How would we live together in an ideal society?
At the end of his famous “I Have a Dream” speech, delivered on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial in 1963, civil rights activist Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. alludes to the apostle Paul’s words in Galatians 3:28: “There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus” (NRSV). In her Biblical Views column in the January/February 2018 issue of BAR, republished in full below, Biblical scholar Karin Neutel examines Paul’s vision for how we would live together in an ideal society.—Ed.
How would we live together in an ideal society? In his letters, the apostle Paul formulated something of an answer to this question. Paul expected an imminent cosmic change, a new creation ushered in by the death and resurrection of the Messiah. Prominent in his vision of this new creation was the fact that all the nations of the world would worship the one true God, together with Israel. Consequently, the apostle called upon gentiles to abandon their gods, to accept God’s Messiah, and to live “in Christ,” in expectation of what was about to happen. “In Christ,” Paul writes, “there is neither Jew nor Greek, neither slave nor free, nor male and female” (Galatians 3:28).
This verse seems to strike an almost modern note about human equality. Contemporary interpreters have updated Paul’s statement and added pairs to the three original ones: “neither gay nor straight,” “neither healthy nor disabled,” and “neither black nor white.” While these creative rewritings make Paul’s statement speak to new situations, they also highlight something about the original: These three pairs must have been as relevant in the first century, as the additional categories are today.
So why does Paul put exactly these categories together? The three pairs that Paul includes in this verse all played a role in first-century conceptions of what an ideal world would look like. When imagining ideal or utopian communities, Paul’s contemporaries picture different peoples living together in one homogeneous group under one law—without ethnic distinction. They also imagine societies where people are not divided into households and families, but all live as “brothers,” as equals. Such communities could reject property, slavery, and marriage, since in the minds of first-century philosophers, doing away with possessions, slaves, and wives meant removing the major causes of social conflict. When Paul sums up the community of those who live “in Christ,” he uses categories that reflect such first-century ideals.
This ideal of unity that Paul shared with his contemporaries was influenced by cosmopolitanism, a popular philosophical idea in the early Roman Empire. Cosmopolitanism’s main component was the conviction that all people are first and foremost citizens of the cosmos, rather than of their local communities. This shared cosmic origin was thought to connect all people with each other and with the divine, and it suggested that all people could live in a unified society, rather than divided into different ethnic and geographic communities. Cosmopolitanism had implications not only for contemporary ideas about ethnic difference, but also for ideas about the positions of slave and free and about marriage and the relationship between husband and wife. It therefore affected all three of the pairs mentioned by Paul. We can see how this works if we take a closer look at each of the pairs.
Like other first-century Jews, Paul expected that in the end time, people from the nations would turn to the God of Israel. In Paul’s letters, this expectation is expressed specifically in terms that have a cosmopolitan ring to them, in that they appeal to this ideal of ethnic unity. When he writes that both Jews and non-Jews can be sons of Abraham together (Romans 4:9–12), or that there is no difference between Jew and gentile (Romans 10:12), Paul denies the relevance of ethnic distinctions, as was characteristic of cosmopolitanism. In these statements, the cosmopolitan mood of the time shines through and takes on a clearly Jewish color.
Attitudes toward slaves were also influenced by the cosmopolitan notion that all people are fundamentally connected. Seen in a cosmopolitan light, slavery constituted a challenge to the brotherhood of all human beings. Even though conventional society was thought to require slavery, and cosmopolitan thought did not challenge this, it could imagine a utopian society as one without slaves, where people either shared tasks equally or simply had no need of labor. Paul’s statements about slaves and free people draw on such ideals, most clearly when he writes that there is “neither slave nor free.”
When it comes to the third pair, male-female, things get a little more complicated. Although it may seem obvious to contemporary readers that this pair refers to gender difference, or gender equality, from an ancient perspective it more likely points to the pairing off of men and women in marriage and procreation.
The distinctive formulation of the third pair, “male and female,” suggests a citation from Genesis 1:27. This passage describes the creation of male and female and God’s instruction to them to be fruitful, to multiply, and to fill the world. It is exactly this world—with its focus of men and women, and on procreation—that Paul expects to end. Marriage will end along with it, as he writes in the well-known passage about living “as if not.” Here Paul instructs men who have wives to live as if they do not have wives “because the forms of this world are passing away” (1 Corinthians 7:29–31). Paul’s own advice—highly unusual at the time—that both men and women should not marry if they could avoid it, confirms how he thought about the practice of marriage (1 Corinthians 7:7–9, 1 Corinthians 32–40).
The cosmopolitan worldview understood marriage as a fundamental tie that formed the primary connection between a man and the rest of humanity. From that first and most intimate bond, all other social relationships extended. Given its important role in ensuring legitimate offspring, the handing down of property, and the continuation of society, it is no wonder that the breakdown of the current world—and the arrival of a new and ideal creation—was thought to encompass the end of marriage.
Seen in the light of first-century cosmopolitan ideals, Paul’s declaration of unity thus takes on a distinctly ancient form. It does not proclaim the equality of all people, regardless of their social positions, as is sometimes assumed by readers today. Rather, it envisages a social ideal of harmony and connection, where those factors in society that create division and conflict have been removed.
Paul’s conviction that he was called at this crucial moment to participate in God’s ultimate plan for the world caused him to imagine what a new and ideal creation would be like and how people would live in such a new creation. His summary of this ideal as “neither Jew nor Greek, neither slave nor free, nor male and female” resonated with the concerns expressed by his contemporaries.
Biblical Views: “Neither Jew nor Greek, Slave nor Free, Male and Female” by Karin Neutel originally appeared in the January/February 2018 issue of Biblical Archaeology Review. It was first republished in Bible History Daily on January 12, 2018.
Karin Neutel is a postdoctoral fellow at the University of Oslo in Norway. Her most recent book is A Cosmopolitan Ideal: Paul’s Declaration ‘Neither Jew Nor Greek, Neither Slave Nor Free, Nor Male and Female’ in the Context of First-Century Thought (Bloomsbury T&T Clark, 2015).
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