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Jerusalems Above and Below: A Critique of J. L. Martyn's Interpretation of the Hagar–Sarah Allegory in Gal 4.21–5.1.*

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  14 March 2014

Brendan Byrne SJ*
Jesuit Theological College (University of Divinity), 175 Royal Parade, Parkville, VIC 3052, Australia. email:


In several studies of Galatians, J. Louis Martyn has argued that in the allegory of Hagar and Sarah (4.1–5.1), the ‘two covenants’ of 4.24b, traditionally identified with Judaism and Christianity respectively, refer, on the one hand, to a Christian Jewish Law-observant Gentile mission, Teachers from whom are disturbing Paul's Galatian converts, and to the Law-free Gentile mission promulgated by Paul, on the other. In the light, particularly, of Paul's overall usage of ‘covenant’, Martyn's interpretation is not sustainable – though this need not imply a return to an anti-Jewish interpretation of the text.

Copyright © Cambridge University Press 2014 

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An earlier version of this article was discussed in a seminar at the 68th SNTS General Meeting, Perth, Western Australia, July 2013. I gratefully acknowledge that attendance at the conference was assisted by a MCD University of Divinity Conference Travel Grant provided for this purpose.


1 E.g. Lightfoot, J. B., who speaks in connection with this passage of Paul as having sounded ‘the deathknell of Judaism’ (Saint Paul's Epistle to the Galatians: A Revised Text with Introductions, Notes, and Dissertations (London: Macmillan, 1890 10Google Scholar) 184; cf. Lagrange, M.-J., Saint Paul: Épitre aux Galates (Paris: Gabalda, 1926)Google Scholar: ‘Le judaisme est une religion de crainte, une religion d'esclaves. Il est bien évident qu'il doit céder la place à la religion des fils’ (121).

2 Betz, H. D., Galatians: A Commentary on Paul's Letter to the Churches in Galatia (Hermeneia; Philadelphia: Fortress, 1979)Google Scholar 246.

3 Ibid., 251; cf. earlier Burton, E. de W., A Critical and Exegetical Commentary on the Epistle to the Galatians (ICC; Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1921)Google Scholar 262.

4 Martyn, J. L., ‘The Covenants of Hagar and Sarah’, Faith and History: Essays in Honor of Paul W. Meyer (ed. Carroll, J. T., Cosgrove, C. H., Johnson, E. E.; Atlanta: Scholars Press, 1990) 160–92Google Scholar, reprinted, much reduced, as The Covenants of Hagar and Sarah: Two Covenants and Two Gentile Missions’, Theological Issues in the Letters of Paul (Nashville: Abingdon, 1997) 191208Google Scholar; id., Galatians: A New Translation with Introduction and Commentary (AB 33A; New York: Doubleday, 1997)Google Scholar Comment #45 (‘The Covenants of Hagar and Sarah: Two Covenants and Two Gentile Missions’) 447–56. References to ‘The Covenants’ in this critique will be to the original version of the article in the Meyer Festschrift. Martyn's interpretation follows a line suggested earlier by Mussner, Franz, Der Galaterbrief (HTKNT ix; Freiburg/Basle/Vienna: Herder, 1974) 325.Google Scholar

5 Hays, R. B., ‘The Letter to the Galatians’, The New Interpreter's Bible, vol. xi (Nashville, TN: Abingdon, 2000) 181348Google Scholar, esp. 302–7.

6 Matera, F. J., Galatians (SP 9; Collegeville: Liturgical Press, 1992) 76–9.Google Scholar

7 Witherington, B. III, Grace in Galatia: A Commentary on St Paul's Letter to the Galatians (Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1998) 330–2.Google Scholar

8 de Boer, M. C., Galatians: A Commentary (NTL; Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox, 2011) 287.Google Scholar

