A Historical Commentary on St. Paul's Epistle to the Galatians

By W. M. Ramsay

Part 2

Historical Commentary

Chapter 39

Law the Child Guardian (Gal 3:23-25)

Before the age of Faith began, we of the Jewish race were shut up and kept under the guard of the Law, in preparation for (with a view to) the approaching revelation of Faith. Thus the Law has played the part of “a servant, responsible for our safety, and charged to keep us out of bad company,”1 until the age of Christ arrived, so that we might be made righteous by Faith. For that result could not have been attained unless special care had been taken of us during the interval. We could not safely be permitted to be free at that time, for we could not then acquire Faith, that vitalising and strengthening power, seated in our mind and working itself out in our conduct, which enables those who have seen and known Christ to be free and yet safe.

But now the age of Faith has begun, and we are set free from the guard and the directing care of the Law.

When Paul compared the Law to a paidagogos, he intended undoubtedly to describe it as having a good moral character, and exercising a salutary, though a strict and severe, effect on those who were placed under it. He speaks no evil of the Law; he represents it as subsidiary and inferior to Faith, but still as a wholesome provision given in God’s kindness to the Jews.

Further, he chose an illustration which would make this clear to his Galatian readers; and they must, therefore, have been familiar with that characteristic Greek institution, the paidagogos, and considered it salutary and good. This throws some light on the social organisation in the Galatian cities, for it places us in the midst of Greek city life, as it was in the better period of Greek history. “In the free Greek cities the system of educatisn was organised as a primary care of the State. The educational system was the best side of the Greek city constitution. Literature, music and athletics are all regulated in an interesting inscription of Teos, the salaries of the teachers are fixed, and special magistrates survey and direct the conduct of teachers and pupils.”2

In that period it would appear that the paidagogoi were trusted servants and faithful attendants, standing in a very close relation to the family (in which they were slaves). Their duty was not to teach any child under their charge, but simply to guard him. Among the Romans, who adopted this institution from the Greeks, the paidagogos gave some home instruction to the child: he was a Greek-speaking slave, who looked after the child, and taught him to use the Greek language. Though he also accompanied the child to school, yet there was not the same kindly feeling in the relationship of guardian and ward in Rome as in Greek cities during the better period. Roman paidagogoi were often chosen without the slightest regard to the moral side of their teaching, and brought the child in contact with the lower side of life among vicious slaves; among the Greeks in the later period, amid the steady degeneration of Pagan manners in the whole Roman empire, Plutarch complains that a slave, worthless for any other purpose, was used as a paidagogos; and a little earlier Juvenal gives a terrible picture of the upbringing of young children, which, though exaggerated in his usual style, is still an indication of what was characteristic of ordinary pagan homes (though certainly with some, perhaps with many, brilliant exceptions).

In contrast with the care for education shown in the government of Greek cities, the Roman imperial government lavishly provided shows and exhibitions of a more or less degrading character for the population of Rome and the Provinces, while the degeneration of the provision for watching over and educating the young in the cities was the worst feature of the Roman period. This had much to do with the steady deterioration in the moral fibre of the population, and the resulting ruin of the empire.

This passage of the Epistle, therefore, places us in the midst of Greek city life as it was in the better period of Greek history. When read in relation to the provision for education in the Greek cities, the illustration which Paul selects becomes much more luminous.

But there is nothing here characteristic of North Galatia. We are placed amid the Greek-speaking population of Antioch and Iconium, where Greek ways and customs had been naturalised since Alexander had conquered the country and left behind him a long succession of Greek kings, Even in Lystra, recently founded as a military station in a more barbarous district, and off the main line of trade, the probability is that only a minority of the population were so used to education that this illustration would have appealed to them; but I have often argued that it was among that minority that Christianity first spread.3

Moreover, it is an early state of Greek manners which is here presented to us. We turn to Plato for the best illustration of Paul’s meaning, and not to late writers. Compare what has been said about Diatheke, p. 375.

That is all characteristic of South Galatia, where the chief Graecising influence was the Seleucid rule, ending in B.C. 189. Thus it was a rather early form of Greek society which maintained itself in a city like Pisidian Antioch; and that society was likely to be kept vigorous by the constant struggle which it had to maintain against Oriental influence.

This passage throws an interesting light on Paul’s conception of the Divine purpose in the world. The Disposition by God of the religious inheritance which ultimately is intended for all men, involved a gradual training of mankind in order that they might be able to accept the inheritance by fulfilling the conditions: the Disposition is first in favour of one man, then of a nation, finally of all nations. The one man at first needed no schoolmaster: he was able to respond at once to the requirements of God. But the nation, when it came to exist, was not able in itself to rise to the conditions which God demanded. It needed education and the constant watching of a careful guardian: the Law was given to watch over the young nation as it was being trained and educated in the school of life: the Law was not itself the teacher, but the paidagogos. Then came the age of Christ, who opened, first to the Jews and through them to all nations, the door of Faith.

No other reference to paidogogoi occwrs in Paul’s writings, except 1Co 4:15. It may perhaps be fanciful, but it seems to me as I read that passage that it is distinctly more contemptuous in tone than the allusion in Gal 3:24-25. Moreover, it implies, apparently, that the paidagogoi are teachers, elementary teachers, of those whom they look after. There we have the later, the Romanised conception of the paidagogos, which naturally ruled in a town like Corinth that was at once a highly developed Greek city and a Roman colony.


[1] The best way of explaining Paul’s meaning is to imitate closely the description of a Paidagogos given in the Dictionary of Antiquities (Smith), II, p. 307.)

[2] Shortened from Cities and Bish. of Phrygia, II, p. 440.

[3] Church in Rom. Emp. pp. 57, 146; St. Paul the Trav., ch. VI.

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