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Pete Enns & The Bible for Normal People

Is Keeping the Law of Moses All-Or-Nothing? (Or, Oh Paul, What Are We Going to Do with You?)

law of moses

Pete Enns, Ph.D.

Peter Enns (Ph.D., Harvard University) is Abram S. Clemens professor of biblical studies at Eastern University in St. Davids, Pennsylvania. He has written numerous books, including The Bible Tells Me So, The Sin of Certainty, and How the Bible Actually Works. Tweets at @peteenns.

OK, here’s the thing.

Many Christians are taught to believe that keeping the Law of Moses is an all-or-nothing deal. And the fact that no one can actually keep all of the Law means that, well, if you try to keep it to please God, you’re doomed to failure.

Christians get that idea from Paul, specifically from Galatians 3:10-11, where Paul cites Deuteronomy 27:6.

10 For all who rely on the works of the law are under a curse; for it is written, “Cursed is everyone who does not observe and obey all the things written in the book of the law.”  11 Now it is evident that no one is justified before God by the law; for “The one who is righteous will live by faith.”

So there it is, in black and white. Failure to obey all of the Law results in being accursed. Since no one can keep it all, everyone is accursed who is “under the Law,” as Paul puts it elsewhere.

And this verse has contributed to common Christian thinking that either vilifies the Law (and therefore the core of the Old Testament) as essentially useless legalism, or ignores it as over and done with.

Now, I don’t mean to get into the whole complex Law/Gospel thing here. It’s complicated. I think there is both continuity and discontinuity between the Old and New Testaments, and working that out is the very stuff of the long history of Christian theology. So let’s stay focused and not go there.

Paul’s claim doesn’t sit well with the tone and tenor of the Old Testament. The Israelite legal system had ways of addressing individual failure to keep certain laws, some means of atonement or purification to remove the offense toward God.

Was it really the case that the ancient Israelites thought “all-or-nothing?”

Or does their very legal system assume the opposite, that “all-or-nothing” isn’t the deal?

And what to do with the passionate praise of the Law that we see in places like Psalm 1 and 119?

OK, but what about Deuteronomy 27:26, a passage right out of the Old Testament that Paul is citing to make his point?

Yes. Well. This is where it gets a bit interesting.

Benjamin D. Sommer points out in Revelation and Authority (p. 133; see also here and a few follow-up posts), that the word “all” is not in the Hebrew versions of Deuteronomy that we know of. It is, however, found in some manuscripts of the Samaritan Pentateuch and of the Greek translation (Septuagint) of Deuteronomy.

Paul, as was his custom, was likely working off of the Greek version that read “all.”

Not to make a mountain out of a molehill, here; I think Paul could still have made his basic point without “all.” But still, Paul is making his case using a translation that is probably not faithful to the original, and that can easily lead to readers like us to draw the conclusion:

Old Testament = Law = impossible and oppressive legalism,  

which is not only a rather distorted reading of the Old Testament as a whole, but a simplistic reading of Paul, who has some quite positive things to say about the law now and then in his letters.

But more to my point, what intrigues me about examples like this is the reminder that Paul as a writer of the New Testament was not protected by God to ensure he used the proper translation and avoided all confusion. And I do wonder what how he would have rephrased things in Galatians had “all” not been part of his translation.

Of course, we’ll never know. But just asking the question puts us in conversation with Paul, which I think is important.

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