dianoigo blog

Saturday 30 January 2021

The Church as Spiritual Israel (2): Abraham's Seed, Jerusalem Above, and the Israel of God in Galatians

Paul the Apostle was the first great Christian theologian. A Jew schooled in his ancestral traditions (Gal. 1:14; Phil. 3:5) and "the apostle to the Gentiles" (Rom. 11:13), his work played a crucial role in defining Christian identity in relation to its Jewish roots. Unsurprisingly, therefore, most of the key New Testament texts relevant to the question raised in the first part of this series—whether the Church can be thought of as "spiritual Israel"—occur in his letters. In this article, we begin our study of these texts with the Letter to the Galatians. This is generally regarded as the second earliest of Paul's letters and thus one of the earliest extant Christian texts.1 The letter seeks to combat an idea that certain "disturbers" were spreading in the Galatian churches (Gal. 1:7), according to which Gentile Christians needed to live according to the Jewish law (including circumcision) to gain the full status in the elect community of Israel, the seed of Abraham. Although Paul clearly presupposes the ethnic distinction between the "Jews"/"circumcised" and the "Gentiles"/"uncircumcised" (Gal. 2:7-8, 12-15), and describes himself and Cephas (Simon Peter) as "by nature Jews" (phusei Ioudaioi), he asserts that in Christ, "There is neither Jew nor Greek"(Gal. 3:28). 

The Seed of Abraham (Galatians 3:6-29)

Paul begins his main argument by asking the Galatians on what basis they had received the Spirit from God: on the basis of "works of the law," or faith (Gal. 3:2-5)? At this point Paul introduces Abraham into the argument, quoting Genesis 15:6 and inferring that "those who believe are the descendants of Abraham" (3:7 NRSV). He adduces Genesis 12:3 ("All the Gentiles shall be blessed in you") as direct evidence for the extension of the "blessing of Abraham" to the Gentiles (Gal. 3:8-9, 14). However, his claim is not merely that Gentile believers are blessed alongside Abraham's children or seed, but that they are blessed as Abraham's children or seed: "And if you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham’s offspring [sperma, literally "seed"], heirs according to the promise" (Gal. 3:29). This is a very bold assertion, since "seed of Abraham" is, in the Jewish Scriptures, a term synonymous with Israel's status as God's chosen people.2 We do not have space here to analyse the elaborate biblical argument by which Paul defends this claim, which is primarily Christological.3 However, we have in this chapter a clear spiritualisation of the term "seed of Abraham" to include all Gentile believers in Christ.4 Thus, while the term "Israel" does not occur, there does seem to be an implicit spiritualisation of the concept.

Running parallel to "seed of Abraham" is the notion that Christ-followers (Gentiles included) are "sons of God" (Gal. 3:26; 4:4-7).5 This term is not used frequently of humans in the Jewish Scriptures, but what is fascinating is that two passages where the term "sons" is used conspicuously of God's people—Isaiah 54 and Hosea 2—are quoted by Paul precisely in connection with the spiritualisation of "Israel."6

The Two Jerusalems (Galatians 4:21-31)

A second passage within Galatians that demands our attention is Paul's allegorical commentary on Sarah and Hagar (cf. Genesis 16, 21) in 4:21-31. This passage is deeply interesting for its approach to biblical interpretation, given that such allegorical readings would become a mainstay of patristic exegesis. However, our concern here is with the the further spiritualisation of "Abraham's sons" that occurs here. It is possible that Paul's opponents had used this passage allegorically to paint non-Torah observing Gentile Christians as children of Hagar the slave woman rather than of Sarah (and thus as second-class citizens in the divine economy).7 If so, Paul turns the argument on its head. In any case, he does assert that the story of Abraham's two sons is an allegory. One (Ishmael) was born of a slave woman, Hagar, "according to the flesh" (kata sarka), while the other (Isaac) was born of a free woman, Sarah, "through a promise." The flesh/promise contrast is not strictly antithetical, of course, since Isaac—though his birth required divine intervention—was a natural born son of Abraham and Sarah. Paul asserts that "These woman are two covenants" (4:24). Hagar corresponds to the covenant from Mount Sinai, and furthermore "corresponds to the present Jerusalem, for she is in slavery with her children" (4:25). By contrast, "the other woman [i.e. Sarah] corresponds to the Jerusalem above; she is free, and she is our mother." Paul continues,

