Grace Theological Journal 4.1 (1983) 15-36

                 Copyright © 1983 by Grace Theological Seminary.  Cited with permission.



                           WEAKNESS LANGUAGE IN




                                                DAVID ALAN BLACK



The Apostle Paul can rightly be regarded as "the Theologian of

Weakness." Yet Paul's theology of weakness developed in a dynamic

fashion in response to the situations facing him, and his particular

formulations are consistently adapted and designed to meet particular

issues at hand. Nowhere is this more clearly seen than in those letters

in which the apostle finds himself forced to answer the criticisms of

his opponents regarding his own weakness (Galatians and 1 and

2 Corinthians). After an examination of Gal 4:9 and 13, the author

concludes that weakness language is Paul's way of making clear to his

readers in Galatia that the source of power for salvation and progress

in holiness is found, not in one's religious activities (4:9) nor in one's

own personal strengths (4:13), but in God himself.


                                               *                *                *

                                         INTRODUCTORY REMARKS


THE most unified and highly developed concept of "weakness" in

the NT is to be found in the writings of the Apostle Paul.1 It is

therefore all the more surprising that the Pauline weakness ter-

minology has received virtually no comprehensive study outside of

Romans and I and 2 Corinthians.2 In this article our purpose is not


                1The root a]sqen appears in the NT 83 times and in the Pauline Epistles 44 times,

or 53% of the total (Robert Morgenthaler, Statistik des neutestamentichen Wort-

schatzes [Zurich: Gotthelf, 1958] 79). The motif is most extensively developed in

Romans, 1 Corinthians, and 2 Corinthians, where the words appear 38 times, or 86%

of the total in Paul. The single largest complex of the termini is in 2 Corinthians 10-13,

where the words appear a total of 14 times; the second largest is in 1 Corinthians (15

times), and the third largest is in Roman (8 times). In other instances (1 Thessalonians,

Galatians, Philippians, I and 2 Timothy) the words occur only once or twice.

            2The interpretation of the Pauline use of a]sqe<neia and its cognates has centered

for the most part on "problem" passages such as I Corinthians 8. 2 Corinthians 10-13

and Romans 14. Among the more important studies of the meaning of a]sqe<neia in

specific contexts are those of Gerd Theissen, "Die Starken und Schwachen in Korinth,"


16                     GRACE THEOLOGICAL JOURNAL


 to discuss every occurrence of a]sqe<neia and its cognates, but to

examine two of the earliest, and in some ways the most unique,

occurrences of the word-group found in a fascinating passage in

Galatians (4:1-20). We hope thereby to make a helpful contribution

to one aspect of Pauline lexicography in particular and to Pauline

theology in general.




In the letter to the Galatians weakness language occurs only

twice but in two closely related places. The neuter plural adjective is

found in the formulistic phrase ta>  a]sqenh?  kai>  ptwxa>  stoixei?a ("the

weak and beggarly elements") in 4:9, while di ]  a]sqe<neian th?j  sarko<j

("on account of a weakness of the flesh"), a reference to the occasion

of Paul's Galatian visit, appears in 4:13. Since both of these refer-

ences are in highly polemical settings, it seems evident that each plays

a vital role in Paul's argument against the legalistic threat to the

Galatian churches. But because the terms are employed in two

different paragraphs with differing themes and perspectives, each

occurrence must be studied individually if we are to understand the

specific role the motif plays in the argument of the author in



A. Galatians 4:9


The first occurrence of a]sqenh<j is in the section which comprises

4:8-11, where Paul begins a lengthy appeal to the Galatians based on

his previous assertion that all Christians are sons and heirs of God

and therefore free from the law. Although it would be a mistake to

try to force logical cohesion all through this section-Galatians being

an emotional apologia pro vita sua-we can reconstruct with some

accuracy the apostle's train of thought in the broader context as

follows: (a) in 4:1-7 he first illustrates the freedom of the Christian

with an example from ordinary life concerning the legal status of a


EvT35 (1975) 155-72; Max Rauer, Die "Schwachen" in Korinlh und Rom (BibS[F]21;

Freiburg: Herder, 1923); Walter Schmithals, Der Romerbrief als hislorisches Problem

(Giitersloh: Mohn, 1975) 95-107; and Erhardt Giittgemanns, Der leidende Apostel und

sein Herr (FRLANT 90; Gottingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 1966) 142-70. The

most thorough and comprehensive investigations of the words in their wider meaning

are found in Ernst Kasemann, Die Legitimitat des Apostels: Eine Untersuchung zu II

Korinther 10-13 (Darmstadt: Wissenschaftliche Buchgesellschaft, 1956) 37-43; Eric

Fuchs, "La faibless, gloire de l'apostolat selon Paul (Etude sur 2 CO 10-13)," ETR 2

(1980) 231-53; and J. Cambier," Le critere paulinien de l'apostolat en 2 Co 12, 6s," Bib

43 (1962) 481-518. Special notes have been devoted to the word-group in various NT

commentaries, but on a limited scale, and nowhere are the weakness-termini in

Galatians given a unified treatment.



child; (b) in 4:8-11 he shows that the special observance of certain

portions of the Jewish sacred calendar is a return to the "elements"

from which the Galatians had been saved; and (c) in 4:12-20 Paul

makes a personal appeal to the Galatians, based on his former

relationship with them, to accept him and his message.

The uniquely Pauline expression ta>  a]sqenh?  kai>  ptwxa>  stoixei?a

in 4:9, which is to be understood in conjunction with the parallel

expression in 4:3, ta>  stoixei?a  tou?  ko<smou suggests a relationship of

some sort between the first two of these paragraphs, i.e., between

4:1-7 and 4:8-11. This relationship is probably best understood in

terms of Paul's concept of the status of Christians prior to the coming

of faith. In 4:1-11 his main concern is to contrast the former

condition of his readers with their new state after being converted.

Since Paul views the human condition apart from Christ as servitude

to "the elements of the world" (4:3), he is surprised to hear that the

Galatians are ready to sacrifice all the privileges of their new religion

by going back to their former state of slavery under these elements

(4:9). Formerly the Galatians, mostly pagans, had been under bondage

to heathenism, but have since "come to know God" (4:9). Do they

now wish to enslave themselves again, this time to Judaism and its


Paul argues against returning to the elements first of all with an

illustration' of guardianship (4: 1-7). The condition of man under the

law is inferior, writes the apostle, because man under law is like an

heir who has been placed under a guardian and has no freedom of

action. With this familiar custom the Galatians are to realize that, by

returning to their former condition they would be losing, not gaining,

and would again become nh<pioi,  dou<loi,  u[po>  e]pitro<pouj  kai> 

oi]kono<mouj (4:1, 2).  Next, Paul stresses that if the Gentile Galatians

adopt Jewish practices, they will be returning to slavery from the

glorious liberty enjoyed by the sons of God in Christ Jesus (cf. 3:26).

Therefore the apostle exhorts the Galatian Christians to leave behind

religious ritualism lest they again become enslaved and forfeit their

rights as heirs according to the promise (4:8-11).

In general, these verses are clear enough, but the passage is not

without its problems. The main difficulty is the word stoixei?a itself,

which in 4:9 the KJV represents by "elements" and the RSV by

"elemental spirits."3 What exactly were these "weak" stoixei?a to

which the Galatians were in bondage (4:3) and under whose power

they were in danger of returning (4:9)? A consultation of the lexicons

reveals that the word is capable of an extraordinary range of meanings


   3Cf. NEB, "spirits of the elements"; NASB, "elemental things"; NIV, "principles."

