Galatians 3:16 reads:
Now it is to Abraham that the promises were spoken—and to his seed. It does not say, ‘and to the seeds’ (καὶ τοῖς σπέρμασιν), as referring to many (ἐπὶ πολλῶν), but as referring to one (ἐφ᾿ ἑνός): ‘and to your seed’ (καὶ τῷ σπέρματί σου)—who is Christ.
This essay offers a fresh interpretation of Galatians 3:16, by paying close attention to features of the source text on which it is based: Genesis 17. The essay argues that Paul is carefully re-reading the text of Genesis 17 in a new, yet surprisingly coherent, fashion, interpreting it in light of the death of Christ. Paul is claiming that Christ, according to the Scriptures, is the ‘seed’ who alone bore the curse of the law for the sake of others—the exclusive ‘one’ who died on behalf of the ‘many’.
This interpretation is made in opposition to two broad lines of scholarly interpretation:
- The majority of interpreters argue, in various ways, that Paul is making a contrast here between the many physical descendants of Abraham—Israelites—and the single descendant of Abraham who is the only true heir to the promises—Christ. The problem with this interpretation is that Paul seems to using his source text in an arbitrary and/or linguistically naive manner.
- Another, minority line of interpretation understands the contrast between plurality and singularity not as a contrast between the collective Israel and the individual Christ, but rather as a contrast between two different collective possibilities for Abraham’s posterity. The first possibility is the plurality of ‘families’ (Jews and Gentiles) which would result if the people of God were demarcated by circumcision and Torah. The second possibility is the single, united family which will result if the people of God are demarcated by faith in Christ. There are a number of problems with this interpretation, including the untenable requirement that “Christ” must be understood as a corporate figure rather than an individual.
Our fresh interpretation of Galatians 3:16 is consistent with, and further undergirds, Paul’s understanding of the significance of Jesus’ death. Firstly Christ is individual who acts exclusively, by his death, to redeem others by taking on their sin and curse; and consequently Christ is the representative of a new people, standing in corporate solidarity with those whom he has redeemed. Christ’s exclusive role precedes his inclusive role; Christ’s substitution precedes believers’ participation.