Law in Romans: An Interpretive Proposal

Rather than pursue the usual procedure for addressing a biblical-theological issue in a paper of this nature, this will be an effort of a somewhat different sort. It is commonly accepted and expected that the author conduct a rather thorough—but usually tedious and often tiresome—review of and response to the literature on the subject. Instead, this paper will attempt to set forth a fresh proposal for interpreting Paul’s use of “law” in his letter to the Romans. This will be done by quickly exploring several critical but suggestive passages in his letter. Then as a test case, there will follow a more detailed exegesis of an extended section (7:1–6), using the perspectives gleaned from the earlier survey.

An Important Foundation

At the outset it is essential to consider the background Paul (aka Rav Shaul) brought to his letter to the congregations in Rome. He was raised as an observant Jew (Phil 3:5–6) and educated as a rabbi in the school of Gamaliel (Acts 22:3), one of the foremost sages of the late Second Temple period. Additionally, Rav Shaul refers to himself as continuously living a Pharisaic lifestyle of the “strictest” sort (Acts 23:6; 26:5), as well as continuing to be more “zealous for the traditions” than his contemporaries (Gal 1:14). After the Damascus road encounter with his Messiah, he is still accepted as a teacher in numerous synagogues (Acts 13:15; 17:2–3; 18:4; 19:8); and he repeatedly returns to the Temple to pray (Acts 22:17), participates in vows and offerings (Acts 18:18; 21:20–28), and observes the holidays (Acts 20:5–6, 16). Even after many years of ministry, he can still adamantly maintain that he had “done nothing wrong against the Jewish law” (Acts 25:8) and had “done nothing against our people or against the customs of our ancestors” (Acts 28:17).1 In view of his recorded actions and assertions, any interpretation of his writings must show that very same consistency with his own clearly stated Jewish perspective, commitment, and lifestyle.

The insights of the New Perspective on Paul—pioneered by W.D. Davies and later propounded by E.P. Sanders, P.J. Tomson, and others; as well as reflected in the writings of Jewish scholars such as H.J. Schoeps, Pinchas Lapide, Pamela Eisenbaum, and Mark Nanos, among others—are quite helpful in approaching his writings in just this Jewish fashion. It takes seriously Rav Shaul’s Jewish background and rabbinic orientation when dealing with his letters. Israeli Messianic Jewish scholar Joseph Shulam stresses the importance of utilizing this data:

The Rabbis use a number of key phrases indicating agreement and disagreement with a particular legal ruling (halakhic decision); justification for such agreement or disagreement; the rebuttal of a certain argument or decision; its modification; the reasons how and why it differs from another ruling which otherwise appears to be identical; and so forth. Paul utilizes these phrases at the pertinent points in his argument. One of his most characteristic questions, “what shall we then say?” is an example of the talmudic terminology used to introduce an erroneous conclusion. What follows the question is a proposed solution to the particular problem which, sooner or later, will be refuted. The refutation is marked by the rejoinder, “may it never be!” or “God forbid!” One of the most significant exegetical findings based on reading these markers demonstrates, contrary to most understandings, that in Romans 9:30–11:10 Paul is in fact presenting what he views as a mistaken idea (namely, that the Gentiles attained righteousness although not pursuing it while Israel did not attain it although they pursued it). He refutes this view in Romans 11:11. The consequences of reading this passage as an answer to a limited question rather than as part of the mistaken conclusion affect our whole understanding of what part the behavior of the people of Israel plays in the maintenance of their own election and in the inclusion of the Gentiles in the kingdom of God.2

And, if Nanos is correct about the circumstances that produced the letter, incorporating a Jewish approach to Romans becomes even more essential. Nanos cogently argues that Rav Shaul was instructing believers (gentiles as well as Jews) regarding appropriate behavior in the synagogues in which they were involved.3

A Survey of Relevant Passages

A number of passages in Romans significantly impact the discussion of Rav Shaul’s understanding and use of “law.”

