Questions about Paul

I've tried writing about Paul's view of the law, but I'm finding it very difficult. When I think I've come to understand something about his understanding of the law, I discover something I had previously overlooked that contradicts it. I'm quite willing to accept that Paul contradicted himself, but for now I'm willing to give him the benefit of the doubt and suppose that I've misunderstood him.

One series of statements that he makes has struck me as rather curious.
Therefore, just as sin came into the world through one man, and death came through sin, and so death spread to all because all have sinned— sin was indeed in the world before the law, but sin is not reckoned when there is no law. Yet death exercised dominion from Adam to Moses, even over those whose sins were not like the transgression of Adam, who is a type of the one who was to come. But the free gift is not like the trespass. For if the many died through the one man’s trespass, much more surely have the grace of God and the free gift in the grace of the one man, Jesus Christ, abounded for the many. And the free gift is not like the effect of the one man’s sin. For the judgment following one trespass brought condemnation, but the free gift following many trespasses brings justification. If, because of the one man’s trespass, death exercised dominion through that one, much more surely will those who receive the abundance of grace and the free gift of righteousness exercise dominion in life through the one man, Jesus Christ. Therefore just as one man’s trespass led to condemnation for all, so one man’s act of righteousness leads to justification and life for all. For just as by the one man’s disobedience the many were made sinners, so by the one man’s obedience the many will be made righteous. But law came in, with the result that the trespass multiplied; but where sin increased, grace abounded all the more, so that, just as sin exercised dominion in death, so grace might also exercise dominion through justification leading to eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord. (Rom 5.12–21)
I've italicised the last two verses because it's these that struck me as odd. Paul says in a number of places that the law increases sin. For example:
While we were living in the flesh, our sinful passions, aroused by the law, were at work in our members to bear fruit for death. (Rom 7.5)
He is careful to say that he is not directely blaming the law for sin:
What then should we say? That the law is sin? By no means! Yet, if it had not been for the law, I would not have known sin. I would not have known what it is to covet if the law had not said, “You shall not covet.” But sin, seizing an opportunity in the commandment, produced in me all kinds of covetousness. (Rom 7.7-8)
It's not the law that is responsible for his sin, but sin (understood here, apparently, as a kind of malevolent cosmic power) used the law to make him transgress the law.
I was once alive apart from the law, but when the commandment came, sin revived and I died, and the very commandment that promised life proved to be death to me. For sin, seizing an opportunity in the commandment, deceived me and through it killed me. (Rom 7.9-11)
He seems to be saying that the law, which he acknowledges comes from God, was given despite the fact that the malevolent cosmic power of sin would only use it to make people sin even more.

This would seem to raise the question, why would God give the law if it was only going to increase sin? Paul answers this, kind of, in Galatians:
Why then the law? It was added because of transgressions, until the offspring would come to whom the promise had been made; and it was ordained through angels by a mediator. (Gal 3.19)
In the same letter he says "the law was our disciplinarian until Christ came" (Gal 3.24). But if the law was supposed to act as a "disciplinarian" (paidagōgos, someone involved in the education, discipline, etc., of children), and so presumably given in order to decrease sin, does this mean God didn't know that the opposite was going to happen? It is difficult to imagine Paul thinking that.

Granted, he made these conflicting claims in separate letters, Galatians first, and then Romans. It is apparent that his thinking changed over time. This would explain the conflict between Galatians and Romans, but it doesn't leave the weirdness of Romans unresolved.

For instance, he writes:
For the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the children of God; for the creation was subjected to futility, not of its own will but by the will of the one who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to decay and will obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God. (Rom 8.19-21)
And later:
For God has imprisoned all in disobedience so that he may be merciful to all. (Rom 11.32; cf. Gal 3.22-23)
It is difficult to escape the conclusion that Paul thinks it was God's will that humans sin, just so that God could later save humans (i.e., through Christ).

I find this impossible to accept. But there is one thing about this idea that I think is of value, namely the idea that what Paul calls "sin," which is what we experience as estrangement from God, is not something unintended by God.

