The passage which begins with the last verses of Galatians 3 and continues through chapter 4 is the key text for reading this letter, and I read it as the hermeneutical key to Paul altogether. It is here that Paul makes most explicitly and passionately clear his stake in Christ, namely the erasure of human difference, primarily the difference between Jew and gentile but also that between man and woman, freeman and slave. In this section Paul also exposes the interpretative means by which erasure of difference is to be accomplished, in the famous allegory of Galatians 4:21–31. Making this the moral center of Paul's entire corpus is a hermeneutical choice, one which while not, of course, ineluctable generates a strong, (nearly) coherent, and important meaning for his work. Other choices can be made to center one's reading of Paul, and other results will obtain from them, including the moral monstrosity of reading all of Paul as generated by the vicious anti-Semitism of the possibly spurious 1 Thessalonians 2:14, engaged in by a recent writer (Hamerton-Kelly 1992).
“There is neither Jew nor Greek”
For you are all children of God through faith in Christ Jesus. For as many of you as were baptized into Christ have put on Christ [saying]: “There is neither Jew nor Greek; there is neither slave nor freeman; there is no male and female. For you are all one in Christ Jesus.” If, however, you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham's offspring, heirs according to the promise.
In Deuteronomy 14:1 (and quite a few other places) we find the Jews referred to as the “children of God.” Paul's theme in Galatians is his dissent from the notion that one particular people could ever be the children of God to the exclusion of other peoples, while other Christians sought to persuade his Galatian converts to become Jews as a condition of salvation. To disprove that claim and convince the Galatians of the rightness of his approach to Christianity, Paul cites the baptismal formula which the Galatians themselves had recited or heard recited at the time of their baptism. Paul's citation of a traditional baptismal liturgy here is thus very much to the point and cannot be adduced as evidence that this statement is not central and vitally important to him. Moreover, he interprets the text. In the baptism there was a new birth (or a new creation), which is understood as substituting an allegorical genealogy for a literal one. In Christ, that is, in baptism, all the differences that mark off one body from another as Jew or Greek (circumcision considered a “natural” mark of the Jew!–Romans 2:27), male or female, slave or free, are effaced, for in the Spirit such marks do not exist. Thus, in this passage of Galatians that I have chosen as my key for unlocking Paul, Paul marks the analogous statuses of gender and ethnicity and the transcendence of both in the spirit: “For you are all children of God through faith in Christ Jesus.”
Accordingly, if one belongs to Christ, then one participates in the allegorical meaning of the promise to the “seed,” an allegorical meaning of genealogy already hinted at in the biblical text itself, when it said that in “Abraham all nations would be blessed,” and even more when it interpreted his name as “Father to many nations.” The individual body itself is replaced by its allegorical reference, the body of Christ of which all the baptized are part. This is what the “putting on” of Christ means, which is certainly a reference to the topos of the body as a garment, as in the Dominical saying Macdonald identifies plausibly as the source of (or if Macdonald is not accepted, certainly a reflex or analog of ) the baptismal formula itself, to wit “when ye trample on the garment of shame, when the Two become One, and Male with Female neither male nor female.” Alan Segal's comparisons with Second Enoch also seem apposite here, if the text can be seen as pre-Pauline (or if not, perhaps still significant as an early reflex or interpretation of the phenomenon):
[Enoch's] transformation is effected through a change of clothing. The clothing functions as or symbolizes Enoch's new, immortal flesh, as they are immortal clothes emanating from the throne room, not from the earth. This parallels Paul's future [?] glorification of the mortal body in 2 Cor. 5:1–10. Enoch has been put in the body of an angel, or he is in the manlike figure in 1 Enoch 71. This could explain Paul's use of the peculiar terminology in Christ. (Segal 1990, 48–49, 62)
By entering into the body of Christ in the spirit, people become one with the seed to which the promise was made and thus themselves heirs of Abraham and children of God according to the promise. The garment of shame having been put off in the baptism and the spiritual body of Christ having been put on, the Galatians now propose by agreeing to circumcision, to return and put on again the garment of shame. They will thus show themselves precisely to be outside of the covenantal promise and not within it as Paul's Jerusalem opponents would have it. 4:19 should also be understood in this light. Christ taking shape “in you” means both within each individual in the ecstatic experience and through that their putting off of the body and entering into the spiritual body of Christ. Scholars have recognized that Paul is citing here a traditional formula, one that refers back, moreover, to Genesis 1:27—“Male and female created he them”—as well as to the “myth of the primal androgyne” (Meeks 1973; Macdonald 1987). For Paul male-and-female means neither male nor female in the non-corporeal body of the risen Christ. The individual body itself is replaced by its allegorical referent, the body of Christ of which all the baptized are part. The parallel citation of the formula in 1 Corinthians 12:13 makes this even more explicit: “For in one spirit we were all baptized into one body.”
Paul, however, adds to this traditional expression of the erasure of gender in the spirit the further erasure of ethnicity. Both of these impulses are motivated, I argue, by the same desire for univocity—“when the two become one.” In the process of baptism in the spirit the marks of ethnos, gender, and class are all erased in the ascension to a univocity and universality of human essence which is beyond and outside of the body. Here allegoresis, the ultimate hermeneutical mode of logocentric discourse, unites both gender and ethnic identity as the secondary and devalued terms of the same binary opposition. This attitude toward ethnicity was, of course, not unique to Paul but once more part of a general Hellenistic longing for the univocal and the universal. Unique to Paul is the hermeneutic shift by which the allegorized particular Israel yields the universal “in Christ Jesus.” The notion, however, that the body is the site of the particular and the spirit of the universal has deep roots in Greek culture.