Is Paul consistent in his attitude to the Jewish Law?Paul Romans Law - can one reconcile his statements?

Both EP Sanders and Heikki Raisanen permit Paul the luxury of inconsistency, as the prerogative of a religious genius. However, is this conclusion unavoidable? The two problems of consistency in Paul's thinking to be discussed regard the role of the Law in sanctification and whether human beings can fulfil the Law.

First, however, it must be made quite clear that the idea that Jews in the time of Paul set out to earn salvation by obeying the Law, in the sense of notching up brownie-points with God, is an unacceptable caricature. The work of Sanders over the last decade has ruled out this interpretation, recently current among Christians, rooted partly in the critical stance of the gospels to the Pharisees (the result of friction and controversy at the time of the formation of the gospel-tradition), and partly in the Reformation controversies, by which the Pharisees were seen as proto-Catholics, attempting to earn salvation as Catholics were considered to earn salvation by such good works as indulgences. Sanders gives his interpretation of the Jewish attitude to the Law the name 'covenantal nomism', that is, obedience to the Law as a loving response to God's act of loving intimacy in giving himself in the Law as a covenanted guarantee of his affection for his people Israel. Paul therefore, according to Sanders, works backwards from solution to problem: Christ is the solution, therefore Judaism must be insufficient or ineffective.

This interpretation of the current Jewish attitude as convenantal nomism is not unchallenged. Jacob Neusner (who has a running feud with Sanders anyway) objects that Sanders establishes his idea of covenantal nomism only from later texts. CK Barrett (Paul, 1994, p.78) however, points out that Paul's argument against the effectiveness of the Law (Ga 2.21; Rm 8.3) presupposes that his opponents thought that Law-keeping itself was effective, adding 'He is a bold man who supposes that he understands first-century Judaism better than Paul did'. The middle position is held by Murphy O'Connor; he accepts the validity of the texts cited by Dunn, but holds that the natural human tendency to oversimplify meant that the average non-theological Jew would hold that if disobedience to the Law causes damnation, obedience to the Law wins salvation (Paul, a critical life, p. 336-7).

1. The purpose of the Law. The background and purpose of the Pauline letters in which this is discussed must also be borne in mind. Galatians is written specifically against those who are urging a return to obedience to the Law. One might therefore reasonably expect Paul to be somewhat negative in his presentation of the Law. Paul is arguing that those who press the demands of the Law are wrong; he is therefore arguing against the Law now, in the new dispensation of Christ, but naturally tempted to overstate his argument by claiming that the Law never had any value. In Romans he no longer faces this situation; it may be that his presentation is calmer and more tolerant towards Judaism. This has immediate consequences for consistency: in Ga 5.2 he can say, 'If you receive circumcision, Christ will be of no advantage to you', while in Rm 3.2 he accepts that in some way circumcision is of much advantage (does he mean actual circumcision, or merely belonging to Judaism? Is there a real change of mind, perhaps after adverse reaction to his intolerance, or merely emphasis on a different point?)


In Galatians Paul is clear that the Law is not capable of giving life (3.20); it formerly had two functions:

1. It was a paidagwgo.j, keeping us under guard in preparation for Christ (3.22-23). The meaning here must be that it had no positive, permanent or salvific value of itself but was a mere restraining influence, preventing people straying away too far, leading people to Christ as a paidagwgo.j leads his charges to school, but himself having no highly-regarded position. The image of the paidagwgo.j can itself be understood in two ways, either

(1) literally as a child-leader, an old slave who leads the child to school; in this way the Law would have led people to Christ, or

(2) as the nanny-slave, who teaches the child the elements of good manners, etc; in this sense the Law will have given elementary education to prepare people for the fullness of revelation.

It is true that such nanny-slaves were often mocked in the ancient world - as they are also in the modern world - but this does not prove that Paul is seriously critical of this role played by the Law. The Law served its purpose, but this was strictly temporary, for it has been fulfilled by Christ.

As regards the present dispensation the Law has no function. Paul indeed goes further than this, arguing that acceptance of circumcision and so of the obligations of the Law builds a positive blockage to Christ: 'once you seek to be upright through the Law, then you have separated yourself from Christ' (Ga 5.4).

