“Born of a Woman” — Sober Scholarship Questioning the Authenticity of Galatians 4:4

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by Neil Godfrey

J. C. O’Neill (1930-2004) was a well respected critical scholar with some controversial views and always offering stimulating argument. Possibly the most controversial was his Who Did Jesus Think He Was? in which he argued that Jesus did believe he was the Messiah and that even the doctrine of the Trinity could be detected in the Gospels. He also wrote The Recovery of Paul’s Letter to the Galatians (1972). In that work he found himself forced to conclude that the passage declaring Jesus was “born of a woman” was not original to Paul. This should be quite a surprise to anyone who has encountered scholars scoffing at any doubts about the historical existence of Jesus because the passage in Galatians averring that Jesus was “born of a woman” is invariably declared to be iron-clad evidence that Paul had good reason to know that Jesus was, well, born of a woman. Presumably these scholars are convinced that no-one would ever suggest a fictive person would have come into the world by means of a birth or that the gender through whom he was born would be female.

Authority of the epistle remains

But don’t let me misrepresent J.C. O’Neill. Though O’Neill believed Galatians was riddled with “interpolations” he nonetheless hoped that his analysis would

clear the way for a fresh conviction that Paul was in fact an apostle of the Son of God. (p. 13 — my bolding and formatting in all quotations)

If our final text of Galatians was not entirely Paul’s original writing then the authority of the whole letter was only minimally affected as far as the Church is concerned:

This book (“The Recovery of Paul’s Letter to the Galatians”) should make it easier to accord to Paul the authority due to him, and also make it easier to accord to the later theologians (i.e. those responsible for the interpolations and glosses in Galatians) the lesser authority due to them for their insights into the doctrinal consequences of the apostle’s teaching. (p. 13)

Cannot return to the older approach

English: Baruch de Spinoza (1632 -1677)
Baruch de Spinoza

O’Neill may have been true to what we might see as a conservative faith, but was also true to critical principles in the study of the Scriptures.

We cannot simply return to the older approach; we are bound to accept Spinoza and Locke for, whether we like it or not, we are heirs of the whole modern awareness of history. We must, at all costs, discover what Paul himself wrote, and we must discover, as precisely as we can, the history of the text of his epistles, from the time they were received by those he first addressed until the time when they were gathered together, in a more or less fixed form, into the Christian canon. (p. 12)

Spinoza? Locke?

“The universal rule . . . in interpreting Scripture is to accept nothing as an authoritative Scriptural statement which we do not perceive very clearly when we examine it in the light of its history.” Paul must have been “a coherent, argumentative, pertinent Writer; and Care, I think, should be taken, in expounding of him, to show that he is so.”
The “history” of a scriptural statement comprises:

— nature of its original language
— analysis of a book and its arrangement
— background of the book: author, occasion, reception.

The starting point for studying Paul is therefore to read the epistles through from beginning to end many times to see the coherence of the argument.
Portrait of John Locke.
John Locke.

Why think there are any interpolations at all?

Why can we not assume that the text we have was all Paul’s to begin with? J. C. O’Neill explains why:

If Paul was “a coherent, argumentative, pertinent writer” (Locke), Galatians as it now stands cannot have been written by Paul, for, . . . Galatians is full of obscurities, contradictions, improbable remarks, and non sequiturs; but, if Galatians was not written by Paul, it is too obscure and disjointed, and at the same time too urgent and vital and compelling, to have been written by a compiler. (p. 8)

But haven’t there been commentators who have made “satisfactory and coherent sense of the text” known to us? Doesn’t this prove that we don’t need to posit interpolations? O’Neill says, No. The reason: these commentators do not agree with one another.

If they cannot agree, it seems to me forbidden . . . to rest in the assumption that the text as we have it is, in principle, capable of yielding coherent sense. (p. 8)

Recall Roger Parvus also quoting J. C. O’Neill in one of his posts on a Simonian origin for Christianity:

If the choice lies between supposing that Paul was confused and contradictory and supposing that his text has been commented upon and enlarged, I have no hesitation in choosing the second. (J.C. O’Neill, The Recovery of Paul’s Letter to the Galatians, p. 86)


O’Neill is kind to the original interpolators. They did not intend their marginal notes to be incorporated into the main body of the text, he says. They may have been elaborating on the text with their own thoughts set in the margins. Copyists were piously fearful of losing anything that might have been important to eventually our text came to us with original text and marginal notes all bound up in one. (Given the length of some of these “glosses” I think the suggestion that they all found their way into the main body of the text raises more questions than it answers.)

