Parsing Paul, Part 2: Word Study Results

After a general quantitative and qualitative comparison of the twelve commentaries in hand, I looked into how some specific important words from these passages were interpreted. Generally, these words were examined by the commentators in terms of the Greek text.

(Note that, here and throughout this series, I discuss the results in terms of the church tradition of the commentaries, but because each tradition was sampled in this study through the work of a single scholar, extreme caution should be used when considering whether and how these results are, in fact, typical of the tradition.)

The first interesting question has to do with the family of words related to the verb dikaioo, the verb generally translated as justify:

Most agree that the verb dikaioo is legal language taken from a forensic context, but several emphasize that the point is right relationship with God (Orthodox, Presbyterian, Black Church, Pentecostal). The Wesleyan commentary goes straight to relationship. The Catholic commentary appeals to the Hebrew text for the noun and adjectival forms of the righteousness of God as “covenant faithfulness” to resolve the saving and judging connotations. The Reformed Evangelicals also point out the saving and judging aspect, but resolve it conceptually rather than linguistically.

Generally, there seems to be more breadth of connotation accepted for the noun and adjectival forms that are understood as characteristics of God, than for the verb form (employed with God/Christ as subject, human as object) which tends to be interpreted strictly forensically by most Protestants.

Regarding the relatively recent question of whether the saving pistis Christou signifies faith in Christ, or the faith of Christ, most of the commentators who addressed the question concluded that the traditional interpretation was correct; only the Anabaptists went with faith of Christ, and the Baptists affirmed that both senses were present. There was similar agreement that the “love of God” poured out by the Holy Spirit in verse 5 meant God’s love for us; the Orthodox affirmed that the alternative sense of our love for God was also present.

Another word study question is the sense of the phrase that Christ is the telos of the law (Rm 10:4). This word telos is normally translated end in English, and that seems to be a pretty good translation as it does possess both senses of the Greek word: end as in “over and done”, and end as in “means to an end.” But which end did Paul mean? And what nuances and connotations does that meaning have?

Here’s what the various commentators thought:

Orthodox: Fulfillment, consummation
Roman Catholic: Purpose
Anglican: Termination because it was exclusive
Wesleyan: Goal, fulfillment
Lutheran: Christ kept law perfectly for sinners, “foolish and inappropriate” to persist
Presbyterian: Nullification and fulfillment
Reformed Evangelical: Fulfilled: those who have faith will keep the law; passing away
Anabaptist: Fulfillment (not abrogation)
Baptist: Termination of Mosaic covenant, fulfillment of Abrahamic promise
Baptist Evangelical: Termination of “sinner’s futile quest for righteousness”
Black Church: Not addressed
Pentecostal: Goal

This is an important issue for the relationship between “the old covenant” (which generally means the Mosaic covenant, although there are other covenants in the Shared Scriptures) and the new covenant, and thus for interfaith relations between Christians and Jews. (Although in that context one must remember the rest of the verse too, “Christ is the telos of the law for the justification [dikaoo-ation] of everyone who has faith.”)

It also speaks more generally to the relationship of Christians to “the law.” This is a question to which Paul devotes large sections of Romans, and all commentators agree that what “the law” means in those passages varies. They have varied opinions as to which sense(s) is (are) meant in which passage(s).

The Greek word is nomos. That’s the Greek word that meant law generally, pretty much what we think of when we say “law”, and sometimes Paul seems to be addressing the question of whether Christians are (should be; can be trusted to be) law-abiding citizens of the civil government: lawfulness as opposed to anarchy.

It’s also the Greek word used to translate torah in the Septuagint, and torah has a much broader range of meaning. Sometimes it means the five books of Moses, what Christians call the Pentateuch (which means “five books” in Greek). Sometimes it means the Mosaic covenant, given at Sinai, that constituted the people of Israel as God’s people. Sometimes it means the very specific 613 commandments that comprise that covenant, as it is recorded in the torah (meaning the five books of Moses). It is this interpretation that is critical to the Christian argument that those commandments (well, all but The Ten, or all but the “moral/ethical” ones, as opposed to the “ritual/ceremonial” ones) no longer apply to Christians.

