Pablo David – A Postcolonial Reading of Galatians 3:28

Pablo David – « A Postcolonial Reading of Galatians 3:28 »

This text is a part of the issue:
English: Asian Christianities
Deutsch: Asiatischen Christentümer
Italiano: Cristianesimi asiatici
Português: Cristiandades asiáticas
Français: Christianismes asiatiques
Español: Cristianismos asiáticos
中國人: 亞洲基督教

In Luke’s Acts, we often hear about Paul’s visits to Synagogues during his missionary journeys in the major cities around the Mediterranean basin.[1]  Perhaps because he had solid credentials as an educated Pharisaical Jew[2] and a Roman citizen[3] at the same time, it was not unusual for him to be invited to address the people who congregated in these Synagogues.  

By then, most Jewish communities in the Diaspora were already a mix of Greek-speaking ethnic Jews and “converts” to Judaism—better known as “proselytes”.[4]  Although the latter remained marginalized in the Synagogal communities, they so rapidly multiplied that by the turn of the millennium they had emerged into an influential body which the mainstream Diaspora Jews had to contend with.[5]  How did this phenomenon come about?

Apparently, it was the fact that the Jews congregated in their Synagogues around their Scriptures that the Gentiles found most attractive about Judaism in the first century of the Common Era.[6]  In most Gentile temples cultic practices basically revolved around idol-worship and sacrifices; compared to them, the Jews came across as an elite group because their Synagogues functioned not only as cultic centers but also as institutions of learning that provided a high level of literacy.  Their assemblies were convened by very educated rabbis who read and commented on writings[7] in a manner that probably reminded them of the wisdom of the Greek philosophers.

What kept proselytes marginalized in the Jewish Synagogues was their revulsion to some Jewish practices, such as circumcision, food regulations, and the no-work rule on Sabbath day which were regarded as essentials by Pharisaical Judaism.  Thus, despite the fact that many of them faithfully attended Synagogue services and had even become very well-versed with the Jewish Scriptures, their aspiration of achieving full integration into the mainstream Judaism remained a virtual impossibility. At most, their presence in the Synagogues was tolerated.  

It is not far-fetched to imagine that part of the reason why the proselytes were tolerated in the Synagogues was because they also contributed substantially to the finances needed for the regular operations of the Synagogal institution.  Even in the time of Jesus we have accounts of Gentiles who were friendly with the Jews, such as the Roman centurion who supposedly helped the Jews build their Synagogue,[8] and whom they felt indebted to.  

By the time of Paul’s missionary journeys around the middle of the first century CE, many Jewish communities in the Diaspora had already expanded their Synagogues to include a spacious outer courtyard that could accommodate the proselytes—similar to what had been done in the Jerusalem temple for Gentile visitors.  Like most other temples during those times, the Jerusalem temple attracted many pilgrims and tourists whose mere presence generated a generous amount of income, not just for the temple itself, but for the whole city of Jerusalem. 

One can only imagine how a Jew like Paul—who belonged to the elite Pharisees—made a tremendous impact on the marginalized proselytes, when he proclaimed a seemingly more liberal type of Judaism, such as in Gal. 3:28: “There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is neither male and female, for all of you are one person in Christ Jesus.”[9]

With regard to the demand for strict adherence to food regulations for the sake of cultic purity and the strict observance of the Sabbath law, imagine how the proselytes must have felt whenever such popular sayings by Jesus were quoted by Paul and his fellow Jewish Christians: “It is not that which goes into the mouth that makes a person unclean, but what comes out of the mouth.”[10]  “Sabbath was made for man; not man for the Sabbath.”[11]  Or when Paul himself declared, “Circumcision is nothing… what matters is keeping the commandments of God.”[12]  They must have roared with a loud Amen!  

Suddenly, Paul found in this huge constituency of discriminated Gentile converts to Judaism a captive audience for his antinomian Gospel.  These people had had enough of the strict segregationist policy that kept them marginalized despite their growing number and their substantial material contribution to the Synagogue.  

