Addressing S. Gathercole’s Case: “Born from a Woman” (#3)

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by Neil Godfrey

In the previous post we concluded with Earl Doherty stressing what he sees as the importance of keeping in mind the distinction between

  • Christ’s sacrifice (the time and place of this are never specified – a point that is argued elsewhere) that enabled freedom from the law (Galatians 3:13)


  • the application of that freedom that comes subsequently by the act of God who revealed the gospel and the acts of apostles in preaching and hearers believing.

This is the manner in which the epistles describe the salvation workings of the present time. It is all God’s work, revealing Christ his Son and making available the benefits of his sacrifice. It is why the epistles are so unexpectedly theocentric and scripture oriented, with no role in the present spelled out for Jesus except to have himself “manifested” and enter into Paul and his converts (“Christ in you”). It is why his acts are never introduced as part of the current scene. (Doherty, 200)

Diagram (open to correction) of how I understand Earl Doherty’s explanation of Genesis 3:19-4:7. I suspect there is room here for an earthly crucifixion as distinct from heavenly, but of course a mere setting on earth does not necessarily imply genuinely historical.

Galatians 4:

Then in the fullness of time, God sent his Son, born of woman, born under the Law,

5 in order that he might purchase freedom for the subjects of the Law, so that we might attain the status of sons.

6 And because you are sons, God (has) sent into our hearts the Spirit of his Son, crying ‘Father!‘

7 You are therefore no longer a slave but a son, and if a son, then also by God’s act an heir.

Notice it is God’s act, God’s work, (not that of Jesus) that does what is required to change believers from bondage to freedom. Galatians 4:7

You are therefore no longer a slave but a son, and if a son, then also by God’s act an heir.

It has not been the death and resurrection which are the immediate cause of that freedom, and so the “God sent his Son” in verse 4 should imply no reference to a life which contained such events. (Otherwise, why did Paul not introduce them?) Rather, God is drawing on those acts to put the available freedom into effect by revealing the Son and what he had done. This was a revelation achieved through a new reading of scripture under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit. (201)

In this way Doherty reasons the two sendings in Galatians 4 are “two aspects of the same process, the second an extension of the first.” By God’s act Jesus’ sacrifice is applied to believers who from the time of revelation and the preaching of the apostles enter into a family relationship with God.

But what of “born of woman, born under the Law”?

You will recall that Earl Doherty’s method was to set aside the problematic verses in order to focus on the thought flow of the passage in which those verses sat. And that is where we are at now, with Paul referencing the acts of God involving revelation, sending his son and son’s spirit, and purchasing from the law those who believed the revelation and preaching of the apostles.

Now you are quite free to disagree with Doherty’s method and analysis. (I find myself parting company with him at times.) I have no doubt that when Doherty was actively engaged with these discussions he would have welcomed and appreciated such engagement. What we are not justified in doing is suppressing and denying Doherty’s argument thus far by merely insisting that “born of a woman” means Jesus came and died and was resurrected in the time of Pilate and that’s what Paul is saying here. What is justified is a critical engagement with the argument thus far presented.

So now that we have understood Doherty’s case for the meaning of the passage as a whole, the next step is to return to look to see how “born of woman” and “born under the law” fit in.

Does Doherty call out “Foul! Interpolation!” to justify his argument thus far? Will the meaning or analysis Doherty has discerned up till now need to change if we add those two phrases?

Nor will this need to change if we include the phrases “born of woman, born under the Law” as authentic to the text.

Doherty next states that this passage in Galatians is consistent with every other reference in Paul’s letters to the coming of Christ: in every case the sense is that God sends his son as a revelation in the time of the apostles such as himself.

In support of interpretation of the text Doherty reminds readers of the first words of Galatians 4:4, those immediately preceding the phrases “born of woman”, “born under the law”:

When came the fullness of time. . . . (literally translated)

Doherty argues that for Paul that fullness of time was the time of his, Paul’s, preaching and the purchasing of believers to be free from the law through faith and the spirit. Paul can focus the fullness of time on himself and his own activity, something he would not have been able to do if he believed that the crucial moment of actual purchasing of believers or their liberation happened on the cross a generation earlier.

A letter that was written after the actual time of Paul but in the name of Paul preserved this particular thought of Paul, that the fullness of time or proper time was the time of revelation and preaching of Paul:

2  …the hope of eternal life which God, who does not lie, promised before the beginning of time [pro chronon aionion, examined in chapter 17],

3  and now at the proper time [kairois idiois] he has revealed his word [NEB: openly declared himself] through the preaching entrusted to me [i.e., referring to Paul] by the command of God our Savior. (Titus)

Again in 1 Corinthians 10:11

Upon us the fulfillment of the ages has come!

