Paul’s View of the Law: Acts vs. the Letters

The articles in this series of Paul’s View of the Law (part of “The Law and the New Testament”) conclude with a short comparative study of the Pauline letters and the book of Acts. Commentators frequently note a number of differences and/or apparent discrepancies between the narratives (involving Paul) in the book of Acts and what he himself relates in the (undisputed) letters—in matters of chronology, the itinerary of the missionary journeys, and so forth. In such instances, critical scholars tend to give priority to the letters, regarding the information in the book of Acts as less reliable; traditional-conservative commentators, on the other hand, generally consider both Acts and the letters as authentic (and reliable), seeking to harmonize the two as far as possible. Perhaps the most well-known (and often-discussed) historical-critical issue involves the relationship between the so-called Jerusalem Council in Acts 15 and Paul’s narrative in Galatians 2. However, important differences have also been pointed out regarding the portrait of Paul painted in Acts, as compared with what he states himself in the letters, and especially in regard to his view of the Law (the subject of these articles). This may summarized by two related questions:

    1. Did Paul himself continue to observe the Old Testament/Jewish Law following his conversion? and
    2. Did he consider that Jewish believers were still obligated to observe the commands and regulations of the Law?

1. Did Paul continue to observe the Law?

Paul states on several occasions in his letters that, prior to coming to faith in Christ, he was most devout and scrupulous in matters of religion, including strict observance of the (written) Law, the Torah (Gal 1:13-14; Phil 3:4b-6, and Acts 22:3; 26:5). Did he continue to observe it so after his conversion? Many scholars today would say yes, and simply take for granted that he did. However, it must be observed that there is very little actual evidence of this in the letters; in fact, he never makes such a statement about himself, but it could be understood from two passages: 1 Cor 9:20 and Rom 3:31.

    • 1 Cor 9:20—”to the ones under the Law, (I came to be) as one under the Law”. This indicates that Paul voluntarily continued to observe the Law, at least when among his fellow Jews, in order to win them to Christ (cf. below).
    • Rom 3:31—”then do we make inactive/invalid the Law through th(is) trust (in Christ)? May it not come to be (so)! but (rather) we make the Law stand!” Many commentators today read this as if Paul is saying that he and his Jewish Christian co-workers continue to observe the Law. However, there is nothing in the context of the passage to indicate this; the emphasis in Romans 3, especially in vv. 21-31, is the declaration that Jews and Gentiles both are justified through faith, and not by works of the Law (i.e. observing the Law). For more on this passage, see the earlier note and discussion in this series.

By contrast, the following passages indicate that Paul, along with all believers, is free from the Law: 1 Cor 9:20-21; 2 Cor 3:6; Gal 5:11; 6:14; Rom 6:15; 7:6; Phil 3:3, 7-9.

In the book of Acts, there is somewhat more evidence that Paul continued to observe the Law. First, we have his statements generally to this effect, in Acts 24:14, 17-18 and 28:17 (?). We also see:

    • His presence in the Temple (Acts 21:26-27; 22:17-18; 24:17-18); along with other early believers in Jerusalem (Lk 24:53; Acts 2:46; 3:1ff; 5:21ff, 42; 21:22-27), Paul continued to frequent the Temple. However, it is not clear to what extent he participated in the sacrificial ritual; on only one occasion is he seen involved in ritual activity (21:26-27, cf. below).
    • His traveling to Jerusalem for the feasts, at least on several occasions (Acts 18:21 v.l.; 20:16); but note that Acts 20:6 indicates that Passover would have been observed away from Jerusalem.
    • Acts 18:18 refers to a vow (Nazirite?) he had taken, which presumably was done according to the regulations in the Law.

In none of these instances is it recorded that Paul was under obligation, or felt required, to observe the Torah. The most relevant passage is Acts 21:21-26 (cf. below); but even here, his involvement in the Temple ritual was done voluntarily, at the recommendation of James.

2. Did he consider that Jewish believers were still obligated to observe the Law?

Again, a good many commentators today would answer in the affirmative—while Gentiles were not required to observe the Old Testament Law, Jewish believers were still bound to do so. I find not the slightest indication of this in the letters, not even in the most positive references to the Law (Rom 3:1-2; 7:12-14 [cf. also 1 Tim 1:8]; Col 4:11, and, possibly, Rom 4:12; 1 Cor 7:19). As mentioned above, some commentators would read Rom 3:31 as though Paul believed that the Law continued to be binding (for Jewish believers), but I consider this a serious misunderstanding of the passage. The overwhelming number of references, indicating that the Law is no longer in force for believers in Christ, would seem to speak decisively against it—cf. 2 Cor 3:7-18; Gal 2:11-14ff, 19; the illustrations in Gal 3-4 (esp. 3:25, 28; 4:2, 5, 31); 5:1, 6, 13-14, 18; 6:15; Rom 2:28-29; 3:21ff; 6:14-15; 7:1-6; 8:2f; 10:4; Phil 3:3; Col 2:16-17; 3:11; Eph 2:15. There are, however, three passages in the book of Acts, which could suggest that Paul held the Torah to be binding for Jewish believers; each of these will be discussed in turn:

Acts 16:3—Paul had the half-Jewish Timothy circumcised, prior to his joining the mission effort. This has often been seen as contradicting Paul’s own teaching regarding circumcision in the letters (Gal 2:3; 5:2-3, 6, 11; 6:12-15; 1 Cor 7:18-19; Rom 2:28-29, also Phil 3:3; Col 2:11; 3:11; Eph 2:11), causing some critical scholars to question the historicity of the detail in Acts 16:3. Much depends on the reason why Timothy was circumcised; there are several possibilities:

    • Jews, including Jewish believers, were obligated to observe the Law, with circumcision being a central covenant obligation; according to later Jewish tradition (m. Kidd. 3:12), children from mixed marriages were still regarded as Jewish.
    • It was a practical measure, to avoid unnecessary hostility and opposition among Jews to the mission.
    • It is an example (and extension) of Paul’s missionary principle expressed in 1 Cor 9:19-23—of becoming like one under the Law in order to reach those who are under the Law.

There is nothing in the context of 16:1ff itself to indicate that Timothy was circumcised because he was required to do so, as would be suggested in the first view. The only reason given in the passage is that he was circumcised “through [i.e. because of] the Jews that were in those places”, which would seem to fit the second interpretation above. However, it is also possible that Paul was generally following the principle he would later express in 1 Cor 9:19-23; for more on this, see the conclusion below. One would like to think that Timothy willingly (and voluntarily) agreed to circumcision, though this is not indicated in the text.

Acts 16:4—In the next verse, we read that Paul delivered the decisions (do/gmata) from the ‘Jerusalem Council’ (Acts 15:19-31) to the believers in the cities of Pisidia and Lycaonia (i.e. Lystra, Derbe, Iconium, etc) in SE Asia Minor, which had been evangelized during the first Missionary journary (Acts 13-14). The letter from Jerusalem (15:23-29) is addressed to Antioch, Syria and Cilicia; Paul is extending it northward and westward in the region. There are two major critical issues involved here:

    1. Paul’s knowledge (and support) of the Jerusalem decrees. He never once refers to these in his letters, even on occasions when the decisions would have been relevant (1 Cor 8-10; Gal 2:11-14, etc; Rom 14; Col 2:16ff). In particular, the decisions appear to be directly on point with the very question Paul addresses in 1 Cor 8-10; if he knew of the decisions, and considered them to be authoritative (and binding) for Gentiles, it is rather strange that he does not refer to them. Many critical scholars consider the detail of Acts 16:4 to be inaccurate—e.g., note how in Acts 21:25 Paul appears to learn of the decrees then for the first time. More to the point, commentators have argued that the Paul of the letters would not have supported the decrees, especially with regard to the dietary restrictions placed on Gentiles (cf. issue #2).
    2. The relation of the decrees to the Torah. In Acts 15:21, James (the speaker) clearly connects the decisions of the Council with the fact that Moses (i.e. the Old Testament Law) is proclaimed and read in cities throughout the region, and followed by devout Jews (including Jewish believers). I have discussed this aspect of the Jerusalem decrees in some detail in a previous article. It is possible, but by no means certain, that, in observing the decrees, Gentile believers are thereby expected to follow the Torah in a limited sense. The emphasis is squarely on the idolatrous and immoral aspects of the pagan culture in which the Gentiles live—things which would also offend the religious and moral sensibilities of Jewish believers everywhere. I believe that the primary focus of the decrees is twofold: (1) as an authoritative exhortation for Gentiles to abstain from things associated with idolatry, and (2) as a way to ensure fellowship and unity between Jewish and Gentile believers.

The apparent discrepancy between Acts 16:4 and Paul’s failure to mention the Jerusalem decrees even once in the letters, can be explained one of several ways:

    • Paul was not aware of the decrees when he wrote his letters (contrary to Acts 16:4)
    • He did not consider (or would not have considered) the decrees authoritative and/or binding on Gentiles (again contrary to Acts 16:4)
    • The decrees had only a limited (regional) scope—the areas in Syria and Asia Minor surrounding Antioch—and were not considered binding for Gentile believers in territories further away
    • The decrees had only a limited scope, insofar as they related to places with large Jewish populations (such as the regions around Antioch)—in support of healthy relations between Jewish and Gentile believers—but were not necessarily binding on Gentile believers en masse.
    • The decrees were only binding for a time, eventually being abolished or superseded as circumstances dictated, or through “progressive revelation”; at the time of Paul’s writing, the decrees were no longer in force.

