This series of Advent season notes examines Galatians 4:4. The particular word or phrase discussed each day will be underlined and indicated in bold in the verse:
o%te de\ h@lqen to\ plh/rwma tou= xro/nou e)cape/steilen o( qeo\$ to\n ui(o\n au)tou= geno/menon e)k gunaiko/$ geno/menon u(po\ no/mon
“but when the fullness of time came, God set forth out from (him) his Son, coming to be out of a woman, coming to be under the Law…”
e)k gunaiko/$ (“out of a woman”)
The first participle geno/menon (“coming to be”) is followed by the prepositional expression e)k gunaiko/$ (“out of a woman”). As indicated in the previous note, the verb gi/nomai with the preposition e)k (“come to be out of”) is often used for natural production or birth. The addition of gunh/ (“woman”) specifies what would otherwise be obvious, while also giving an elevated style and rhythm to the sentence. Several aspects of this phrase need to be examined:
1. The reality of Jesus’ birth. Here e)k gunaiko/$ makes his coming to be [geno/menon] concrete, part of the natural process of human birth. Jesus was truly and actually born: (a) from a woman generally, i.e. through natural childbirth, and (b) from a particular woman, i.e. Maryam (Mary). Note also the use of gi/nomai + e)k in Rom 1:3, which likewise affirms Jesus’ real human birth, but in a different respect (“out of the seed of David”). In the second and third centuries, in order to combat “docetic” views of Jesus, the reality of his human birth was occasionally given additional emphasis by commentators and scribes, which is reflected in a number of variant readings in the manuscripts.
2. His Humanity. The phrase “born of a woman” is a circumlocution for human beings in general, i.e. the human condition. It is a Hebrew idiom, used occasionally in Old Testament poetry (Job 14:1; 15:4; 25:4), cf. also 1QS 11:20ff and 1 Cor 11:12. Paul, along with virtually all early Christians, accepted—indeed, would have taken for granted—that Jesus was a real human being. Only at the end of the New Testament period, do we see any indication of believers questioning the reality of Christ’s humanity (cf. 1 John 4:2). Various forms of “docetic” Christology—i.e., that Jesus only seemed or appeared to be a normal human being—had developed by the mid-2nd century, and continued to exert influence over Christian thought for some time.
3. His Suffering. “Born of a woman” signifies the process of childbirth, including its pain, which is representative of human suffering and misfortune as a whole (Gen 3:16ff). This is implied in the use of the expression in Job (above), and see also Isa 21:3; 26:17; Jer 4:31; 13:21; 22:23; 49:22; Hos 13:13; Mark 13:8 par; John 16:21; Rom 8:22; 1 Thess 5:3, etc. It is not certain that Paul is referring specifically to Jesus’ suffering here in Gal 4:4, but Christ’s death (on the cross) is in view all throughout Galatians (esp. 1:4; 2:19-20; 3:1, 13; 5:11; 6:12, 14). Paul typically does not emphasize the physical pain, etc. of the crucifixion, but the idea of suffering is certainly present in Gal 3:13, where Jesus is said to have become the curse of the Law.
What of the relationship between sin and the human condition? In the religious tradition of ancient Israel, childbirth itself resulted in impurity for the mother, which had to be cleansed (cf. Lev 12:1-8; Luke 2:22, 24). This likewise is indicated in the use of the expression “born of a woman” in Job 15:14; 25:4, which leads to a highly sensitive Christological question: in taking on human flesh, did Jesus take on the sin/impurity that is in the flesh (according to Paul’s way of thinking, cf. Rom 7:5, 7-25) as well? The main passages where Paul addresses this are:
- 2 Cor 5:21: “…the (one) not knowing sin He [i.e. God] made (to be) sin over us [i.e. on our behalf], (so) that we might come to be the righteousness of God in him”
- Rom 8:3f: “God, sending his own Son in (the) likeness of flesh of sin [i.e. sinful flesh], also judged against sin in the flesh, (so) that the righteousness of the Law might be fulfilled in us…”
- Gal 3:13: “Christ bought us out of [i.e. redeemed us from] the curse of the Law, coming to be (the) curse over us [i.e. on our behalf]…”
The key portions (in italics) are especially difficult, from the standpoint of orthodox Christology, for they suggest some degree of identification between sin and the person of Christ. I have discussed 2 Cor 5:21 and Rom 8:3 together in an earlier note. In any case, the focus of Christ being made sin, coming to be the curse, etc, is specifically his death on the cross. It is this sacrificial work which redeems and frees humankind from sin and, ultimately, from suffering.
4. The Virgin Birth? Does Gal 4:4 imply a belief in the virgin birth? Though occasionally traditional-conservative commentators have sought to use this verse as evidence for the doctrine, there is really little (if any) indication of this in the text. As noted above, the expression “out of a woman” need not mean anything more than (ordinary) human childbirth and the human condition (with its ‘labor pains’) in general. While it may be assumed that Paul accepted the idea of Jesus’ virgin birth, he does not mention it anywhere in his letters. Rom 1:3, the only other reference to Jesus’ birth as such, could actually be read in the other direction, with “out of the seed of David” indicating the genealogy of Joseph (as in Matthew 1 and Luke 3). In point of fact, the virgin birth is not referenced in the New Testament outside of the Infancy narratives of Matthew and Luke, neither in the early preaching recorded in the book of Acts, nor in the Letters, nor elsewhere in Gospel tradition; indeed, the birth of Jesus itself is scarcely even mentioned. Clearly, it was not an integral part of the early Gospel proclamation and instruction, and believers today should exercise considerable caution in trying to make the virgin birth (or conception) into a binding point of doctrine.