Galatians frustrations

In leading a small group through a Galatians study, I am encountering frustrations.  I can categorize these as relating either to (1) my own inadequacies or (2) Paul’s expressions that are difficult to translate.  Comparatively, I had little frustration with 1:1-2:14.  The problems come with the substance introduced in 2:15 and beyond.

Two text scholars I consulted differed over whether to consider 2:15-21 a rhetorical propositio or a partitio.  It’s not that the label matters, but if I can determine this passage’s function and purpose within the whole letter, I will interpret better.  At this point in my study, I think the passage is less transitional and more stage-setting.  Both the propositio and the partitio traditionally involve backward-looking aspects, and those may be present in 2:15-21, but I find this section heavily weighted toward what is to come in the following discourse.  Whatever Paul is saying here will be elucidated in chapters 3 and 4, or at least I hope so.


The main issue for the last couple of weeks has been interpreting an expression with a notoriously problematic Greek construction:¹  The meaning of this phrase, consisting of the last few words of both 3:2 and 3:5, is something like “by faith’s hearing” or “by the proclamation of faith(fulness).”  The deeper one goes in trying to interpret Galatians on the whole, the large this phrase looms.

The noted Greek grammarian C.F.D. Moule once suggested that ex akoes pisteos equals hearing and believing, i.e., a sort of hearing that leads to belief.  Arguably, that interpretation places more emphasis on the faith/believing, and I think there is some grammatical precedent for that “take.”  Major translations may generally be placed in one of the following categories with respect to how they handle this phrase:

  • Emphasis on hearing (e.g., “the hearing of faith” or “hearing with faith” in the RSV, ESV, NASB, HCSB, KJV, ASV, and others)
  • Emphasis on believing (e.g., “believing what you heard,” as in NIV, NET, NRSV, CSB, ISV, CEB, and others)

Other, more obscure translations may be better than some of those mentioned above.  Was Paul connecting the Spirit of God to the Galatians’ hearing (or heard material) that leads to belief, or to their believing that comes from hearing, or to some other variation?  In an attempt to understand this matter, I have jumped through a few hoops and ended up on my face.  Additional research might involve careful consideration—in all levels of Galatians context—viz. the words for believing/faith and for hearing the message.  Comparisons with similarly themed passages in Romans might eventually be in order, too.

An additional, embedded difficulty in translation involves whether to translate pistis (found 22 times in Galatians, with a 77% concentration in this section) as “faith” or “faithfulness.”  At stake are entire denominations’ theologies (which I care little about)—and a better connection with faith, Christ’s death and related acts, and Paul’s thoughts on salvation and justification (all of which I do care about) At this point, the only thing I’m comfortable in saying in this arena is that Paul affirms both Christ’s faithfulness and the importance of a human faith response.  The human element is clearly a factor in Galatians 2:15-17.  Two overlapping centric textual structures are possible here, with each centering on human faith/belief (with a different preposition) “in” Jesus Christ.  Try both of these on for size:

Structure 1 (encompassing 2:15 through 2:17a)

A  We are Jews by nature and not sinners from among the Gentiles;

B  nevertheless knowing that a man is not justified by the works of the Law

C  but through faith in Jesus Christ

C’  even we have believed in Christ Jesus

B’  so that we may be justified by faith in Christ and not by the works of the Law; since (that) by the works of the Law no flesh will be justified.  But if, while  seeking to be justified in Christ,

A’  we ourselves have also been found sinners, . . .

Above, the A and A’ phrases are verbally related, as are B and B’.  The C and C’ texts form a central emphasis; an added spotlight shines on the mirroring of “Jesus Christ to “Christ Jesus” in the succeeding phrase.

Structure 2 (more compact—2:16 alone—original word order shown below)

Knowing that a man is not justified

by/out of works of [L]aw

but through faith(fulness) in/of Jesus Christ

and we in Christ Jesus have  believed

that we should be justified out of faith[fulness] in/of Christ

and not by/out of works of [L]aw

since no flesh will be justified by works of [L]aw

For my exegetical money, the second structure is more convincing, and it’s even more so in the Greek.  See color codes below.

