First, off-topic: Thank you to everyone who has sent words and prayers of support. The family is saddened for our own loss, but very much at peace with my grandmother’s passing. Now that I’ve had a bit of down-time, I’m looking forward to getting back into the swing of things.
Galatians is often a challenging book to deal with from a Messianic perspective, particularly for those of Gentile birth who find themselves loving the Torah and its cultural commandments such as Sabbath, the Feasts, etc. As a result, Galatians is probably the most marked-up book in my wide-margin Bible, surpassing even Revelation in terms of sheer density of the notes.
It turns out that many of the problems Galatians would appear to present for Messianic Judaism are actually the result of one mistranslation and a lack of transparency in the translation of a certain word. We’ll start with the mistranslation, which appears in Gal. 2:15-16:
KJV – We who are Jews by nature, and not sinners of the Gentiles, Knowing that a man is not justified by the works of the law, but by the faith of Jesus Christ, even we have believed in Jesus Christ, that we might be justified by the faith of Christ, and not by the works of the law: for by the works of the law shall no flesh be justified.
NIV – We who are Jews by birth and not sinful Gentiles know that a person is not justified by the works of the law, but by faith in Jesus Christ. So we, too, have put our faith in Christ Jesus that we may be justified by faith in Christ and not by the works of the law, because by the works of the law no one will be justified.
ESV – We ourselves are Jews by birth and not Gentile sinners; yet we know that a person is not justified by works of the law but through faith in Jesus Christ, so we also have believed in Christ Jesus, in order to be justified by faith in Christ and not by works of the law, because by works of the law no one will be justified.
YLT – [W]e by nature Jews, and not sinners of the nations, having known also that a man is not declared righteous by works of law, if not through the faith of Jesus Christ, also we in Christ Jesus did believe, that we might be declared righteous by the faith of Christ, and not by works of law, wherefore declared righteous by works of law shall be no flesh.’
My first nit to pick is less a mistranslation than an interpolation in the Alexandrian text of the Greek word de (“and, or, but”) which is picked up on by the ESV, ASV, NASB, CSB, and several other translations (sadly, including the Complete Jewish Bible) which turns the straightforward statement, “We Jews . . . know that a man is not declared righteous by the works of the law” into a statement of comical surprise: “We are Jews . . . and yet we still somehow know that a man is not declared righteous by the works of the law!” Only someone unfamiliar with the teachings of Judaism would think it surprising that a Jew would understand that the “works of law” (which we will explain in a minute) do not have the power to make one righteous before God.
The other problems in this passage (of which YLT does manage to escape from nearly all of them) are as follows:
- Rendering ean me (εαν μη, “if not” or “unless”) as “but,” in the sense of “in opposition to.”
- Rendering pisteus Iesou Christou (πιστεωςιησου χριστου) as “faith in Jesus Christ” when the preposition en (“in”) is entirely missing.
- Rendering ergun nomou (εργων νομου) as “works of the law” instead of “works of law” when there is no definite article (“the”) in the original Greek.
Let’s break down the errors and look at how rendering them correctly would change the meaning of this passage.
“If not” vs. “But”
The Greek phrase ean me (εαν μη) is a very common one, appearing 49 times in 48 verses in the NT. It literally means “if not,” rather than “but”–that is, it sets up a complimentary statement, not a direct contrast. For just a few examples:
Mat. 5:20 – For I say to you that unless your righteousness surpasses that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will not enter the kingdom of heaven. (Therefore, if your righteousness surpasses the scribes and Pharisees, you will enter the kingdom of heaven.)
Mark 4:22 – For nothing is hidden, except to be revealed. (Therefore, if something is hidden, it will be revealed.)
Rom. 10:15 – How will they preach unless they are sent? (Therefore, if they are sent, they will preach.)
1Co. 8:8 – We are neither the worse if we do not eat, nor the better if we do.
The ean me in Galatians serves the same purpose: “A man is not justified by works of law if not by the faith of Yeshua the Messiah,” but therefore may be justified—that is, declared righteous in the heavenly court—by works of law through the faith of Yeshua the Messiah. The common mistranslation sets these “works of law” in opposition to the faith, whereas the real meaning of the passage is that the works of law could not save us without the enduring faith of Messiah.
De Boer sheds some light on why so many translators render ean me as “but” instead of the more literal “if not”:
With this meaning the conjunction could be taken to imply that someone is not justified as a result of works of the law unless by way of “the faith of Jesus Christ.” In other words, “the faith of Jesus Christ” is compatible with, or complements, works of the law in the matter of justification. Given. v. 16c, where works of the law and the faith of Christ are regarded as mutually exclusive in the matter of justification, ean me must mean “but” for Paul himself, despite the pattern of his usage elsewhere (so most interpreters). . . In v. 16a, then, Paul is apparently appealing to a formula stemming from Christian Jews in which “works of the law” and “the faith of Jesus Christ” were regarded as compatible and complementary. Christian Jews, including the new preachers in Galatia, would have understood the ambiguous ean me as exceptive.1
As well they should have, since Paul and Jacob both denied that Paul was teaching Jews among the nations “to forsake Moses, telling them not to circumcise their children nor to walk according to the customs” (Acts 21:21, as detailed earlier). But I fail to see why we should interpret the latter half of Gal. 2:16 in such a way as to contradict the plain meaning of the first half. In fact, there is no contradiction at all: Paul is saying that the works of law will not justify one in the heavenly court unless by the “faith of Yeshua” (which we will come to in a moment); therefore, he and Peter (“we”) have put their faith in Yeshua so that they might be justified by Yeshua’s faith (or faithfulness) rather than than trusting (only) in their own works of law. While the emphasis is certainly on trusting in Yeshua, Paul is not saying that the works of law are bad or in opposition to the faith of Yeshua, only that they have no power in and of themselves to save.
But what exactly does “faith of Messiah” (or, if you prefer, “faith of Christ”) mean? We’ll discuss that in the next entry.
1Martinus C. De Boer, Galatians: A Commentary (Westminster John Knox, 2011), p. 144