Born of a Woman: The Literary Context of Galatians 4:4

Before I get into a summary of my last post, I want to provide an important quote from arguably one of the most well-respected and personally, one of my favourite contemporary scholars, Mark Goodacre. Although this is in the context of the debate of regarding the “Q” document, the same principle can apply equally well here. As Goodacre correctly notes:

To state the argument against one hypothesis using the presuppositions and terminology of the competing hypothesis involves a circularity that undermines any hope for a fair assessment of the evidence

The Case Against Q: Studies in Markan Priority and the Synoptic Problem (p. 82)

The issue seems to be, when those affirming the historicity of Jesus based on an analysis of Paul’s Epistles who confidently claim that Paul made reference to an earthly, historical Jesus in his letters and that he certainly meant Jesus was born of a biologically human woman based on the passage in Galatians 4:4, we need to ensure that we understand Paul’s phrasing as he was using it, not merely engaging in circular reasoning based on our own presuppositions. The problem often is, as William Arnal points out:

by taking it for granted that Paul and his letters constitute part of the “origins” of the ideas, practices, or institutions we later find… by identifying the scattered, distinct, and theologically unrelated documents that happen to appear in the New Testament as collectively originary for that later social movement known as “Christianity,” we imply some sort of unity of conception or agenda behind them, and so assume that to at least some degree the ideas or at least core commitments and convictions found in one text might be taken for granted in other texts in which they do not actually appear… We must be very careful with Paul, however, not to let our tendency to assume unity of purpose and/or identity among different Jesus-people to lead us to invent evidence of this unity in the Pauline corpus.

The Collection and Synthesis of “Tradition” and the Second-Century Invention of Christianity (p. 194, 197)

That is, when those responding to people who exhibit any degree of scepticism of the consensus interpretation or offer alternative explanations of the passages in question, one cannot a priori dismiss the case being made based on merely using one’s own interpretation as if this an unalterable presupposition and infuse one’s own reading onto the text and confuse that with what Paul himself meant. While one must of course understand all of the context in which Paul was writing, including to how other authors may have used the same or similar phrase (which I will be analysing in this post today), one must not therefore come to any form of conclusions on what Paul may have meant based on one’s own presupposition and therefore reject an alternative argument or explanation without considering all of the relevant context, evidence and competing explanations. This means, that before one can conclude whether Paul meant that Jesus was born of a biological, human woman in the recent past or something else, this can only be done by attempting to understand what Paul himself meant, not merely read into the text what one has already concluded that Paul must have meant based on own’s own understanding or interpretation of the text. With all this being said, I will now summarise my last post and how this relates to my post today.

Recap: The Importance of Context in Understanding Galatians 4:4

In my last post, I went through the fact that when one attempts to understand what Paul meant in Galatians 4:4, we need to consider where this verse lies in context; specifically in the verses surrounding Galatians 4, the argument in Galatians about the purpose of the law and how this relates Paul’s theology as a whole, specifically as this relates to Paul’s view on the Torah (the Jewish law). The reason being, without a firm understanding of this, one simply cannot understand the point Paul was attempting to argue in favour of in Galatians 4 and how this relates to the specific verse of Galatians 4:4. 

To make the point clear, once one has made a number of assumptions (if one grants Paul existed as a historical figure (as most scholars do), wrote Galatians at some point in the middle of the first century (as most scholars do), and that the reference to “his Son” refers to Jesus (as most scholars do)) then it seems there are four possible readings of the reference in Galatians 4:4:

1. Paul is simply recounting that Jesus was born of a woman and this is taken to mean he is merely reporting a biographical fact about Jesus; that he was born of a biologically human woman without any form of ulterior motive for talking about this, theological or otherwise

2. Paul means something other than he was born of a biologically human woman, for instance, this is not referring to a biological mother but instead, that Paul is talking about an allegorical mother and thus, there was some other reason for making reference to Jesus’ birth of a woman. Therefore, Paul did not mean Jesus was born of a woman in a literal sense, and he is also talking about something other than an inconsequential detail about a biological detail of Jesus’ birth and there was some additional reason for making reference to Jesus’ birth of a woman

3. Paul meant Jesus was born of a woman in a literal sense, but he is talking about something more than an inconsequential detail about a biological detail of Jesus’ birth, but there was some additional reason for making reference to Jesus’ birth of a woman.

4. Paul may have written some of the account, but we may have sufficient reason to be sceptical that all of what is ascribed to Paul may not have been original to him and therefore, we don’t know whether Paul believed Jesus was born of a biological woman in Galatians 4:4 because he did not write this.

Given this, contrary to the assumptions of many scholars, who seem to merely look at the fourth verse in the fourth chapter of Galatians and think Paul is recalling a merely unremarkable, quotidian fact, that Jesus was “born of a woman”, it would seem everything I have previously explored, when we see where this passage lies in context, it soon becomes clear that Paul was seemingly not interested in merely recalling this as merely a terse description of a recent historical event. Instead, when we consider this passage in the context of Galatians 4 and how this relates to Paul’s theology as a whole, the passage in Galatians 4:4 is dripping with theological themes, not just relating to the purpose of the law, but that the timing of Jesus’ birth was preordained by God. Therefore, as I concluded in my last post, to understand any phrase which Paul writes about something, for instance, what seems to be related to a historical Jesus, we need to look at where this lies in context. Specifically, not just of the immediate context to the Galatians, but Paul’s theology as a whole.

