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Abraham's one true heir?
Galatians 3.16 and identity interchange

by Tim Gallant

Now to Abraham and his Seed were the promises made. He does not say, "And to seeds," as of many, but as of one, "And to your Seed," who is Christ.


Perhaps no verse in the entire Pauline corpus has opened the apostle up to charges of arbitrariness and faulty argument more than the one cited above, Galatians 3:16. It is repeatedly argued that 'seed' (Heb. zera'; Gr. sperma) could not be expected in a plural form, in any case, so the apostle's argument is illegitimate. Moreover, in the Genesis context it is clear that 'seed' was plural in its referent: it would be as plentiful as the dust of the earth (13:16) and as numerous as the stars of the sky (15:5). Indeed, Abraham's seed was to suffer as strangers in a land not theirs, and be afflicted 400 years (15:13). This seed was to enjoy God's covenant over a course of generations (17:7); this was the foundation of the circumcision of "every male" (17:9-14).

In view of all this, it is argued, there can be no doubt that Paul was illegitimately latching onto the singular form of a clearly collective noun in order to make an argumentative point, ignoring not only lexical meaning but also scriptural context. He was robbing Abraham of his children, in order to make Christ his sole seed. "In the light of the narrative context of the passage itself, this reading [i.e. Paul's reading of Gen. 13:15 and 17:8] seems far from natural."1 What Paul has done is "allegorical in the sense that it no longer takes into account the original meaning of the words and has overstepped the limits set to allegory in rabbinical hermeneutics."2 His reasoning is "highly artificial," an "implausible argument."3

Those of us who believe in verbal, plenary inspiration cannot accept these charges. Even interpreters who do not hold to inerrancy have also taken it upon themselves to defend Paul. In this paper, we will explore Paul's hermeneutical method in his approach to the relevant Genesis passage(s), not merely to exonerate him, but also to gain insight into how we ought to approach Scripture today.

The following exegetical options have been advanced for Galatians 3:16 by sundry interpreters speaking in Paul's defense:

1. Christ was always the sole heir. Paul here "wishes to establish Christ as the sole heir to the Abrahamic promise, so that he may later argue that he is also the sole mediator of the promise."4 This, of course, is the most obvious reading, but the one which apparently leaves the apostle most vulnerable to charges of illegitimate argument.

2. Christ is now the sole heir. Christ was not initially the sole heir, but the seed has been historically narrowed. This seems to be Calvin's position;5 he points to the fact that God chooses Isaac and not Abraham's other sons, then Jacob and not Esau; He also casts off the northern tribes. "Paul is therefore not relying on the singular to prove that this was said of one man but only to show that the word 'seed' denotes one who was not only born of Abraham according to the flesh but had also been ordained for this by the calling of God. . . ."6 In Davies' words, Christ "is the apex of a triangle - a 'triangle' within which progressively the 'people of God,' the true descendants of Abraham, have become increasingly fewer and from which his 'false' descendants have been increasingly excluded. A process of exclusion comes to its culmination in Jesus."7

3. Christ was always the primary heir. Although there were indeed other 'descendants,' yet the promise always had primary reference to Christ.

4. 'Christ' is corporate. 'Christ' here is to be understood in some corporate sense, so that this appearance of 'seed' can harmonize with its usage in verse 29, where it clearly refers to Christ's people. Witherington writes, "it must be borne in mind that Paul really does believe that the exalted Christ is an inclusive personality. He really believes that Christians are 'in Christ', and that in some sense and to some degree what has been given to Him has also been given to them."8

5. Paul is stressing the nature of the noun. Paul is merely pointing out that sperma is not plural but collective. He is interested in showing unity; his point is not to exclude previous generations of Jews from the promise. "He is not laying stress on the particular word used, but on the fact that a singular noun of some kind, a collective term, is employed, where ta tekna or hoi apogonoi for instance might have been substituted."9

6. The promise is to the messiah-family. The word sperma here ought to be translated 'family.' God is intending one 'family,' not many as would be the case if Torah remains to divide Jews and Gentiles. Further, in line with position 4, above, 'Christ' is not to be understood as a proper name, but a reference to Messiah in a corporate sense, which is common to the Old Testament.10

7. The problem is textual. The statement, "It does not say, 'And to offsprings,' referring to many; but to one, 'And to your offspring,' which is Christ," was introduced by way of a scribal comment accidentally being incorporated into the text.11

Narrowing the field

Although the variety of this field looks daunting, I hope to show that the task is not as troubling as it may appear. The fact is, a number of these positions blend into one another and even complement one another when we begin to look at the biblical evidence (see below, "Complementary positions"). Because of this, it will not be necessary to engage in the tedious task of going through them one by one. Therefore, at this point I only wish to dismiss the most clearly erroneous positions.

Burton (position # 7) has suggested the problem is textual. There is a very simple response to this. There are no manuscripts known that do not include the controversial text; we may not take the easy way out. As those who handle the word of God, we must respect the existing textual tradition. We are "stuck" with working with the text before us. Ultimately, I think we will see that the controversial words contribute a key phase in Paul's argument.

One other option, a variation of the notion that the promise is to Christ alone (i.e. one form of position # 1), draws from this the notion that the promise was therefore "not made to lawkeepers (or anyone else, for that matter), and therefore that the law has absolutely no legal voice in the terms of the inheritance (v. 17)."12 This variation (of # 1 above) is clearly not tenable, since Christ was, in fact, the ultimate keeper of the law.13 The message of the New Testament is not that we inherit the promises because Christ was not a law-keeper, but precisely because He was, in our stead.

Finally, the idea that 'seed' means family, proposed by N. T. Wright (# 6 above), has too broad implications to deal with in the body of this paper; I discuss it at length in an appendix.

Context: the general picture14

Clearly, we will be unable to ascertain the meaning of Galatians 3:16 apart from a basic understanding of the broader context. To this we now turn.

Galatians is not the easiest book to master, due to the peculiarities of the Galatian situation. The church was coming under the influence of 'Judaizers,' those who wished the Gentiles to adopt Jewish customs (e.g. 2:3, 11-14; 4:21, 5:3). There is no clear consensus on the Judaizers' motive: some say that it was radically soteriological ('You cannot be justified apart from Torah'); others claim it had to do with the necessity of placement within the Jewish covenant community; still others posit that it was proposed merely as a means to avoid persecution (i.e. Jewish Christians did not want to be ostracized by unbelieving Jews for associating with the uncircumcised). Lack of agreement on this level has raised various questions with regard to the nature of Paul's argument.

Nonetheless, the basic issue lies is readily discernible: Paul sees any attempt by Gentiles to come under Torah as inconsistent with the revelation of the gospel of Christ, and represents a fundamental misunderstanding of redemptive history. This occasions the brunt of the apostle's entire argument in the letter, and in particular, it explains Paul's extended discussion of the law and the promise in chapter 3.

Appeal to the firstfruits enjoyed: 3:1-5

In the first part of the chapter, Paul appeals to the Galatians in terms of their own experience to show that the law is not the means by which divine blessing is appropriated. Any notion that the works of the law are now necessary is the result of a 'bewitching,' since faith and its attendant blessings were produced by the preached portrayal of the crucified Christ, not by Torah (3:1-2). The Galatians began in the Spirit without coming under the law; how then can it be supposed that what is necessary is a return to the law (3:3-5)?

In short, what the Galatians already possess is beyond Torah's capability.