O’Neill’s argument on Galatians 4:1-10

J. C. O’Neill shows us that the authenticity of Galatians 4:4 passage (Christ was born of a woman) is open to question. It is not unquestionable bedrock evidence for what Paul himself believed or even wrote about Jesus, birth and the gender of one giving birth. So let’s look at his arguments for Galatians 4:4 and the surrounding passages.

Verses 1-3 and 8-10 are omitted from the original. Paul did not write those, he argues.

Galatians 4:1-10 (ASV)

1 But I say that so long as the heir is a child, he differeth nothing from a bondservant though he is lord of all;

2 but is under guardians and stewards until the day appointed of the father.

3 So we also, when we were children, were held in bondage under the rudiments of the world:

4. οτε δε ηλθεν το πληρωμα του χρονου {12}

εξαπεστειλεν ο θεος τον υιον αυτου {13}

γενομενον εκ γυναικος {8}

γενομενον υπο νομον {8}

5. ινα τους υπο νομον εξαγοραση {12}

ινα την υιοθεσιαν απολαβωμεν {13}

4 but when the fulness of the time came, {12}

God sent forth his Son, {13}

born of a woman, {8}

born under the law, {8}

5 that he might redeem them that were under the law, {12}

that we might receive the adoption of sons. {13}

6 And because ye are sons, God sent forth the Spirit of his Son into our hearts, crying, Abba, Father.

7 So that thou art no longer a bondservant, but a son; and if a son, then an heir through God.

8 Howbeit at that time, not knowing God, ye were in bondage to them that by nature are no gods:

9 but now that ye have come to know God, or rather to be known by God, how turn ye back again to the weak and beggarly rudiments, whereunto ye desire to be in bondage over again?

10 Ye observe days, and months, and seasons, and years.

Verses 1 to 3 are incompatible with verses 4 to 7.

Verses 1-3 tell us that an heir is kept in subjection while he is a minor and is little different from a slave, though he is lord of all. Even though he is “in bondage” he is always an heir still. Then on the appointed day he becomes free. The heir here is the Gentile or pagan. Chapter 3 explained that the Gentiles are heirs of Abraham and verses 1 to 3 continue in that context.

But 4-7 speaks of a quite different situation. A slave is ransomed and adopted as a son. He is really a slave but only after adoption as a son does he become an heir. We are no longer speaking of the pagan Gentile but of the Jew who is under the law that God gave (3:19). The law here is surely the Mosaic law since virtually all references to this νομος in the preceding chapter were of the Mosaic law.

So if 1-3 and 4-7 are speaking of different situations (the former of one who is always a son and heir and the latter of one who is a slave who is adopted as a son), verses 8 to 10 must go with the former, verses 1 to 3.

Verses 8 to 10 speak of the folly of one who has come to know God returning to the bondage of the time before he became free. Verses 8-10 speak of the governing powers over the child and heir awaiting the appointed time to become free. This has no relevance to verses 4 to 7 that make no mention of slave-owners or governing powers. (And the ruling powers in 8-10 are negatives, not the law of 4:4 that came from God.)

Now if verses 1-3 and 8-10 are a single and coherent argument, then they could not have been written by Paul. Why? Because they do not address the dangers facing the Galatians.

The Galatians were facing the problem of Judaizers — those wanting to impose the Jewish law. But Paul could hardly have spoken so disparagingly of the law that he had said came from God. Paul would not call this Jewish law “weak and beggarly elements” etc. He had only just declared (3:19) that the law came from God! He had even said Jews have a right to continue to live “as Jews”, so there was nothing wrong with that law.

