context of Galatians 4:4, we need to understand the entire Epistle to the Galatians and this means we need to be familiar with Paul’s theology as a whole, particularly related to Paul’s view on the Torah (the Jewish law). Therefore, one cannot begin to understand this passage without considering Paul’s discussing what Paul considered to be the purpose of the law. Don’t worry, I’ll explain why later on!

While this is a huge theme in Paul’s writings, to just briefly summarise, as James Dunn correctly points out:

the Pauline commentator can hardly avoid noting the regularly negative attitude Paul displays towards the law… “Christ is the end (telos) of the law as a means to righteousness for all who believe” (Rom. 10.4). Again, in 2 Cor. 3.6-9 Paul refers to “the old covenant” of Moses (3.14-15) as a “ministry of death” and a “ministry of condemnation.” In Gal. 2.19 he gives his assessment of his own conversion: “Through the law I died to the law, in order that I might live to God.” In 3.10-13 he speaks of Christ’s redemption from “the curse of the law.”

Theology of Paul the Apostle (p. 129-130)

While it would be fairly grandiose (although not entirely unfair) to claim that Paul had decisively turned his back on Judaism, in the sense of rejecting the Torah revelation given to Moses on Mount Sinai, with all of its laws, customs, and traditions, what can be said with some certainty, is that he maintained that the Torah had now been replaced and superseded by the new Torah of Christ. As James Tabor summarises:

What Paul proposed as a replacement of the Torah of Moses he called the Torah of Christ. It was not a legal code, written in stone or on parchment, but a manifestation of the Christ-Spirit in those who had been united with Jesus through baptism, both Jews and non-Jews.

Paul and Jesus: How the Apostle Transformed Christianity (p. 17)

While this may be an oversimplification (a full analysis of such a theme would require a much longer examination which I will provide at some point), the point is that Paul certainly spoke very forcefully about the law and (generally) in not a very favourable way. Although this may sound incredible coming from the mouth of someone who claims to be “an Israelite myself, of the stock of Abraham, of the tribe of Benjamin” (Romans 11:2) and “circumcised on my eighth day, Israelite by race, of the tribe: of Benjamin, a Hebrew born and bred; in my attitude to the law, a Pharisee” (Philippians 3:5) and in Galatians that he was “advancing in Judaism beyond many of my own age among my people and was extremely zealous for the traditions of my fathers” (Galatians 1:13), this is particularly strange when we consider the passages which clearly speak of the fact that the Torah is eternal. For instance, Exodus 12:14 reports: “this is an eternal law for all generations” or Judges 2:1: “I will not break my covenant with you forever” and there is a clear reference to the fact this covenant is of eternal duration, never to be rescinded or to be superseded by a new covenant (e.g. Leviticus 26:44-45) and thus, the covenant between God and Israel is frequently referred to as everlasting (e.g. Genesis 17:7, 13, 19; Psalms 105:8, 10; 1 Chronicles 16:13-18, see also Exodus 12:14, 12:17, 12:43, 27:21, 28:43, Leviticus 3:17, 7:36, 10:9, 16:29, 16:31, 16:34, 17:7, 23:14, 23:21, 23:31, 23:41, 24:3, Numbers 10:8, 15:15, 19:10, 19:21, 18:23, 35:29 and Deuteronomy 29:28). 

Despite this, the notion of a “new” covenant is actually a part of the Jewish Bible… Kind of! One of the most famous prophecies which Christians often turn to, is Jeremiah 31:31-34 which says:

31 “The days are coming,” declares the Lord,
“when I will make a new covenant
with the people of Israel
and with the people of Judah.
32 It will not be like the covenant
I made with their ancestors
when I took them by the hand
to lead them out of Egypt,
because they broke my covenant,
though I was a husband to them,”
declares the Lord.
33 “This is the covenant I will make with the people of Israel
after that time,” declares the Lord.
“I will put my law in their minds
and write it on their hearts.
I will be their God,
and they will be my people.
34 No longer will they teach their neighbor,
or say to one another, ‘Know the Lord,’
because they will all know me,
from the least of them to the greatest,”
declares the Lord.
“For I will forgive their wickedness
and will remember their sins no more.”

The Christian reading of this prophecy here, regarding Jeremiah’s apparently “new covenant” can be best seen in the passage in Hebrews 8:13 which states: “he says, a new covenant, he has made the first obsolete. Now that which is being made obsolete and growing old is near to vanishing away” and this forms a core of Paul’s theology. However, upon reading this passage in context it soon becomes clear that Jeremiah’s apparent “new covenant” is not a replacement of the existing covenant, but merely a figure of speech referring to a “renewal” of the existing covenant and the only difference will be that instead of it being written in tablets, it will be written on their hearts. While I will deal with this in more detail in a later post, let’s get back to the issue, because this sounds like a red-herring or a massive detour. But I promise, this is all necessary!

