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

By W. M. Ramsay

Part 2

Historical Commentary

Chapter 50

The Allegory of Hagar and Sarah (Gal 4:21; Gal 5)

This paragraph is one of the most difficult in the whole Epistle to understand aright; and it is the one which would probably outrage Jewish prejudice more than any other.

The children of Abraham are divided into two classes: the descendants of Sarah free, and the descendants of Hagar slave. The Jews, though Sarah’s sons, are described as the offspring of Hagar, because they, like Ishmael, are descendants by nature; the Gentile Christians are described as the offspring of Sarah, because they, like Isaac, are descendants by promise of God.

It must be at once admitted that, if this passage were to be taken simply in its relation to the preceding and following parts of the Epistle, as rising spontaneously in Paul’s mind in the sequence of his own philosophic argument, it would be unnecessarily insulting and offensive to the Jews, weak as an argument, and not likely to advance his purpose of changing the current of feeling among the Galatians. But Lightfoot’s interpretation of Gal 4:21 is, “Will ye not listen to the Law?” — explained by him thus, “Ye who vaunt your submission to the Law, listen while I read you a lesson out of the Law” — and if we follow this interpretation, we must regard the passage as arising in the free development of Paul’s argument within his own mind.

The rival interpretation, adopted both in the Authorised and the Revised Version, “Do ye not hear the Law?” i.e., “Is not the Law constantly read to you?” (comp. Act 15:21; 2Co 3:14 Cor. 3:14),1 must therefore be preferred. This leaves it quite open to take the passage as forced on Paul from the outside, i.e., as a reply to an argument either used in Galatia by his opponents (and reported to him by Timothy), or employed in a letter sent by the Churches to Paul (§ LIX).

This opposition argument must have taken the following form: The Jews are the true sons of Abraham, descended by birth from Sarah, and granted to her by a special promise of God, after hope of offspring in the natural course had ceased; Gentile Christians cannot be regarded as in any way on an equal footing with the true sons, unless they comply with all the obligations imposed on the true sons. Further, this argument may perhaps have been united with the anti-Pauline view (so often referred to in the Epistle) that the Gentile Christians stood on an inferior platform, but could rise to the higher platform of perfection (Gal 3:3), as true sons, by accepting the law and its prescribed ritual.

It may be doubted whether the Judaic emissaries in Galatia were prepared to go quite so far as this argument implies in the direction of admitting Gentiles to the full rights of sons of Abraham. Hence it seems more probable that this argument was actually stated in a letter by the Churches, explaining their views and doubts.

Accordingly, the paragraph may perhaps be read best as quoting from a letter: “Tell me, you who express to me your desire2 to come under the Law, do you not know what the Law says? Do you not hear it read regularly in your assembly? You argue that the Jews are the true sons, and you are outsiders; and on this argument you justify your desire to come under the Law; but this reasoning is not supported by a correct understanding of the Scripture as contained in the Law. Hagar, the Arabian slave, and her son, the slave — when the allegory is properly interpreted — belong to the same category with the present Jerusalem and her children the Jews, all enslaved to the Law as it was delivered from the Arabian mountain. You, as free from the Law, inheriting through the free Diatheke of God, are classed to the heavenly Jerusalem, your true city and your true home,3 of which all we Christians are the children. Thus you, my brothers, are children of promise (not of mere natural, fleshly birth) like Isaac. You are persecuted by the fleshly children now, just as Isaac, the child of promise, was persecuted by the fleshly child, Ishmael of old. And, just as the slave child Ishmael was cast out and lost his inheritance, so now----------4. We Christians, all, Jew like me or Gentile like you, my brothers, are sons of the free woman, not of the slave woman.”

Thus, as we see, Paul was not voluntarily dragging into his letter a gibe at the Jews. He was saying to the Galatians, “The view you state that the Jews are the true sons of Abraham, and that you ought to make yourselves like them, shows that you do not rightly read the Law. The passages to which you refer are to be interpreted allegorically, not verbally — by the spirit, not by the letter. Literally, the Jews are the sons of Sarah; but, in the spiritual interpretation, you are become the free woman Sarah’s children, and the Jews are the sons of the slave woman.”

This paragraph, perhaps, assumes as a fact of law and society that the status of the child follows the mother, not the father. The illustration would be meaningless to the Galatians, unless they regarded the son of the master of the house by a slave mother as a slave. Now that was not Semitic custom, nor is it natural where polygamy is practised. In Mohammedan sacred law such a son ennobles the mother. Among the Hebrews it is evident that Dan, Asher, Ishmael, etc., who were born in that way, were not regarded as of servile station.

But among both Greeks and Romans the son follows the mother.5 The inhuman custom prevailed that the offspring of slave-women was like that of domestic animals: they were all mere property. A similar principle probably existed both in South and North Galatia, for both Galatian and Phrygian fathers were in the habit of selling their freeborn children, and are therefore not likely to have regarded the son of a slave mother as anything but a slave.


[1] I quote verbatim Lightfoot’s exposition of this interpretation. Zöckler’s interpretation, “Do ye not obey the Law?” misses the real point of the passage. All three interpretations are grammatically possible.

[2] Θέλοντες desiring, and not merely being willing”: c. 12:17. Westcott’s note on Heb 13:18.)

[3] The contrast between an earthly city, Derbe or Iconium, where one is a citizen according to the world, and the heavenly city, the real city of all Christians, is implicit here. Similarly it is implicit (and disregarded by most scholars) in the epitaph of Avircius Marcellus (Cities and Bishoprics, II p. 724).

[4] Paul does not express the analogy fully.

[5] The rule is familiar in Roman law. As to Greece see Mitteis Reichsrecht und Volksr., p. 241. At Edessa or Salonika enfranchisements occur in inscriptions of “my slave born of my maidservant,” Berlin Phil. Woch., May, 1899, p. 635, Athen. Mitth., 1893, p. 415.

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