Paul’s Pronouns

Galatians, the Torah, and the Stoicheia

Abjan van Meerten
14 min readSep 19, 2023

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I. Introduction: You, They, We

In Galatians 3–4, Paul makes an argument about the Torah in the context of pagans wanting to take up Torah observance and, in particular, get circumcised (see, e.g., 5:2–3; 6:12–13). Throughout, he uses different pronouns, starting with the second person plural, obviously referring to his pagan audience, the “bewitched” “Galatians” (3:1) — in Fredriksen’s terms, ex-pagan pagans. [1] Moreover, Paul uses the third person plural (e.g. in 4:5, “those under the Torah”), seemingly referring to the people of Israel.

The water gets muddier when Paul uses the first person plural. It could just refer to Paul and his pagan audience, the only ones on the epistolary scene, so to say (besides the scribe) (option 1), or to Jews (represented by Paul) and pagans together (option 2), or simply the pagans, with Paul putting himself in their shoes (option 3). [2] Alternatively, we shouldn’t think in categories of Jewish/pagan at all, in which case both ‘we’ and ‘they’ just refer to humans in general, including the pagan readers (option 4).

Figure 1

We will come back to these options later on. However, first, we must establish one important methodological principle: we should start out with the assumption that Paul is consistent — a so-called ‘hermeneutic of generosity’. [3] The burden of proof is on readings of Paul that make him incoherent. Now, assuming that Paul is coherent, what does he say about the ‘we’ and ‘they’ that could clarify its referents?

To understand that, we first need to take a look at Paul’s broader arguments about ‘justification’ in Galatians, and in particular his argument in 3:10–12. After that, we will consider the Torah and the ‘elements’, before revisiting Paul’s pronouns.

II. ‘Justification’ in Galatians

Martyn has convincingly argued, especially on the basis of 2:15–21, that Paul in Galatians is not contrasting two human actions but a human activity and Christ’s action (cf. also 5:4): God’s rectifying action (dikaioō)— understood as broadly synonymous to ‘give life’ (dzōopoieō; 3:21), i.e., to resurrect; ‘rescue’ (exairéō; 1:4), ‘redeem from slavery’ (exagoradzō; 3:13; 4:5), ‘set free’ (eleutheróō; 5:1), and related to ‘call’ (kaléō; 5:13) — does not happen by means of human Torah observance — ‘works of Torah’ (erga nomou)— but by means of the divinely initiated (4:4) fidelity of Christ, i.e. his obedience to death.

Through Paul’s proclamation of that fidelity, accompanied by works of the Spirit (see 3:1-5), the Galatians were called unto obedience and thus, through the Spirit, began to share in Christ’s fidelity, so that they can now be assured that they, too, will share in his resurrection (5:5) — i.e., his justification (cf. Rom 6:7). Thus, God’s deliverance is “through fidelity, unto fidelity” (Rom 1:17).

Now, in Galatians 3, Paul does not just argue that Torah observance is not the means of justification (Gal 2:15–21), but also that it is positively the means of condemnation (cf. Rom 8:1–2; 2 Cor 3:9). That is, not only can the Torah not “give life” (3:21), i.e. rectify; it produces the curse, i.e. death, the very thing from which people need to be ‘rectified’. The fidelity of Christ, then, brings about that “deliverance of life” (Rom 5:18).

But how can Torah be such a big part of the problem? In Romans 7, Paul argues that the Torah was in itself good, but was weaponized by Sin and Death which produced, well, sin and death through it — even in those who really wanted to keep the Torah — so that Paul could call it “the Torah of Sin and Death” (Rom 8:2). Thus, the real enemies are Sin and Death, which oppress humans irrespective of what they do. In Galatians, however, Paul does not foreground Sin and Death; it is the Torah that imprisons (3:23) and from which people need to be released (4:5).

III. Galatians 3:10–12 and the Curse of the Torah

Table 1: Gal 3:10–12, NRSVue (modified)

Much of Paul’s argument is captured in 3:10–12. However, the logic requires a closer look. In verse 10, Paul switches from all who are Torah-observant (group 1) to all who do not observe all of the Torah (group 2), saying that the latter are cursed. Paul’s logic is often explained by focusing on the word “all” and adding the presupposition that Torah observance (group 1) inevitably leads to being cursed (group 2) because Torah’s/God’s norm is ‘perfection’, and the smallest transgression is enough to merit punishment. Thus, all people who start out in group 1 (Jews) inevitably end up in group 2 (cursed). This would, in fact, constitute a classic Protestant claim!