One such passage is 3:31. Earlier in the chapter (vv. 19f.) Rav Shaul argued that justification does not come by “works of law.”4 He went on to reason that God’s graciousness as specifically exhibited through the Messiah enabled God to remain consistent with his character and still be both just and justifier simultaneously. God’s initiative also excluded boasting, since no one could then claim that he or she earned (“works of law” again) a relationship with God. Interestingly, in 3:27 Rav Shaul spoke of faith as a “law” (a harbinger of other flexible uses of the term in chapter 7). It is all of this which excludes boasting.

Now, this whole discussion might lead to the erroneous conclusion that the faith-grace process nullifies the law. To quickly derail this train of thought, Rav Shaul responded, “Do we then nullify the Law through faith? May it never be! On the contrary, we establish the Law” (3:31 NASB). In his response Rav Shaul used a couple of the key phrases Shulam pointed to as indicators of typical rabbinic argumentation against false conclusions. Rav Shaul’s response here is reminiscent of Yeshua’s mission statement (Matt 5:17–20).5 There Yeshua asserted that he had not come to set aside (katargeo, same term as in Rom 3:31) the Law.6 He stated that instead of setting it aside in any way, he came to do the opposite; he came to fill it out more fully. Here, Rav Shaul argued in similar fashion; faith did not set aside the Law in any way. Rather, faith made it stand firm (histemi) or confirmed it.

Earlier (Romans 2) Rav Shaul had directed a challenge to certain persons among the Jewish people who were not living up to their calling. As part of his critique of their inconsistency (and hypocrisy?), he asked: “through your breaking of the Law, do you dishonor God?” (2:23 NASB). The implication is clear here; those who follow the Law honor God! This implication may well underlie Rav Shaul’s statement later (8:4) that “the requirement of the Law” is “fulfilled in us who do not walk according to the flesh, but according to the Spirit” (NASB). Against the context of chapters 7 and 8, it appears that the clearest indicator of the Spirit-directed life is carrying out the Law! Or, as Rav Shaul said earlier, following the Law honors God.

Such statements and implications should not be surprising in light of Rav Shaul’s clear declarations about the Law: “The Law is holy, and the commandment is holy and righteous and good. . . . For we know that the Law is spiritual” (Rom 7:12, 14 NASB). All four of these descriptive terms are powerful, positive terms characterizing the Law’s benefits, effects, and utility. In many ways they also reflect the sentiments found in Psalms 19 and 119, where the Law is pictured in a variety of ways that indicate how beneficial, significant, beautiful, and enjoyable it is for a person to follow it! Those who follow the Law are “blessed” (119:1–2). It keeps a person’s life “pure” (119:9, 11). It is the cause for “rejoicing as over great riches” (119:14). The Law provides “light for one’s path” (119:105). The instructions “are wonderful” (119:129), and the Psalmist “loves them greatly” (119:167). The Law “revives the soul” (19:7) and “gives joy to the heart” (19:8). It is “more precious that gold” and “sweeter than honey” (19:10).7 As for the Psalmist, so for Rav Shaul, the Law is something positive, productive, and desirable. This attitude stands in stark contrast to the perspective frequently found in religious circles and reflected in the opening line of the old hymn: “Free from the Law, O happy condition.”

Another significant discussion occurs in Romans 10. Verse 4 states that Messiah is the end of the Law. It seems quite straightforward; Yeshua put an end to the Law. However, this same term for end (telos) is used in James 5:11, which would then read “You have seen the end of the Lord.” Clearly God’s “end” is not in view. Rather, the term telos means purpose or goal and is far better translated that way. Hence, the Romans passage says that the Messiah is the goal or purpose of the Law. The implication, therefore, is that the Law is the pathway leading to Yeshua, who is its goal with respect to righteousness. It takes people to him with the result being righteousness, or relationship with God.

Rav Shaul then continued his discussion on righteousness by contrasting “the righteousness that is by law” with “the righteousness that is by faith” (10:5–8 NIV). In developing his argument, he quoted several verses of Scripture to illustrate his reasoning. Then Rav Shaul concluded this part of his discussion with another quotation to demonstrate his point about the righteousness produced by faith: “The word is near you; it is in your mouth and in your heart” (10:8 NIV). This citation becomes the basis for the discussion which follows. The striking thing about Rav Shaul’s quotation is that it comes from Deuteronomy 30:14. In other words, to demonstrate the nature of the righteousness that comes by faith, he cites the Law; so, the Law teaches righteousness by faith!

