Word Study: nomos, “Law” in Romans


I.       Basic Definitions (BAG):

  • “law,” “rule” (Bauer, Arndt, Gingrich)
  • Relevant definitions are less frequent: “usage,” “custom,” “law,” (Liddell, Scott, classical Greek dictionary)


II.     Brainstorming Some Possibilities

·       It could refer to the Jewish law (i.e. Genesis through Deuteronomy).

·       It could refer to some sense of universal or “natural” law.

·       NT authors could view the Jewish law as entirely in force for Christians, understood literally.

·       NT authors could view the Jewish law in force in part literally, but not completely in force literally. 

·       NT authors could view the Jewish law as in force partially literally partially figuratively, symbolically, or allegorically.

·       NT authors might view the Jewish law as entirely figuratively, symbolically, or allegorically applicable.

·       NT authors might not view the Jewish law to be in force at all.

·       Various NT authors might take various positions above.

·       The Jewish law might remain in force for Jewish Christians but not for Gentile Christians.

·       Some other criteria might be used to select some elements of the Jewish law to be in force and others not to be.

·       The Jewish law might have been replaced by some sense of a higher law that we might call a universal law, a “natural” law (although this term is loaded by the history of philosophy), or a “moral” law (also loaded by way of Christian tradition).

·       Some combination of the above.


III.    Word/Phrase Usage

A.    Paul’s Writings, Prior to Romans

1.     The Thessalonian Letters

·       Perhaps Paul’s earliest letters (early 50’s).  Although Paul has already engaged in significant dialog over the relationship of the Jewish law to the life of the Gentile Christian by this time, the Jewish law is not a topic of discussion.  Paul refers rather to the oral “word of the Lord” that he preached to these Gentile converts (e.g. 1 Thess. 2:13).  Similarly, he speaks of oral instruction in 2 Thessalonians 2:5.  His letters are substitutes for his physical presence, and derive their authority from the Holy Spirit. 

·       Interestingly, he makes no arguments directly from quotations of the Jewish Scriptures in these writings, although Scripture occasionally stands in the background of a phrase or claim.



2.     1 Corinthians (mid-50’s)

·       Paul’s teaching on sexuality flows overwhelmingly from Leviticus 18.  Whatever aspects of the Jewish law he may find to be of debatable application, its sexual prohibitions do not seem to be in question at all.  Thus confer his discussion of the man sleeping with his step-mother in 1 Corinthians 5; his discussion of homosexual sex in 6:9; and perhaps his teaching on marriage in 1 Corinthians 7.

·       He fully accepts the validity of the Shema (Deut 6:4) and thus Jewish monotheism, although he has a new category for Christ as Lord (e.g. 1 Cor. 8:6).

·       In a number of instances Paul draws metaphorical points from the law.  For example, he compares Christ to the Passover lamb of Exodus (1 Cor. 5:7).  He does not accept the literal meaning of Deut. 25:4 in 1 Cor. 9:8-10, but sees the comment on the ox as a spiritual message relating to Christian workers.  These are the first uses of the word nomos in 1 Corinthians (9:8-9). 

Paul’s discussion in 1 Corinthians 10 of the story of Israel from Exodus and Numbers draws heavily on allegory and symbolism.  Paul believes these stories happened as examples to believers of his day.

Paul refers to the law in 1 Cor. 14:21, but the quote is primarily from Isaiah 28:11-12.  Paul may very well believe that Isaiah provides the spiritual meaning of Deuteronomy 28:49 by catchword (tongues).  Alternatively, Paul may have a broader sense of “law” than just the Pentateuch (cf. one interpretation of Romans 3:10-19).

·       1 Cor. 9:20 may very well be key to Paul’s perspective on the law.  In this passage (vss. 20-23) Paul places himself in a category that distances him somewhat from his ethnic identity as a Jew.  The implications of his comments are that 1) he does not view the believer as someone “under the law” (9:20), even if they are of Jewish ethnicity; 2) the believer is “subject to the law of Christ” and is not without law from God (9:21). 

·       Paul may want to keep the feast of Pentecost (1 Cor. 16:8), indicating that he at least has not completely thrown out his Jewish heritage.

·       Paul accepts in theory (but not in practice) the Corinthian slogan, “All things are lawful” (6:12; 10:23).  While Paul probably did not come up with this slogan, he probably appropriates it in terms of believers not being “under the law.”