9 de Boer, M. C., ‘Paul's Quotation of Isaiah 54.1 in Galatians 4.27’, NTS 50 (2004) 370–89CrossRefGoogle Scholar, esp. 381; Bachmann, Michael, ‘Die andere Frau: Synchrone und diachrone Beobachtungen zu Gal 4.21–5.1’, Antijudaismus im Galaterbrief? Exegetische Studien zu einem polemischen Schreiben und zur Theologie des Apostels Paulus (NTOA; Freiburg, Schweiz: Universitätsverlag; Göttingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 1999) 127–57CrossRefGoogle Scholar (English translation: ‘The Other Woman: Synchronic and Diachronic Observations on Gal 4:21–5:1’, in Bachmann, M., Anti-Judaism in Galatians? Exegetical Studies on a Polemical Letter and on Paul's Theology (trans. Brawley, R. L.; Grand Rapids, MI/Cambridge, UK: Eerdmans, 2008) 85100Google Scholar, 176–95 (Notes)). (References to Bachmann in this present article will be to the German original.) Brawley, R., ‘Contextuality, Intertextuality, and the Hendiadic Relationship of Promise and Law in Galatians’, ZNW 93 (2002) 99119CrossRefGoogle Scholar, likewise rejects any sharp polarity between the Abrahamic and Sinai covenants emerging from Gal 4.21–31.

10 Eastman, S. G., ‘“Cast Out the Slave Woman and her Son”: The Dynamics of Exclusion and Inclusion in Galatians 4.30’, JSNT 28/3 (2006) 309–36Google Scholar, esp. 311. For Eastman, when Paul quotes Gen 21.10 in v. 30, he is not commanding the Galatians to expel anyone from the community but rather wanting them to overhear in the text a divine warning not to risk exclusion from the inheritance by yielding to inclination to take on circumcision and commitment to the Law.

11 Even in Romans 9–11 Paul goes on a long journey to arrive at the more hopeful presentation of Israel's future in the latter half of chapter 11. The early part of the sequence, especially 9.6b–9, has strong echoes of Gal 4.21–31.

12 Martyn, J. L., ‘A Law-Observant Mission to Gentiles’, SJT 38 (1985) 307–24CrossRefGoogle Scholar; a revised edition of this article was included in the collection Theological Issues, 7–24; reprinted in The Galatians Debate: Contemporary Issues in Rhetorical and Historical Interpretation (ed. M. D. Nanos; Peabody: Hendrickson, 2002) 348–61.Google Scholar

13 Martyn, J. L., ‘Apocalyptic Antinomies in Paul's Letter to the Galatians’, NTS 31 (1985) 410–24CrossRefGoogle Scholar. A revised and reduced version appears in Theological Issues, 111–23; this omits discussion of Gal 4.21–5.1.

14 ‘Apocalyptic Antinomies’, 418–20. On the demarcation of the pericope as running from 4.21 to 5.1 (rather than concluding at 4.30 or 4.31), see Martyn's analyses of the literary structure of sections of the letter in Galatians, 294–6, 409, 432–3. While undoubtedly forming something of a bridge to the exhortatory section to follow, 5.1 resumes and rounds off the slavery/freedom opposition introduced in 4.22 and recurrent throughout 4.23–31; cf. de Boer, ‘Paul's Quotation’, 372 n. 5.

15 ‘Apocalyptic Antinomies’, 420.

16 ‘The Covenants’, 169.

17 ‘The Covenants’, 170–1.

18 Barrett, C. K., ‘The Allegory of Abraham, Sarah, and Hagar in the Argument of Galatians’, Essays on Paul (Philadelphia: Westminster, 1982) 154-70Google Scholar; cf. Martyn, ‘The Covenants’, 170 n. 24; also Matera, Galatians, 175; Hays, ‘Galatians’, 300.

19 ‘The Covenants’, 170–1; cf. Matera, Galatians, 173.

20 ‘The Covenants’, 173–4.

21 The appearance of γεννᾶν in Gen 17.20 is not relevant to the births of Ishmael and Isaac.

22 ‘The Covenants’, 176–7; cf. also Witherington III, Grace in Galatia, 331.

23 ‘The Covenants’, 177; also Hays, ‘Galatians’, 302 n. 225.