On several instances in Acts, after encountering rejection from among the mainstream Jewish members of the synagogue communities, we are told that Paul turned his attention to the “Gentiles”. In Acts 13:42-46, we read:

When the meeting of the synagogue broke up, many Jews and devout converts to Judaism followed Paul and Barnabas, who spoke to them and urged them to continue in the grace of God.  The next sabbath almost the wholecity gathered to hear the word of the Lord.  But when the Jews saw the crowds, they were filled with jealousy; and blaspheming, they contradicted what was spoken by Paul.  Then both Paul and Barnabas spoke out boldly, saying, ‘It was necessary that the word of God should be spoken first to you. Since you reject it and judge yourselves to be unworthy of eternal life, we are now turning to the Gentiles.’[13]

It is not far-fetched to suppose that “turning to the Gentiles” for Paul now meant shifting his attention to the ones who seemed more interested in his preaching—namely, the “converts to Judaism”.  In these long-disenfranchised token members of the Synagogues, Paul suddenly found a huge following.  I imagine them saying to themselves, “Here, at last, is a pure-blooded Hebrew-and-Greek-speaking Jew belonging to the elitist Pharisees who does not discriminate against us!”  His liberal interpretation of the Law suddenly gave them hope that they could also at last be recognized as full-fledged children of Abraham and members of the “covenant people” as well, even if they refused circumcision, did not observe the Sabbath, and did not practice the dietary laws. 

If racial and social integration was a great difficulty in the Synagogue, things did not go easy in the early Church gatherings either.  These early ecclesial assemblies which served as alternative Synagogues to early Christians soon found themselves behaving with the same segregationist tendencies as the Jewish Synagogal gatherings.  Acts 6:1-7, for instance, speaks about one of the earliest conflicts within Christianity as an issue of discrimination.  It says, “At that time, as the number of disciples continued to grow, the Hellenists complained against the Hebrews because their widows were being neglected in the daily distribution.”[14]  It was precisely because of this conflict that the apostles saw the need to elect seven deacons who could attend to a more equitable food rationing.  One of these seven “reputable men”, Nicholas of Antioch, is himself described as a “convert to Judaism”.[15]

It was also in the context of table fellowships that Paul would later bring up a similar issue to the attention of the Corinthian community.  Since the early “commemorations of the Lord’s Supper” were still done within the actual setting of the regular meal, Paul felt seriously scandalized about the dissonance between their Eucharistic gatherings and “the divisions among (them)”.  He says, “When you meet in one place, then, it is not to eat the Lord’s Supper, for in eating, each one goes ahead with his own supper, and one goes hungry while another gets drunk.”[16]  It is not unlikely that the issue being brought up here by Paul is similar to that which had been earlier addressed in the Jerusalem community in Acts 6.

This could only mean that even when they began to hold their alternative assemblies in private homes, they still brought with them the system of segregation that they had gotten used to in their Synagogues. They defined the spaces that were restricted to the circumcised males and the marginal spaces allotted for the uncircumcised Gentiles, as well as the spaces allotted for women.  The situation was further compounded by the natural segregation already presupposed in every Roman domus (household) that had clearly defined spaces accessible to the slaves and those restricted to the family. 

For Paul, such “divisions” were unbecoming and inconsistent with their new life in Christ.  Unfortunately, these “divisions” seemed to be the normal state of affairs, not just with the Jews in the Synagogues but with the Jewish Christian assemblies as well.  In Gal 2:11-14, Paul, referring to Peter as Cephas, narrates how he had “opposed him (Cephas) to his face… For until some people came from James, he used to eat with the Gentiles; but when they came, he began to draw back and separated himself, because he was afraid of the circumcised.” Note that the setting in this text is again that of a table fellowship in a private home. Paul expresses his disgust with Peter’s behavior. In the presence of James, Peter slides back into old ways and suddenly distances from the uncircumcised: among them, most likely, Paul’s close collaborator, Titus, an uncircumcised Gentile.[17]

The aforementioned tension in the previous chapter is the immediate context of Gal 3:28.  In the verse that follows, Paul declares that “belonging to Christ” is now the basis for becoming “Abraham’s descendants”—not circumcision.  Through Christ, the Gentiles too are now made “heirs according to the promise.”[18]  When Paul states in Gal 3:28 that “There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free person, there is not male and female; for you are all one in Christ,” he obviously says it in favor of the discriminated Greeks, slaves, and females, as against their opposites. Within the circumstances of the Galatians who were divided over the issues raised by the so-called “Judaizers” with regard to the admission of the uncircumcised into the Church, it is a plea for “unity in Christ” over and above their differentiations of race, social status and gender. 