28 Now you, my friends, are children of the promise, like Isaac. 29 But just as at that time the child who was born according to the flesh [Greek: kata sarka] persecuted the child who was born according to the Spirit [Greek: kata pneuma], so it is now also. 30 But what does the scripture say? “Drive out the slave and her child; for the child of the slave will not share the inheritance with the child of the free woman.” 31 So then, friends, we are children, not of the slave but of the free woman. 1 For freedom Christ has set us free. Stand firm, therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery. (Gal. 4:28-5:1, NRSV)

Paul's allegorical interpretation does not merely entail the two women as two covenants, but also as two Jerusalems. There is a combined temporal/spatial contrast between them: "the present Jerusalem" (a temporal term) is contrasted with "the Jerusalem above" (a spatial term).8 The point is that the first Jerusalem belongs merely to the "present evil age" (Gal. 1:4). The second Jerusalem is not called "the Jerusalem to come," because it already exists ("she is free and is our mother"); it is instead called "the Jerusalem above" to emphasise its transcendence. Commentators note that, in antiquity, to call a city one's mother was to describe oneself as a citizen of that city; thus Paul describes himself as a citizen of Jerusalem above (compare Phil. 3:20: "But our citizenship is in heaven").9 The allegory has thus progressed beyond "two covenants" to encompass two orders of things. The present Jerusalem, where the Temple still stood in Paul's lifetime, was the locus of the Sinaitic covenant, one of "slavery," while the new covenant of promise, of the Spirit, of freedom, had heaven itself as its locus.

The allegory is not limited to the two women, however, but extends to their respective children. Paul makes it clear that he and his predominantly Gentile addressees are the allegorical equivalent of Isaac: "children of promise," "[the son] according to the Spirit," "children of the freeborn woman," in contrast to another group that are the allegorical equivalent of Ishmael: "the son of the slave woman...according to the flesh," children of "the present Jerusalem." If the first group refers to those whose identity comes from the faith of Christ and not from Torah-observance, who are the second group? Their association with "the present Jerusalem" makes clear that they are Torah-observant Jews. But are they Paul's Jewish Christian opponents specifically, or (non-Christ-believing) Jews more generally? The decisive clue to their identity is given in v. 29, which indicates that the second group "now" persecutes the Church.10 While it is conceivable that Paul might have thought of the disturbance his Galatian charges faced from Torahizing Jewish Christians as "persecution," he never says as much. By contrast, the letter's two prior references to persecution of the Church are to Paul's own persecuting activity before he came to Christ (1:13, 23). Moreover, near the end of the letter Paul insinuates that the false teachers' motive in compelling Gentile believers to be circumcised is to avoid persecution "for the cross of Christ" (6:12; cf. 5:11). Thus, the children according to the flesh who now persecute the children according to the Spirit are Jewish adherents of the Mosaic covenant in general.11 This assertion runs parallel to that in 1 Thessalonians 2:14-16, which states that "the Jews" have persecuted the churches in Judaea.12

We have, then, in Galatians the idea that the Christian faithful—Gentiles included—are Abraham's seed "according to the Spirit" or "through the promise" in Christ, adopted children of God, and free citizens of the heavenly Jerusalem. This is a "spiritual Israel" concept in all but name. Not only that, but there is a foil standing in contrast to this group, Abraham's seed "according to the flesh," living in slavery and belonging only to "the present Jerusalem." Paul therefore not only moves to include Gentiles in his concept of the true Israel, but also demotes Jews who put their trust in Torah rather than Christ to a secondary status.