When this is done, it seems one can reject the first reading of this text, as this does not seem to be Paul recounting an off-hand, inconsequential detail of Jesus’ birth, but that he is also making an important theological point. Specifically, as I went through in my last post; that even if he is talking about the literal birth of Jesus (which is by no means certain) he is at least arguing that is not just a mundane fact about an event from the recent past, but is dripping with theological themes, in particular, that the timing of Jesus’ birth was preordained by God. Consequently, assuming one grants that this reference should be taken to mean something in addition to referring to the apparent birth of Jesus as an inconsequential off-hand detail, we now need to critically examine whether Paul means Jesus was born of a biologically human woman or something other than he was born of a literal, biologically human woman.

Born of a Woman: An Open a Shut Case… Right?

As I have mentioned throughout this series of posts, the majority of scholars hold to the view that 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 (to use another example than the those I cited last time) scholar Simon Gathercole argues:

In Galatians 4, Paul says that God sent his son, ‘born from a woman’ (γενόμενον ἐκ γυναικός, 4.4). It is hard to imagine a clearer statement of Jesus’ humanity. This phrase, and others very like it, are commonly used as synonyms for ‘human being’.

The Historical and Human Existence of Jesus in Paul’s Letters (p. 186)

Therefore, the most typical analysis of this passage by scholars, is to consider how other authors used the same phrase and thus, those who argue in favour of reading this phrase as referring to Jesus as having a literal birth by a biological woman, this often forms the core of their argument. For instance, Gathercole provides a number of examples in the Book of Job, a translation from the Septuagint (the Greek translation of the Jewish Bible) to support his case:

‘But man (ἄνθρωπος) vainly buoys himself up with words; a mortal born of woman (γεννητὸς γυναικός) like an ass in the desert.’ (Job 11.12)

‘Mortal man, born of woman (βροτὸς γὰρ γεννητὸς γυναικός), is of few days and full of trouble.’ (Job 14.1)

‘What is mortal man (βροτός), that he could be pure, or one born of woman (γεννητὸς γυναικός), that he could be righteous?’ (Job 15.14)

‘How then can a mortal (βροτός) be righteous before God?
How can one born of woman (γεννητὸς γυναικός) be pure?’ (Job 25.4)

In the New Testament, the phrase appears in Matthew-Luke parallel material. In Luke’s version, Jesus says: ‘I tell you, among those born of women (ἐν γεννητοῖς γυναικῶν) there is no one greater than John.’ (Lk. 7.28). The same phrase ἐν γεννητοῖς γυναικῶν also appears in Matthew (11.11). The Synoptic formulation here is the same as LXX Job’s except that Job’s are all singular, and Matthew and Luke have the plural.

Therefore, he concludes:

Paul makes here an indisputable claim about Jesus’ human birth. The only real solution for the mythicist is to regard ‘born from a woman’ as an interpolation

Building upon this line of reasoning, as I have already mentioned, Bart Ehrman argues in his recent book Did Jesus Exist? The Historical Argument for Jesus of Nazareth that:

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.

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

The problem with such an analysis, is that while one certainly can make the case in favour of an interpolation (see The Case in Favour of Interpolation below), contrary to Ehrman’s most recent claims, one need not merely resort to claiming that it is only mythicists who argue in favour of this. As already noted, Ehrman himself correctly points out in his earlier book, doctoring texts by later scribes often changed the wording of the text in Galatians 4:4 to better reflect a fully human Jesus in opposition to Gnostics who were claiming that Christ was docetic. Therefore, building upon my previous post, I will now provide a more detailed analysis of the case in favour of this being an interpolation.

The Case in Favour of Interpolation

While I have mentioned this in my previous post (see the subheading Final Issues: The Case in Favour of Interpolation/Paraphrasing/Lack of Details) to build upon the argument I briefly spoke about there, before one looks at the argument in favour of interpolation, hopefully the important point to raise here, the implication of this, is that when we are looking at the phrase “born of a woman”, this cannot be understood out of context but this must also consider the phrase immediately before this. When we consider this, we need to see how the description of being sent is used as well as the phrase “born of a woman” is used.

To reminds ourselves, the offending passage is:

Then in the fullness of time, God sent his Son (4:4a) born of woman, born under the Law (4:4b), in order that he might purchase freedom for the subjects of the Law, so that we might attain the status of sons. And because you are sons, God (has) sent into our hearts the Spirit of his Son, crying ‘Father!’ You are therefore no longer a slave but a son, and if a son, then also by God’s act an heir. (Galatians 4:4-6)

Before I go through the case in favour of interpolation, let us not forget, as I mentioned in my previous post under the sub-heading Is Galatians 4:4 Theologically Loaded? I went through the fact that I have always found 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. In this case here, although the specific prophecy or allusion to Scripture is not provided, the claim that “in the fullness of time, God sent his Son…” is a hugely theologically in nature. Therefore, 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 a fallacious line of reasoning, it seems this reasoning is not applied to the writings of Paul.

For a more detailed analysis of this, see what I wrote under the sub-heading Born of a Woman: A Statement of Fact, or a Statement of Faith? The consequence of this, is that in order to understand what Paul meant in this passage, we cannot leap into analysing the second part before the first part of this passage. Given this, the issue seems to be that scholars who approach the issue using this methodology are jumping the gun and putting the cart before the horse. Surely, if one wishes to understand this phrase, we must consider the earlier part of Galatians 4:4a and how this relates to the later part of this passage 4:4b. Given the above, one must consider the issue as this relates to the possibility of interpolation (as discussed previously under sub-heading of Final Issues: The Case in Favour of Interpolation/Paraphrasing/Lack of Details).

