“This only I want to learn from you: did you receive the spirit out of works of law or out of hearing of faith? Are you so senseless? Having begun [in] spirit, are you now being perfected [in] flesh?” (Galatians 3:2-3).1
The readers had apparently discounted much of what they had originally learned from Paul, so now he (sarcastically) wants to “learn” from them. The questions asked (in view of what is said later in the epistle) indicate they had been led to believe that in order to be spiritually “perfected,” one must submit to the Jewish rite of circumcision (cf. Acts 15:1, 5, 24; Phil. 3:2-3), along with other ritualistic “works of law,” like food restrictions (2:12) and special days (4:9-11). Paul considers such an idea absurd.
He wants them to remember the beginning of their Christian experience (cf. 1 Cor. 2:1-5; 2 Cor. 1:19; 1 Thess. 1:5; 2:13). What did circumcision (or any other “works of law”) have to do with it? Their initial reaction to the gospel is described here as akoē pisteōs (“hearing of faith”). Unfortunately, the significance of this expression is all but lost in English translation. Surely more than merely receiving audible sounds is in view (cf. Matt. 13:13-17; 1 Thess. 2:13; Jas. 1:22-25).
The sense is much clearer in light of the parallel idiom in Romans 1:5 and 16:26, hupakoē pisteōs (“obedience of faith”). Both akoē and hupakoē (hupō [‘by’] + akouō [‘hear’] = to give ear, hearken, obey) reflect the Hebrew sense of שָׁמַע (shema), i.e. “responsive hearing” (cf. Ex. 24:7; Deut. 31:11-13; Rom. 10:16-17).2 The idiomatic phrase “hearing of faith” is clearly an allusion to receptive and responsive hearing, i.e. obedient faith.
--Kevin L. Moore
1 Author’s own translation. In the absence of qualifying prepositions, an important question here is how to understand the use of the dative nouns pneumati (“spirit”) and sarki (“flesh”). Often the dative of means is inferred and translated as “by the Spirit” and “by the flesh” (ESV, NASB), assuming pneuma is in reference to God’s Spirit. However, other uses of the dative are just as plausible, e.g., the dative of reference (“with respect to spirit/flesh”), or the dative of sphere (“in the realm of spirit/flesh”), or the dative of rule (“according to spirit/flesh”). In view of the repeated contrast in Galatians between the spiritual and the physical (3:2-5, 14; 4:6-7, 23-31; 5:5, 13, 16-25; 6:1, 8, 12-15), these datives are taken here as representing the dative of manner, conveying the way in which the verbal action is performed and answering the questions: how have you begun and how are you being perfected? (See D. B. Wallace, Greek Grammar: Beyond the Basics 153-71; R. A. Young, Intermediate NT Greek 49-51).
2 See W. Wilson, Old Testament Word Studies 211-12; J. D. G. Dunn, Theology of Galatians 360-61 n. 107.