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Paul’s View of the Law: Introduction

In this series on “The Law and the New Testament”, it is now time to begin exploring Paul’s view of the Law, which will be done over a series of articles. It is a complex and difficult subject, to which one might easily devote any number of book-length treatments (as indeed scholars have done); here I will attempt a careful survey of the most relevant passages, devoting longer exegetical notes, when necessary, to specific verses. The history of interpretation, fascinating though it may be, will only be introduced when it is especially helpful in elucidating a particular passage; similarly, comparative studies between Paul and Rabbinic Judaism, the Dead Sea Scrolls, and so forth, will be kept to a minimum. Every effort will be made to focus on the fundamental meaning and context of Paul’s words in the letters. Before proceeding, I must offer two explanatory notes:

1) On authorship of the Pauline letters—Of the fourteen letters (or “epistles”) traditionally ascribed to Paul in the New Testament, they may be divided as follows:

  • Undisputed letters—i.e., Paul is indicated as the author in the text and few (if any) commentators question his authorship; there are seven (7) such letters: Romans, 1 Corinthians, 2 Corinthians, Galatians, Philippians, 1 Thessalonians, Philemon
  • Disputed letters—Paul is indicated as the author in the text, but at least a fair number of commentators believe the letters are actually pseudonymous; I would break down this category further:
    —where critical scholarship is somewhat divided (2): Colossians, 2 Thessalonians
    —where there is a general critical consensus against Pauline authorship (4): Ephesians, 1 Timothy, 2 Timothy, Titus
  • Anonymous letters (1): Hebrews—traditionally ascribed to Paul, though relatively few scholars would hold this today

For the purpose of these studies, I am not including Hebrews in the discussion on Paul’s view of the Law. With regard to the 6 disputed letters, I accept 2 Thessalonians and Colossians, without any real reservation, as among the authentic Pauline epistles. There is more legitimate question surrounding the other four (Ephesians and the Pastoral epistles). I will be including them in these articles; however, as a way of preserving the distinction, they will always be cited or referenced in order after the previous nine letters.

2) On recent interpretive trends—In recent decades, there has been something of a revolution in Pauline studies, in two main respects:

(a) A reaction against the customary Reformation/Protestant view of Paul, with its juxtaposition of law vs. faith, works vs. grace, and so forth. Attempts have been made to present a more “holistic”, nuanced picture of Pauline theology, with more attention paid to his epistolary and rhetorical style, the context of (re-)socialization and community-building in early Christianity, the Jewish background and apocalyptic character of his thought, and so on.
(b) Paul’s Jewish background, in particular, has been given greater emphasis, part of a wider tendency to set early Christianity within a Jewish matrix. Correspondingly, scholars today are much more reluctant to draw a sharp distinction between “Judaism” and “Christianity” in the New Testament.

These articles draw on the more recent scholarship, to some extent, though I have tried very much to allow the text of the epistles to speak for itself. At several junctures, however, it will be necessary to interact with certain modern interpretive tendencies involving key passages—especially in Galatians and Romans, the two letters where the Law is most extensively discussed by Paul.

An Introduction to Galatians

As Galatians contains the most distinct (and controversial) Pauline teaching on the Law, I will be dealing with it first. There are, however, several points which ought to be addressed, by way of introduction:

Historical background and chronology—The historical context of Paul’s argument (including the narration in Gal 2:1-14) has long been a subject of scholarly debate, especially in terms of its relationship with the so-called “Jerusalem Council” of Acts 15. An important question has been whether the Jerusalem meeting described in Gal 2:1-10 refers to the same underlying event of Acts 15 (for more on this question, see my earlier supplemental article on the Jerusalem Council). A number of scholars would hold that the events of Gal 2:1-14 took place prior to those of Acts 15, even that Galatians itself was perhaps written prior to the Council. The main evidence typically cited is:

  • There are several notable differences in the details as narrated in Acts 15 and Gal 2:1-10
  • Paul makes no mention of the decisions of the Council of the decree (the letter of Acts 15:22-29) in Galatians
  • Acts 15:24 (in the letter) may be a reference to what Paul mentioned in Gal 2:12
  • The picture in Acts 15 (cf. also 16:4) is of a generally harmonious resolution of the Jewish-Gentile question (on the matter of circumcision and observance of the Torah), with all involved apparently accepting the Jerusalem decisions and decree (as expressed in the letter) as authoritative. This seems to be at odds with the conflict narrated in Gal 2:11-14, and, indeed, with the overall argument of Galatians as a whole.