Putting the Cart Before the Horse: The Importance of Analysing Galatians 4:4a Before 4:4b

While the above analysis by Simon Gathercole is very much typical of the presentation offered, the issue with this, is this is merely analysing only the second part of the verse (4:4b), and so treats this is as completely unrelated to the first part of the verse (4:4:a). Therefore, to understand this verse in context that one needs to understand the first part of the phrase (4:4a) and how this relates to the second to see whether Paul is providing the typical description of a natural human birth in both parts of the verse.

To begin exploring the issue, we need to consider an important detail often overlooked, the word being used by Paul which is translated as sent in Galatians 4:4. This is incredibly important because this is different than for example that of John 1:6. For an analysis of this, see A Definitive Look at Oneness Theology: Defending the Tri-unity of God by Edward L. Dalcour. To summarise the argument (which you can read the relevant section here) the verb used in John 1:6, translated as “sent” in the context of “there came a man sent from God” is apestalmenos, the perfect passive participle of apostellō which carries the normal meaning of what we mean when we say “to send”. Galatians 4:4 on the other hand, the term which Paul uses is exapesteilen (ἐξαπέστειλεν) is the aorist active indicative of exapostellō (ἐξαποστέλλω). This has the meaning of being sent from a place, “to send away from one’s self … out of the place” or “for fulfillment of a mission in another place.” In fact, the prefixed preposition ek (“out of/from”) of the verb exapostellō (ek + apostellō), is often interpreted as pre-existence of the person of the son and thus, this means that God the Father sent Jesus Christ, God the Son, from heaven to earthSuch an interpretation is strengthened when we consider the Carmen Cristi in other words, Philippians 2:6-11.

The importance of this, it is read by many Christians that Christ had always existed along side God came to earth in the likeness of a man, to die on the cross, he specifically emptied himself by having taken the very nature of man and became obedient to death on a cross. While there is of course much more to be said about this, what becomes important is that this is one of a number of passages which Trinitarians argue show that Jesus was pre-existent and thus, part of the Trinity, for instance, see here. This means, that the earlier part of Galatians 4:4, that in the fullness of time, God sent his Son, this is taken to mean that when the time was right, God sent his son who was existing along side him, the pre-incarnate son “came out” or “was sent” from heaven at a specifically chosen time and that Jesus was pre-existent with the Father (see for instance in John 1:1-3; 8:58; 17:5) which is consistent with the rest of the New Testament (1 Corinthians 8:6b; 10:4; Colossians 1:15-17; Revelation 21:6; 22:13) that the Father’s plan for Jesus was constantly in his mind (John 20:21; Luke 22:42) and that Paul saw Jesus as pre-existent with the Father, his agent of creation (Colossians 1:15-17; 1 Corinthians 8:6; see also John 1:3).

I must stress that not everyone holds to this interpretation of Philippians 2:6-11 (for instance, see Born Before All Time?: The Dispute over Christ’s Origin), and it is also important to note before going through this, that this uses non-Pauline language and given that this is a hymn-like poetic structure quite distinct from the surrounding text, it is almost universally accepted that the Carmen Christi was not written by Paul, but merely was included in Paul’s writing, even though he did not author it (like the famous creed in 1 Corinthians 15). But if this interpretation is what the author of this creed meant and Paul included it because he echoed this sentiment, this would suggest that we need to consider the second part of the phrase is therefore relative to this first portion of Galatians 4:4. While I will provide an analysis of the phrase below, I will now go through the case in favour of interpolation based on the language of the passage.

This is Getting Tense… The Case in Favour of Interpolation

One of the arguments offered in favour of the notion that there is an interpolation in Galatians 4:4 is that the verb in verse 4 and 6 are both referring to actions in the past. As Earl Doherty argues:

the identical form of the verb in verse 4, “God sent his Son,” is also used in verse 6 to say that “God sent into our hearts the Spirit of his Son”” This is an aorist tense, placing both these actions in the past.

Jesus: Neither God Nor Man – The Case for a Mythical Jesus (p. 197)

Because of this, when we consider how this relates to the second part of the phrase “born of a woman, born under the Law”, these are not specifically tied to the sending of the son and this therefore this not grammatically necessary in the Greek language to connect these together. Therefore, as Ernest de Witt Burton argues:

The employment of the aorist [past tense] presents the birth and the subjection to law as in each case a simple fact, and leaves the temporal relation to exapesteilen [“sent”] to be inferred solely from the nature of the facts referred to

A Critical and Exegetical Commentary on the Epistle to the Galatians (p. 218)

The consequence of this, as Earl Doherty concludes:

this absence of a linkage between verb and participles would more likely be the product of an interpolator than Paul himself who, if he intended the phrases to qualify the “sent” idea, would normally have put the participles in the present tense rather than the aorist. An interpolator, on the other hand, would have been focused on the “fact” of these ‘born’ phrases to serve his own purpose… “Born of woman” would be a natural insertion in Galatians (perhaps around the middle of the century, to counter the claims of docetists like Marcion and others and their appropriation of Paul) in order to make the point that Jesus was in fact a fully human man from a human mother.

Jesus: Neither God Nor Man – The Case for a Mythical Jesus (p. 204, 210)

To build upon this argument, let us not forget, Ehrman in his earlier work The Orthodox Corruption of Scripture, he correctly observes that Galatians 4:4 was a passage that was often changed by later scribes. Specifically, the Greek “genomenon ek gunaikos” was occasionally changed to “gennōmenon ek gunaikos” and similarly in Latin manuscripts, “factum” (made) was changed to “natum” (born) by scribes. This has already been explored under the sub-heading Final Issues: The Case in Favour of Interpolation/Paraphrasing/Lack of Details. This means, as Doherty points out:

these observations are based on variant manuscript readings coming from the 3rd century and later (since we have no manuscripts earlier than about the year 200), Ehrman was able, by comparison with citations from 2nd and 3rd century commentators like Irenaeus and Origen, to make certain deductions about emendations that could have been made as early as the first half of the 2nd century. 