2. The Law was also added parabase,wn ca,rin (Ga 3.19). By this Paul surely means 'to deal with transgressions', and is thinking of the sacrificial system of the Law which provided expiation until the coming of Christ.

In Galatians Paul also uses a somewhat obscure argument based on scripture to show that salvation cannot be through the Law. This is more an argumentum ad hominem, a typical example of Paul using respectable methods of Jewish exegesis to turn a Jewish position on its head.

1. The promises were made to Abraham, and could not be adjusted by the addition of the Law 430 years later (3.17). At the most extreme and literal Paul's polemic in 3.15-18 could be taken to mean that the promises were made only to Abraham and Christ, excluding any others.

2. The Law is inferior to the promise because it was set up through angels and a mediator (3.20). Lightfoot famously claimed that this verse has been interpreted in 250 to 300 different ways (see Dunn, Theology of Paul's Letter to the Galatians, p. 90). Sanders (Hooker Festschrift) reads Paul to be denying that the Law was given by God at all: no, it was given merely by angels! Tom Wright (The Climax of the Covenant, p.170) suggests a different interpretation: 'But this mediator is not the mediator of a single [people]; but God is one [and therefore aims finally at uniting all as a single people. Therefore the old covenant cannot be the final covenant because it leaves humanity divided into two groups, Jews and gentiles]'. This seems to me too elliptical. I myself think the verse means that the promise is superior because there was no mediator of the promise, as there was of the Law; the promise was one-sided, not a contract between two people. A promise offered one-sidedly by God is superior to a contract mediated through angels. Possibly Paul means to go even further in the heat of his polemic against Jewish observances:

1. Salvation and life were promised only to Abraham and his seed whom we now see to be Christ.

2. The interim period, a period of enslavement to the Law, was only a tutelage. Alternatively it was worse, a positive curse (3.13).

3. The Law was given by angels, not by God. There can be no question of an intermediary if God is involved (Ga 3.20).

Paul does raise the question whether the logical consequence is that the Law is contrary to God's promises. This he will not accept: mh. ge,noito! (3.21), but he stays pretty close to it, and the Law certainly does not lead to the fulfilment of God's promises. Basically his solution is that the Law is irrelevant to ultimate salvation.

3. The midrash on Sarah and Hagar. Some claim that the argument is so inept that Paul can be using it only to confound his opponents, who used it in exactly the opposite sense: they claimed that the Jews represented the free-woman. Paul turns this argument on its head, claiming that Christians represent the free woman and the earthly Jerusalem the bond-woman. The suggestion that Paul is using only an ad hominem argument is weakened by Paul's re-use of the same midrash in Rm, where he is not arguing against the same opponents.


In Romans Paul is both less and more hostile to the Law. He does not argue positively against the Law; rather he is so negative about the Law that he ends by having to defend it! On the other hand, he does at least admit that circumcision has some value: it was a sign that Abraham's faith had won him God's favour (Rm 4.11).

Is Paul here being consistent? In one mood he can say that all the Law does is tell us what is sinful (3.20), and indeed that the Law produces nothing but God's retribution (4.15), or that 'when Law came on the scene it was to multiply offences' (5.19) - this too is, of course, a valid purpose, showing the need of some other situation. As Ziesler says, 'the Law enables the symptoms [of the sin that was there already] to be recognised' (p. 46).

The strongest condemnation of the Law comes (in many translations) in 7.5: 'the sinful passions aroused by the Law' (NJB, NAB), 'the sinful passions that operate through the Law' (Dunn). The question is what Paul means by ta. paqh,mata tw/n a`marti,wn ta. dia. tou/ no,mou. The meaning in itself is utterly unclear owing to a lack of verb; neither of the translations quoted above is justified. (In Galatians 3.19 we have the same cryptic prepositional phrase, that the Law was added tw/n parabase,wn ca,rin). It seems only fair to regard the passage which follows as an explanation of this cryptic remark, explaining the link between between Sin and the Law.