·       Paul seems to retain some of the structure of the husband-wife relationship of Genesis 3.  He accepts the husband as the head of the wife in 11:3, for example, although he qualifies it (e.g. 1 Cor. 11:11).  If 1 Cor. 14:34-35 was a part of the original text of 1 Corinthians, Paul implies that the punishment on Eve in Genesis 3 is still in force for believing wives.  Such use stands in some tension with Paul’s comments elsewhere both in terms of women praying and prophesying (11:5) and in terms of believers not being under the law (9:20).

·       In the briefest of hints of what Paul will discuss in Romans, 1 Cor. 15:56 indicates that the power of sin is the law.  He ties this concept to death.

·       Paul makes citations of Scripture somewhat more from the Psalms and the Prophets than from the Law.  He also refers to the teaching of (the earthly) Jesus (1 Cor. 7:10-11) and/or the risen Christ (1 Cor. 11:23-25?).

·       Paul’s authority flows from the fact that he has the Spirit of God (1 Corinthians 7:40).  It is from here that his wisdom comes (1 Cor. 2:10), and it is the Spirit that enables him to know the true meaning of Scripture (1 Cor. 2:6-10). 

Paul also refers to the practices and traditions of the churches of God (e.g. 1 Cor. 11:16; 15:3), and encourages the Corinthians to follow his example as he follows that of Christ (e.g. 1 Cor. 11:1).  Finally, Paul makes recourse to the concept of “nature” (physis) in 1 Cor. 11:14-15.


Summary: Paul does not consider a believer to be “under the law.”  Further, his appropriation of the biblical text takes place largely on a spiritual level rather than a literal one.  He can agree at least in theory with the Corinthian slogan: “All things are lawful for me.”

On the other hand, Paul does not see this fact as the removal of all constraint.  He implies that there is a “law of God” and a “law of Christ” that remains fully in place.  He does not explain the precise relationship between this law and the Jewish law, although he does refer vaguely to a sense of nature at one point.  The teaching of Jesus, the traditions of the churches of God, and his authority as one who has the Spirit are the determining factors in what is binding for the believer. 

Paul clearly retains the law’s teaching on matters of idolatry and sexual immorality.  Galatians and Romans will make clearer what he might include in the category of becoming “like a Jew,” things that he can easily set aside when he is around non-Jews.  


3.     2 Corinthians

·       As with the Thessalonian letters, the term nomos does not appear, although the law is referred to metonymically as “Moses” in 2 Cor. 3:15.  Paul implies that the “Israelites” of his day had a “veil” over their hearts as they read the law.  They did not see its true meaning with their minds. 

On the other hand, the Spirit of Christ brings freedom.  Paul’s thinking here implies a higher meaning for the law than the literal, and he continues to read its stories typologically and symbolically.

·       2 Corinthians 6:14-7:1 may be a fragment from another context in Paul’s communication with the Corinthians.  Nevertheless, it seems to reflect Paul’s concerns elsewhere for the integrity of the body of Christ (e.g. 1 Cor. 5-6) and the importance of teachings like marriage “in the Lord” (e.g. 1 Cor. 7:39).  These seem to be “holiness” concerns, a type of purity issue not unrelated to the issues of Leviticus, although the purity boundaries are somewhat different.

·       2 Corinthians 11:3 uses Eve as an example of someone who is deceived.

·       Citations from the Pentateuch appear, although Isaiah and Psalms continue to dominate much of Paul’s thinking.


4.     Galatians

·       Date is debated.  Important to remember it was written to Gentile Christians.

·       Paul strongly implies revelation from God as the source of the gospel he preached (e.g. Gal. 1:12; 2:2).

·       Interestingly refers to the “traditions of his fathers,” which he implies were a part of “Judaism” (Gal. 1:14).  He does not use the term law at this point.  Similarly, he criticizes Peter for imposing “Jewish living” on Gentiles, when Peter himself did not live in that way (2:14). 

Paul’s terms here seem to hint at what he meant in 1 Cor. 9:20 when he said he “became like a Jew” to win the Jews.  He says in Gal. 6:13 that those who want the Galatians to become circumcised do not even keep the law (in this respect?).