The problem is, Paul never explicitly says that the problem with Torah observance is the fact that Torah/God requires perfection and no one is capable of meeting that standard. (This is in effect a misreading of Romans 1–3 transferred into Galatians.)

Excursus: Galatians 5:3
‘But isn’t this what Paul implies in 5:3?’ Well, let’s take a look: “Once again I testify to every man who lets himself be circumcised that he is obliged to obey the entire Torah.” Why is Paul ‘testifying’ this — because it is impossible to “obey the entire Torah”, and trying to do so would be foolish? Again, there is no evidence in Paul for such a perfectionistic view of God and the Torah — which would be counter to mainline Jewish thinking, as Sanders reminded us. God’s Torah itself provided restoration mechanisms for transgressors, which were fully operative at the time of Paul (before 70).

If we take a closer contingent look, however, we see that this statement may be part of Paul’s rhetoric against his opponents, “the circumcised” who “do not themselves obey the [entire?] Torah, but want you to be circumcised so that they may boast about your flesh” (6:13). In other words, what Paul is likely saying here is that, hypothetically, if some of the Galatians would choose to get circumcised (the horror!), they should take up the whole Torah (in whatever sense), like good Jews, and not leave it at circumcision and some more, like the opponents. Being a Jew is not something to be trifled with.

Returning to 3:10, without the presupposition that the cause of the problem is the Torah’s norm of perfection, what is Paul saying? All who observe the Torah are cursed, because all who do not observe the Torah are cursed — what!? The only thing you can conclude is that the Torah apparently curses everyone— and that is in fact what Paul will continue to argue. The Torah imprisons all, no matter what they do (i.e., unconditionally).

First, however, let us finish Paul’s thought in vv. 11–12, which can basically be summarised like this:

  • No one is rectified by Torah,
  • because rectification, Hosea tells us, happens ‘by fidelity’,
  • and Torah is not ‘by fidelity’,
  • but rather, Leviticus tells us, by human activity.

This turns out to be, in fact, simple logic. We have returned to our first point: rectification — resurrection, etc. — does not and cannot happen by (the works of) Torah but only by (Christ’s) fidelity. But there is something more sinister going on with the Torah and the “evil present age” (1:4) of which it is a part.

IV. “All Things Imprisoned” (3:22)

During the evil present age — before Christ, the seed of Abraham, the faithful one, arrived on the scene — humans under (4:5)/within (3:11) the Torah were cursed (3:11, 13), imprisoned (3:22, 23), guarded (3:23), under a disciplinarian (3:24), [4] and enslaved (implicit in 4:3-5). But who were under/within the Torah?

To arrive at a conclusion, we first need to understand that the “giving of Torah” (Rom 9:4) can broadly be described as the constitutive event of Jews, and therefore also of non-Jews, i.e. pagans. Before the Torah and circumcision, there was just ‘humanity’. After the Torah, there were Jews and pagans, circumcised and uncircumcised (cf. 3:28; 5:6; 6:15) — i.e., those who keep Torah (in whatever way) and those who don’t.

Now, when the Torah arrived, Paul says, it “imprisoned all things under the power of Sin” (3:22). Now, who exactly are imprisoned? One could argue that this is strictly about Jews, but that would lead to two weird possible scenarios (see table 3 below).

  • Scenario 1: Before the Torah came, ‘Jews’ (at that point just humans) were not enslaved to Sin, but the Torah then enslaved them. This would seem to imply that pagans have never been enslaved to Sin (because the Torah never enslaved them).
  • Scenario 2: Before the Torah came, ‘Jews’ were enslaved to Sin, but the Torah then made it worse. This would seem to imply that Jews have been more sinful than pagans (because the Torah has made it worse only for them).
Figure 2

Scenario 1 can be discounted because we know that “all, both Jews and Greeks, are under the power of Sin” (Romans 3:9). Scenario 2 can be discounted because of its antisemitic import. However, the basis of scenario 2 (all humans pre-Torah as slaves of Sin) is more attractive, among others from a view of Paul’s coherence. [5]

What would need to happen is to balance it out, so to say, so that, broadly speaking, Jews and pagans post-Torah were equally sinful. This is where the stoicheia kosmou could be introduced, to which pagans were enslaved (see Gal 4). However, when did these stoicheia kosmou arrive? If these stoicheia refer, at least to some extent, to idols, then they existed before the Torah came. Moreover, for Jews, these idols would be replaced with the one true God when the Torah came. This would lead to the following scenario:

Figure 3

This scenario seems attractive, because it acknowledges that all are under Sin but that Jews are positively (instead of negatively) distinguished from pagans. However, it now goes against the very thing Paul is saying in Galatians 3:22, namely that Torah made things worse by imprisoning “all things” under Sin! Here it actually made things better for Jews, giving them an edge on pagans.

