Galatians 3:28—Neither Jew nor Greek, Slave nor Free, Male and Female

As published in Biblical Archaeology Review, January/February 2018


Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial in Washington, DC. Photo: Robin Ngo.

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).


The Apostle Paul, Rembrandt van Rijn (and Workshop?), c. 1657. Widener Collection; on display at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, DC.

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.

In the free eBook Paul: Jewish Law and Early Christianity, learn about the cultural contexts for the theology of Paul and how Jewish traditions and law extended into early Christianity through Paul’s dual roles as a Christian missionary and a Pharisee.

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-neutelKarin 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).


Related reading in Bible History Daily:

Paul’s First Missionary Journey through Perga and Pisidian Antioch

The Quest for the Historical Paul by James Tabor

Biblical Riot at Ephesus: The Archaeological Context
Archaeology shines light on the riot against Paul at Ephesus

Barnabas: An Encouraging Early Church Leader by Robin Gallaher Branch

What Was Life Like for Roman Slaves?

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32 Responses

  1. Terry L Pace says:

    I’ve subscribed to BAR for maybe 20 years. Please, BAR, stick to archaeology and don’t put this kind of trash in it. She concludes “Paul’s vision for how we would live together in an ideal society” is for everyone to stop getting married. Really? Her study of Gal. 3:28 is completely removed from its own context, much less the clear teaching of the rest of the New Testament, including Paul’s other writings. The point of v28 is that Christians are “all one in Christ Jesus.” Since they are one, Christians should not think of themselves as “Jew nor Greek, slave nor free” and so on. Galatians was written to stop some Jewish Christians who were saying, among other things, that Gentile Christians should be circumcised. See Gal.5:1-14.

  2. Michael Shubeck says:

    The premise of this article is unsupported by the article:
    “This ideal of unity that Paul shared with his contemporaries was influenced by cosmopolitanism, a popular philosophical idea in the early Roman Empire.”
    Correlation of ideas does not prove causation.

  3. Daniel Horwitz says:

    The article notes “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.”
    I think that from Paul’s point of view, “neither black nor white” would be covered by “Jew or Gentile”, because it is about ethnicity. I think Paul might include “neither healthy nor disabled” if he were enumerating the possibilities. My guess is that he limited it to three to maintain the flow of the argument. I doubt that Paul would include “neither gay nor straight” because he talks about homosexual behavior as a choice to be avoided in other parts of his letters.

  4. Jo says:

    The apostle Paul opens the letter to the churches in Galatia with these words: “I want you to know brothers and sisters, that the gospel I preach is not of human origin. I did not receive it from any man, nor was I taught it; rather I received it by revelation from Jesus Christ.” Galatians 1:11-12. The author does not make an acceptable argument that the concept of “cosmopolitanism” was received by Paul by revelation from Jesus Christ as part of the gospel.

    The passage is about the equality of souls through salvation in Jesus Christ, regardless of their position under the Mosaic covenant; and that gentile converts are not required to live according to the Law. Paul is explaining to the Galatians that, as Gentile converts to Christ, they are not bound by the Jewish Law, in opposition to what the Judaizers were teaching at the time, but are saved by faith in Christ alone, as Christ was the promised offspring of Abraham through whom all nations would be blessed.

    Let us look at the verse in context:
    “Why then the [Mosaic] Law? It was added because of transgressions, until the offspring should come to whom the promise had been made, and it was put in place through Angels by an intermediary. Now an intermediary implies more than one, but God is one. Is the [Mosaic] Law then contrary to the promises of God? Certainly not! For if a law had been given that could give life, then righteousness would indeed be by the Law. But the Scripture imprisoned everything under sin, so that the promise by faith in Jesus Christ might be given to those who believe. Now before faith came, we were held captive under the Law, imprisoned until the coming faith would be revealed. So then, the Law was our guardian until Christ came, in order that we might be justified by faith. But now that faith has come we are no longer under a guardian, for in Christ Jesus you are all sons of God, through faith. For as many of you who were baptized into Christ have put on Christ. There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is no male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus. And if you are Christ’s, then you are Abraham’s offspring, heirs according to the promise.” ‭‭Galatians‬ ‭3:19-29‬ ‭ESV‬‬

    I agree with a previous poster that BAR should stick with archaeology and leave theology to the church.

