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The Puzzle of the Pedagogue in Galatians 3:24–25

The Greek term paidagōs, from which we get our English pedagogue, has been given an array of translations and suggested translations: guardian, tutor, schoolmaster, disciplinarian, child-conductor, child-attendant, baby-sitter, custodian, and others. Sometimes it is translated as a verb, such as “put in charge.”

What makes this word interesting to translate is that it does not really have an English equivalent. It refers to someone who was usually a servant who was given the charge of overseeing a child to school and back until the child was of age to assume his responsibilities without supervision. This oversight could extend to discipline when the child disobeyed and reinforce the child’s education by reviewing his day’s lessons.

What makes it difficult to choose from the translations above is that this term is a metaphor for the Mosaic Law, which shapes how we perceive a large portion of Scripture, and what is yet more difficult to discern is just what point or points of similarity Paul intended between a paidagōs and the Law by using this metaphor.

“Context is king,” as one my professors used to say, and that maxim may be the key to determining the meaning of paidagōs in this passage.

In context, Paul has already been describing the Mosaic Law along the lines of its negative functions. It cannot justify (Gal 2:16), it curses those who do not obey it perfectly (Gal 3:10), and it gives no eternal inheritance to its adherents (Gal 3:18). If the law leaves its adherents in such shambles, the natural question is, “Why then the law?” (Gal 3:19). Paul vaguely answered his own question with the brief phrase “because of transgressions” (Gal 3:19; or, “for the sake of transgressions”), and his vagueness has led to a number of suggestions as to this phrase’s meaning. We at least know that the phrase uses the term “transgressions,” and a transgression is a specific kind of sin in which the sinner knowingly violates the Law.

Moving further along in the context, Paul relates the Law to sin by referring to the Law as “Scripture” which has “imprisoned everything under sin” (Gal 3:22). For all that we could include in “everything,” we can at least include ourselves as sinners, and we see that we, too, are imprisoned by the Law in Paul’s statement, “we were held under custody by the law, imprisoned until the coming faith would be revealed” (Gal 3:23). If the Law was added for the sake of defining sin and showing sinners how they transgress the commands of God, and if man is incapable of perfectly obeying the law, then the Law imprisons and holds us in custody by promising life for doing it but never giving life because we can never live up to its demands.

Insomuch as the Law was meant to teach these very truths, the Law corresponds to the teaching function of a paidagōs. And, because the Law was meant to last until Christ, its temporality corresponds to a paidagōs as well. If the penalty of the Law is in view (i.e., imprisonment, custody), then maybe there is a notion of severity that could correspond to a paidagōs as well.

About David Huffstutler

David pastors First Baptist Church in Rockford, IL, serves as a chaplain for his local police department, and teaches as adjunct faculty at Bob Jones University. David holds a Ph. D. in Applied Theology from Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary. His concentration in Christian Leadership focuses his contributions to pastoral and practical theology.