The crucial passage is 7.7-13. This can be understood on at least two levels. Fitzmyer (NJBC) understands the first person singular personification as a rhetorical dramatisation of the common experience of humanity (as Paul dramatises in Ga 2.18-21; Rm 14.21 and elsewhere) - or at least of Jewish humanity, to whom the Law applies. Dunn (Commentary, p. 399ff) applies the passage specifically to Adam's situation. This is an attractive focus. Dunn argues that the creation of man and the giving of the Law were probably already associated in Jewish thinking, and that covetousness was already considered the root of all sin. So the mention of covetousness in vv. 7-8 and the 'beguiled' of v.11 are sufficient to indicate the Adam context. The evntolh. then becomes the prohibition against eating the fruit of the tree of life. The context fits nicely the introduction of death into the world. However, the only really detailed argument is the clear allusion to the Fall story in 'beguiled'. There is some difficulty in understanding Paul as picturing the Law already present in Adam's situation in view of his insistence (Ga 3.17) that the Law came 430 years later. The evntolh. in question cannot really be said to be 'meant to bring life' (v. 10); it was simply a prohibition, to which no positive value is attached.

In any case, the argument cannot be confined to Adam, for (1) in Adam Paul sees all humanity, and (2) the 'I' must be given some weight. Paul is seeing his own history as typifying that of both Israel and the whole human race. So it is much more persuasive to see the whole argument as a contrast between life and death with regard to the Law, showing in fact how death issues from the Law. In his dramatic presentation of the interplay between these three personified powers, Law, Sin and Death, Paul turns on its head the common view of the life-giving Law. (Just as, elsewhere, in his use of the Second Adam myth and in the midrash on Hagar and Sarah [see above], he turns the accepted Jewish view on its head). The Law (Paul in v. 10 says 'the evntolh.') was meant to bring life; this was indeed the function of the Law (Ps 119 passim). Instead, 'I' was alive before the Law came, and the Law brought Death by its partnership with Sin. It was not, of course, directly Law, but Sin that killed me; but this was by means of the commandment (v. 11). Far from bringing life, the Law was, then, an agent of Death. Instead of bringing life, it actually brought Sin to life (vv. 8-9). In his depiction of the inward struggle which follows, Paul again stresses the power of Sin and the powerlessness of Law: 'though the will to do what is good is in me, the power to do it is not...every time I do what I do not want to, then it is not myself acting, but the sin that lives in me' (vv. 18-20). The advantage of this interpretation is that it coincides with Paul's complaint against the Law in Ga 3.21: 'If the Law that was given had been capable of giving life...' It explains his dissatisfaction in Galatians with those who rely on the Law. The passage, then, cannot be construed as exactly a condemnation of the Law, simply a statement of its powerlessness, and its use by Sin as an agent.

In another mood, however, Paul can count the Law among the inalienable privileges of Israel and say, 'the glory was theirs and the covenants, to them were given the Law and the worship of God and his promises' (9.4). He insists that the Law is holy (Rm 7.12, 16), because it shows what sin is. On the other hand, in 2.13 he can say that it is not hearing the Law but doing it which justifies. Does he mean this, as though it were possible to observe the Law, or is he simply putting a hypothesis: 'if someone observed the Law, that person would be justified'? It might also be argued that 3.31 means 'we uphold the Law'. In its context, however i`sta,nomen more likely means 'prop up, make to stand'; Paul is explaining that through faith the purpose of the Law is accomplished - as he goes on to show by the example of Abraham. But again, the Law has no efficacy of its own; it is we who uphold, establish, prop up, the Law. Paul protests that he dearly loves God's Law (7.22). It even seems as though justification is a means to fulfilling the Law: 'This was so that the Law's requirements might be fully satisfied in us as we direct our the Spirit' (8.4).


What, then, is its value, and why does Paul insist that the Law is holy and that he loves it? This becomes clear in Rm 9-11. It is the aspect of Law not as command but as promise. The promise is inalienable, so that, whatever happens, Israel remains dedicated to its fulfilment. In this sense 'the Law' for Paul is a sort of cypher, standing for the whole package, adoption, the glory, the covenants, the worship of God and the promises (9.4). Earlier also Paul had used no,moj in a sense very close to 'orientation'.