As startling as that may sound to some, it does not come as a shock to those familiar with the meaning of the Hebrew term for the Law, “Torah.” Torah literally means instruction, not law. And that far better communicates the true nature of the Mosaic material than does “law.” As many have pointed out, the Torah should be understood as a covenant modeled on the ancient Near Eastern treaty patterns, and not as a law code. These particular Near Eastern treaties and covenants were documents based on the graciousness and generosity of the ancient sovereigns. So they were more closely instruments of “grace” than instruments of “law.”8

Further, the classic Jewish perspective of the Torah is quite clearly nomistic and not legalistic. In other words, righteous living results from, and is in response to, a relationship with God; it does not produce it. The Talmud itself clearly attests to this: “then came the prophet Habakkuk and reduced all the commands to one, as it is written: ‘the just shall live by their faith’ ” (Makkot 23–24). In fact, as Jewish scholars have pointed out concerning Rav Shaul’s argument against legalism, “Paul may well be conducting a justifiable polemic against the erroneous opinions of this or that scholar among his . . . opponents. But he is not saying anything contrary to Holy Scripture which doesn’t teach that ‘the law gives justificationary merit.’ ”9 In other words Rav Shaul’s argument against legalism accords with the classic Jewish position. It, too, would argue against legalism and would agree with Romans. The early rabbis would have agreed with Rav Shaul and opposed his opponents!

Furthermore, there seems to be a certain flexibility and fluidity in Rav Shaul’s use of the word “law.” At times it clearly refers to Scripture. At other times it denotes laws or principles in general. For example, as noted earlier, even the principle of faith can be described as “law” (Rom 3:27). And still other times it seems to more accurately encompass legalism as a system. This may well be the case in parts of Romans and Galatians (for example, Gal 4:21). In fact, in Romans 7 and 8 alone, there are a number of varying uses of the term “law.” These at least include: the Torah (7:12, 14), “the law that evil is within me” (7:21), “the law of my mind” (7:23), “the law of God” (7:22), and “the law of the Spirit of life” (8:2). For this reason alone, great care must be exercised when reading and interpreting the word “law” and its use in Romans.

A Test Case

Having briefly surveyed some relevant passages on Rav Shaul’s use of the term “law,” what remains is to examine more closely his discussion in 7:1–6.

This section begins with the statement: “Do you not know?” This functions as an indicator that Rav Shaul was ready to counter an objection or confront an erroneous conclusion. As such, it quite likely reflects a technical Talmudic phrase used in just this way.10 So he reminded his readers that the Law has claims on a person only as long as they live. That straightforward, but very obvious, statement has important legal ramifications as is indicated by Rav Shaul’s statement: “I’m speaking to those who know the law.” A traditional Jewish practice illustrates this important principle. When an observant Jewish person dies, before they are buried they are wrapped in their tallit (prayer shawl) with its tzitzit (fringes) cut off. The tzitzit served as reminders of their responsibility to follow God’s instructions (Num 15:37–41). After death that reminder is no longer necessary.

Indeed, a concept in Jewish law reflected in the Talmud directly relates to Rav Shaul’s discussion. The Talmud says that when a person dies they are free from the law and the commandments (Niddah 61b). When Rav Shaul similarly wrote that the law has authority over a person only so long as they live, he was speaking to those, as he put it, who knew the law. So, he signaled his readers that he was addressing an issue or practice of halakha (legal principles) that they were already familiar with.11

In addition, Rabbi Gamaliel the Elder taught a principle that also bears on this section of the chapter. He taught that a woman is free to remarry even if only one witness testifies that her husband died (Yevamot 16:7). Since Gamaliel taught Rav Shaul, it would not be surprising to discover his influence on his student here. Gamaliel’s judgment that only one witness—rather than two or three—is required to certify death followed from a related Talmudic discussion.