18                          GRACE THEOLOGICAL JOURNAL


and its usage in Paul is by no means settled.4 Of all the interpreta-

tions advanced in the exegesis of this verse,5 three possible meanings

come into play.

First, stoixei?a may be taken as referring to the law of Israel

exclusively. Though this view is consistent with Paul's teaching on the

Mosaic institution-that it enslaves men (3:23)--it is difficult to see

its application to the Gentiles6 who were never under the Mosaic

system in their pre-Christian state. Nor does this view explain the

additional phrase tou?  ko<smou (4:3) which implies a non-divine origin

of the stoixei?a, in contrast to the Jewish emphasis on the other-

worldly character of the commandments.

Second, the reference to the former bondage to the "elements"

may be a description of enslavement to personal spiritual beings

under whose power the Gentile Galatians had been held prior to their

conversion.7 The word stoixei?a may come to mean "angels" or


4See esp. BAGD 768-69.   Stoixei?a  is the neuter plural forth of the adjective

stoixei?a, which rneans "standing in a row," "an elernent in a series." By metonymy,

however, the word came to refer to the ultimate parts of anything. It is used in classical

Greek to refer to the letters of the alphabet, from which came the meaning "rudiments,"

the "ABCs" of any subject. It can also refer to the component parts of physical bodies;

in particular it was the Stoic term for the four elements: earth, water, air, and fire. In

Christian writers from the middle of the second century A.D. the term is used in an

astronomical sense to mean the heavenly bodies. In Hellenism the word came to

include not only the physical elements but the spirits believed to be behind them, the

"cosmic beings." These personified stoixei?a came to be understood as the lords of the

world, the final and most important principles of life, and as such were considered

worthy of man's worship.

The precise meaning of stoixei?a  in Paul is still a matter of debate, and the

question must be left open until more evidence comes to light. For a detailed survey of

the interpretations of the terrn in the pre-Christian, Christian, patristic and modern

eras, see C. J. Kurapati, Spiritual Bondage and Christian Freedom according to Paul:

An Exegetical and Theological Exposition of the Epistle to the Galatians (Unpublished

doctoral dissertation, Princeton Theological Seminary, 1976); cf. A. J. Bandstra, The

Law and the Elements of the World. An Exegetical Study in Aspects of Paul’s

Teaching (Kampen: Kok, 1964) 5-30; G. Delling, "stoixe<w, ktl,"  TWNT 7 (1964)

670-82. On the meaning of stoixei?a  in Paul see esp. Bandstra, The Law and the

Elements, 57-68; Delling, " stoixe<w" 683-86; F. Mussner, Der Galaterbrief

(HTKNT; Freiburg: Herder, 1974) 293-303; E. Burton, The Epistle to the Galatians

(ICC; Edinburgh: T. & T. Clark, 1950) 510-18.

5 In the commentaries the term is usually discussed under 4:3. However, by

common consent the meaning of stoixei?a is identical in both Gal 4:3 and 9, even

though in the latter verse the expression tou?  ko<smou is absent.

6The context indicates that Paul wrote this section with the Gentile Galatians

especially in mind: (a) they were obviously idol worshippers (4:8), and (b) they had

become Christians directly and not through Judaism as proselytes (3:1-6); cf. Burton,

Galatians, 215.

7 So J. M. Boice (Galatians, in Vol. 10 of The Expositors Bible Commentary

 [Romans-Galatians] [Grand Rapids: Zondervan 1976] 472) and many other com-

mentators. The law and the stoixei?a  are so intimately related that some scholars see



"spirits," and if this is Paul's meaning here, he will be referring to

demonic bondage which is the ultimate contrast to freedom in Christ.

The advantage of this view is that it agrees with the reference to the

false gods (or demons) in 4:8 which the Galatians, as pagans, no

doubt formerly worshipped. The disadvantage is that it is hard to see

how Paul could include himself,8 a Pharisee, among those who had

been in bondage to weak and beggarly astral spirits who control the

universe. Furthermore, this interpretation relies on literature some-

what late for the period in which Paul wrote his letters.9

Third, the word stoixei?a may be taken as referring to the

elemental stages of religious experience which are common to all

men. According to this view, the expression "the elements of the

world" indicates rudimentary teaching regarding rules, regulations,

laws and religious ordinances by means of which both Jews and

Gentiles, each in their own way, tried to earn their salvation.10 This

meaning of stoixei?a, or one closely related to it, is possibly involved

also in Col 2:8 and 20.

Support for this latter viewpoint is, in our opinion, stronger than

for the two former interpretations. Paul seems to apply his remarks in

this chapter equally to the Jewish and Gentile worlds. Only this view

allows for that fact. It is evident also that at least in one respect the

stoixei?a against which the apostle warns in Galatians involved

Mosaic-Pharisaic ordinances. When Gal 4:10 is considered as an

interpretation of 4:9,.this verse indicates that the stoixei?a can in a

general way be considered merely as rudimentary religious obser-

vances, void of any authentic intrinsic meaning or worth. Elementary

teachings regarding regulations. such as these were employed by both

Jews and Gentiles alike in their attempt to achieve redemption and

salvation.11 Jewish religion considered law-observance, as well as the


both Judaism and paganism among the personal spirits; cr. Bo Reicke ("The Law and

the World according to Paul," JBL 70 [1951] 259-76, esp. pp. 261-63) who identifies

 the "elements" with the good angels who ordained the law (cf. Gal. 3:19).

8Cf. 4:3: "So also when we were children, we were enslaved under ta>  stoixei?a tou?


9Cf. Delling, "stoixe<w, ktl," 682-83, and Bandstra, The Law and the Elements,

43-46 and 58. The meaning "spiritual power" for stoixei<on is not attested before

he Testamentum Salomonis dated to the 4th century A.D.

10 So, e.g., William Hendriksen, Exposition of Galatians (NTC; Grand. Rapids:

Baker, 1968) 157. Burton (Galatians, 518) defines stoixei?a as "the rudimentary

religious teaching possessed by the race.

11The observance of "days, months, seasons and years" (4:10) implies cultic

activities known to both Judaism and paganism and which are probably to be regarded

as typical religious behavior; so Hans Dieter Betz, A Commentary on Paul's Letter to the

Churches in Galatia (Hermeneia; Philadelphia: Fortress, 1979) 217. For the view that

these activities are sacred Jewish seasons only, cr. John Eadie, A Commentary on 

20                    GRACE THEOLOGICAL JOURNAL


keeping of the multitudinous rules added by religious leaders to those

previously given at Sinai, as the way whereby salvation could be

attained. The worshippers of pagan deities, on the other hand, sought

to achieve salvation by their own rituals and in accordance with their

own unregenerate nature, the sa<rc.12 But both Jews and Gentiles in

their pre-Christian state are in bondage to ordinances and regulations.

Thus for the Gentile Christians, under the influence of the false

teachers, to turn again13 to the stoixei?a is in Paul's mind simply an

exchange of one form of bondage (to heathenism) for another (to


In the question in 4:9 begun by pw?j--"How is it possible that

you are returning again to the weak and beggarly stoixei?a?"--Paul

expresses his utter shock to learn that men who had been delivered

from the enslaving teachings of paganism now wish to become

enslaved allover again, this time by Jewish regulations. That they

could consider a return to such bondage is especially incompre-

hensible in view of the fact that they had actually come to know God

in a personal, genuine way.14 Although the Galatians had not yet

gone as far as the Judaizers had wanted them to go-they have not

been circumcised (5:2)--Paul fears his labor in evangelizing them will

eventually be wasted (4:11). Their course of action is to the mission-

ary Paul as inexcusable as it is inexplicable, and his astonishment

forces him to take up once again, though now with new intensity, his

discussion of the deadly character of legalism.15


the Greek Text of the Epistle of Paul to the Galatians (reprint, Grand Rapids: Baker,

1979) 315-17; Hendriksen, Galatians, 165-66.