Appeal to the covenant father: 3:6-9

This experience of the Galatian church is not some atomistic phenomenon. Rather, it makes sense biblically, for it was faith (a faith which they now share) that justified Abraham (3:6). Righteousness was Abraham's by divine 'reckoning' in view of faith, not by the works of Torah. Thus, those who seek to be Abraham's seed via works of the law are failing to see what genuinely characterized him: so Paul writes, "Know indeed, therefore, that those who are from faith: these are the sons of Abraham" (3:7).15

In that line, then, this justification was a 'blessing' (language of v. 8) which God promised to extend to the nations who were destined to follow in Abraham's faith (3:7-9). Apparently implicit in this is the idea that the Torah is what marks out Israel; a promise to justify the nations assumes that this will not be through Torah.16 In Abraham, indeed, is where blessing is to be found. Therefore, the Galatian impulse in seeking to be heirs of Abraham, which is presupposed in the argument, is entirely correct. But the point at issue is: how to be 'in Abraham'? Paul's resounding answer: by faith.

Appeal to what it means to be under Torah: 3:10-12

The necessity of what Paul has already said is now further underscored. Justification is set off against the state of being under the Law, which invokes a curse (3:10-12). Assumed here is that those under the law have not and do not "continue in all things written in it," so that they come under its censure.

Thus, life before God must come another way; Paul quotes Habakkuk 2:4 to show that this way is precisely faith, which marks out the truly 'righteous one.' This way of 'life' he contrasts to the way of living offered by the law: "He who does them [i.e. the things of the law] shall live by them." How utterly ineffective (to grant life) this latter way is in itself is made clear enough by the pronouncement of universal cursing upon those under law. The law, which was given for the sake of life, has been found to grant death (= cursing) instead (cf. Rom. 7:10). All those under Torah are cursed; life belongs to the new covenant. Thus Paul implicitly reasons: you have the new covenant (proven by the gift of the Spirit they have received, vv. 1-5); why do you want the Torah, under which God's people (necessarily) failed?

Appeal to the nature of Christ's work: 3:13-14

In view of this curse, then, Christ's aim is not to bring Gentiles under Torah. Far from it. Rather, he has been revealed precisely to rescue sinners from the plight occasioned by the law. Thus salvation is a redemption from Torah's curse, secured by virtue of Christ's vicarious suffering as the accursed One. This is made evident by His very form of death: the hanging upon a piece of wood, symbolic of divine curse (3:13; Deut. 21:22-23).

Moreover, the direction Christ was going with this work was to secure that which Torah could never secure: the blessing of Abraham for the Gentiles. We receive the Spirit through Christ's suffering. What Torah could not do, grant the promise of life and its attendant blessings (cf. Rom. 8:3-4), the Galatians have in principle already received in Christ by receiving the Spirit (3:14).

Without question, then, the Galatians are already fully accepted as the seed of Abraham. Indeed, by receiving the Spirit, they and they alone are equipped to possess all of the promises.17

Argument from the nature of a covenant: 3:15-18

Paul now speaks kata anthropon (according to the custom of men): once a covenant (testament?) has been ratified, it is no longer subject to subsequent annulment or qualification (3:15).18 Apparently there is a lesser-to-the-greater argument suggested: if even a human covenant has such binding force, even moreso will the promise of an immutable God!

In this context comes our verse: "Now to Abraham the promises were spoken, and to his seed. It does not say, 'And to seeds,' as concerning many, but as concerning one: 'And to your seed,' which is Christ" (3:16). The issue then, in view of verse 15, is that not only the promise-content, but also the recipient(s) of that promise, must remain stable, no matter what things happen subsequently.

Paul continues: the Torah was given 430 years later; therefore it cannot challenge the nature of the promise already given by adding conditions to it (3:17). For if we were to suppose that, since there is now a Torah upon the scene, the inheritance is now to come by means of it, then the inheritance would no longer be a promise-inheritance at all: that is, the Word of God to Abraham would be invalidated. "But," Paul reaffirms, "God freely gave it [i.e. the inheritance] to Abraham through promise" (3:18).

Appeal to the character of Torah's purpose: 3:19-25

This provokes the question: if the inheritance cannot be through Torah, why was it introduced at all? Not to fulfill the promise, the apostle responds, but rather for the sake of transgression, for a given period until the inheriting seed should arrive (3:19). The idea of tôn parabaseoon charin refers to the Law's function as a 'pedagogue' (paidagôgos), not a 'tutor' as in the old versions, but a child-custodian. This child-custodian was necessary because of the imprisonment to sin under which Israel suffered (vv. 22-23) Like that of the child-custodian, this function was temporary, until the coming of Christ (3:22-25).

This does not mean, then, that the law is against the promises. It just means that the law could not grant the covenant life which lies at the heart of the Abrahamic promise (3:21; cf. Rom. 7:10).20

The law, in short, was not self-sufficient; rather, by means of its very limitations, it became a paidagôgos to lead to Christ, so that we would be justified by faith (3:24).21 This means that Torah's dominance was always intended to be a temporary measure, in force until the terminus of Christ's coming (3:25; cf. "the fullness of time," 4:4 in context of 4:1-3).

Summary ~ believers incorporated into the one seed of promise: 3:26-29

Thus the defining redemptive-historical moment was pinned upon the arrival of Christ. Now that He has come, the old markers which defined the people of God must be seen in a different light. It is not Torah, but the promises to Abraham as fulfilled in Christ which will now constitute the covenant people. He is the "covenant to the people, the light to the nations" (Is. 42:6).

The Mosaic age was characterized by a slavery/infancy motif, whether with regard to Gentiles serving idols or even with regard to Israel herself (see 4:1-3, 7). In contrast, Paul can now say that "you are all sons of God" - the issue is not their Christian maturity, but their place in redemptive-history. With the arrival of Christ, all those who are of faith are now in a position to inherit (3:26). All those who are of faith have put on Christ (and do not miss that 'Christ' = Israel's Messiah); they are clothed and identified with the One Who acts as executor of the promise (3:27; cf. 3:16). As a result, they are no longer subject to the old Jew/Gentile dichotomy (nor yet the slave/free nor male/female) with regard to that promise: they are all Abraham's seed and heirs (3:28-29).

We could go further and discuss 4:1-7, which clearly belongs to the same larger argument, but I believe we have provided enough context to engage in a meaningful discussion of 3:16.

A closer look at 3:16

Now to Abraham the promises were spoken, and to his seed. It does not say:'And to seeds,' as concerning many, but as concerning one: 'And to your seed,' who is Christ.

Is there an 'easy' grammatical answer?

Newman has noted that in 3:16, 19, sperma is modified by the article, while in 3:29, it is anarthrous. This, he suggests, demonstrates that in the former case, Christ, as one definite individual, is in view, while in the latter a corporate interpretation is intended.22 This, however, is not a satisfying explanation, since the articular form in Romans 4:16, 18 is clearly corporate, referring to an inclusion pollôn ethnôn, "of many nations" (Rom. 4:18), and is given panti tô spermati, "to all the seed" (Rom. 4:16).

The shift from articular to anarthrous in Galatians 3 is more easily explained by the fact that in 3:29, Paul is addressing the Galatians directly, and can hardly identify them as the seed of Abraham (and implicitly exclude all others). The apostle is simply employing the anarthrous construction in a very normal way (i.e. qualitatively):23 he is affirming what they are, not who they are, in distinction from all others. Therefore, while Newman's solution looks tidy, it ultimately will not work.24

Facing the tough questions

Therefore, we must raise the obvious objections: has Paul in this verse thus robbed all of Abraham's descendants of participation in the Abrahamic promise? And has he played fast and loose with the normal lexical usage of sperma / zera'?

No promise and no seed before Christ?

