In Galatians 3:16, the Apostle Paul is engaging in an argument about the nature of the promise that God made with Abraham, quoting the words καὶ τῷ σπέρματι σου (“and to your seed”), a phrase that repeatedly recurs in Genesis 12:7, 13:15, 17:7, and 24:7. For the traditional Jew, this would have been a reference to Abraham’s lineage through Isaac, then Jacob/Israel, then all of Israel. However, Paul identifies Christ with this seed, saying ὅς ἐστιν Χριστός (“which is Christ.”) Is Paul telling the Galatians that the promises to Abraham were specifically prophecies regarding Jesus? If so, this implies that Isaac was not a recipient of God’s promises, which seems to undercut a traditional Jewish understanding. J. Louis Martyn says of this: “Were one to judge solely from the present verse, one would conclude that for Paul there were, prior to Christ, no sperma, no children of Abraham.”1 But is this actually the case? Is Paul saying the promises of Abraham were only about Christ and treating Israel’s history as incidental history?
Not at all! We get a glimpse of Paul’s understanding about the descendants of Abraham and the promise to Abraham in Romans 9:6:9. Not every one of Abraham’s children is a child of the promise; Ishmael wasn’t a recipient of the promise. Rather, it was Isaac. The promise was transmitted to one descendant but not the other. But that doesn’t end Paul’s argument; Romans 9:10-13 shows the principle of one descendent being the recipient fo the promise continuing onto the next generation as Jacob is chosen. The thrust of Paul’s argument in Romans 9 is to say that being an Israelite and one’s behavior does not automatically confer the promises onto them. Paul has a similar, although subtly different purpose in Galatians; one is not a recipient of God’s promises by becoming an Israelite through circumcision and doing the works of Torah. God’s promises are realized through one descendant, not through all of them, whether by natural birth or by proselyte conversion and circumcision.
This provides a context for understanding the meaning of ὅς ἐστιν Χριστός. These words are intended as a clarifying gloss from Paul as a matter of to whom are the promises of Abraham is given. It is identifying the present fulfillment of God’s promises in the person of Christ. The mistake is to think that Paul is interpreting the meaning of the Scripture in its original utterance. Paul says the promise was ἐρρέθησαν (“were spoken”) with the aorist tense, indicating a past event. But he speaks of the seed being Christ in the present tense. While we who are inclined towards interpretations of texts might read this present tense as insignificant, assuming that Paul is simply doing an act of interpretation, this is not at all what Paul is doing. Paul is not engaging in interpretation of the text, aside from an emphasis on the singular nature of the seed. He is talking about the present reception of the promises via the action of Christ as in 3:13-14; Paul is identifying how these words have been realized in Christ. Ηe is engaging in historical hermeneutics about the present situation as a fulfillment of the promises spoken to Abraham, not a textual hermeneutics about the original meaning of God’s utterance, in saying ὅς ἐστιν Χριστός.
Instead, we can refer to Christ as the lineage of Abraham that received God’s promises, and it is through the πίστις Χριστοῦ (“faith/faithfulness of Christ”) that the promise is realized and the rest of the world receives that blessings that come. Just as God transmitted the promise to Isaac, then to Jacob, then apparently Judah who was to rule2 which would be tightly connected to living in the promised land as people, it eventually reaches the person of Christ. To put it in a different way, Jesus is the one who has the right lineage as being the fulfillment of God’s promises to Abraham. This is consistent with the importance that both Matthew and Luke attach to the genealogy of Jesus;3 it isn’t simply important that Jesus was an Israelite, but that he had a specific lineage as a child of Abraham and David, which are necessary markers of his chosen status. Paul’s statement in Galatian 3:16 may simply presuppose this genealogical understanding of God’s promises, while Paul is focused on identifying how God in the present time has fulfilled the promises he made to Abraham in the past. Thus, both Isaac and Christ are the seed/lineage of Abraham to whom the promises are given, but it has become fulfilled in a dramatic way in Christ that was not previously known in the giving of the Spirit as people looks towards the future of God’s faithfulness, rather than the implicit socio-political purpose connected to the inheritance and land of Israel in amassing more numbers of people as part of the Jewish people.
- Martyn, J. L. (2008). Galatians: a new translation with introduction and commentary (Vol. 33A, p. 340). New Haven; London: Yale University Press.
- Genesis 49:8-12
- Even though there is some difficulties as to the different genealogies presented, they both have some important commonalities between Matthew 1:1-18 and Luke 3:23-38, such as being a descendant of David.