12According to Bandstra (The Law and the Elements, 61-71), the two most

important basic forces in the stoixei?a are the law and the flesh. Therefore the yielding

of the Galatians to the observance of feast days is at the same time an act of

submission to the flesh; the observance itself is but evidence of their enslavement to the


13Pa<lin does not mean "back" (retro) but "again" (iterum), though the notion

of "going back" to the elements is clearly implied in the prepositional prefix of


14The participle is gno<ntej (4:9), not ei]do<tej; (cf. 4:8). On this distinction see

Donald W. Burdick, "Oi#da and Ginw<skw in the Pauline Epistles," in New Dimensions

in New Testament Study, eds. Richard N. Longenecker and Merrill C. Tenney (Grand

Rapids: Zondervan, 1974) 344-56, esp. pp. 351-52.

15One must, however, distinguish between Paul's evaluation of the situation and

what the Galatians' point of view was. In Paul's mind the Galatians were about to give

up Christianity and return to paganism (i.e., "slavery"). The Galatians, on the other

hand, desired only to switch from the Pauline form of Christianity to the Jewish form

which required circumcision and law-obedience. They never imagined that the ac-

ceptance of the Torah meant a return to paganism, that being u[po> no<mon was the same

as being u[po>  ta> stoixei?a  tou?  ko<smou; cf. Betz, Galatians, 217; Boice, Galatians, 476;

Herman N. Ridderbos, The Epistle of Paul to the Churches of Galatia (NICNT; Grand



Accordingly, we believe that the most consistent answer to the

problem of stoixei?a in 4:9 is found when the term is understood as

referring to elemental stages of religion whereby both Jew and

Gentile sought to gain salvation. According to the context, service

under the stoixei?a must be wide enough to embrace both the service

of the Jews under the law of Moses and that of the Gentiles under the

false gods. If this interpretation is correct, Paul virtually identifies the

religious celebrations of the Jews, who worship the true and living

God, with those of the heathen, who worship toi?j  su<sei mh>  ou#sin

qeoi?j (4:8). This is in perfect agreement with Paul's earlier teaching

that the purpose of the Mosaic law was not to deliver, but to hold

Jews captive in preparation for the deliverance which was to come

through the promised "seed" (3:19-22).

However, it, should be noted that Paul's use of stoixei?a for the

common enslavement of both Jew and Gentile does not involve an

identification in every respect. The Jew still sought to worship the

true God, while the Gentile seisidaimoni<a involved objects of wor-

ship which "by their very nature" (fu<sei) could not be considered

"gods" in any sense (4:8). Still, both situations are equal in the single

point that they both involve a bondage, in contrast to the glorious

liberty and freedom enjoyed by the "sons of God" (3:26-4:7).16  In this

sense, Jewish law is simply one particular manifestation of that which

inevitably enslaves all men in a helpless condition which only faith in

the promised Messiah can remedy (4:3-5). Thus, while there is not

identity, there is such a similarity between the heathen cultus and the

Mosaic ritual that both may be described by the same epithet, ta>

stoixei?a  tou?  ko<smou.

This brings us to the problem of the specific meaning of a]sqenh?

in 4:9. If our interpretation of the stoixei?a which bring enslavement

is correct, then the addition of the adjectival modifiers a]sqenh?  kai>

ptwxa< will be Paul's way of emphasizing the total powerlessness of

the law and its observance to gain the favor of God. This is an

important facet of the apostle's overall argument in Galatians, fighting

as he must against an overevaluation of the law by which obedience

to its commandments becomes a way of salvation. To the preachers

of Judaism, Paul's gospel was in this respect woefully deficient and


Rapids: Eerdmans, 1953) 161. Therefore Paul is anxious to show the Galatians that the

opponents are actually enemies of the gospel who seek to destroy the church (1:6-9).

He who chooses to follow their way not only falls back into the servitude of the

elements, but is obligated to do the impossible: keep the whole law (5:3).

16 On the significance of the motif of sonship in Galatians, see the excellent

monograph by Brendan Byrne, "Sons of God"-" Seed of Abraham" (An Bib 83; Rome:

Biblical Institute, 1979) 141-90.

22                    GRACE THEOLOGICAL JOURNAL


therefore merely a@nqrwpon (1: 11), for it needed to be "cor-

rected" by the observance of special days, months, seasons and years

(4: 10), and especially by the observance of the markedly Jewish rite of

circumcision (5:2-3, 6, 11; 6: 12). Incredibly, the Galatians were on the

verge of adopting the entire cultic-ritualistic system of Judaism as a

means of completing what had begun only "imperfectly" under the

tutelage of Paul.

Since the Galatians do not regard their course as a dangerous

one, Paul must try to convince them that their present drift toward

legalism is in reality a return to slavery. Contrary to the claims of the

Judaizers, the stoixei?a are ineffective for giving life, for they are

a]sqenh? and lack the inherent power to accomplish salvation. The

Mosaic law, as a member or component part (stoixei<on) of the

stoixei?a  tou?  ko<smou, requires what God demands, but is powerless

to accomplish anything ultimately positive. The law provokes sin and

transgression (Rom 5:20), condemns sin (Rom 4:15; Gal 3:10), and

serves as a paidagwgo<j;17 (Gal 3:23-25), but it also is the power of sin

(1 Cor 15:56) and the occasion for sin (Rom 7:8, 11) and inevitably

leads to death. Thus, in Paul's mind the "weak" law is in one aspect

definitely a force to be reckoned with as it operates in the sphere of

the flesh and ultimately issues in sin and death. The opponents, and

now the Galatians, understood the elements as life-bringing forces,

but Paul knows that they are really "weak and beggarly," completely

ineffectual to do what the law-preachers have promised.

Because the law involves religious bondage, it is not surprising to

find Paul's warnings against it in this passage and indeed throughout

the entire letter (cf. 1:9, 2:4-5, 15-21; 3:1-5; 5:1-4; 6:7-8, 12-13).

Inherent in the Christian life is the potential danger of a man once

again seeking to live according to the law and flesh. But this course of

life brings men into bondage, "be it the bondage of the immature

heir, the Jew, or that of the slave, the Gentile,”18 or, we might add,

that of the misdirected Christian. Therefore, since any observance of

Jewish ritual practices by Gentile converts amounts to nothing less

than a return to bondage to the stoixei?a  tou?  ko<mou, Paul must go


17The term paidagwgo<j; stresses the positive, but purely preparatory aspect of the

law's function. Because the Judaizers attempted to extend that function beyond the

time of Christ's coming, Paul must stress its provisional status. If J. W. MacGorman is

correct, the English rendering of paidagwgo<j; should emphasize the custodial (i.e.

"custodian," "guardian") rather than the educative (i.e. "schoolmaster," "tutor')

function of the law in Gal 3:24-25. See his article, "The Law as Paidagogos: A Study

in Pauline Analogy," in New Testament Studies. Essays in Honor of Ray Summers,

eds. Huber L. Drumright and Curtis Vaughan (Waco, Texas: Markham, 1975) 99-111,

esp. p. 110.