According to a strict, traditional-conservative (harmonistic) reading of the New Testament, only the 3rd and 4th interpretations above are viable options. A consistent and thorough analysis of Paul’s letters, taken by themselves, would, I think, lead one to adopt the 2nd interpretation. Overall, the last view is perhaps the simplest and most practical solution, but it is nowhere so stated in the New Testament, and would have to be assumed.

Acts 21:21-26—This is almost certainly the most direct (and controversial) passage in Acts related to Paul’s view of the Law. It must be examined in some detail:

  • The Context—At the conclusion of his (third) major missionary journey (18:23-21:16), Paul travels to Jerusalem, and is greeted by the believers there (vv. 17-19), including James and other leaders (elders) in the Church. Presumably he presented the collection of funds for the needy in the Jerusalem Church, which he had laboriously organized and gathered from the congregations in Greece and Macedonia (1 Cor 16:1-4; 2 Cor 8-9; Rom 15:25-28), and which is mentioned (it would seem) in Acts 24:17, but not here in chap. 21.
  • The Issue—James’ address to Paul is recorded in vv. 20b-25, in which the following points are made:
    • In Jerusalem there are many Jewish believers, who continue to be zealous in observing the Torah (v. 20b)
    • It is reported that Paul instructs Jews to forsake the Torah, and not to be circumcised, etc (v. 21)
    • It is assumed that: (a) this cannot be true, and (b) Paul himself continues to observe the Torah (v. 24b)
    • To prove this, James recommends that Paul take part in a purification ceremony (in the Temple) (v. 23-24a)
    • The Jerusalem decrees are also mentioned, indicating, at the very least, that Gentile believers honor and respect the customs of (observant) Jewish believers (v. 25)
  • Summary exposition—James effectively summarizes the controversies between Paul and Jewish believers, regarding his view of the Old Testament Law (as expressed in Galatians and Romans). Admittedly, nowhere in the letters does Paul say anything quite like the claim in verse 21, though the teaching that believers in Christ (Jew and Gentile alike) are “free” from the Law (cf. above) certainly could be characterized this way. It is perhaps such a (mis)representation that Paul combats, or attempts to avoid, in passages such as Gal 3:21ff; Rom 3:31; 7:7ff. Above, I have examined evidence regarding the extent to which Paul continued to observe the Law himself after coming to faith in Christ, such as James assumes here in v. 24b; the evidence is hardly conclusive, as I shall discuss again below. However, Paul does go along with James’ recommendation and participates in the purification ritual (vv. 26-27), at considerable personal expense it would seem, giving at least a general affirmation of his support for the position of observant Jewish believers. But based on what we have studied thus far in the letters, can we truly say, with James, that “all that of which was sounded down [i.e. reported] to them about you [i.e. Paul] is nothing”? What of the many potentially controversial passages regarding the Law, such as 2 Cor 3:7-18; Gal 2:11-14ff, 19; 3:25, 28; 4:2, 5, 31; 5:1, 6, 13-14, 18; 6:15; Rom 2:28-29; 3:21ff; 6:14-15; 7:1-6; 8:2f; 10:4; Phil 3:3; Col 2:16-17; 3:11, et al.?

Conclusion

A fair and unbiased view of the evidence, from both the letters and Acts, would have to affirm that Paul did continue to observe the Law, but only in a special and qualified sense. Ultimately, the clearest declaration of his own view of the matter comes from 1 Cor 9:20:

“And I came to be to the Jews as a Jew, (so) that I might gain Jews (for Christ), to the (one)s under (the) Law as (one) under (the) Law—not being under (the) Law (my)self—(so) that I might gain the (one)s under (the) Law (for Christ)”

Here he clearly states that:

    1. He observes the Law (i.e. is “under the Law”, u(po\ no/mon) for the purpose of winning Jews to Christ, and not because he is still obligated to observe it—indeed:
    2. He himself is not under the Law. It should be noted, that some manuscripts omit the phrase mh\ w*n au)to\$ u(po\ no/mon (“not being under the Law myself”), but it is present in a wide range of witnesses (including many of the “earliest and best” MSS), and is almost certainly original. While some commentators might dispute it, I regard this as a decisive statement that, along with all other believers in Christ (Jew and Gentile alike), Paul is no longer required to observe the commands and regulations of the Old Testament Law. Note also, in v. 21, that:
    3. He is not without the “Law of God” (cf. also Rom 7:22, 25), and identifies himself as now being under (lit. “in”) the “Law of Christ”. This (being “in Christ”) is an altogether new covenant, as he makes clear in 2 Cor 3:1-18.

The basic principle of freedom in Christ, which Paul consistently teaches (cf. Gal 2:4; 3:25, 28; 4:21-31; 5:1ff, 13; 1 Cor 9:19ff; 2 Cor 3:17; Rom 6:7ff; 7:2-6; 8:2ff, 21, etc), also means that believers—certainly Jewish believers—may continue to observe the Torah, and other Jewish customs, either voluntarily, or as a matter of personal conscience. There is a world of difference between “may observe” and “must observe”—I believe Paul would affirm the former, but definitely not the latter. All of the passages in the book of Acts examined above can be understood and interpreted as voluntary observance. In this sense, the claims reported about Paul (according to James) in Acts 21:21 are false; but there are actually two erroneous claims which ought to be rejected:

    • He teaches that Jewish believers must, or should, cease observing the Old Testament Law—false
    • He teaches that Jewish believers must continue (strict) observance of the Old Testament Law—likewise false

When it comes to Gentile believers, the situation is somewhat different; Paul, especially in Galatians, takes the more forceful position, that they should not observe the Torah, and speaks in the harshest terms regarding those who would influence them to do so. However, this must be understood in the historical (and rhetorical) context of the letter, and not turned into any sort of absolute rule to follow. Early Christianity was dominated by Jewish traditions and patterns of thought, and initial Gentile converts could easily be compelled to adopt Jewish religious practices as well. For the most part, this dynamic has long since disappeared from the Church, and there is little inherent danger in (Gentile) Christians today voluntarily adopting customs and practices set forth in the Torah. I will discuss this point again at the very conclusion of this series on The Law and the New Testament.

July 24: Galatians 6:2

Today’s note is supplemental to the series on “Paul’s View of the Law in Galatians” (on Gal 5:1-6:10); in particular, I will be discussing the interesting expression “the Law of Christ” in 6:2.

Galatians 6:2

“Bear one another’s burdens—and so you will fill up [i.e. fulfill] (completely) the ‘Law of Christ'”

It is noteworthy that, throughout the first five chapters of Galatians (focused in chs. 3-4), Paul has been arguing that believers in Christ are freed from the Law (that is, of the obligation to observe the commands and regulations of the Old Testament/Jewish Torah). Now, suddenly, he re-introduces the idea of believers fulfilling the Law, but defined specifically as “the Law of Christ” (o( no/mo$ tou= Xristou=). Two questions naturally come to mind: (1) what exactly does Paul mean by this expression? and (2) what is the relationship (if any) between the “Law of Christ” and the Old Testament/Jewish Law (Torah)? I hope to address both questions in the process of examining this verse.

First, let us consider the overall context of his statement in v. 2:

Throughout the first four chapters of Galatians, and especially in chapters 3-4, Paul has been arguing rather extensively (and forcefully) two main points:

    • That it is through faith in Christ, and not by observing the Torah (“works of Law”), that a person is made (or declared) just/righteous before God
    • That with the coming Christ, and, especially, as a result of his sacrificial death, believers (those who trust in him) are no longer “under the Law” and are freed from its obligations and commands (and, in turn, freed from the enslaving power of sin as well).

However, in chapters 5 and 6 (5:1-6:10), Paul has moved from argument to exhortation and religious-ethical instruction (parenesis). Since believers have freedom in Christ, and are free from the Law, how is one to live and act?—what is the basis for governing and regulating attitudes and behavior? Paul makes two points clear in this section:

    • Attitude and behavior is (to be) governed by the Holy Spirit, which involves believers accepting to be led/guided (to “walk”) by the Spirit
    • Even though believers are free from the Law, being led by the Spirit will (and must) result in a moral and upright life, in spite of (and/or because of) the natural conflict between the Spirit and “flesh”

In Gal 5:26-6:10, we find the only section of practical instruction in the letter, in particular, 5:26-6:6:

    • 5:26 describes behavior contrary to “walking in the Spirit” (cf. also v. 15)
    • 6:1-2 urges faithful believers to exhibit the “fruit of the Spirit” in helping to restore an offender, and to “bear each others‘ burdens”
    • 6:3-4 counsels self-examination for believers, emphasizing the importance of humility and personal integrity, emphasizing rather that each person must “bear his/her own burden”

In vv. 3-4, the believer turns inward, focusing on his/her own life and affairs, while in vv. 1-2, the believer turns outward, in order to aid and assist other believers in time of trouble. Paul’s statement in v. 2 is part of this second emphasis.

