Galatians 4

Slavery and Sonship

Elemental Principles

When we were children, we were held in bondage under the elemental principles of the world (Galatians 4:3).

The meaning of the Greek term here translated as “elemental principles” is disputed. Many scholars believe it relates to the foundational or elementary truths of God. Paul refers several times in this context to the Law, and this may be the referent for these “elemental principles.” This idea is illustrated here by a model of the Ark of the Covenant and the Ten Commandments in the Holy of Holies, all components of the religious system that were related to the Law. This was photographed at the tabernacle model at Timna Park in southern Israel.


So that we might receive adoption as sons (Galatians 4:5).

Paul’s audience would have been well aware of the practice of adoption, particularly since the Roman emperors often used adoption as a means of selecting the heir to their throne. Maybe the best-known Roman adoptee was Caesar Augustus (ruled 27 BC – AD 14). This statue of Augustus, known as Augusts of Prima Porta, was photographed at the Vatican Museums.


So you are no longer a slave, but a son (Galatians 4:7).

The Greco-Roman practice of liberation from slavery is illustrated in this photo, which bears an inscription by a man who has been freed from servitude. His name was Saturninus, and his status as a freedman is indicated in the third line (Lat. LIBERTI). This marble inscription may have come from Torrenova.

Greco-Roman Festivals

You observe days and months and seasons and years (Galatians 4:10).

If Paul had a Gentile audience in mind when he warned against returning to the “elemental principles,” his reference to the various days, months, seasons, and years likely included pagan festivals. Festivals were very important in Greco-Roman religion and were a central part of worshipping the gods. They typically included a procession and a sacrifice. Religious festivals were also the venue for athletic competition. The Olympic Games were held in honor of Zeus, and the Pythian Games were held in honor of Apollo. It may be that Paul was warning his audience not to re-engage in these religious activities. This fresco from the Paestum tomb was photographed at an exhibit on location at Pompeii.


Now this Hagar is Mount Sinai in Arabia; and she corresponds to the present Jerusalem (Galatians 4:25).

In Roman usage, the term “Arabia” referred to a geographical region that included the Sinai Peninsula. Jebel Musa, the traditional Mount Sinai, is located in this region. Here Paul connects Hagar (and the slavery she represents) to Mount Sinai (and by extension the Mosaic Law given there) and Jerusalem (representing the heart of contemporary Judaism).

Isaac vs. Ishmael

Now you, brothers, like Isaac, are children of promise (Galatians 4:28).

The near-sacrifice of Isaac in Genesis 22, depicted here on a 4th-century AD sarcophagus, was the great event which confirmed the promise to him. It would have been scandalous to the non-Christian Jewish community to hear themselves compared to Ishmael while followers of Jesus were compared to Isaac, but Paul recognized that faith was more important than bloodlines. This sarcophagus cast was photographed at the Vatican Museums.

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