In answer to the first question, we must say 'yes' and 'no.' Previously, the apostle (in 3:14) has focused upon the true nature of the promise. Although God had promised Abraham a multitude of descendants as well as possession of Canaan, Paul does not see what Israel has enjoyed to this point as the height of inheritance. Rather the opposite, throughout this chapter, the presupposition is that the inheritance had not yet come. This coming inheritance is principally typified as the promise of the Spirit, the eschatological hope of Israel (Ezek. 37:14, etc.; in truth, it is in this promise that the other promises are fulfilled). So in that sense, it could very well be argued that Abraham's descendants have not participated in the Abrahamic promise.

This is not to say that Paul simply 'spiritualizes' the Abrahamic promises, as many assume. In New Testament eschatology, the promise of a multitudinous seed clearly remains (see, e.g. Rev. 7:9); the promise of land expands to fill the entire earth (Mt. 5:5),25 even as anticipated already in the Old Testament (Ps. 37:11). The point is not merely that the Jews had not yet obtained the promises by virtue of the fact that the promises had been radically redefined, so that Paul has evicted the Jews from enjoyment of the promises by means of some nifty theological equivocation. Rather, they had not obtained the promises even in the form outlined in the Old Testament.

What, however, does this all have to do with justification and the promise of the Spirit, which in this chapter have taken centre stage as of first significance in the Abrahamic promises?26

The promises of land and descendants were always intended to revolve around covenant life with God. While land and descendants were important, the primary promise, which drove all the others, was, "I will be your God, and you will be My people" (Gen. 17:7, 8b; Lev. 26:12; Jer. 11:4; 30:22, etc.). In terms of Torah, apart from the promise of the Spirit, Israel clearly could not keep the land. That was assumed prophetically and borne out in history. Note Moses' sad affirmation: "to this day the Lord has not given you a heart to know, nor eyes to see, nor ears to hear" (Deut. 29:4); he thus assumes in the rest of the chapter that the curse will indeed come upon them. It is only following the ultimate curse of exile that the Lord "will circumcise your heart and the heart of your descendants, to love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul, in order that you may live" (Deut. 30:6). That promise in turn is further clarified in Ezekiel (36-37, esp. 37:14; cf. Jer. 31:33; Joel 2:28-29) as the gift of the Spirit.

Thus, the stress upon justification, and, particularly, the Spirit is not merely a Pauline tangent. It is not by accident that Paul undergirds the Galatians' present experience of the Spirit with the reminder of Abraham's justification by faith (Gal. 3:6). The point is the simplicity of entering into the promises: via faith, rather than works of Torah.

Torah will not aid the Gentiles inherit the promises; it fails to do so even for Israel: they are under the curse. In the case of Israel, there was, of course, a temporary solution provided in the sacrificial system. But ultimately, all promises presuppose one basic promise: the promise of life (cf. Rom. 7:10; Gal. 3:21 and the "shall live" of Lev. 18:5; Hab. 2:4). In Scripture, this is envisioned as life with God, in union and communion. Without the sin problem being dealt with through the Spirit, genuine fulfillment of covenant promises is impossible.

Even in terms of justification itself, the Old Testament saints were justified only via Christ's anticipated work. It is thus entirely fair to say that they received a form of the Abrahamic promises, but it was a shadowy form and not yet the substance (cf. Heb. 11:13-16). As pointed out above, even for Israel this was a period of imprisonment under a paidagôgos rather than a period of sonship. This was unavoidable, since the down payment in terms of the Spirit was not as fully realized among Israel as was justification. Note how Galatians 4:6-7 ties the sending of the Spirit to the present mature sonship.

In sum, Israel was indeed in some sense the 'seed' of Abraham during the period of the old covenant. Christ is not 'the' seed to the exclusion of them. But I would argue that they are seed precisely because, in a preparatory way, they are reckoned 'in Christ;' His work makes them sharers in Abraham. In a strict redemptive-historical sense, the 'seed' did not arrive until Christ (Gal. 3:19b); they could not be "made perfect" without us (Heb. 11:40). They were justified by means of Christ's sacrifice (Rom. 3:25; Heb. 9:15), but it is not to be minimized that they were justified "before the fact," and even more, it is not to be missed that they were not indwelt by the Holy Spirit.

'Seed,' not 'seeds'

What then of the charge that Paul has played fast and loose with the normal lexical usage of sperma / zera'? Indeed, we made our commitment at the outset: we must avoid any notions of arbitrariness on the part of the apostle. Our belief in inspiration forces us to do so. Clearly, Paul is not merely saying, "Well, if the promise was intended for more than one person, then it would have been spoken 'to seeds, plural.'" But he is intentionally playing upon either the ambiguity of the term, on the one hand, or else upon the collective nature of the term, on the other (as Lightfoot suggests, see below).

It is not as difficult to dismiss the critics as might be supposed. For Paul decidedly does not say, "Now the promise was given only to one individual, not to many," and thus imply that only Christ has ever and will ever inherit the Abrahamic promises. That is the manner Paul's critics read him, but that is not actually what he says. Paul does not say precisely who the promise was given to; he only notes that the word is singular in form, and thus open for a singular application. Such a singular application may or may not imply that in some sense the promise is for a collective people as well. In short, since the word sperma is singular in form, this ambiguity leaves it open to the application of making its primary reference to one individual. "If it said 'seeds,' then I would have to say that it is inherently to be applied to many people, but since it says 'seed' I am open to apply it to a singular one - the Messiah."

The promise is for Christ specifically, but still to others, by extension. That the critics do not see the legitimacy of such an interplay of collective and singular identity shows that they are not comfortable with the way that Scripture speaks in many places. This is particularly the case in the Old Testament, where various passages contain what we would be apt to call equivocation in terms of whether the person/people under discussion is individual or corporate. This conception, which I will discuss further below, I will term 'identity interchange.'

Lightfoot adopts a line of argument similar to the one which I have just outlined. He writes, "[Paul] is not laying stress on the particular word used, but on the fact that a singular noun of some kind, a collective term, is employed, where ta tekna or hoi apogonoi for instance might have been substituted."27 In other words, the issue is the inherent unity of the term sperma (or zera'). Lightfoot continues,

Doubtless by the seed of Abraham was meant in the first instance the Jewish people, as by the inheritance was meant the land of Canaan; but in accordance with the analogy of Old Testament types and symbols, the term involves two secondary meanings. . . . With a true spiritual instinct, though the conception embodied itself at times in strangely grotesque and artificial forms, even the rabbinical writers saw that 'the Christ' was the true seed of Abraham. In Him the race was summed up, as it were. In Him it fulfilled its purpose and became a blessing to the whole earth. Without Him its separate existence as a peculiar people had no meaning. Thus He was not only the representative, but the embodiment of the race. In this way the people of Israel is the type of Christ; and in the New Testament parallels are sought in the career of the one to the life of the other. (See especially the application of Hosea xi. 1 to our Lord in Matt. ii. 15.) . . . .28

This sounds a great deal like what I have argued above, although it may contain a narrow distinction. Lightfoot is arguing primarily from the actual lexical meaning of the word as carrying the idea of unity, while I argued primarily from the ambiguity of the form. My argument is that Paul is genuinely taking 'seed' in a singular way, while Lightfoot is perhaps still taking it in a collective way while stressing the notion of unity. If so, I believe that this makes my proposal more promising, since the next clause predicates the seed to be Christ (a singular name). Still, I think Lightfoot has, by stressing the unity of the term, moved us closer to our goal.

A corporate Christ?

Before we reach the heart of our discussion (concerning 'identity interchange'), it needs to be pointed out that many commentators choose to work primarily on the term 'Christ' rather than on 'seed' in their attempt to resolve the problems this verse raises. The preferred solution is to posit the 'corporate' nature of Christ here, and in so doing, in some way retain the collective sense of 'seed.'