18Bandstra, The Law and the Elements, 65.



to great lengths to convince the Galatians that these ritualistic celebra-

tions are valid only for those who are still controlled by the old aeon.

With regard to the salvation and sanctification of Christians, the

elements are both a]sqenh? and ptwxa<, and indeed are a stumbling

block to the Christian life.

 Paul's view that the law in its weakness works spiritual death

finds its main parallel in his acknowledgment that in the death and

resurrection of Christ the law and the stoixei?a have been conquered.

This fact is not insignificant in our quest to understand Paul's

weakness language in Galatians, nor is it without parallel in the

apostle's other writings: "God did what the law, weakened as it was

by the flesh [e]n  &$  h]sqe<nei  dia>  th?j  sarko<j], could not do; sending his

own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh and for sin, he condemned sin

in the flesh" (Rom 8:3). Paul rejects the works of the law because

God has rejected in the person and work of Christ a life dedicated to

nomistic service. The condition of man under law has now in Christ

been superseded by a new set of conditions, namely, faith in Christ

and his confession before men. God's people are therefore marked by

faith, as indeed Abraham was (3:6-9), not by the works of the law.19

Thus Paul insists that legalism is a betrayal of the whole gospel (5:2-

for righteousness before God is a result only of faith and is a free

gift which cannot be merited by a man (5:5). Nothing therefore is able

(sqe<noj) to earn salvation or sanctification-neither circumcision nor

uncircumcision (5:6).

Having condemned such behavior, the apostle adds that life in

Christ involves a different kind of bondage, which he defines ex-

plicitly in 5:13-14 as one's love of his neighbor. With six Greek words

he reduces all of the statutes of the Jewish law into a single one:

a]gaph<seij  to>n  plhsi<on  sou  w[j  seauto<n "you shall love your

neighbor as [you love] yourself" (5:14). His purpose of course' is to

show that in the single commandment to love of Lev 19:18 are

summarized all the requirements of the Christian faith.20 Here Paul

can speak favorably of the law, for when Christians love and serve

go others, the law is fulfilled. This fact, however, in no way weakens

Paul's argument against law and in defense of a' gospel of pure grace.

The law as a system of rules and regulations has no place in the life of

the a Christian, for it cannot effectuate its own fulfillment, but the

the essential ends of the law can and will be met through those who live

is in and are led by the Spirit (5:16-18). This life in the Spirit (pneu<mati)


19Cf. in this connection Joseph B. Tyson, "'Works of Law' in Galatians," JBL 92

(1973) 430-31. See also Markus Barth's discussion of Paul's use of pi<stij in Galatians, in

"The Kerygma of Galatians," Int 21 (1967) 143-45.

20Victor Paul Furnish (The Love Command in the New Testament [New York:

Abingdon, 1972] 96-97) offers an excellent discussion of this subject.

24                                     GRACE THEOLOGICAL JOURNAL


is characterized neither by legalism nor by license, but by a life of

faith and love which Paul discusses in concrete terms in the following

verses (5:19-26).21

This being the case, there is a certain presumption in viewing the

stoixei?a (and the law) not as something positively evil per se, but as

elements which are a]sqenh? and ineffectual, and therefore open to the

dangerous possibility of enslaving men who were redeemed by Christ

and through him have begun a new existence in the Spirit. Or to use

Paul's terms, while the stoixei?a are not inherently harmful, they are

"weak," for they are incompetent to bring salvation and life, and

"beggarly," for they have no wealth whereby they can provide an

inheritance. Since they are operative in the ko<smoj, within the sphere

of human activity, and among a fallen mankind, they are unable to

set men free as Christ has done by redeeming them through his death

on a tree (3:13).

The accent in Gal 4:3 and 9 would therefore appear to lie on the

modifying expressions tou?  ko<smou  and a]sqenh?  kai>  ptwxa<.  The latter

expression can be considered as a substitute for the former, for the

words "weak and beggarly" in 4:9 describe what in essence is meant

by the genitive "of the world" in 4:3.22 The noun ko<smoj here does

not mean "the 'Universe" or "the material world," but "the world of

mankind," the present eschatological age, and hence the stoixei?a are

those elements which enslave the members of the old aeon to which

the Galatians are tempted to return. The adjectives a]sqenh? and

ptwxa< are therefore only too appropriate to describe the impotence

of the stoixei?a of the ko<smoj to provide salvation for man and

deliverance from his present bondage. The ascription a]sqenh? does

not deny the harmful potential of the enslaving powers, but emphasizes

their identity with the sphere of human activity which belongs to the

old aeon and which is passing away, and signifies the total powerless-

ness of commandments with reference to spiritual deliverance. Thus

the stoixei?a are a]sqenh? "parce qu'ils ne peuvent pas operer ce qu'ils

pretendent, conduire les hommes au salut.”23 They are also ptwxa<, a

term which in classical Greek referred to basic economic deprivation

but came to mean, metaphorically, deprivation of power and dignity.24

Its meaning here is that the religious elements of the old age are not


21Cf. Wolfgang Schrage, Die konkreten Einzelgebote in der paulinischen

Paranese (Giitersloh: Mohn, 1961) 231-33.

22S0 Reicke, "The Law and the World," 264-65; cf. Delling, "stoixe<w, ktl," 685:

"Man kann fragen ob a]sqenh? kai>  ptwxa< nicht den Genitiv tou?  ko<mou interpretieren;

jedenfalls ist mit beiden negativen Wendungen alle vorchristliche Religion zusam-

menfassend abgeurteilt."

23M. J. Lagrange, Saint Paul: Epitre aux Galates (EB; Paris: Lecoffre, 1950) 107.

24Emst Bammel, "ptwxo<j, ktl," TWNT 6 (1959) 885-915, esp. p.909.



only powerless but also resourceless to supply what is needed to

extricate man from his bondage to sin and the flesh, in contrast to

"the unsearchable riches of Christ" (Heb 7:8).

Therefore, while it is not necessary to restrict the meaning of

a]sqenh? too rigidly,25 in view of the emphasis in this section upon the

inadequacy of the law, it would seem that the apostle is thinking

especially of the impotence of legal enactments to secure salvation or

progress in holiness, regardless of whatever beneficial side-effects

such "fundamental religious elements" might have. These stoixei?a,

common to both pagan and Jewish religion, not only cannot procure

spiritual blessings, but ultimately bring men into bondage to their

own impulse to be made perfect in the flesh (3:3) and are thus to be

avoided by the Christian at all costs.


B. Galatians 4:13


The second occurrence of weakness-termini in Galatians is found

at the beginning of the highly enigmatic paragraph (4:12-20) devoted

to a discussion of the Galatians' former attachment to Paul and

why they should now follow his earnest counsel to reject the gospel of

the false teachers. Considerations of space preclude a disproportionate

discussion of the critical problem concerning the chronology of

Galatians raised by to>  pro<teron in v 13. Within the scope of this

study we must accept the possibility that the words can mean "on the

former of two occasions," though in our view 4:13 does not demand

two visits of Paul to Galatia (according to Koine usage to>  pro<teron

can just as easily be rendered "originally," or "previously").26 Certainly

the question of whether 4:13 does or does not support the south-

Galatian hypothesis cannot be resolved here; regardless of one's

position on that issue, however, these verses clearly refer to Paul's

preaching on the occasion of the founding of the Galatic churches.