To ensure an equal outcome, so to say, we could say that the Torah was itself a form of slavery, as Paul seems to imply. This could then be said to be roughly equivalent to slavery to the stoicheia kosmou, and in this way both Jews and Greeks were slaves to Sin plus something else. And indeed, this is the way that a lot of interpreters read Galatians 3–4: Jews were enslaved to Torah, pagans to stoicheia kosmou, both had to be redeemed from their respective slavery.

Figure 4

However, again, the Torah here does not really make things worse; it does not make them better, but Jews end up just as enslaved as they already were, and again Paul’s argument is nullified.

One final option is to tweak our definition of stoicheia kosmou, which has been much debated anyway. It could be that the stoicheia kosmou arrived only at the same time as, and in some way connected with, Torah. In this way, the arrival of Torah made things worse for both Jews and pagans; indeed, they are very much in the same boat now. However, we now need to explain the precise relationship between the Torah and the stoicheia.

Figure 5

This is where Lou Martyn’s thesis comes in. [6] He takes into account the fact that the stoicheia kosmou have to do with (1) the basic cosmological elements (fire, water, earth, and air; sometimes aether/pneuma is added), which could be arranged in binary pairs (fire–water, earth–air), and with (2) idols (which were often constituted by these elements). [7] However, there might also be a secret third thing…

In Galatians 3:28, Paul says that, with the arrival of Christ, “there is no longer Jew or Greek; there is no longer slave or free; there is no longer ‘male and female’ [Gen 1:28].” Apparently, before Christ, these pairs were operative in some negative way. Now, we also know that the period before Christ is constantly related to the Law in Galatians 3. So, maybe the Torah played a role in enforcing the pairs that Paul mentions — and indeed, we have already noted that the Torah introduced the first pair, Jew–Greek (or circumcised–uncircumcised), which broadly corresponded to the pair righteous–transgressor (for the latter, cf. Gal 2:15, 17). Moreover, the third pair, ‘male–female’, famously interrupts Paul’s parallelism because… he cites from Torah! And not just some text: Genesis 1, the Torah’s account of the “foundation of the kosmos” (Eph 1:4).

Furthermore, this last pair recurs in Galatians 6, where Paul says that “the world has been crucified to me and I to the world, for neither circumcision nor uncircumcision is anything, but a new creation [is everything]!” (6:14b-15). Now what Paul does here is describe the pair circumcised–uncircumcised (= Jew–Greek) as in some way fundamental to the world to which he has died (cf. 1:4), and contrasts it to the new creation which is the reality ‘in Christ’.

Now we have all the pieces of the puzzle. The ‘present evil age’ before the arrival of Christ is associated with the arrival of Torah, enslavement to Sin, Torah, and the stoicheia kosmou, and the pairs Jew–Greek/circumcised–uncircumcised, slave–free, and male–female. But how do they all relate? It seems plausible that the enslaving stoicheia kosmou, the fundamental elements of the world as well as related to ‘idols’ in some way, are the binary pairs mentioned above, of which at least two (the first and third) are directly enforced by the Torah! And this whole situation can be seen to play into the hands of Sin (which, moreover, links hands with the Flesh; see 5:19–21). The pieces fit, almost.

Two objections could be made:

  • How do the stoicheia, defined in this way, relate to idols? Since Paul no longer views the stoicheia as material elements, there is no longer a direct tie with idols made from those elements. However, there can still very well be a connection with the shadowy powers beyond idols. While Paul says the stoicheia are “by nature non-gods” (4:8) and “weak and beggarly” (4:9), he clearly thinks they at least had the suprahuman power to enslave (unlike material idols); after all, the Galatians needed to be redeemed from them! So, there might still be a link between the stoicheia and the idols whom the Galatians used to worship, but not a direct one.
  • How does the second pair of the stoicheia, slavefree, relate to the Torah? It can be acknowledged that the Torah did not abolish the social institution of slavery but neither did it make it worse, for all we know. [8] However, in the new creation, there will be no slave–free at all. Christ abolishes what the Torah kept intact. Clearly, however, seeing that the world, along with its elements, was about to end (!), Paul was not very concerned with the social institution of slavery at all, so it is hard to read his mind on it.