There are a few inconsistencies above, such as the aqua-colored repetitions and the asymmetry of the “that” clauses.  The negative (not) particles’ correspondence is also intriguing but not necessarily material here.  The centered emphasis on faith(fulness) is key.  If in the C and C’ phrases one takes pistis to refer to the faithfulness of Christ (as opposed to faith in Christ)—and I lean that direction myself—we still have a structure in which those phrases flank the clause “we have believed in Christ Jesus,” which refers to human faith.

Permutations and translations aside, the verbal relationships abound.  Whether intentional or subconscious or both, it seems obvious that Paul was stressing some things here!  At some point, I will have to leave my frustrations with 2:15-3:6 and move on, apprehensively, into all the argument-proving substance of chapters 3 and 4.

¹ The phrase is constructed with a preposition and two successive nouns in the genitive case (ἐξ ἀκοῆς πίστεως | ex akoes pisteos).  The genitive case is the most potentially varied of the Greek cases.


2 thoughts on “Galatians frustrations

  1. Brian Casey 10/18/2017 / 2:32 pm

    Via Facebook:
    Randall Smith:
    This just might be one of the most mind-bending posts of yours that I’ve read! I think I’m stuck too. 🙂

    I think this might have something to do with the “faith without works is dead”… how do you express your faith without works? And how do you show your faith to others without the doing? It’s not the doing itself of course, but it’s the faith behind it that produces the doing..
    The hearing and believing seem to be synonymous to me; maybe “listening” or “heeding” would be a better conveyor of meaning, though the translation itself isn’t the best (Paul is still human).

    I appreciate your trying to make your way through all that. Sometimes I work hard to make something that’s complicated seem understandable. This time, I’m so bumfuzzled that I figure everyone else deserves to be, too.

    Sometimes we link things in our minds, and they get gray and fuzzy, because they get preached that way. Love and grace aren’t synonyms, nor are justification and sanctification. Hearing and believing couldn’t be said to be synonymous — any more than eating and getting fat are — but they are probably two sides of a coin, or a pyramid, or something.

    And you’re so right that Paul is human. But he definitely had a purpose here. Some might say he was so incredibly ticked off in spirit that he wasn’t making as much sense as usual here!


  2. Brian Casey 10/18/2017 / 2:33 pm

    Via Facebook …
    Dusty Jackson:
    I think when after looking at the Greek and reading some notable commentaries, that we may want to consider Paul’s emphasis on the receiving of justification. It is not something earned, it is given as a gift so the person receiving becomes passive in the sense that the person can do no action in order to receive this gift. When considering the phrase “ex akoēs pisteōs” we should consider that this faith comes from hearing the Word. I can’t help but make similar connection to another of Paul’s letter to the Romans when he says, “ἄρα ἡ πίστις ἐξ ἀκοῆς, ἡ δὲ ἀκοὴ διὰ ῥήματος Χριστοῦ”.

    Dusty, good comment. I don’t know that I’ve heard anyone say justification is received (as is heard, for instance, with “salvation” and “grace.” But it certainly isn’t an active thing on my part, so, yeah…..

    At a glance, I’d say the phrasing in Romans 10:11 is different because it serves to make a different point in that letter, but it’s obviously related. Now I’m curious about the instances of pistis ex akoes as opposed to ex akoes pisteos. (No Gk keyboard on work computer.) So have you done any work with the double-genitive construction? It is still striking to me how divided the translation scene is on the emphasis here. “Believing what you heard” is very different from “hearing with faith” or “the hearing of faith.”

    The context of Galatians does support an emphasis on faith coming from hearing (see, for instance, the emphasis on gospel proclamation in chapter 1, not to mention ch. 3 and more), so that idea is definitely applicable here.

    But (don’t you love complications?!) there’s the whole issue of righteousness/right living and justification being connected linguistically and theologically, but they are not exactly the same. Could justice be more of a passive thing, and righteousness, more active? Maybe….

    A new discussion of this theme was just posted at…/the-bible-project-podcast/


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