Wright has done a great deal of work to show that the apostle often employs the term 'Christ' as a rendering of 'Messiah,' and not merely as a sort of surname.29 Moreover, the Jewish understanding of 'Messiah' had a fuzzy sort of singular/collective dialectic (in line with the identity interchange just mentioned). But even granting this, we have not yet demonstrated that such an understanding belongs here.

The natural question which arises is: "How much would Paul's usage of 'Christ' have altered within the span of three of four verses?" For the fact is that Paul has in verse 13 just assigned to Christ the accomplishment of our redemption from the curse of the law through his crucifixion. That act was as plainly individual as could be. It was "for us" (huper humôn), substitutionary, and thus necessarily outside of us. 'Christ' in 3:13, we would think, excludes participation; indeed in verse 14 it is modified by 'Jesus' and thus particularized in His individual person.

This warns us that we should not take 'Christ' as literally functioning as a collective noun. But the Messiah is always tied to His people; indeed, He is inconceivable apart from them. The whole idea of substitution actually entails participation (via identification) in some sense. Thus, it is not difficult to agree in general with Wright:

Though both words denote the same human being, Paul uses Iêsoun to refer to that man as Jesus, the man from Nazareth, who died on the cross and rose again as a human being, and through whose human work, Paul believed, Israel's God had achieved his long purposes; and he uses Christos to refer to the same man, but this time precisely as Israel's Messiah in whom the true people of God are summed up and find their identity.30

In other words, 'Christ' is an individual, and yet He is an individual Who necessarily brings to mind a corporate body.

But ultimately, this leaves us where we started: we have to reckon with the grammar: "hos estin Christos." Such a direct predication concerning the 'seed' in the previous clause means that we ultimately cannot escape one simple fact: no matter how many people are connected to Him, the point of Galatians 3:16 is that the Seed in view is Himself one individual.

Identity interchange in Scripture

When I said above that Paul may be playing upon the ambiguity of the term 'seed,' I was not implying that he is wresting it from his original meaning. Rather, he is doing something that the Old Testament itself does. In a number of places, prophecy entailing a corporate fulfillment carries a clear primary reference to one individual,31 particularly the Messiah. This is so, even when the context following says things which cannot be true of the Messiah personally. It is important to make this point, since it is well-enough evident that in Genesis (17, for example) there are statements which clearly must refer to Abraham's plural physical descendants, and not to the Messiah. We noted some of these above at the outset of our paper: for example, Abraham's seed would be "enslaved and oppressed four hundred years" (Gen. 15:13).

Yet this does not preclude the notion that Abraham's 'seed' refers primarily and in a concentrated way to Christ (or, more precisely in terms of Gal. 3:16, that Christ can be predicated to be the 'seed'). We can demonstrate this from God's promise to David (2 Sam. 7:12-16), a prophetic analogy employed by numerous commentators.32 In this case, there is ambiguity, not only between singular and plural, but also between singular and singular: apparently one individual is mentioned, but two mutually incompatible things are said of him. In that passage, God promises a descendant (lit., a 'seed': zera', v. 12)33 who will have an eternal throne (13), a promise that both Jewish exegesis and the New Testament applied to the Messiah. Yet with reference to the same antecedent, God says, "when he commits iniquity, I will correct him with the rod of men. . . ." (14). Clearly, the conditions of this verse cannot strictly apply to Christ, since He is Himself sinless.34

The same point concerning identity interchange (Messiah-people) can be made with regard to the protevangelium in Genesis 3:15. In commenting on this passage, Kidner notes that the 'seed' here, "like the seed of Abraham, is both collective (cf. Rom. 16:20) and, in the crucial struggle, individual (cf. Gal. 3:16), since Jesus as the last Adam summed up mankind in Himself."35 Thus in one statement, and employing one subject ('seed'!), the passage easily moves between announcement of the ultimate Deliverer as well as announcement of the universal human struggle. Christ is envisioned, but the "immediate seed of the woman would be Cain, and then all of humanity, for [Eve] was the mother of all living."36 This Messiah-people interchange in this passage is even more relevant than at first glance, since the Jews increasingly came to see themselves (as well as, particularly, the Messiah) as the new Adam (note the echoes between Gen. 1:28 and 12:2ff.; 17:2, 6, 8, etc.; subjugation of or dominion over the land in e.g. Num. 32:22 becomes analogous to Adam's dominion over creation in Gen. 1:28).37

Other passages could readily be adduced where this interchange occurs.38 The Isaianic Servant, particularly, moves back and forth between national and individual language.39

In pointing to the Old Testament, it must be stressed that we are not reading it with a radically different flavour than first-century Jews did. Indeed, ancient Jewish commentators often applied some of the references to 'seed' in the Abrahamic promises to individuals. For example, some rabbis took 'seed' in Genesis 15:13 to refer to Isaac specifically.40 And as noted above, the reverse was also true: individual referents (i.e. Adam) came to take on national understanding. For Jews, the interchange we have spoken of was not unnatural in the least, despite how it stretches our sometimes over-rationalized logic. The Old Testament itself provides the foundation for what Paul did; if it had not, his argument could scarcely have been convincing.

We find a prior biblical tendenz, then, of which Paul has appropriately taken advantage. Of Galatians 3:16 in particular, Dunn aptly writes, "'seed' is in fact an ambiguous word, referring initially to the individual Isaac, as well as beyond, so that a rhetorical play on the ambiguity is invited."41 It must not be missed just what Christ is to the apostle; to him, it is not twisting words to illustrate by his very exegetical practice that Christ is the One of Whom, and in Whom, and to Whom, and for Whom, are all things.42 He Himself fulfills all of the Torah and the prophets (Mt. 5:17; cf. Lk. 24:27). He is Israel.

3:16: A final look

In view of all the road we have traveled, it may be helpful to return briefly to reflect upon 3:16 one more time.

The preceding argument, take 2

In my view, there is more than one contrastive parallel going on here. Certainly, there is a contrast between the way of faith and the way of the works of the law. But there is also an implied contrast between Israel and Christ. In the preceding context, Paul is laying the groundwork for his stunning statement in 3:16.

Scripture, we are told, foresaw that God would justify the nations from faith, and so promised Abraham that in him all the nations would be blessed (3:8). We ought to be aware that God further specified that this blessing would be through Abraham's seed (Gen. 22:18). If we examine Israel's history prior to (and contemporary with) Christ, there is not much to hold out as hope that she was going to be the blessing to the nations. She rather becomes the locus of cursing. This already raises the question mark whether she will really be the seed through whom this promise is fulfilled.

Paul further states that those who are of the works of Torah are under a curse, because they do not (implicitly: cannot?) keep and have not kept everything that is written in the book of the law (3:10). Whether or not Wright is correct in suggesting that this pronouncement of curse is primarily a reference to the plight of Israel's continuing state under the bondage of exile,43 it is likely that Paul is doing more than making an abstract statement. He is denying the life and liberty to those who are of Torah that is promised to those who are of faith. The just one will live by faith (3:11). Torah cannot be subsumed under this, since its rule is that the one who does the things of Torah will live by them (3:12).

Without absolutely denying salvation to historic, biological Israel, what Paul has just done is deny that she is at this point a genuine partaker in the Abrahamic promise. Torah is not the faith-system promised to Abraham; under Torah Israel is cursed. And hence, under Torah, the promised blessing is thus apparently impossible. . . .

But the answer is in Christ: He has redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming accursed on our behalf (3:13). What Torah could not do, what Israel under Torah could not do, Christ alone did by His vicarious work (cf. Rom. 8:3-4). This probably opens up Paul's enigmatic statement in 2:19: "I through Torah to Torah died." Through the law's curse upon Christ, those in Him were redeemed from that curse - and thus is provided the transition from old covenant to new covenant (Jer. 31:31-32). The result is that the blessing of Abraham can now flow to the nations in Christ; by faith we receive the promise of the Spirit (3:14).