Excursus: Torah and the Stoicheia in 4:10
In 4:10, Paul connects slavery to the “weak and beggarly” stoicheia with the observance of “special days and months and seasons and years” (Gk.: hēméras paratēreisthe kai mēnas kai kairous kai eniautous). As in 3:28, we detect an allusion to Genesis 1, this time verse 14 where the lights in the skies are installed as signs “for seasons and for special days and for years” (Gk.: eis kairous kai eis hēméras kai eis eniautous; the only one that is missing is ‘months’, mēnas). These very same ‘lights’ (i.e. stars and planets) were (1) regarded by Aristotle as made from a special divine element, namely aether (something emphasised recently by Matthew Thiessen [9]), (2) were worshiped as divine by pagans, and (3) regulated the cultic calendar, both Jewish and pagan. But again, the Torah itself is also actively involved with these stoicheia in making the distinction between holy and profane times, which we could add to our list of enslaving binaries.

V. Pronouns (Again)

Now we are in the right position to reconsider Paul’s use of pronouns throughout his argument. These can be mapped as follows (see table 2):

Table 2: Gal 3:13–14, 21–4:7, NRSVue (modified)

Somewhat satisfyingly, we can see that our scenario (5) is very much in line with Paul’s use of pronouns: ‘we’ were both under the curse, imprisonment, etc. of the Torah (3:13, 23, etc.) and of the stoicheia kosmou (4:3). Moreover, there is now no extra third-person party in play; 3:22 and 4:5 can now be seen to refer to ‘us’ as well. All of this means that there are no significant distinctions between the pronouns at all; Paul is describing universal conditions. (This comes closest to option 4 mentioned at the beginning.)

Indeed, his (somewhat confusing) use of pronouns, especially in 3:10–12 and 4:1–7, is probably meant to drive the reader to that very conclusion: you, we, they are all in the same boat. And Paul’s gospel is that Christ came into that boat (3:13; 4:4), in solidarity with all of humanity, and demolished it in death, only to rise with a new creation and a new humanity — free.

Notes

[1] See Paula Fredriksen, Paul: The Pagans’ Apostle (Yale University Press 2017), ch. 2, and passim.

[2] Cf. something similar in Fredriksen: “his use of the first-person plural pronoun here [Gal 2:4] registers his rhetorical identification with his current gentile addressees” (Paul: The Pagans’ Apostle, ch. 4).

[3] I derive this term from Douglas A. Campbell, The Deliverance of God: An Apocalyptic Rereading of Justification in Paul (Eerdmans 2013), esp. ch. 7.3.4.

[4] There are no indications in the text that the Torah’s role as ‘disciplinarian’ was seen as somehow positively preparatory for Christ; see Campbell, Deliverance, ch. 20.6.5.

[5] I am aware of the fact that within Galatians itself, Paul does not say anything about the power of Sin pre-Torah; in fact, he only mentions it this once! It could be that Paul’s view in Galatians was that humans were somehow free from Sin before the Torah came (as he seems to say in Rom 7! see 7:9), and that cosmic history only began with the giving of Torah/circumcision (something Martyn hints at). This would be problematic if we read “all things” (3:22) as strictly referring to Jews (scenario 1), because then what about Sin’s enslavement of pagans? However, for my own view (see scenario 5 below), this reading poses no problems; it can be simply integrated by removing ‘Sin’ from the pre-Torah equation (see figure 6):

Figure 6

[6] See J. Louis Martyn, Galatians: A New Translation with Introduction and Commentary, AB 33A (Doubleday 1997).

[7] For a good overview, see esp. Martinus C. de Boer, “The Meaning of the Phrase ta stoicheia tou kosmou in Galatians,” Short Main Paper read at the SNTS General Meeting, Aberdeen, 25–29 July 2006; more recently, see Emma Wasserman, “Gods and Non-Gods in Galatians: Reconsidering Paul’s Stoicheia,” ch. 2 in Jaimie Gunderson, Anthony Keddie, and Douglas Boin (eds.), The Social Worlds of Ancient Jews and Christians: Essays in Honor of L. Michael White (Brill 2022).

[8] There is no evidence for widespread Torah observance in Israelite society before the Hellenistic period, let alone before the exile; see Yonathan Adler, The Origins of Judaism: An Archaeological-Historical Reappraisal (Yale University Press 2022).

[9] See A Jewish Paul: The Messiah’s Herald to the Gentiles (Baker 2023), esp. ch. 8, “Pneumatic Gene Therapy.”

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Abjan van Meerten

Thoughts on the liberating theology of Paul and the universal love of God