IS PAUL AGAINST THE LAW?
by Brad H. Young, PhD
Is the Torah to be considered as a dead husband that nobody liked anyway? This is the way many Christians interpret Romans 7:1-6: “for the woman who has a husband is bound by the law to her husband as long as he lives. But if the husband dies she is released from the law of her husband” (verse 2). Paul refers to an ancient halachah (principle of the law) to illustrate his new relationship to the Torah because of his faith in Jesus. But one question is never asked when studying Rom. 7:1-6. And it is only when the full impact of Paul’s Jewish heritage is understood in light of his entire teaching concerning the believer’s response to the Torah that this question can be carefully considered. Nonetheless, we must ask: Was Paul speaking about the death of the Torah or was he referring to the death of the flesh? Is the Torah, for Paul, a dead husband?
Christians must take the study of the Torah and Jewish approaches to the law very seriously. -1- Paul certainly did. He was almost consumed by the question as it related to his missionary work as a Jewish apostle sent to the pagan Gentiles. Unfortunately, it is seldom recognized that much of what Paul says about the Torah must be interpreted in the context of his understanding of Jews and Gentiles with their special distinction as equal partners in God’s family. -2- The Greek text of Rom. 10:4, moreover, is often mistranslated to read, “For Christ is the end of the law...” instead of, “For Messiah (i.e., Christ) is the aim (or goal) of the law...” -3- How else can one read Paul’s strong affirmation, “Do we then make void the law through faith? Certainly not! On the contrary we establish the law.” Either Paul is a schizophrenic, or some of his interpreters have neglected key aspects of his thought while basing their interpretations only upon selected texts divorced from their place in Paul’s overall message.
Here we will seek to establish the background of Romans 7:1-6 in order to view Paul’s approach to the law, the flesh, and the analogy of the "dead husband" in the context of first-century Jewish thought. Otherwise, the text will be taken from Paul to distort his message. To interpret Paul correctly on this passage, it is first imperative to recognize that the saying, "when a person dies he is free from the law and the commandments" (kivan shemet adam naaseh chofshi men hatorah vehamitzvot), was a well-known concept in halachah, which probably was almost proverbial in ancient Jewish thought (b. Niddah 61b and parallels). -4- When Paul says that he is writing to those who know the law (Romans 7:1), it is clear that he speaks concerning a practice of halachah with which the Jews in the congregation of Rome would be quite familiar. The marriage laws concerning a woman and her husband would also be fairly well known. Of interest to the issue is the fact that Rabban Gamaliel the Elder, who, according to Luke, was the teacher of Paul in his early days as a student in Jerusalem, addressed questions relating to these laws in the Mishnah. Gamaliel the Elder taught that a woman is free to remarry even if only one witness give testimony that her husband had died (m. Yeb. 16:7). -5- Scholars have noted that the passage in Romans 7:1-6 might well betray the influence of Paul’s teacher Gamaliel. -6- While the similarity between Paul and Gamaliel on this point of halachah should not be denied, it is also true that such teachings were probably common knowledge to Jewish men and women who lived pious lives according to their devout faith. Paul could have been acquainted with this principle from many sources, including Gamaliel the Elder. In fact, it was because such a principle was well known that Paul employed the halachah to make his point. It also demonstrates Paul’s belief in the value of the halachah and his faithfulness to his Jewish roots.
The problem is that most interpreters, probably quite unintentionally, destroy Paul's message by saying—in so many words—that since Paul died to the Torah he is free to do whatever he pleases. Christians are free from the bondage of the law. But does that approach make sense when one studies Romans 6? If Paul employs a known analogy from halachah in Romans 7:1-6, perhaps the Jewish tradition can throw light upon Paul's message and the conclusion he desires to draw from the evidence he cites. The sage, R. Simeon ben Pazzi, taught "... 'and the servant is free from his master' (Job 3:19). A person, as long as he lives, is a servant to two masters: the servant of his Creator and of his [evil] inclination. -7- When he does the will of his Creator, he angers his inclination, and when he does the will of his inclination, he angers his Creator. When he dies, he is freed, 'the servant is free from his master!'" (Ruth Rabbah 4:14, M. Lerner, pp. 78-80). -8- Rabbi Simeon ben Pazzi’s saying, "When he dies, he is freed..." not only recalls Paul's words in Romans 7:1-6, but also provides a clear parallel in thought to his discussion of the servant who either is enslaved to his evil inclination or to his Creator in the preceding chapter of Romans. In Romans chapter 6, Paul teaches that an individual is either a servant of sin to obey the flesh or a servant of righteousness to obey God.
David Flusser and Shmuel Safrai have commented upon the passage from Ruth Rabbah and Jesus' teaching about serving one of two masters, money or God. One point of their discussion should be quoted here. They observe, "According to Rabbi Shimeon ben Pazzi, man, while he is alive, is the slave of his inclination, but after his death, his only master is God." -9- This approach also has a direct bearing upon Paul and his analogy of marriage. Did Paul desire to abolish the law by saying that a person has died spiritually through faith in Christ? When the passage is studied in its context, this conclusion cannot be forced. A person dies to the sin nature, i.e., his or her evil inclination, in order that the individual may become a servant of God alone. Paul says that the sinful flesh dies so that the person may become a servant of righteousness (see Romans 6). They live to God.