From a postcolonial perspective, it is important to know whose interest this advocacy for “unity” meant to favor.  It does make a whole world of a difference when the same advocacy is meant to favor the colonial interests of an imperial power. Antiochus IV of the Syria-based Hellenistic empire of the Seleucids, for instance, also advocated for a “no Jew, no Greek” kind of cult in the Jerusalem temple in the late 2nd century BC.  Under his regime, he wanted religion in all cultic places within his empire to assume a “universal character”—meaning, that no cultic place was to be made exclusive only to the circumcised.  Not only did he allow the uncircumcised into the temple, he even ordered the execution of “women who had their children circumcised, and they hung their babies from their necks; their families also and those who had circumcised them were killed.”[19]  The non-Jews were to be given as much right to worship in the said temple and to make sacrificial offerings acceptable to Gentiles. What Antiochus regarded as cultic egalitarianism the Hasmonean Jews would soon consider as a desecration that triggered the revolt of the Maccabean brothers.

Around two centuries later, this time under the Romans, Gal 3:28 must have echoed the familiar tune of the earlier hellenizing campaigns of Antiochus, as far as the new imperial Roman authorities were concerned.  His advocacy in favor of a more spiritualized form of egalitarianism through “unity in Christ” actually conditioned people to be more accepting their differentiations.  

No doubt, at the start, Christianity must have been seen by the Imperial Romans to be nothing but an esoteric sect of Jews that proclaimed an executed convict as their Messiah.  How this changes radically in the early fourth century which saw the rise of Christianity into an official religion of the Roman Empire through Constantine, is something worth looking into through the optic of the hermeneutics of postcolonialism.  

Paul’s universalism must have caught the attention of some Roman intellectuals already at an early period.  Remember how this man, who was accused of being a rabble rouser by his fellow Jews, appealed for a hearing on account of his Roman citizenship.[20]  About Paul, here’s what R.S. Sugirtharajah has to say:

Paul, a genuine immigrant by current political standards, gives the impression in his writings that he had been fully co-opted into the imperial system.  An example occurs in Romans 13, in which he reinscribes colonial values by asserting that God and history are on the side of the Roman empire.  The sensible thing for Christians, Paul writes, is to live peaceably with the colonial administration and to work within its framework, rather than to revolt.  The almighty Roman emperor was hardly questioned in his epistles, except in teleological terms.[21]

I take issue with Sugirtharajah over Paul’s unquestioning attitude towards Roman imperialism as a sign of co-optation to the imperial system. Paul was just being consistent with Jesus who also did not directly criticize the Roman Empire.  Actually, Sugirtharajah acknowledges this too.  He says,

His (Jesus’) attack is reserved for locals who collude with the Romans and make effective use of the temple system to advance their cause.[22]

Sugirtharajah actually makes better sense when he says, “The prescription these documents offer to their readers is simply to endure in their belief in the return of Jesus, who will bring liberation to the tyrannized world.”[23]  Paul was obviously more concerned about a spiritual than a political liberation.  And for him, that spiritual liberation was already a present reality in the ekklesia, the gathering together of those who have been called to communion in the one body of Christ, no matter what their ethnicity, social status, or gender was.  It was not within Paul’s purview to advocate for a dissolution of the  factors that differentiated people in a highly-differentiated world.  What mattered for him was that by “living in Christ”, they were able to transcend these within their communities and give witness to life in the hereafter already in the here and now.  

Paul seemed fully aware that Jesus himself was preoccupied, not with the abolition of differentiation but with the effort to find a new common ground for being a people of the covenant. Now the new common ground was no longer the Torah, but Christ. Paul practically equates the Law with Judaism. He seemed quite convinced that Jesus did not come to abolish Judaism but to fulfill it.[24] In just the same way, he does not abolish our differentiations in terms of ethnicity, social status and gender. But he challenges us to rise above them and seek that which fulfills them or binds them in unity: e.g love of God and love of neighbor as oneself. 

No wonder Christianity began as a hyphen to Judaism as well as to Hellenism: e.g., “Judaeo-Christian” and “Hellenistic-Christian”. Could this hyphenation also be extended to all other cultures?  The extended application of this racial hyphenation, such as with “Arab-Christian”, “Asian-Christian,” “African Christian”, etc., is perhaps easier to take for granted. But what about its application on religions?  “Hindu-Christian”, “Buddhist-Christian”, “Animist-Christian”, “Muslim-Christian”? Is it still possible to find grounds for unity in Christ in the context of religious differentiation?  An advocacy of this sort is bound to be labeled by dogmatists today as a form of “relativism”.[25]