    1. Virgil says:

      So, by Faith IN Jesus Christ one is Justified yet still have to Live by the Law. For obedience of the Law is the Work Through Jesus Christ. For Faith without Work is dead.

  5. John says:

    Christians are no longer under the law; Jesus was born under the Law and he kept it perfectly. Galatians 4:4. When Jesus was asked by a man, well versed in the law, what is the greatest commandment; Jesus replied that it was love of God and love of neighbour. The Mosaic Law, including the ‘ten commandments’ was done away with when Jesus was put to death Colossians 2:13, 14; Hebrews 10:1; Galatians 3:13; Romans 10:4; Romans 7:6; Romans 13:8-10; Colossians 2:16; Galatians 4:10, 11 etc., etc
    Acts 15:28, 29 shows that even the Sabbath was not observed by Christians.
    It wasn’t until Constantine the ‘Great’ when he decreed that Sunday would be a holy day……..and that was because it was tied up with sun worship, and everyone had to observe it, except farmers, they had to work.

  6. Bryant Williams III says:


    I sometimes wonder where the exegesis and eisigesis begins and ends. That is always the danger when we look at text, speech, etc.
    The context, context, and context is the most important part of exegesis and interpretation. One not only translates the text from the Source Language (SL) to the Target Language (TL), but one also needs to understand and interpret the underlying genre, grammare, syntax, idioms, etc. I know that I am not saying anything new to you.
    What is the Purpose of the Law? Several answers are given. First, the Purpose of the Law was because of transgressions, i.e. a means to checking sin so that one would know what sin is. It acted as a restraint. Second, the Purpose of the Law was to confirm that a Covenant between God and Man (the nation of Israel) had been sealed with the Two Tablets of the Law (Ten Words-each copy) acting as witnesses for the two parties to be placed in the Ark of the Covenant.
    The Promise to Abraham was an Unconditional Covenant or Promise which was irrevocable (Romans 11:29). Thus, the Law could not nullify the Promise to Abraham since the Promise was done by faith not confirmed by Law.
    The Purpose of the Law was to act as a guardian or school master until the believer reached the age of maturity. Until then, the believer, although an heir, was no different from any other person of the household.
    Therefore, any person whether ethnic group (Jew or Gentile), social status (slave or free), or gender (male or female) would prevent one from coming to salvation in Christ. Thus, becoming an heir of the Promise.
    If there is one thing that the group called Christians were known for was that as “little Christs” it was that “loved one another” and did not allow ethnicity, social status or gender to interfere with one’s salvation and God, i.e. one’s justification not one’s role in society or church.

  7. Helen says:

    Yet marriage is a primary metaphor for the Church, the Bride of Christ, and Jesus, the Bridegroom.

  8. georgeb140 says:

    I’m always a little surprised when someone quotes Paul’s “neither Jew nor Greek” and discuss it in the context of Jews vs. **the** Greeks. This wouldn’t make any sense at all in a Roman Empire, where the Greek language might have enjoyed pre-eminence in the Holy Land, but has no relevance to the multi-ethnic nature of the Empire.

    The dynamic tension between “Jews vs. Greek” only makes sense in view of the Jewish slang reference to Samaritans. The New Testament is full of this conflict.

    Jesus is quoted in John 4:21: “Jesus saith unto her, Woman, believe me, the hour cometh, when ye shall neither in this mountain [Gerizim], nor yet at Jerusalem, worship the Father.” Truly? What could be more impossible than a time when Samaritans [“those Greeks”] and Jews would worship together … as unlikely as slave and non-slave joining together as equals.

    There are various opinions of when exactly the division between the Samaritans and Jews became first manifest, it is not to hard to see an origin during the Maccabeean period when the Samaritans petitioned the Greeks not to punish them for the charges made against the Jews, “insisting that they were distinct in race and customs.” Feldman, Louis. “Studies in Hellenistic Judaism” (E.J. Brill, NY, 1996), p. 120-121.