·       Galatians 2:16 uses the important phrase “works of law” for the first time.  Is this an idiom for the “living like a Jew,” “traditions of the fathers,” “Judaism” practices?  Paul indicates that one does not find acceptability before God strictly on such a basis.  The “faith of Jesus Christ” is the more significant element in the equation, in fact truly the only basis for justification.

·       Gal. 3:2 indicates that reception of the Spirit comes on the basis of a person’s faith rather than their doing “works of law.”

·       Paul once again operates from a spiritual meaning of Scripture.  The Scripture of Genesis 12:3 “knew” what God was going to do on the basis of faith (Gal. 3:8).  He makes an explicit allegory of the Sarah/Hagar story of Genesis (4:21-31).

·       Paul implies what he will say in Romans 3:23 when he says that all of those who try to be justified on the basis of “works of law” are under a curse—presumably because no one can remain “in all the things written in the book of the law” (Gal. 3:10).  A person must keep the whole law if s/he relies on circumcision for justification (5:3).

·       Christ became a curse on behalf of us, since those who die on a tree are cursed (Gal. 3:13).  We can now see Paul’s meaning in his cryptic comments regarding dying to the law “through the law” (Gal. 2:19).  By law Christ became a curse.  When we are “crucified with him” (Gal. 2:20), we die to the law.  This comment in 2:19 anticipates things Paul will spell out in Romans 7:1-6.

·       Christ’s death would be meaningless if righteousness came through the law, for the whole purpose of his death was to enable us to by-pass the curse of the law (Gal. 2:21; 3:13-14).  But righteousness cannot come on the basis of law (3:21)—law only confirms that everything is under sin (3:22).  Jesus was born “under the law” to redeem those “under the law” (4:4-5).  Those who try to rely on “works of law” are alienated from Christ and have fallen from God’s grace (5:4).

·       Paul gives the purpose of the law in Galatians 3:19: The law was added because of transgressions.  This comment anticipates things Paul will say in Romans 7:7-12. 

·       The law was given through angels (Gal. 3:19).  Paul here refers to the law delivered to Moses.  It is not clear whether this comment refers to the entire Pentateuch.

·       The law pertains to a particular period of history.  In that period, the law served as an instructor to raise us and point us toward Christ (3:23-24).  He implies that after Christ arrived, we are no longer under the law (3:25).  We have grown up (4:1-7).  The law leads us to Christ as we see our desperate need (3:22).

·       Paul relates being “under the law” to slavery (Gal. 4:3, 7).  This anticipates things Paul will say in Romans 6:16-23.  What we seem to be enslaved to are the “elements of the world” (4:3, 9), which are perhaps connected to the enslaved creation of Rom. 8:20 and the evil spiritual forces of 8:38-39.  Those who are led by the Spirit are not “under law” (5:18), and there is no law against the fruit of the Spirit (5:23).

·       Paul reflects what some of the “works of law” are in Galatians 4:10: the keeping of days, months, seasons, and years.  These likely relate to Jewish festivals, Sabbaths, jubilees, etc…  Gal. 5:2 indicates that circumcision is also in the mix.

·       Anticipating Romans 13:8-10, Paul indicates that the whole law is summed up in the command to love one’s neighbor (Gal. 5:14).  Paul indicates that those who walk by the Spirit do not fulfill the desires of their flesh (5:16).  Paul refers to the “law of Christ” in Gal. 6:2 and associates it with loving action.


Summary: Paul wrote Galatians in a very suggestive manner.  His expressions are terse and compact.  In this sense Romans helps clarify his meanings immensely on a number of points. 

As we saw in 1 Corinthians, Paul seems to operate out of two senses of law.  The one is the “law of Christ,” which seems to relate to the law of love and the fruit of the Spirit.  The other is what Paul calls variously “works of law” or simply “law.”  These “works of law” seem to relate significantly to elements of Jewish practice that distinguish Jew from Gentile, namely, circumcision and calendar observance.

He does not seem to have a problem with Jews observing “works of law” in theory (e.g. Peter, 2:16), although he doesn’t believe that Peter, James, and others are successful in their observance.  However, he believes it to affront Christ for a Gentile believer to try to be justified on the basis of these.  To do so would be to fall from grace and be alienated from Christ.

Paul also hints at things he will say in Romans concerning the power of sin over human flesh in defeating the believer in his or her attempt to keep the law, presumably even its love core. But the Christian must be successful in keeping the law of Christ and can be through the power of the Spirit.