The Israel of God (Galatians 6:16)

There remains one more passage in Galatians to discuss: the only occurrence of the word "Israel" in the letter.
15 For neither circumcision nor uncircumcision is anything; but a new creation is everything! 16 As for those who will follow this rule—peace be upon them, and mercy, and upon the Israel of God. (Galatians 6:15-16 NRSV)
What Paul means by "the Israel of God" here has been a subject of intense debate among biblical scholars, and there are three main views.13 The most popular view is that "the Israel of God" refers to the Church.14 In this case the passage provides ample basis for viewing the Church as "spiritual Israel," with the qualifier of God meaning something similar to "according to the Spirit." The second view understands "the Israel of God" to refer to Jewish Christians. In this case, of God identifies a subset of Israel who belong to God, because they have believed in his Son. The third view identifies "the Israel of God" as ethnic Israel—in other words, "the Israel of God" is simply Israel in the ordinary use of the term.15 The qualifier of God then merely emphasises Israel's special elect status.
Arguments for the second and/or third meanings include the following: (i) the conjunction kai usually has a copulative meaning ("and") and only rarely has an explicative meaning ("even"). The statistically more likely reading "and upon the Israel of God" would thus suggest that "the Israel of God" is a different entity than "those who follow this rule" (i.e., those obedient to Paul's gospel). (ii) "Israel" consistently refers to the ethnic/national entity, throughout the Jewish Scriptures and the rest of the New Testament. (iii) A blessing upon Israel parallel to this one occurs in the Babylonian recension of the Shemoneh Esreh (the central prayer of the Jewish liturgy). (iv) The appeal to divine mercy, which is unparalleled in other Pauline benedictions, makes sense if "the Israel of God" is an entity currently under divine displeasure for disobedience. (v) This interpretation fits the wider Galatian context, which highlights that Christianity has a Jewish nucleus before ever broaching the issue of the Gentiles inclusion (Gal. 2:9-10).

These arguments are, however, not convincing. (i) The conjunction kai may have a copulative sense most frequently, but it can also have an explicative sense, and it is context rather than a general appeal to statistical frequency that must be decisive. Beale points out a close parallel to this text in Psalm 84:9(85:8) LXX:16
I will hear what the Lord God will speak with me,
because he will speak peace to his people
and to his devout
and to those who turn to him their heart. (NETS)
In this text, "his people," "his devout," and "those who turn to him their heart" are separated by the conjunction kai but are obviously three ways of describing the same group. Thus, "the Israel of God" may be an additional way that Paul wants to describe those who follow his rule.

Argument (ii) is also not persuasive, because we have seen striking cases earlier in the letter where Paul takes terminology normally reserved for ethnic Israel—"seed of Abraham" and citizenship of Jerusalem—and applies it to the Church, inclusive of uncircumcised Gentiles. It would be consistent with this earlier exceptional usage of terms for Paul to apply the term "Israel" to the Church inclusive of Gentiles here. (In subsequent installments in this series, we will look at other passages where Paul implies that the term "Israel" conveys more than ethnicity, such as 1 Corinthians 10:18 and Romans 9:6). Moreover, the exact term "Israel of God" never occurs in the Jewish Scriptures, which may signal that Paul means something different than what the term "Israel" ordinarily means. (iii) The Palestinian recension of the Shemoneh Esreh, which is regarded as earlier than the Babylonian, lacks the crucial word "mercy," which ruins the parallel with Galatians 6:16.17 (iv) The call for mercy on the Church would be unique in Paul's letters,18 but Paul's tone toward his addressees is also more severe than in any other letter. He believes the Galatians are "foolish[ly]" "deserting the one who called you" (1:6; 3:1), so a prayer for mercy is warranted. (v) The thrust of Paul's argument in Galatians has been that Gentiles who believe in Christ enjoy the same privileged status before God as Jewish believers. To make this point, he has included them among "the seed of Abraham," "the sons of God," and [citizens of] "the Jerusalem above." It would be very odd, therefore, at the conclusion of the letter for Paul to use the lofty term "Israel of God" to refer to a group that excludes his Gentile addressees.

