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Understanding Gal 3:19-20

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  • Understanding Gal 3:19-20

    These two verses have been hard to understand. The message has been difficult to discern, especially add the (abbreviated) shema with the words "God is one." I have written out a paper I hope to get published but have an abbreviated explanation. I would like any feedback on this. Does it help you makes sense of the verse?

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    Summary Explanation of Gal 3:19-20

    The Gal 3:19-20 passage has posed quite the challenge over nearly 2000 years since the letter was written. It is possible that certain points earlier in the letter led to confusion about the meaning of Gal 3:20. I hope to share a simple message of the verse 20 while explaining some of the decisions that help understand the verse. If this short paragraph does not give sufficient insight into the passage, the long description follows...

    The message of Gal. 3:20 can be understood after recognizing that the phrase the mediator is not of one presents a riddle to the reader. The wording is connected with the definition of a mediator, but instead of providing a direct statement about two parties in a mediatorship, the converse statement reads that the mediator is not of one. With the consideration that the promise of Gal. 3:16 ostensibly involves two parties, God and Christ, the mediator of one is solved by interpreting the Shema (as appearing in verse 20) in light of the deity of Christ. The use of the Shema (Deut 6:4) indicates that no mediator is possible because the promisor (the Father) and promisee (the Son) are one in the Godhead. Therefore, Paul reaffirms the message of Gal. 3:17–18 by conveying that the Law of Moses can have no salvific (justifying) role in the time of the promise (when the Christ came to us). The era of the Law ended now that Christ has come. This verse presents the earliest written reference to the trinitarian concept of Christ’s equality in the Godhead.

    In Galatians 3:19 Paul begins with the question: Why then the Law? He uses the question as a step to show that the Law has no justification role for the Christian. He first shows that the Law’s era ends at the appearance of Christ among humanity. He repeats the idea in v 20 but this time using a riddle. The riddle appears unexpectedly. The recognition of the riddle is necessary for several reasons: first, because of the confusing wording of verse 20 and, next, by process of elimination. The direct readings have not resulted in a consensus of meaning for both phrases of the verse.

    The earlier verses set the tone by showing that the Mosaic Law neither replaces the promise nor modifies the promise (vv 17-18). So the Law and promise appear in contrast to each other. Especially important is how Paul shows (v 16) the promise being from God the Father to Christ the Son. Abraham subsequently drops out of the picture after v 18. Since Christ is of the Godhead, the promise exists between persons of the Godhead.

    Verse 19 first answers the need for the Law. The answer is rather basic. The Israelites’ disobedience to earlier commands (in the wilderness) required a mediator to provide the Law to mend the relationship between God and the Israelites. The Law’s era ended with the arrival of Christ, to whom the promise was made. In this verse various aspects are emphasized: Christ, the promise, the Law, and mediation. The angels appear only as a popular conception of how the Law came about, but the angels have no other significance here. As to the mediation, we can easily understand there are two parties involved, namely God and Israel. This helps setup the riddle.

    Verse 20 says “but the mediator is not of one” and thus counters the possibility of mediation, as done with the Law. This statement presents challenges starting with the Greek but has a form similar to saying: “The soldier must be trained to arms.”1 Paul presents the definition instead of providing a clear message;2 he gives a clue for a riddle.3 Other interpretations may treat this point about the mediator as a direct response, but these do not tend to fully explain why Paul includes the phrase, “but God is one.”

    The first reaction to the mention of a mediator is that the promise has two parties, but for some reason, Paul has suggested there is only one party. The verse reinforces this oneness with the words, “but God is one.” This phrase is an abbreviated version of the Shema found in Deut 6:4. When modifying the Shema in light of Christ, the Godhead is one, but now while recognizing the deity of Christ, Christ is a second person in the Godhead. So, the Shema reflects oneness and duality. The promise then only has one party, namely the Godhead, and thus there is no mediator possible between God the Father and Christ the Son.

    The direct solution of the riddle indicates that a mediator (with the Law in hand) cannot have a role between God the Father and Christ the Son. No conflict can occur between persons of the Godhead. The ultimate message, then, is that the Law cannot have a salvific role for people under the promise, basically the Christians. Especially recognized in this message is that men do not have to be circumcised as a requirement for justification.

    Likely this explanation has been missed due to several issues. People don’t expect a riddle here, nor do they have the deity of Christ in focus when encountering the Shema phrase.4 Other aspects can affect the reading, such as expecting the promise in verse 20 to be focused on Abraham or, historically, of the mediator being viewed as Jesus.

    The riddle probably was designed with a touch of amusement rather than making the text difficult, though Paul arguably wrote the message too narrowly to be understood by people in later years. Even yet, the detailed analysis can explain the text while also making its solution appear overly difficult.5 Hopefully after the explanation is shared, a re-reading of the verse can result in a clear recognition, without the complex details in mind.

    1Georg B. Winer, A Treatise on the Grammar of New Testament Greek: Regarded as the Basis of New Testament Exegesis ( Edinburgh: T. & T. Clark, 1870), xviii 131–2.

    2The statement “a mediator is not of one” basically says the same thing as saying, “a mediator if of two parties.”

    3Riddles are rare in scripture, but the recognition of this as a riddle seems to be the only fashion by which this verse can be understood, especially concerning the Shema.

    4Perhaps Paul did not explicitly mention the deity of Christ due to 1) a lack of need to do so, and 2) possibly increased persecution if he shared this explicitly.

    5The intuitive understanding probably is missed because we lack having useful details in view. Also, Paul uses various subtle approaches which can require a rather detailed analysis to detect and convey.

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