O’Neill suggests the closest heresy known that matches this description of devotion to days and times and seasons is the heresy of the Elchesaites. The Elchesaites (known from Hippolytus) appear to be going back to pagan practices, and I (not O’Neill) quote one section from Hippolytus here:

But since we have stated that they also bring into requisition astrological deceit, we shall prove this from their own formularies; for Elchasai speaks thus:

“There exist wicked stars of impiety. This declaration has been now made by us, O ye pious ones and disciples:

  • beware of the power of the days of the sovereignty of these stars, and engage not in the commencement of any undertaking during the ruling days of these.
  • And baptize not man or woman during the days of the power of these stars, when the moon, (emerging) from among them, courses the sky, and travels along with them.
  • Beware of the very day up to that on which the moon passes out from these stars, and then baptize and enter on every beginning of your works.
  • But, moreover, honour the day of the Sabbath, since that day is one of those during which prevails (the power) of these stars.
  • Take care, however, not to commence your works the third day from a Sabbath, since when three years of the reign of the emperor Trajan are again completed from the time that he subjected the Parthians to his own sway,–when, I say, three years have been completed, war rages between the impious angels of the northern constellations; and on this account all kingdoms of impiety are in a state of confusion.”

Since verses 1-3 and 8-10 address a situation that was not facing the Galatians in the time of Paul (i.e. temptations to keep the Jewish law) O’Neill concludes they were not originally by Paul. They were a commentary or application of the principles of Paul’s argument to a later situation.

What, then, of verses 4 to 7, or in particular 4 to 5?

Verse three has been grammatically linked to verse 4, but whoever wrote verse 3 (about pagans) failed to understand that verse 4 was about Jews only. Only Jews need to be ransomed from the Law.

So what do we make of 4 to 5?

* These refer to Jews. And the writer says “that we (i.e. the Jews) should receive the adoption”. What does this have to do with Paul’s attempt to keep the Galatians law-free? O’Neill would expect that Paul would make a point of arguing that whatever applied to the Jews who were under the Law also applied to the Gentiles who were not. But he argues not like that here.

* Besides, verses 4 to 5 appear to be a citation from some sort of Jewish Christian liturgy. Note the chiasmic structure and syllable pattern that I have highlighted above. The syllabic pattern is a “striking regularity . . . not to be found in the surrounding verses.” (p. 59)

But then. . .

The great difficulty in the way of regarding verses 4 and 5 as another gloss is that then the whole section will have been glossed heavily by two different hands, one responsible for verses 1-3, 8-10, and the other responsible for verses 4f. Nevertheless, that seems to be the right solution; and verses 4f would have been the first addition, which helped prompt verses 1-3, 8-10, the second addition. (p. 59)

In short, the first giveaway for O’Neill concerning 4:4-5 (if I understand his point correctly) is that the writer speaks of “we” as if including himself with his readers as Jews. But more significantly, the passage has no relevance to Gentiles or ex-pagans whom Paul is attempting to turn away from Judaizers. One would expect Paul to argue that any factor applicable to thew Jews is also applicable to the Gentile converts. Besides, the passage appears to have been someone’s recollection of some credal formula that they have noted against the original argument.


I have attempted to present the O’Neill’s argument here as best I can. Others may have a clearer understanding and wish to clarify or correct anything. O’Neill himself said:

I cannot hope to have been completely right at every point in assigning this verse to Paul, and that to a glossator, and the other to an interpolator; or even if the division be right, I can easily have ascribed to Paul what was written by a commentator on Paul, and to a commentator what was written by Paul himself — and one such mistake could affect the whole enterprise. (p. 11)

I like working with (or in this case reading and contemplating) ideas that acknowledge their own uncertain foundations. There are far too many dogmatic “fundamentalists” even among so-called critical scholars in this field.

So how to test O’Neill’s thesis?

The only test of my thesis, or of any other thesis, is to work through Galatians line by line, and to see which thesis makes the best sense of the words. (p. 13)

So I am not presenting it as an argument I am firmly convinced about myself. It is a long time since I studied Galatians intensively and in depth, and I would prefer to have time to follow through a few remaining questions before committing to it.

The reason I have posted it here is to demonstrate that there is indeed an argument for interpolation that does emanate from the high standards of critical scholarship. It is a reminder how little we know for sure about the character of the sources we rely upon for early Christian studies. That, in turn, reminds us how foolish it is to base dogmatic arguments upon any single passage. Mostly, however, the point is to show that even a passage that so many take for granted as a foundational text is not necessarily what it seems to be — even according to a Churchman many would consider conservative in beliefs yet who values genuine critical scholarship and intellectual integrity.

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12 thoughts on ““Born of a Woman” — Sober Scholarship Questioning the Authenticity of Galatians 4:4”

  1. 4:4 wasn’t in Marcion’s text and scores two clearly anti-Marcionite Christological points.