One final point is that, elsewhere in Paul's letters, when the genitive theou ("of God") is attached to a noun referring to a group of people, it is always an ecclesiological term that explicitly or implicitly includes Gentile believers ("church of God," 1 Cor. 1:12, etc.; "elect of God," Rom. 8:33; "sons/heirs/children of God," Gal. 3:26, Rom. 8:14-21; "temple of God," 1 Cor. 3:16-17, 2 Cor. 6:16; "field/building of God," 1 Cor. 3:9). Thus, the theou attached to "Israel" in Galatians 6:16 implies that this too is an ecclesiological term inclusive of Gentile believers. All things considered, the arguments for the "Israel of God = Church" reading are decisive.


Already in one of his earliest letters, Paul lays the foundation for an ecclesiology that identifies the Church with "spiritual Israel." If the Church can legitimately be called "spiritual Israel," however, where does that leave the Jews, particularly non-Christian Jews? Paul's contrast between the Abraham's children kata sarka and Abraham's children kata pneuma seems to paint ethnic Israel in an unfavourable light, as related to Abraham merely by carnal descent and "enslaved" by a devotion to law-observance rather than to Christ. It might appear, therefore, from Galatians that Paul is proposing a doctrine of supersessionism (as that term was defined in the previous article). However, we must bear in mind that in Galatians Paul is reacting against a "Judaizing" heresy and defending the status of uncircumcised Gentile believers in Christ. It would suit his rhetorical purposes to emphasise the privileged status of the Church (inclusive of Gentiles) vis-à-vis Israel. If we want to gain a fuller, more nuanced picture of how the Church and ethnic Israel relate to God and to each other, we will need to look at Paul's other writings that have a less polemical purpose. Above all, this will take us to Romans 9-11. However, before we go there, the next article will look at some other passages in Paul's letters that suggest a "spiritual Israel" concept—namely, 1 Corinthians 10:18, Philippians 3:3, and Romans 2:28-29.