5.     Philippians and Philemon

·       Traditionally dated to Paul’s Roman imprisonment after he wrote Romans, some also date them to about the time he wrote the Corinthian letters, perhaps during an Ephesian imprisonment.

·       Philemon has no references to the law.

·       Philippians 3 makes reference to some who would insist on circumcision as a mark of glory (Phil. 3:2-3).

·       Paul indicates that he was blameless in terms of the righteousness that comes in the law (Phil. 3:6).  Paul implies that before he believed, he had kept the Jewish law as well as humanly possible, as well as Jews considered to be necessary to be considered righteous, and presumably better than Peter, James, or John did (cf. Gal. 2:14; 6:13).

·       Phil. 3:9 presents the typical Pauline contrast between righteousness on the basis of law and on the basis of faith.


B. Nomos in Romans

1.     Romans 1:18-3:20

·       Romans 1 implies a certain “knowledge” of God and of the “righteous standard of God” (1:32) inherent in the world.  Paul presents some basic “core values” in Romans 1 that all people “know,” particularly relating to sexual practice and other shameful wickedness known by all.

·       Romans 2 presents the law as the standard by which a person will be judged.  Those who don’t know the law are judged nevertheless and those who know the law are judged by the law (2:12).  Those who keep the law are accepted whether they are circumcised or not.  Since circumcision is a part of the Jewish law, we must assume that Paul is not exactly talking about the Jewish law here but about the law that all people “know,” the law he implicitly discussed in Romans 1.

·       In Rom. 3:19-20, we see comments similar to Gal. 3:22.  The law imprisons everyone under sin (cf. Rom. 3:9).  The law provides the knowledge of what sin is (3:20).  No one can be justified on the basis of “works of law” (Rom. 3:20; cf. Gal. 2:16).  Everyone starts out “under the law” so that the world stands under the judgment of God and salvation can come from God’s grace (3:19).


2.     Romans 3:21-4:25

·       Paul begins this section with the mention of a way to be justified God has made possible “apart from law,” namely the “faith of Jesus Christ” (3:21).

·       In Rom. 3:27 Paul talks about a “rule of faith” or “law of faith.”  He explains this rule in 3:28: “a person is justified by faith apart from “works of law.”

·       In 3:31 Paul indicates that this fact does not lead us to reject law, but to affirm it.  Here Paul seems to have switched to the “law of Christ” concept, perhaps the law understood in the world of Romans 1, the law of love.

·       Paul’s discussion of Abraham’s justification by faith implies once again that “works of law” include circumcision (4:9ff).

·       In Rom. 4:15 Paul indicates that “the law effects wrath.”  The law brings transgression into account.  Righteousness on the basis of faith relates to a system based on grace and promise (4:16), rather than debt on God’s part (4:4).

·       Paul’s use of the article on the word law in 4:16 (the law) probably points specifically to the Jewish law and the Jews here.  Paul does not seem entirely consistent with his use of the article in this regard—he can refer to the Jewish law without the article (e.g. 2:17; 5:13).  On the other hand, he often does refer specifically to the Jewish law when he uses the article, although not always (e.g. 7:21).


3.     Romans 5

·       In Romans 5:13 Paul says that sin was in the world before the law, but it wasn’t reckoned.  He does not do away with condemnation on this account, given Rom. 2:12.  The purpose of the law was to increase the transgression (5:20).  Paul seems to imply that sin increases with the knowledge of right and wrong.  He mentioned in 1 Cor. 15 that the power of sin was the law, and he will imply in Rom. 7:8 and 13 that sin heightens my desires and sins by way of the law.


4.     Romans 6

·       Rom. 6:14 states that Paul’s audience is not “under law but under grace.”  However, the implication of this claim did not mean for Paul that we sin (6:15) or that we would present our members as instruments of unrighteousness leading to sin (6:13).  We must become slaves to righteousness instead of slaves to sin.  These arguments echo Galatians 4:3 and 9.


5.     Romans 7

·       Romans 7 is Paul’s fullest treatment on the law.  In 7:1-6 Paul indicates that law is only binding over someone until death.  So Paul says the Romans died to the law through the death of Christ’s body (7:4; cf. Gal. 2:19).  The person serving in newness of Spirit has been released from the law (7:6). 