Are Christians permitted to violate the law because of their faith in Christ? Did Paul believe that Christians are now able to commit adultery because of grace? On the contrary, Paul maintained a high standard of morality and ethics. When he wrote his epistle to the Galations, for instance, he spelled out the works of the flesh, as well as the fruit of the Spirit (see Gal. 5:13-25). He also maintained that if one is circumcised, he is required to keep all the law, i.e., not only moral laws of the sons of Noah but also all the commandments of the Sinai covenant with the children of Israel (Gal. 5:3). According to Luke, Paul had Timothy circumcised (Acts 16:1-3). In any case, it does not follow that Paul considered the Torah a legalistic system as opposed to grace. The law is imbued with God’s grace and his divine compassion. Furthermore, for Paul the Torah spoke of Christ’s mission. Although no one can be saved by keeping the law, even for Paul faith without corresponding actions has no meaning. Through grace the believer is given the power to live a holy life pleasing to God and thus fulfill Torah (see Romans 3:31).
The point Paul was making is simple. The individual dies to his sinful flesh. The law is not sin. In the marriage analogy of Romans 7:1-6, one should ask: Did Paul mean that one dies to the Torah or did he mean that the individual dies to sin? Our study indicates that for Paul, the sinful flesh dies in order that the person may live and serve God. While Christian interpreters often claim that because one has died in Christ the teaching of Torah is void, it would seem that Paul could by no means agree. He was not against the law. In some respects the wrong and popular approach to the marriage analogy of Romans 7 is inexcusable because Paul himself cautions, "What shall we say then? Is the law sin? Certainly not!" (Romans 7:7) In fact, Paul affirms that the Torah is spiritual (Romans 7:14 and 8:3). It is holy and good (Romans 7:12). It is a custodian that leads the believer to Christ by demonstrating the individual’s need for spiritual power and salvation through faith.
The problem is sin. But the Torah is neither the problem nor its solution. In the apocalypse of Ezra, a Jewish text written not long after the destruction of the Temple in A.D. 70, we read, “For we who have received the law and sinned will perish, as well as our heart which received it; the law, however, does not perish but remains in its glory” (2 Esdras 9:36-37). The parallels to Pauline theology in this text are remarkable. Paul's concern for sin is deeply embedded in his Jewish background.
Sin does not cancel the law. The Torah reveals the sin by exposing human unrighteousness in light of divine holiness. Paul's love for the Torah is not diminished by his experience with Christ. But his entire world view has shifted from being Torah-centered to a Christo-centric approach to his life. That life of righteousness must be characterized by a proper understanding of the divine will as expressed in Torah. Christ is the aim of the Torah and the Christian fulfills it by faith.
In short, I do not believe that the Apostle Paul compared the Torah to someone's deceased husband. He did speak of death to the flesh, which becomes the seed of the resurrection life that empowers believers to obey God by living righteous lives. Through Christ, the believer can do all things. His grace is sufficient. Do we make void the law by faith?
(1) Certainly Jesus himself treated the law with extreme care (see my work Jesus and His Jewish Parables, Paulist Press, 1989). This book demonstrates the similarities between Jesus and Judaism on the parables. RETURN
(2) See K. Stendahl, Paul Among Jews and Gentiles (Fortress Press, 1989). RETURN
(3) It is beyond our study here to discuss this in full. See the work of G. Howard, “Christ, the End of the Law” in Journal of Biblical Literature 99 (1969), pp. 331-337. RETURN
(4) See not only b. Niddah 61b but also b. Shabbat 30a, 151b; b. Pesahim 51b; j. Kilaim 32a, chap. 9 hal. 4 and cf., also m. Kidushin 1:1 and E. Urbach, The Sages, Magnes Press, 1975, vol. 1, p. 379. I have greatly benefited from the article, S. Safrai and D. Flusser, "The Slave of Two Masters," Immanuel 6 (1976), pp. 30-33. Though Safrai and Flusser do not discuss Romans 7, their analysis of the rabbinic texts and the manuscript readings of the literature is of inestimable value. The sayings of Jesus concerning the two masters will not be understood without consideration of this article and its treatment of the Dead Sea Scrolls and rabbinic literature. RETURN
(5) The discussion deals with the case of an agunah (a deserted or, literally, a "tied" wife), a woman whose husband has disappeared without giving her a writ of divorce. Her husband may have died during a journey, while at war, or in some other such situation where his death must be confirmed by witnesses. She is free from the marriage contract only through divorce or through the death of her husband. After his death is documented, she is allowed to remarry. RETURN
(6) On this text and other possible allusions to Paul’s knowledge of Gamaliel’s teachings, see the critical discussion and analysis of J.J. Schoeps, Paul: The Theology of the Apostle in the Light of Jewish Religious History (Westminster, 1961), p. 37 note 3. RETURN
(7) Here the Hebrew text has a play on words between yetzer, inclination, and yotzer, Creator. I have inserted the word evil to make the passage clear. Many scholars see a close similarity between the Pauline usage of flesh and the rabbinic term evil inclination. The text in Ruth Rabbah deals with the spiritual battle between God’s will and human desires contrary to the divine purpose. RETURN
(8) The best edition of Ruth Rabbah is M. Lerner’s doctoral dissertation. See also the commentary to the text, p. 24. RETURN
(9)See Safrai and Flusser, "The Slave of Two Masters," p. 31. See also note 4 above. RETURN
Brad Young received his doctorate at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem in 1987. His dissertation, written under Professor David Flusser’s supervision, was titled "The Parable as a Literary Genre in Rabbinic Literature and in the Gospels." His dissertation is now available in book form titled, Jesus and His Jewish Parables. It is published by Paulist Press, 997 MacArthur Blvd., Mahwah, NJ 07430, 201-825-7300.
While at the Hebrew University, Dr. Young served as a graduate assistant to Professor David Flusser, Chairman of the Department of Comparative Religion.
Dr. Young is now teaching at the Graduate School of Theology at Oral Roberts University, where he is the Associate Professor of New Testament Studies.
Yavo Digest Vol. 4, No. 4, 1990
Bible Scholars: Question the Answers
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