Gaston on Galatians 3-4

In my last post on Lloyd Gaston’s Paul and the Torah, I referred to Gaston’s view that, for Paul, the Gentiles at one time had to observe God’s law outside of the gracious provisions of God’s covenant with Israel, and that Gentile observance of the law occurred under the oppressive tutelage of angels.  For Gaston, Paul’s discussions of the law primarily concern angelic oppression of the Gentiles, not Jews under the Sinaitic covenant.  I asked how Gaston addresses Paul’s references to Sinai in Galatians.  In my post today, I will discuss some of Gaston’s treatment of Galatians 3-4.

1.  In Galatians 3:17, Paul states that the law cannot annul God’s promise to Abraham, presumably the promise to bless the Gentiles through Christ (Abraham’s seed), and that the law came 430 years after this promise.  Paul here appears to identify the law with the Torah given to Israel on Mount Sinai, the Torah that Judaizers wanted Gentile Christians to observe.

My impression is that Gaston deals with this verse by saying that, for Paul, the Sinaitic law was irrelevant to God’s blessing of the Gentiles.  Gaston acknowledges that Paul was contending against Judaizers (but Gaston believes that the Judaizers were Gentiles, not Jewish Christians).  For Gaston’s Paul, Gentiles did not have to be circumcised and observe the law of Moses to benefit from God’s righteousness and faithfulness.

2.  In Galatians 4:21-31, Paul appears to draw a contrast between two covenants, using Hagar and Sarah as allegories.  Hagar was a bondwoman, and she represents the Sinaitic covenant, which creates bondage and enslaves the inhabitants of the earthly Jerusalem.  Sarah, however, is a free-woman, and she symbolizes the heavenly Jerusalem, as well as the covenant of which Christians are a part.  Does Paul here attack Judaism as a religion of bondage?  Gaston does not think so, and he offers an alternative interpretation of Galatians 4:21-31.

To be honest, I read Gaston’s interpretation of these verses twice, and I still don’t completely understand it.  But I will try to conceptualize what Gaston is saying.

Gaston does not believe that Galatians 4:21-31 is saying that Judaism is bad while Christianity is good.  Rather, he interprets it to concern the inclusion of Gentiles into the promises to God’s people.  On page 90, Gaston states:

“As a later reader who best understood Paul put it, the Gentiles are no longer ‘alienated from the politeia of Israel and strangers to the covenants of promise…no longer strangers and sojourners but fellow citizens with the saints’ (Eph 2:12, 17).  This surely is Paul’s point in Galatians, to claim for the Gentile Christians the promises of the line of Sarah/Zion, the Jerusalem above, and not to deny them to the Jews or the present Jerusalem…If in the words of Deutero-Isaiah Sarah has more children than Hagar, it is because with the fulfillment of the promise Gentiles are being called from the Hagar column into the Sarah column.  This is the column in which the Galatians stand, for they are ‘children of promise according to Isaac.'”

So, in Gaston’s scenario, Hagar represents the Gentiles, for Hagar is a Gentile.  Sarah, however, is Israel—-and that includes the Jews, the earthly Jerusalem, and the heavenly Jerusalem.  For Gaston, Paul is saying that people from the Hagar column are moving into the Sarah column.  At the same time, one should keep in mind that Gaston does not believe that Paul regards the church as the new Israel.  Perhaps Gaston’s view is that Paul thought the Gentiles were partaking of God’s blessings to Israel, which includes God’s faithfulness to her.

Galatians 4:25 states in the King James Version: “For this Agar is mount Sinai in Arabia, and answereth to Jerusalem which now is, and is in bondage with her children.”  Gaston translates it, however, as follows: “It (Sinai) is in the opposite column from the present Jerusalem, for she (Hagar) serves (as a slave) with her children.”  Gaston’s point appears to be that the present Jerusalem (unlike Hagar, representing the Gentiles under the law) is not in slavery.  That is consistent with Gaston’s overall argument: that Jews are subject to the Torah within God’s gracious covenant, whereas Gentiles (before Christ) were subject to the law while in a status of slavery to angels.

Gaston does not believe that there is a strong contrast in Galatians 4:21-31 between the present Jerusalem and the Jerusalem above, as if the former is bad and the latter is good.  He notes on page 89 that “the entire Jewish tradition…speaks of a heavenly Jerusalem…in the sense of a promise to the present Jerusalem.”  I interpret Gaston here in light of what he says later on: “It is therefore appropriate for Paul to cite Isa 54:1, a word of comfort spoken to the present Jerusalem because of the promise of the new Jerusalem…”  On page 216, Gaston states: “A great deal is said about the heavenly or future Jerusalem in the literature of early Judaism…Paul stands in this line but adds that Gentiles now, before the eschaton, are citizens of this heavenly Jerusalem.”  I think that Gaston’s point is that the heavenly Jerusalem is the Jerusalem that God promises to create, which will include Gentiles.  In Second Isaiah, God promises the earthly Jerusalem that he will create this new Jerusalem, or (perhaps more accurately) transform the present Jerusalem into that new Jerusalem.  But, for Gaston, Paul believes that Gentiles are part of that new Jerusalem now, and that it is currently in heaven.

What does Hagar have to do with Mount Sinai in Arabia?  This was where I was confused.  Gaston reads Paul’s reference to Sinai in light of a story in Mekhilta Bachodesh 5, in which God offers to Esau, Amon, Moab, and Ishmael the Torah, yet they reject it, and so God gives it to Israel.  Gaston also cites Jubilees 15:28-32, where God places angels over Gentiles while ruling Israel directly.  Gaston’s point may be that, at Sinai, God made his covenant with Israel, which implied that he was not making the covenant with other nations and thus was resigning them to harsh angelic administration of the law.  In that sense, Sinai meant slavery for the Gentiles, represented by Hagar.

And yet, Gaston does maintain that Paul in Galatians 4:21-31 is arguing against Judaizers.  On page 90, Gaston states: “Paul’s argument is not against circumcision (or Judaism) as such, but for adult Gentiles to circumcise themselves would mean seeking to earn something and thus deny God’s grace.”  By so doing, Gaston argues, these Ishmael children are subjecting themselves to slavery.  But this does not make much sense to me.  If God’s covenant with Israel was gracious, wouldn’t Gentiles do well to become circumcised and to enter that covenant, thereby escaping their subjection as Gentiles to angelic oppression?  And, even if Gentiles did not have to do so but could simply believe in Christ, why would circumcision place them under bondage, in Gaston’s scenario?  They’re still entering God’s covenant, which is the opposite of bondage!

About jamesbradfordpate

My name is James Pate. This blog is about my journey. I read books. I watch movies and TV shows. I go to church. I try to find meaning. And, when I can’t do that, I just talk about stuff that I find interesting. I have degrees in fields of religious studies. I have an M.Phil. in the History of Biblical Interpretation from Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati, Ohio. I also have an M.A. in Hebrew Bible from Jewish Theological Seminary, an M.Div. from Harvard Divinity School, and a B.A. from DePauw University.
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