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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?

NOTES:
(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

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