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

By W. M. Ramsay

Part 2

Historical Commentary

Chapter 41

The Infant Son and Heir (Gal 4:1-7)

So long as the son who has succeeded to an inheritance is a child, he is treated in practice like a slave subject to orders, though in theory he is the owner and master. But the property and its child-master are directed by guardians and stewards, until the child has reached the age named in the Diatheke of his father.

Here we observe the distinctively Greek touch that the term “heir,” used by Paul, is almost convertible with “son”.1 The same term is often used in the inscriptions of Asia Minor and elsewhere in precisely the same way as here to indicate “a son after he has succeeded to the inheritance” as the representative of his father, undertaking all the duties and obligations of his father.

A state of society is contemplated as familiar to the Galatian Christians, in which the father by his Will ordinarily nominated a term when his infant heir was to come of age. This does not imply that there was no age fixed by law in cases where a Will had not been made; but it does seem to imply that in the circle of Paul’s readers the maker of a Will was free to fix such age as he pleased. It is known that Seleucid law differed, from Roman law in regard to the legal period of full age, Mitteis2 points out that in Tyana the legal term for coming of age was different from the Roman: he ascribes this to Greek influence, but probably it is Anatolian (and South Galatian) custom.

Further, Paul clearly describes a state of society and law in which the father by his Will appoints two distinct kinds of administrators for his child, so that the infant owner is said to grow up under the rule of guardians and stewards (ἐπίτρπος and οἰκονόμοι). The former is the regular term in Greek law for the guardian of an infant, appointed by the father, or by the law in default of the father’s nomination. It was also the regular translation of the Latin tutor.

The oikonomos or steward is less easily understood. A state of the law is implied in which the father by Will named both a guardian and an oikonomos for his infant child. Presumably the guardian (ἐπίτρπος) exercised a more complete authority over the infant than the oikonomos, who (as the name implies) merely regulates household and business matters for the infant. Now in Roman law that distinction was well known: an infant was under a tutor until he reached the age of fourteen, and thereafter under a curator until twenty-five. But in Roman law the curator could not be appointed by the Will of the father.3

In pure Greek Law, as for example at Athens, this distinction seems to have been unknown; and Paul’s words have less meaning when we think of pure Greek manners. But the law and manners of the Graeco-Phrygian cities (and of the Seleucid cities generally) were not pure Greek. They were Hellenistic, having the form which Greek ideas assumed, when they went forth to conquer the East and were inevitably modified in the process.

Accordingly, everything becomes clear when we look at the Syrian Law-book. The same distinction is there drawn as in Rome: a child is subject to an Epitropos up to fourteen, thereafter he is able to make a Will and dispose of his own property, but the practical management of the property remains in the hands of a curator till the ward reaches the age of twenty-five.4 But the Syrian law differs from the Roman in permitting the father to appoint both epitropos and curator by Will. This is exactly the state of things which Paul speaks of; and the probability is that the distinction of epitropos and oikonomos dates back to the old Seleucid law, and thus persisted both in Syria and in South Galatia. In Syria, however, as time went on, Roman law affected native custom; and so the name curator was substituted for oikonomos .

Thus, once more we find that we are placed amid Seleucid, and therefore South Galatian, not among North-Galatian, manners and law.


[1] See above, § XXXI.

[2] Reichsrecht, p. 107.

[3] An elementary fact, stated in any manual of Roman Antiquities or Law: see e.g., Ramsay’s Roman Antiquities, p. 255; Mitteis, p. 218.

[4] The Syriac seems to borrow the Greek term in one case, the Roman in the other (to judge from the German translation in Bruns and Sachau, Syrisch-Römisches Rechtsbuch, p. 5).

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