This is something I'll have to explore further in the future.

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Blogger Tim said...

You may find it of value to recall that the greek word which Paul uses in describing sin, ἁμαρτία, also translates as 'an offense' or 'a failure or mistake'. The verb form, ἁμαρτάνω, translates literally as 'to miss the mark' and more loosely as 'to do wrong' or 'to err'.

Additionally, the word translated as transgression (or trespass) is παράπτωμα, which means 'a false step'.

Given these interpretations, Paul's comments make more sense to me.

The more rules you have to follow and more exacting the rules, the more likely you will err/sin, willingly, wittingly or not. Also, the more likely a person is to follow the letter of the law and ignore the intent. The Charism of Grace overrides the pedantry of minor ordinances. Love God and be excellent to one another.

1:23 p.m.  
Blogger PrickliestPear said...


I considered that, but it seems to me that Paul's use of the singular hamartia as a "power" that we are "under" (Rom 3.9) is quite consistent, given how frequently it is personified. I can only find one instance where he uses the singular harmartia to denote a particular offense, namely, 2 Cor 11.7. This doesn't mean there aren't others, just that I haven't found any.

In any event, it seems clear to me that Paul sees the law as something provisionally given by God in the interim period between Moses and Christ. This is something I want to write about, not so much in terms of interpreting Paul (though I will do that), but in taking a broader theological perspective on what it means to say that something, like the law, is of divine origin.

Whether Paul thinks God gave the Law to Israel with the intention of increasing sin, which I still think follows logically from what he has written, is not ultimately of grave importance, even as it is very interesting. The whole reason I started thinking about it is when I read this comment by John P. Meier:

Especially as interpreted by Jesus, "the Law" in the Gospels is never felt to be an oppressive burden or--as it is sometimes seen by Paul--a provisional and paradoxically providential instrument to occasion or multiply sin, so that God's grace in Christ might be revealed as all the more necessary and powerful (e.g., Gal 3:10-25; Rom 3:19-20; 5:12-21; 7:7-8:4). (A Marginal Jew, 4.38)

If Meier is correct, and Paul did at least "sometimes" see the Law this way, that would be quite astonishing.

2:15 p.m.  
Blogger Tim said...


I'm not certain that I would agree with Meier's initial assertion, to wit, that Jesus doesn't see "the Law" as a burden. From my reading of things, a good portion of the Gospel message was to refocus attention to the original intent of "the Law" (which was to honour God and to treat people as you yourself would wish) and to stop sweating the details.

As to the rest, I look forward to reading your reflections. I may disagree, but I find your posts well researched, well written and very thought provoking.

Thank you for sharing.

2:56 p.m.  
Blogger PrickliestPear said...


I think one needs to distinguish between "Jesus's view of the Law" and "Jesus's view of other peoples' way of interpreting the law." I think he was opposed to interpretations of the law that made the law a burden, but that he did not see the law itself, properly interpreted, as a burden.

I also think that most Christians would find Jesus's interpretation of the law to be burdensome in some respects. What is burdensome to one person will not be so to someone else. But that is a subject for another day.

Meier would disagree that Jesus understood the intent of the whole law as "Love God" and "Love your neighbour as yourself." The only independent source for that tradition is Mark 12.28-34, and while Jesus does say that love of God and love of neighbour as yourself are the two most important commandments, the idea that all of the other commandments can be reduced to those two is a later Christian interpretation.

Meier quite forcefully rejects in the same volume that Jesus actually taught that "the law and the prophets" can be reduced to the Golden Rule, as Matt 7.12 would have it. Actually, he doesn't think the historical Jesus taught the Golden Rule at all, and his argument is quite compelling. I meant to write about it when I first read that book last summer, but never got around to it. It's on my "To Blog About" list.