    The phrase “under the law” has presumably been copied from the subsequent verse.

    I find it hard to believe that the original writer, who had just said his fellow faithful were previously “enslaved to the elementary principles of the world”, would allow Jesus, their saviour from those forces, to be born under the power of the law which was the instrument of their former enslavement, that which “holds captive” and “imprisons” the Jews. At the very least, you would expect a remark explaining how Jesus had thrown off the grip of that slavery.

    It makes more sense that Jesus is an anti-Law force sent to save humanity from imprisonment by the Law. How miserable if that very saviour were himself to fall prey to the Law by being born in flesh as a Jew!

  2. The idea that “born of a woman” clearly identifies Jesus as a man is basically a nutball idea anyway.

    The only time someone needs to have the fact that they were born in the normal way justified is if they are a deity. This description could only make sense in that light. Nobody describes John Major as “born of a woman.” Nobody would describe Rudolf Bultmann as “fathered by a man.” Those descriptions are assumed to be accurate for any normal man and woman and are simply not remarkable. The only time they are remarkable is when they apply to Castor, Hercules, Thor, Huitzilopochtli or any of the other thousands of deities that have been described over human history.

    1. Evan,

      A similar expression is used elsewhere in the NT and OT:

      Mt. 11:11/Lk. 7:28: “I tell you, among those born of women there has not risen anyone greater than John the Baptist …”

      1 Cor. 11:12: “Just as indeed the woman of the man [is], so also the man by the woman [is]”; “For as woman came from man, so also man is born of woman …”

      Job 14:1 (see also 15:14 and 25:4): “Human beings born by woman are short-lived and full of trouble.”

      While Paul doesn’t actually use the word “born” or “made” in this instance, this is the sense of the passage and how it is often translated.

      The only difference is that Gal 4:4 uses “made” instead of “born”. After chewing on possible reasons for this distinction, I now think it’s because Jesus was seen as being of God or God-like, like the root of planting in the Damascus Document: “He [God] visited them and caused a root of planting to spring forth from Israel …”

  3. These uses simply prove the point. Nobody uses this phrase to describe an ordinary individual. They are exemplary uses describing the state of mankind in general or describing a mythical truth. The contrast is to deities who are not born of women. So the Gal 4:4 passage seems to be describing something remarkable, a deity born of a woman.

    1. Evan,

      I agree that the subtle distinction of Gal. 4:4’s “made” of woman may be due to the belief that Jesus was of God or God-like. The other uses I cited are intended to show that “born” of a woman is otherwise an ordinary Jewish expression.

  4. The word translated “born” is more usually understood to convey the sense of “made”. Bart Ehrman points this out in some detail — I have set it all out in Hoffman’s Mamzer Jesus Solution to Paul’s “Born of a Woman”.

    The passage was understood by Irenaeus to refer to Jesus coming into the world without the taint of physical and messy birth — Jesus passed through Mary in some sort of hermetically sealed capsule into the world.

    As here, and also by Ehrman and Doherty, we have seen arguments for this passage not being original to Paul.

    What I liked about this one from O’Neill is that it is from someone who can in no way be said to have any sort of motive to ‘undermine’ Scripture or advance some sort of ‘liberal agenda’. It comes from the thinking of a “conservative” believer who is following his reason and critical acumen and no matter what the results of his honest inquiry he still finds a way to keep it all “in the Church” as “holy writ”.

    So much for the “interpolation” theorists necessarily being cynical opportunists. Would that there were as many more intellectually honest critical New Testament scholars.

  5. It seems disrespectful to call him “Baruch de Spinoza”. It was the name he was given in the synagogue when he was a baby, but he usually went by, and preferred, the names “Bento” and “Benedict”. He published under the name “Benedict”.

    When he was cursed and expelled from the synagogue, the curse used the name “Baruch”.

    I think we should take his preference over that of his enemies.

    1. The Library of Congress uses Benedict in the main entry for him so that searches for Baruch link up with this. You should adjust the Wikipedia entry and add cross-referencing links there, too.

  6. The opponents in view in the Marcionite Recension of Galatians are indeed the 2c. Jewish Christian sect the Elchasai as brilliantly identified by H.Detering. The Pauline substratum of Galatians has been Marcionite all along.

