Note of the Day – December 9

Galatians 4:4

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…”

geno/menon (“coming to be”)

The verbs gi/nomai and the related genna/w both have the fundamental meaning “come to be, become”; genna/w more precisely denotes coming to be born, but gi/nomai can be used in this sense as well. The closeness of form and meaning between the two root verbs has occasionally resulted in textual confusion—note, for example, the variant readings between ge/nesi$ (“coming to be”) and ge/nnhsi$ (“coming to be [born]”, i.e. “birth”) in Matthew 1:18, the two words differing by only two letters. Here in Gal 4:4, the verb is used twice, in parallel participial phrases which modify “his son” (to\n ui(o\n au)tou=), and, in a broader sense, describe the result of God’s sending him forth:

  • coming to be [geno/menon] out of a woman
  • coming to be [geno/menon] under the Law

In each phrase, the precise meaning of geno/menon is governed by the prepositions with follow: e)k (“out of”) and u(po/ (“under”). The verb followed by e)k is often used to indicate physical birth, as in the LXX 1 Esdras 4:16; Tobit 8:6; and Josephus Antiquities II.216, similarly of trees and other natural production, Matt 21:19. This is sense in Rom 1:3 as well, where the context is generally close to that of Gal 4:4:

“…about his [i.e. God’s] son the (one) coming to be [genome/nou] out of [e)k] (the) seed of David according to (the) flesh…”

The “seed of David” would seem to indicate that Jesus’ father comes from the line of David, and, indeed, Joseph is identified as a descendant of David in Matt 1:2-16 and Luke 3:23ff. However, in Rom 1:3, Jesus is specifically referred to as God’s son; the ambiguity between the two basic propositions is intrinsic to early Christian tradition regarding the birth of Jesus. Neither in Rom 1:3 nor in Gal 4:4 (or anywhere else in his letters) does Paul specifically mention the virgin birth as such; this will be discussed further in the next note. It is interesting, however, that the only other passages in the New Testament where the preposition e)k follows directly after gi/nomai are in the baptism and transfiguration scenes:

  • Mark 1:11—”and a voice came to be [e)ge/neto] out of [e)k] the heavens…”; cp. Matt 3:17 (“[there was] a voice out of heaven…”) and Luke 3:22 (“and a voice com[ing] to be out of heaven…”)
  • Mark 9:7—”and a voice came to be [e)ge/neto] out of [e)k] the cloud…”; cp. Luke 9:35; Matt 17:5 (“and [there was] a voice out of the cloud…”)

In both instances, a heavenly, divine voice “comes to be”, i.e. is heard, out of heaven (or the cloud, par. to the cloud of God’s presence in Exod 13:21; 40:34-38, etc); and in both narratives the voice makes a declaration regarding Jesus as God’s Son: “you are my (be)loved Son…” (Mark 1:11 par). Consider also, in this regard, the variant reading in a number of key (Western) witnesses, where the voice from heaven cites Psalm 2:7: “you are my son; today I have caused you to be (born) [gege/nnhka]” (cf. Acts 13:33; Heb 1:5; 5:5).

There are, in fact, definite Christological implications to the use of gi/nomai in several key passages of the Gospel of John. For example, there is a clear theological distinction between gi/nomai (“come to be, become”) and ei)mi (“be, [have] being”)—in Jn 1:1 ei)mi is used (3 times) of God/Deity, while in Jn 1:3 gi/nomai is used (again 3 times) of creation (also vv. 6, 10); in other words, God is, but creation comes to be. We see this same distinction in Jn 8:58: “before Abraham came to be [gene/sqai], I am [ei)mi/]”. Yet, in other references, Jesus comes to be as well (using gi/nomai):

  • Jn 1:14: “and the Logos came to be [e)ge/neto] flesh, and put down tent [i.e. dwelt] in/among us…”
  • Jn 1:15: (John the Baptist speaking): “the (one) coming in back of me has come to be [ge/gonen] in front of me, (in) that he was [h@n] first of [i.e. for] me” (also v. 30)

