Why the Law?

English Section / 18 aprilie 2023

Versiunea în limba română

(The Roman Empire Subjugates the Kingdom of Heaven - Episode 8)


The scandal sparked by the Apostle Paul's question "Why the Law?" from the Epistle to the Galatians has been going on for two thousand years. According to historians' periodization, the Epistle was probably written around 50-51 AD. Compared to the date of the current essay, the most recent controversy surrounding it occurred during the catechesis at the Vatican, given by Pope Francis on August 11, 2021, which was protested by the Israeli rabbinate.

In fact, the quote invoked incompletely in Italian by Pope Francis is "19. Perche allora la legge?" (Galatians 3 - Catholic Online Bible), which means "So why the law?".

The Orthodox version "19. Deci ce este Legea?" (Epistle to the Galatians:3) seems to be the more correct semantic version for the Greek expression "Tí oún o nomos?" used by the Apostle Paul.

From a strictly semantic point of view, "Perche allora la legge?" is a different question from "Deci ce este Legea?". In the Italian version, the question focuses on the purpose for which the Law was instituted, but it can be interpreted as a rhetorical question, suggesting that there is a contradiction between faith and the law. In the Romanian version, the question requests a definition of what the Law is.

Christian tradition admits that these meanings complement each other and that both translations are correct, but this also means that the Christian interpretation of founding texts is more flexible, abandoning the rigor of terminology and the hierarchy of interpreters and interpretations built up in Jewish exegesis.

Moreover, the purpose of the law can also define it, but the Apostle Paul does not seek to be explicit because the verse continues in an illogical manner: "19. So what is the Law? It was added because of transgressions [....]" The statement is unintelligible; something that does not exist cannot be violated, and developments based on this impossibility become delusional.

Expanding the context in which this nonsense appears, the flexibility of interpretation, and the historical circumstantiality of language can give it meaning (1).

However, language itself is not rational and behaves as dangerously as a "black hole", so that developments configure a universe with abstract reasoning, causing a vertigo that can be confused with "spirit".

The verse "ministers of the new covenant, not of the letter but of the Spirit" covers this sleight of hand, freeing from any logical obligation of expression.

Anything can be asserted if it is asserted by the "minister of the Spirit":

"What shall we say then? Is the law sin? Certainly not! On the contrary, I would not have known sin except through the law. For I would not have known covetousness unless the law had said, 'You shall not covet.'" (Romans 7)

In common understanding, desire originates in need, and the law regulates it in a civilized manner, ensuring the functionality of coexistence.

However, the inversion of relationships in Romans 7:7 ("For I would not have known covetousness unless the law had said, 'You shall not covet.'") cannot be contradicted because it is presented in the first person as a personal experience and therefore, no matter how strange it may be, it can be accepted as a sincere confession of an anomaly, an exception to the usual experience.

But this means that derivations based on the Apostle Paul's abnormal personal experiences cannot be generalized.

However, the quoted verse also presents the originality of formulating a suspicion that the law itself is sin, although the notion of "sin" is defined as a "violation of the law" in the First Epistle of John: "[...] sin is lawlessness" (2), a meaning that comes from numerous biblical verses and exegetical considerations.

The negative connotations inserted into the law by the Apostle Paul can be viewed as developments of this particular experience, inappropriate for generalization:

the curse of the law (3);

the bondage of the law (4);

death and destruction brought by the law (5);

the law increases sin (6), etc.

The opposition of the Apostle Paul to the law must have been scandalous, given that one of the greatest Israelite holidays - "Shavuot" - eternalizes the moment when the divine law Torah was given to the Jewish people on Mount Sinai.

Paul expresses his pronounced adversity to the law, despite the nuances through which he does not entirely repudiate it but reserves its subordinate role as a guide to faith in Jesus Christ, who frees from the "yoke of the law": "But if you are led by the Spirit, you are not under the law" (Galatians 5:18).

The contradiction between Psalm 118: "1. Blessed are those whose ways are blameless, who walk according to the law of the Lord" (7) and the Epistle to the Romans 3:20: "For by works of the law no human being will be justified in his sight" is hard to camouflage because the works with the claim of certainty that each refers to exclude each other - in the first one, it is certain that there are blessed blameless people, in the second one, it is certain that there are no blameless people.

But Paul puts himself in a difficult position, even disregarding the words of God in Deuteronomy 11:

"26. See, I am setting before you today a blessing and a curse: 27 the blessing, if you obey the commandments of the Lord your God that I am commanding you today; 28 and the curse, if you do not obey the commandments of the Lord your God."

If the blessing were impossible, as Paul claims, then God's promise would have been in vain and His competence questionable. At this level, doubts arise about the Apostle Paul's teachings, because humans' inability to fulfill God's Commandments turns the examination back to the Creator of humans and His intentions, transforming the entire biblical literature into a delirious dream, with no way out except "in spirit."

The repudiation of the salvific role of God's Law seems to be the result of an evolution of less than a century, inaugurated by the daring suspension, by Hillel, of some Commandments characteristic of Jewish society, under the pretense of "repairing the world"; in subtext, repair became necessary due to God's mistakes. The Apostle Paul takes up the idea and generalizes it to the entire Law, not just a few Commandments, applying two concurrent operations:

Separating the Law from the union with God in which it is conceived and twisting it against its divine author, which generates Paul's inconsistent appreciation - the Law brings curse, slavery, death, and errors, but at the same time, "the Law is holy, and the commandment is holy and just and good."