What needs to be understood is that Paul here has made an implicit hermeneutical move, significant in terms of our previous discussion. The blessing upon the nations, which was to occur through Abraham's seed, has come about through the cursing of Christ. If Israel thought that she was the seed intended, redemptive history certainly demonstrated her inability to be the agent of the promise. Even as Jeremiah prophesied (Jer. 24:9; 25:17-18, etc.), Israel was an object of cursing rather than a means of blessing, just as God had warned through Moses (e.g. Deut. 28:37). The exilic conditions still suffered under the domination of Rome were nothing more than an illustration of that failure.

But upon the cross, Christ suffered the exile in its purest form (cf. Mt. 27:46),44 and, as we learn subsequently, He recovered from that exile in His resurrection. Due to that resurrection and His ascension, He poured out the Holy Spirit upon His people (Acts 2:33; note that "His people" is implicitly a reconstituted people, shown in the signs of the foreign languages spoken in Acts 2). Therefore, it is in Him that all the nations are blessed.

To put the matter simply, Paul is viewing Christ as the true Israel. He is the promised Seed.

3:16: the payoff

So we are not taken by surprise when we read the argument in 3:15-18. The adelphoi ('brothers') at the beginning of verse 15 indicates that Paul is opening a new sub-argument. He is still speaking concerning the relationship of the law to the promise, but now he alters his angle slightly. He now argues from the nature of covenant.

The promise, Paul insists, must remain in effect, without alteration, regardless of Torah, which comes later (3:15, 17). As I argued earlier, 3:16's application of 3:15 suggests that not only the content of the promises, but also the recipient of the promises must remain unchanged. And that recipient must ultimately be seen as Christ; even Torah cannot alter that. Torah can add nothing to Christ. To the contrary, as has just been shown, Torah confirms that only Christ could be the true Seed. But this also implies that all those who are genuinely in Christ are thus heirs to the Abrahamic promises (as Paul will argue explicitly in 3:26-29). Clearly, a Messiah without a people is inconceivable.

Given the fact that the Messiah is the Seed, the people of God are rightfully reconstituted in Him. The promise is His to mediate, and His mandate is to mediate it to the nations (3:8; cf. Gen. 22:18). And since the promise was given in Abraham, prior to the advent of Torah, He has rightly reconstituted the people of God apart from works of Torah. Otherwise, Torah would be introduced as a codicil to the promise, with the result that the inheritance was no longer by promise but by law (3:18). In other words, that would invalidate the Abrahamic promise - an unthinkable development in terms of a divine covenant.

In summary: once a covenant has been ratified, no one sets it aside or adds conditions to it (3:15).45 This 'settledness' of the promise is true all around: in its content (full covenant life in all its ramifications, 3:8, 14, etc.), in its manner of inheritance (by grace = free promise, 3:18), and with regard to its recipients (first Christ, and thus those in Christ, the one Seed, 3:16, 26-29).

I admit that the way I have presented the argument has absolutized the "not Israel, but Christ" idea in 3:16. That is the argumentative tenor of Paul's argument, but one should not suppose that he is suggesting that all through history none of Abraham's descendants belonged to Christ. Of course, we find contrary evidence elsewhere. But Paul's concern here is with the absolutes: what the promise is in itself, and thus what Christ is in Himself; and on the other hand, what Torah is in itself, and thus what Israel is in herself. When stated in those naked terms, there is left room only for Christ, and from Him, faith. It is only in this way that the truth can be plain: Torah is not the means of obtaining the Abrahamic blessing.

Complementary positions

We may now return again to the options mentioned in the beginning. They looked impressive in their variety, yet within this understanding of Scripture's identity interchange, it may be seen that most of their features are actually complementary.

1. Is Christ the sole heir to the Abrahamic promises? Clearly, that depends what is meant by 'sole.' For nobody thinks that Paul is saying that the promises come to no one else: in verse 29, the blessings come upon all those who belong to Christ. But Christ is the sole heir precisely because His people are summed up in Him. He is, in a very real sense, the people of God, even as, by virtue of being the new Adam, He is the new humanity.46

2. Is Christ now the sole heir, due to a historical narrowing process?47 This position assumes that pre-Christian Israel genuinely partook of the promised blessings. That assumption is correct, for the Son was active throughout the Old Testament. The blessings which were given then were shadowy but real nonetheless. But what of the narrowing process? Actually, the Gospels elucidate this very well. For Jesus reconstitutes the people of God;48 and yet even this reconstituted people forsakes him at precisely the key moment when He must fulfill the promises (Mk. 14:50).49 The whole identity and task of Israel has devolved onto her Messiah for one brief (and all-important) moment.

3. Was Christ always the primary heir? Given what we have already argued, this position hardly needs demonstration. As the true Man, Christ is the ultimate possessor of the promises from Adam to Abraham. (See, e.g. the argument in Heb. 2:5-9.) As a king is said to possess a land, so Messiah possesses all the promises, and His people possess them in Him.

4. Is 'Christ' a corporate term? Again, this is precisely where our discussion has led us. Not that 'Christ' is Himself a collection of people, but that His people are 'in' Him (en Cristô, the repeated Pauline concept).

5. Even Lightfoot's notion, that Paul is stressing collectivity as opposed to mere plurality (which would have been the case if he had used the language of 'children' rather than of 'seed'), is not without warrant. The broader argument of Galatians 3 is that God's people, Jew and Gentile, are God's people together, for they are all in Christ.

We see, then, that many of the attempts to understand what Paul is doing in Galatians 3:16 really do get something right. Standing alone, they may or may not capture the heart of the issue, but on the whole, they each offer a valid contribution to our understanding of how Christ relates to the Abrahamic promise.

Hermeneutical implications

All that we have discussed could spark a great deal of fruitful reflection. I will not in the least pretend that I am exhausting the implications, but I will offer some thoughts which I regard significant.

One thing that the concept of identity interchange opens up is a more readily Christological hermeneutic in approaching the Old Testament. For Christ, in this view, bears a very real relationship of identification with His people, considered both corporately and individually. This opens up possibilities otherwise beyond consideration. Psalms, for example, that do not appear messianic (due to elements which apparently cannot be ascribed to Christ) and yet clearly include ideas alluded to in the New Testament with reference to Christ suddenly become more accessible.

An obvious example is the messianic application of Psalm 41:9: "Even my own familiar friend in whom I trusted, who ate my bread, has lifted up his heel against me." This event is referred to Christ and Judas in John 13:18. Such an application has troubled many, since the psalmist has just confessed his sins in verse 4. But with this view the dilemma is essentially solved. Christ 'is' Israel; He is His individual Israelite.50 The sins which have just been confessed are 'His,' since He bears them; He identifies with the sinner who belongs to Him.

Another example of this can be found with reference to the promise to David in 2 Samuel 7. Clearly enough, the promise of the eternal throne (v. 13) is messianic. But the warning that God would correct David's son with the rod of men when he committed iniquity (v. 14) is not altogether to be divorced from the work of Messiah, either. For although Christ does not sin personally, yet He bears the sin which is to be punished - and thus, the punishment itself. In fact, this is precisely Christ's role: He is the rebellious son (of David) who is punished (Deut. 21:18-21) by the death accursed by God (Deut. 21:22-23). As the King of Israel, the Son of David, He is her representative, and thus it is her sins and her curse that is laid upon Him.

These are merely initial applications, suggestive of where Old Testament study can lead if we follow the hermeneutic exemplified for us by Paul in Galatians 3:16.