The last of these points carries the greatest weight, and it is the main reason—i.e. the desire to harmonize Galatians and Acts—that many traditional-conservative commentators hold that Paul’s epistle was written prior to the Council. I find it far more likely that the events described in Gal 2 took place prior to those of Acts 15 than that Galatians itself was written so early. There are essentially three possibilities:

  • That the events in Gal 2:1-14 (and possibly Galatians itself) are to be dated prior to the Council (and the decree/letter) of Acts 15
  • That Gal 2:1-10 and Acts 15 describe the same basic event, and that the incident at Antioch in Gal 2:11-14 took place after the Council (and issue of the the letter/decree)
  • That Gal 2:1-10 and Acts 15:1-12ff describe the same event, but that the letter/decree of Acts 15:22-31ff was issued some time after the Antioch incident of Gal 2:11-14, the author of Acts combining/conflated separate traditions within the narrative of ch. 15

I am rather inclined to this last option, though it is not without its own difficulties. Many critical commentators would object to any attempt at harmonizing Galatians and Acts as being unnecessary and misplaced. I agree in that I see no need for harmonization from the standpoint of trying to preserve (or defend) the inspiration and historicity of the two accounts—each book ought to be read and/or accepted on its own merits. However, there is still considerable value in examining the historical background of Galatians (and the historical tradition[s] within Acts). At any rate, these are questions and issues which may be brought up, from time to time, during this study of Galatians (esp. involving the narration in chapter 2).

The use of the term “Law”—Of the approx. 130 references to law in the Pauline letters, 70 or so are found in Romans, with another 32 in Galatians. The Greek word is no/mo$ (nómos), and it is virtually always used in the sense of the revelatory instruction (hr*oT, tôrâ) seen as coming from God (YHWH) to Israel (through Moses), and preserved primarily within the five “books of Moses” (the Pentateuch: Genesis–Deuteronomy). This instruction was viewed as normative for Israelites (and Jews), bound up intimately with the idea of the agreement (covenant) God established with his people. From a traditional and religious standpoint, observance of the Torah represented the terms and requirements necessary for preserving the covenant. In the introductory article of this series of “The Law and the New Testament” I have discussed the specific terminology, along with differing nuances of meaning between hroT, no/mo$ and English “law”. Some commentators today, uncomfortable with Paul’s use of no/mo$ (in Galatians especially), would like to substitute or read in a specific meaning or connotation such as “legalism”, “(misuse/misunderstanding of the) law”, and so forth. I disagree completely with such an approach. I find little reason to think that Paul intends anything other than a basic, fundamental reference to the Law/Torah wherever no/mo$ is used in Galatians, Romans, and the rest of the epistles, with but a few possible exceptions. This will be discussed in more detail when dealing with specific passages in Galatians.

On Jewish and Christian identity—Another area of difficulty for many modern-day students and commentators of the New Testament involves the religious distinction between “Judaism” and “Christianity”, with an increasing reluctance to set Christian identity over against the Jewish, at least within the context of the New Testament itself. There are a number of reasons for this, most notably:

  • A more ‘holistic’ and comparative approach to the study of the New Testament (and Pauline studies in particular, cf. above), including more objective analysis of the Jewish background and environment of early Christianity
  • Multi-cultural, religious-pluralistic, and ecumenical trends which have had a significant influence on theology and interpretation today
  • Sensitivity to the painful legacy of centuries of anti-Jewish (and/or anti-Semitic) mistreatment and persecution by ‘Christian’ communities

These are all important matters today which cannot (and ought not to) be ignored. In particular, the modern religious and cultural sensitivity is, on the whole, most laudable, especially with regard to past mistreatment of Jews by supposed Christians. However, it is easy for such noble sentiments to color or distort the historical context and meaning of many New Testament passages. Consider, for example, the famous (and notorious) ‘anti-Jewish’ discursion in 1 Thess 2:14-16, within an epistle almost universally recognized as authentically Pauline—it is so striking, and appears at odds with what is understood (and/or assumed) today about the Jewish Paul, that many commentators seriously doubt that Paul could have said it. Admittedly, it makes for uncomfortable reading today, which is almost certainly the main reason why it is often regarded as a non-Pauline interpolation—many would prefer to remove it from the New Testament!

The same situation applies, to a lesser degree with the way Paul deals with Judaism and the Law in Galatians and Romans; there is less overt conflict expressed in Romans, but Paul’s various arguments in that epistle are not without their own points of controversy (especially in the soteriological/eschatological aspects of chs. 9-11). The forcefulness (even harshness) of the rhetoric and polemic Paul uses at times in Galatians (against his Jewish-Christian opponents, sometimes called “Judaizers”) can also be hard to read (and accept) today; one might naturally question whether Paul is treating his opponents fairly and representing their actual position accurately. However, I would maintain that it is the fundamental issue of religious identity which represents the most difficult, and perhaps controversial, point of the letter. Whatever date one ascribes to Galatians, it is almost certainly the earliest New Testament writing which attempts to define a specific Christian identity, in relation to Judaism (and the Law); and when Paul begins to apply traditional and essential aspects of Jewish identity (such as the promises to Abraham and his descendants) to believers in Christ, there can be little doubt that a new sort of religious identity is being expressed. As indicated above, these can be extremely sensitive matters within today’s cultural and religious climate, and yet they must be addressed and interpreted fairly and honestly, without prejudice.

Concluding outline—The articles in this series on Paul’s View of the Law will proceed according to the following outline:

  1. The Law in Galatians
  2. The Law in Romans
  3. The Law in the remaining Pauline Letters
  4. Paul’s view of the Law in Acts compared with the Letters

Due to the length required, each article may be broken into more than one part, as necessary.

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