Jesus: Neither God Nor Man – The Case for a Mythical Jesus (p. 210)

Therefore, in Ehrman’s work, he makes special mention of two passages which are singled out; Galatians 4:4 and Romans 1:3–4 in the context of anti-Docetic corruptions of scripture which can certainly be documented from later scribes. Therefore, this is not just a recent case being made by contemporary mythicists who question these passages, but is something which is commonly understood and spoken about within the literature by Ehrman himself. The conclusion of this therefore, is that one cannot quickly dismiss the suggestion that this passage was interpolated, that is added by a later scribe. This is particularly true when we consider the fact that the issue of the doctrine of docetism came a long time after the traditional dating of Paul’s writings, therefore given that it would seem strange why Paul would have made such a terse and seemingly out-of-the-blue reference to the birth of Jesus. Furthermore, given that Marcion’s version of Galatians 4:3-6 does not contain the important phrase “born of a woman” yet Tertullian’s Latin version did contain this reference, we have additional reasons to be suspicious of this being part of Paul’s original work. Given the above, one can certainly make the case that the reference to the birth of Jesus is an interpolation.

Despite the above analysis, let us now consider even if this passage is authentic to Paul does one have to necessarily infer that the reference to the birth refers to a natural birth of a human being? 

Sent by God, Born of a Woman? The Case in Favour of Paul’s Unique Use of the Phrase genomenon ek gunaikos, genomenon hupo nomon

While the most common interpretation of the reference to “born of a woman” means being born from a natural, biological mother (see Putting the Cart Before the Horse: The Importance of Analysing Galatians 4:4a Before 4:4b above) and therefore, many scholars argue that this is what Paul means this here, there are a number of issues with taking such a notion as the only and perhaps the best interpretation of this phrase.

The first thing we need to consider, is that it seems Paul has no special interest in arguing any particular doctrine about the birth of Jesus; this means that he is not trying to specify any particular type of birth, for instance a literal woman in the recent past, for instance from the virgin Mary who was betrothed to Joseph, the account the later Gospels of Matthew and Luke provide. The reason being, while scholars often claim that Paul uses a common phrase which refers to a natural birth, Paul in fact does not use the most typical phrase to refer to the a natural, human birth. To explain this, the issue is, as Doherty points out:

the verb (in participle form) used in both phrases, “born of woman, born under the Law”—genomenon ek gunaikos, genomenon hupo nomon—is not the most natural word to refer to birth. The verb used is “ginomai” which has a broader meaning of “to become, to arise, to occur, to come into existence, to be created.” It can also be used in the sense of human birth, but that meaning will be determined by the context. On the other hand, there is a verb which in straightforward fashion means “to be born”: the passive of “gennaō,” to give birth. The question becomes, why did Paul not use gennaō if all he meant was that Jesus was born in the normal human way?

Jesus: Neither God Nor Man – The Case for a Mythical Jesus (p. 205)

To build upon this argument, Paul uses the term ginomai (γίνομαι) and this is only applied Christ, in Romans 1:3 and Galatians 4:4, while the Philippians hymn uses the same verb in 2:7, “made in the likeness of men.” In contrast, when Paul wants to directly and unmistakably express someone who is or will be “born” in the traditional sense, he uses a different word. For instance, Romans 9:11 referring to children not yet born and Galatians 4:23 and 4:29 (the son/one…born…), he uses the word gennaō (γεννητός) which is also used in Matthew 11:11 and Luke 7:28. Therefore, we are left to question: given there are words which are synonymous to convey the meaning of “born” in the typical sense, why does Paul choose what is at best an ambiguous word of ginomai to refer to Jesus’ (alleged) birth, while the universal use of gennaó is applied to all births other than that of Jesus, as well as to Jesus’ birth in the Gospels?

Beyond this, the examples which Simon Gathercole provided above from the Greek translation of the Jewish Bible (the Septuagint: LXX) above, which are often cited in favour of Paul’s interpretation to mean Jesus was born from a woman in the tradition sense; one might imagine that the case would be incredibly strong if we could prove that Paul was using the same phrase as this. While it is often claimed that Paul used the common phrase to mean “born of a woman” this indeed would be a strong case… if these examples which were cited used the same word Paul does here in Galatians 4:4. The issue is, each of these use the same word Paul uses he wants to directly and unmistakably express someone who is or will be “born” in the traditional sense, not the word used in Galatians 4:4. In other words, each one of these phrases uses gennaó not the word ginomai. In case you don’t believe me, the word used in Galatians 4:4 is γίνομαι, while the examples Gathercole provides are all using the word γεννητός, so if you want to check for yourself (in case it’s all Greek to you) press “ctrl F” and copy and paste γίνομαι into the search box and notice that in none of the cases in Job 11:12, 14:1, 15:14, 25:4, Luke 7:28 and Matthew 11:11 will turn up. To double check, press “ctrl F” and copy and paste γεννητός and you will see that in Job 11:12, 14:1, 15:14, 25:4 all use this. While Luke and Matthew use a slightly different version of this γεννητοῖς which again is not the word Paul uses in Galatians 4:4. Therefore, the phrase which Paul uses is clearly not the most common way of describing a literal birth.