Getting back into the Epistles of the Galatians, let us first consider the chapter earlier. So in Galatians 3, it reports:

O senseless Galatians, who has put the evil eye on you–you before whose very eyes Jesus Christ was placarded upon his Cross? Tell me this one thing–did you receive the Spirit by doing the works the law lays down, or because you listened and believed? Are you so senseless? After beginning your experience of God in the Spirit, are you now going to try to complete it by making it dependent upon what human nature can do? Is the tremendous experience you had all for nothing–if indeed you are going to let it go for nothing? Did he who generously gave you the Spirit, and who wrought mighty things among you, do so because you produced the deeds the law lays down or because you heard and believed., Was it not with you exactly as it was with Abraham–Abraham trusted God, and it was that which was credited to him as righteousness. So you must realize that it is those who make the venture of faith who are the sons of Abraham. Scripture foresaw that it would be by faith that God would bring the Gentiles into a right relationship with himself, and told the good news to Abraham before it happened–In you shall all nations be blessed. So, then, it is those who make that same venture of faith who are blessed along with Abraham, the man of faith. (Galatians 3:1-9)

In this, Paul is attempting to argue it is faith and not works of the law which puts a man right with God. To explain this, he draws upon the example of Abraham. Paul is arguing that he was blessed by God, but this was not because he acted in accordance with the law, because the law did not exist yet and thus, he was blessed taking God at his word in a great act of faith (see Genesis 12:3). Building upon this, he argues that:

Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us. For it is written: “Cursed is everyone who is hung on a tree.” (Galatians 3:13)

While this quote from Deuteronomy is ultimately misunderstood and/or misapplied as it is put in a totally different situation than the original context (again, I’ll explain this in more detail in another post), despite this, it forms a key part of Paul’s overall theology, that:

All who depend on the deeds which the law lays down are under a curse, for it stands written, “Cursed is everyone who does not consistently obey and perform all the things written in the book of the law.” It is clear that no one ever gets into a right relationship with God by means of this legalism, because, as the Bible says, “It is the man who is right with God through faith who will live.” But the law is not based on faith. And yet the scripture says.. “The man who does these things will have to live by them.” Christ ransomed us from the curse of the law by becoming accursed for us–for it stands written, “Cursed is every man who is hanged on a tree.” And this all happened so that in Christ Abraham’s blessing should come to the Gentiles, and so that we might receive the promised Spirit by means of faith. He redeemed us in order that the blessing given to Abraham might come to the Gentiles through Christ Jesus (Galatians 3:10-14)

This is Paul’s writings on the apparent curse of the law. In this, he means that that Jesus made the ultimate sacrifice on the cross when he bore God’s curse (see Romans 3:25–26 where Paul spells this out) and that this was necessary because Deuteronomy 27:26 says that the man who does not keep the whole law is under a curse. This means, according to Paul, God requires nothing less than perfection. What was needed in order to be “saved” was absolute, total conformity with the law. Building upon this, he claims:

Brothers, I can use only a human analogy. Here is the parallel when a covenant is duly ratified, even if it is only a man’s covenant, no one annuls it or adds additional clauses to it. Now the promises were made to Abraham and to his seed. It does not say, “and to his seeds,” as if it were a case of many, but, “and to his seed,” as if it were a case of one, and that one is Christ. This is what I mean, the law which came into being four hundred and thirty years later cannot annul the covenant already ratified by God and thus render the promise inoperative. For. if the inheritance is dependent on law, it is no longer dependent on promise; but it was through promise that God conferred his grace on Abraham. (Galatians 3:15-18)

The point of this, is that while the traditional view is that Jewish people from birth (i.e. being a physical descent from Abraham) were given the blessing of Abraham, Paul argues that a “true” descent of Abraham was not is not a matter of flesh and blood (i.e. someone who was a physical descent from Abraham) but someone who takes the same venture of faith and thus, someone who does not uphold the value of the law above faith. So if someone can be seen to be good with God (according to Paul) with faith and not the law, what was the purpose of the law to begin with? Paul answers:

Why, then, have the law at all? The law was added to the situation to define what transgressions are, until the seed should come, to whom the promise, which still holds good, had been made. That law was enacted by angels and came by means of a mediator. Now there can be no such thing as a mediator of one; and God is one. Is, then, the law contrary to the promises of God? God forbid! If a law which was able to give life had been given, then indeed right relationship with God would have come through the law. But the words of scripture shut up everything under the power of sin, for the very reason that the promise should be given to those who believe through faith in Jesus Christ. (Galatians 3:19-22)