APPENDIX: The Proposal of N. T. Wright

N. T. Wright, who has worked more closely with Galatians 3:10-20 in his study of Pauline theology than most commentators have, has put forth a compelling suggestion. Paying careful attention to the contextual argument (particularly the Jew-Gentile concerns), Wright calls for an understanding of 'seed' in the sense of 'family' or 'race.' This is a proposal that is worth a fair hearing, since it would seem to solve a number of dilemmas with regard to many of the difficulties of the chapter, and also obviates the need to explain why Paul apparently takes sperma differently in Galatians 3:16 than he does elsewhere, particularly when he is referring to the relevant passages in Genesis (since the 'family' meaning would be an excellent fit also in Rom. 4:13, 16, 18, etc.).

One thing that Wright is attempting is to make sense of the repeated "one's" of the chapter (3:16, 20, 28). In other words, his notion is that the appearance of "one" in 3:20 and 3:28 is intended to call to mind the "one seed" of 3:16. It is 3:28 which is the clearest passage, Wright suggests, and thus may serve as somewhat of a starting point:

All those who believe in Jesus Christ and are baptized into him (vv.26-7) form one single family, so that there are not, in Christ, different families composed of Jews on the one hand and Gentiles, or Gentile Christians, on the other, as there would be if the traditional Jewish distinctions between Jews and Gentiles (or for that matter men and women, slaves and free) were maintained (v.28).51

One family at 3:20

In line with his overarching proposal of continuity between the various appearances of 'one' (3:16, 20, 28), how does Wright's proposal function with 3:20? Ho de mesitês henos ouk estin, ho de Theos eis estin. Wright correctly takes the mediator here to be Moses (see v. 19b). Thus, we would apparently have: Moses is not a mediator of one family, but since God is one, the Torah was clearly not intended to be the ultimate state of things.

One surface objection is that while this has the benefit of making sense of Paul's train of thought (many discussions of 3:20 are quite incoherent), it does not answer in what way Moses was a mediator for anyone other than Israel, which would initially appear to be necessary to his argument.52

But Wright takes a different track: the verse intends to say, "Moses is not the mediator through whom this promised 'one seed' is brought into existence. He cannot be, since he (Moses) is the mediator of a revelation to Israel only, hoi ek nomou."53

This interpretation would apparently work better if henos ('of one') were articular, but Wright points out that if mesitês (mediator) is read as a complement rather than a subject, with the article providing the complete subject (as commonly occurs in Greek), we could expect that both mesitês and henos would lose the article while still remaining definite. Thus 3:20a would now read, "Now he [i.e. Moses] is not (the) mediator of (the) one" - i.e. the one family. Hence, the whole of verse 20 suggests, "Moses is not the mediator of the 'one family', but God is one, and therefore desires one family, as he promised to Abraham."54

This interpretation affords an attractive parallel with Romans 3:29-31a: "Or is He the God of the Jews only? Is He not also the God of the Gentiles? Yes, of the Gentiles also, since there is one God who will justify the circumcised by faith and the uncircumcised through faith. Do we then make void the law through faith? Certainly not!" Note the parallels: a discussion of the inclusion of Gentiles among God's people; an appeal to the Shema (Deut. 6:4) to support the unity and universality of God's saving work; and, as here (v. 21), "Paul is driven by the irony of his own argument to ask whether the law is therefore nullified, and to answer in the negative."55

Despite all of these positive points, Wright himself has unwittingly opened up an alternative understanding of 3:20 that is perhaps better than his own. Assuming his own grammatical analysis of this verse, but retaining the idea that the one 'seed' in 3:16 has primary reference to Christ Himself (rather than to a 'family'), we can translate 3:19-20 this way: "Why therefore Torah? It was added for the sake of transgressions (until the Seed possessing the promise should come), commanded through angels by the hand of a mediator. Now he is not the mediator of the one seed, but God is one."

This leads to the following paraphrastic understanding:

Why then was the law introduced? It was added in order to provide guardianship during Israel's immaturity. This state of affairs was intended to be only temporary, until Christ, the true possessor of the Abrahamic promises, should come. This law was ordained by angels by the instrumentality of a mediator, Moses. Now, Moses is not the mediator of the one coming seed; the order of affairs he represents is distinct. God, however, is one, and therefore, once Christ has come, there cannot remain two competing dispensations.

The fact is, it is more natural to refer the language of 'coming,' predicated of the 'seed' in verse 19, to Christ Himself than it is to refer it to a 'family.' What it should mean that the 'coming' of a 'family' was being awaited, as would be required by Wright's scheme, is a much fuzzier concept. This objection is fortified even more when we consider the parallel between the coming seed in 3:19 with the language of the coming of (the object of) faith in 3:23, which again is parallel to "unto Christ" in 3:24 (and even further, corresponds to the sending forth of the Son in 4:4). There can be no doubt that the coming seed in 3:19 is literally and thoroughly Christ Himself. By isolating the word 'one' and not paying close enough attention to how 'seed' works its way through the passage, Wright has missed the precise line of argument.

Granted, my solution loses the close parallel with Romans 3. However, one passage cannot determine precisely what another is bound to say. Certainly, there are conceptual similarities between the two passages, but in 3:19-20, Paul is working on a more explicit redemptive-historical level than he is at that particular point in Romans. In Romans, 3:29 is specifically about Jews and Gentiles, and so naturally leads into the argument. The issue of Jew and Gentile is indeed in the background in Galatians, but the immediate context provided by 3:19 is the temporary purpose of the law. So the parallelism is not as strong as initially appears. The general subject is the same, but the argument is not.

One family at 3:28

With regard to verse 28, Wright's proposal deals with the Jew-Gentile dichotomy very well. Is it as adequate with regard to the other dichotomies Paul mentions (slave-free; male-female)? We do not generally conceive of the dualism between male-female (or even slave-free) to be primarily a familial dualism.

Granted, Wright's position is perhaps more credible than at first sight. For contextually, the issue is that "you are all sons of God through faith in Christ Jesus" (3:26) - apparently a single-family argument. Indeed, the importation of the Gentiles into sonship alongside the Jews, which is much of the brunt of the argument of 4:1-7, indicates that this is precisely what the apostle is concerned with. In drawing in the other dichotomies (it could be argued), Paul is simply multiplying other sources of division possible (apparently on the basis of the contents of a synagogue prayer),56 which would, in a metaphorical sense at least, perpetuate the multiple 'families' of the Mosaic period.

But again, there is probably a better solution to 3:28. Paul is not positing that believers are one family in Christ, but one man. This suggestion is supported by verse 27: in being baptized into Christ, they have clothed themselves with Christ. Baptism is a rite of identification (cf. Rom. 6). What Paul is saying here is that by being baptized, believers are so clothed with Him that they become His body. By means of incorporation, they 'become' the one Seed of Abraham, Christ. It is because of this present standing that in sanctification, the Church can "attain to the unity of the faith, and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to a mature man, to the measure of the stature which belongs to the fullness of Christ" (Eph. 4:13). This exegesis relieves any apparent tension between 3:16 and 3:28 fully as well as does Wright's position. (It is also well-supported by the strongly parallel passage, Col. 3:9-11, with its putting off the old man / putting on the new man language.)

One family at 3:16

From one angle, Wright's view looks highly attractive when we approach this verse. For we are excused from the difficulty of explaining how Paul lays the Abrahamic promise so entirely upon Christ. Moreover, given our extended argument in this paper regarding identity interchange, we may grant somewhat of a hearing for Wright's implicit grammatical tour de force when the collective 'seed' is predicated to be the singular 'Christ.' Still, the grammatical problem here is so naked that Wright's proposal seems unlikely. Although, as we have noted, the Scripture often provides ambiguity with regard to the numerical value of the subject, there is more than that here: there is a direct verbal predication that the 'seed' is 'Christ' (ho estin Christos). This is a lot more radical, for example, than the play on identity I argued for above concerning 3:27-28. To my knowledge, nowhere else in Scripture is the phenomenon we have spoken of so demanding in terms of stretching grammar.