Lost in Translation: “Living Land” and “Born of a Woman”

The trouble is, when we are dealing with translations, we often encounter a problem that the same word(s) or phrases in English, these do not necessarily come from the same words in the original language. For instance, it is often contended by Christians that in the famous prophecy in Isaiah 53:8, it says that this refers to someone being cut off from “the land of the living” (click here for all of the translations which use this phrase) and this is taken to mean the Servant will be killed. In response to this, it can be pointed out that this phrase actually refers to being exiled from Israel. However, in response to this, Christians then turn Job 28:13 and say that uses the phrase of “the land of the living” and this doesn’t refer to Israel here. However, this is a perfect example of the same problem we encounter with Galatians 4:4 and the phrase “born of a woman.” In Hebrew the phrase in Isaiah 53:8 is actually “cut off from the living landnot “the land of the living” (in Hebrew it is ארץ חיים). In contrast, Job 28:13 uses the phrase בְּאֶ֣רֶץ הַֽחַיִּֽים׃. While this is literally translated as “in the land [בְּאֶ֣רֶץ] of the living [הַֽחַיִּֽים׃]” but can actually best be interpreted as among mortal people (i.e. people living of the land) or as the Brenton Septuagint Translation puts it: “has it been discovered among men.” This means in context that true wisdom, such as Job is speaking of, does not exist among men on earth and thus, uses a completely different phrase which looks the same as the English translation of Isaiah 53:8 but is referring to a completely different thing.

Given the above, this therefore means, it seems the strongest argument in favour of the case that Paul is referring to a natural, normal birth is that he uses a common phrase for being “born of a woman”, it seems that given the above analysis, the consequence of this is that this clearly is not the case. As Doherty concludes:

It is often claimed that Paul used the phrase [born of a woman] because it was so common. If it was so common, why did he not use it in the common form? The very fact that something is common should lead one to use it if one means the common thing. If it was found in scripture and Paul was taking his cue from there, why did he change the verb that was used in scripture? The fact that Paul changed the key element of the phrase should lead us to conclude that he was avoiding using it in its normal form because he meant something different from the normal understanding. Or else, he didn’t write it at all.

Jesus: Neither God Nor Man – The Case for a Mythical Jesus (p. 207)

Given this therefore, while it is often argued by many scholars that Paul was referring to a normal birth by a literal, biological woman because of the phrase “born of a woman”, the case is significantly weakened when we realise that Paul was not using the phrase most commonly associated with this reading. Therefore, are we to conclude that this was not written by Paul, or meant something other than a traditional birth by a literal biological woman?

How Does Galatians 4:4 Relate to Paul’s Theology of the Messiah?

Although this is a theme I’ve already touched upon (see sub-heading Born of a Woman: A Statement of Fact, or a Statement of Faith?), before I analyse the apparent connection to the life and teachings found in the Epistles to see how much (if anything) Paul knew about a historical Jesus, I want to round off this series of posts about Paul’s apparent knowledge of the birth of Jesus talking about Paul’s theology of Jesus as the Messiah. This means, to understand what Paul meant in Galatians 4:4, we need to consider a number of other passages which refer to the apparent biological heritage of Jesus to see whether Paul is referring to a statement of historical fact or a statement of theological faith.

Despite the fact these last few posts have been specifically directed towards Galatians 4:4, this is merely one of a number of claimed instances of places which Paul talks about the apparent birth or genealogy of Jesus. Therefore, to understand what Paul means in Galatians 4:4, we now need to take a look at the bigger picture and see how this relates to Paul’s theology as a whole, specially as it relates to Paul’s theology of the Messiah. Consequently, we must now look at the passages which refer to Paul’s theology of Jesus as the Messiah and critically examine the references to see whether these provide biological or theological details regarding the birth or genealogy.

Galatians 3:16

I have already briefly spoken about this (see sub-heading Paul on the Purpose of the Law), specifically regarding where this falls in the argument Paul makes in relation to his apparent theological argument regarding the curse of the law, in the context of Galatians 4:4. However, while this another of the most commonly cited arguments in favour of Jesus’ historicity of Jesus in Galatians 3:16, it will be impossible to be able to comprehend what Paul means here by just looking at this passage in isolation. Thus, we need to understand this verse in context. To begin, let us remind ourselves of the specific quote:

But to Abraham were the promises addressed, and to his seed: he does not say, And to seeds, as of many; but as of one, And to thy seed; which is Christ.” (Galatians 3:16)

As with the issue of Galatians 4:4 and as we will see in other passages below, this is not merely recounting a terse fact about the historical or biological origins of Jesus. Instead, this is a deeply theological claim. Therefore, while one may look at this on a prima facie basis and conclude that this is saying Jesus is a descendant of Abraham, this seems to vastly oversimplify what Paul is arguing here. Consequently, we now need to see what Paul is talking about in context to see what Paul means here.

As I have already gone through previously, here Paul is talking about the promise of inheritance. Paul is saying God promised Abraham that through your seed all the nations of the earth shall be blessed. But according to Paul, because the word the singular for seed is used, not the plural in Genesis 12:7, this means that God is referring to one specific descendant of Abraham, not all his descendants in general that the promise was made. Therefore, the reference to “and to your Seed” Paul claims that this is referring to one specific individual: Christ.