The answer Paul gives is a difficult one to simplify, so I won’t dwell too much on the finer points of this argument here. While there are themes in this passage which talk about the purpose of the law being; because of the fact that if there is no law there is no sin and that the law was not given direct by God, but in Exodus 20:1-26 it was given direct to Moses, all that needs to be said, is that the point he is making, is that grace and faith is superior to the law. Paul then goes on to say:

Before faith came we were under guard under the power of the law, shut up and waiting for the day when faith would be revealed. So that the law was really our tutor to bring us to Christ so that we might get into a right relationship with God by means of faith. But now that faith has come we are no longer under a tutor; for you are all sons of God through faith in Christ Jesus. As many of you as have been baptized into Christ have put on Christ. There is no longer any distinction between Jew and Greek, slave and free man, male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus. And if you belong to Christ, then you are the seed of Abraham, and heirs according to promise. (Galatians 3:23-29)

Again, a full analysis of this is far beyond the scope of this post, but the bottom line is, the purpose of the law was to bring people to Christ because the Jewish people could not keep the whole of the law and thus, once one had come to Christ he no longer needed the law, but depended on grace and faith. How does one “come to Christ” according to Paul? Paul makes it clear, it is through baptism that someone entered into Christ (see also Romans 6:3). Given this, Paul stresses that there was no difference between any of the members, between the Jewish people and Greeks (i.e. gentiles), males, females etc. all of this did not matter because they could all become sons of God. However, let us not forget that this has nothing to do with being a physical descendent of Abraham; instead, if one is to become “one with Christ” this is not something done by birth (i.e. by being Jewish by birth and thus, a descendent of Abraham) but by an act of faith by the grace of God. This means, as Tabor summarises:

Paul denigrates the Jewish people as “Israel according to the flesh,” broken off the tree of Israel, cut off from God, and dying like cast off branches on the ground, because of their unbelief in Jesus as Lord and Christ. They are now replaced by a new and true Israel— according to the Spirit. Finally, Paul says that the Torah of Moses was never intended to be permanent; it was given through the mediation of angels, not directly by God, and having served its temporary purpose in leading both Jews and Gentiles to Christ, it has been superseded.

Paul and Jesus: How the Apostle Transformed Christianity (p. 182)

In other words, gentiles (i.e. non-Jews) had now become born “of the seed of Abraham” at baptism. Now obviously, he means the seed of Abraham allegorically not biologically. While there is a lot more to be said about this, this means that, according to Paul:

Tell me this–you who want to be subject to the law, you listen to it being read to you, don’t you?… It is for this freedom that Christ has set us free. (Galatians 4:21, 5:1)

Now the eagle-eyed among you will have noticed something important, this comes a long way after verse 4 which talks about Jesus being born of a woman! But notice how this speaks of the same thing Paul was talking about earlier. This therefore means that while many scholars (and Tim himself) claim that the mythicist interpretation is not viable because the reference to the birth of Jesus can’t be an allegory because he doesn’t specifically say it is an allegory (as I’ll explain below) until a number of verses later, clearly the above has shown Paul is making a single, coherent argument which takes the literary form of inclusio know as chiasmus.

The Importance of Literary Context in Galatians 4:4

While this may sound like a novel concept, you might be more familiar with a related literary technique known as the Markan Sandwich. This is when the author makes an argument in the form of A:B:A, whereby the author introduces a concept (A), talks about something else (B) and then brings back to the first theme (A again). For instance:

A) The Cursing of the Fig Tree (Mark 1:12-14)
B) Cleansing of the Temple (Mark 11:15-19)
A) Back to Cursing of the Fig Tree 11:20-25

So if this is how Paul’s argument ends, what exactly makes up the first part of his argument and what makes up the “B” section? Well the analysis above is the climax of chapter three of Paul’s Epistle. However, this is an artificial stopping point, because Paul begins chapter four by saying: “this is what I mean” in Galatians 4:1. In other words, the argument is a continuation of what he said in the previous chapter and builds up to this: that people are no longer slaves of the law. To make this point clear he uses the analogy of Abraham, Sarah, Hagar, Ishmael and Isaac later, which I’ll explain below.

Before I analyse this, notice the issue with the traditional reading of this text. Unfortunately, many scholars who argue that the passage clearly talks about Jesus’ birth can’t see the wood for the trees! Too often, they simply point to specific passages and think they are referring to something, in this case a biographical detail about the life of Jesus (i.e. here: his birth), but do not seem to recognise that this reference of a historical detail in the life of Jesus is tucked away in the middle of all of this, which are clearly matters of theology. While this is not to say that Paul is not necessarily talking about a literal, biological birth of Jesus. But what soon becomes clear, is that by looking at what he is saying before and after the Galatians 4:4, this means the only way to know what Paul means in Galatians 4:4, can only be understood in context. When we do this, as Thomas S. Verenna points out:

the fact of the matter is that Galatians 4 is not really about Jesus; there is no discussion of the man at all and, rather, Jesus is merely the exegetical example that Paul is using. It seems that when historical Jesus scholarship hijacks a verse, all original context for the whole of the chapter is lost. Instead of Jesus, this chapter is entirely about the law and how to be saved under the law.

