Saturday, December 8, 2018

Of Principles and Law Codes

Here is what I regard as the solution to the problem I stumbled across in my last blog. You will recall that I was perplexed as to why Paul would say that he was “under the law of Christ” (1 Cor 9:21 RSV), when he clearly argues in Rom 10:4 that “Christ was the end of the law” (i.e., the Mosaic Covenant). In his belief humankind was now under divine Grace (Rom 6:14-15), and people are justified (declared righteous) before God through faith in Christ (Rom 3:24-28).

            The difficulty that I raised occurs because scholars/translators read the Greek word nomos (generally translated “law”) in a quite narrow way, as if it were referring to a “legal code.” Actually the word is nuanced (i.e., having a range of significations). Bauer-Danker explains that the basic signification of the term nomos is “a procedure or practice that has taken hold, [hence] a custom, rule, principle, norm.” Danker who revised Bauer’s lexicon1 says that Bauer understood nomos in Rom 7:21“as ‘principle,’ that is: an unwritten rightness of things.” Paul uses the word nomos in cases where he probably would have preferred another word or perhaps he intended a play on the word nomos “to heighten the predicament of those who do not rely on the Gospel of liberation from legal constraint: the Apostle speaks of a principle that obligates one to observe a code of conduct that any sensible person would recognize as sound and valid.” The other two significations listed for nomos are: “constitutional or statutory legal system, law” and “a collection of holy writings precious to God’s people, sacred ordinance.”

Understanding nomos as “the unwritten rightness of things” would almost demand the translation of “[spiritual] principle” for the word. In the passages over which I stumbled a translation of nomos as “principle” clarifies the apostle’s statement, whereas translating nomos as “law” obfuscates what the apostle is aiming to say. In short, according to Paul there is no “law of Christ.” Nevertheless, the “Christian” walk still requires certain behaviors (Gal 5:13-14).

Here are my suggested translations for Paul’s statements:

Rom 7:21: “So I do find it a [spiritual] principle that when I want to do right…”
Gal 6:2: “Bear one another’s burdens and so fulfill the [spiritual] principle of Christ.”
1 Cor 9:21: “…not being without law toward God but within the [spiritual] principle of Christ.”
Rom 8:2: “For the [spiritual] principle of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus has set me free from the law of sin and death.”

In virtually all translations of the above verses in modern English nomos is translated as “law.” There are a few exceptions:

*Romans 7:21 is translated principle in Phillips, NEB, and NAB; rule in Weymouth; fact of life in LB, NLT, and Authentic Letters.

*Galatians 6:2 is translated power in LB and NLT.

*Romans 8:2 is translated principle in Knox; rule in Authentic Letters; Lord’s command in LB and NLT; life-giving power in Williams.

Paul had this to say about the relationship of law and faith:

Now before faith came, we were confined under the law, kept under restraint until faith should be revealed. So that the law was our custodian until Christ came, that we might be justified by faith. But now that faith has come, we are no longer under a custodian; for in Christ Jesus you are all sons of God, through faith. (Galatians 3:23-26 RSV).

Translators do Paul a disservice when they render nomos in the verses above by the English word “law”; in these verses he is clearly referring to a spiritual principle.

Charles W. Hedrick
Professor Emeritus
Missouri State University

1F. W. Danker and W. Bauer, Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature (3rd ed.; Chicago: University of Chicago), 677.

Phillips: J. B. Phillips, New Testament in Modern English.
NEB: New English Bible.
NAB: New American Bible.
Weymouth: R. F. Weymouth, the New Testament in Modern Speech.
LB: Living Bible.
NLT: New Living Translation.
Authentic Letters: Art Dewey, et al., The Authentic Letters of Paul.
Williams: C. B. Williams, The New Testament. A Private Translation
Knox: R. A. Knox, The New Testament. A New Translation

Friday, November 23, 2018

Did Jesus institute a Law?