Sometimes it has as its primary meaning, and always it seems to have as connotation and nuance, the meaning of instruction, or teaching. Many scholars agree that “law” is a poor translation of torah into English. (I’m one of them, at least when it comes to contemporary usage: torah seems to have at least as rich a set of meanings and connotations in Judaism as gospel does in Christianity, and it’s just as important and central to the faith. I therefore usually choose not translate it, so as to avoid inevitably mistranslating.) If the Greek sense contrasts lawfulness with anarchy, then the Hebrew senses seem to contrast holiness with sinfulness.

But was Paul thinking in Greek, or in Hebrew, when he wrote these passages? And if (when) in Hebrew, which of those meanings does he mean when?

“Christ is the fulfillment of the covenant for the salvation of everyone who trusts in him.”

“Christ is the purpose of the teaching for the righteousness of everyone who follows him.”

“Christ is the termination of the Law for the justification of everyone who believes in what he has done.”

These are all arguably legitimate translations.

More to come…

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2 Responses to Parsing Paul, Part 2: Word Study Results

  1. Steve Jones says:

    When you said “It is this interpretation that is critical to the Christian argument that those commandments (well, all but The Ten, or all but the “moral/ethical” ones, as opposed to the “ritual/ceremonial” ones) no longer apply to Christians,” are you saying that you believe we are free from the ceremonial law, but not the moral law? How do you explain that when there are laws that intermingle a moral law with a ceremonial law they do not apply, or vice versa? In other words, how are we free from the Law, yet bound to it? How do you nullify some, but not all? It sounds like cherry picking verses to exclude and to apply. And if they are no good, then why are they part of our Scriptures today instead of being removed? I know these are tough questions, and I am not trying to put you on the spot. I would just like your opinion, preferably a biblical opinion.

  2. Hi Steve,

    Thanks for your comment!

    Just to be clear, the statement that you quoted was not about my belief; I was only making the observation that when Christians in general make this argument — and many Christians quite commonly do so — this verse from Romans is usually key to their argument. Another key verse is the passage in which Paul writes that the leaders of the Jewish church in Jerusalem had agreed that Gentiles could become Christians without first becoming Jews: they only had to refrain from eating meat sacrificed to idols, refrain from sexual immorality, and give to the poor. I do think that is an extremely strong argument that Gentile Christians today are not bound by the terms of the Mosaic covenant (which are the 613 commandments in the Torah).

    I personally don’t think that “we are free from the ceremonial law, but not the moral law,” if these terms are interpreted as referring to the various passages in the Bible; and I don’t tend to think in these terms, anyway.

    I think that Jesus is for Christians what the Torah is for Jews. We are not bound by the Mosaic covenant that was made at Sinai, nor by any of its terms. We are bound by the Christian covenant that was made at the Last Supper and on Calvary. The Christian covenant consists of a Person (Jesus) and is not written down except in our hearts (by the Holy Spirit).

    And, the Christian covenant is not completely different from the Mosaic covenant: how could they be, if they are both revelations of the same God? Of course there are similarities, especially in their ethics and morals. When I think of the moral law, I don’t think of something written in the Bible; I think of something that exists in the mind of God. This law is reflected in, but not identical to, the Noahide covenant, the Mosaic covenant, and the Christian covenant.

    And if they are no good, then why are they part of our Scriptures today instead of being removed?

    Ah, that would be because the early church decided to keep them in our Scriptures precisely in order to affirm that they were a revelation of the same God: contrary to Marcion, for example, who taught that the God of the Jews was an evil God, completely different from the God that was the Father of Jesus, and that the Christian Bible should contain only one of the gospels and some of the letters of Paul (suitably edited to de-judaize them). Contrary to Mani, for another example, who also taught that there was an evil God of matter that created the world, and a good God of spirit that Christians should worship.

    These people did argue that these books should not be in our scriptures. The church decided otherwise, and declared that orthodox christianity included the belief that the God of Jesus was the God of the Jewish bible. (Which makes sense, because the New Testament quotes from, alludes to, and riffs on those writings all over the place.)

    But this is why Christians call them the Old Testament, instead of the Tanakh. They alone are not our Bible, and the Torah is not our law. The New Testament entirely re-contextualizes the Old Testament.

    Thus, it’s not cherrypicking verses: it’s re-interpreting the entire set of books. I would say we are not bound to the Law; rather, we are bound to the Cross.

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