Is this Not the Carpenter?: The Question of the Historicity of the Figure of Jesus (p. 151)

So let’s go back to see what we have missed (before we finally go through the passages which claim to talk about the birth of Jesus) Paul argues that:

Formerly, when you did not know God, you were slaves to those who by nature are not gods. But now that you know God—or rather are known by God—how is it that you are turning back to those weak and miserable forces? Do you wish to be enslaved by them all over again? You are observing special days and months and seasons and years! I fear for you, that somehow I have wasted my efforts on you. I plead with you, brothers and sisters, become like me, for I became like you. You did me no wrong. As you know, it was because of an illness that I first preached the gospel to you, and even though my illness was a trial to you, you did not treat me with contempt or scorn. Instead, you welcomed me as if I were an angel of God, as if I were Christ Jesus himself. Where, then, is your blessing of me now? I can testify that, if you could have done so, you would have torn out your eyes and given them to me. Have I now become your enemy by telling you the truth? Those people are zealous to win you over, but for no good. What they want is to alienate you from us, so that you may have zeal for them. It is fine to be zealous, provided the purpose is good, and to be so always, not just when I am with you. My dear children, for whom I am again in the pains of childbirth until Christ is formed in you, how I wish I could be with you now and change my tone, because I am perplexed about you! Tell me, you that desire to be under the law, don’t you listen to the law? For it is written that Abraham had two sons, one by the handmaid, and one by the free woman. However, the son by the handmaid was made according to the flesh, but the son by the free woman was made through promise. These things contain an allegory, for these are two covenants. One is from Mount Sinai, bearing children to bondage, which is Hagar. For this Hagar is Mount Sinai in Arabia, and answers to the Jerusalem that exists now, for she is in bondage with her children. But the Jerusalem that is above is free, which is the mother of us all. For it is written, ‘Rejoice, you barren who don’t bear. Break forth and shout, you that don’t travail. For more are the children of the desolate than of her who has a husband.’ Now we, brothers, as Isaac was, are children of promise. But as then, he who was born according to the flesh persecuted him who was born according to the Spirit, so also it is now. However what does the Scripture say? ‘Throw out the handmaid and her son, for the son of the handmaid will not inherit with the son of the free woman.’ So then, brothers, we are not children of a handmaid, but of the free woman. (Galatians 4:8–31)

The first part of this, builds upon his previous argument that the law is no longer necessary as this was only needed when we did not know any better. But that now we are more mature (which is an echo of verses 4:1-7, which I’ll go through below), now they have come to know God and his grace and thus it was faith and not the law which is important to God. Next, Paul is offering an appeal to the Galatians that they should not follow the example of the Jewish people, who Paul thought was a religion of legalism, but they should be more like himself. But now we get into the most important part of his argument: the story involving Abraham, Sarah, Hagar, Ishmael and Isaac. But before we go through this, it is important to bear in mind, what Paul is doing is taking an episode in the Jewish Bible and creates an allegory to illustrate his point, which is a Jewish practice known as performing Midrash, a form of exegesis.

To briefly explain his point, Paul draws upon the story of Abraham and Sarah (then called Abram and Sarai) who were getting old and they had not had any children. Because she thought she was too old, Sarah went to her slave, Hagar to see if she would have a child on her behalf (let’s not dwell too much on the morality of this episode…). She did and she had a son called Ishmael. Later on, although she and Abraham were very old at the time (in fact it is commonly interpreted that gave birth when she was 90) they were promised by God that they would in fact have a son after all. They did when Abraham was 100 years old, and named the child Isaac. While there is a lot more to the story, that’s basically the outline of the main part of the story. So what on earth does all of this mean and what has this got to do with Jesus’ birth?