In other words, Paul declares that all the expectations and hopes of the previous age “have been focused on and come to fruition in his time, rather than in any life of Christ in the recent past.”

Titus 1:2-3, also in Paul’s name yet well after Paul, we read a passage that quite ignores any notion of a time when Jesus came to suffer, die and be resurrected, a passage that instead juxtaposes “before the beginning of time” with the preaching of Paul “at the proper time”

in hope of eternal life, which God, who cannot lie, promised before the world/ages/time began,

3 (and He manifested in proper times His word,) in preaching, which I was entrusted with, according to a charge of God our Saviour,

Between God’s promises made “before the beginning of time” and the revealing of his word “at the proper time” in the preaching of Paul, no scope is available for an arrival of Christ on the earthly scene to do work of any kind, either bestowing eternal life or revealing its availability. No Christian writer would have laid out such a pattern and completely ignored an historical Jesus in the middle of it. (202)

(A this point Doherty discusses the various arguments, and the significance of each, in relation to 1 Timothy 6:13’s reference to Pilate. I bypass those discussions here.)

Again, one is free to disagree with or qualify Doherty’s interpretation. But this cannot be achieved by ignoring his interpretation and responding with nothing but one’s own “presuppositions and terminology” as if they have a right to be accepted by virtue of their conventional status.

The curious way Paul has presented things

When did the power of the law come to an end? Surely most of us would assume that Christ’s death on the cross accomplished that. But Doherty asks us to notice something in the way Paul explains it.

Yes, certainly, Christ’s death was necessary for the setting aside of the law’s power. BUT Paul declares that the law held us prisoners right up till the time that FAITH came through revelation:

Galatians 3:23

Before faith came, we were held prisoner of the Law until faith should be revealed

It is clear that for Paul

the law was in effect, it continued to hold people prisoners until his time of revelation to apostles like himself and the bringing of faith to their converts. He never attaches and ‘end’ of the Law to the actual death of Jesus. (202)

For Doherty, such a scenario best fits a crucifixion that happened at some unidentifiable time and place, a crucifixion that had long been hidden through the ages and was only now being revealed by God. Only with such a background it makes perfect sense that Paul would say, as he does, that the law held dominion until the time the son’s sacrifice was revealed and faith came.

This interpretation appears to be reinforced, in Doherty’s view, by 1 Thessalonians 4:14 where Paul says that not only do we believe in the resurrection and future coming of Jesus by faith, but we also believe in Jesus’ death by faith, not historical report, too:

For we believe that Jesus died and rose again, and so we believe that God will bring with Jesus those who have fallen asleep in him.

Similarly in 1 Corinthians 15:12-16 Paul seems to be saying that we believe in the resurrection by faith, not by historical witnesses.

12 But if it is preached that Christ has been raised from the dead, how can some of you say that there is no resurrection of the dead? 13 If there is no resurrection of the dead, then not even Christ has been raised. 14 And if Christ has not been raised, our preaching is useless and so is your faith. 15 More than that, we are then found to be false witnesses about God, for we have testified about God that he raised Christ from the dead. But he did not raise him if in fact the dead are not raised. 16 For if the dead are not raised, then Christ has not been raised either.

In the later letters that appeared under Paul’s name the above teaching seems to have been modified, so that in Ephesians 2:15 and Colossians 2:14 we read that the death of Christ itself abolished the law. But even here, as Doherty points out, we have a mystical scenario where at the same time demonic powers are defeated by the son.

What is the relevance of “born of woman, born under law”?

At this point Doherty asks what relevance could our two phrases have to such a reading of Galatians 3-4. If Doherty’s analysis and interpretation of the thought flow of Galatians 3:19 to 4:7 is plausible then what does the note that Jesus was born of a woman and under the law contribute to the discussion?

If it had been the death of Jesus that enabled the ultimate act of God to free people by hearing and believing the message, then what was the point of saying Jesus had been born of a woman or had been born under the law? Surely if he was a man crucified by human authorities in a recent past then that should have been the point for Paul to stress. “Born of a woman” adds nothing to the argument. Nor does “born under the law” have any relevance to the thought-flow of the passage.

Thus the presence of the phrase provides a justification for suggesting interpolation. (204)

Yet Doherty has not yet begun to examine those two phrases. That comes next through engagement with a critical commentary that addresses the Greek text in detail.

Getting rid of an inconvenient passage?

We are not yet in a position to argue with the details of Doherty’s discussion of “born of a woman” because up until now we have been covering Doherty’s analysis of the theme and thought of the entire passage.