Could we have missed the point somewhere?  Could we have misunderstood Christianity as just another addition to our already diversely differentiated religions? Is not Christianity rather founded on a genuine appreciation for differentiation, before we can work for unity at all? The differentiation of Jesus as a male, as a Jew, as a Galilean son of a carpenter, etc., is part of the very mystery itself of incarnation. It is a mystery which the Church has to learn to embrace at each time the faith is appropriated by peoples of new religious, cultural, economic and political worldviews. Gal 3:28 can easily be interpreted differently by colonialists.  It can be used conveniently to justify the religious, cultural, political and economic encroachments of western Christianity into the eastern hemisphere as a “manifest destiny” to work for a “Christian civilization”, or to build a “City of God”.  This sort of triumphalism, of thinking ones own worldview as superior to other cultures, of patronizing those who are deemed inferior, of forcing one’s civilization on the rest of the world as key to unity, is not a sound exegesis of Gal 3:28.

[1] See for instance Acts 13:13-52 (in the Synagogue at Antioch in Pisidia), 14:1-2 (in Iconium), 17:1ff (in Thessalonica), 17:10-15 (in Beroea), 17:16ff (in Athens), 18:1ff (in Corinth), 18:18ff (at Antioch in Syria), 19:1ff (in Ephesus).  

[2] See Acts 22:3ff. & 23:6ff.

[3] See Acts 22:28 &16:37-39.

[4] See Acts 2:11, 6:5, 13.

[5] See studies by Martin Hengel in Judaism and Hellenism, Studies in Their Encounter in Palestine During the Early Hellenistic Period, 1st English Ed., tr. John Bowden, Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1974.  See also Jews, Greeks, and Barbarians, Aspects of the Hellenization of Judaism in the Pre-Christian Period, 1st American ed., Philadelphia, Fortress Press, 1980, Between Jesus and Paul, Studies in the Earliest History of Christianity, London, SCM Press, 1983, and The ‘Hellenization’ of Judea in the First Century after Christ, London, SCM Press, 1989.

[6] See Martin Hengel, Judaism and Helenism.

[7] By then these writings were already circulating in the old Greek version known as the “Septuagint”.

[8] See Luke 7:5.

[9] See also Colossians 3:11.

[10] Matthew 15:11

[11] Mark 2:27

[12] 1 Corinthians 7:19

[13] Acts 13:42-46

[14] Acts 6:1

[15] Acts 6:5

[16] 1 Corinthians 11:20-21

[17] Galatians 2:3

[18] Galatians 3:29

[19] 1Maccabees 1:60-61

[20] Acts 22:28 &16:37-39

[21] R.S. Sugitharajah, Exploring Postcolonial Biblical Criticism, (History, Method, Practice), Wiley-Blackwell, Chichester,  2012, p. 20.

[22] Ibid.

[23] Ibid.

[24] Matthew 5:17

[25] Come to think of it, even Judaism originates from a form of Yahwism that had to learn to open itself to other ethnic cultural expressions often lumped together as “Elohistic”, i.e., that Yahweh and El Shaddai, El Olam,El Elim, El Bethel, El-Beersheba, etc., are one? That the ethnic tribal groups that used to worship their own deities could eventually evolve into “one Israelite nation” under the same but culturally differentiated Yahweh? That unity, however, was always in danger of falling apart, each time one or another component of the whole tended towards intolerance and cultural hegemony. See Norman Gottwald, The Tribes of Yahweh: A Sociology of the Religion of Liberated Israel, 1250-1050 B.C.E.. Maryknoll, NY: Orbis, 1979.


Pablo Virgilio S. David, bishop of the Diocese of Kalookan (Caloocan City, Philippines), after finishing his Licentiate and Doctorate at the KUL (Katholieke Universiteit Leuven) in Belgium, specialized in Intertestamental Literature, and a degree as élève titulaire at the École Biblique Archéologique Française de Jérusalem, David became a guest professor of Scriptural courses in several seminaries and schools of theology in the Philippines. He was ordained bishop in 2006, and became the chairman of the CBCP’s (Catholic Bishops’ Conference of the Philippines) ECBA (Episcopal Commission for the Biblical Apostolate) for three consecutive terms. In 2008, he served as one of the official delegates of the CBCP to the World Synod of Bishops on the Word of God, held in Rome.  He is currently a member of the CBAP (Catholic Biblical Association of the Philippines) and presently the Vice-President of the CBCP.

Address: Office of the Bishop, 2nd Floor, Diocesan Curia Office, San Roque Cathedral Compound, Mabini St. corner 10th Avenue, Caloocan City, Philippines.