Abraham, Sarah and the Slave: Galatians 4 In Context

The purpose of the story for Paul was to show that when appeared impossible to Abraham and Sarah that they would have a child, eventually Isaac was born. But unlike Ishmael who was born of the ordinary human impulses of the flesh (i.e. by Hagar) Isaac was born because of God’s promise. The importance of this, let us not forget, is that Sarah was a free woman and while Hagar was a slave girl. This is significant because before the birth of Isaac, Sarah would have viewed incredibly negatively because barrenness was seen as a curse and a punishment (e.g. see Leviticus 20:20–21 and Jeremiah 22:30) while procreation is considered a blessing and a commandment (e.g. Genesis 1:28 and 9:7). Paul therefore takes this story and creates an allegory out of it; that Hagar stands for the old covenant of the law, made on Mount Sinai. Because of this, because Hagar was a slave and thus, her children were born into slavery, the covenant of the law turns men into slaves of the law. While Sarah stands for the new covenant in Jesus Christ, which is not based on the law, instead, Paul’s theology was based on grace and faith (see how this links to everything above?!). Furthermore, not only this but Paul reports that Ishmael (Hagar’s son) was mocking Isaac, Paul equates this with persecution and insisted that Hagar should be cast out, so that the child of the slave girl should not share the inheritance with her freeborn son. In other words, the children of law (Jewish people) persecute the children of grace and promise (gentiles) but just as Hagar was cast out and did not share in the inheritance in Genesis, in the end those Paul considers to be legalists who observe the law will be cast out from God and have no share in the inheritance of grace. In other words, as As Thomas S. Verenna summarises:

All of humanity is born of one of these two women. However, not everyone will be an heir to God’s throne; only those born of one of the women will become an heir with his Jesus Christ. Paul makes this distinction quite clear in the majority of his epistles; ‘for it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes, to the Jew first and also to the Greek’ (Rom. 1:16). Paul was speaking specifically to everyone who had been adopted into the death of Jesus Christ: ‘but you have received the Spirit of adoption as sons, by whom we cry, “Abba! Father!”’ (Rom. 8:15). 

Is this Not the Carpenter?: The Question of the Historicity of the Figure of Jesus (p. 151-152)

Now we can finally go through the passage in question. So as Paul says:

This is what I mean–so long as the heir is an infant there is no difference between him and a slave, although he is owner of everything, but he is under the control of stewards and overseers until the day which his father has fixed arrives. It is just the same with us. When we were infants we were in subjection to the elementary knowledge which this world can supply. But when the fulness of time came, God sent forth his Son, born of a woman, born under the law, in order that he might redeem those who were subject to the law. so that we might be adopted as sons. Because you are sons, God sent forth the Spirit of his Son into our hearts, crying “Abba! Father!” The consequence is that you are no longer a slave but a son; and if a son. an heir because God made you so. (Galatians 4:1-7)

To understand this, we need to know something about the process of growing up in the ancient world in the Jewish and Roman thought.

You’ll Be a Man, My Son

According to the religion of Judaism, on the first Sabbath after a boy had passed his twelfth birthday, his father will take him to the Synagogue, where he became “a Son of the Law/Commandment”. Although one may think this sounds like practice you’ve never heard of before, but have you ever heard of a Bar and Bat Mitzvah? Well that is exactly what this is, because bar (בַּר) is a Jewish Babylonian Aramaic word meaning “son” (בֵּן), while bat (בַּת) means “daughter” in Hebrew, and mitzvah (מִצְוָה) means “commandment” or “law.” So there you go, you did know after all! Equally, for Romans, between the ages of 14 and 17, during a festival called the Liberalia, they would take off the toga praetexta (which had a narrow purple band) and put on the toga virilis, which was a plain toga which adults wore. Now you might be thinking, that’s great but what does this have to do with anything?

Well, the importance of this, in the context of Paul’s writings here, is that when someone is a child, before these respective festivals which celebrate them becoming an adult, they were not in control of their own life. The decisions which were made were made by other people, akin to being a slave (remember that the analogy between Sarah and Hagar comes after this). Yet when when a boy became a man, he entered into his full inheritance and was able to take control of his own life. What Paul means here therefore, is that not only the Galatians themselves, but indeed all men were actually merely children in an allegorical sense in that they were under the tyranny of the law. But when everything was ready and the time was right, Christ came and released them from tyranny of the law when he was “born of a woman.”

Given the above, it soon becomes clear that there are a lot of allusions to the Jewish Bible, practices of Midrash (a Jewish form of exegesis), and thus instances of allegories before and after the key phrase of “born of a woman, under the law.” Therefore, the million dollar question is: what are we to make of the passage in Galatians 4:4? In other words, when Paul says: “but when the fullness of time came, God sent forth his Son, born of a woman, born under the law, in order that he might redeem those who were subject to the law”, is Paul talking about a literal birth of a biological woman?

Born of a Woman: A Statement of Fact, or a Statement of Faith?

In order to answer the question, I first want to point out something which I have always found surprising. It seems that many scholars, including sceptical and critical scholars of Christian origins do not seem to consistently apply an important assumption which is applied to other instances relating to episodes relating to the historicity of Jesus. Specifically, while it is certainly true many scholars are sceptical when events from Jesus’ life seems to have been written inspired by events from events from the Jewish Bible which are claimed to have been fulfilled in the life of Jesus, yet this is curiously absent when this is applied to the writings of Paul. Let us not forget, an important principle relating to the historicity of events in Jesus life was set down by David Friedrich Strauss who points out:

“when we find details in the life of Jesus evidently sketched after the pattern of these prophecies and prototypes, we cannot but suspect that they are rather mythical than historical.”