Preceding context

According to the contextual development in Galatians 3, it is very important for the sake of Paul's argument that in 3:16 he be referring, not at this point to the 'one family' which God is creating with the inclusion of the Gentiles, but to Christ Himself, Who accomplishes that work.

In 3:8, we are reminded of the promise that all the nations would be blessed in Abraham. How was this to come about? Precisely through his seed (Gen. 22:18).57 It is the seed of Abraham that will provide the way for the Gentiles to be blessed. This is precisely what Galatians 3:13-14 outlines: the work of Christ brings the Abrahamic blessing to the nations. Wright's proposal mixes this up by making the blessed Gentiles themselves to be the seed too early in the argument. The point in 3:16 is that because Christ is the Seed, He has accomplished the promised blessing (by means of His substitutionary curse-bearing in 3:13). Christ as Seed must by His work secure the blessing in order for 'seed-ness' to be granted to His people. Before there can be a family, Christ must be the Seed through whom the Abrahamic blessings are mediated.

The lexical problem

So far, we have dealt merely with contextual difficulties. But perhaps the most fundamental issue is lexical. Without question, sperma (and zera') can indeed mean 'family.'58 The difficulty is that the passages that Wright mentions (Ezra 2:59/Neh. 7:16; Esth. 10:3) are much later than the book of Genesis (from which Paul is drawing in Gal. 3:16). Wright himself indicates that the word "came to mean" 'family' "following the gradual extension of the Hebrew. . . ."59

This leaves us with somewhat of a difficulty: can we vindicate the apostle exegetically if the term in question did not have the suggested meaning at the time it was initially written? Does not Wright's exegesis make Paul's argument rest on a linguistic anachronism?

To some degree, these objections are not necessarily as weighty as they appear. For when we see how naturally the idea of 'seed' as 'descendant' develops into the notion of 'family,' a question arises just how early such a development took place. Simply because we have no indisputable written record of such an early use of zera' with the sense of 'family' does not prove that such a sense did not exist prior to the records we do have (particularly since there is so little extra-biblical Hebrew writing preserved from such an early era).

But what of the evidence that we do have? Are there any early seeds of meaning which may in some tendential manner reflect the notion under discussion?

Upon investigation, it could be argued that there are hints. Indeed, we can wonder whether the protevangelium itself (Gen. 3:15) did not stir up such an association of meaning, since the 'seed' of the serpent clearly did not refer to its descendants, but in some sense to those marked out as its 'family.'

Further, in precisely one of the passages under discussion (Gen. 17), God speaks to Abraham and establishes a covenant with his 'seed' (Gen. 17:7) - and immediately includes Abraham's household servants as those who must keep this covenant (vv. 12-13). Admittedly, 17:12 specifically says that these servants "are not your seed," and thus uses the word more strictly. However, it is also clear that with reference to the covenant (and that, after all, is the point at issue), the servants have been included in its stipulations.

We can see the converse of this also: in 21:12, we are told that in Isaac, as opposed to Ishmael, Abraham's seed would be called. While the descendants of Ishmael - not to mention Zimran, Jokshan et al (see Gen. 25:2), were obviously Abraham's physical descendants, they were not to be reckoned in the covenant family. Amazingly, the majority of Abraham's physical descendants are thus excluded from the covenant, while mere servants are included.60

In other words, the 'seed' promise was from the beginning familial (in the broad sense, and as defined by covenant-election) rather than strictly ethnic. (We would do well to view Abraham's household servants as an adumbration of the blessing which he would eventually be to the nations.)

Thus, the 'family' meaning of sperma / zera' may trace back farther than we might suppose.

While granting all of this, however, it is of doubtful value. For the fact still remains that there are no indisputable usages of 'seed' as family in the Mosaic era, and even more telling, there is no record that the Abrahamic promises were ever taken in such a fashion, whether within Scripture itself or in the Jewish writings. Furthermore, the example of the 'seed' of the serpent has actually to do with the fact that it is stolen seed - stolen from the seed of the woman (in which case the normal meaning of zera' yet stands).

The Abrahamic references show, indeed, covenantal tendencies in the treatment of who Abraham's seed is conceived to be, but they do not ultimately demonstrate that they are meant to be translated as 'family.'

Concluding analysis

Wright's proposal, while attractive in terms of how it uses the context in Galatians 3, is not finally quite compelling. Nonetheless, he has provided us valuable service, particularly in his work on 3:20 (as well as redemptive-historical observations regarding the chapter as a whole), which we can build upon. It is exegetical labour such as this that can aid the advance of understanding, even when falling short itself of thoroughly satisfying exegesis.


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1 B. Longenecker 163, where he also writes that Paul "can be seen to make the text say 'Pauline' things."

2 Schoeps, cited in Fung 156.

3 Boers 109, 151-152.

4 Newman 336.

5 Calvin's argument is not the clearest; he could also be claimed for the "corporate position" (# 4).

6 Calvin 58.

7 Davies 202.

8 Witherington 244-245; cf. R. Longenecker Galatians 131-132.

9 Lightfoot 142; see also Rogers 87.

10 Wright 163-164.

11 Burton 502.

12 Cosgrove 548.

13 This is implied in Gal. 4:4 itself: the Son was born "under Torah." Cf. Rom. 15:8: Christ was "a servant to the circumcision" precisely "for the truth of God," i.e. "to confirm the promises made to the fathers."

14 Galatians 3 is a highly controversial chapter among commentators on many fronts. Due to the nature of this paper, however, I will be forced to pass over a great deal of interaction and discussion with sundry issues and objections in dealing with the meaning of the context, which would lead us well beyond the concerns of the hermeneutical aims of this paper. What I provide is simply a basic outline that will help provide perspective for the task of seeing 3:16 in its proper light.

15 Translation and emphasis mine.

16 I.e. submitting to Torah would make Israelites of foreigners, and thus the promise would not be fulfilled in the manner in which Abraham received it. Witherington 256 points out that the "social consequence" of Torah, and even its social intent, "was to separate God's people from the nations," a role inappropriate to the new covenant state of affairs (i.e. inappropriate to the ultimate fulfillment of the Abrahamic promise).

17 Cf. Deut. 29:4; 30:6; compare with Ezek. 37; Jer. 31:31-34. See below, "No promise and no seed before Christ?"

18 Paul is not suggesting here, even for the sake of argument, that the law represented just such an attempt at modification of the promise, contra Cosgrove 536ff. Rather, he is merely arguing what the law, by the nature of the case, certainly did not aim to do.

19 See e.g. Witherington 256: "the Law turns sin, which certainly already existed before and apart from the Law, into transgression." Cf. also Wright 171-172, esp. 172 fn. 58-59.

20 Note the discussion in Wright 202 on Rom. 8:3, where in light of 7:10 he suggests that what the law could not do (but God did) was precisely give life.

21 Paul (by his use of "we") may be speaking primarily of Jews here, but ultimately the nature of Torah functioned as an imprisoning paidagôgos for both Jews and Gentiles: Jews, by clearly demarcating their sinfulness as a violation of a revealed, specific divine law, and thus bringing forth death (in a way analogous to the warning in Gen. 2:17); Gentiles, by establishing boundary markers which kept them outside of God's people, and thus confined within their sin and misery.

22 Newman 335.

23 See e.g. Wallace 244. Cf. Zerwick 55: "The omission of the article shows that the speaker regards the person or thing not so much as this or that person or thing, but rather as such a person or thing, i.e. regards not the individual but rather its nature or quality."