a woman is acquired in three ways and acquires her freedom in two . . . . she acquires her freedom by divorce or by her husband's death. As for divorce, it is well, since it is written, then he shall write her a bill of divorcement (Dt. 24:1); but whence do we know by her husband’s death? It is logic: he bound her; hence he frees her . . . thus death is compared to divorce; just as divorce completely frees her, so does death completely free her. (Kiddushin 1.1, 13b)

Since this principle was known to his readers, Rav Shaul utilized it to demonstrate his point. In fact, verse 2 simply restates the Talmudic passage. Rav Shaul’s use of the halakha here reinforces an important consideration. He valued his Jewish teachings and traditions and considered them relevant to his own life and significant for teaching others.

Another insight into Romans 7:1–6 comes from the sages of the Midrash. There Rabbi Simeon ben Pazzi taught:

“and the servant is free from their master” (Job 3:19). A person, as long as they live, is a servant to two masters: the servant of their Creator and of their inclination. When they do the will of their Creator, they anger their inclination, and when they do the will of their inclination, they anger their Creator. When they die, they are freed, “the servant is free from their master”! (Ruth Rabbah 4:14, author’s modification)

This citation clearly recalls Rav Shaul’s discussion in these verses. In addition, it parallels and underlies his argument in Romans 6 as well as the remainder of chapter 7. In both sections, Rav Shaul developed the understanding that each person is a servant who is enslaved to one of two masters. He or she either serves God or the sin nature (or the evil inclination [yetzer hara] as the rabbis described it). The individual becomes a slave of sin to obey it or a servant of righteousness to obey God (6:16).

Now according to the Talmud, a person remains a slave to their evil inclinations so long as they live. But, after they die, their only master is God. This directly bears on Rav Shaul’s analogy of marriage in 7:1–6. When the passage is considered against this backdrop, as well as its context, Rav Shaul did not abolish the Torah by saying a person died spiritually in the Messiah. He argued that a person died to the sin nature or evil inclination in order to be able to serve a new master, or husband, God. In fact, Rav Shaul clearly distanced the Torah from sin in verse 7: “Is the Law sin? May it never be!” To the contrary, “The Law is spiritual, holy, and good” (7:12, 14; 8:4 NASB).

As thus understood against the background of Gamaliel’s teaching and the well-known halakha, according to Romans 7:2–3 marriage provides a good example of the legal ramifications of the principle found in verse 1. Rav Shaul explained that a woman is legally tied (or bound by law) to her husband while he lives. If she marries someone else while he is still alive, she legally becomes an adulteress. But, once the husband dies, she is legally free from the marriage. That means she is free to remarry. In other words, the implication is that she is free to enter another obligation. This discussion closely parallels and thus reinforces the argument in the previous chapter. As 6:22 summarizes it: the believer in Yeshua is not free from servitude; he or she is just free to serve another master. Throughout the argument in this part of chapter 7, “law” refers specifically to the legal obligations of marriage, and not to something broader.

Next, in verse 4 Rav Shaul made the observation derived from his earlier discussion: “You died with respect to [as per simple dative here] this law through the body of the Messiah” (author’s translation). He reasoned that through your union and identification with Yeshua, you died as he did. Since through him you’re dead, the law of marriage (not the Torah) has no claim on you. Therefore, you’re dead with respect to the legal obligations and claims your first husband held over you. Romans 6 and 7 both identify that first husband. It is the sin nature or evil inclination (6:17–22; 7:21–23). Rav Shaul made clear the purpose of that death: “so that you can be joined to another (husband).” You belong to Yeshua; he is now your husband. The former husband is identical to the former master, namely the evil inclination.

Romans 7:5 (NIV) goes on to elaborate on this. “When we were controlled by our sinful nature (i.e. the old husband),” evil desires were freely at work in us. But, according to verse 6, the follower of Yeshua died to what once legally bound him or her. So, what did they die to? According to 6:11 it is the sin nature. What bound or controlled them? Romans 7:5 (and 6:17, 22) clearly answers, the sin nature. So their death in union with Yeshua results in release from the sin nature’s law or mastery. In other words, according to the context here, Yeshua’s followers have been freed from the sin nature’s (the first husband’s) legal claims on their lives; the follower of Yeshua is legally free from bondage to sin (7:21, 23). So, he or she need not serve sin (the first husband) because death ended that marriage relationship with its legal rights and hold on the person (7:1-3). This frees the person to enter a new marriage relationship. The purpose of this new relationship remains to serve (6:16–22) but to do so in a new way.