24 ‘The Covenants’, 178–9; also Theological Issues, 201 n. 16.

25 ‘The Covenants’, 179.

26 Ibid., 180.

27 Ibid., 182–3. Martyn considerably develops this point concerning ‘Jerusalem’ in the essay ‘A Tale of Two Churches’, Theological Issues, 25–36, which reproduces Comment #46 in Galatians, 457–66.

28 ‘The Covenants’, 186–7.

29 Ibid., 187 (emphasis original).

30 Ibid., 188. It is interesting that Susan Eastman, while very sympathetic to Martyn's view in general, acknowledges the weakness of the distinction he draws between the Sinai covenant in itself and the covenant as imposed upon Gentiles; ‘the implicit link between Sinai and slavery remains’; see ‘Cast Out the Slave Woman’, 316–17 n. 16.

31 Campbell, W. S., ‘Covenant and New Covenant’, Dictionary of Paul and his Letters (ed. Hawthorne, G. F. et al. ; Downers Grove/Leicester, UK: Intervarsity, 1993) 179–83Google Scholar, esp. 179. It should be noted that in this article Campbell thoroughly endorses Martyn's interpretation of Gal 4.21–5.1, referring the ‘covenants’ of 4.24 to rival Christian missions.

32 Cf. Matera, Galatians, 126.

33 For Martyn, Paul ‘de-theologizes’ διαθήκη in Gal 3.15 (= ‘will’), in order to disassociate it from the Sinai covenant, and then ‘re-theologizes’ it (= ‘covenant’) in connection with God's promise to Abraham in 3.17 (Galatians, 338, 341, 344–6).

34 Cf. Moo, D., The Epistle to the Romans (NICNT; Grand Rapids, MI/Cambridge, UK: Eerdmans, 1996)Google Scholar 563. The selection of terms in the six-member list could be rather arbitrary and determined as much by formal considerations (parallel and assonance) as by strict consciousness of content; see Byrne, B., Romans (SP 6; Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 1996)Google Scholar 285, 287.

35 Cf. Byrne, Romans, 355.

36 Martyn, ‘The Covenants’, 191 n. 59; Hays, R. B., Echoes of Scripture in the Letters of Paul (New Haven/London: Yale University Press, 1989) 114–15Google Scholar; Witherington III, Grace in Galatia, 331–2; Bachmann, ‘Die andere Frau’, 148.

37 In the same note just mentioned (see preceding note) Martyn also makes the point that ‘[whereas] in Galatians 4 Paul speaks of his Law-free mission as the [Sarah] covenant itself, in 2 Corinthians 3 his mission is in the service of the [new] covenant’ (emphasis original). This, however, presumes the thesis being argued by Martyn that the ‘covenants’ in Galatia refer to missions, not to the covenants promulgated by the mission.

38 The imperfect tense expresses reiterated action; cf. Lambrecht, J., Second Corinthians (SP 8; Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 1999)Google Scholar 52.

39 The continuance of the proclamation of the ‘old covenant’ in this way explains Paul's use of the present tense in Gal 4.23–4, so eliminating the argument of Bachmann (‘Die andere Frau’, 150–1) that Paul is speaking of covenants here in a way different from that in 2 Corinthians 3.

40 Cf. Barrett, C. K., The Second Epistle to the Corinthians (BNTC; London: Black, 1973) 40–1Google Scholar; Lambrecht, Second Corinthians, 7.

41 The phrase, εἰς τὸ τέλος τοῦ καταργουμένου, at the end of v. 13 is often taken as referring to the ‘glory’ accompanying the proclamation of Sinai covenant (so, e.g., NRSV). However, if the reference were to the δόξα, the passive participle would be in the feminine. The neuter participle refers to Moses' ministry in a more general way and to the Mosaic covenant promulgated in that ministry; cf. Furnish, V., II Corinthians (AB 32A; New York: Doubleday, 1984)Google Scholar 207, 208; Lambrecht, Second Corinthians, 52.