Verse 2a—”bear each other’s burdens…” (a)llh/lwn ta\ ba/rh basta/zete). It is this exhortation which defines the statement in 2b, and must be kept in mind when analyzing the expression “the Law of Christ”. It is also closely parallel to the exhortation in 5:13, as we shall see.

Verse 2b—”…and thus you will fill up (completely) the ‘Law of Christ'” (kai\ ou%tw$ a)naplhrw/sete to\n no/mon tou= Xristou=). “and thus” (kai\ ou%tw$) relates back to 2a, which serves as a conditional phrase—if you bear each other’s burden, then, in so doing, you will fill up the “Law of Christ”. The verb Paul uses (a)naplhro/w) is a compound form of plhro/w (plhróœ, “fill [up], fulfill”); the prefixed particle a)na (ana) indicating “up”, but essentially serving as an intensive element, i.e. “fill up completely“. The verb plhro/w can be used in the sense of observing or completing commands/regulations, i.e., of the Law (Torah), cf. Matt 5:17. However, in Galatians, Paul speaks in terms of the Torah commands being “done” (i.e. as “works”) rather than being “fulfilled”.

With regard to the expression “the Law of Christ”, it should be examined according to: (1) parallels in Galatians, (2) parallels in the other Pauline letters, and, finally, by way of brief comparison, (3) with any other relevant parallels in the New Testament.

(1) Parallels in Galatians—the main passage is 5:13-15, which I have discussed previously; the parallel between 5:13-14 and 6:2 is striking:

5:13-14

“be slaves to each other [a)llh/loi$] through love”

“for all the Law is filled (up) [peplh/rwtai] in one word”

6:2

” bear each others’ [a)llh/lwn] burdens”

“and thus you will fill up [a)naplhrw/sete] the Law of Christ”

The “one word” in 5:14 is Lev 19:18 (“you shall love your neighbor as yourself”), well-established in early Christian tradition as a central command (or principle), sometimes referred to as the “love command”, under the influence of similar language in the Gospel and letters of John (Jn 13:34-35; 14:15-24; 15:10-17; 1 Jn 2:7-11; 3:23; 4:21; 5:1-3). It is part of the two-fold “Great Commandment” in Jesus’ teaching (Mark 12:31 par; Matt 5:43; 19:19)—also related to the so-called “golden rule” (Matt 7:12; Luke 6:31)—as a ‘summary’ of the Law. Paul offers a more precise contextual statement in Rom 13:8-10; for other instances in early Christian writings, see James 2:8; Didache 1:2; Barnabas 19:5; and Justin, Dialogue with Trypho 93:2. It is reasonable to relate this to the “Law of Christ” in Gal 6:2; I would suggest that the connection should be understood in the following terms:

    1. The ‘love command’ (Lev 19:18) is no longer associated with the Torah in early Christian tradition, but rather more directly with the teaching (and example) of Christ.
    2. In Paul’s thought, Christ, in his own person and by his work, represents (and brings) the end/completion/fulfillment of the entire Law (cf. Rom 10:4), just as the ‘love command’ effectively summarizes and fulfills (and thereby takes the place of) the entire Law.
    3. The new covenant (of faith and the Spirit) is defined as believers being “in Christ”, belonging to Christ, etc., just as the old covenant (at Sinai) was defined by inclusion of Israel according to the terms of the Law (Torah).

(2) Parallels in the other Pauline letters—Here I will focus on formal parallels, where Paul uses a phrase or expression similar to “the Law of Christ”.

  • 1 Corinthians 9:21—”in [i.e. under] the Law of Christ” (e&nnomo$ Xristou=). This expression is nearly identical, with the context in 1 Corinthians being significant. In v. 20, Paul speaks of becoming like one who is “under the Law” in order to reach those “under the Law” (i.e., Israelites/Jews); similarly, to those who are “without (the) Law” (a&nomo$), i.e. Gentiles, he became as one who is “without (the) Law” (cf. Gal 2:12, 14). However, Paul is clearly uncomfortable referring to himself (and, presumably, any believer) as being “without Law”, so he parenthetically comments: “not (indeed) being without the Law of God, but in the law of Christ”. It is doubtless the use of the word a&nomo$ (“without law”) that prompts him to use (or to coin) the term e&nnomo$ (“in [the] law”).
  • Romans 7:22, 25 (cf. also 8:7; 1 Cor 9:21)—”the Law of God” (o( no/mo$ tou= qeou=). In Romans (and also 1 Cor 9:21), Paul uses this expression in a wider sense than “the Law” (o( no/mo$), the latter almost always referring specifically to the Old Testament/Jewish Law (Torah). In Rom 7:22ff, the “Law of God” is contrasted with the “Law of sin” as two principles fighting against each other, as a dynamic taking place in the life/heart/mind of a person prior to faith in Christ (note also the similar dynamic for believers in Gal 5:17). It would be fair, I think, to identify the expression “the Law of God” generally with the will of God, which, of course, is also communicated by way of the Torah commands.
  • Romans 3:27—”the Law of faith/trust” (no/mo$ pi/stew$). This expresses the basic Pauline teaching that people are made/declared just (“justified”) before God through trust/faith (pi/sti$) in Christ, in direct contrast with the “law of works (e&rga)” (i.e., “works of the Law”).
  • Romans 8:2—”the Law of the Spirit of life” (o( no/mo$ tou= pneu/mato$ th=$ zwh=$). This characterizes the principle, expressed repeatedly in Galatians (esp. Gal 5:1ff), that believers are free from the Law—not only specific commands preserved in the Torah, but also the “curse” of the Law and the power of sin, here phrased as “the Law of sin and death”. This freedom—the Law of the Spirit of life—is qualified and centered by the familiar expression “in Christ” (e)n Xristw=|). Since the Holy Spirit is understood largely in terms of the Spirit of Christ, of his live-giving presence and power at work in the believer, the “Law of the Spirit of life” can be considered, to some extent, as synonymous with the “Law of Christ”.
  • Romans 16:26 is also worth noting, where Paul speaks of “the charge/injunction [e)pitagh/] of God of-the-Ages”, in reference to God’s ordering of the proclamation and spread of the Gospel to the nations. In 1 Cor 7:19 we also find the expression “(the) commands/charges [e)ntolai] of God”, which could generally mean the commands of the Torah, but as Paul has just stated that “circumcision is nothing”, this is unlikely; possibly it refers to the ethical commands of the Torah (e.g. in the Decalogue), but it is probably better to consider the meaning as similar to the “command[s] of Christ” (cf. below).

(3) Parallels in the remainder of the New Testament

  • James 1:25; 2:12—”the Law of freedom” (no/mo$ e)leuqeri/a$). This sounds like an expression which could have come from Galatians, with its emphasis on freedom in Christ. And, indeed, the overall context of James 1:22-2:13 is generally similar to Paul’s exhortation and instruction in Gal 5:1-6:10, in the sense that both passages emphasize: (a) the need for moral/ethical behavior among believers, and (b) that faith in Christ will (and should) result in sacrificial acts of mercy and service to those (believers) who are in difficulty. The main difference is that James speaks of all this in terms of “works” (e&rga) and “doing” (i.e. the “Law”) which Paul generally does not apply in Galatians. In James 1:25, the “Law of freedom” is characterized as “complete” (te/leio$), which possibly relates to the Pauline idea of the Law (Torah) being completed in the person and work of Christ (Rom 10:4, etc).
  • James 2:8—”the kingly/royal Law” (no/mo$ basiliko/$). Here the thought is even closer to the “Law of Christ” in Gal 6:2, and also with Gal 5:13-14. This “royal Law” is identified with the so-called love-command (Lev 19:18), as in Gal 5:14; similarly, the implication in James 2:10 is that violation of this command means violating the entire Law. In all likelihood, the “Law of freedom” and the “royal Law” are basically synonymous, and could fairly be identified with the “Law of Christ”.
  • The Gospel and letters of John, for the most part, do not use the word no/mo$ (“law”), preferring rather the word e)ntolh/, either in the singular or plural.  )Entolh/ literally signifies a charge or duty, etc, which is placed on someone, typically translated as “command(ment)”. The “commandments” (pl.) can be referred to as Christ’s, that is, coming from Christ (“his commandments”), cf. John 14:21 (cf. also 15:14); 1 John 2:3-4, or as God’s (the Father’s), 1 John 3:22-24; 5:2-3; 2 John 5-6, or both (Jn 12:49-50; 14:21, 31; 15:10)—with little (if any) distinction between the two. This accords with Johannine theology, especially as expressed by Jesus in the Gospel: that the Son only does and says what he sees/hears the Father doing and saying; in other words, Christ’s commands are the same as God’s (Jn 12:49; 14:31; 15:10). It is never specified just what these commandments are; rather, they seem to be identical with the “commandment” (sg.) of God (and Christ)—Jn 12:49-50; 15:12; 1 Jn 3:23; 4:21; 2 Jn 6. This (single) commandment is: (1) characterized as “new” (Jn 13:34; 1 Jn 2:8), and (2) defined in terms of love toward God and fellow believers (i.e. the two-fold “great commandment”) (Jn 13:34; 15:12, 17; 1 Jn 4:21; 5:2-3; 2 Jn 5-6; cf. also Jn 14:15, 21; 15:10; 1 Jn 2:5). Interestingly, in 1 Jn 2:7-8 and 2 Jn 5, the author explains that, in a sense, this is not actually a new commandment, but one already familiar from Scripture, the teaching of Jesus, and direct instruction by the Spirit. This may be a way of saying, along with Paul, that this “love command” summarizes and fulfills/completes the entire Law.

