My Commentary on Galatians 3:19-20

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19 Why then the law? It was added because of transgressions, until the offspring should come to whom the promise had been made, and it was put in place through angels by an intermediary. 20 Now an intermediary implies more than one, but God is one.

1) Literary Context

In Galatians 3:1-15 Paul has just launched three arguments demonstrating that justification comes through faith in Christ apart from the Mosaic covenant. In verses 1-5 Paul appeals to his reader’s experience, reminding them that they received the Spirit through faith and not by works of the law. 1

In verses 6-14 Paul appeals to the example of Abraham as he highlights the fact that righteousness was reckoned to him by faith whereas the law only brings a curse. 2 Finally, in verses 15-18 Paul argues that God’s covenant promise to Abraham (Gen. 12:1-3) is fulfilled specifically in Christ and thus the law, which came 430 years after, does not nullify the promise. 3

Now, having just demonstrated the inferiority of the law to the promise, Paul spends the rest of chapter 3 explaining how the law served a supplementary function in God’s divine economy, thus refuting the any notion that the law was contrary to the promise.

3) The Function of the Law in Galatians 3:19a

Paul’s arguments in verses 1:1-8 seems to have stripped that law of any conceivable function for Jew (or Gentile) and he therefore anticipates the question that he knows will be on everyone’s lips by asking, “Τί οὖν ὁ νόμος;” (“Why then the law?”). Paul’s response? “τῶν παραβάσεων χάριν προσετέθη” (“because of transgressions it was added”).

His answer is perhaps less satisfactory than some readers would like because it is so cryptic. However, scholars who wrestle with Paul’s answer here seem to maintain that the purpose of the law had either: 1) a causative function 2) a propitiatory function, or 3) a cognitive function. 4

a. Causative

To subscribe to the first option and say that the law was added to “increase” or “produce” transgressions seems to be popular among exegetes, and this popularity must be due in no small part to the similar language used by Paul in places such as Romans 5:20 (νόμος δὲ παρεισῆλθεν, ἵνα πλεονάσῃ τὸ παράπτωμα) and 7:13 (ἵνα γένηται καθ’ ὑπερβολὴν ἁμαρτωλὸς ἡ ἁμαρτία διὰ τῆς ἐντολῆς).

However, one must step back and ask the question; ‘why, in Paul’s view, should God want to increase the quantity of transgressions until the coming of Christ?’ 5 So Christ would have a greater amount of sins for which to atone? But what would be the ultimate purpose of that? Furthermore, inasmuch as the sacrificial elements of the law were meant to atone for sin, it makes little sense that other elements of the law should work in the exact opposite direction.

It is exceedingly difficult to see how the law is “good and holy” (Rom. 7:12) if its purpose is to produce those things that are diametrically opposed to God. In any case, to say that the law was given to cause or increase transgressions seems to be fraught with too much theological baggage to be considered here.

b. Propitiatory

James D. G. Dunn maintains the second option arguing that the sacrificial law had a propitiatory function. 6 That is, it was sacrifices which atoned for sin prior to the coming of Christ. On one level this is certainly accurate. The sacrificial system did atone for sins (to a degree). But, the sacrificial system was only part of the law and one is therefore leaving a great portion of the law without purpose if he subscribes to option two alone.

Thus, although this second option suffers from fewer problems than does the first, it does indeed suffer since it cannot, by itself, account for the addition of the law.

c. Cognitive

Finally, some exegetes maintain that the law was added for a cognitive function such as to ‘bring awareness of’ or perhaps ‘indicate’ transgressions. 7 This option is very attractive because it fits the imagery of the immediate context. In verses 24 and 25 for example, Paul refers to the law as a παιδαγωγὸς, a role that most certainly did not have anything to do with “increasing” transgressions” 8. Rather, in antiquity, a παιδαγωγὸς had a custodial function for young boys until they reached maturity.

In any case, a cognitive function of the law not only fits the immediate context, but seems to be present elsewhere in the Pauline corpus, such as in Romans 7:7, “…ἀλλὰ τὴν ἁμαρτίαν οὐκ ἔγνων εἰ μὴ διὰ νόμου…” Therefore, since a cognitive function of the law: a) fits the contextual imagery b) is present elsewhere in Paul, and c) does not suffer the same degree of difficulty as the other two options, one is justified in subscribing to this option with some measure of confidence.

