Unsettled Christianity

Gloria Dei homo vivens – St Irenaeus
April 7th, 2015 by Joel Watts

Some writers on Galatians 3.13 and the curse

Justin the Philosopher

Justin the Philosopher (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I am doing some work on Galatians 3.13 in early Christian writers. I’ve included Philo and the Epistle of Barnabas in here as well for various reasons. They, like Paul, are interpreting Deuteronomy 21.22. The others are interpreting Paul.

St. Ambrose:

As, then, He was made sin and a curse not on His own account but on ours, so He became subject in us not for His own sake but for ours, being not in subjection in His eternal Nature, nor accursed in His eternal Nature. “For cursed is every one that hangeth on a tree.” Cursed He was, for He bore our curses; in subjection, also, for He took upon Him our subjection, but in the assumption of the form of a servant, not in the glory of God; so that whilst he makes Himself a partaker of our weakness in the flesh, He makes us partakers of the divine Nature in His power. But neither in one nor the other have we any natural fellowship with the heavenly Generation of Christ, nor is there any subjection of the Godhead in Christ. But as the Apostle has said that on Him through that flesh which is the pledge of our salvation, we sit in heavenly places,9 though certainly not sitting ourselves, so also He is said to be subject in us through the assumption of our nature.1

St. Athanasius:

And thus much in reply to those without who pile up arguments for themselves. But if any of our own people also inquire, not from love of debate, but from love of learning, why He suffered death in none other way save on the Cross, let him also be told that no other way than this was good for us, and that it was well that the Lord suffered this for our sakes. 2. For if He came Himself to bear the curse laid upon us, how else could He have “become a curse,” unless He received the death set for a curse? and that is the Cross. For this is exactly what is written: “Cursed is he that hangeth on a tree.” 3. Again, if the Lord’s death is the ransom of all, and by His death “the middle wall of partition” is broken down, and the calling of the nations is brought about, how would He have called us to Him, had He not been crucified?2

St. John Damascene:

CHAPTER XXV

Concerning the Appropriation.

It is to be observed that there are two appropriations: one that is natural and essential, and one that is personal and relative. The natural and essential one is that by which our Lord in His love for man took on Himself our nature and all our natural attributes, becoming in nature and truth man, and making trial of that which is natural: but the personal and relative appropriation is when any one assumes the person of another relatively, for instance, out of pity or love, and in his place utters words concerning him that have no connection with himself. And it was in this way that our Lord appropriated both our curse and our desertion, and such other things as are not natural: not that He Himself was or became such, but that He took upon Himself our personality and ranked Himself as one of us. Such is the meaning in which this phrase is to be taken: Being made a curse for our sakes.3

The Epistle of Barnabas:

7.7-10: But the other one—what must they do with it? Accursed, saith He, is the one. Give heed how the type of Jesus is revealed. And do ye all spit upon it and goad it, and place scarlet wool about its head, and so let it be cast into the wilderness. And when it is so done, he that taketh the goat into the wilderness leadeth it, and taketh off the wool, and putteth it upon the branch which is called Rachia, the same whereof we are wont to eat the shoots when we find them in the country. Of this briar alone is the fruit thus sweet. What then meaneth this? Give heed. The one for the altar, and the other accursed. And moreover the accursed one crowned. For they shall see Him in that day wearing the long scarlet robe about His flesh, and shall say, Is not this He, Whom once we crucified and set at nought and spat upon; verily this was He, Who then said that He was the Son of God. 10For how is He like the goat?4

I find this interesting, since Barnabas is applying the Day of Atonement sacrifice to Christ, rather than the Passover lamb. Thus, he seems to interpret “curse” in this light, so that Jesus is bearing our sins.