Antinomianism

The term antinomian is derived from the Greek a)ntinomi/a (antinomía), literally “against the law”, though the Greek word itself can actually have the technical sense of facing a difficulty or ambiguity in the law. While rarely, if ever, used in ordinary English today, “antinomianism” continues to serve as a technical (and polemic) term in religious and ethical studies. Christians have been especially sensitive to the term in relation to Paul’s teaching regarding the Old Testament/Jewish Law (Torah) in Galatians and Romans. Many simply take for granted that Paul’s teaching is not, and could not be, “antinomian”. However, this attitude, I believe, very much reflects a confusion of terminology and definition. It is helpful to distinguish the primary ways the term may be understood, in relation to the Old Testament Law (Torah)—i.e., “against the Law”, in the sense of:

    1. Teaching that Christians are no longer obligated or required to observe the commands and regulations of the Torah
    2. Attitude and/or behavior which is hostile and/or opposed to the precepts of the Law (Torah)
    3. Immorality and licentiousness, i.e. behavior which contradicts the ethical demands and precepts of the Torah, esp. as represented in the second table of the Ten Commandments—i.e. the “moral law”
    4. A partisan term (“Antinomians”) for historical persons or groups who espoused or exemplified views similar to any or all of the previous three, whether “Gnostics” from the early centuries or related to the so-called “Antinomian Controversies” among Protestants (Lutherans) in the mid-late 16th century

The last of these is especially unhelpful; it would be better if “Antinomian(s)” were eliminated as a historical label. Most Christians today probably would understand the term in sense #3 above, as more or less synonymous with licentiousness and immorality. This often is related to the general belief (or assumption) that, while the ritual/ceremonial aspects of the Torah (sacrifical ritual, the holy/feast days, dietary regulations, et al) no longer apply to believers, most of the ethical-moral precepts and injunctions remain in force (on this, see below). Sense #2 generally corresponds with the term a)nomi/a (“lawlessness”) in the New Testament, and is largely synonymous with the concepts of sin, wickedness and rebellion against the will of God. Sense #1 is a rather blunt way of characterizing Paul’s teaching regarding the Law in Galatians and Romans; some scholars and commentators are indeed willing to describe it as “antinomian”, though many others are unwilling or reluctant to do so. Some would dispute that #1 accurately characterizes Paul’s teaching, but it would be difficult to read his arguments in Galatians and Romans fairly and come up with a different conclusion. I am in the process of discussing Paul’s View of the Law (in Galatians, Romans, etc) as part of a series on “The Law and the New Testament”.

The problem with understanding “antinomianism” in senses #2 and 3 above is that it confuses religious and ethical attitudes and behavior with the specific commands of the Torah. While it is true that the second (ethical) side of the Decalogue continues to be emphasized by Jesus (Mark 10:18-29 par) and in early Christian instruction (James 2:11; Rom 13:9; Didache 2:1-3, etc), it was very quickly disassociated from the Torah by early Christians, and connected almost entirely with the teaching of Jesus (e.g. in the Sermon on the Mount). In the New Testament itself, this can be divided into two stages of tradition:

As a practical result, virtually all of the specific Torah commands are effectively eliminated. Indeed, apart from the two-fold “Great commandment” (Deut 6:4-5 / Lev 19:18) and the five (ethical) commands of the Decalogue, it is difficult to find much, if any, evidence that any other Torah command or regulation was considered still to be in force in the early Church. There were, of course, Jewish Christians who advocated (and/or demanded) observance of circumcision, the dietary laws, et al, even for Gentile believers, as indicated in Acts 15 and throughout Galatians; however, by the end of the New Testament period (c. 90-100 A.D.) this was an extreme minority view overall. Cf. my article on the “Jerusalem Council” and notes on the requirements (for Gentile believers) in the associated Decree.

Clearly, Paul and all other (legitimate) early Christian teachers argued strenuously against immorality and wickedness (sense #2 and 3), but was the basis for this the continued need for believers (whether Jew or Gentile) to follow the Torah? In Galatians, Paul says exactly the opposite of this, arguing that believers are free from the Law and are no longer under obligation to observe it (i.e. no longer “under Law”). The only Law which continues to remain in force, as is clear from Gal 5:14 and 6:2, is the so-called “love-command (or principle)”. What then, is the basis of morality and proper religious behavior?—clearly, it is the work, guidance, and fruit of the Spirit (Gal 4:6; 5:5-6, 16-18, 22-23, 25). This, however, does require a willingness of the believer to be so guided by the Spirit, i.e. to “walk” according to the Spirit (5:16, 25; cf. also 6:8). This is the reason for Paul’s forceful exhortation (and warning) in 5:16-25 (also 6:7-9)—freedom in Christ certainly does not mean freedom to act wickedly, but Christian behavior is regulated by the Spirit, and not by the Law of the Old Testament. Paul’s line of argument in Romans is a bit more complex and nuanced than that in Galatians, but, I would not hesitate to say that his view of the Law in both letters can be fully described as “antinomian” in the best sense of definition #1 above.

July 23: Galatians 5:18, 23b

In the last two daily notes, I discussed the first two pairs of statements which bracket vv. 16-25 (see the chiastic outline in the earlier notes). As previously indicated, these pairs may be summarized:

    • Exhortation (vv. 16, 25)
    • Conflict—Flesh vs. Spirit (vv. 17, 24)
    • Affirmation regarding freedom (vv. 18, 23b)

Today’s note will examine the third and final pair.

Affirmation for believers (regarding Freedom)—Gal 5:18, 23b

Here, again, Paul makes specific reference to freedom from the Law, which is the primary theme running throughout the letter. The two verses, looked at in tandem, are:

V. 18: “But if you are (being) led in the Spirit, you are not under (the) Law
V. 23b: “…(but) against these (thing)s [i.e. the fruit of the Spirit] there is no Law

A casual reading of vv. 16-25 might easily miss the connection between these statements, the parallel being as much conceptual as it is formal. A close examination, however, demonstrates that Paul is making very similar claims; we can best see this by dividing each verse into two parts—the first presenting a conditional clause or phrase involving the Spirit, and the second being a conclusive affirmation regarding believers and the Law.

Part 1: Conditional

V. 18: ei) pneu/mati a&gesqe (“{but} if you are led in the Spirit…”)
V. 23: kata\ tw=n toiou/twn (“against these things…”)

Technically, only verse 18 properly contains a conditional clause, as indicated by the particle ei), “if” (I have left out the coordinating particle de/ [“but”] to better show the condition). The expression pneu/mati (“in/by the Spirit”) has been discussed in the prior two notes. The verb a&gw essentially means “lead”, but often specifically in the sense of “lead away, carry off, ” etc. Some commentators have thought that Paul’s use here may indicate a charismatic or “mantic” experience, i.e. being “carried away” by the Spirit. This is possible, but the overall context of Galatians strongly suggests that the basic sense of being led (i.e. directed/guided) better applies here. If so, then it fits with the similar language and symbolism Paul uses throughout regarding believers and the Spirit:

    • walk about in the Spirit” (v. 16)
    • walk in line in the Spirit” (v. 25)
    • “sow (seed) into the Spirit” (6:8)

Believers act in (and by) the power of the Spirit, being guided (willingly) by the Spirit; note in this regard:

    • Believers, through faith in Christ, receive Spirit from God and begin “in the Spirit” (3:2-3, 14; 4:6)
    • God works in believers through the Spirit (3:5; 4:6)
    • We live in the Spirit (5:25)

There is a close formal parallel between v. 18a and 25a:

ei) pneu/mati a&gesqe, “if we are led in the Spirit, (then)…” (v. 18a)
ei) zw=men pneu/mati, “if we live in the Spirit, (then)…” (v. 25a)

Both, I believe, represent actual conditions, reflecting the reality of the Spirit in the lives of believers. In this regard, let us turn to verse 23, which, as I indicated, is not precisely a conditional clause. In fact, it is dependent upon vv. 22-23a, the list of “fruit of the Spirit” (karpo\$ tou= pneu/mato$)—the demonstrative pronoun toiou=to$, “these (thing)s”, refers to the nine items representing the “fruit”. Effectively, Paul is establishing a condition—i.e., if you exhibit the “fruit” of the Spirit, if the Spirit is working and you allow yourself to be led and guided by it, then know that “against these things…” The use of the preposition kata (“against”) is significant, as it reflects the conflict for believers described in vv. 17 and 24. Throughout Galatians, Paul has mentioned three related forces related to this conflict: (1) the flesh, (2) the Law,  and (3) the power of sin.

