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Monday, January 30, 2017

Is Paul Departing from Contextual Hermeneutics in Galatians 3:16?

by Michael J. Vlach

Some scholars believe New Testament writers sometimes used the Old Testament in non-contextual or non-literal ways. This belief is often connected with the idea that the New Testament writers change or reinterpret the storyline begun in the Old Testament. Near the top of the list of alleged non-contextual uses of the Old Testament is Galatians 3:16 where Paul states:

Now the promises were spoken to Abraham and to his seed. He does not say, “And to seeds,” as referring to many, but rather to one, “And to your seed,” that is, Christ.

At first glance it seems that Paul’s hermeneutic is off. It appears that he is taking a collective or multiple sense of “seed” in Genesis and turning it into a single reference to Jesus. Most Genesis references to “seed” or “offspring” refer to Abraham’s descendants collectively. But does Paul change or reinterpret the collective meaning in Genesis to an individual reference to Jesus? Is Paul using the Old Testament non-contextually? Using David Daube as support Longenecker says Paul is using “a midrashic mode of interpretation” that goes beyond normal historical-grammatical hermeneutics. (Richard Longenecker, “Can We Produce the Exegesis of the New Testament,” Tyndale Bulletin 21 (1970): 37).

What Is Paul Doing?

I don’t believe Paul is quoting the Old Testament in a non-contextual way. Paul’s statement in Galatians is likely a contextual use of Genesis. This is based on two factors.

First the concept of “seed” from its very first usage concerning persons included an individual element alongside a collective sense. This is found in the strategic verse, Genesis 3:15:

And I will put enmity
Between you and the woman,
And between your seed and her seed;
He shall bruise you on the head,
And you shall bruise him on the heel.” (all terms in bold are my emphasis)

Just like the English term “seed” the Hebrew zera ("seed") can be a collective singular or unitary singular. With Genesis 3:15, a collective sense of “seed” is found in the statement “between your seed and her seed.” This predicts an ongoing battle between the seed of the woman and the seed of the serpent which involves multiple descendants on both sides. Yet a singular sense is found in “He shall bruise you on the head, and you shall bruise him on the heel.”

So with Genesis 3:15 the collective sense of “seed” culminates in an individual battle between the ultimate seed of the woman (whom we now know as Jesus) and the power behind the serpent. This appears to be a specific messianic hope stemming from the “seed” concept in Genesis 3:15. A coming specific deliverer from the collective seed of the woman will be the one who defeats the power behind the serpent.

An individual sense of “seed” (zera) is also found in Genesis 4:25:

Adam had relations with his wife again; and she gave birth to a son, and named him Seth, for, she said, “God has appointed me another offspring [zera] in place of Abel, for Cain killed him.”

Of course, there are many collective senses of “seed” in Genesis referring to multiple descendants of Abraham (Gen. 13:15; 15:5; 17:8), but since there is a specific messianic hope stemming from Genesis 3:15, the individual sense is never lost or disconnected from the plural sense.

Thus, for Paul to see Jesus as the ultimate referent of the “seed” concept in Genesis in Galatians 3:16 is not allegorical or typological hermeneutics. A messianic hope was connected with the “seed” concept in Genesis 3:15.

Secondly, Paul may be relying literally on the grammar of the Genesis verse he is referring to. Unanimity is lacking concerning which passage Paul is quoting in Galatians 3:16. Many believe he is referring to either Genesis 13:15, 17:8, or 22:18. Paul’ use of “and” leads Schreiner to believe Genesis 13:15 or 17:8 are in view (Galatians, 230). But in his extensive study of what verse Paul was referring to Collins opts for Genesis 22:18:

Genesis 22:18 seems to be the best candidate for Paul’s source here, because, of the Genesis “blessing” texts that might lie behind the composite quotation of Galatians 3:8, it is the one that has the dative of σπέρμα. This, then, allows us to make sense of Paul’s argument in Galatians 3:16 (C. John Collins, “Galatians 3:16: What Kind of Exegete Was Paul?” Tyndale Bulletin 54.1 (2003) p. 86).

If Paul is quoting Genesis 22:18 he could be relying on a straightforward understanding of this text in Galatians 3:16. As a result of researching all references to zera (“offspring”/“seed”) in the Hebrew Bible, Collins concluded that a unitary single sense of zera (“seed”) concerning one person can be discerned when the term is connected with singular verb inflections, adjectives, and pronouns. This applies to Genesis 3:15. Building upon the work of Collins, T. Desmond Alexander applies this criteria for a singular understanding of zera to Genesis 22:17-18a and 24:60 (T. Desmond Alexander, “Further Observations of the Term ‘Seed’ in Genesis,” Tyndale Bulletin 48/1 (1997): 363).

If this is accurate the last reference to “seed” [zera] in 22:17 and the reference to “seed” in 22:18 should be understood in a singular way.” The ESV translates 22:17 as, “And your offspring shall possess the gate of his enemies.” This is in contrast to other versions that opt for “their enemies.” And if this singular sense is true in 22:17 it is likely that the “offspring” reference in 22:18 (which Paul may be quoting in Galatians 3:16) also refers to a single individual. Alexander explains,

If the immediately preceding reference to ‘seed’ in 22:17 denotes an individual, this must also be the case in 22:18a, for there is nothing here to indicate a change in number. The blessing of ‘all the nations of the earth’ is thus associated with a particular descendant of Abraham, rather than all those descended from him (Alexander, 365).

This unitary individual understanding of “seed” is bolstered by the allusion to Gen 22:17b-18a in Psalm 72:17: “And may all nations be blessed in him.” Psalm 72 is likely a messianic passage that speaks of Messiah’s coming kingdom. It connects the Messiah, an individual, with the fulfillment of the “seed” of Genesis 22:17-18.

What does this all mean? If Paul’s reference to “seed” in Galatians 3:16 is a reference to Genesis 22:18 then Paul is being literal with his understanding. Limiting the seed concept to a singular person (Jesus) is consistent with the literal meaning of Genesis 22:18. Concerning Galatians 3:16 Peter Gentry argues, “So Paul’s argument in Galatians 3:16 that the text speaks of ‘seed’ and not ‘seeds’ appears to be based upon solid exegesis of the Hebrew Scriptures” (Kingdom through Covenant, 289).

Not all will agree with this understanding, but it is reasonable to hold that Paul was being contextual and literal with the Hebrews Scriptures in Galatians 3:16. This means the pool of passages that can be used to say that the New Testament writers were being non-contextual with the Old Testament gets even smaller.

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