Passages

Galatians 3:28 by Shelly Matthews

Gal 3:28 proclaims that three of the most powerful divisions by which human society was organized and regulated in the ancient Mediterranean world—ethnicity (here, Jew/Greek), class, (slave/free) and gender (male/female)—are somehow overturned through baptism into Christ.

Although Galatians was written by Paul, many scholars consider this proclamation as a trace of a pre-Pauline baptismal formula that is also reflected in 1Cor 12:12-13 and Col 3:9-11:

  • pre-Pauline, because Paul cites three divisions—Jew/Greek, slave/free, male/female—even though his larger argument in Galatians centers on questions raised only by the first (Jew/Greek);
  • baptismal, because each of the three New Testament references connect the change in these divisions to baptism (explicitly in Gal 3:27 and 1Cor 12:13; through the metaphor of stripping and reclothing in Col 3:9-10);
  • a liturgical formula, because the common structure of these three passages, which each first make reference to baptism, then proclaim the dissolving of social distinctions, and finally, affirm unity in Christ.

Was Paul a feminist or an abolitionist?

How, precisely, these social relations were changed by baptism into Christ seems to have been argued about from the start. On the one hand, Paul appears to regard “neither Jew nor Greek” as having direct social consequences for his assemblies in Galatia, such that Jews and gentiles should eat together (Gal 2:11-14), and his male gentile converts should not seek circumcision. That Paul greets a number of women as coworkers rather than subordinates in Rom 16 and that he may be arguing for slaves to seek freedom in 1Cor 7:21 (the meaning of this verse is uncertain) are sometimes understood as owing to Paul’s acceptance of Gal 3:28 as a guiding principle for social equality. On the other hand, Paul himself does not embrace the socially radical potential of the baptismal formula in any thoroughgoing way. For instance, he does not directly challenge the institution of slavery, and he argues for the hierarchy of man over woman in his instructions concerning women’s head coverings in 1Cor 11:2-16, especially verse 3. With respect to these matters of equality and freedom, Paul seems content to assign them to the final eschatological era, rather than to the “here and now” of the churches.

Did the earliest Christians believe in the social equality of the baptized, even of slaves and women?

At least some of those with whom Paul argues appear to have regarded their baptism into Christ as leading to more social equality than Paul himself. This is most clear from the arguments concerning women’s veiling practices in 1Cor 11:2-16. This passage suggests that the Corinthian women prophets themselves understood their baptism into Christ as erasing gender hierarchies. This is why they prayed and prophesied with uncovered heads.

Because early Christian leaders needed to command women and slaves to submit suggests that Gal 3:28 inspired some resistance to such submission. For example, because a second century bishop tells a church leader not to use the church treasury to purchase freedom for slaves, we know that his church was engaged in this practice (Ignatius, Pol. 4.3). Furthermore, that Gal 3:28 was cited in support of women’s leadership in churches even in the fourth century is clear from the fact that an early Christian leader knows of, and ridicules, this practice as heretical (Epiphanius, Pan. 49.2.5).

Shelly Matthews , "Galatians 3:28", n.p. [cited 12 Apr 2021]. Online: http://www.bibleodyssey.com/en/passages/related-articles/galatians-3-28

Contributors

Matthews-Shelly

Shelly Matthews
Professor of New Testament, Brite Divinity School

Shelly Matthews is Professor of New Testament at the Brite Divinity School. She is the co-author, with Barbara Reid, OP, of Luke, a two-volume feminist commentary in the Wisdom Commentary Series (Liturgical Press, 2021).

Opposed to the practice of slavery.

Concerned with the future final events of the world.

Of or related to a social conviction in the equality of women.

a person who is not Jewish

Characterized by or related to religious beliefs that violate official church teaching.

A categorization in which people (or other objects) are ranked relative to each other, some higher and some lower.

Of or related to liturgy, the standardized worship practices in a religious tradition.

A collection of first-century Jewish and early Christian writings that, along with the Old Testament, makes up the Christian Bible.

placing oneself under the authority or control of another

Gal 3:28

28There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.

1Cor 12:13

13For in the one Spirit we were all baptized into one body—Jews or Greeks, slaves or free—and we were all made to drink of one Spirit.

Gal 2:11-14

Paul Rebukes Peter at Antioch
11But when Cephas came to Antioch, I opposed him to his face, because he stood self-condemned;12for until certain people came from ... View more

Rom 16

Personal Greetings
1I commend to you our sister Phoebe, a deacon of the church at Cenchreae,2so that you may welcome her in the Lord as is fitting for the saint ... View more

1Cor 7:21

21Were you a slave when called? Do not be concerned about it. Even if you can gain your freedom, make use of your present condition now more than ever.

Gal 3:28

28There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.

1Cor 11:2-16

Head Coverings
2I commend you because you remember me in everything and maintain the traditions just as I handed them on to you.3But I want you to understand th ... View more

1Cor 11:2-16

Head Coverings
2I commend you because you remember me in everything and maintain the traditions just as I handed them on to you.3But I want you to understand th ... View more

Gal 3:28

28There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.

Gal 3:28

28There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.

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