The Puzzle of Paul and the Law – Circumcision is Nothing
1. Make up your mind - Alleged Pauline Inconsistency
Negative critique and positive approval of the law. Paul can say law is holy, just and good, but Christ has abolished it. We uphold the law, but you are not under the law. Was Paul confused? Change his mind? How can Paul believe both sentiments? Some say law has no significance, some stress continuity saying we're under moral law. It is often that people try too easily to harmonise these ideas quickly. There is a tendency to take sides with either Paul or Paul.
2. Complex - but Unavoidable and Critical
This isn't big a-ha moment, but another way of stating what others have said in passing.
3. A Way Forward
1. Look at all the evidence
2. Use Biblical Theology
3. Treat the law as a unity
Paul speaks coherently and passionaately and pushes things as far as he can.
4. Definitions - "the law"
Most treatments of the subject take νομος as legal system in Pentateuh. But Torah or "law" came to denote not some collection of laws, or even the contents of the Sinai covenant, but rather the first five books of the Bible together. That is to call all these books as law because it's collection of laws is difficult because of the amount of narrative.
In terms of referent, νομος is not collection of laws but Law of Moses. e.g. Gal 4:21 "Tell me, you who want to be under the law, are you not aware of what the law says?" One negative and one positive use of the law. The most straightforward explanation is that Paul is referring to the Pentateuch in both cases.
νομος < Torah
Rom 3:19 "Now we know that whatever the law says, it speaks to those who are under the law, so that every mouth may be silenced, and the whole world may be held accountable to God." Is actually quoting Psalms
1 Cor 14:21 "“In the law it is written, ‘By people of strange tongues and by the lips of foreigners I will speak to this people; yet even then they will not listen to me,’ says the Lord." Is actually referring to Isaiah
νομος > Torah
- Paul could be referring to part, for the whole e.g. the law, when he means the law and prophets.
- Rom 3:19 Certainly these are a list of quotations from the Psalms, but earlier in Romans the law of Moses is the judgment for Jews. Thus this is conclusion from all the preceding chapters.
5. A Hermeneutical Solution to the Puzzle
Not which bits, but as what?
For Paul νόμος “is always the same collection of texts, but the import of those texts shifts dramatically in accordance with the hermeneutical perspective at each stage of the unfolding drama.” (Richard B. Hayes)
6. An Initial Sounding – 1 Corinthians 7:19
“Circumcision is nothing and uncircumcision is nothing, but keeping the commandments of God.”
This verse is often identified as key to the discussion. Big idea of the section is "stay as you are for this is how you serve God." This verse is a very un-Jewish statement. Circumcision is nothing, but you replace it with God's commandments. And yet, Paul seems to be saying observe the laws of Moses. Yet he's just said one of the most important laws is nothing.
This statement comes up twice in other places (Gal 5:6, Gal 6:15). The thing that Paul replaces circumcision with is not the law in Gal 5 and 6. It is something different, and thus it is likely 1 Cor 7:19 is doing similar. Thus it is not a paradox but a polemic, the Corinthians then would understand keeping the commands as his own instruction. To back this up, only other time commands is used in 1 Corinthians is 14:37 which refers to what Paul is writing is the Lord's command. Thus it is polemic - Not this, but something else.
Paul thus does three things with the law and each must be fully heard without prejudicing the others:
1. Polemical repudiation
2. Radical replacement
3. Whole-hearted re-appropriation
It is treating the law as legal code, theological motif and source for expounding the gospel and for doing ethics respectively.
Paul and the Law in 1 Corinthians
- Repudiation: 7:19 “circumcision is nothing”, 9:20–21 “I am not under the law”
- Replacement: 7:19 “Keeping God’s commands is what counts”, 9:20–21 “I am under the law of Christ”
- Re-appropriation as Prophecy: 8:5–6 Allusion to Deut. 6:4 – Christ the Lord, 15:45 Use of Gen. 2:7 to underscore the universal significance of Christ
- Re-appropriation as Wisdom: 5:13b Words from Deut. quoted to climax the expulsion of the incestuous man, 9:9, 10:11
7. The Pillars of Judaism – Sectarian Strategies
Acts 21:28a “Fellow Israelites, help! This is the man who is teaching everyone everywhere against our people, our law, and this place”
And also other evidence such as Qumran community show other sectarian groups.
Paul uses temple language of his own service, and of the body of believers as temple, this is repudiation, replacement and reappropriation. Paul does what you'd expect to of a group that is breaking away. This is not sociological explanation, but there is salvation-historical reasons.
8. Implicit Evidence – What Paul doesn't say
Are there things Paul says could be of Christians to relate to the law that isn't true of Jews. According to his own testimony in Romans 2:17-29, Jews ‘rely on’ the law, ‘boast’ in the law, know God’s will through the law, are educated in the law, have light, knowledge and truth because of the law, are to ‘do’, ‘observe’ and ‘keep’ the law, on occasions ‘transgress’ the law, and possess the law as a ‘written code’. Paul never says that Christians should relate to the laws in any of the ways expected as Jews.
Paul not only omits to say such things, but he usually puts something in their place and sometimes even reverses what Jews customarily said. To feel the full force of the implicit evidence we need to notice omission, substitution and reversal.