Part 2: Affirmation

V. 18: ou)k e)ste\ u(po\ no/mon (“…you are not under Law”)
V. 23: ou)k e)stin no/mo$ (“…there is no Law”)

This is, for Paul, perhaps the fundamental message he wishes to deliver to the Galatians, an affirmation of Christian identity, stated simply, and by way of negation. In verse 18, this relates back to the condition, “if you are led in the Spirit…”, and indicates the result: “…(then) you are not under the Law”. It is hard to imagine a simpler, more definite statement that believers are no longer bound and obligated to observe the commands of the Old Testament/Jewish Law (Torah). This is especially so when one considers the normal view of Torah precisely as (authoritative) instruction, a set of rules and precepts by which one is led and guided in the way of truth and to fulfill the will of God. For believers, it is rather the Spirit which provides the guidance traditionally ascribed to the Torah.

The statement in verse 23 is especially interesting by comparison, as it has to be understood in the context of vv. 22-23, providing a conclusion to the list of the “fruit of the Spirit”—”against these things [i.e. the fruit] there is no Law”. At first glance, it is not entirely clear what Paul means by this statement. Contextually, and upon examination, one may consider it according to the following aspects:

    1. There is no law against the fruit of the Spirit since they are all good and holy and, practically speaking, there is no law against doing good.
    2. The Law is principally about doing, i.e. “works” (cf. Gal 2:16; 3:2, 5, 10-13), but the fruit of the Spirit are not works (as contrasted with “works of the flesh”).
    3. For believers the conflict is now between the Spirit and the flesh (cf. throughout Gal 5:1-6:10)—we are dead to the Law (2:19-20) and freed from its commands (2:4; 3:13, 23-25; 4:1-7, 21-31; 5:1ff), so it no longer applies.
    4. The guidance believers receive (from the Spirit) in governing or regulating attitudes and behavior in ethical (and religious) matters is not “Law” in the sense that the Torah commands are considered “Law”

Arguments can be made in favor of each of these viewpoints, however, I would say that the last two best capture Paul’s meaning and intent. While the context of vv. 22-23 is primary, I believe it is also appropriate, in this instance, to take the clause ‘out of context’, as a separate, independent statement (as I have essentially done above). This yields an especially clear and decisive statement that, for believers (those who are in Christ and in the Spirit), there is no Law. While such a conclusion, in one respect, accurately represents (and punctuates) Paul’s teaching about believers and the Torah, it is not the end of the story. Further on, in Gal 6:2, Paul does refer to a “Law” for believers: “the Law of Christ” (o( no/mo$ tou= Xristou=); and it is this expression which I will be discussing in the next daily note.

July 5: Gal 2:21

This is the last of four daily notes on Galatians 2:15-21 (for the first three notes see #1, 2, 3). Today’s concluding note is on verse 21, which I have summarized as a concluding argument regarding justice/righteousness.

Galatians 2:21

The sentence in this verse is made up of two statements or clauses, the first by way of a bold declaration:

ou)k a)qetw= th\n xa/rin tou= qeou=
“I do not displace [i.e. set aside] the favor of God”

From a rhetorical standpoint, this a refutation (refutatio) by Paul of a charge (real or hypothetical). The verb a)qete/w, “unset, displace, set aside”, is often used in a legal context, i.e., of “setting aside” (invalidating, nullifying) an agreement; it can also be used in the more general sense of “disregard, deny, repudiate”, even to “act unfaithfully, be disloyal”, etc. For other occurrences of the verb, cf. Gal 3:15; 1 Cor 1:19; 1 Thess 4:8; 1 Tim 5:12. Here Paul probably has the legal sense in mind, related to the Israelite/Jewish covenant (agreement) with God. Paul’s Jewish (and Jewish Christian) opponents might well have accused him of annulling the Covenant by his particular view of the Old Testament Law, as expressed here in Galatians (on this, cf. the previous note). According to the basic Jewish view, salvation (and the establishment of the Covenant) is the result of God’s gracious election of Israel; and observing the commands, ordinances and precepts of God, as revealed in the Torah (Law of Moses), represents the terms whereby Israel fulfills (and adheres) to the agreement. By effectively abrogating the Law, Paul invalidates the Covenant, and, in turn, disregards the favor (grace, xa/ri$) of God. This last is the argument that Paul refutes. It is actually a clever bit of substitution—he does not frame the charge in terms of setting aside the covenant, but rather of setting aside the favor/grace of God. This is important to his rhetorical argument as a whole, as we shall see in the second clause that follows:

ei) ga\r dia\ no/mou dikaiosu/nh, a&ra Xristo\$ dwrea\n a)pe/qanen
“for if justice/righteousness (is) through (the) Law, then (the) Anointed (One) died away dwrea\n

The word dwrea/n (dœreán), which I left untranslated above, properly means “(as) a gift”, and so Paul uses it in a similar context in Romans 3:24; however, this translation can be misleading in English, since often the emphasis is rather on being “free of charge” or “without payment”, either in a positive (2 Cor 11:7) or negative (2 Thess 3:8) sense. It can even carry the harsher connotation of “in vain, for no purpose”; the English expression “for nothing” captures this ambiguity—it can mean something done “for free, as a gift” or “for no purpose”. It is this latter sense that Paul plays on here, juxtaposing xa/ri$ and dwrea/n, as he does in Rom 3:24; there the parallelism is synonymous (both words can mean “[as a] gift”), here it is rather antithetical (or better, ironical). I will return to this in a moment.

The key portion of this conditional statement is the unreal or false (indicative) clause: “if justice/righteousness (is, or comes) through the Law…” Paul has already stated that this is false in verse 16, effectively as a (rhetorical) point of agreement with his (Jewish Christian) opponents, implying however that their viewpoint and behavior actually (if unintentionally) contradicts the ‘agreed-upon’ doctrine in v. 16. Now, he goes on to say that, if they are correct, and one is justified by observing the Law, then this “sets aside” the very work of Christ on the cross! The final irony is that the false/hypothetical charge (against Paul) in v. 21a turns into a real charge against Paul’s opponents—by requiring believers to observe the Old Testament Law, they set aside the grace of God. Usually when Paul speaks of something being “in vain”, he uses the adverb ei)kh= or the expression ei)$ keno\n, as in Gal 2:2; 3:4; 4:11; so the use of dwrea/n here is most distinctive (and intentional), reflecting a powerful irony—by disregarding the central teaching that salvation/justification is entirely by trust (or faith) as a free gift from God (i.e. “for nothing”), Paul’s opponents have made Christ’s sacrificial death to be “for nothing”. Ultimately, of course, this entire argument is intended as a warning and exhortation for the Galatian believers (see Gal 1:6ff; 5:2-4ff; 6:12ff).

It also demonstrates again how important the mystical, participatory language and symbolism of dying with Christ was for Paul. Salvation “by grace” was not simply a matter of God overlooking or forgiving human sinfulness, it was centered in the idea of God “giving” his Son (and Christ “giving himself”) as a sacrificial offering for us. Our faith/trust is “into” Christ and places us “in” Him; this entry is focused—spirtually and sacramentally—upon our participation in His Death and Resurrection.

July 4: Gal 2:19-20

This is the third of four daily notes on Galatians 2:15-21, today covering verses 19-20 which I would summarize as:

The Relation of the believer to the Law

It builds upon the prior verses, especially vv. 17-18 (a rhetorical argument to show the problem with applying the Law to [Gentile] believers), which I discussed in the previous day’s note.

Galatians 2:19-20

These two verses are comprised of a string of declaratory (doctrinal) statements, which will be examined in turn.

e)gw\ ga\r dia\ no/mou no/mw| a)pe/qanon i%na qew=| zh=sw
“For through (the) law I died (off) from (the) law,
(so) that I might live to God”

The translation here is perhaps a bit misleading; a simpler rendering of the first clause would be: “through the law, I died to the law”. The expression “through (the) law” (dia\ no/mou) here means that Paul (in the first person, as an example of the ordinary believer) shares the common human condition of being “under the law”. The purpose (and result) of the Old Testament Law (and the force of it) was to “enclose all (things/people) under sin” (Gal 3:22). This establishes the very condition which makes justification by faith in Christ (and not by the Law) possible. Thus the paradoxical statement is realized: “through the Law, I died (off) from [i.e. died to] the Law”, followed by the result clause: “so that I might live to God”—life is possible only once a person has died to the Law.

