Beginning in Chapter 3, Paul will begin to create an argument from Scripture which shows that God is doing something new in the Gospel. While the prophets of the Hebrew Bible often foresaw the salvation of the Gentiles, In the present age, however, Gentiles are able to be right with God apart from the works of the Law. This is Paul’s contribution to salvation history – something which he has already called a “revelation from God” in 1:11-12.
This is a scriptural argument. Paul alludes to or quotes several texts from the Hebrew Bible to make his point that the Law did not make a person righteous, rather, those who live under Law are always “under a curse.” The model of Abraham’s faith shows that it is only through faith that one can be accounted as righteous.
Paul packs together several texts from the Hebrew Bible to make this point, and requires a great deal from his readers. They need to now only know what these verses say, but also the context in which they are found. That Abraham believed is important, but when he believed is critical to Paul’s point: it was before the sign of the covenant was given (Gen 15, not 17) or before his great demonstration of faith in Gen 22. The reader needs to know the whole flow of the Abraham story in Genesis 12-24 in order to have the full impact of Paul’s argument. Similarly, the quotation of Habakkuk 2 calls to mind a whole collection of events: the fall of Jerusalem and the Exile are the context of Habakkuk’s “complaints.” In response to the obvious fact that Israel and Judah have fallen under the curse of the Law, in Habakkuk they “righteous” must live by faith. Even to say that those under the Law are “under a curse” requires more of a reader than the single line from Deuteronomy cited by Paul. Paul’s argument is based on the whole deuteronomic theology of curse and blessing.
The density of this argument leads to a question concerning what is happening in Paul’s Galatian churches. If Paul is addressing pagan converts to Christianity, then would they appreciate the rhetorical impact of this scriptural argument? Possibly. But based on Paul’s speech in Acts 14 and 17 (clearly pagan audiences) and the letter to the first Thessalonians (with very little reference to the Hebrew Bible), it appears that Paul would not have made an argument based on the Hebrew Bible to a recently-converted from paganism congregation.
Two possibilities remain to explain Paul’s scriptural argument in Gal 3, although they are not mutually exclusive. First, Paul could be addressing God-fearing Gentiles, people who were already practicing a form of Judaism and were now being advised to fully convert to Judaism in order to be right with God. Second, Paul may be using these scripture because they are the texts used by the agitators in his churches. If Abraham were a proto-typical Gentile convert to Judaism, then perhaps one could argue that the sign of the covenant with Abraham was circumcision, therefore a present-day Gentile convert ought to following in Abraham’s faith and fully convert.
Paul’s solution is to show that “Abraham’s faith was credited to him as righteousness” before the ritual of circumcision, not after. If Paul is using the words of his opponents, he is turning them around on their head – Be like Abraham, Paul says, was was declared righteous before circumcision or Law!