The new way is that of the Spirit. Rav Shaul explained this further in Romans 8:1–13. There, the solution to the struggle which he graphically portrayed in 7:7–25 is the power and control of the Spirit of God. Incidentally, as previously mentioned concerning 8:4, the power and control of the Spirit results in fulfilling, or following through on, the “righteous requirements of the [Torah].” And 8:7 then indicates that “the mind controlled by the Spirit” is the one that “submits to God’s law.” The old way, described as the “oldness of the letter,” was one of self-effort (cf. 8:3–8), attempting to follow God in one’s own strength (7:7–25). In other words, it involved trying on one’s own power to conform to a list of things or to a legal code (“the letter”) as a way to achieve or earn a greater closeness to God. The proper way, the new way, is instead a grateful response to God that involves reliance on the resources of the Spirit of God, who invaded Yeshua’s followers’ lives to enable them to eagerly follow God’s instructions (Ezek 36:27). The Torah, apart from the Spirit’s empowering, does not on its own enable a person to master the evil inclination. As the ancient rabbis pointed out: “The Torah only provided for a person’s evil human passions” (Kiddushin 21b).

As an effective rabbi himself, Rav Shaul worked from the halakhic principle permitting a woman to remarry if her husband died. He then conflated the respective roles of the woman and her husband. Therefore, the woman “died” with respect to her husband at the same time as his death set her free to remarry another. Similarly, the followers of Yeshua become married to their Messiah. As a result of their union and identification with Yeshua, his followers died and then rose with him to new life, and so were now free to remarry. The Torah itself did not die, but because of their own death Yeshua’s followers are now enabled to follow the Torah’s instructions and serve their new husband Yeshua in the power of the Spirit.

Rav Shaul also drew on the midrashic illustration concerning service to two masters, God and the evil inclination. During life, the person struggles between serving one or the other. But, death sets them free to have only one master, God. So, their death in Messiah has freed them from having to succumb to their evil inclination and has enabled them to serve their new master. Rav Shaul strikingly intertwined the two relationships, slavery and marriage. He was able to do this more easily due to the dual use of the Hebrew term for husband. One, or more, of these terms (for example, ba’al and adon) can also be used to denote a master. And, frequently in Scripture, when Israel strayed from her true master, God, and worshiped other gods or masters (such as Baal), the prophets described this idolatry as adultery.

So, in summary, as Joseph Shulam aptly observes, Rav Shaul,

now takes up the claim (verse 1) that Jewish believers are, by the same token, either no longer responsible to the Torah or able to overcome their evil inclination through Torah-observance alone. Based on the biblical depiction of Israel’s idolatry as adultery (especially in Jeremiah 3), he describes the “master” which Israel serves as her “husband,” to whom she may be faithful or with whom she may play the harlot. He appeals to the rabbinic halakhah (ruling) concerning marriage, according to which a woman may remarry following either divorce from her husband or his death (verses 1–3); and demonstrates that the believer is freed to serve God (to remarry) when he is released from the marriage framework . . . (verse 6). He then counters the objection that his argument proposes that the Torah itself is “sinful” (verse 7–14), and describes the true role of the Torah in the life of the believer, which because it determines and defines the nature of sin (verses 7–8), causes each person (and he takes himself as a personal example) to acknowledge that if he lets his evil inclination master him (instead of putting it to death or dying to sin . . . cf. chapter 6), he both affirms the righteousness of the Torah and his inability to keep its commandments (verse 14–23). It is therefore only by joining himself to Yeshua’s death and resurrection . . . that God releases him from his former master (his evil inclination) to serve God with a whole and clean heart.12

