This is part 1 of a 3 part look at Galatians 4:1-7.
In the social media age, sound-bytes tend to win out over sound exegesis. There is a temptation to use catchy phrases or beautiful imagery to prove a point at the expense of accurate exposition. There are certain phrases, illustrations, and interpretations that assume a unique “not-quite-orthodoxy”. This is when a phrase is so often repeated and heard that everyone assumes that it must be correct. The phrase the fullness of time, mentioned by Paul in Galatians 4:4, fits into this category. Perhaps the most common misuse of this phrase is the one that states the fullness of time has to do with the Roman road system (1). This wrong use of the fullness of time phrase is seen in many sermons and expository commentaries, but it misses the point of what Paul was communicating. Here is why “The Fullness of Time” has nothing to do with Roman roads.
THE FULLNESS OF TIME AND ROMAN ROADS
But when the fullness of time had come, God sent forth his Son, born of woman, born under the law, – Galatians 4:4
Phillip Ryken used the phrase in this way, stating that “Christ came when the world was ready for his coming, too… Through the might of the Romans, there was safe transport for spreading the Gospel” (2). Ryken did not use this as the sole point of the fullness of time, before this point he showed how the divine decree of God and covenantal promises were the chief point of the phrase.
Even so, using the Roman roads as a major point of this phrase is distortive because it removes the emphasis from God’s covenant fulfillment to humanity’s ingenuity. This is also an exegetically untenable position because nothing in this passage indicates anything about the Roman roads. It has just been so often repeated that it is now assumed Paul was speaking about them.
THE HISTORICAL PROBLEM WITH THIS INTERPRETATION
Not only is this an exegetical fallacy, but it is also historically suspicious. The Roman road system was the most advanced system at that point in history, but it was not the only road system that had the capacity to enable missionaries to spread the Gospel. Herodotus wrote on the efficiency of another major road system, the Persian Royal Road:
There is nothing mortal that is faster than the system that the Persians have devised for sending messages. Apparently, they have horses and men posted at intervals along the route, the same number in total as the overall length in days of the journey, with a fresh horse and rider for every day of travel. Whatever the conditions—it may be snowing, raining, blazing hot, or dark—they never fail to complete their assigned journey in the fastest possible time. The first man passes his instructions on to the second, the second to the third, and so on.
— Herodotus The Histories Book 8, chapter 98.
It is clear from this description that this road gave people the ability to transfer information over a long stretch safely (seeing that the Royal Road was 1677 miles long).
This road system was not only maintained and managed well, but it was also vital to Alexander the Great’s conquest of the Persian Empire. Plutarch tells a story of Alexander’s great interest in the road as a young man “…He won upon them by his friendliness, and by asking no childish or trivial questions, but by inquiring about the length of the roads and the character of the journey into the interior…” (3). This was recorded by Plutarch to show how Alexander would use this knowledge during his conquest of the Persian Empire. The empire Alexander would build using this knowledge was larger than the Roman Empire. Why did the Roman roads need to be built before Christ came when there had been other means of quickly spreading the Gospel to an even larger geographical area than Rome at its height?
Although comparing the Roman system to the Persian is comparing apples to oranges, it does point out a major problem with assuming the Roman roads have to do with the fullness of time, namely, the world today is far more advanced and connected than in the 1st-century. Think about it, the Roman roads are vastly inferior to the road systems present today. Not to mention things like the internet which connects humanity in a way unimaginable to Paul. If one is to say that the Lord waited for human ingenuity before sending the Son they must be consistent and say that God sent Christ too early. If it was about roads why didn’t God wait until the Autobahn?
WHY THE FULLNESS OF TIME HAS NOTHING TO DO WITH ROMAN ROADS
The Roman roads were used by God but they did not determine His actions. If the point was waiting for a system that would make the message go out faster than God missed big. God did not make his sovereign choice to send the Son based on sand, stone, and highway travel but rather on His unshakable commitment to his covenant people (which will be examined next week). There is no textual evidence that Paul had roads or human ingenuity in mind when writing Gal 4:1-7 and this interpretation does not fit with the overall flow of Galatians 3 and 4. To say otherwise is baseless speculation at best.
1 – People often use Koine Greek as another main point of this verse, namely that humanity had a common tongue. This is outside of the scope of this article. But, the issues are the same, namely we have Google Translate now and if God was waiting for easy human communication He missed the mark by a couple of thousand years. Also Greek had been the vernacular before Christ came so making it a hinge on which the “Fullness of time” turns doesn’t work.
2 – Philip Graham Ryken, Galatians: Reformed Expository Commentary (Phillipsburg, NJ: P & R Publishing, 2005), 160
3 – Plutarch the Life of Alexander 5.1