While the argument sounds strictly legal (we are no longer judged by the law), Paul implies a real change in behavior also.  The person “under the law” is under the power of sin, is “in the flesh” and cannot do what is right.  The person who is free from the law (e.g. 7:3) is also free from the enslaving power of sin and is actually able to live differently.

·       Paul makes it clear in this chapter that the law itself is not the problem.  The law is not sin (7:7).  On the contrary, it is holy and the commandment is holy and just and good (7:12, 16).

·       On the one hand, the law provides knowledge of what sin is (e.g. 7:7; cf. Gal. 3:22; Rom. 3:20).  I know not to covet because the law tells me.

·       On the other hand, the law provides an opportunity for the power of sin to enslave me (Rom. 7:8; cf. 1 Cor. 15:56).  Because we start out fleshly, sold under sin, we cannot do the good even if we want to (Rom. 7:14-15).  Sin becomes extra-sinful (7:13) under such circumstances.  I find the law/rule of sin in my members (7:23), in my flesh (7:25).

·       In the last paragraph of chapter 7, Paul distinguishes between the “law of God” (7:22, 25), which is the “law of mind” (7:23), and the law of sin (7:21, 23, 25).  This law of mind/law of God represents what the Christian will be able to do by walking in the Spirit.  It represents the law of Christ and the law of love.  The “rule” or “law of sin” refers to the way sin behaves by way of human flesh.


6.     Romans 8

·       In Romans 8:1 Paul adds to his list of “laws of” the “law of the Spirit.”  In many of these circumstances, we might almost translate nomos as “rule.”  Thus Paul can talk of the “law/rule of sin,” the “law/rule of faith,” etc…  The phrase “rule of the Spirit” adds a further perspective on his phrases “the law of the mind,” the “law of God” he uses in Romans 7.

·       In Rom. 8:3 he reverts to “the law” in reference to the Jewish law.  The law could not produce righteousness in the person trying to keep it, even though it made such a person aware of what righteousness was.

·       In Rom. 8:4 Paul refers once more to the “righteous standard of the law” (dikaioma tou nomou, the word is used in Rom. 1:32; 2:26; 5:16, 18; and 8:4).  The word implies that the requirements of the law are good.  The “law of God” phrase is used again at 8:7.  These references again seem to refer to a part of the Jewish law that Christians keep through the Spirit but which does not include those elements of “works of law” that are not applicable to Gentiles.

·       8:12-17 emphasize the essential importance for Christians not to live “according to the flesh.”  The person in the Spirit is not the person of Rom. 7:7-25.


7.     Romans 9-11

·       9:4 Paul holds in honor the fact that Israel was the race to which God gave the law.

·       9:13 is suggestive, although its interpretation is no doubt debatable.  We can understand it to say that while Israel pursued righteousness according to law, they were not able to keep that law.  They were not able to find righteousness on the basis of law, on the basis of works (9:32).

·       10:4: “Christ is the goal of the law, resulting in righteousness to everyone who has faith.”  Perhaps this comment is similar to Gal. 3:24-25 and 4:1-7.  The law was instituted for a particular period of history until Christ would come.  Now that Christ has come, the law no longer serves its former functions.  10:5 echoes the points of Gal. 3:12.

·       Romans 13:8-10 echoes the points of Gal. 5:14.  Love is the fulfillment of the law.  By implication the law of love specifies what the law of God, the righteous standard of the law, the law of the Spirit, the law of the mind, etc. are.

·       In Romans 14 deals with a number of issues probably related to the Jewish law.  14:2 speaks of someone who would eat only vegetables, and 14:17 mentions “food and drink.”  Perhaps these comments relate to the keeping of food laws in the Jewish law.  14:5 speaks of varying opinions on the observance of days, probably the Sabbath.  Paul implies that the right answer is action with faith, not a specific kind of observance.


Summary of Romans: A picture is emerging in which Paul refers to law in more than one way:

1.     Paul can refer to law in contrast to grace (e.g. Rom. 6:14; cf. Gal. 5:4; Rom. 4:4-5).  His basic claim is that no one can “earn” or merit acceptance before God.  If a person could keep the law perfectly throughout his or her own life, God might very well owe acceptance to such a person.  But no one is in this category.  No one could possibly be justified on the basis of his or her law keeping.