Rav Shaul had discussed the role of grace briefly in Romans 6. There he indicated that grace did not involve an end to slavery but rather a change of masters and therefore service to God (6:12–23). Sin, understood against this backdrop, was not just an act, but it indicated slavery to a master, obligation to a husband. But, under grace the follower of Yeshua is free to choose their master, free to be married to another. “Under grace” God has freely provided the resources and power to break the evil inclination’s hold by means of the Yeshua-follower’s union and identification with the Messiah, including his death and resurrection. This did not mean that the follower was free to break the Law (7:14–20; 8:4, 7), or had license to sin (6:1f). It meant just the opposite; it meant the enabling to follow the Torah more fully (8:4, 7). So, when Rav Shaul stated that Yeshua’s followers were “not under law” he did not refer to the Torah. He referred instead to the followers being legally bound to the sin nature as their master.

Correspondingly, when Rav Shaul described the follower of Yeshua as “dead with respect to the law,” he again did not refer to the Torah, which was “God’s Law.” He referred to marriage law. And, he argued, quite rabbinically, that as laws have no claims on a dead person, because of their death with Yeshua his followers are dead as far as the legal obligations and claims the evil inclination held over them. This sin nature was the first husband. Death ended that particular marriage relationship along with its legal rights and hold on the followers of Yeshua. So, his followers are no longer in bondage to sin. They, now freed by death, have a new marriage relationship with their Messiah, with new legal rights and claims. And, by the power of the Spirit of God, they were “freed from the law of sin” and are enabled to “serve in newness of life” and “fulfill the righteous requirements of the Torah.”

Born in Budapest, Hungary, John Fischer is part of a family who miraculously survived the Holocaust. Married to Dr. Patrice Fischer, he has six earned college and university degrees, including a Ph.D. and a Th.D. He serves as rabbi of Congregation Ohr Chadash in Clearwater, Florida, Executive Director of Menorah Ministries, and Vice President of Academics at St. Petersburg Seminary and Yeshiva, and is President of the Union of Messianic Jewish Congregations, of which he was a founder. Dr. Fischer has spoken and taught throughout the United States and around the world, and is the author of numerous articles and several books including: L’chaim, The Olive Tree Connection, The Enduring Paradox, Siddur for Messianic Jews, Messianic Services for the Festivals and Holy Days, and The Distortion.

1 All biblical citations in this paragraph are from the NIV.

2 Joseph Shulam, A Commentary on the Jewish Roots of Romans (Baltimore: Messianic Jewish Publishers, 1998), 6.

3 Mark Nanos, The Mystery of Romans: The Jewish Context of Paul’s Letter (Minneapolis: Fortress, 1996).

4 Interestingly, this is a phrase found several times in an important scroll from Qumran, 4QMMT, and is in fact a loose translation of the “title” of the scroll.

5 Shulam, Romans, 6.

6 Following the NASB, I capitalize “Law” when it is referring to the Law of Moses.

7 Quotations from Psalms 19 and 119 are from the NIV.

8 For a more detailed discussion of these issues, see John Fischer, “Galatians from a Messianic Jewish Perspective,” Messianic Outreach, Autumn 1988 – Summer 1989; and John Fischer, “Covenant, Fulfillment and Judaism in Hebrews,” Messianic Outreach, Autumn 1989 – Spring 1990. These articles are also available from Menorah Ministries, P.O. Box 669, Palm Harbor, FL 34682.

9 H.J. Schoeps, The Jewish Christian Argument (New York: Rinehart and Winston, 1963), 42. Although describing Paul’s argument against legalism in Galatians, this characterization applies equally well to his discussion in Romans. For a further clarification of the classic Jewish view on the issue of legalism, see Roger Brooks, The Spirit of the Ten Commandments: Shattering the Myth of Rabbinic Legalism (New York: Harper & Row, 1990).

10 Shulam, Romans, 236; Adin Steinsaltz, The Talmud, The Steinsaltz Edition: A Reference Guide (New York: Random House, 1989), 138.

11 For this part of the discussion, I build on Brad Young, “Is Paul against the Law?” Yavo Digest, vol. 4, no. 4, 1990.

12 Shulam, Romans, 235.

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