  • 1 "[T]he consensus view of Pauline chronology places 1 Thessalonians as Paul's first letter written in the late 40s and Galatians as the second written around 49 or 50" (Robert James Mason, "Galatians 3:28: An Aspect of Eschatological Asceticism in Paul," in David Lertis Matson & K.C. Richardson (eds.), One in Christ Jesus: Essays on Early Christianity and "All That Jazz," in Honor of S. Scott Bartchy [Eugene: Wipf & Stock, 2014], 234). This would make these two letters the earliest extant Christian texts unless, as some scholars believe, the Letter of James was written earlier.
  • 2 "Remember the wonderful things which he did, his miracles and the judgments of his mouth, O offspring [sperma] of Abraam, his slaves, sons of Iakob, his chosen" (Ps. 104[105]:6 LXX); "Are you not the Lord who utterly destroyed the inhabitants of this land from before your people Israel and gave it forever to the seed [sperma] of Abraham, your beloved?" (2 Chr. 20:7 LXX); "But you, Israel, my servant, Iakob, whom I have chosen, the offspring [sperma] of Abraam, whom I have loved... do not fear, for I am with you; do not wander off, for I am your God who has strengthened you, and I have helped you, and I have made you secure with my righteous right hand." (Isa. 41:8-10 LXX); cf. Ex. 3:15-16. Translations from the LXX herein are, unless otherwise indicated, taken from the New English Translation of the Septuagint.
  • 3 Paul asserts that the singular word "seed" referred to in the promises to Abraham (e.g., Gen. 12:7) is not a collective noun (as it appears to be) but is a literal singular noun referring to Christ personally. Those who become associated with "faith of Christ Jesus" in baptism (Gal. 3:22, 26-27) become heirs, sharers in the promise made to him (Gal. 3:29-4:7).
  • 4 Of course, Jews in Paul's day also had a proselytisation process by which Gentiles could enter the covenant and become part of Abraham's seed, and a similar process (including circumcision and Torah observance) seems to be what Paul's opponents had in mind. Thus, it is not the extension of "seed of Abraham" to include non-physical descendants that makes Pauline Christianity distinctive. It is the Christocentric rather than Torah-centric focus of the procedure, its relative ease (no physical pain required for males), and its eventual popularity such that the Church became predominantly Gentile.
  • 5 I am translating the Greek term literally, while recognising that it should be interpreted as gender-inclusive in contemporary application.
  • 6 Isaiah 54:1 (which, admittedly, does not use the term "sons of God") is quoted by Paul in Galatians 4:27 within the Sarah-Hagar allegory to be discussed below. Hosea 2:1 (1:10 LXX) foretells that the sons of Israel would be called "sons of a living God." This text is quoted by Paul in Romans 9:25-26, to be discussed in a subsequent article. The same passage (albeit without the "sons of the living God" part) is quoted in 1 Peter 2:10. Both writers appear to apply Hosea's oracle at least partly to Gentile believers. Other places where God's people Israel are referred to as God's son(s) include Psalm 28(29):1 LXX and Hosea 11:1, the latter of which is cited Christologically in Matthew 2:15.
  • 7 So Frank J. Matera, Galatians (Collegeville: Liturgical Press, 1992), 177.
  • 8 "What [Paul] has actually done, however, is to mingle the two forms, the temporal and the spatial, in such a way as to indicate that the Jerusalem that is to come has already arrived (note the twice-repeated 'is') in the form of a heavenly, spiritual Jerusalem" (Ronald Y. K. Fung, The Epistle to the Galatians [2nd edn; Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1988], 210).
  • 9 "Claiming a city as a mother is a declaration of citizenship, as Paul expresses more explicitly in Philippians: 'Our citizenship is in heaven' (Phil 3:20). This is the land that the spiritual descendants of Abraham will inherit (cf. Gal 5:21) in line with God's promise that he would provide them with territory" (David A. deSilva, The Letter to the Galatians [Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2018], 400).
  • 10 The verse also implies that Ishmael persecuted Isaac. This is not explicitly stated in Genesis, but the idea arose in later Jewish tradition that is here assumed by Paul.