42 Dunn, J. D. G., The Epistle to the Galatians (BNTC; London: Black, 1993) 249Google Scholar, suggests that in referring for the purpose of his exegesis to two covenants in Gal 4.24, Paul is in effect simply describing two ways of understanding the one covenant purpose of God through Abraham and his seed. Witherington III, Grace in Galatia, 330, rightly points out that this fails to grasp the radical character of Paul's argument.

43 So Matera, Galatians, 179.

44 Cf. W. Gutbrod, ‘Νόμος’, TDNT 4.1069–71; Beker, J. C., Paul the Apostle: The Triumph of God in Life and Thought (Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1980) 251–2Google Scholar; Betz, Galatians, 241; Witherington III, Grace in Galatia, 328; Sänger, D., ‘Sara, die Freie—unsere Mutter’, Neues Testament und hellenistisch-jüdische Alltagskultur (ed. Deines, R., Herzer, J., Niebuhr, K.-W.; WUNT 274; Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, 2011) 212–39Google Scholar, esp. 224 n. 43.

45 Cf. Byrne, B., ‘The Problem of Nόμος and the Relationship with Judaism in Romans’, CBQ 62 (2000) 294309Google Scholar, esp. 306–7.

46 I would agree with Martyn, ‘The Covenants’, 178–9, that the prepositional phrases in this verse – as also those in v. 29 – should be interpreted adverbially – though with an emphasis not simply upon the process but also upon the result, as is especially the case with ‘unto slavery’ (εἰς δουλείαν) in v. 24c.

47 On this rendering of Paul's phrase (rather than ‘are to be interpreted allegorically’), see especially Di Mattei, S., ‘Paul's Allegory of the Two Covenants (Gal 4.21–31) in Light of First-Century Hellenistic Rhetoric and Jewish Hermeneutics’, NTS 52 (2006) 102–22CrossRefGoogle Scholar, esp. 104–9; also Sänger, ‘Sara, die Freie’, 227–8 n. 60.

48 Explanations of how Paul sees a connection between the various entities (Hagar–Arabia–Sinai) in this troublesome verse, beset as it also is with textual variance, are legion and need not trouble us here. Most plausible would seem to be awareness of a Targumic tradition based upon a wordplay linking ‘Hagar’ with a mountainous region, Hagra, in Arabia; cf. Di Mattei, ‘Paul's Allegory’, 111–12, who gives further references to the discussion (112 n. 37).

49 Cf. Hays, ‘Galatians’, 303: ‘The link works, he [Paul] claims, because Hagar, Sinai, and Jerusalem are all in the “slavery” column’; also Schlier, H., Der Brief an die Galater (MeyerK; Göttingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 1971 5[14])Google Scholar 221; Mussner, Galaterbrief, 323; Löfstedt, T., ‘The Allegory of Hagar and Sarah: Gal 4.21–31’, EstBib 58 (2000) 475–94Google Scholar, esp. 480. Hays' attempt to find a second level of association of the present Jerusalem with slavery on the basis that ‘the city of Jerusalem symbolizes Israel, which is, empirically speaking, in slavery under the dominion of Rome’ (‘Galatians’, 303) would seem to introduce a consideration remote from the context; cf. Witherington III, Grace in Galatia, 333.

50 Cf. Galatians, 457–66 (Comment #46); ‘A Tale of Two Churches’, Theological Issues, 25–36.

51 Cf. Witherington III, Grace in Galatia, 334.

52 So Schlier, Galater, 223–4; de Boer, ‘Paul's Quotation’, 380; Löfstedt, ‘The Allegory of Hagar and Sarah’, 482–3; against this, cf. Betz, Galatians, 248; Dunn, Galatians, 254.

53 On the background and associations in Jewish literature of this sense of a heavenly Jerusalem, see Lincoln, A. T., Paradise Now and Not Yet: Studies in the Role of the Heavenly Dimension in Paul's Thought with Special Reference to his Eschatology (SNTSMS 43; Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1981) 932CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Schwemer, A. M., ‘Himmlische Stadt und himmlisches Bürgerrecht bei Paulus (Gal 4,26 und Phil 3,20)’, La Cité de Dieu/Die Stadt Gottes (ed. Hengel, M., Mittmann, S., Schwemer, A. M.; WUNT 129; Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, 2000) 195238Google Scholar, 238–43 (Bibliography); Witherington III, Grace in Galatia, 334–5.