Xristw=| sunestau/rwmai
“I have been put to the stake (together) with (the) Anointed”

Here this death is described in stark, graphic imagery—of the believer being crucified together with Jesus (see also Gal 5:24; 6:14). This is one of the more dramatic examples of Paul’s participatory language—i.e., of the believer living and dying with Jesus (see esp. Romans 6:1-10). It is also clear that “dying to the Law” is not simply a matter of ignoring or neglecting the Old Testament commandments; rather, it is the natural product (and result) of our “dying with Christ”. In a sense, it is also related to the idea of “dying to sin” (cf. Rom 6:1ff). Paul’s concept of the sacraments (esp. Baptism) is, to a large extent, based on this same language and imagery.

zw= de\ ou)ke/ti e)gw/, zh=| de\ e)n e)moi\ Xristo/$
“but yet I do not (now) live, but (rather) (the) Anointed (One) lives in me

With this statement, Paul’s mystical participatory language is at its most inspired and profound. This is both:

    1. An existential statement—how the believer should understand his/her own existence and identity in Christ, and
    2. A statement of spiritual unity—we confess and (to some extent) experience the reality of Christ living “in us” (through the Spirit), but this unity is, in turn, expressed by our life “in Christ”; this reciprocal relationship is grounded and ultimately defined by the phrase “in Christ”.

The emphatic “I” (e)gw) is the point of transition between the dying (to the law, sin etc) in verse 19 and the living (to Christ) in verse 20. In conventional theological terms, the emphasis is on self-mortification and self-denial—the believer is no longer driven by selfish and material/carnal desires, but walks “according to the Spirit”, following the will of God and the example of Christ.

o^ de\ nu=n zw= e)n sarki/ e)n pi/stei zw= th=| tou= ui(ou= tou= qeou=
“but the (life) which I live now in (the) flesh, I live in (the) trust (that is) of the son of God…”

Here Paul speaks of a different kind of “life”—the ‘ordinary’ daily life one leads—but still tied to the (eternal and spiritual) life the believer has in Christ. It builds upon the “new identity” expressed in v. 20a, and centers the believer’s daily life and existence “in trust/faith [e)n pi/stei]” and “in Christ” (i.e. in the faith/trust of the Son of God).

tou= a)gaph/santo/$ me kai\ parado/nto$ e(auto\n u(pe\r e)mou=
“… the (one) loving me and giving himself along over me [i.e. for me, on my behalf]”

The concluding phrase is a Christological declaration and piece of early kerygma; for a similar statement in the Pauline writings, see Ephesians 5:2. For the same idea of Christ’s self-sacrifice as giving himself over (u(per) elsewhere in Galatians, cf. 1:4; 3:13.

It would be hard to find a more precise and dramatic statement that the believer is dead to the Law—it is a clear shift from being under (or “in”) the Law (and, hence, under sin) and being “in Christ”. As Paul will go on to explain here in Galatians (and elsewhere), the believer in Christ is now guided by the Spirit and no longer is required to observe the commandments of the Old Testament Law. Religious and ethical behavior is maintained (entirely) by life in the Spirit and by following the example and teachings of Jesus. This point is discussed further in my series on “Paul’s View of the Law” (articles soon to be posted here).

* * * * * *

On the 4th of July, which, in large part, commemorates the qualified independence and socio-political freedom which individuals have in the United States, it is worth remembering that, for believers in Christ, true freedom is very different. Paul writes of this throughout Galatians, referring to “our freedom (e)leuqeri/a) which we hold in the Anointed Yeshua {Christ Jesus}” (2:4). This is not freedom from social or political authority; rather, it is freedom from the bondage to sin under which all of humankind has been, and continues to be, enslaved. In Paul’s teaching, this bondage to sin is intertwined with bondage to the Law, esp. the Old Testament Law (Torah). That this is a genuine bondage is made abundantly clear at many points in Galatians (and Romans), especially in the illustration of Hagar and Sarah, their children (Ishmael and Isaac) representing “children of slavery” and “children of freedom” respectively (4:21-31). Paul’s teaching on the Law (cf. above) in this regard can be difficult for many to follow (and to accept); a summary of it is given in Gal 3:19-27 (see esp. verse 23). The good news is that, through our trust in Jesus, and our subsequent union with him, we come to be children of freedom—we are freed from the power of sin, and of the requirements of the Law. In Paul’s words:

“In freedom the Anointed (One) has made us free; therefore you must stand and must not be held in (bondage) again by (the) yoke of slavery!” (5:1)

This “yoke of slavery” has two aspects: (1) bondage to sin, and (2) bondage to the Law. The second means that believers are no longer bound (required) to observe the Law of the Old Covenant (the old order of things); the first means that we are no longer obligated (and forced) to obey the power of sin. How is this freedom realized? Paul’s answer is two-fold: (1) through the guiding presence of the Holy Spirit, and (2) by following the teaching and example of Jesus as summarized and embodied in the “love-command”. This is the message of Gal 5:1-6:10, which concludes the main body of the letter. The declaration (and teaching) in 5:13 perhaps encapsulates the message best:

“For we were called upon freedom, brothers—only not (for) th(is) freedom (to be) unto a rushing off in the flesh, but (rather) through love we must serve [lit. be a slave to] each other.”

In other words, we must allow ourselves to be guided by the Spirit (5:16-18), and not be carried off by the impulses of the flesh (which can lead to sin). The irony is that this freedom prompts us to serve one another, like fellow slaves in Christ.

July 3: Gal 2:17-18

This is the second of four daily notes dealing with Galatians 2:15-21. Yesterday’s note covered verses 15 and 16, summarized as a basic proposition regarding justification and the Jew/Gentile distinction. Today’s note will examine verses 17-18, which I have summarized as:

A Rhetorical argument to show the problem with applying the Law to (Gentile) believers

Galatians 2:17-18

In verse 17, Paul begins by posing a question (best understood as a rhetorical question), the first conditional clause of which contains two parts:

(a) “But if, seeking to be declared just in [e)n] (the) Anointed (One)…”

This can be understood one of two ways:

(i) True condition—A Gentile who seeks (correctly) to be justified/saved by faith in Christ (instrumental use of the preposition e)n)
(ii) False condition—A believer (Jew or Gentile) already “in Christ” seeks (incorrectly) to be justified by observance of Jewish law

The second part of the clause is:

(b) “…(we our)selves are also found to be sinful ones [i.e. ‘sinners’]…”

This clause also can be understood either as a:

(i) True condition—Converts are shown to be sinful (by the Law) and thus can only be justified through faith in Christ
(ii) False condition—Believers “in Christ” who do not observe the Law are considered to be “sinners” (from the strict Jewish Christian perspective)

The overall polemic, and the specific use of a(martwloi (“sinners”) in verse 15, strongly indicate that the second portion (b) is a false condition—that, according to the Jewish Christian viewpoint, Gentile believers who do not observe the Jewish Law are effectively “sinners”. However, Paul may also be playing on the idea of the true condition as well—i.e., if his (Jewish Christian) opponents are correct, then believers (already justified by faith in Christ) are truly sinful, having transgressed the religious law. The sense of the first portion (a) of the clause is even more difficult to determine: perhaps it is intended as a true condition, emphasizing those (Gentiles) who seek to be justified/saved by faith in Christ, but the false condition is at least possible as well.  The upshot of the question, however, is that the Jewish Christian emphasis on observing the Law results in (Gentile) believers effectively being reckoned as “sinners”. This is made clear in the concluding clause:

“…then is (the) Anointed (One) an attendant [i.e. servant] of sin? May it not come to be (so)!”

The notion Paul frames within this question, drawn from the implicit logic of his (Jewish Christian) opponents, is that a believer who trusts in Christ for justification (being declared just/righteous) ends up becoming a “sinner”. This, in turn, implies that Christ serves to bring about sinfulness (transgression) for the believer (under the Law)—clearly an absurd notion!—and yet one which Paul effectively regards as true if it is necessary (as his ‘opponents’ claim) for believers to continue observing the Old Testament Law.

The conditional statement in verse 18, brings greater clarity to the complex rhetorical question of v. 17:

“For, if the (things) which I loosed down [i.e. dissolved/destroyed], these (things) I build (up) again, I make myself stand together (with) one (who) ‘steps over’ [i.e. violates/transgresses]”

As Paul will expound in the argument:

    • by trusting in Christ one effectively dies to the Law (dissolving it)
    • to continue observing the Law—or claiming that one needs to do so—re-establishes it (builds it up again)
    • but the purpose of the Law was to make sin (transgression) known (Rom 4:15, etc) to all people
    • therefore, if taken seriously, the believer (attempting to observe the Law) again comes to be under sin (a transgressor)

It is powerful line of reasoning, and, I suspect, one which many Jewish Christians would not have considered (and which many still do not realize today). The uniqueness of Paul’s viewpoint comes largely from the third premise above—his extraordinary teaching that the fundamental purpose of the Law was to make sin known (effectively to establish humankind’s bondage under sin, Gal 3:22). There is hardly a Jew at the time (or since)—including, I am sure, many (or most) Jewish Christians—who would accept this remarkable Pauline doctrine. The stark implication of it is that, to (re-)establish the requirement of Torah observance for believers who have died to the Law (Torah), serves ultimately to undo the very work of Christ! This will be discussed further, in the next daily note on vv. 19-20.