St. Justin Martyr:

‘As God ordered the sign to be made by the brazen serpent,’ I went on, ‘and yet is not guilty [of the crime of making graven images], so in the Law a curse is placed upon men who are crucified, but not upon the Christ of God, by whom are saved all who have committed deeds deserving a curse.’5

Philo:

On Posterity of Cain and his Exile, VIII. (24) On this account it is written in the curses contained in scripture, “Thou shalt never rest; nor shall there be any rest for the sole of thy foot.” And, a little afterwards, we read that, “Thy life shall hang in doubt before them.”8 For it is the nature of the foolish man, who is always being tossed about in a manner contrary to right reason, to be hostile to tranquillity and rest, and not to stand firmly or with a sure foundation on any doctrine whatever. (25) Accordingly he is full of different opinions at different times, and sometimes, even in the same circumstances, without any new occurrence having arisen to affect them, he will be perfectly contrary to himself,—now great, now little, now hostile, now friendly; and, in short, he will, so to say, be everything that is most inconsistent in a moment of time. And, as the law-giver says, “All his life shall hang in doubt before him;” having no firm footing, but being constantly tossed about by opposing circumstances, which drag it different ways. (26) On which account Moses says, in another place, “Cursed of God is he that hangeth on a tree;” because what he ought to hang upon is God.

But such a man has, of his own accord, bound himself to the body, which is a wooden burden upon us, exchanging hope for desire and a perfect hope for the greatest of evils; for hope, being the expectation of good things, causes the mind to depend upon the bounteous God; but appetite, creating only unreasonable desires, depends on the body, which nature has made to be a sort of receptacle and abode for the soul.6

Martyrdom of Polycarp:

2.3 And giving heed unto the grace of Christ they despised the tortures of this world, purchasing at the cost of one hour a release from eternal punishment. And they found the fire of their inhuman torturers cold: for they set before their eyes the escape from the eternal fire which is never quenched; while with the eyes of their heart they gazed upon the good things which are reserved for those that endure patiently, things which neither ear hath heard nor eye hath seen, neither have they entered into the heart of man, but were shown by the Lord to them, for they were no longer men but angels already.

  1. Ambrose of Milan, “Exposition of the Christian Faith,” in St. Ambrose: Select Works and Letters (ed. Philip Schaff and Henry Wace; trans. H. de Romestin, E. de Romestin, and H. T. F. Duckworth; vol. 10; A Select Library of the Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers of the Christian Church, Second Series; New York: Christian Literature Company, 1896), 10306.
  2. Athanasius of Alexandria, “On the Incarnation of the Word,” in St. Athanasius: Select Works and Letters (ed. Philip Schaff and Henry Wace; trans. Archibald T. Robertson; vol. 4; A Select Library of the Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers of the Christian Church, Second Series; New York: Christian Literature Company, 1892), 449
  3. John Damascene, “An Exact Exposition of the Orthodox Faith,” in St. Hilary of Poitiers, John of Damascus (ed. Philip Schaff and Henry Wace; trans. S. D. F. Salmond; vol. 9b; A Select Library of the Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers of the Christian Church, Second Series; New York: Christian Literature Company, 1899), 9b71.
  4. Joseph Barber Lightfoot and J. R. Harmer, The Apostolic Fathers (London: Macmillan and Co., 1891), 275–276.
  5. Thomas B. Falls with Justin Martyr, The First Apology, The Second Apology, Dialogue with Trypho, Exhortation to the Greeks, Discourse to the Greeks, The Monarchy or The Rule of God (vol. 6; The Fathers of the Church; Washington, DC: The Catholic University of America Press, 1948), 298.
  6. Charles Duke Yonge with Philo of Alexandria, The Works of Philo: Complete and Unabridged (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, 1995), 134.
Joel Watts
Watts holds a MA in Theological Studies from United Theological Seminary. He is currently a Ph.D. student at the University of the Free State, analyzing Paul’s model of atonement in Galatians, as well as seeking an MA in Clinical Mental Health at Adams State University. He is the author of Mimetic Criticism of the Gospel of Mark: Introduction and Commentary (Wipf and Stock, 2013), a co-editor and contributor to From Fear to Faith: Stories of Hitting Spiritual Walls (Energion, 2013), and Praying in God's Theater, Meditations on the Book of Revelation (Wipf and Stock, 2014).

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