Galatians 3 – The Law and The Curse

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The first two chapters of Galatians dealt directly with the relationship of Paul and the Jerusalem Church. In these chapters Paul has claimed that he was commissioned directly by God to preach his gospel to the Gentiles (1:1-2, 11-12) and that he is not under the authority of the Apostles in Jerusalem (1:13-24). In fact he consulted Jerusalem only when his success among the Gentiles raised the question of circumcision of converts (2:1-10). The pillars of the church at Jerusalem agreed with Paul that Titus ought not be circumcised. Later, Paul confronted Peter publicly for breaking from table fellowship with Gentiles. Clearly Paul is independent of the Jerusalem church.

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, they described this salvation as a “conversion” to the God of Israel. The nations will come to Zion to worship, but (presumably) they will keep the Law as members of Israel. In the present age, however, Paul argues that 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.

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 model of Abraham’s faith shows that it is only through faith that one can be accounted as righteous.

The reader of Galatians needs to know the whole flow of the Abraham story in Genesis 12-24 in order to understand 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.

How does understanding the “curse of the Law” as an allusion to Deuteronomy’s “Blessing and Cursing” change the way we understand Paul in this passage?