Life of Jesus, Critically Examined (p. 89)

In other words, when we read the New Testament in light of this general rule, it becomes incredibly difficult to discern what actually happened and what was written by the authors purely to fulfil prophecies from the Jewish Bible. For instance, something I recently made a video about is that the triumphal entry into Jerusalem is often seen by scholars to be a fiction created out of scriptures such as Psalm 118:25-26 and Zechariah 9:9. Yet while this assumption is used by many critical scholars (obviously Christian scholars and fundamentalists certainly do not), when it comes to the Gospels, yet it seems that this is not consistently applied to the writings of Paul.

Going back to the issue at hand, while it is certainly true that the phrase “born of a woman” is a common phrase which talks about being born in the sense of a literal, biological woman, I have always found it difficult to affirm that this means Paul had sufficient knowledge of the birth of Jesus. Thus, I would argue it is difficult to answer on the basis of this letter alone, given that Paul did not seem to know anything about the birth of Jesus. Given, as John Shelby Spong correctly points out:

A chapter written on Paul’s understanding of Jesus’ origins would be a very brief chapter indeed, for Paul was unconcerned about these things. In this Galatian text there is no hint of a miraculous birth or of supernatural parenting.

Born of a Woman (p. 23)

What’s more, the difficulty becomes more profound when we consider the fact that all of the instances of claimed “historical details” found in Paul’s writings as they relate to the life of Jesus are intrinsically linked to statements of faith and not necessarily statements of fact. For instance, if we go back to Tim’s original post, he argues that Paul says Jesus:

was a human descendant of King David (Romans 1:3) of of Abraham (Gal 3:16), of Israelites (Romans 9:4-5) and of Jesse (Romans 15:12)

However, each of these are not merely recalling historical facts in a matter of fact way, but each are deeply theological in nature. In addition, what you might have noticed, is Tim brings up Galatians 3:16, but if you scroll back up, I have already gone through this passage. This is saying that:

The promises were made to Abraham and to his seed. It does not say, “and to his seeds,” as if it were a case of many, but, “and to his seed,” as if it were a case of one, and that one is Christ.

Obviously, I will do blog posts about each of these to go through this in more detail, but the issue with the references to Jesus being a descendent of David and Jesse are both profoundly theological claims. The reason I have difficulty in affirming these are historical details about Jesus can be seen even before analysing each of these more fully; for instance, this issue can be seen when we consider a simple question: how did Paul know Jesus was a descendent of David and Jesse? In other words, what was Paul’s source to make such a claim? Obviously, records of genealogies were not widely available, so on what basis could Paul claim Jesus was a descendent of David and Jesse? The answer to this reveals the problem with the Christian reading of the New Testament and shows the problem with the application of the principle that even sceptical, critical scholars do not consistently apply. 

The reason why I want to draw attention to this, is that while non-Christian scholars may be able to see through the issues with what is reported in the Gospels, for instance; the Christian argument as it relates to a number of claimed “fulfilled prophecies”, for instance like Isaiah 53 is based on the fallacious line of reasoning:

P1) Jesus is the Messiah

P2) Jesus suffered and was killed

C) Therefore, the Messiah will suffer and be killed

While Christians would of course not accept that this is what they are doing, non-Christians seem to be able to see that the events from Jesus’ life were written into the Gospels by the authors because they had a special theological significance. For instance, as the authors would have no doubt read Psalm 22, Psalm 69, and other psalms of lamentation and Isaiah 53 before any passion story was written and added details from each to furnish the account. This is how most non-Christian scholars argue the development of Christianity began, for instance, Kris Komarnitsky’s Doubting Jesus’ Resurrection: What Happened in the Black Box? is built upon the premise that the resurrection belief and thus, the origins of Christianity can be traced back to the fact Jesus was a failed Messiah that stories were build upon to rationalise the death of someone claiming to be the Messiah. Yet, while many critical scholars are able to do this with the Gospels, they do not seem to apply the same critical eye on the Epistles of Paul.