There are few NT phrases which can boast of such a variety of

interpretations as di ]  a]sqe<neian  th?j  sarko<j; in Gal 4:13. Paul makes

it clear that the Galatians know what his "weakness" actually is, but

his readers today have not had their eyewitness advantage, and they

are left to infer from the context the identity of Paul's a]sqe<neia. This

means that in order to gain an accurate knowledge of the content of


25E.g., Boice (Galatians, 473) offers the interesting suggestion that there is a subtle

link between the ideas of redemption and adoption in 4:5 and the phrase "the weak and

beggarly elements." H. Schlier (Der Brief an die Galater [KEK; 14th ed.; Gottingen:

Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 1971] 203) correctly emphasizes the powerlessness of the

elements "gegenuber der Macht und dem Leben Gottes und seiner 'Sohne', und erweist

sich ihre Verehrung als die angestrengte und furchtsame Leistung an uberwundene und

verfallende Gatter." Many other parallels and points of contrast could be noted.

 26See BAGD 722.

GRACE THEOLOGICAL JOURNAL                     26


the term a]sqe<neia in 4:13, it is once again necessary to study the

word in the context of Paul's wider argument in this portion of the


At this juncture in Galatians 4 Paul has turned from formal

argument to an appeal to the former bond of unity which existed

between him and the Galatian churches. The intensely personal

quality of this appeal is seen throughout, but especially in v 19 where

the apostle compares himself to a mother enduring birth-pangs and

the Galatians to a human embryo in the process of being formed. The

metaphors need not be pressed too far; indeed, the whole image

seems to break down because the formation of a child in the womb

can hardly be said to follow labor pains. This is, however, no reason

to regard this verse as a later interpolation:27 Paul simply wants to

emphasize by the use of word-pictures his great pastoral concern and

love for his converts.

This intensely personal and highly enigmatic entreaty poses an

interesting question of interpretation: Why does the apostle suddenly

bring up, in the middle of his discussion of the Christian's freedom

from the law, the subject of the particular circumstances of the

founding of the Galatian churches, including his a]sqe<neia?  The

Galatians were already quite aware of the situation (cf. oi@date,  4:13).

How can this intimate account be an argument against those who

were wooing the Galatians into legalism?

The obscurity of this passage perhaps cannot be explained in a

purely logical way; it is possible that Paul was so overwhelmed by

emotion at this point in writing that he simply lost his train of

thought. For this reason many scholars are of the opinion that Paul

has ceased argumentation and has turned to emotional begging and

appealing.28 But psychological interpretations of the passage, while

properly pointing to the intensity and passion of Paul's appeal, fail to

recognize the rhetorical character of these verses.


27Cf. J. C. O'Neill (The Recovery of Paul’s Letter to the Galatians [London: S.P.C.K.,

1972] 61-62) who ascribes the words me<xrij ou$  morfwq^?  Xristo>j  e]n  u[mi?n  to

 a glossator.

28According to Lagrange (Galales, 110-11), Paul's appeal is "moins un raisson-

nement qu'un desir passionne d'union par une bonne volonte reciproque. Paul a fait les

premiers pas: que les Galates en fassant autant!" The same idea is expressed by A.

Oepke, Der Brief des Paulus an die Galater (ThHK 9; 2nd ed.; Berlin: Evangelische

Verlagsanstalt, 1957) 140-41; Burton, Galatians, 235; Mussner, Galaterbrief, 304-5.

Robertson writes: "It is just in writers of the greatest mental activity and vehemence of

spirit that we meet most instances of anacoluthon. Hence a man with the passion of

"Paul naturally breaks away from formal rules in the structure of the sentence when he

is greatly stirred, as in Gal. and 2 Cor." A. T. Robertson, A Grammar of the Greek

New Testament in the Light of Historical Research (Nashville: Broadman, 1934) 435.



Betz29 has demonstrated the remarkable similarity between this

section and the standard Hellenistic literary topos of "friendship"

peri>  fili<aj, which calls for a change between heavy and light

sections and an emotional appeal to offset mere abstract argumenta-

tion. Both the Galatians and Paul would have been acquainted with

this theme, and if the similarity here is more than coincidental, Paul

will be arguing that his relationship with the Galatians (his "true

friendship") now, as then, requires the reciprocity of his converts. The

force of the argument lies in the fact that when Paul needed help the

most, the Galatians did not hesitate to provide without reservation

the assistance required to restore him. And though they could have

found cause to despise him, they had proven their friendship by

accepting Paul as an a@ggelon  qeou?,  w[j  Xristo>n  ]Ihsou?n (v 14). But

they had not only received Paul with open hearts-they had also

accepted the message of life which accompanied him to Galatia, thus

creating between them a bond of Christian fili<a. It is this "friend-

ship" that forms the basis of Paul's present appeal to the Galatians.

This means that the present passage in Galatians "is neither

inconsistent nor lacking argumentative force,”30 but serves to ac-

centuate the paradox that these same ones who had once so en-

thusiastically received Paul now consider him as their enemy and

reject his gospel. The appeal of this section, then, is an argument for

the reestablishment of a good personal relationship which each party

had once enjoyed but which the Galatians' present inclination to live

by the law has soured.

Paul opens his appeal with the puzzling words gi<nesqe  w[j  e]gw<

o!ti  ka]gw>  w[j  u[mei?j "become as I, for I also as you" (4:12). The

expression is capable of a wide variety of interpretations. In view of

the preceding reference to law and the elements (4:1-11), the probable

meaning is that Paul is asking the Galatians to enter into the freedom

from law which he now enjoys, while at the same time reminding

them of his former identification with the Gentile Galatians in order

to win them for Christ (cf. 1 Cor 9:20-22). If this interpretation is

right, we can paraphrase the expression as follows: "Become as I am,

for I also became as you were."31 In other words, in seeking to win

them to Christ, the end of which was to make them like himself-free

from the stoixei?a--Paul had made himself like the Galatians by

disclaiming any special privilege as a Jew and by renouncing the


29 Galatians, 220-23.

30 Ibid., 221.

31Greek reconstruction: gi<nesqe  w[j  e]gw<  ei]mi,  o!ti  ka]gw>  e]geno<mhn  w[j u[mei?j  h#te

cf. Lagrange, Galates, 111. For an interesting parallel between Paul's use of a]sqe<neia in

Gal 4:13 and his reference to "the weak" in I Cor 9:22, see the present writer's

forthcoming article in Biblica: "A Note on 'the Weak' in I Cor, 9.22."

28                    GRACE THEOLOGICAL JOURNAL


Mosaic law. On that basis, he now appeals to the Galatians to rid

themselves of the no mists and become like him in regard to his

Christian liberty.

Paul's original reception by the Galatians is described in vv 13-

15. The brief statement in v 12, "you have done me no wrong" (ou]de<n

me  h]dikh<sate, which really belongs with these verses, is a litotes and

should be understood as expressing an affirmative idea: they had

treated him properly.32 Exactly how properly is recounted in what


In these verses there are six major statements, three concerning

Paul, and three in regard to the Galatians. Concerning himself, the

apostle first reminds his readers that he had preached the good

tidings among them, but that he did so on account of bodily infirmity

(or, notwithstanding it), and that his condition had subjected the

Galatians to the temptation to reject him and his message. Regarding

the Galatians, he affectionately recalls how they had resisted their33

impulse to condemn or loathe him on account of his infirmity, and

how they had received him with enthusiasm-so much so that they

would have parted with anything, even their own eyes, as an expres-

sion of the depth of their attachment to him. It is in this context-

where Paul states his desire that the Galatians might return to the

true gospel by recollecting what they had once gladly accepted from

him-that the apostle uses for the first time the noun a]sqe<neia (or

any of its cognates) to refer to himself.