One point should be clear by now, however. And that is, that Doherty’s argument for even suggesting the possibility of an interpolation is a consequence of, a result of, an outcome of attempting to grasp the flow of Paul’s thought in the broader context of what we know of his thought in other of the “genuine Pauline epistles”.

The possibility of interpolation is clearly not a cheap gimmick, it is most certainly not an ad hoc excuse.

Doherty’s argument about the primary message of Paul would not be affected if the phrases were found to be authentic.

We will see that Doherty’s argument about Paul’s gospel message and its relationship to the “fulfillment of the ages” and its source in revelation and its message of the son coming in the form of spirit is not affected by those passages and remain valid even if they remain. If, on the other hand, as we shall see, the phrases a removed for reasons of greater simplicity and plausibility, then that might be somewhat more satisfying for some readers.

If scholars are seriously wanting to undermine the arguments of Earl Doherty they need to address his primary arguments. Ignoring and in the process misrepresenting them has the potential for erode public confidence in mainstream biblical scholarship.

Gathercole, Simon. 2018. “The Historical and Human Existence of Jesus in Paul’s Letters.” Journal for the Study of the Historical Jesus 16: 183–212.

Doherty, Earl. 2009. Jesus: Neither God nor Man: The Case for a Mythical Jesus. Ottawa: Age of Reason.



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15 thoughts on “Addressing S. Gathercole’s Case: “Born from a Woman” (#3)”

    1. I cannot help but be reminded of Earl Doherty’s constant message that so much of the New Testament has been understood through modern concepts and hence misunderstood. To read it through the eyes of the ancients themselves takes effort and wider reading to understand that thought-world. —(Neil Godfrey 2011, Vridar)

      1. I think that’s right, but how do you actually know what these ancient thinkers had in mind? They had a fundamentally different view of the world than we do.

      2. I disagree. I’m an atheist from taking G.A Wells’ advice and reading just Paul while remembering the Gospels, and hence the plot, were not yet written. I was thirteen or so and hardly wide read in the New Testament or it’s study. Granted I kept an open mind for twenty years or so on historicity myself but even so I didn’t think it very likely, i.e. odds greater than the 12000 to 1 odds against of Richard Carrier, Paul or the other Apostles he wrote of ever thought Jesus other than a cosmic being.

  1. What about 1 Cor 15:20, “Now Christ has been raised from the dead…”?

    Doesn’t that complicated the theory that the saving activity was not recent?

      1. Raising from the dead was part of the hidden mysteries.

        The primary (“super”) mystery appears to be that celestial Jesus would deign to possess a human body and be humble enough to undergo death-&-stauros thus doing his duty as the “Lord of Glory”, whereas Satan had failed to do his duty.

  2. Gday Neil and all 🙂

    Could this woman be connected to Paul’s discussion following from Gal. 4:22 ?

    An explicit allegory about two mothers :

    Hagar, under the slavery of the law, who is an allegory of ‘Mount Sinai in Arabia; she corresponds to the present Jerusalem’
    Jerusalem above, an allegory who ‘is free, and she is our mother’.

    Which could make Hagar the allegorical mother of Jesus ?

    This is not a scholarly view, so I guess I’m asking why it’s wrong 🙂

    1. That’s something akin to Carrier’s argument. I have added a note in a table in my next post with a point that I think counts against this interpretation:

      If Paul meant the same type of birth for Christ in 4:4 why did he change verbs here?
      (Note: this change of verb does argue against Carrier’s interpretation that Galatians 4:4 is an extension of the allegory spelled out here.)

  3. I can imagine Paul’s reference to “born of a woman”, “born under the law” as one thing prompting the author of “Mark” to write his allegory-like Gospel.

    1. • Israel or Jesus?

      Witherington, Ben (20 September 2009). “Christology – Paul’s christology”. In Gerald F. Hawthorne. Dictionary of Paul and His Letters: A Compendium of Contemporary Biblical Scholarship. Ralph P. Martin; Daniel G. Reid. InterVarsity Press. ISBN 978-0-8308-7491-0.

      Paul spoke of Jesus both as the [personified] wisdom of God, his agent in creation (1 Cor 1:24, 30; 8:6; Col 1:15–17; see Bruce, 195), and as the one who accompanied Israel as the “rock” in the wilderness (1 Cor 10:4). In view of the role Christ plays in 1 Corinthians 10:4, Paul is not founding the story of Christ on the archetypal story of Israel, but rather on the story of divine Wisdom [personified], which helped Israel in the wilderness. —(p. 106)

    2. There were different Jewish interpretations of the Servant of Isaiah along the same lines: some finding reasons to interpret the Servant as Israel as a whole, and others drawing attention to passages that indicated a single individual. The “one like the Son of Man” in Daniel has also had similar divergent interpretations.

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