For now it is worth noting that Meier finds that there is a difference between "You shall love your neighbour as yourself" (Lev 19.18b; Mark 12.31b) and "In everything do to others as you would have them do to you" (Matt 7.12). He says "a cold, critical eye could see in the Golden Rule nothing more than enlightened self-interest" (A Marginal Jew, 4.480) which is not true of the commandment to love your neigbour as yourself.

3:29 p.m.  
Anonymous Henry said...

Interesting post PP. When reading Paul I think it’s important to factor in Paul’s “experience” as a human being and the fact that a letter, like the back and forth on this blog, has two parts and that we only have one part – Paul’s. While it’s true that our understanding of something matures (hopefully) over time and that often the way we explain things is tailored for a particular situation or audience, I’m not so sure that what we see as a contradiction is in fact a contradiction, just a mystery. Mystery in the sense of something we know “some of the factors” about but not “all the factors”. This is why exegesis can often be very helpful. It’s interesting to see how you are developing your posts. Pax, Henry

4:53 p.m.  
Blogger Tim said...

I'll admit, I am a bit confused.

Mark 12:31, Mat. 22:39, Romans 13:8-9, Galatians 5:14 and Lev. 19:18 all go with "love your neighbor" directly. Luke 10:25-28 and John 13:34 both phrase it differently but the meaning is the same as the other two gospels.

As for the "Do unto others..", you find it both in Mat. 7:12 and Luke 6:31 and it is a reworded recitation of Hilel from the Talmud.

Then, in Mat. 22:40 (as well as in Mat. 7:12), Christ uses the "all the law and all the prophets" statement. This is modified in Romans 13:8-9 and Galatians 5:14, but the underlying idea remains.

If anything, it would suggest that there is a certain equivalence between "Do unto others" and "Love your neighbor", since it appears that Mat. calls both all of the law.

Meier rejects most all of this? Odd. Mayhap, when I get a chance to actually read again (hopefully sometime this fall), I'll pick up his book.

Getting back to 'the Law', I would translate παιδαγωγός as tutor or instructor, not disciplinarian. Thus, in Gal 3:24-25, the Law trained and instructed us until Christ came and we are justified by faith, whereupon the instruction of the Law is replaced by our faith.

You've given me a mental bone to chew on, to be sure. Thanks.

5:44 p.m.  
Blogger PrickliestPear said...


Mark 12:31, Mat. 22:39, Romans 13:8-9, Galatians 5:14 and Lev. 19:18 all go with "love your neighbor" directly.

Okay, but Romans and Galatians are not quoting Jesus, they're just quoting the OT.

Luke 10:25-28 and John 13:34 both phrase it differently but the meaning is the same as the other two gospels.

I agree that Luke is basically the same, even though Luke has thoroughly altered the original version from Mark.

John 13.34, though, is not really the same at all.

In Mark 12.31b we have a straightforward quotation of Lev 19.18b. Meier points out that in that passage the word "neighbour" (Heb. rēaʿ) would seem to denote not simply "another person," but more specifically "a fellow member of the cultic community of Israel" (Marginal 4.492). After all, there is a separate commandment a few verses later to "love the resident alien (gēr) as yourself" (Lev 19.34b) which would scarcely be necessary if rēaʿ denoted simply "another person." In other words, Lev 19.18b is not enjoining universal love of all humans.

Meier writes, "A point that is at times missed by commentators on Mark 12:31 is that nothing in this text suggests that the Marcan (or the historical) Jesus is shifting the meaning of the Greek plēsion or the Hebrew rēaʿ so that it signifies something different from its original meaning in Lev 10:18b" (Marginal 4.492-493).

Now, one might wish to import the broader meaning given to plēsion in the parable of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10.25-37), but Meier argues that "Nothing in the Marcan text intimates that the broadened Lucan meaning is present in Mark 12:28-34." He further argues that "in the context of a Jewish Jesus citing the Jewish scriptures of Deuteronomy and Leviticus to a learned Jewish scribe within the precincts of the Jerusalem temple, the original meaning of rēaʿ (plēsion) in Lev 19:18b as 'a fellow Israelite' is the natural one" (Marginal 4.493).