There is some discussion as to the correct translation of the

preposition dia< in v 14. A number of scholars think di ]  a]sqe<neia

refers to an accompanying circumstance,34 while others construe the

expression causally, making the illness the occasion35 of Paul's

preaching in Galatia. Though the former meaning is not impossible,36


32It is imprecise to say, as Schlier does (Galater, 209), that the statement also

applies to the present situation. Although the aorist, as a tense, does not necessarily

refer to past time (cf. Charles R. Smith, "Errant Aorist Interpreters," GTJ 2 [1981]

207-209), the aorist indicative h]dikh<sate probably should be given a past signfication,

as should also the following series of verbs in the aorist indicative.

33 u[mw?n ("your temptation"), read by x* A B D* F G it (most) vg Ambrosiaster

appears to have better external attestation than the reading mou ("my temptation"),

supported by p46 C*vid Db,c K P Y Bzy ita. Chrysostom. The latter pronoun may have

replaced the former "in order to alleviate the difficulty of the expression to>n  peirasmo<n 

u[mw?n" Bruce M. Metzger, A Textual Commentary on the Greek New Testament

(London/New York: United Bible Societies, 1971) 596.

34E.g. Oepke, Galater, 105, "den begleitenden Umstand"; Ridderbos, Galatians,166;

Giittgemanns, Der leidende Apostel und sein Herr, 175.

35E.g., Eadie, Galatians, 321-22; Betz, Galatians, 224; Boice, Galatians, 478;

Schlier, Galater, 210; Mussner, Galaterbrief, 307.

36Lagrange (Galates, 112) overstates the case when he says that the expression

"ne peut avoir qu'un sens: 'a, cause d'une maladie de la chair'."



on the whole it seems most likely that the latter significance of old is

to be preferred here. The continuous or characteristic condition of the

preacher would, be expressed by dia< plus the genitive,37 not the

accusative; but in the Greek text the only reading that was trans-

mitted is a]sqe<neian. And while examples of dia< plus the accusative in

inexact usage can be cited (e.g., Rom 3:25; 8:20), the most natural

meaning of the word in terms of the context is plainly "because of.”

The preposition, then, signifies either that Paul was detained in

Galatia through which he had merely intended to pass, or else that he

was forced for his health's sake to visit Galatia which he otherwise

would not have visited.  In the latter case, even if the illness was the

occasion of Paul's visit to Galatia, the problem most probably

persisted for a period of time while he was there. But while it is best

to understand di ]  a]sqe<neian as the specific cause for Paul's preaching

in Galatia, the general cause or motivation for preaching lay grounded

in the appointment of God which Paul carried out in obedience as a

dou?loj of Christ (Gal1:10) and an oi]kono<moj of God (1Cor 4:1),

compelled by a deep sense of devotion to the Lord (2Cor 5:14-15)

and for his sake (2Cor 4:5,14). As the latter verse clearly indicates-

h[  ga>r  a]ga<ph  tou?  Xristou?  sune<xei  h[ma?j--Paul preached the gospel

In the first place dia>  Xristo<n, not di ]  a]sqe<neian.38

It is generally agreed today that a]sqe<neian refers to a physical

condition of the apostle, and not to an unimpressive appearance,

timidity, the emotional scars from persecution, sexual desires, human

frailty in general, or some other figurative meaning. However, a few

modern scholars still prefer the metaphorical meaning of the phrase

a]sqe<neian  th?j  sarko<j over the literal. For example, H. Binder, in his

article entitled "Die angebleche Krankheit des Paulus,”39  argues that

"seine astheneia, d.h, seine 'Schwachheit', bestand nur darin, dass er

teilhatte am menschlichen Wesen.”40  A purely physical Interpretation

of a]sqe<neia is excluded because "in der Sprache des Paulus bedeutet

astheneia nie 'Krankheit' sondern immer Schwachheit, Kraftlosig-

keit'."41 If this premise is true, it naturally follows that:


Hier wie dort vertritt Paulus den Gedanken der Armseligkeit, der

Bedurftigkeit, der, Scawache, der Kraft-und Hilflosigkeit, des zum

Scheitern Verurtelltsems-nicht der “leiblichen” Beschaffenhelt des


37Cf  2Cor 2:4 dia>  dakru<wn ("in tears"); Rom 4:11,  a]krobusti<aj ("in the

condition of circumcision”)

38Cf, Theodor Zahn, Der Brief des Paulus an die Galater (KNT; Leipzig: Deichert, 1905 215

39TZ 32 (1976) 1-13.

40 Ibid., 13.

41 Ibid., 4

30                     GRACE THEOLOGICAL JOURNAL


Menschen sondern-seiner Existenz in der "Fleischlichkeit", im

"Fleisch", in der Gottesferne.42


Although this interpretation is possible-especially in view of the

fact that Paul must have had an especially sturdy bodily constitution

to endure his travels and trials (cf. 2Cor 11:23-33)-the plausibility

of Binder's argument diminishes when one considers his major pre-

mise in greater detail. Binder expresses the "fact" that Paul never uses

a]sqe<neia or its cognates to refer to a physical condition, and con-

cludes from this that therefore Paul cannot have bodily infirmity in

mind in Gal 4: 13. But Binder's argument at this point is a pure petitio

principii: his conclusion is not surprising, since it was also his

premise! It is not sufficient merely to state that Paul never uses

a]sqe<neia in a physical sense; in light of Pauline usage elsewhere this

premise is tenuous indeed. Certainly if Paul did ever use the word to

describe the illness of others, he could conceivably have employed it

to describe his own, and the force of Binder's argument would be

considerably weakened.

It is, in fact, manifest that Paul does on occasion employ the

word-family to refer to a purely corporeal condition. In the Pastorals

we learn that Trophimus remained in Miletus because of an in-

capacitating illness (2 Tim 4:20), and Timothy was urged to drink

wine for medicinal purposes because of his frequent ailments (1 Tim

5:23). Certainly Epaphroditus' distressing condition involved a physi-

cal sickness of some sort (Phil 2:26, 27).43  In each of these cases an

a]sqe<neia-word is employed. This euphemism usually implies in Greek

(and the Pauline letters are evidently no exception) poor health.44 In

Gal 4:13, the phrase a]sqe<neian th?j  sarko<j as well as the context of

the passage itself is clearly in keeping with this euphemistic usage,

meaning "bodily infirmity." It is not surprising that Paul employs this

expression for a physical condition, for bodily illness is an inherent

quality of the sa<rc,45  the old aeon, and the sphere of human activity

which is temporal and weak.


42Ibid., 7.

43That the nature of Epaphroditus' condition was physical and not

psychological is clear from the context: Only a grave physical condition can

account for (a) the Philippians' severe distress of mind, and (b) the expression

paraplh<sion  qana<t& ("at death's door") in 2:27.

44See BAGD 115. Binder's treatment of these passages, found only in a

footnote, is inadequate: "Epaphroditus war nicht krank geworden, sondem in eine

Situation geraten, der er nicht gewachsen war (Phil. 2, 26). Trophimus blieb nicht

krank in Milet zuruck, sondem in einer schwierigen, fast aussichtslosen Arbeit (2 Tim. 4, 20).

Vielleicht war auch Timotheus nicht krank, als Paulus an ihn I Tim. 5, 23 schrieb" ("Die

angebliche Krankheit des Paulus," 13n.).

45John A. T. Robinson, The Body (SBT 5; London: SCM Press, 1957) 20.