As this relates to the wider context of Paul’s theology then, this means therefore, the promise is about inheritance (3:18) and according to Paul, this is for both Gentiles and the Jewish people (e.g. Galatians 3:8, 14, 28-29) but that promise put on hold by the law “until the seed” by which means when Christ came. This is because, this is whom the promise was made (Galatians 3:16, 19). Thus, the consequence of this, is that everyone would be liberated from the law by Christ (Galatians 3:13) having become a curse for us, having become a curse for us (Galatians 3:22-25) and so this promise is given to those that believe who can therefore become sons and heirs of the promise by becoming a non-literal seed of Abraham (3:7, 29). Given the above therefore, Paul is recalling a deeply theological issue; that the Messiah (Christ) has been promised in the Jewish Bible and thus, this is not recounting a merely terse historical fact, that Jesus was a descendant of Abraham, but that the promise of the inheritance will be given to a specific individual in the future; the Christ. 

 

Before I go through the numerous problems with Paul’s interpretation of this passage, but perhaps the main problem as it relates to the current issue, is that while one can become Jewish through a process of conversion, it is important to remember that while tribal lineage is passed by a Jewish biological father impregnating a Jewish woman (which can either be his wife or concubine, see Numbers 1:17-18), the mother must be Jewish because belonging to the the religion Judaism is passed maternally (e.g. Deuteronomy 7:1–5, Leviticus 24:10, and Ezra 10:2–3, if you want to learn more about this: check this out). Therefore, being Jewish means that if your mother was Jewish, so are you and if your mother was Jewish, this means her mother was Jewish, and her mother was Jewish etc. and this means, you eventually go all the way back to the first two Jewish people, Abraham and Sarah (see how this comes back around into a full circle!). Therefore, given that all Jewish people from birth are Jewish because of their mother and given that the Jewish Messiah must be Jewish (I know, shock horror!) and thus, one can quickly disqualify everyone who is not Jewish by birth for being the possible Messiah, the point being made here cannot simply be that the Messiah must be a descendent of Abraham, because every Jewish person from birth would have been. 

Given the above therefore, as we will see in the remainder of the passages which are offered to support Paul’s apparent “knowledge” of the birth or genealogy of Jesus, this passage is not merely Paul showing his knowledge of Jesus’ family tree and saw that Jesus’ great, great, great, great, great, great etc. grandfather was Abraham. Instead, he is merely making reference to the obvious fact that given that the Messiah had to be Jewish and this is passed on maternally, if you do this for enough times, you’ll get back to Sarah and her husband Abraham. This therefore requires no knowledge of Jesus’ family tree but merely, Paul could claim that Jesus was a descendent of Abraham not necessarily because this was a historical detail which he concluded because he carefully analysed the birth records of Jesus’ family, but simply because because Jesus was the Messiah and the Messiah must be Jewish by birth. 

Beyond this problem, we must also consider the theological point is making. He is claiming two things: that the promise was made to a descendent of Abraham but that the word seed can only refer to one person and this therefore refers to Christ (which we are therefore to say this refers solely to Jesus). The trouble is, what exactly is the promise that is being spoken about? It is not actually clear because there were a number of promises made to Abraham. The first promise recorded in the Book of Genesis to Abraham (then called Abram) was the possession of the land of Canaan. Specifically it says:

I will give this land to your off-spring. [Abram] built an altar there to God who had appeared to him. (Genesis 12:7)

This reports that God was promising the land of Israel to Abram’s offspring, which clearly did not happen in the time of Jesus. In fact, a mere few decades after Jesus’ death, Jerusalem was decimated, the Temple was destroyed and Jewish people were put into exile! While there are other promises made to Abraham, all of these are secondary to the main issue; Paul is completely wrong in saying that “seed” can only refer to one person. To show this, let us consider what God says to Abraham:

I will greatly multiply your זַרְעֲךָ (seed) as the stars of the heavens and as the sand that is on the sea shore, and your descendants will inherit the cities of their enemies (Genesis 22:17)

Unless one wishes to interpret this as God cloning one Abraham’s child (which one… given he had more than one; had two sons, Isaac by Rebecca, and Ishmael by Hagar, besides numerous descendants by Keturah), the phrase multiply your seed זַרְעֲךָ clearly means more than one person. In fact, in the Hebrew and in the LXX, although while the noun is singular, it is actually is collective and thus does not denote a single descendant. This means, the point Paul was making is that while the traditional view is that Jewish people from birth (i.e. being 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. Therefore, contrary to the assumptions of many scholars, the point of this passage was not merely to report the (equally unremarkable) apparent “historical fact” that Jesus was a descendent of Abraham, but he is making a theological point. What’s more, it turns out that this is a point of theology Paul seems to be wrong about.

Romans 1:3

While it is often claimed that Paul claimed that Jesus was a descendant of David based on a references in the Epistle to the Romans; that Jesus was a descendant of King David in Romans 1:3, we must again consider this verse in context. Specifically, the context in which this appears is:

Paul, a servant of Christ Jesus, called to be an apostle and set apart for the gospel of God the gospel he promised beforehand through his prophets in the Holy Scriptures regarding his Son, who as to his earthly life was a descendant of David, and who through the Spirit of holiness was appointed the Son of God in power by his resurrection from the dead: Jesus Christ our Lord. (Romans 1:1-4 NIV)

While I will provide a detailed analysis of this verse elsewhere, it seems that consistent with the analysis of the previous verses, Paul provides the source for this information regarding the claim. Notice how he does not say that his information comes from consulting any historical evidence, nor interviewing eyewitnesses to determine the biological genealogy of Jesus, but that this was promised beforehand through his prophets in the Holy Scriptures. Given this, as Earl Doherty points out:

Paul did not need to appeal to history here, for scripture was full of predictions that the Messiah would be descended from David.