The consequence of this, is while Paul might not have been able to confirm who Jesus’ great, great, great, great, great, great etc. grandfather was, one can easily connect the dots to say that he believed that David and Jesse were his ancestors because he was the Messiah. Given that the Jewish Bible specifies that the Messiah will be a descendent of David (e.g. Jeremiah 23:5-6) who was the son of Jesse (2 Samuel 7:12-16) the inference is like this:

P1) Jesus is the Messiah

P2) The Messiah is a descendent of David, the son of Jesse

C) Therefore, Jesus is a descendent of David, the son of Jesse

This means Paul could claim that Jesus was a descendent of David, the son of Jesse not necessarily because this was a historical detail which he concluded because he carefully analysed the birth records of Jesus’ family tree, but simply he claimed this because Jesus was the Messiah and the Messiah must be a descendent of David, the son of Jesse. Therefore, if Jesus is the Messiah, then Bob’s your uncle! This means, Paul could claim these details about Jesus, yet not necessarily know anything about Jesus’ family history or genealogical records, but merely report this because of this being a theological necessity. In much the same way, if you go to a hospital and someone introduces themselves as “Dr. Smith”, you might not necessarily know where they got their medical degree from, but that by the fact they are a doctor, you can conclude they must have an advanced degree. This same principle applies to the other apparent “historical” elements which are applied to Jesus, even though it may not seem like it to the uncritical eye.

Is Galatians 4:4 Theologically Loaded?

While the above has hopefully shown that Paul’s writings are saturated with theological undertones, I just want to (quickly) go through an issue which is often overlooked by scholars. As I have already mentioned, I find it odd that even sceptical and critical scholars do not seem to consistently apply an important assumption; that if a source claims something of theological significance then we have reason to be suspicious and must always be cautious in affirming this as historical. While this is often done in the Gospels, something which is often referred to as “prophecy historicised”, this is often absent when this is applied to the writings of Paul. Specifically here, I want to turn attention to Galatians 4:4 and the phrase which many scholars seem to ignore. To remind ourselves of it, 

But when the time had fully come, God sent forth his Son, born of woman, born under the law (Galatians 4:4 RSV)

I honestly don’t know how so many scholars just seem to ignore this initial part of the quote, or do not seem to think there is a theological core to this part of Galatians, or if they do, do not see any reason to question the historicity of this, given scholars are quick to question other passages which are less obviously theological than this!

 

To explain this briefly, if you remember my earlier post: Q. How Did Herod the Great Know the Timing of the Messiah’s Birth? A. HE DIDN’T, then this covers the theme I’m going to quickly talk about now. In case you haven’t (or can’t be bothered) to read this, the bottom line in this: Herod didn’t know when the Messiah was to going to be born at that particular time because there are no prophecies in the Jewish which said precisely when the Jewish Messiah would arrive. The closest (and I’m using this term very loosely) is the claimed prophecy in Daniel 9, which according to Christians can be interpreted (again very loosely) to mean that the Messiah will be born before he will be killed in 33 CE, the last of the “weeks” of years Daniel 9 is talking about. More specifically, (although the calculations differ between authors, so make of that what you will) it is argued that the prophecy states that 69 weeks of years (173,880 days using the 360 day prophetic year) after the command goes forth to restore and rebuild the city of Jerusalem the Messiah will come. So if we count forward 173,880 days from the date the decree of Artaxerxes, this is when Jesus presents himself as the Messiah.

Now I have many problems with this interpretation of Daniel 9, mainly that this is not a prophecy about when the Messiah would die, but the important thing is, many of the Church Fathers thought this was exactly what it was. For instance, in section XVI of Julius Africanus’ The Extant Fragments of the Five Books of the Chronography of Julius Africanus, he attempted a calculation of Daniel’s 69 weeks and concluded that the prophecy pointed to Jesus. While I will do a specific blog post about this and why the Christian reading of this is incredibly problematic, the point here, is that this passage in Galatians 4:4, is not just a mundane fact about an event from the recent past, but is dripping with theological themes, including the fact that the timing of Jesus’ birth was preordained by God. I would say that’s a pretty big theological statement! Therefore, if one is sceptical of events from Jesus’ life being rendered questionable due to them being written in such a way which seems to be theologically driven, rather than recounting a merely historical detail, then Galatians 4:4 is a perfect example of this.

 

Final Issues: The Case in Favour of Interpolation/Paraphrasing/Lack of Details

Finally, in addition to the above, I just want to briefly talk about the final issue. While I’d like to think this is a reasonably detailed analysis of this phrase, no analysis of this phrase cannot be complete without even mentioning the issue that one could make the case that this passage was not actually written by Paul. For instance, as Bart Ehrman notes:

One relatively easy way to get around the testimony of Paul to the historical Jesus is the one I mentioned already. It is to claim that everything Paul says about the man Jesus was not originally in Paul’s writings but was inserted instead by later Christian scribes who wanted Paul to say more about the earthly life of their Lord. As I suggested, this seems to be a “scholarship of convenience,” where evidence inconvenient to one’s views is discounted as not really existing (even though it does in fact exist). I should stress that the Pauline scholars who have devoted many years of their lives to studying Romans and Galatians and 1 Corinthians are not the ones who argue that Paul never mentioned the details of Jesus’s life—that he was born of a woman, as a Jew, and a descendant of David; that he ministered to Jews, had a last meal at night, and delivered several important teachings. It is only the mythicists, who have a vested interest in claiming that Paul did not know of a historical Jesus, who insist that these passages were not originally in Paul’s writings… Moreover, if scribes were so concerned to insert aspects of Jesus’s life into Paul’s writings, it is passing strange that they were not more thorough in doing so, for example, by inserting comments about Jesus’s virgin birth in Bethlehem, his parables, his miracles, his trial before Pilate, and so forth.