24 Another claim of Newman's, that the grammar of 3:16 itself, will not allow any other reading, will be dealt with later in this paper. Newman 336 writes, "it is . . . all but impossible to see how 'which (seed) is Christ' may be interpreted to mean 'which (seed) is Christ's,' that is, 'which (seed) is Christ's line.' Had this been the apostle's intent, he could easily have been explicit, as he is in verse 29, where he introduces the genitive construction. . . ."

25 Contra Martyn 339, who claims that Paul is leaving the contents of the Abrahamic promises aside; cf. Dunn 183. Byrne 160 more accurately affirms, "The Pauline eschatology. . . suggests that this 'inheritance' comprises the sum total of the eschatological blessings, including eternal life," citing esp. Gal. 5:21; Rom. 8:17; and Col. 3:24.

26 Contra Cosgrove 547, who claims that Paul does not link 'justification' and 'blessing,' but only uses Gen. 15:6 and 12:3 to link faith to the blessing; the content of the inheritance is not justification. This ignores the naked parallelism of the two `oti clauses in 3:8. It is not merely Abraham who was justified; the promise given is that so too the nations shall be. The fact that the Spirit is also paralleled with the promise (3:14) does not necessitate the false dichotomy Cosgrove has chosen (the blessing is the Spirit rather than justification). Rather, the blessing is covenant life with God, which entails the Spirit and justification (and much more).

27 Lightfoot 142. Eadie 256-258 uses a similar argument; so too Rogers 87.

28 Ibid. 143.

29 Many modern scholars have disliked such a notion, because they like to see Paul as thoroughly Hellenized; besides, they find it inconceivable that the apostle to the Gentiles would root his theology in Judaism. This hesitance only demonstrates the poverty of their own history-of-religions approach.

30 Wright 46.

31 This sometimes happens with Israel as the man Jacob, over against Israel as the nation. See e.g. the back-and-forth movement in Hos. 12:2-6.

32 See, e.g. Hays 85; Dunn 184; Bruce 173. B. Longenecker 133 notes that Jewish interpretation often placed a singular messianic exegesis upon 2 Sam. 7. Note the extended discussion in Wilcox passim, who focuses upon the 2 Samuel 7 passage throughout much of his article.

33 Wilcox 9 argues that the actual language here of 'raising up' (anastesô) a son to David is, interestingly, applied by Paul very specifically to the resurrection of Christ (Acts 13:32-33; cf. Peter in Acts 3:26). It may be suggested that the New Testament consistently plays upon ambiguity in Old Testament lexical forms in order to attach a deeper or second sense to them.

34 But see below, under "Hermeneutical implications."

35 Kidner 71.

36 Ross 145.

37 See esp. Wright 21-26.

38 Ridderbos 134 suggests that there is a singular-collective idea with reference to Isaac in Gen. 21:12, but it seems more natural to read the verse differently. Thus, it indicates, not that Isaac is the seed, but rather that the seed will be called in him; i.e. the descendants who will maintain the line of promise will come from Isaac, rather than Ishmael.

39 See, e.g. the collective use in Is. 41:8; 42:18-20; 43:10; 44:1ff., etc.; the singular use in Is. 42:11ff.; 49:1-7; 53:11, etc. It is interesting that not only the singular, but also the collective uses contain messianic elements. Note that in many cases, both uses occur in close context with one another.

40 Daube 440; cited also in R. Longenecker 131-132. Although the rabbis' exegesis is clearly questionable, I only point it out to show that there always existed an impulse to apply at least some of the 'seed' prophecies in an individual way. A number of commentators also cite the Book of Jubilees (16:17-18) as applying the Genesis 'seed' prophecies both collectively (with reference to Israel) and individually. There is a disagreement over who the individual referent is, but I take it to be Jacob (so Byrne 160; Dunn 184 suggests Levi). See Charlesworth 88.

41 Dunn 184.

42 Rom. 11:36; Col. 1:16-17, etc.

43 Wright 144-148.

44 Note also that this death occurred upon a Roman cross, and thus symbolized clearly Israel's continuing state of subjugation, contra the glorious promises. The Roman cross centralizes the curse of Israel's exile upon her Messiah. Wright 146.

45 This can be seen to be especially true in the case of the Abrahamic promise, in view of the fact that God cut the covenant unilaterally by walking through the pieces alone, Gen. 15:17; this also helps explain how Paul can use the terms 'covenant' and 'promise' so interchangeably in this passage.

46 It is an interesting phenomenon of the Hebrew language that one term means 'Adam,' 'man,' and 'human/humanity.'

47 See esp. Barnes 342: "The original intention of the promise was that there should be a limitation, and that limitation was made from age to age, until it terminated in the Messiah, the Lord Jesus Christ."

48 Seen, e.g. in the appointment of the twelve, Lk. 6:13 (re: the 12 tribes; cf. Mt. 19:28) and the sending of the 70, Lk. 10:1 (re: the 70 elders of Israel). It is also probable that John 15 implies the reconstitution of Israel: "I am the vine; you are the branches" (v. 5). Compare to the use of a similar figure with reference to Israel in Is. 5:1-7 (cf. the parable of the fig tree in Lk. 13:6-9, which envisions the cutting off of Israel). If this is so, John 15 identifies Jesus as 'Israel,' and thus His people as in Israel by virtue of being in Him.

49 The tension must be conceded: although Christ must be abandoned and face the task alone, He can also say that of all those who have been given to Him, He has lost none (Jn. 17:12).

50 Cf. Ps. 55:12-14, originally referring to Ahithophel.

51 Wright 163. We will discuss the propriety of his view for 3:28 at more length below.

52 Since the Torah "creates a plurality by dividing Gentiles from Jews," theoretically we could view Moses as a mediator in the sense of someone who is 'between' - that is, Moses (and thus Torah) comes between Jews and Gentiles. While this would be true enough, this is not the way 'mediator' functions here (or for that matter, anywhere else in Scripture that I am aware of).

53 Ibid. 169.

54 Wright 170; emphasis his.

55 Ibid. 171. This reading of Gal. 3:20a, I suggest, more naturally leads into both 3:20b and the question of verse 21 ("Is the law then against the promises?") than does the next most plausible view of the verse (i.e. that 3:20 is stressing the distance between Israel and God under the mediator Moses as opposed to the intimacy of the 'unmediated' relationship Abraham enjoyed with God). The latter view is essentially adopted by Witherington 258. Lightfoot 146-147 suggests 3:20 has to do with the number of contracting parties: the Abrahamic promise is all up to God, and therefore unconditional and superior. But this conflicts with other N. T. data showing the conditionality of the new covenant itself (e.g. Heb. 10:29, etc.).

56 Wright 163 fn. 29, contra Betz 184.

57 See above, "3:16: A final look."

58 TDNT concurs: Schulz 547 notes a relatively late usage of sperma for 'progeny' in the sense of 'family.'

59 Wright 164. Wright also notes the usage in late Rabbinic writings, e.g. Kiddushin 70b in the Babylonian Talmud.

60 A further feature of 21:12-13 is that, as in Genesis 17, there is the juxtaposition of 'seed' on a narrower and wider sense. In 21:12, being called 'seed' is made exclusively 'in Isaac;' yet, Ishmael too shall be made a great nation, by virtue of the fact that he too is Abraham's 'seed.' Elsewhere, 'seed' frequently denotes an imputation of family relationship, rather than biology. For example, Onan spilled his semen on the ground, because he knew that the seed would not be his (Gen. 38:9). The meaning 'descendants' itself in many contexts is in some ways indistinguishable from family, even in the Mosaic period (e.g. Lev. 22:4; Num. 16:40).

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