Today’s note is supplemental to the current articles on “Paul’s View of the Law in Galatians” (part of my series on “The Law and the New Testament”) and will examine, in particular, Paul’s use of Deuteronomy 27:26 in Galatians 3:10.
Deut 27:26: “a curse upon [i.e. cursed] every (one) who does not remain in the (thing)s written in the book [lit. paper-scroll] of the Law, to do them”—this version Paul cites (in v. 10b) differs slightly from the LXX (“…who does not remain in all the words of this Law…”) which is generally an accurate rendering of the Hebrew.
The people who are (or who remain) “of the Law” are under a curse (u(po\ kata/ran). The word kata/ra literally means a “wish (or prayer) against (someone/something)”, in other words, a “curse”, though the term imprecation is perhaps more appropriate. Deuteronomy 27 records a ceremony in which the people of Israel publicly accept the agreement (covenant) YHWH has established with them, the statutes and commands of the Law (Torah) serving as the basic terms of the covenant which Israel agrees to follow. In verses 15-26 the people together announce a curse on all who violate the commands—vv. 15-25 specify specific kinds of violation, while v. 26 is a general declaration related to the Torah as a whole. “Cursed” (rra), based on the cognate (arâru) in Akkadian, appears to have had an original meaning “to bind“—i.e., to bind a person by a magic formula, the words being efficacious to produce what they describe. In the context of Israelite monotheism, it is God who brings it about, according to the words of the curse-formula. A person cursed is thus bound—the punishments or detrimental consequences laid out in the curse-formula will surely come to pass upon him (or her).
How is one to understand Paul’s use of Deut 27:26?
- Gal 3:10 is often understood in the sense that no one is able to obey and fulfill the Law completely, the transgression of a single command or regulation being enough to violate the entire covenant. Something of the sort is suggested (by Peter) in Acts 15:10, but Paul never quite says this; it is, perhaps, implied in Gal 5:3 (cf. also Acts 13:39), but otherwise would have to be understood on the basis of statements regarding the general sinfulness of all human beings, etc. This ‘pessimistic’ view of the Law is relatively rare in Jewish tradition, but cf. 2/4 Esdras 7:46.
- It may be meant to illustrate that Jews/Israelites are under a curse due to violation of the Law (cf. 1 Thess 2:15-16)—i.e., those who were supposed to uphold the Law have, in fact, failed and transgressed it. On this view see Betz, Galatians, p. 145.
- A variation of this approach would treat the interpretation/comparison as a rhetorical device by Paul, specifically targeting his (Jewish-Christian) opponents. See esp. Gal 6:12-13, where he states that those urging the Galatians to be circumcised do not actually keep the Law themselves.
- The immediate context of Galatians 3-4 is perhaps better guide to what Paul intends here; and, in 3:19-25, he clearly states that a primary purpose of the Law was to bring about (and increase) transgression (cf. below).
Given the overall argument in Galatians, the last view would seem to be most correct; but, if so, should not Paul be saying the opposite of Deut 27:26—”cursed is every one who remains…”, instead of “cursed is every one who does not remain…”? After all, there were many devout and observant Jews, who faithfully fulfilled the requirements of the Law, as Paul even states regarding himself (Phil 3:4b-6, also Gal 1:14). How is it that the ones “of the Law” (that is, the ones observing the Law) do not remain in it, to do the things written in it? There are several possibilities:
- They observe the letter of the Law, but not the true/deeper meaning of it (cf. Jesus’ teaching in the Sermon on the Mount, etc).
- Though they seek to observe the Law faithfully, their hearts and minds (along with those of all humankind) remain wicked and sinful—attempting to follow the Law only makes this more manifest (cf. Rom 3:20; 7:7ff).
- By continuing to observe the Law, instead of trusting in Jesus, they fundamentally violate the Law, since Jesus (by his work and in his person) fulfills and completes the Law (cf. Rom 10:4).
The last of these best fits the context and argument of Galatians. The idea that Christ both fulfills and completes—including the idea of perfecting and ending—the Law is so stated (famously) in Romans 10:4, but is implied throughout the line of argument in Gal 3:19-25 and 4:1-7, where the Law is seen as being in force until the coming of Christ. Indeed, it is only Jesus Christ who truly fulfills the Law, and especially so in his sacrificial death (3:13f); and, likewise, as a result, only the one who is in Christ fulfills the Law. This should be understood according to two principles:
The logic in Galatians (also attested throughout Romans) would seem to be as follows:
What about the positive aspects of the Law? In particular, what of the “righteousness” (in traditional religious-ethical terms) of observant Israelites and Jews? It must be stated that Paul’s argument in Galatians (and Romans) is almost entirely negative:
Interestingly, Paul says virtually nothing in Galatians about whether Jewish Christians should continue to observe the Law. Many interpreters today generally assume that Paul, along with most early Jewish believers, would have been observant and thought it important to remain so (this is certainly the picture in the book of Acts); and yet, nearly all of Galatians points in the opposite direction. His description of the incident with Peter at Antioch (2:11-14), and the verses which follow in 2:15-21, suggest an extreme devaluing and relativizing of the Torah in the light of Christ. This difficult and sensitive issue will be addressed in more detail throughout the notes and articles in this series.
In conclusion, I would suggest that there are two ways of reading Deut 27:26 in the Pauline context:
|Remain in the Law
Remain in the Law
|=> (so as to)
|do the things written
to do the things written
The first way follows the verse in its normal, traditional sense—one remains in the Law (i.e. observing/keeping it) in order to fulfill its written regulations. The second approach reads the phrases in apposition—”remaining in the Law” means “doing”, which is fundamentally in contrast with faith. Paul was quite fond of such wordplay and subtle adaptation of the (traditional) meaning of Scripture. While it may seem somewhat disingenuous and superficial to us today, it was, for Paul (and many early Christians) an effective way to “bridge the gap” between the old message in the sacred writings and the new revelation in the person and work of Jesus Christ.
References marked “Betz, Galatians” are to: Hans Dieter Betz, Galatians, in the Hermeneia series (Fortress Press ).