A Provocation: Second Sunday after Pentecost: June 23, 2019: Galatians 3:23-29

Galatians 3:23-29
3:23 Now before faith came, we were imprisoned and guarded under the law until faith would be revealed.

3:24 Therefore the law was our disciplinarian until Christ came, so that we might be justified by faith.

3:25 But now that faith has come, we are no longer subject to a disciplinarian,

3:26 for in Christ Jesus you are all children of God through faith.

3:27 As many of you as were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ.

3:28 There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.

3:29 And if you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham's offspring, heirs according to the promise.

I have dealt with the “Legion” scene from Luke 8 before, on the Fifth Sunday after Pentecost three years ago. You can read my Provocation at this URL: https://provokingthegospel.wordpress.com/2016/06/10/a-provocation-fifth-sunday-after-pentecost-luke-826-39/

This time around, I’d like to think about the text from Galatians.

A Question or Two:

  • Why does Paul keep saying “Christ” so often?
  • Seriously: six times in seven verses.

Some Longer Reflections:

This passage ends with a ringing celebration of oneness, even in the face of very real differences. You may find a way to erase the difference between Jews and Gentiles (it’s easier if you don’t actually know anybody from the other group), but you would have a hard time convincing a someone who holds people as slaves that there is no difference between people held as slaves and other people. And women and men are, still and always, women and men. And everybody knows it. Gender and sexuality are, of course, more complex, and more interesting, than that, but women and men are women and men. More or less.

This past weekend the small city where I live celebrated its first Pride Parade. According to reports, over 10,000 of us showed up to walk and celebrate all the ways we are different and alike. And both things were true: we were different and we were alike. And it was the most joyous (and polite) parade I have ever been part of. That experience drew my eyes to Paul’s rhapsodic celebration of difference that does not divide.

Which brings me to what really caught me eye in this passage. Once again, I am grumpy about the way this thing is translated.

Despite Paul’s joy at being able to sing of a world in which Jews and Gentiles are not divided from each other, the translators clearly having none of it. They begin their work in this snippet (in vv. 22f) by talking about how “we” were “imprisoned” and “guarded” before “faith came.” This works if the only lexicon you use is one aimed at translators of the New Testament. Such translators are glad to find references to being held in prison under guard when they are talking about Jewish faith. That lets them make a sharp evangelistic contrast with the freedom of Christianity.

But the Liddell and Scott lexicon, a classic resource for translating the vast world of ancient Greek texts, sees neither prison bars nor prison guards. The word translated as “imprisoned” is generally read as “held closely together” or even “drawn tightly together.” The term is also used to speak of the way the shields in a shield-wall were locked together to protect the soldiers. This makes sense when you get to the “guarding” word, which is used generally to speak of guarding people against external threats.

I would bet that this is not the way you thought of the “guarding” word when first you read this snippet. I would bet that you thought of prison guards who keep the inmates from escaping to freedom in the outside world. The word in Greek is aimed the opposite way. The words together speak of protecting and preserving the people who are “drawn tightly together.”

A famous Jewish writer has said that, through all the years of Jewish faithfulness, it is not so much that Jews have kept the Sabbath. It is more true to fact that the Sabbath has kept the Jews. The same could be said for Torah (here translated as “law”). Torah has protected Jews like a shield-wall in a world that is often dangerous.

Paul would agree, despite what Christian translators make him say.

And I think Paul would be puzzled by the choice to translate παιδαγωγὸς as “disciplinarian.” The word παιδαγωγὸς is where the English word “pedagogy” comes from, and teaching requires instilling discipline. I’m a teacher. I know this. But in English “disciplinarian” implies punishment, at least to me. The word in Greek, however, refers to the tutor who educated the children, shaped them as they grew. It might also refer to the slave who conducted the children to their lessons, protecting them as they traveled to their teacher. Someone will point out that education in ancient Greece was harsher than it is in the average kindergarten class in the U.S. No kidding. EVERYTHING was harsher in ancient Greece than in the average kindergarten class.

But Paul’s metaphors point to protecting and shaping, not imprisoning and punishing.

So why have the translators read it the way they did? Because they don’t believe that there is no separation between Jews and Greeks. Or maybe it’s because they think that there is no difference because Jewishness is obliterated “in Christ.”


For one thing, if Paul is talking about obliterating difference, then is the difference between women and men, free people and people held as slaves, also obliterated? Good luck making THAT argument stick.

And besides, why assume that it is Jewishness that is obliterated? It might actually make better sense, if we HAVE to obliterate something, to see Paul arguing that Gentile difference (along with its assumption of privilege and power, and its practice of violent domination) is obliterated. (For a detailed discussion of this, see Mark Nanos’s illuminating book, The Irony of Galatians.) And since we are in the neighborhood, if we are obliterating, is it women or men who are obliterating? Answer carefully, and pay attention to the implications.

So I go back to the lovely little walk 10,000 of us took together last Saturday. We were so intriguingly different from each other: gay people, straight people, trans people, non-binary people, old grandmothers and little kids, pastors in what Sara Miles (in her book, City of God) calls “full clergy drag” and people in full drag queen drag, all of us together. We were different. And our delightful difference did not divide us.

Paul sees this connection-through-difference as the result of the coming of Messiah, who turns all things right-side-up. The differences that he notes are still present and very real. That is why he points to paired binary opposites in his argument: Jews and Greeks, slaves and free, women and men. But Paul sees the messianic change in the fact that these differences no longer divide us. Now, because of the work of the messiah, our differences connect us, and the Creation works the way it was made to work.

I think it’s kind of like one big Pride Parade. At least it is that joyful.

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