Justification is thus strictly a matter of God’s grace.  Such grace should be understood on a patron-client model.  In this model, the “client” does not merit the gracious giving of the patron.  Nevertheless, the client may play an active role in securing patronage and certain expectations are definitely placed on the client in response to the patron’s giving. 

In the case of God’s patronage, he expects “faith” in response.  We must “keep faith” with the character of our patron.

Law in these contexts is a mechanism of justification—unfortunately one that does not work (e.g. Rom. 9:31).

2.     Paul’s references to “works of law” may focus particularly on aspects of Jewish practice that separate Jew from Gentile.  In Galatians, Paul criticizes Peter for compelling Gentiles to “Judaize” when he himself “Gentilizes.”  A good hypothesis is that he has purity laws in mind here, and that Jewish practices like circumcision (e.g. Gal. 5:2) and festival observance (cf. Gal. 4:10) dominate his thinking.

In Romans, Paul is thinking somewhat more universally when he uses this phrase.  “Works of law” are more any attempt to be justified on the basis of law rather than grace.

3.     Paul often refers to the law in terms of its essential “righteous standard” or “righteous requirement” (dikaioma).  In Romans 1 this righteous requirement seems to be basic morality available to all humans.  In Romans 13:8-10 and Galatians 5:14, we see that this expectation is love. 

Prior to a person receiving the Spirit and becoming a believer, one cannot fulfill this “law of God.”  A person’s flesh, under the power of sin (which dominates the elements of the world), prevents a person from attaining this standard even if s/he wants to do so (e.g. Rom. 7:7-25).  This is the “law of sin and death.”

After a person has the Spirit inside and has become a believer, the “law of the Spirit” enables them to fulfill this righteous requirement (=love), to keep the “law of Christ” and fulfill the “law of the mind” they had but had not been able to keep.

4.     The purpose of the Jewish law was thus at least three-fold:

a.     It identified for a person what sin was (e.g. Gal. 3:22; Rom. 3:20; 7:7).

b.     Under the power of sin, it became a tool by which I sinned even more (e.g. Rom. 5:20; 7:13).

c.     By showing me my powerlessness and need, it pointed to Christ (e.g. Gal. 3:24-25 and 4:1-7; Rom. 10:4).  Now that Christ has come, the law is no longer needed.  The Spirit produces the appropriate righteousness.

5.     One area of further interest relates to whether Paul’s level of expectation with regard to law-keeping is higher than that of most Jews.  In Romans 2:14-16, 26-29; and Philippians 3:6, Paul seems to imply the possibility of keeping the law adequately to be accepted before God.  In these passages Paul’s standard seems more typical of Jewish thought in general. 

However, when he is making his “all have sinned” argument, he seems to have a higher standard than other Jews with regard to what God expects before he will accept a person.  Is Paul’s standard really different or is the sacrificial means of atonement the difference?  In other words, does Paul use two standards: one when he is making his argument and another when he is talking “Jewish standard righteousness” (e.g. Sanders)?  Or does Paul have the same basic outlook as other Jews (acceptance by God’s grace, universal unworthiness) but with a different system of atonement (Christ’s sacrifice instead of temple sacrifices) and a radical understanding of the implications of this atonement for the law?


C. The Pauline Corpus, After Romans

·       Colossians: Colossians takes a different tact toward the law than Paul’s earlier writings.  Similar to Hebrews, Colossians places OT observances into the category of shadow in contrast to Christ, the reality.  Sabbath observance (2:16), festival observance (2:16), and food laws (2:16, 21) are all placed in the category of the shadowy.  The law is reduced to the level of “human precepts” (2:22) and the relationship of the law with the “elements of the world” is heightened.

·       Ephesians: Ephesians goes even further than Colossians in its negation of the law.  Whereas Romans 3:31 states emphatically that we do not abolish the law because of faith, Ephesians 2:15 uses the same word to say that Christ did abolish the law.

·       The Pastoral Letters: Unlike Ephesians and Colossians, 1 Timothy affirms with Romans that the law is good.  However, unlike Romans, 1 Timothy does not affirm law as a category for the Christian.  It has become roughly equated with the 10 commandments (1 Tim. 1:9-10), and it is only for the lawless and disobedient.  


