In this excerpt from Galatians: Evangelical Biblical Theology Commentary, Matthew S. Harmon examines the influence the Old Testament Scriptures had on the Apostle Paul in his letter to the Galatians.
The influence of the Old Testament Scriptures on Paul’s argument, theology, and even structure in Galatians is pervasive. This influence happens at both the conscious/explicit level (i.e., Paul specifically cites and alludes to key Old Testament passages that further his argument) and the subconscious/implicit level (i.e., various Old Testament texts, themes, and motifs shape his thinking in ways that he is not always consciously aware of while writing the letter). The Old Testament forms the very substructure of how Paul thinks, argues, and communicates his message. Or, stated another way, the Old Testament Scriptures are one of the lenses (the other being the gospel of Jesus Christ) through which Paul views all of life. In one sense, Paul’s fundamental disagreement with the opponents in Galatians is hermeneutical, rooted in a different understanding of the relationship between the Old Testament Scriptures and what Christ has accomplished through his life, death, and resurrection.
Paul’s Level of Engagement with the Old Testament Scriptures
In general terms, the different forms of Old Testament influence range from direct citations to thematic parallels, with allusions and echoes falling on the spectrum between them. For our purposes it is unnecessary to sharply distinguish between citations, allusions, echoes, and thematic parallels; instead it is better to see them as part of a spectrum of Old Testament engagement. Nevertheless, all of the direct citations of Scripture occur in chapters 3–4 (with the exception of Ps 143:2 in Gal 2:16 and Lev 19:18 in Gal 5:14). This concentration of citations makes sense in light of the complex theological argument that Paul makes in these chapters. Allusions and echoes are more widely spread throughout the letter, though again chapters 3–4 have the highest number. Thematic parallels pervade the letter, forming the conceptual background for countless terms, concepts, and ideas.
Paul does more than engage isolated scriptural texts throughout the letter, as if he is merely interested in citing an authoritative text to enhance the rhetorical force of his argument. While his citations and allusions are understandable on their own terms within the immediate context of Galatians, they regularly take on far greater depth of meaning when their original Old Testament contexts are considered. Those in Galatia who were familiar with these Old Testament passages and their larger contexts would have grasped Paul’s argument at an even deeper level. Paul’s engagement with Old Testament Scripture in Galatians can be broken down into four broad categories. The first is the use of an Old Testament segment as the framework for a New Testament passage. When the various citations, allusions, echoes, and thematic parallels are analyzed in their totality, a pattern emerges. As I have argued elsewhere, Isaiah 40–66 provides a broad structural framework for Paul’s argument, theology, and structure in Galatians. More specifically, Isaiah 49–54 appears to form a broad conceptual substructure to Galatians 1–4. The allusions to Isaiah 49 in Galatians 1:15–16, 24 and the citation of Isaiah 54:1 in Galatians 4:27 form a set of bookends for this substructure. At points in between Paul draws on other Isaianic texts from within Isaiah 49–54 (as well as numerous other Old Testament texts) to move the argument along. Yet even these other Old Testament texts seem to be understood through the framework of Isaiah 49–54. Although this Isaianic substructure does not seem to continue through Galatians 5–6, those chapters do contain a number of allusions, echoes, and thematic parallels to Isaiah 40–66. Furthermore, there are a number of similarities between Galatians and Isaiah 40–66 on the thematic level, including: (1) the restoration of Jerusalem; (2) forgiveness of sins; (3) return from exile through a new exodus that transforms creation itself; (4) salvation extending to the nations; and (5) the enigmatic servant figure. Each of these themes is linked to Yahweh fulfilling his promises, with special emphasis on his covenant with Abraham. The significance of this Isaianic narrative substructure is to support Paul’s larger argument in Galatians that God has fulfilled the promises to Abraham in and through Jesus Christ, who as the Isaianic suffering servant has inaugurated the return from exile through a new exodus that culminates in a new creation in which all who believe in Christ participate, regardless of their ethnicity, gender, or socioeconomic status.
The second broad category of Paul’s engagement with the Old Testament is to assert or imply fulfillment of Old Testament promises and types/patterns. Although he only uses explicit fulfillment language in 5:14 (where the whole law is said to be fulfilled in living out Lev 19:18) and 6:2 (where it is not linked to an Old Testament text), Paul clearly presents Scripture as being fulfilled at various points in the letter. He sees his own life and ministry in some sense as the fulfillment of the mission of the servant in Isaiah 49 (Gal 1:10, 15–16, 24; 2:2). The death of Jesus fulfills the description of the suffering servant of Isaiah 53 (Gal 1:4; 2:20; 3:13; 4:4–6). Believers experience the Spirit in fulfillment of God’s Old Testament promises (Gal 3:2, 5, 14; 5:16–24 // Isa 32:15–20; 44:1–5; Ezek 36:26–27). The nations are being blessed through the gospel in fulfillment of God’s promise to Abraham (Gal 3:8–9 // Gen 12:3; 18:18; 22:18). As the singular seed of Abraham, Jesus receives the inheritance promised to Abraham (Gal 3:16–18 // Gen 17:7–10, 19–21; 22:18; Isa 41:8; 53:10; 54:3) and shares it with all who are united to him by faith (Gal 3:26–4:7). Through him the hope of Jew and gentile together acknowledging the universal reign of the one true God has come to pass (Gal 3:19 // Zech 14:9). The prophetic promise of a new exodus through a suffering servant that results in a new creation has been fulfilled in Christ (Gal 4:1–7; 6:15 // Isa 41:17–20; 51:9–10; 52:13–53:12), as has the promise of a new Jerusalem that produces children free from their slavery to sin (Gal 4:27 // Isa 54:1). Paul concludes the letter by praying for God’s people to experience the peace and mercy that was promised through the new covenant (Gal 6:16 // Isa 54:10).
A third category of Paul’s use of the Old Testament is to provide authoritative support for a claim. Thus he can assert that no flesh will be justified by works of the law (Gal 2:16) on the basis of Psalm 143:2. Since Abraham was justified by faith (Gen 15:6), it naturally follows that believers are also (Gal 3:6). Those who rely on the law fall under a curse (Gal 3:10), as Deuteronomy 27:26; 28:58 make clear. Since Habakkuk 2:4 clearly establishes that the righteous shall live by faith, it is evident that no one can be justified by the law (Gal 3:11). Indeed, Leviticus 18:5 makes it clear that the law is not of faith (Gal 3:12). That Jesus took our curse upon himself (Gal 3:13) is supported by citing the curse that rests on those hanged on a tree (Deut 21:23). Paul knows that those who sow to the flesh will reap destruction because Hosea 8:1–6; 10:12–13 make a similar assertion.
A final category is the numerous places where Paul illustrates a point through the use of an Old Testament example. Referring to the opponents as those troubling the Galatians (Gal 1:7–9) echoes the story of Achan troubling Israel. Paul’s own pre-conversion zeal for the law (Gal 1:13–14) echoes Phinehas’ zeal to preserve the purity of Israel (Num 25:1–13). The story of Abraham’s two sons from two different women (Gen 16–21) illustrates the relationship between flesh and spirit (Gal 4:21–5:1), while Sarah’s command to Abraham to cast out Hagar and her son Ishmael (Gen 21:10) is a picture of what God commands the Galatians to do to the opponents (Gal 4:29).
This post is adapted from Galatians: Evangelical Biblical Theology Commentary by Matthew S. Harmon (Lexham Press, 2021).
Read an interview with Harmon where he discusses the process of writing his commentary on Galatians.