Even if we could confidently judge that the parable of the Good Samaritan goes back to the historical Jesus, Luke's redactional activity around the contours of that parable is too obvious for us to conclude that Jesus meant it to illustrate the meaning of "neighbour." It's entirely possible that the word "neighbour" (or it's Aramaic equivalent, whatever that is) was never used in the original parable.

So, as far as Mark 12.28-34 and it's synoptic parallels are concerned, we cannot be confident Jesus understood rēaʿ (plēsion) in Lev 19.18b to mean anything other than "another Israelite."

Which brings us to John 13.34. In that verse Jesus is addressing only his disciples when he says "love one another." The love enjoined in this commandment is directed to those within an even more restricted population than Lev 19.18b! Jesus says in the very next verse that "everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another" (v.35). Given the sectarian mentality evident in much of John, it is hardly surprising that it should have been phrased that way.

All of this is just a long way of saying, no, the meanings of these various love commandments are not the same. The version found in Mark (later taken up and heavily redacted by Matthew and Luke) has a good chance of being from the historical Jesus. John 13.34 pretty clearly does not.

Which brings us back to our original point of contention, which pertained to Jesus's understanding of the Law, and whether or not he taught that the whole Torah could be boiled down into love of God and love of neighbour.

1:18 a.m.  
Blogger PrickliestPear said...

Tim (cont'd):

Matt 22.40 has, "On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets," as you pointed out. This was evidently tacked on by Matthew to the exchange he found in Mark 12.28-34. Meier concludes that this verse "is a redactional addition by Matthew" that "tells us nothing about the teaching of the historical Jesus" (Marginal 4.514-515), and I'm inclined to agree with him. It's clearly a product of Matthean redaction in this instance, and it is not attested outside of Matthew as a teaching of Jesus in early Christian writing. The only other time a saying attributed to Jesus reduces "the law and the prophets" to a single commandment is Matt 7.12; notice how the parallel in Luke 6.31 does not make this claim.

That Paul makes a similar claim in Rom 13.9 and Gal 5.14 doesn't change this, as he doesn't attribute it to Jesus, and, in fact, differs from Jesus quite a bit by neglecting to mention the commandment to love God, the very commandment Jesus says is the greatest commandment in Mark 12.28-34!

The question of whether "Love your neighbour as yourself" means precisely the same thing as "Do to others as you would have them do to you" is something I'll have to take up later.

As for paidagōgos, it's true that it can often mean "tutor or instructor," as you said, but consider what immediately follows in Gal 3.25b: ouketi hypo paidagōgon esmen. Is it really better to translate this as "we are no longer under/subject to an instructor"? I don't know if "instructor" or "tutor" is really strong enough for this particular assertion. That is, I don't know if "justification by faith" is really a logical replacement for being "under an instructor." So I disagree, I think "subject to a disciplinarian," as the NRSV and NAB have it, makes better sense.

Thanks for your comments! It's exhausting responding to them, but it's good exercise!

1:26 a.m.  
Blogger PrickliestPear said...


I appreciate that we are, in reading Paul, hearing only one side of a conversation (though this is not really true in the case of Romans). I didn't really address that in this post, but I will when I take up this particular problem again, which I will likely do in the near future, time permitting.

1:40 a.m.  
Anonymous Henry said...

Yes, Romans is a unique letter for many reasons, this being one of them.

I am sure you've already read this article and interview but I cite them for you in case you haven't:



I found the Sacra Pagina Romans to be very helpful and I wonder if you've read it.

Lastly, the conversation is getting too technical for me and so I will extract myself form it at this point.

Pax Christi,


3:26 p.m.  
Blogger PrickliestPear said...


Thanks for the links. I've seen "The Paul Page" before, but hadn't noticed that particular page.

I haven't read any of the Sacra Pagina series, but some of them were written by scholars I admire, so I will have to check it out some point.

4:34 p.m.  

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