Jn 1:14 clearly refers to the birth/incarnation of Jesus (cf. below); in Jn 1:15, 30, on the other hand, there is a complex and subtle wordplay that interacts on two different levels of meaning. I have discussed this verse in detail in an earlier note. Several other passages in the Gospel should also be mentioned, where gi/nomai has (or may have) a special theological/spiritual nuance:

  • Jn 1:6—a man (John the Baptist) came to be [e)ge/neto] who witnessed regarding the Logos
  • Jn 1:12—believers in Christ are enabled to become [gene/sqai] offspring/children of God (cf. also Jn 8:33; 10:16; 12:36; 15:8)
  • Jn 1:17—(God’s) favor and truth came to be [e)ge/neto] through Christ
  • Jn 3:9—”how are these things able to come to be [gene/sqai]?” (context of Jesus’ discourse with Nicodemus)
  • Jn 5:6ff—”do you wish to become [gene/sqai] whole?”
  • Jn 10:35—”…toward whom [i.e. those addressed in Ps 82:6] the Word/Logos of God came to be [e)ge/neto]”
  • Jn 12:29-30—the voice of God (sounding like thunder) coming/came to be [gegone/nai/ge/gonen]

In the Gospel of John, the related verb genna/w describes spiritual birth (from above) in Jn 3:3-8, but is also used in a manner similar to gi/nomai in two important verses:

  • Jn 1:13—believers, enabled to come to be offspring of God, come to be born out of God [e)k qeou=]
  • Jn 18:37—(Jesus to Pilate): “unto this I have come to be (born), and unto this I have come into the world…”

As a result of the Christological debates and controversies in the 2nd, 3rd and 4th centuries, theologians and commentators were uncomfortable saying that Jesus “came to be” (using gi/nomai), since the verb could be used generally for various kinds of natural production or creation. The Arian controversy, in particular, made it unacceptable to say that Jesus “came to be” in the sense of being created. Some manuscripts and witnesses of Gal 4:4 read gennw/menon (“coming to be [born]”) rather than geno/menon (“coming to be”), including Old Latin versions which have “natum ex muliere” instead of “factum ex muliere”; a similar variant occurs in Rom 1:3. Both verses were cited by Irenaeus (Against Heresies III.22.1, V.21.1) and Tertullian (On the Flesh of Christ §§20-22) in the late-2nd/early 3rd century, arguing in support of the reality of Jesus’ (human) birth. By the time of the Nicene and Constantinopolitan Creeds in the 4th century, Christ’s pre-existent divine nature is unequivocably affirmed, along with the phrase gennhqe/nta ou) poihqe/nta, “coming to be born (from God), not made” (natum [genitum], non factum).

Does Gal 4:4 show evidence for the twin doctrine of the pre-existence and incarnation of Christ? Taken literally, the verb e)caposte/llw would mean “set forth from out of” the place where God is (i.e. heaven). Later Christology could speak of the Son (Christ) being born/generated out of [e)k] the substance of God the Father, but this is foreign to Paul’s way of thinking. In terms of Jesus’ birth, here only his ‘human nature’ is emphasized—he comes to be (born) out of [e)k] a woman. Based on Phil 2:6ff, it may assumed that Paul believed in some manner of (divine, heavenly) pre-existence for Jesus; however, it is interesting that he does not make much of it in his letters—there is virtually no other mention of the idea, though it can be inferred from passages such as 2 Cor 8:9; Col 1:15 (note also, possibly, Eph 4:8-9). The references to the voice of God coming to be from out of heaven (Mark 1:11; 9:7 par; Jn 12:29-30) show that, within early Christian tradition, there was an established use of gi/nomai (+ e)k) for a kind of sensible/tangible incarnate manifestation or revelation of God on earth, which was specifically tied to the person of Jesus Christ. Whether we are justified to read something of the sort in Gal 4:4 is difficult to say; Paul certainly understood that God worked through Jesus, manifesting His own righteousness, love, and so forth (Rom 3:21ff; 5:8; 8:3, etc). If we accept Col 1:15-19 (also 2:9) as Pauline, then he certainly held to a belief that generally corresponds to the incarnation, also evinced by Phil 2:7; Rom 8:3 (and note 1 Tim 3:16). With regard to the idea of the virgin birth, this will be addressed briefly in the discussion on the words “out of a woman” in the next note.

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