Paul is certainly not consistent, or even stable, in his use of the word. In 7.21-8.4 he uses the word 10 times in several different senses; one of these senses is 'orientation' or 'tendency': 'I see that acting in my body is a different law which battles against the law in my mind.'

In these agonised chapters Paul is not speaking about commandments (evntolh. does not feature), but about the concept of Law which was fulfilled in Christ (10.4). For this reason he can quote from the scriptures far more widely than from the Law itself. In this sense the Law coincides with the promises made to Abraham, and renewed throughout Israel's history, on which Paul has grounded his argument throughout this controversy (Ga 3; Rm 4).

The answer to the first question is therefore not that Romans is inconsistent with Galatians, but that, while the earlier consideration in Romans of the Law and its life-giving properties (or rather, lack of them) is a mere development of Galatians, in Romans 9-11 Paul is using the concept of Law in a quite different sense.

In some sense the climax of the theology of Rm can be seen in 10.9. Paul is trying to explain how the crucial sentence is to be understood: 'whoever does the Law will find life in it'. The basic problem of his anxiety about Israel is that he has to see how the double promise is fulfilled, to Israel and the nations. The promise was to Abraham's seed, but also that they would be like stars in the heaven or sand on the seashore, which must include the gentiles. The only solution is Christ as the fulfilment of the Law (hence the intensely rabbinic exegesis about going up and coming down in Rm 10.6-7: he must bring Christ in somehow!). Hence doing the Law is seen as putting faith in Christ (10.9) - with unmistakable allusion to the Shema. There Yahweh is declared as one God and one Lord. Contrast 1 Cor 8.6, where the Shema is stretched:

For us there is one only God, the Father,

from whom all things come and for whom we exist,

and one Lord, Jesus Christ,

through whom all things come and through whom we exist.


2. The second question posed at the beginning of this essay, whether human beings can fulfil the Law and achieve God's justice, is complicated by the notion of dikaiosu,nh qeou/. This term should be a forensic term. But to the Jewish mind the Law is not a merely external set of rules, but is a revelation of God for the sake of Israel. Justice is, of course, a relational term. Normally it indicates a positive relationship to the requirements of the law. In the Bible, however, the positive relationship is not to the Law but to God's promises. The dikaiosu,nh qeou/ is God's fidelity to his covenant promises, his reliability. It is not connected with fairness, human deserts, assessment of merits. Especially in the psalms and in Deutero-Isaiah it is often parallel to God's saving power, or his judgement in favour of Israel, quite divorced from Israel's meritorious conduct. Especially it can refer to God's promises of forgiveness and favour for Israel in Exod 33-34.

So Ps 7.11: 'God is an upright judge, slow to anger'. Is 46:13, 'I am bringing my justice nearer, my salvation will not delay'.

Is 51.6, 'My justice is suddenly approaching, my salvation appears'.

Is 51.8, 'my saving justice will last for ever, and my salvation for all generations'.

Dn 9.16, 'In your saving justice turn away your anger,... for we have sinned'.

Similarly in Qumran, 1QS 11.9-12, 'He will wipe out my transgressions through his righteousness [this is hardly fitting for any human concept of justice]...From the source of his righteousness is my justification.'

1 QH 11.17 I have known that righteousness is thine and that salvation is in thy favours;

11.31 Cleanse me by thy righteousness, even as I have hoped in thy goodness and have put my hope in thy favours).

So close is dikaiosu,nh qeou/ to being God's power to save and help Israel that in the LXX it can translate the Hebrew hesed (Gn 19.19; 20.13; Ex 15.13) as well as the more obvious zedaqah.

The problems begin when dikaiosu,nh is predicated of human beings. The word-group occurs overwhelmingly in Romans (60 times) and Galatians (13 times), which are dealing with the problem of the Law. [It occurs only 8 times in Corinthians, 5 times in Philippians and twice in Thessalonians (and twice in Philippians and both times in Thessalonians it is represented by the anodyne adjective) di,kaioj]. Predicated of human beings it cannot be God's fidelity to his promises, and one is tempted to understand it in the forensic sense of observance of commands. This brings difficulties.