  • 11 "L'apôtre fait-il allusion à une persécution des chrétiens par les légalistes (Sieffert, Zahn, Burton, Lagrange) ou par les juifs (Schlier, Oepke, etc)? Il faut peut-être préférer cette seconde interprétation" (Pierre Bonard, L'Épître de Saint Paul aux Galates [2nd edn; Neuchâtel: Delachaux & Niestlé, 1972], 99); "Paul regards certain Jewish-Christian parties as particularly hostile to himself (Gal 2:3-5) and might even have begun to regard their activity as persecution. However, the other four explicit references to persecution in Galatians point more directly toward non-Christian Jewish opposition to the Christian movement. Paul twice refers to his own former activity as persecuting the church while still 'in bondage' himself (Gal 1:13, 23). He also refers to the persecution that he alleges the rival teachers to be avoiding by promoting circumcision, which Paul could have hoped to avoid were he to do likewise, but does not (Gal 5:11). Such persecution is more likely to be coming from the moderately empowered non-Christian Jewish community, which had a certain authority over its own and used this authority to restrain deviance (see Acts 9:1-2; 2 Cor 11:24; 1 Thess 2:13-16). This persecution targets most directly the Jewish Christians who appear to go beyond the pale of Torah or speak against the central pillars of the Mosaic covenant, but makes itself felt among gentile Christians as well" (deSilva, Letter to the Galatians, 403).
  • 12 "For you, brothers and sisters, became imitators of the churches of God in Christ Jesus that are in Judea, for you suffered the same things from your own compatriots as they did from the Jews, who killed both the Lord Jesus and the prophets, and drove us out; they displease God and oppose everyone by hindering us from speaking to the Gentiles so that they may be saved" (NRSV). Incidentally, the anti-Jewish rhetoric of this passage is so strong that some scholars have proposed that it is a non-Pauline interpolation! See Markus Bockmuehl, "1 Thessalonians 2:14-16 and the Church in Jerusalem," Tyndale Bulletin, 52(1) (2001): 1-31. Frank D. Gilliard describes the comma used after "Jews" in most translations of v. 14 as anti-Semitic: note the difference between "the Jews, who killed" and "the Jews who killed." ("The Problem of the Antisemitic Comma between 1 Thessalonians 2.14 and 15," New Testament Studies, 35(4) [1989]: 481-502).
  • 13 For a description of these three interpretations, see S. Lewis Johnson, Jr., "Paul and ‘The Israel of God’: An Exegetical and Eschatological Case-Study," The Master’s Seminary Journal, 20(1) (2009): 44-47.
  • 14 "in Gal 6.16, Israel, qualified importantly as ‘the Israel of God’, usually is identified as the church as a whole, or as some portion thereof" (Susan Grove Eastman, "Israel and the Mercy of God: A Re-reading of Galatians 6.16 and Romans 9-11," New Testament Studies 56(3) [2010]: 367-95, here 369). For arguments in favour of the ecclesiological interpretation, see G. K. Beale, "Peace and Mercy upon the Israel of God: The Old Testament Background of Galatians 6,16b," Biblica 80(2) (1999): 204-223; Andreas J. Köstenberger, "The Identity of the ἸΣΡΑΗΛ ΤΟΥ ΘΕΟΥ (Israel of God) in Galatians 6:16," Faith and Mission 19(1) (2001): 1-16; Matera, Galatians; Richard H. Bell, The Irrevocable Call of God: An Inquiry into Paul’s Theology of Israel (Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, 2005); Christopher W. Cowan, "Context is everything: ‘The Israel of God’ in Galatians 6.16," Southern Baptist Journal of Theology, 14(3) (2010): 78-85; G. Walter Hansen, Abraham in Galatians: Epistolary and Rhetorical Contexts (London: Bloomsbury, 2015).
  • 15 For arguments in support of the second and/or third views (which have some overlap), see Peter Richardson, Israel in the Apostolic Church (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1969); Johnson, "Paul and 'The Israel of God'"; Michael Bachmann, Anti-Judaism in Galatians? Exegetical Studies on a Polemical Letter and on Paul’s Theology (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2009); Eastman, "Israel and the Mercy of God"; Andy Cheung, "Who is the ‘Israel’ of Romans 11:26?" in The Jews, Modern Israel and the New Supersessionism, ed. Calvin L. Smith (rev. ed.; Broadstairs: King's Divinity Press, 2013), 119-138; Lionel J. Windsor, Paul and the Vocation of Israel: How Paul's Jewish Identity Informs his Apostolic Ministry, with Special Reference to Romans (Berlin: de Gruyter, 2014).
  • 16 Beale, "Peace and Mercy upon the Israel of God," 209-210.
  • 17 So Beale, "Peace and Mercy upon the Israel of God," 207-208.
  • 18 The only other occurrences of the word eleos ("mercy") in the letters undisputedly attributed to Paul are in Romans 9:23, 11:30-31, and 15:9. In 9:23, those whom God has called, both Jews and Gentiles, are referred to as "the vessels of mercy." In 11:30-31, Paul relates how both Gentiles and Jews disobeyed in turn, "For God delivered all to disobedience, that he might have mercy on all." In 15:9, Paul describes Christ as a "minister of the circumcised" to the end "that the Gentiles might glorify God for his mercy."

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