    Who are the Elementals of this world (Cosmos, gk.kosmou) which hold human beings in bondage? “Even so we, when we were children, were in bondage under the elements (stoicheia) of the Cosmos:” Galatians 4;3.
    “But now, after that ye have known God, or rather are known of God, how turn ye again to the weak and beggarly elements (gk stoicheia), whereunto ye desire again to be in bondage?” Galatians 4:9. Who are these elements, “which are by nature no gods” (Gal. 4:8), which the Galatians formerly
    worshipped? These “elements” are the spirits which inhabit the heavenly spheres. cf Enoch 60:11ff.

    Who are the untrustworthy angels who brought the law to Moses, the ministry of death engraved in stone?

    In Romans 3:24, the word “redemption” (apolytrosis) means release, or deliverance on the payment of a price. (cf Eph. 1:7-8). Who was so powerful that Jesus had to pay a ransom for the souls of those who believed in him?

    The adversary is explicitly another god, the god of this world. 2 Cor. 4:4, “the god of this world has blinded the minds of the unbelieving so that they might not see the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ…”.

    The “Lord of Glory” was crucified by unnamed “Archons of the Aeon”. 1 Cor. 2:8. Tertullian white-washed this as secular authorities, and traditional scholarship has followed his lead ever since. But Tertullian’s interpretation was in reaction to Marcion’s, which identified the responsibility belonging to the Demiurge and his minions. Tertullian, AM 5.6.

    The Pauline god of this world was Yahweh, who even in the “OT” explicitly creates evil.

    The Marcionite Recension of Gal 4:4 was merely “God sent his son.”
    Indeed, we find that “made (or born) of a woman” does absolutely nothing to distinquish Jesus from any other human being.

    We find “made (or born) under the law” does absolutely nothing to distiguish a presumed human Jesus from any Jew!!

    Why bother to state the obvious, unless someone else was teaching that Jesus was had not been born and that Jesus was not under the Law? Do we know of any sect that taught these exact doctrines? After we cut achor with the first century, the answer is obvious, the Marcionites.
    So the extra phrases are not useless only if they are seen to be anti-docetic and “anti-antinomium” interpolations by the proto-orthodox of the late 2c/early 3c.

    We can reconstruct Marcion’s text of Gal 4:4 from Tertullian AM 5.4.2.
    “But when the fullness of time had come, God sent forth His Son”— the God, of course, who is the Lord ……”

    If Marcion’s text had contained “born of a woman, born under the law” Tertullian would certainly have used it to refute Marcion’s docetism and antiomianism. Indeed, I am not aware of a single scholar argues that Marcion’s text of Gal 4:4 was other than “God sent forth his son.”
    Cmp Van den Bergh, Marcion 1, S.34 „ Daß Christus als „unter das Gesetz getan“ bezeichnet wird (Gal 4,4), steht im Gegensatz zu 3,10, wo Marcion nicht las, was der Redaktor daraus gemacht hat und was offensichtlich einer fremden Ausdrucksweise entspricht: „Alle, die aus den Werken des Gesetzes sind, sind unter dem Fluch.“ Marcion las deutlicher: „Alle, die unter dem Gesetz sind, sind unter dem Fluch.“ Hätte Christus, wie die kirchliche Lesart es will, unter dem Gesetz gestanden bzw. wäre er darunter geboren, dann hätte er selber unter dem Fluch gestanden und hätte andere nicht erlösen können. Erst am Kreuz wurde Christus zum Fluch (3,13). Die Lesart des Marcion: „Gott sandte Gott seinen Sohn, damit er die unter dem Gesetz loskaufte, damit wir die Sohnschaft erlangten.“ Das Gesetz als eine gottfeindliche Macht, die zu den stoicheia oder Elementen dieser Welt gehört, das ist gnostischer Dualismus.“

    Bart D. Ehrman was position to know this as well as anyone! In his _The Orthodox Corruption of Scripture: The Effect of Early Christological Controversies on the Text of the New Testament_, in the chapter “Anti-Docetic Corruptions of Scriptures” page 238 documents that orthodox scribes continued to tamper with Galatians 4:4 and Romans 1:3-4 even *after* we reach the extant texts (3rd century and later), and comments on how likely this makes it that tampering occurred in the second century when the stakes were even higher. I think B.Ehrman glimpsed “the heart of darkness” and is now desperately attempting avoid the logical conclusions of his studies. And the same is true of R. Joseph Hoffmann.

    Best Regards,
    Jake Jones IV

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