Not paying attention to the social role of the Law in ensuring functional coexistence (and humanity), but focusing on its spiritual echo, restricting concern to the individual, which is why he establishes salvation as the goal of humans; this switch to subjectivity allows for the double location of the Law - outside and inside - generating the paradoxical expression that the Law was given for lawbreaking.

To Paul, his teachers among the Pharisees had probably transferred a certain laxity towards the Law (which was given the name "liberalism", characteristic of Hillel), despite the Commandment "19. You shall keep my law" (Leviticus 19).

In turn, the definition of salvation as divine absolution of sins places providence with the permanent task of the act of grace granted to believers, individually and in a continuous flow, which represents an evident projection of a human idea onto the One whom Dionysius the Pseudo-Areopagite suggests it would be more appropriate to call...Nothingness (8), because God is not among the known existents.

Of course, the Apostle Paul's argument remains that of revelation. However, revelation is rejected by the Jews of the generation immediately following Paul, arguing that it ended on Mount Sinai. They are disciples of another Gamaliel from the line of Hillel. From this, one can conclude that the separation from God, although it occurs relatively concurrently in different religions, has a familial and collegial air. But this does not prevent the Talmudic scholars of the time from engaging in theological controversies with the Judeo-Christians and considering them heretics.

But this did not prevent the Talmudic scholars of the time from engaging in theological controversies with the Judeo-Christians, and considering them heretics; just as Christians called Jews "pagans", a notion that Jews had invented with reference to peoples of other religions than their own - an irony of history.

Sforno says that God never manifested His presence in the Second Temple (the one restored by Herod during the ministry of Hillel); if an absent God can become more obliterate, then this happened with the destruction of the Temple by the Romans in 70 CE, which occurred a few years after the Apostle Paul wrote his Epistles.

"12. Why has the land been ruined and burned up like a wilderness, so that no one passes through it?"

13. And the Lord said, "Because they have forsaken My law..."

(Jeremiah/Chapter 9)

To the question "Why the law?" asked by the Apostle Paul, God had already answered long ago.


(1) An example of an interpretation that could give meaning to the statement "the Law was added because of transgressions" was proposed in the essay "Places of Encounter with God II/d) God does not allow Himself to be idolized?" (MAKE/BURSA/June 12, 2022), in which the hypothesis was put forward that Moses smashed the first Tablets of the Law to prevent their idolization. Since God provides the Law again, the interpretation cannot support the illogical opposition between the Law and God, as Apostle Paul operates, but the logical opposition between the Law and its violation.

(2) 1 John 3:4: "Whosoever committeth sin transgresseth also the law: for sin is the transgression of the law."

(3) Galatians 3:10: "For as many as are of the works of the law are under the curse: for it is written, Cursed is every one that continueth not in all things which are written in the book of the law to do them."

(4) Galatians 4:21-30: "Tell me, ye that desire to be under the law, do ye not hear the law? For it is written, that Abraham had two sons, the one by a bondmaid, the other by a freewoman. But he who was of the bondwoman was born after the flesh; but he of the freewoman was by promise. Which things are an allegory: for these are the two covenants; the one from the mount Sinai, which gendereth to bondage, which is Agar. For this Agar is mount Sinai in Arabia, and answereth to Jerusalem which now is, and is in bondage with her children. But Jerusalem which is above is free, which is the mother of us all. For it is written, Rejoice, thou barren that bearest not; break forth and cry, thou that travailest not: for the desolate hath many more children than she which hath an husband. Now we, brethren, as Isaac was, are the children of promise. But as then he that was born after the flesh persecuted him that was born after the Spirit, even so it is now. Nevertheless what saith the scripture? Cast out the bondwoman and her son: for the son of the bondwoman shall not be heir with the son of the freewoman. So then, brethren, we are not children of the bondwoman, but of the free."

(5) Romans 7:

"8. But sin, taking opportunity through the commandment, produced in me every kind of desire. For apart from the law, sin is dead.

I was once alive apart from the law; but when the commandment came, sin became alive and I died;

And the commandment, which was meant to bring life, proved to be death to me.

For sin, taking an opportunity through the commandment, deceived me and through it killed me.

So then, the Law is holy, and the commandment is holy and righteous and good.

Therefore did that which is good become a cause of death for me? Far from it! Rather it was sin, in order that it might be shown to be sin by effecting my death through that which is good, so that through the commandment sin would become utterly sinful."

(6) Romans 5:

"20. [...] but where sin increased, grace abounded all the more."

(7) Psalm 119:

"1. How blessed are those whose way is blameless,

Who walk in the law of the Lord.

How blessed are those who observe His testimonies,

Who seek Him with all their heart.

They also do no unrighteousness;

They walk in His ways.

You have ordained Your precepts,

That we should keep them diligently.

Oh that my ways may be established

To keep Your statutes!

Then I shall not be ashamed

When I look upon all Your commandments.

I shall give thanks to You with uprightness of heart,

When I learn Your righteous judgments.

I shall keep Your statutes;

Do not forsake me utterly!

How can a young man keep his way pure?

By keeping it according to Your word.

With all my heart I have sought You;

Do not let me wander from Your commandments.

Your word I have treasured in my heart,

That I may not sin against You.

Blessed are You, O Lord;

Teach me Your statutes.

With my lips I have told of

All the ordinances of Your mouth."

(8) "Dionysius the Pseudo-Areopagite, The Divine Names. Mystical Theology", from "A History of God"/page 161/Karen Armstrong/Nemira/2009


This essay proposes an interpretation that does not exclude the established ones, but only adds to them; the criticism it develops on some religious texts is nothing more than the criticism of texts; readers are warned that the author of the essay did not intend to offend any faith and that he is aware that this would not be a useful or achievable objective.