According to E. Schweizer ("sa<rc, ktl.” TWNT 7 [1964] 124) sa<rc in this context



Therefore, though it is not completely certain that the words

a]sqe<neian  th?j  sarko<j must be understood in a literal way as an

actual distressing physical condition, it is nevertheless the most

probable meaning in this context. This usage is entirely consistent

with that in the Pastorals and Philippians where the word-group

appears with the obvious meaning of sickness and harmonizes per-

fectly with the common meaning of a]sqe<neia in the Synoptic gospels.

We must however, register our agreement with one emphasis of

Binder’s interpretation, namely, that Paul was, generally speaking, a

healthy man. It is evident from both the epistles and the Acts that, in

spite of the constant attacks made upon him by Jews and Gentiles

alike and the many dangers he continually faced, the apostle remained

a surprisingly strong individual. This point is well taken, but it does

not exclude the possibi1ity of an occasional prepossessing physical

condition, as Binder maintains. We thus agree with the majority of

commentators46 that the statement di ]  a]sqe<neian  th?j  sarko<j should

be explained to mean that Paul was suffering from some sort of

Physical indisposition.

If we are certain that an unpleasant physical condition lay

behind Paul's initial visit to Galatia, we cannot be certain of its

precise nature. The difficulty of finding an answer lies primarily in the

poverty of source materials. The apostle is always reticent to recount

his own personal experiences, and when he does it is only briefly and

without exception in polemical or argumentative contexts which do

not lend themselves to precise forms of expression. That we know

little of the person of Paul is not surprising, for his letters, though

personal, are basically pastoral communications to congregations and

are intended for public reading in the context of the churches’

meetings. Therefore revelations about "Paul the Man” are largely

incidental and usually of ancillary Importance to the writer's overall


This means that we should not expect Paul to define his a]sqe<neia

for us in any specific terms. Paul is aware that the Galatians know

already what it is, and its mention might have detracted from his


should be understood in its physical sense; so also Bo Reicke, "Body and Soul in the

New Testament," ST (1965) 201.

 46Cf. H. Schlier, Grundziige einer paulinischen Theologie (Freiburg; Herder, 1978)

101: "korperliche Hinfalligkeit"; Oepke, Galater, 105: "leibliche Krankheit"; Zahn,

Galater, 215: "eine Krankheit des Leibes"; Betz, Galatians, 224: "illness of the flesh"

Eadie, Galatians, 323: "infirmity of the flesh"; .Hendriksen, Galatians, 171: “physical

 infirmity"; Robert Jewett, Paul’s Anthropological Terms. A Study of Their Use In

Conflict Settings (AGJU 10; Leiden: Brill, 1971) 154: "bodily frailty."

            47For a brief, but excellent discussion of the autobiographical Paul, see Victor

Paul Furnish, Theology and Ethics in Paul (Nashville: Abingdon, 1968) 10.

32                    GRACE THEOLOGICAL JOURNAL


main appeal that is based not so much on his condition but on the

Galatians' warm reception of him and his gospel.

In spite of these difficulties, research has fostered a wealth of

hypotheses and inferences concerning the precise nature of Paul's

a]sqe<neia  th?j  sarko<j,48 but neither Acts nor Galatians mentions it

specifically, and even the most careful examination of the text will

reveal no significant clues. The attempt to link Paul's illness to his

"thorn in the flesh" (sko<loy t^?  sarki<,  2Cor12:7) is common, but

despite the similarities in language and subject matter, it is not

necessary to find a reference to his sko<loy t^?  sarki< in this text. As Bring

notes, to introduce the idea of a chronic ailment here is to introduce a

Corinthian nuance which is foreign to the atmosphere of this letter .49

If one adopts the South Galatian hypothesis-that Paul is writing

to the churches in the province of Galatia-it can be argued that

Paul's a]sqe<neia  th?j  sarko<j was the result of what he suffered from

his enemies on the so-called first missionary journey (Acts 13-14). If

so, a]sqe<neia refers not to a particular sickness or disease, but to the

physical abuse and resultant weakened physical condition which

accrued to Paul in the form of maltreatment at Antioch (Acts 13:50,

along with Barnabas) and of stoning at Lystra (Acts 14: 19): the latter

incident being so severe that Paul was left for dead (cf. 2 Tim 3:11).50

The advantage of this view is that it accords with the Lucan account

of Paul's travels in Acts, but it carries conclusive weight only with

those already convinced of the South Galatian theory and the early

dating of the letter.

            The desire of the Galatians to pluck out (e)coru<cantej) their

eyes-which they would have done had not the restriction in ei]

dunato<n intervened--is evidence to some that Paul's a]sqe<neia was a

form of ophthalmic disorder (4:15). If the gift could have relieved

Paul's poor vision, so the argument goes, the Galatians would have

parted with their own eyes quite willingly. However, although some

type of eye disorder may have been involved in Paul's infirmity, it is

not necessarily the meaning of this verse. The expression "to pluck

out the eyes" is a common one both in the OT as well as in a great


48E.g., migraine headaches, epilepsy, malaria, rheumatism, chronic

ophthalmia, etc. For extensive listings of scholarly opinion on this issue, see esp.

K. L. Schmidt, kolafi<zw," TWNT 3 (1938) 818-21; BAGD 441-42; J. B.

Lightfoot, Saint Paul's Epistle to the Galatians (London: Macmillan & Co., 1892)

186-91; Eadie, Galatians,


49"Es scheint sich dort aber eher urn ein chronisches Leiden und hier um einen

akuten Krankheitsfall zu handeln." R. Bring, Der Brief des Paulus an die Galater

(Berlin: Lutherisches Verlagshaus, 1968) 185. But even sko<loy in 2Cor 12:7 may

not refer to a chronic physical problem.

50So, e.g., Ridderbos, Galatians, 30, 166-67.



variety of secular authors,51 and is most likely used here proverbially

to emphasize the willingness of the Galatians to sacrifice their all for

Paul: "Cela peut vouloir dire simplement qu'ils etaient prets a sacrifier

pour lui les biens les plus precieux.52 Thus tou>j  o]fqalmou>j is here a

synonym for that which is most precious to a man. As to the

question, however, whether or not Paul was suffering from an eye

ailment, we can draw no certain conclusions of any kind from Gal


On the basis of 4: 14-"the temptation to you in my flesh you did

not despise nor loathe (ou)de>  e]ceptu<sate54)--others have supposed

that Paul was epileptic, taking the aorist of e]kptu<w literally with the

meaning "to spit." While it is true that the ancient Greeks would

expectorate at the sight of an epileptic seizure, the word e]kptu<w

contains also a metaphorical sense of loathing or rejecting,55 and

because the verb is coupled with e]couqenei?n ("to despise"), and

follows it, the figurative meaning here is the most likely.

Many other attempts to account for Paul's a]sqe<neia could be

listed, but most of the suggestions carry the point too far, and all are

open to legitimate inquiry and controversy. Whether or not Paul had

one of the specific conditions mentioned above is finally a matter of

pure conjecture. At any rate, in his use of a]sqe<neia the writer

assumes that his readers are familiar with the word and the idea it

connotes so that no further explanation is required.

As to the specific identity of the illness, then, it is possible to

reconstruct only the most general description. We can infer from the

context that the malady was suitable to give at least the impression

that Paul's person and message were weak, even an object of derision

to those who saw him in such a condition. We know further that this

situation hindered Paul-at least he felt it could--but was overcome

by the gracious reception of the Galatians who accepted the ill

missionary as if they had been receiving the Lord himself. The illness

must have also been severe enough to hinder Paul's mobility, yet not

so severe as to prevent him from preaching the gospel. At the same


51See Eadie, Galatians, 327, who cites such examples as Deut 32:10; Ps 17:8;

Prov 7:2; Zech 2:8; Horace, Sat ii.5, 33; and Terence, Adelph, v.7-5.