D. The Rest of the New Testament

·       Mark: In many respects seems similar in theology to Paul.  It seems written primarily to Gentile Christians (e.g. Mark 7:3).  It has definite ethical expectations (e.g. Mark 7:21-23).  Yet it holds that God has declared all food laws no longer in force (Mark 7:19b).

·       James: While one might expect James to be more Jewish law-centered, James’s perspective on law seems less concrete than even Paul’s (quasi-Stoic).  As in Paul, the royal law of Scripture is to love your neighbor (Jas. 2:8-11).  This law is a law of freedom (e.g. 2:12), a perfect law (1:25).  The person who slanders his or her brother thus judges the law—does not accept it and places his or herself over it (4:11-12).  James’s ethical expectations are thus general moral (e.g. helping the poor and those in need, 1:27) rather than Jewish specific.

James does seem to differ with Paul on its conception of how the person who breaks one law is guilty of the whole law.  For Paul these statements seem absolute—the person who breaks even one law at any point of his or her life is sunk.  For James it is the person who consistently keeps most of the law while consistently breaking another.  For James it is not enough to consistently not commit adultery if you are a person who murders regularly with your hatred of others.

·       Hebrews: Hebrews has a unique perspective on the law that parallels that of Paul but extends it as well.  Unlike Paul, the law has largely been reduced to its elements of atonement (e.g. Heb. 7:11).  Like Colossians, Christ’s atonement is pitted against that of the old covenant and the law in toto in the relation of reality to shadow (e.g. 8:6, 10:1).  Christ has in effect enacted a new law based on better promises (8:6).

·       John: Quite extensive in the way it pits Jesus against Jewish festivals and the temple.  Much like Hebrews in its message of discontinuity between the Jewish law and Christianity.

·       Matthew: While Matthew probably envisages greater continuity between the Jewish law and the believer (e.g. he does not retain Mark 7:19b in Matthew 15:17).  Then again, Matthew is perhaps written to Jewish Christians with the expectation that they will continue to keep most of the Jewish law. 

So Jesus does not criticize the Pharisees for their close keeping of the law (e.g Matt 23:23) but for their failure to keep the heart of the law: justice, mercy, faithfulness (23:23).  Like Paul and James, Matthew reduces the heart of the law to love (22:37-40), and the principle of love is the guiding principle of how Jesus modifies/fulfills the law in the Sermon on the Mount (Matt 5:17-48, especially 43-48).

Matthew does not precisely spell out the relationship between Gentile Christians and the law.  Nevertheless, it is clear that he has definite expectations of them.  The Gentile Christian of the Parable of the Wedding Banquet who is not properly clothed is cast into outer darkness (22:11-14).  Similarly, not all those who have done things in Jesus’s name will be recognized on the Day of Judgment (e.g. Matt. 7:21-23; 25:34-40).

·       Luke-Acts: Perhaps surprisingly, Luke-Acts has a higher expectation of continuity between the Jewish law and the Christian than much of the NT.  Luke-Acts seems to represent a compromise position on the law in which Jews continue to observe the law and Gentiles keep a short list of requirements in order to allow Jew-Gentile Christian fellowship.

Thus we see Paul circumcising Timothy in Acts 16:4.  Paul’s sermon in Acts 13 implies some atoning value in keeping the Jewish law (13:39), although not enough to be fully accepted by God.  Such may have been the position of Peter (cf. Gal. 2:16 in Greek).  Luke-Acts implies that Paul himself is an observant Jew in a way that Paul himself almost certainly would not have put it (Acts 21:24), and Paul even offers a sacrifice in the temple (21:24).  Almost all the Christians in Jerusalem were zealous for the law (Acts 21:20-23).

On the other hand, Gentiles are given a short list of four requirements (15:20; 21:25), which read more as a list that would enable table fellowship between Jew and Gentile Christian than as an absolute ethical requirement.  Paul interestingly never mentions this list, even though he deals significantly with some of its topics in his writings (e.g. meat offered to idols).


B.    Septuagint

Obviously the Pentateuch constitute the Jewish law in the eyes of first century Jews, although it is possible Paul refers to the entire OT as the “law” in 1 Cor. 14:21.  Of course contextually the historical books probably refer to Deuteronomy when they speak of the “book of the law” (e.g 2 Kings 22:8).  By the time of Ezra, however, the phrase has become “the book of Moses” and likely referred to the entire Pentateuch (e.g. Ezra 6:18).