In Baptist Bible study one Sunday Morning we stumbled across an unusual expression in Paul’s letter to the Galatians: “Bear one another’s burdens and so fulfill the law of Christ” (Gal 6:2 RSV). It is an unusual statement because Paul was of the opinion that “Christ is the end of the law”; under Christ people are justified by faith according to Paul (Rom 10:4). Did Jesus institute a law? Matthew quotes Jesus as saying that he had not come to abolish the law [the Mosaic covenant], but rather to fulfill it (Matt 5:17-18). Can that statement be read as suggesting a “Christian” law of some sort remaindered from the Mosaic Code?

According to the Baptist student quarterly, the “law of Christ” is found in a saying of Jesus in John 13:34: “A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another." The writer said: “This law of love is the rule believers are to follow.” I raised my hand to suggest that John 13:34 could not be the “law” to which Paul referred. The saying has no parallels elsewhere and the Gospel of John was written at the end of the first century, while Paul lived in the middle first century. In any case Paul knew very little about the details of Jesus’ life, apart from a very few sayings and events that had already become liturgical by his day.

Paul claimed to be “under the law of Christ” (1 Cor 9:21), which Gordon Fee describes as an informal “Christian ethical imperative.” Nevertheless, (Fee adds) that does not mean followers of Jesus now have a new law to obey. According to Fee the expression “law of Christ” is roughly equivalent to the kind of informal ethical instructions Paul gave in Romans 12 and Gal 5-6.1 Yet the use of the word “law” to describe an informal list of ethical behaviors does seem strange for a Paul who insisted that faith had replaced the law.

James also uses the word “law,” referring to the “royal law” (Jas 2:8), which he does not explain, except to say “If you really fulfill the royal law, “you shall love your neighbor as yourself” (RSV; Lev 19:18; Matt 22:39; Rom 12:8-10). In other words whatever the royal law is, the doing of it will include the loving of your neighbor. Or does James intend that the reader understand that the “royal law” is to be equated with Lev19:18? The royal law can be equated with the “perfect law,” that is to say, “the law of liberty” (Jas 1:22), under which people will be judged (Jas 2:12). The law of liberty is contrasted to the Mosaic covenant, which is a formal code (Jas 2:8-12). James is doubtless referring to this “law of liberty” when he calls for one to be a “doer of the law” (Jas 1:25). Are Paul and James referring to some kind of formal legal code in early Christianity?  That is likely not the case. In spite of the fact that Paul and James use the word “law” to describe certain prescribed Christian behaviors, there does not appear to be any such formal “law” preserved in the earliest canonical Christian texts. We modern readers are therefore left to ponder the unfortunate choice of legalistic language used by Paul and James.

One of the “Apostolic Fathers,” the Didache (dated 70-150), however, begins with a formal statement of acceptable Christian behavior called “The Way of Life.” The behaviors, while specific, are not described as a “code” or “law,” however. The following is a brief summary of the first two sections of the Way of Life in the Didache.

You shall:

Love God; love your neighbor as yourself; what you don’t want done to you, don’t do to another; bless those who curse you; pray for your enemies; fast for those who persecute you; love those who hate you; abstain from bodily and carnal lusts; if struck on the right cheek, turn the other; if pressed to go one mile, go two; if anyone takes your coat, give him your shirt; do not refuse what anyone will take from you; give to everyone who asks from you; let your alms sweat in your hand, until you know who you are giving them to.

You shall not:

Commit murder; commit adultery; commit fornication; use magic; use philtres [i.e., potions]; procure abortions; commit infanticide; covet your neighbor’s goods; commit perjury; bear false witness; speak evil; bear malice; be double-minded; be double-tongued; be covetous; commit extortion; be hypocritical; be malignant; be proud; make evil plans against a neighbor; hate anyone.

            The Way of Life in Didache (among the earliest parts of the Didache) suggests there is an element of legalism in early Christianity: here are certain acts that Christians do and others that they do not. The list finds a ready fit with the language of Paul and James. James was very outspoken that “faith by itself, if it have not works, is dead” (Jas 2:17), and what do you suppose Paul was thinking when he said that he was “under the law of Christ” (1 Cor 9:21). There are some modern Christian groups for whom this information would not be a surprise, but rest assured it does not play well among Baptists.

Charles W. Hedrick
Professor Emeritus
Missouri State University

1Fee, First Epistle to the Corinthians (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1987), 430.