On the whole Paul insists that human beings cannot achieve justice in this way. True, in Phil 3.6 he claims that in his Jewish past he was av,memptoj with regard to dikaiosu,nh evn no,mw|. But he does not claim that this made him di,kaioj. Moreover, at least in Galatians and Romans Paul regards this as impossible. In Galatians his arguments are two:

1. The argument of experience: the favours so palpable among the Galatians (they must be palpable, for Paul to appeal to them as a matter of experience) did not come from observance of the Law (3.2).

2. The argument of scripture: Hab 2.4 o` divkaioj evk piste,wj zh,setai (3.11) rather than by observance of the Law.

In Romans the situation is more complicated: although he seems to envisage that it is theoretically possible to keep the Law (2.13, 'the ones that God will justify are not those who have heard the Law but those who have kept the Law'), the whole burden of Rm 1-3 is that no one, either gentile or Jew, does in fact keep the Law. The section ends with a selection of failures mentioned in scripture to provide proof that all alike are under the dominion of sin (3.9-20).

The solution which is at the heart of Paul's theology is that dikaiosu,nh simply has nothing to do with observance of the Law (3.21-22). It is universally recognised that 'justice' is a relational term; only in Paul's use it relates not to fulfilment of the Law but to God's salvation (or whatever image you choose). The only problem this poses is why Paul uses a forensic term when there is absolutely no room for a forum. The nearest Paul gets to giving a legal justification of his language is in the retention of the concept of logo\j in 4.9, 22-23, 'faith was reckoned to him as dikaiosu,nh'; in effect he claims that Abraham's faith has the same legal force as dikaiosu,nh would have. It is significant that this extension of dikaiosu/nh qe/ou to those whom Paul hails as justified seems to be Paul's own idea. It is not contained in the generally-accepted pre-Pauline formula.

It is generally accepted that most of 3.25-26a is pre-Pauline. It includes a number of Pauline hapax legomena, e.g. i`lasth,rion pa,resij progego,nwj a`ma,rthma, for all of which Paul himself has an alternative word. There is also a number of Pauline dis legomena.

But both before and after this formula the concept of dikaiosu,nh is extended from God to human beings: 'all are justified by the free gift of his grace' (v.24), and 'to show how he justifies everyone who has faith in Jesus' (v.26). In each case this idea is linked to other characteristic Pauline ideas (free gift and faith). It could be, therefore, that the extension of this concept from God's fidelity-to-his-promises to the way in which human beings benefit from this fits especially Pauline ideas and logic rather than any generally-current logic.

The term in Paul clearly derives from its use of Abraham in Gn 15.6, and there there is no question of a forensic use, nor any question of obedience to any law. In fact it is not too extreme to say that dikaiosu,nh, which gives every impression of being a legal term, related in any common parlance to observance of Law, is a downright misleading term. It can be understood only in relation to the zedaqah of God. For Paul, relying on Gn 15 (and secondarily on Hab), the real meaning of dikaisu'nh is something like 'subjected to/enfolded in/related to the fidelity/salvation (zedaqah) of God'. It is Paul's constant concern to distance this idea as far as possible from any relationship to Law. 'If the Law had been capable of giving life, then certainly dikaiosu,nh would have come from the Law. As it is...' (Ga 3.21). The misleadingness comes from the fact that normally human 'justness' comes from human action related to law; in this case it comes only from divine action on human beings completely unrelated to law. In any normal sense of 'justice' it is impossible for the unjust to be 'constituted' just: it is the paradigm of injustice that the unjust should be considered just. But in Paul's terminology 'by one man's action many katastaqh,sontai di,kaioi' (Rm 5.19). Similarly in Rm 6.13-20 the message is that the Christian must be conformed to/given over to/free to the justice of God; dikaiosu,nh is not a human quality at all, but a divine attitude or quality to which human beings subject themselves.

The Reformation problematic, which for so long bedevilled all consideration of these matters, was whether a real change was wrought in human beings by their being made just. Is it a real, deep-seated justice, or simply a cloak? The terminology of dikaiosu,nh has no answer to give to this. The answer is to be found not in the acceptance by God through his zedaqah, but in the consequences thereof.