July 2: Gal 2:15-16

In the last three daily notes, I explored the relationship between Peter and Paul in the New Testament and Christian tradition, in commemoration of the festival of Peter and Paul (June 29/30). Yesterday’s note discussed the episode at Antioch as narrated by Paul in Galatians 2:11-14. Paul’s statement in verse 14b leads into the famous passage in vv. 15-21, which serves to establish the basic issue at the heart of the letter—the propositio, according to classical rhetorical categories. I felt it well worth devoting a short series of notes on these verses, along the following division:

    • Note 1 (vv. 15-16)—Basic proposition regarding justification and the Jew/Gentile distinction
    • Note 2 (vv. 17-18)—Rhetorical argument to show the problem with applying the Law to (Gentile) believers
    • Note 3 (vv. 19-20)—Relation of the believer to the Law
    • Note 4 (v. 21)—Concluding argument regarding justice/righteousness

Galatians 2:15-16

It is often debated whether Paul’s words to Peter end with verse 14 or continue on into vv. 15ff. From a literary (epistolary) and rhetorical standpoint, I believe the direct address to Peter ends with v. 14 (along with the narration [narratio] of vv. 1-14); Paul deftly (and seamlessly) makes the shift from Peter to the Galatian audience of the letter here in vv. 15-16. This becomes clear when we look closely at the two statements which make up this verse pair:

V. 15: “We (who are) by nature Yehudeans [i.e. Jews], and not sinful ones [i.e. sinners] out of the Nations [i.e. Gentiles]…”

He draws a distinction, entirely from a traditional Jewish point of view, between Israelites/Jews who live according to the Covenant established by God and the Law (of Moses), and non-Jews (Gentiles) who live apart from the Law and Covenant. According to this religious distinction, faithful and observant Jews are considered “righteous”, while non-Jews (and faithless/disobedient Jews) are considered to be “sinners”. Paul admits this distinction (from a religious standpoint) and uses it as the starting point for his argument; it also serves as a point both ‘sides’ can agree upon—Paul, on the one side, and Jewish Christians (who believe all Christians should be circumcised and observe the Law), on the other. The emphatic use of the first person plural pronoun (h(mei=$, “we”) immediately establishes the common ground—Paul associates himself here with another Jewish Christian (i.e. Peter, implied).

Verse 16 is more complex, and, in rendering it, I would break it down into outline form—it begins “[but] seeing/knowing that…”:

    • “a man is not declared just out of [i.e. by/from] works of (the) law
      • if not through trust of Yeshua (the) Anointed
      • and we (indeed) trusted in (the) Anointed Yeshua
    • (so) that we might be declared just out of [i.e. by/from] trust of (the) Anointed (One)
      • and not out of works of (the) law
      • (in) that out of works of (the) law
    • all flesh will not be declared just”

Note the way that the three ‘outer’ clauses or phrases emphasize justification (being “declared just/righteous”), whereas the ‘inner’ pairs of clauses/phrases juxtapose trust (or faith) “of/into Jesus” and works “of the law”. The ‘outer’ portions themselves form a guiding chiasm:

    • A man (i.e. individual person)—not declared just (from works of law)
      • We (i.e. believers) might be declared just (by faith/trust in Jesus)
    • All flesh (i.e. all persons, collectively)—not declared just (from works of law [implicit])

The participle that begins this verse (ei&dote$, “having seen/known [that…]”) joins it to v. 15, and implies that, this too, is a proposition both ‘sides’ can agree on. Indeed, many (if not most) early Jewish Christians, like Peter, would have granted that ultimately it is by faith in Jesus, and not by observing the Law, that believers are “justified” and “saved”. Almost certainly, Jewish Christians who might make statements such as that in Acts 15:1 were a relatively small (if vocal) minority. The difference is that Paul regarded the less extreme view and behavior of Peter (and other Jewish Christians in Antioch) as essentially leading to a denial of this fundamental proposition—the denial being that faith/trust in Jesus ultimately was not sufficient to establish a right religious standing before God.

Before proceeding, however, it is important to mention the difficulty in rendering the verb dikaio/w (dikaióœ), as well as the related noun dikaiosu/nh (dikaiosy¡n¢) and adjective di/kaio$ (díkaios). Translators are generally torn between “just/justice” and “right/righteous(ness)” The basic idea underlying the dik- word group is conformity with what has been established (in society, i.e. custom, tradition) or with (moral/religious/legal) direction. Overall, “just/justice” best captures the social and legal aspects in English, whereas “righteous(ness)”, in particular, is almost entirely limited to a specific religious sense. The main problem is the verb dikaio/w, as there is nothing really corresponding to it in English. Literally, it would be “make right/just”, but this is somewhat awkward and potentially misleading; “declare just” perhaps better fits the legal sense, but this too can be misleading when used in a spiritual or theological context. Typically, “justify” is used to translate, but in modern English this verb has virtually lost its proper legal sense, and necessitates special technical usage in the New Testament (esp. in Paul’s letters). Needless to say, the subject is immense, and requires careful study of all the relevant passages.

Two additional points of translation (and interpretation) are worth mentioning:

    • The genitive construct used in verse 16—”the trust/faith of Jesus”—is best understood as an objective genitive, i.e. “faith in Jesus”. The parallel and synonymous Greek expression is “faith ei)$ [lit. into] Jesus”. This primarily refers to faith/trust directed toward Jesus, but one should not ignore the dynamic, participatory aspect implied by the literal rendering “into”.
    • The expression “works of (the) law”, now also found in the Qumran texts (4QMMT line c27, hrwfh ycum), is distinctive to Paul’s thought. By it, he means active observance of the commands and ordinances of the Old Testament Law (Torah or “Law of Moses”), particularly in its ritual/ceremonial aspect. Here in Galatians the reference is primarily to circumcision, but would also include the sacrificial offerings, observance of holy days (Sabbath, Passover, etc), dietary regulations, and so forth—even extending to supererogatory acts of religious devotion which go beyond the letter of the law. By juxtaposing the parallel genitive expressions “works of law” and “trust of Jesus”, Paul creates a contrasting distinction, highlighted by: (a) “trust/faith” vs. “work/act”, and (b) the use of the preposition ei)$ (trust into/unto Jesus) which Paul takes rather literally—Jews may be “in” (e)n) the Law or Christians “in” Christ, but by trust/faith one moves “into” (ei)$) Christ; in other words, faith in Jesus brings about a dynamic change of religious, existential, and spiritual situation for the person.

The Law and the New Testament: Introduction

This is the beginning of a series on the Old Testament Law (of Moses) as it is treated in the New Testament Writings. This issue, of course, cannot be separated from the question of the relationship between the (Christian) believer and the Law. Christians have long struggled with this question—from the very beginning until the present day, it has been a pressing concern, both in terms of doctrine and practical application to daily life and belief. It is deserving of thorough and thoughtful discussion today, particularly as modern society continues to move further and further away from the ancient thought patterns and religious culture in which the Old Testament Law first came to light. This study has, as its primary aim, to present a careful and objective survey (and exegetical Commentary) on many (if not all) of the relevant New Testament passages dealing with this subject. A basic outline of the study will be presented below.

To begin with, it is important to recognize several fundamental difficulties involved with a proper understanding of “the Law”:

1. First is a terminological difficulty. There are three primary words with overlapping ranges of meaning:

  • Law—the English word is from Germanic derivation (Old English lagu), in the basic sense of something laid down, i.e. a “binding custom or practice (of a community)”, as defined by M.-W. It is partially synonymous with the word rule (Lat. regula, regere, “[lead/make] straight”)—i.e., something which leads or guides a person or community.
  • hr*oT—the Hebrew word hr*oT (tôr¹h or tôrâ) is typically translated “law”, but is more properly rendered “instruction”. It is derived from a root word hr*y` (y¹râ) with the fundamental meaning (in the hiphil causative stem) of “direct, instruct, teach”. The related term hr#om (môreh) would be rendered “teacher, instructor”. The word hroT appears (in both the singular and plural) more that 200 times in the Hebrew Scriptures, often in the general sense of teaching/instruction (whether human or divine); however, it can also refer to a specific body or collection of (authoritative) teaching. The teaching which was understood to govern the ancient Israelite Community—in both religious (cultic) and social aspects (the two being closely interwined)—is preserved in the books of Exodus and Leviticus (also portions of Numbers and Deuteronomy), forming significant blocks of what is commonly referred to as the Pentateuch (Genesis–Deuteronomy), and which in Israelite/Jewish tradition is itself called “Torah” (hr*oT). The Old Testament Scriptures clearly indicate that this authoritative Instruction is the product of Divine Revelation, and is frequently referred to as “the Instruction [Torah] of God” (hw`hy+ tr^oT, tôra¾ YHWH)—cf. Exodus 13:9, etc. Several partially synonymous words appear in conjunction with hr*oT, such as: (a) qoj/hQ*j% (µôq/µuqqâ), indicating something inscribed or engraved, often understood in the sense of “statute, decree, ordinance”, etc.; (b) hw`x=m! (miƒwâ), from the root hw`x* (ƒ¹wâ), “direct, order, command”, and usually rendered as “commandment”; (c) fP*v=m! (mišp¹‰), “judgment”, often in the technical sense of a specific legal case or decision. These three terms, especially, can be seen as covered under the wider concept of hr*oT.
  • no/mo$ (nómos)—the Greek word usually translated as “law” originally had the basic sense of something assigned for particular use (spec. an allotment of land), and developed a broad range of more abstract meaning, such as a “(proper) custom, order, arrangement, usage,” etc. Within the political-legal sphere, the word took on the sense of a “(binding) custom” or regulation, much akin to the English word “law” (see above). Despite the clear difference in history and primary meaning of the two words, no/mo$ typically was used to translate hr*oT (in the Septuagint, etc). Indeed, within the New Testament itself, no/mo$ is usually understood in this manner—of the Old Testament and Israelite/Jewish “Law of Moses” (or “Law/Torah of God”), rather than Greco-Roman Law or “law” in a more general/abstract sense. The verb nomi/zw, which we might translate as “regard as proper/customary”, also has a technical legal or religious meaning, the background of which is important to keep in mind when examining certain New Testament passages.