54 ‘At this point cosmic and eschatological dualism intersect, so that the present manifestation of the future, embodied in the community itself, is understood as owing its life to the world above’ (Cosgrove, C. H., ‘The Law Has Given Sarah No Children (GAL. 4.21–30)’, NovT 29 (1987) 219–35Google Scholar, esp. 231). ‘Theologically, this image suggests that the hope of Israel rests in God's transcendent grace rather than in the results of a human historical process’ (Hays, Echoes of Scripture, 118); also, Lincoln, Paradise Now and Not Yet, 24–5; Dunn, Galatians, 254.

55 On the motif of barrenness as the point of connection, see Jobes, K. H., ‘Jerusalem, our Mother: Metalepsis and Intertextuality in Galatians 4.21–31’, WTJ 55 (1993) 299320Google Scholar; see also Betz, Galatians, 249; Cosgrove, ‘The Law’, 231; Sänger, ‘Sara, die Freie’, 236–7; de Boer, ‘Paul's Quotation’, 377–9; di Mattei, ‘Paul's Allegory’, 115, 118.

56 On v. 28 as signalling a new departure and separate stage of the argument, see Cosgrove, ‘The Law’, 222.

57 Cf. Martyn, ‘The Covenants’, 180; Matera, Galatians, 178; Hays, ‘Galatians’, 305–6; de Boer, ‘Paul's Quotation’, 382–3; earlier, Burton, Galatians, 266; Mussner, Galaterbrief, 330–1.

58 Cf. Schlier, Galater, 226–7; Dunn, Galatians, 256–7; Cosgrove, ‘The Law’, 224 n. 26, 229.

59 Martyn, ‘The Covenants’, 187; Matera, Galatians, 178; Hays, ‘Galatians’, 306.

60 Cf. Sänger, ‘Sara, die Freie’, 230 n. 66.

61 On taking v. 30, introduced by διό, closely with 5.1 as a warning conclusion and bridge to the exhortatory section to follow, cf. Cosgrove, ‘The Law’, 232–3.

62 ‘The Covenants’, 174.

63 Ibid., 175.

64 ibid. 177, followed by Hays, ‘Galatians’, 302; Bachmann, ‘Die andere Frau’, 150–1, sees the present tense of γεννῶσα as significant for indicating a mission currently being carried out. However, the tense can just as easily designate the continued birth of offspring into the Sinai covenant so long as Israel persists in adherence to that covenant, as noted above.

65 Cf. Eastman, ‘Cast Out the Slave Woman’, 317; also Bachmann, ‘Die andere Frau’, 144 n. 46. Martyn does note the difficulty briefly in ‘The Two Covenants’, 191 n. 13, but his bare reference to Paul's description of his mission in 2 Corinthians 3 as being ‘in the service [emphasis original] of the (new) covenant’ does not solve the problem, as Eastman points out.

66 Cf. Di Mattei, ‘Paul's Allegory’, 121–2. This is to dispute the sense of synthesis between the two covenants through the Spirit proposed by Brawley, ‘Contextuality’ (see n. 9 above).

67 Cf. Dunn, Galatians, 259.

68 However, as Susan G. Eastman has plausibly argued in a recent study (Israel and the Mercy of God: A Re-Reading of Galatians 6.16 and Romans 9–11’, NTS 53 (2010) 367–95Google Scholar), there are good grounds for seeing in Paul's prayer-wish for ‘mercy upon the Israel of God’ in Gal 6.16 a foreshadowing of the discussion of Israel's destiny in Romans 11, where divine ‘mercy’ is – unusually for Paul – a significant motif. I am indebted to John Barclay for drawing attention to this in the SNTS seminar where this paper was originally discussed.

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