See Did Jesus Exist? The Historical Argument for Jesus of Nazareth

Yet, in an earlier book, Ehrman observes that doctoring texts by later scribes, who often changed the operative participle to supposedly better reflect a fully human Jesus in opposition to Gnostics who were claiming that Christ was docetic (that Christ only “seemed” or “appeared” to be human and to experience suffering). So contrary to what he says here, in his later workEhrman notes:

For the orthodox, Jesus’ real humanity was guaranteed by the fact that he was actually born, the miraculous circumstances surrounding that birth notwithstanding. This made the matter of Jesus’ nativity a major bone of contention between orthodox Christians and their docetic opponents… In light of this orthodox stand, it is not surprising to find the birth of Christ brought into greater prominence in texts used by the early polemicists. I can cite two instances. In both cases one could argue that the similarity of the words in question led to an accidental corruption. But it should not be overlooked that both passages proved instrumental in the orthodox insistence on Jesus’ real birth, making the changes look suspiciously useful for the conflict. In Galatians 4:4, Paul says that God “sent forth his Son, come from a woman, come under the law”. The verse was used by the orthodox to oppose the Gnostic claim that Christ came through Mary “as water through a pipe,” taking nothing of its conduit into itself; for here the apostle states that Christ was “made from a woman” (so Irenaeus, Adv. Haer. Ill, 22, 1, and Tertullian, de came Christi, 20). Irenaeus also uses the text against docetists to show that Christ was actually a man, in that he came from a woman (Adv. Haer. V, 21, 1). It should strike us as odd that Tertullian never quotes the verse against Marcion, 214 despite his lengthy demonstration that Christ was actually “born.” This can scarcely be attributed to oversight, and so is more likely due to the circumstance that the generally received Latin text of the verse does not speak of Christ’s birth per se, but of his “having been made” (factum ex muliere).

The Orthodox Corruption of Scripture (p. 238-239)

In this chapter therefore, he discusses potential corruptions of Galatians 2:20, 3:16, 3:17, 4:4, 5:11, and 6:17 but two passages are singled out; Galatians 4:4 and Romans 1:3–4 in the context of anti-Docetic corruptions of scripture. So this is not just a recent case being made by contemporary mythicist who question these passages.

Finally, although this is by no means conclusive but certainly does form part of a cumulative case, it soon becomes clear that looking at all of Paul’s writings, we never hear anything about any of the significant events in Jesus’ life including: the circumstances surrounding the birth of Jesus, his baptism, we read nothing of his ministry, miracles, any parables Jesus spoke, Paul does not mention Jesus’ triumphal entry, nor does he recount any mention of disciples or any of the details surrounding his trial. Beyond this, there is no recounting of Jesus cleansing of the Temple, no conflict with the authorities, no mention of thieves crucified at the same time as Jesus, no weeping women and significantly, no word about the place or the time. In reading the letters of Paul, there is no mention of any of the significant locations which the Gospels report, including Calvary, Bethlehem, Galilee or Nazareth. Nor does Paul recount any of the important figures from Jesus life, there is no mention of Pilate, Mary or Joseph, equally there is no mention of Judas. In short, we would not have any indication about where he was born, where he lived, the people he knew, the things he said and did, including any of his teachings, or parables, simply; virtually no event in his life apart from his death and resurrection and, as I mentioned above, the details which are spoken about by Paul, are theologically loaded and therefore, one must exercise caution when affirming these as being based on a historical event rather than an instance of “prophecy historicised.”

Conclusion:

To sum up, when we look at the Epistles for information about a historical Jesus, one must always remember that we need to make sure that we understand them in context; that is, not only in their historical, but their literary and theological context as well. Therefore, in order to understand any phrase which Paul writes about something which seems to be related to a historical Jesus, but in the case specifically here, when we look at Paul’s letter to the Galatians, we need to critically examine it to see whether he is saying something either other than or perhaps just simply more than the a seemingly unremarkable fact, in this case, that Jesus was born of a woman. While one could say they think that Paul is talking about a natural birth by a biological, human mother when he uses this phrase, the claim that Paul is talking about the birth of Jesus in a literal sense seems to be a vast oversimplification of what is an incredibly complicated and theologically motivated treatise. 

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