We should be sensitive to the differences and nuances of language and meaning between these words, and be cautious against reducing everything to a specific or generalized concept of “Law”.

2. Second is a further difficulty of definition. At the time of the New Testament, how was the word hr*oT (Torah) understood? There are several aspects which should be considered:

  • As a law code—this stems from the basic definition of hr*oT as an (authoritative) body or collection of instruction (see above). Jewish tradition established the number of Scriptural commandments (twwxm) at 613 (see the Babylonian Talmud Makkot 23b-24a, and especially the “Book of the Commandments” [Sefer ha-Miƒwôt] by Maimonides)—365 negative, and 248 positive, commandments—compiled ostensibly from the relevant portions of Exodus-Leviticus and Numbers-Deuteronomy.
  • As a corpus of religious tradition—this includes not only the written instruction found in the Pentateuch, but two further related aspects: (1) the “Oral Torah/Law”, instruction passed down through the generations (beginning with Moses) and transmitted orally; and (2) authoritative commentary and interpretation of both written and oral Torah. This material is extensive and wide-ranging, having been preserved (and, in a sense, codified) in the Mishnah, the Talmuds and the various Midrashim. Many of the earliest Rabbinic traditions—of the Tannaim—may be contemporary with (or even pre-date) Jesus and the New Testament authors. The extent to which Rabbinic literature can be used to document beliefs and traditions from Jesus’ own time remains a topic of considerable debate.
  • As Scripture—sometimes “Torah” specifically refers to the sacred Writings, whether limited to the Pentateuch (the books of Moses, trad.) or the whole of Scripture. This latter sense is often covered by the expression “the Torah/Law and the Prophets”; however, even here the Torah tends to have priority, with the Prophets (probably including both the Historical books [Joshua–Kings] and the Psalms) seen as expounding/interpreting the Torah of God.
  • As a religious way of life—the observance of the Instruction (Torah) of God (as revealed in Scripture and tradition) was (and still is) fundamental to the Israelite/Jewish religious identity. It reflects the terms of the Covenant between God and His people. As we shall see, the idea of Torah observance as “works-righteousness”, by which one obtains salvation, is something of a serious distortion of Judaism at the time of the New Testament. More properly, we should regard Jewish observance of the Torah from the standpoint of a requirement (or obligation) which maintains and preserves the covenant (agreement) with God.

3. Third, and finally, is the difficulty of interpretation. All Jews in Jesus’ time would have agreed on the importance and necessity of observing the Torah; however, various groups differed in two respects: (1) on the precise nature and extent of the Torah, and (2) on what constituted definitive and authoritative interpretation of the Torah. This involved what we might call the perennial question of religious authority—who determines the required rules and customs, and how should they be performed or followed? The New Testament gives us only a narrow window into the debates and discussions which must have taken place in this regard. By all accounts, Jesus had numerous interactions with the Pharisees (or the “scribes and Pharisees”) over points of Torah, but only traces of this survive in the Gospels. There were fundamental differences between the Pharisees and Sadducees on chief points of doctrine. More notably, the Community reflected in the Qumran texts also had serious disagreements with other groups [including Pharisees, it would seem] over the proper interpretation and application of Torah. The centrality of Torah observance for the Qumran Community is especially clear in the so-called “Rule of the Community”:

As it is written: “In the desert, prepare the way…” This is the study [vrdm] of the law [hrwth] which He commanded through the hand of Moses, in order to act in compliance with all that has been revealed from age to age, and according to what the prophets have revealed through His holy spirit… (1QS 8.14-16)

The commitment to study (lit. searching, vrd) and observance of the Torah is virtually synonymous with entry into the Community (1QS 1.1-3ff, 5.1, etc), by which a covenant is established (or re-established) between the faithful and God (1QS 1.16-17). A basic premise for the Community was that Israel had abandoned the way of truth and no longer followed the Instruction of God (Torah) properly; furthermore, new revelation and insight regarding the Instruction was being given to the Community (as the faithful end-time Remnant). There are several references to an “Interpreter [lit. searcher] of the Law” (hr*oTh vr@oD, dôr¢š hattôrâ)—an idealized, eschatological figure representing the importance of authoritative instruction (CDMS A 7.18ff [4Q267 ii 15f]; 4Q174 fr. 1 col. 1, 11-12; 4Q177 col. 2, 5). This Interpreter is connected with the coming Davidic Ruler (i.e. Messiah, “Prince of the Congregation”), and may be identified with either the “Prophet like Moses” who is to come or to a Priestly ruler (“Messiah of Aaron”). However, in the history of the Community the role also seems to have been filled by the person known as “the Righteous Teacher” (CDA 6.7)—in such an eschatologically-oriented religious sect, present and future are closely intertwined. This “Righteous Teacher” (qdxh hrwm) or “Teacher of Righteousness” (hqdxh hrwm) served as a title for the leader who would offer divinely-sanctioned interpretation of both the Law and the Prophets; on this figure, see CDA 1.11; 6.11; CDB 20; 4QpPsa col. 3-4, etc; and throughout the commentary [pesher] on Habakkuk, e.g., 4QpHab 1.13; 2.2; 5.10, 7.4, 8.3, 9.9, 11.5. In many ways, Jesus filled this same role as authoritative Interpreter, especially in passages such as the Sermon on the Mount, as we shall see. The apostles, too, worked long and hard to clarify the relation of the Christian Community (broadly speaking) to the Torah and the Prophets. It was on this very point that the fiercest early battles were fought—most vividly demonstrated in Paul’s harsh polemic (esp. in Galatians) against other Jewish Christians who opposed his approach to Christian identity (in particular, the inclusion of Gentiles without requiring observance of the Torah).

As indicated above, Christians continue to struggle with the question of whether, or to what extent, it is necessary for believers to follow the Old Testament Law (Torah). A number of differing approaches have been taken, the most notable of which may be summarized as follows:

  • Believers are obligated to observe the Torah fully. This was a serious issue in the earliest years of the Church, but today it really only applies to Jewish Christians (or “Messianic Jews”).
  • Believers are entirely free from the Torah, and not required to observe it in any way; religious and moral conduct is now governed by other means (the Holy Spirit, inspired Christian instruction, etc). This view derives primarily from Paul’s teaching in Galatians and Romans.
  • Believers are still required to observe all things in the Torah which have not been explicitly (or practically) abolished (or rendered unnecessary) according to the teaching of the New Testament.
  • The ritual or ceremonial portion of the Torah no longer applies (nor does most of the political-social legislation and case law); believers are only required to observe the ethical precepts.
  • Believers are only required to observe the Ten Commandments (a narrower version of the two previous approaches).
  • Believers are required to observe only the “Commandments of Christ”, which can be defined various ways, but certainly includes Jesus’ own instruction related to the Torah (such as in the Sermon on the Mount).
  • The entire Torah for believers is reduced to the “Love-Commandment” (love of God and neighbor), according to the example of Christ. This is more of a general principle than a law or commandment as such.
  • Rather than observing the Torah commandments literally, believers should, by a process of interpretation, seek to understand and apply the underlying principles to modern religious and social circumstances.

I will reserve comment on these (and possibly other) approaches until the end of this series of studies. Here is a simple outline of how I will be proceeding:

  • Jesus and the Law—covering the following areas:
    • Evidence for two contrasting approaches by Jesus to the Torah
    • Jesus’ handling of the Torah in the Sermon on the Mount (esp. in the Antitheses)
    • Jesus’ interaction with Pharisees and religious authorities (esp. the Sabbath controversies)
    • Jesus’ relation to the Temple
    • The Law in the Gospel of John
  • The Law in the book of Acts (drawing also upon the Gospel of Luke)
  • Paul’s view of the Law
    • In Galatians
    • In Romans
    • Key references in the remaining epistles
    • Paul’s view of the Law in Acts compared with the Epistles
  • The Law in the Epistle of James
  • The Law in the Epistle to the Hebrews
  • The Law in the rest of the New Testament (with key references in the Apostolic Fathers)

Unless otherwise indicated, translations of the Qumran texts used in this series are taken from: The Dead Sea Scrolls Study Edition, ed. Florentino García Martínez and Eibert J. C. Tigchelaar, Brill/Eerdmans 1997-8.