    While 2 Macc. 6:1-2 refers to the re-named Samaritan Temple as Zeus Xenios (Zeus Hospitable), Josephus gives the name as Zeus Hellenios, or Greek Zeus (Josephus, Ant. 12.258-264). Clearly, in the mind of Josephus, the Samaritans had gone over to the Greeks. And a quiet slur against the Samaritans (i.e., “those Greeks”) would have easily developed out of ear-shot of the real Greeks.

  9. Sikeli says:

    No one can take our Identities away from us as Jews, Greeks, male or Female etc, etc, except God who gave and will take….Thanks be to the Almighty.
    I believe that we can only live and share what life has provided. No matter how careful or hard we read the Bible, it’s how we interpret it that counts. Contextualising is very important as Biblical translations and interpretations has been going on for hundreds of centuries and that if we take them literally, we are stuck. Dr MLK Jnr was interpreting more than 50 years ago, and we have to interpret Pauls passage now according to 2018.
    2017 has gone and 2019 is yet to come and maybe we can hope for another dream or vision and work ourselves towards it for the sake of a better world to live in, no matter whether you’re Jew, Greek, Male nor Female etc, etc.

  10. arturol7 says:

    “Paul’s teachings on marriage are, themselves, indicative of his conviction to the importance of marriage in God’s eternal plan. “Marriage is honourable in all,” (Hebrews 13:4) Paul wrote, and “neither is the man without the woman, neither the woman without the man, in the Lord” (1 Corinthians 11:11). Priesthood leaders, Paul counseled, such as bishops, were to be married. In his instructions to Timothy, Paul wrote: “A bishop then must be blameless, the husband of one wife, vigilant, sober, of good behaviour, given to hospitality, apt to teach” (1 Timothy 3:2). Similar counsel was given to Titus (see Titus 1:6). Prophesying of the apostasy of the last days, Paul warned, “In the latter times some shall depart from the faith, . . . forbidding to marry” (1 Timothy 4:1, 3). It would be inconsistent for Paul to characterize those who would forbid or counsel against marriage as having departed from the faith if he were himself antimarriage. So these teachings, as well as others Paul gave during his apostolic ministry, are testaments to the favorable feelings he had toward marriage.”

    From this article:

  11. Bill Long says:

    Look at the context. He is talking about justification by faith not by the keeping of the law. The Jewish influence was trying to make all who would be Christian first become Jews (be circumcised) and be saved by law keeping. Paul’s answer has nothing directly to say about social structure but that both Jew and Gentile are justified the same way ; in fact ALL are justified by faith in Christ no matter what your race; gender or social status is. Becoming a Christian will change how we see and treat one another as taught in the golden rule and so many other texts but not in this one

  12. macd says:

    Sorry, this interpretation is a little too self serving rather than honest.

  13. derrickm11 says:

    I like the idea of having various writers with different perspectives but only when its in agreement with the scriptures. This “contemporary” view point is in conflict with some basic clear teachings in the Bible when it comes to marriage and sexual orientation. I think its a mistake to read more into a passage of scripture, in order use it to fit today’s society. God doesn’t change and His words last forever (1 Peter 1:25).

  14. Thanks for your thoughts. The Apostle Paul wrote to believers concerning their new position in Christ. This was not a letter directed to the world at large but rather the Church, as they were prayerfully considering how to adjust to the “everyone welcome” body of Christ that was now mixed with Gentiles. It is my opinion Paul was not speaking to then modern day issues within the culture outside of the Church, but rather saying when one comes to Christ as a believer and is changed by His presence they become one within the body of Christ. This understanding taught equality in each of the categories mentioned. Of course the culture of the world will not be changed until the Prince of Peace sets up His rule. Blessings…

  15. John Fewkes says:

    May Paul not be allowed to speak for himself? To take Gal. 3:28 out of the salvation language context and elevate the slightest inference to a doctrinal statement to serve the interests of an egalitarian or evangelical feminist paradigm does great disservice to Paul’s writings.

    BAR should stick to archeology and stay out of theology.

  16. David C says:

    Rather, Paul was fighting for Christian brotherhood while living in a LOST world. Which certainly NOT the message of any “contemporaries” – He even had to fight this out with some of his fellow apostles. Paul is focused on the brotherhood of believers in Christ. Paul’s missionary preaching of Christ’s message changed the world. Thank God for that!!

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