Qualification. However, this confidence should be qualified. For Richard N. Longenecker gives all exegetes something to consider when he writes, “It may be, in fact, that Paul had no intention of being as precise as commentators would like to make him.” 9Longenecker could certainly be correct here.

Maybe Paul, in  continuing to demonstrate the inferiority of the law, was making a broader point; that whereas the Mosaic Law concerned itself with “transgressions” the promise concerns itself with “righteousness.”

However, the fact that the law “was added” (προσετέθη) is itself  an indication of purpose. 10 Thus, after exhausting all the options I think one remains justified in seeing a cognitive function of the law in Paul’s thinking.

4) Galatians 3:19b-3:20

The remainder of verse 19 serves as a qualification to the addition of the law, for Paul writes that the law was added, “ἄχρις οὗ ἔλθῃ τὸ σπέρμα ᾧ ἐπήγγελται” (“until the see to whom the promise [was given] should come”). It is simple enough to see this as a reference to Christ since it clearly reaches back to verse Galatians 3:16.

However, Paul becomes far less clear (at least to modern readers) when he then writes about that law, “διαταγεὶς δι’ ἀγγέλων ἐν χειρὶ μεσίτου” (“having been ordained through angels in the hand of a mediator”).

This may strike readers as odd at first, but the presence of angels at the giving of the law is not a random bit of Paul’s imagination, but was a tradition often employed by rabbis to “enhance the glory of Sinai.” 11It may be derived from Deuteronomy 33:2 where God is said to have come from Saini with “ten thousands of holy ones” or Psalm 68:17 where the chariots of God are “thousands upon thousands.”

Wherever this tradition originates, it seems to be present elsewhere in the New Testament such as in Hebrews 2:2 and Acts 7:53, as well as in non-canonical sources such as Josephus (Ant 15:136) and Philo (1.140-44).

But, why is this tradition included here? Clearly, Paul is attempting to show the inferiority of the law to the promise. Now by itself, the angelic administration of the law carries no negative connotations. But in context, one can see how Paul employs the angel’s negatively. For, Paul does not only include angels here, but also an unnamed “mediator,” who exegetes commonly identify as Moses. 12

Thus the argument goes: ‘Whereas the law was ordained through angels in the hands of a mediator, the promise was given directly from God to Abraham.’

5) Galatians 3:20

Paul then adds another qualifier; “ὁ δὲ μεσίτης ἑνὸς οὐκ ἔστιν, ὁ δὲ θεὸς εἷς ἐστιν” (Galatians 3:20). Again, Paul presents exegetes with a thorny problem, for the relation between the two clauses is very obscure. 13 As F.F. Bruce asks, “In what way does the affirmation that God is one form the antithesis to what is said about the mediator?” 14

To answer this question one must notice that the concept of a mediator implies a plurality, and this plurality is then juxtaposed with God’s oneness, which is a “fundamental tenant of Judaism” (Deut. 6:4). 15 Thus, the underlying assumption here is that, “any transaction in which a mediator is involved is inferior to one in which God acts directly.” 16

Therefore, whereas the law was administered indirectly (“through angels, in the hand of an intermediary”), the promise was given directly from God to Abraham. And thus, the superiority of the promise to the law is demonstrated yet again; this time because of the directness of its administration.

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  1. Daniel B Wallace “Galatians 3:19-29: A Crux Interpretum for Paul’s View of the Law,” Westminster Theological Journal 52 (1990): 225.
  2. Ibid.
  3. Ibid.
  4. Richard N Longenecker, Galatians (World Biblical Commentary) (n.p.: Thomas Nelson, Inc., 1990), 138.
  5. Ibid.
  6. James D. G. Dunn, The Epistle to the Galatians (Black’s New Testament Commentary), Reprint ed. (Limited; London: Baker Academic, 2011), 188-90.
  7. Ibid.
  8. Verlyn D Verbrugge, ed., New International Dictionary of New Testament Theology: Abridged Edition (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2000), s.v. “Παιδεύω.”
  9. Longenecker, Galatians, 138.
  10. Some readings of Romans 5:20, where the law “sneaked in secretly” (παρεισῆλθεν), may present a difficulty for this view.
  11. Longnecker, Galatians, 140.
  12. Bruce F.F., The New International Greek Testament Commentary: Galatians (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co, 1982), 178.
  13. Ibid
  14. Ibid.
  15. Longenecker, Galatians, 141.
  16. Ibid.
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