Exegetical Exercise

Image illumination Galatians 1:1

From the letter to the Galatians

Exegetical notes on the Uniform Series text for Sunday, February 12: Galatians 4:8-20.

Some basic givens: the form of the larger text is letter, apparently to churches – rather than a particular church – in Asia Minor; the date of composition seems to have been late 40s-mid 50s CE; undisputed Pauline authorship; generally understood to be responding to an ongoing controversy in the first century church, over the extent of observance of Jewish law

Questions/observations: What did first century Christians say observance of the law was necessary for? Terminology might matter, and we might not know what the terminology was. Contemporary Christians might use language like “to be Christian” or “to be a ‘true Christian’” (one of my grandmother’s favorite turns of phrase). What did first century Christians say? Maybe “to follow Christ” or “to be ‘in’ Christ” or “to share the faith of Christ”? In Galatians, Paul mostly uses the language of justification. V. 17 seems to use a play on words (?): ekklēsai “to exclude”, very similar to ekklēsia, church or assembly – and it seems Paul’s opponents do, indeed want to ekklēsai (exclude) the Galatians from the ekkl ēsia (church or assembly) if they don’t observe certain prescribed practices.

Verses 8-10, continues the contrast between freedom and slavery that has been developing since ch. 3. Before knowing God/being known by God the Galatians “used to serve as slaves” (edouleusate) other beings that were not gods; by implication, this stopped with knowledge of/by God; now they inexplicably want to turn back to the “weak and beggarly stoicheia,” whatever the stoicheia are – fundamental principles of this or that, elemental spirits, maybe “four elements,” there seems to be a lot of disagreement on this point – to serve these stoicheia as slaves.

Knowing how Paul refers to the service of God/Christ as slavery in other contexts, the implication may not be strictly between service and non-service, but rather between service that is slavery and service that is actually freedom.

Verses 11, 19, 20, the condition of “I” is afraid, in the pains of labor, and “perplexed” (at a loss, uncertain) in connection with the audience; all expressive of profound concern.

Verse 12 “I beseech you, become as I am, for I also have become as you are” – in “becoming as you(all) are,” does he mean he has become like a Gentile (now – which they seem to be moving away from), or that he has become zealously observant (in the past – which they seem to be in the process of adopting)? Or could he mean both? Or is this not about observance, but about something else?

Why is the next sentence “you have done me no wrong”? What wrong might they have done him?

Why are vv. 13-16 here? How are they relevant to this text? Do they, perhaps, set up the question in v. 16 “Have I now become your enemy by telling you the truth?” so that “you have not done me any wrong” is a contrast with “have I done you some kind of wrong,” [when I was clearly not trying to do that, but in fact, maybe to repay you for your welcome and kindness in addressing a weakness of the body]?

Just notice that this is actually quite obscure. Commentators focus on questions like “what was Paul’s ailment” and “maybe it had something to do with eyes,” but why would an author making an argument about doctrine and practice suddenly make mention of an episode like this, that has no obvious-to-us direct connection to what he’s talking about? Presumably it makes sense to him, so … what sense does it make?

Verses 17-18 “make much of” translates zēlousin, zēloute, zēlousthai, a word from which we get “zealot.” Contrast between this zealotry/being made much of for a good purpose, and not for a good purpose. Also a contrast between Paul’s presence and non-presence – any connection to the passage about the illness – when the Galatians, apparently, made much of Paul, receiving him like an angel of God (notice the echo with Gal. 1:8) or Jesus Christ?

Paul says he wants Christ to be “formed” morphē in the Galatians. They are unformed, as well as un-in-formed, which may be why their practices and the understandings that give rise to their practices are not yet stable – they seem to be easily influenced by whatever message comes to them – and why Paul expresses such concern.

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About HAT

Heather Thiessen (HAT) is a happily married 60-ish, Bible-reading, Presbyterian Church Sunday School teaching and choir singing, small fuel efficient car driving, still pretty much 2nd wave feminist and generally out lesbian Hoosier mom. (There are no monochrome states.) From time to time she teaches religious studies to students at a small liberal arts college in Louisville, Kentucky.
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