In Galatians, Paul attempts to dissuade his Gentile audience from getting circumcised by offering an allegory about Sarah and Hagar (Gal 4:21-31). Paul calls Hagar a “slave woman” who represents “Mount Sinai” (4:22-25). One common interpretation of this rhetoric is that “Hagar” stands for “Judaism” based in Torah observance, and the “free woman” (i.e., Sarah) corresponds to a “Christianity” that is free from the Law. On this reading, Paul derides Judaism in favor of the new Christian movement. Yet, a closer examination of Galatians and other Pauline epistles shows that Paul does not denigrate Judaism (or Jews who do not follow Yeshua); instead, “Hagar” represents Paul’s fellow Jesus-followers who wish to have Gentiles circumcised.
Paul says that Hagar “corresponds to the current Jerusalem (τῇ νῦν Ἰερουσαλήμ; tē nūn Ierousalēm), for she is in slavery with her children” (Gal 4:25). Then, with reference to himself and others who adhere to his version of the gospel, Paul asserts that “the Jerusalem above (ἄνω Ἰερουσαλὴμ; āno Ierousalēm) is free, and she is our mother” (4:26). On a cursory reading of these verses, one might interpret the “current Jerusalem” in “slavery” as Jews who follow the Law rather than Jesus. Conversely, the “Jerusalem above” would refer to Jewish “Christians” whose lives are found “in Messiah” (Gal 3:28) instead of in Torah. Yet, there is an easy way to show that this anti-Judaism interpretation is imprecise; namely, by searching for all the references to “Jerusalem” in the Pauline corpus and seeing how he uses the term. When Bible readers do this, they see that Paul’s use of “Jerusalem” always refers to the Jesus assembly (a.k.a. the “church”) and never to Jews who do not follow Jesus or to traditional Judaism.
In Romans, Paul states, “I am going to Jerusalem bringing aid to the holy ones. For Macedonia and Achaia have been pleased to make some contribution for the poor among the holy ones at Jerusalem... so that my service for Jerusalem may be acceptable to the holy ones” (Rom 15:25-26, 31). In this case, when Paul says “Jerusalem,” he means the group of Jesus-followers in the city. Similarly, Paul tells the Corinthians of his intention to “carry your gift to Jerusalem” (1 Cor 16:3)—by which he means a monetary donation from the church at Corinth to believers in Jerusalem. In Galatians itself, Paul notes that when he first encountered Yeshua he did not go to “Jerusalem to those who were apostles before me” (Gal 1:17), but only after three years did he go “up to Jerusalem to visit Cephas” (1:18; cf. 2:1). In these instances, Paul uses “Jerusalem” (Ἰερουσαλήμ) to mean the headquarters of the Jesus assembly.
Since, for Paul, “Jerusalem” always refers to the church, when he depicts “Hagar” as the “current Jerusalem,” he must be speaking of a faction within his own messianic movement. Earlier in Galatians, Paul alludes to disagreements among followers of the gospel, saying to the Galatians that “there are some who trouble you and want to distort the gospel of Messiah” (Gal 1:7). This statement only makes sense if a group exists within the Jesus movement that is telling the Galatians a version of the gospel that conflicts with the Pauline prohibition against Gentile circumcision—indeed, Paul alludes to this circumcision faction several times throughout the letter (cf. Gal 2:12; 5:2-3, 11-12; 6:12-13). It is this subgroup at odds with Paul’s preaching that the apostle calls “Hagar” and “the current Jerusalem” in Galatians 4. The Pauline purview does not extend to Jews who are unaffiliated with Jesus; rather, “Hagar” represents any follower of Jesus (regardless of ethnicity) who would demand circumcision for Gentiles.