Jesus: Neither God Nor Man – The Case for a Mythical Jesus (p. 89)

Romans 9:1-5

Equally, when we look at the reference that claim that Jesus was a descendent of the Israelites in Romans 9, this reads:

I speak the truth in Christ—I am not lying, my conscience confirms it through the Holy Spirit— I have great sorrow and unceasing anguish in my heart. For I could wish that I myself were cursed and cut off from Christ for the sake of my people, those of my own race, the people of Israel. Theirs is the adoption to sonship; theirs the divine glory, the covenants, the receiving of the law, the temple worship and the promises. Theirs are the patriarchs, and from them is traced the human ancestry of the Messiah, who is God over all, forever praised! Amen. It is not as though God’s word had failed. For not all who are descended from Israel are Israel. Nor because they are his descendants are they all Abraham’s children. On the contrary, “It is through Isaac that your offspring will be reckoned.” In other words, it is not the children by physical descent who are God’s children, but it is the children of the promise who are regarded as Abraham’s offspring. For this was how the promise was stated: “At the appointed time I will return, and Sarah will have a son.” (Romans 9:1-9)

While a detailed analysis of this is required to understand what Paul means here (which I will provide in another post) to quickly explain this, Paul is expressing sorrow regarding the people who are separated from God’s love because the unbelieving Jewish people who according to Paul rejected Jesus as the Messiah and thus, excluded themselves from all the blessings he had allowed by taking upon the curse mentioned in Galatians 3:13. Specifically, Paul insists in that justification is by faith apart from works of the law, the same theme I have already gone through previously (see sub-heading Paul on the Purpose of the Law). Consistent with the rest of Paul’s theology, Paul is claiming that Paul re-defines elect Israel to mean all those called by God whether from the Gentiles or the Jews (9:24), and these are not necessarily those Jewish people biologically descended from Abraham. Thus, Paul is arguing here that being physical descent from Abraham is not enough to ensure salvation. 

While this provides the theological context, the importance of this as it relates to the rest of references of apparently a historical Jesus, is that Paul here, as with the reference in Romans 1, is not talking about a terse fact about the historical or biological origins of Jesus. Instead, this is a deeply theological claim that the Messiah would be of Jewish descent. Therefore, given that the Jewish Messiah must be Jewish (obviously), the point being made here is simply pointing out that the Messiah was of Jewish descent, not a statement of historical fact, but a theological point statement of faith.

Romans 15:12

Perhaps the clearest indication Paul’s primary intention was theological rather than historical can be seen in the passage which is often taken to mean that Jesus was a descendant of Jesse, in Romans 15:12. The reason this is obvious, is because Paul is specifically quoting a Messianic prophecy:

 For I tell you that Christ has become a servant of the Jews on behalf of God’s truth, so that the promises made to the patriarchs might be confirmed and, moreover, that the Gentiles might glorify God for his mercy. As it is written:

“Therefore I will praise you among the Gentiles;
    I will sing the praises of your name.”[2 Samuel 22:50; Psalm 18:49] 

10 Again, it says,

“Rejoice, you Gentiles, with his people.” [Deut. 32:43]

11 And again,

“Praise the Lord, all you Gentiles; let all the peoples extol him.”[Psalm 117:1] 

12 And again, Isaiah [Isaiah 11:10] says,

“The Root of Jesse will spring up,
    one who will arise to rule over the nations;
    in him the Gentiles will hope.”

While the passage should read from the branch of the trunk of Jesse (חטר מגזע) this is a specific messianic prophecy that the Messiah will be a descendant of King David, who was the son of Jesse. This therefore is clearly a theological point, not a historical point of fact. This means, as I have already mentioned earlier, 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. 

Did Paul Know Jesus’ Great, Great, Great, Great, Great, Great etc. Grandfather?

The conclusion of all this, as I have already gone through (see sub-heading Born of a Woman: A Statement of Fact, or a Statement of Faith?) it soon becomes clear 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, while it is often argued that Paul claims Jesus was a human descendant of King David (Romans 1:3) of the Israelites (Romans 9:4-5) and of Jesse (Romans 15:12), while I will do blog posts about each of these to go through this in more detail, but the issue with the references, each of these are not merely recalling historical facts in a matter of fact way, but are both profoundly theological claims. This means, the reason I have difficulty in affirming these are historical details about Jesus, this issue can be seen when we consider a simple question: how did Paul know Jesus was a descendent of David or 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? 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, Jesse and Abraham were his ancestors because he was the Messiah and Jewish from birth. 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) and all Jewish people by birth are a descendent of Abraham (see Galatians 3:16 above) these are not necessarily recounting historical facts, but are clearly theological statements of faith.

Born of a Woman, Born Under the Law: A Fatal Flaw in Paul’s Argument?

While the above has shown that the phrase which Paul uses to describe the apparent “birth” of Jesus does not necessarily entail a normal human birth (see Sent by God, Born of a Woman? The Case in Favour of Paul’s Unique Use of the Phrase genomenon ek gunaikos, genomenon hupo nomon above), we now need to look at the second part of the verse. As you may recall from my previous analysis (see Paul on the Purpose of the Law), this showed that Paul has a pretty negative view of the Torah, the Jewish law. So much so, that his entire argument in the verse before and after this one in Galatians 4:4, his theology is that the law is a curse that Christ needed to redeem us from, that the law was only temporary and has now been superseded by the new Torah of Christ. The consequence of this therefore, is if Paul was saying that Jesus was born of a woman, born under law in the normal sense, this would carry incredibly negative connotations based on his own theological framework. For instance, if we look at Paul’s Epsitles, there are a number of examples of Paul showing disdain for the law. As already noted, as James Dunn correctly summarises:

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)

Given this therefore, as the phrase often translated “born under the law” in Galatians 4:4 would imply that, as Doherty:

The very inclusion of “born under the Law” in Galatians 4:4 would imply that Christ was in fact subject to the Law and therefore a prey to all its impediments

Jesus: Neither God Nor Man – The Case for a Mythical Jesus (p. 211)

Given the above, we are therefore left to question, would Paul have originally specifically made reference to Christ being born of a woman under the law when this would seem to case a problem according to the rest of Paul’s theology? When we add to this the fact that Marcion’s version of Galatians 4:4 merely reports “but when the fullness of time was come, God sent forth His Son” and therefore does not include reference to the birth of Jesus or the phrase “under the law,” one must seriously consider whether this was added by later scribes to better reflect a fully human Jesus in opposition to Gnostics who were claiming that Christ was docetic. Because of this, one might imagine that a scribe who was keen on refuting docetism would be keen on inserting a reference to the birth of Jesus under law in Paul’s writings to move a reference to the origin of Jesus away from docetism and then towards a flesh and blood human birth. Yet the inclusion of this would seem to be detrimental to Paul’s overall argument and thus, one can certainly make the case that this was not originally part of Paul’s Epistle.

Whether one finds the case being made in favour of interpolation to be convincing is for each individual person to decide. Of course, when it comes to claiming that any passage has been interpolated cannot be decisively settled with certainty. Given Paul’s overall argument, it seems perfectly plausible to claim that Paul did not write this, as one could argue that this would seem out of place with Paul’s theology as it relates to the purpose of the law and the relationship between Christ and the curse of the law as a whole, yet a later scribe attempting to include a reference to the birth of Jesus at this point seems to be at least possible. Despite this, there is perhaps one final way of claiming that Paul did write this and also referred to a biological birth of sorts, but not to a literal woman, but an allegorical woman.

Salvaging The Literal Birth Interpretation: Born to an Allegorical Woman

While I have provided a more complete analysis of the theological context of this passage earlier (see Paul on the Purpose of the Law) and the fact that Paul’s explanation is a single, coherent argument which takes the literary form of inclusio know as chiasmus which takes 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 a more detailed analysis of this, see sub-heading The Importance of Literary Context in Galatians 4:4.) The consequence of this, is that in order to understand what Paul means in Galatians 4:4, can only be understood in context. When we do this, as already noted, 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)

The consequence of this, when we consider the fact that Paul is engaging in Midrash, a form of Jewish exegesis involving the figures of Abraham, Sarah, Hagar, Ishmael and Isaac, one has to bear this in mind that Paul is not necessarily talking about a literal birth.

For a full analysis of this, see sub-heading Abraham, Sarah and the Slave: Galatians 4 In Context, but to quickly to summarise the argument Paul is making, 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 the slave Hagar) Isaac was born because of God’s promise. 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. This means, when Paul was saying that the son of God was “born of a woman, born under the law” this means that like everyone else Jesus was “born of a woman” but not a literal birth to a literal woman, but to the allegorical Hagar: the world of flesh. Yet, according to Paul’s theology, while the traditional view is that Jewish people from birth (i.e. being 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. One therefore has to become “come to Christ” according to Paul through baptism that someone entered into Christ (e.g. Romans 6:3) and that all people could become adopted sons and daughters of God, whether gentile or Jewish (Galatians 3:23-29).

The consequence of the above, while one can argue that Paul does not use the most common phrase which talks about birth (see Sent by God, Born of a Woman? The Case in Favour of Paul’s Unique Use of the Phrase genomenon ek gunaikos, genomenon hupo nomon above), the phrase being used can refer to being born of a woman depending on the context. Therefore, the case can certainly be made that while this is not a common  phrase to refer to a literal birth, whether this is referring to an actual birth by a literal woman or an allegorical woman, this would seem to mean that both readings necessarily require this phrase to be understood as at least form of birth by a woman. Instead, the difference is that while those who claim this is talking about Jesus’ actual birth, the interpretation that this is an allegorical birth, all the latter interpretation rests upon is the reading that Paul mean that Jesus was born of Hagar the slave (i.e. the world of flesh) to die to redeem us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us (Galatians 3:13). This therefore means that Jesus’ atoning death frees us from Torah observance but gentiles and Jewish people could become “heirs according to the promise” and become the adopted sons of the allegorical Sarah, referring to the Jerusalem above (Galatians 4:26) who is the “mother” of all reborn Christians. Given that the argument Paul makes is that actual inheritors of the promise are not literal descendants of Abraham, but the adopted children of Sarah, one has more than enough reason to think the phrase “born of women” in is allegorical and thus, the choice of phrase may have been deliberate to show that this is not the same form of birth as a literal birth.

Conclusion

When we consider the theological argument made around Galatians 4:4 , one needs to consider whether this refers to any form of birth, literal or otherwise. While one may make this case, this is not without it’s objections. Beyond this, there appears to be a number of difficulties in affirming the reference of the birth of the son of God in Galatians 4:4 is talking about a literal woman. Furthermore, there is also reason to be suspicious whether this phrase was original to Paul at all. Given these, the issue is quickly not settled by looking at how this phrase “born of a woman” is used by other authors, given that Paul’s use of this phrase seems to be unique to him. Therefore, when we consider the literary as well as the theological context of Galatians 4:4, affirming this as a certain reference to Jesus’ literal birth to a biological mother has a number of objections which cannot be quickly dismissed.

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