C.    Background Literature

1.     Dead Sea Scrolls:

·       4QMMT has some startlingly similar turns of phrase to Paul.  In particular, it closes by stating “we have written to you some works of the law  and it will be reckoned to you as righteousness when you do what is right and good.” (2.3, 7).  “Works of the law” in this context appear to relate to specific, often concrete ramifications of basic law principles.  In other words, “works of law” seems to correlate with Essene stipulations on how to keep the law versus Sadducean halakhah and vs. Pharisaic “traditions of the elders.”

·       1QH also has some comments approaching Paul’s “all have sinned”: “Only by your goodness is man acquitted, purified by the abundance of your compassion” (5.22-23) and “What creature of clay can do wonders?  He is in iniquity from his maternal womb, and in guilt of unfaithfulness right to old age” (12.29-30).  These comments imply that salvation is a matter of God’s grace for the author of these hymns (perhaps the Teacher of Righteousness, founder of the Qumran sect).


2.     Hellenistic Judaism

·       Hellenistic Jewish writers tended to be less exclusive in the way they correlated the Jewish law with Greek ideas.  They tended to advocate “Jewish particularism” less than the Palestinian Jewish groups.

·       The Letter of Aristeas correlates the law with the best Greek wisdom (2nd century BC, Egypt).

·       Aristobulus argues that Plato and others had actually derived their ideas from Moses (2nd century BC, Egypt).

·       The Wisdom of Solomon (late 1st century BC?) understands law almost entirely in terms of the divine law inherent in the world.  Like Romans 1, it is a law that applies to all, whether Jewish or not.  Significantly, in his relating of the way wisdom followed the history of Israel, the event of the giving of the law is not mentioned!

·       Philo considered Abraham to be a more perfect example of the law than the specifics of the law itself!  In other words, the specific legislation of the law for him was simply an outworking of basic principles (1st century AD).


IV.   Range of Meaning for Paul

·       a rule or principle—the rule of faith, the rule of the Spirit, the rule of sin and death, etc…

·       the Jewish law

·       possibly a reference to the whole OT (1 Cor. 14:21).

·       A kind of natural law or fundamental morality (e.g. Rom. 1 and 2) apparent to all.

·       The law of Christ: love.


V.    Commentators

  • It will have to wait for another time.  Principal players include Dunn, Sanders, Raisanan, Kim, etc…


VI.   Conclusions regarding the usage in Romans

1.     The fundamental issue Paul addresses in relation to the role of the law in Galatians and Romans is the question of whether one earns acceptability before God by keeping the Jewish law appropriately by the appropriate “works of law,” or whether acceptability is purely a product of God’s gracious acceptance of our faith towards him. 

Paul clearly votes for grace and faith as the only possible avenue to justification.  Humanity can never merit God’s acceptance (cf. 1QH).  But where this fundamental unworthiness was offset in mainstream Judaism by things like sacrifices, prayer, and almsgiving, Paul insists Christ’s sacrifice is the only thing that can offset the fundamental sinfulness of humanity—even Jewish humanity.

2.     Paul rejects out of hand the importance of the kinds of “works of law” debates over which the Palestinian Jewish groups argued (cf. 4QMMT).  Paul probably did not oppose Jews keeping these practices (e.g. food laws, Sabbath and festival observance, circumcision) as long as they did not interfere with the unity of the body of Christ (e.g. in table fellowship, where purity laws were out the window).

3.     More important to Paul was a fundamental ethic that all humans know and should obey.  Paul affirms this standard.  At a few places he seems to allow that some people might attain it (e.g. Romans 2; Philippians 2), but a) not absolutely, it did not negate the fundamental unworthiness of humanity and b) not really, since the power of sin over flesh made it impossible to do what a person wanted to do.  This area appears the most potentially difficult point in reconciling Paul’s thinking to itself.

4.     Against this background, the law related to a period of history prior to Christ in order to 1) indicate human sinfulness, 2) exacerbate human sinfulness, and 3) point to Christ, particularly our need for his atonement.  The person “in the flesh,” without the Spirit, is unable to keep the righteous standard of the law, due to the power of sin over flesh.

5.     The person in Christ is no longer under the law, no longer under the power of sin, is now a slave to righteousness, under the “law of the Spirit” and the “law of Christ.”  Such a person can keep the core law, which Christ does not nullify, namely, love.