52 Andre Viard, Saint Paul: Epitre aux Galates (Paris: Lecoffre, 1964) 95.

53The reference to "large letters" (phli<ka  gra<mmata) in 6:11 is said to

support this view, but the expression is better understood to mean that Paul

enlarged his writing to emphasize his personal greeting and impress his authority

 upon his readers than on the hypothesis that he so wrote because of age, infirmity,

 or lack of practice in writing Greek characters; cf. Lightfoot, Galatians, 220-21.

54p46 lacks these words, no doubt an oversight of a scribe due to homoioteleuton.

55BAGD 244; Joseph Thayer, A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament

(4th ed.; Edinburgh: T. & T. Clark, 1955) 199.

34                                GRACE THEOLOGICAL JOURNAL


time Paul must have found enough relief to permit him to continue

his journey later.

But all we can say with certainty is that a]sqe<neia refers to some

bodily infirmity which befell Paul and which was a potential source

of offense to the Galatians. Since we do not have enough information

for a diagnosis, all the suggestions as to the exact nature of his illness

must remain conjectures.




In Galatians Paul's main object is to show that man is free from

the law and that faith in Jesus Christ, not works of righteousness,

brings salvation and eternal life. An essential part of his argument is

the reference to "the elements of the world" which belong to the old

aeon and bring men into bondage.

Because the stoixei?a are set over against both God and man,

Paul's attitude toward the elements is always negative and fiercely

polemical. His concern time and again is to demonstrate the total

superiority of Christ over all powers, be they a]rxai<,  e]cousi<ai,

duna<meij,  ku<rioi,  kurio<thtej,  a@rxontej, qro<noi,  a@ggeloi  or in our

passage, ta>  stoixei?a  tou?  ko<smou.56 This is because to be subservient

to the elements means to be in bondage to sin and, eventually, death.

Servitude to the stoixei?a finds its only remedy in the incarnation,

death, and resurrection of Christ, who triumphed over them on the

cross.57  It is therefore beyond Paul that anyone delivered from these

elements could desire to return to a position of slavery under them,

especially if he had already appropriated the; victory of Christ by

"coming to a knowledge of God or, rather, being known by God"


In Galatians Paul includes in the same category--the stoixei?a

--the Mosaic law (the rudimentary teaching of the Jews) and the

heathen systems from which the majority of the Galatians had been

emancipated. These stoixei?a are wholly inadequate to secure spiritual

deliverance or progress in holiness, a fact which the religious past of

all Christians-whether Jew or Gentile--has shown to be true. It is

only through the sending of the son (4:4) that status as sonship is

conferred. This is achieved by pure grace working through faith.

Therefore the stoixei?a can be described as a]sqenu?  kai>  ptwxa< "denn


            56See Ragnar Leivestad, Christ the Conqueror: Ideas of Conflict and Victory in

the New Testament (London: S.P.C.K., 1954) 92-95.

            57The imagery of man's enslavement to and eventual triumph over the elements of

the world is one of the major Pauline salvific motifs; see Eldon J. Epp, "Paul's Diverse

 Imageries of the Human Situation and His Unifying Theme of Freedom," in

Unity and Diversity in New Testament Theology, ed. Robert A. Guelich

(Grand Rapids: Eerd-mans, 1978) 105-8.

      BLACK: WEAKNESS LANGUAGE IN GALATIANS                        35


sie konnen nicht bewirken und verleihen, was Gott durch die Sendung

seines Sohnes bewirkt und verliehen hat.”58 They are no longer

applicable to sons and heirs of God since they have been overcome by

Christ the Conqueror and because the situation of slavery has been


 It is therefore important for the apostle to emphasize the help-

lessness of all men u[po> ta>  stoixei?a  tou?  ko<smou in his attempt to

contrast the situation of slavery with the present situation of salvation

in Christ. In comparison with the power and wealth of the gospel, the

old religious systems fade into insignificance. Even the Jewish law,

which is both good and God-given (Rom 7:12, 22), when distorted

into a means of earning salvation, can be used by Satan to bring men

into bondage. Paul can therefore refer to a return to the elements and

the adoption of the Mosaic law in the same breath, for the rudi-

mentary teachings of the Gentiles correspond exactly to the ritualistic

element in the law which is a]sqenh<j to produce life.

In view of this, it is clear that Paul's main contention, and his

primary purpose m ascribing to the stoixei?a the modifier a]sqenh? is

to show that since a man is not justified by the keeping of the law,

there are no Jewish requirements to be submitted to. Circumcision,

feasts, clean and unclean meats, fasts, special days, etc, are now

obsolete and have no meaning for the Christian. It is therefore

unnecessary to adopt Jewish (or pagan) ordinances, for their obser-

vance is a return to the slavery involved in the elements and inevitably

will destroy the work of Paul and the faith of his Galatian converts.

Amid the multitudinous possibilities of interpreting Paul's

a]sqe<neia in 4:13, it is not easy to find one's way. But if our

interpretation of the word 's context is correct, then Paul there

describes it the term his own corporeal condition which forced him

to visit Galatia and which was at first a temptation to the Galatians

to despise him. While the translation "Illness" is perhaps a tendentious

paraphrase for a]sqe<neia in this phrase, it best and most plainly

conveys what the author desires to express with the words a]sqe<neia

th?j  sarko<j. Of this illness, however, we know only that it existed

and had an impact on his travel plans.

Since Paul's entire apostolic ministry was one of travels, the

hopes and disappointments involved with his itinerary must have had

special significance. In spite of, or better, because of the many

frustrations encountered along the way, Paul had a firm conviction

that his travel plans were in the Lord's hands. Even the physical

problem which stranded him in Galatia proved to be a blessing in


            58F. Sieffert, Der Brief an die Galater (KEK 7; 7th ed.; Gottingen:

Vandenhoeck Ruprecht, 1880) 238.

36                        GRACE THEOLOGICAL JOURNAL


disguise: Paul was able to evangelize an otherwise untouched area,

thus accomplishing more than he had originally set out to. He learned

through that experience that even an illness could be the occasion for

preaching, just as later his imprisonment in Caesarea and Rome

would work for the dissemination of the gospel.59

Through his Galatian experience Paul had also been reminded of

his own Menschlichkeit and the power of God in spite of it. Just as

the stiuxeu>a belong to the old aeon, so in a sense does Paul. But this

continuing participation in the ko<smoj through suffering, weakness

and illness forces him to look away from himself to the power of God

for strength and sustenance. Paul's existence as an "apostle of

weakness" in an earthen pot (2Cor 4:7) has tremendous significance

in that it serves to make clear to others that the source of his power is

God and not himself. Evidently the Galatians recognized this, for

they did not receive him on the basis of his personal appearance,

physical health or rhetorical prowess, but because he was indeed the

messenger of God bearing the word of Christ (Gal 4: 14).


            59Mussner (Galaterbrief, 307) aptly states: "Fur einen Mann wie Paulus wurde

alles zum Kalp61;. wenn es gaIt. das Evangelium zu verkundigen."




This material is cited with gracious permission from:

            Grace Theological Seminary

            200 Seminary Dr.

            Winona Lake,  IN   46590

Please report any errors to Ted Hildebrandt at: