Common Mistranslations – Galatians 2:15-16, Part 3

Opening of the Epistle to the Galatians, illum...

Putting the “the” in “the Law”

Does it look like too many “the’s” in that heading to you? It turns out that there are way too many “the’s” in the translations of Paul’s work too. Just to start with, there’s no “the” in “works of the law” in Gal. 2:16; the actual phrase is ergun nomou (εργων νομου), “works of law,” without the definite article.

I will be up-front and point out that the definite article is a slightly slippery animal in the Greek. While having a “the” (ho, tou, tu, etc., depending on the conjugation of the noun it’s attached to) always indicates the definite article, just because it’s missing doesn’t mean that it isn’t implied. So, for example, Jehovah’s Witnesses will attempt to claim that the correct rendering of John 1:1 should be, “In the beginning, the Word was with God (τον θεον, lit. “the God”) and the Word was [a] god (θεος, without the definite article). They have to imply the indefinite article “a” in “a god” because the Greek actually doesn’t have the equivalent.

The argument falls apart if one reads just a few verses later: “There was a man sent from God (θεου, again missing the definite article) whose name was John” (v.6). Should this be rendered “there was a man sent from a god whose name was John”? Of course not.

Clearly there is no necessity for “the” to appear before “God” to refer to the Eternal One. And doubtless most translators of the Greek would argue the same in the case of the missing “the” in “works of law”–as in the case of Theos, we know which law is being referenced, so what does it matter?

It matters because unlike Theos, the non-Pauline writers are very consistent in putting “the” before “law” (ό νομος) when they refer to the Torah, and very consistent in leaving it out when they are referring to a different law. The term “law” (nomos) appears 51 times in the Gospel accounts and Acts. On all but 5 occasions, it refers to the Torah and is prefaced with the definite article, “the Law.” Of the remaining five, two refer to the law of the Jews in the sense of their judicial authority (Acts 18:15, 24:6) and once Paul is using it to refer to “our fathers’ law,” meaning both the Torah and the traditions which would later be codified in the Mishneh (Acts 22:3). The other two references in Luke 2:23-24 do admittedly refer to the Torah; however, they are immediately preceded in v. 22 by the characteristic “the Law” (ton nomon) and both refer to “[the] law of [the] Lord” (nomu kuriou). Either Luke believed this enough to make it very clear that he meant “the Law” or he means for us to read vv. 23-24 as telling us that Mary and Joseph were diligent in fulfilling both “the Law” and individual “ordinance[s] of the Lord.” Either way, we can see an utterly strict consistency in identifying the Torah as “the Law.”

That consistency vanishes when we come to the letters of Paul. Sometimes Paul says “the Law,” but very often he instead simply says “law.” Translators, assuming that they know what he means by nomos, simply append the “the” to it without thinking.

King-James-BibleAnd this is the matter I spoke of when I said earlier that my complaint is about a lack of transparency in the translation. Certain translations, like the KJV, NKJV, and NASB, make a point of italicizing words that the translators have added in for the sake of making the sentence more readable in the English. For example, in Paul’s rebuke of Peter in Gal. 2:14b, the NASB renders it, “If you, being a Jew, live like the Gentiles, and not like the Jews, how is it that you compel the Gentiles to live like Jews?” The translator has added the words “is it that” in order to make the sentence flow properly in the English, but has italicized them to give his gloss of the Greek transparency for those who want to dig in deeper. I wholeheartedly appreciate this practice, and consider dropping it to be one of the few flaws in the ESV over the NASB.

However, while adding in the definite article to the word “law,” none of the aforementioned translations italicize it to alert the reader that they have done so. Though I am sure that the translators truly believe that the “the” is implied, by failing to note their interpolation into the text, they have robbed their readers of the opportunity to realize that there is a pattern to when Paul says “the Law” and when he simply says “law.” Indeed, by only selectively noting interpolations in the text, they actually give a more false impression than those translations that don’t bother with the italics at all.

Back in our discussion of Heb. 7:12, we noted how the context of the word “law” there demanded that we understand it to mean a particular subset or aspect of the Torah rather than the whole Torah. What I did not emphasize then, but will do so now, is that the word “the” in Heb. 7:12’s “the law” is as interpolated as it is in Gal. 2:16—it doesn’t say “the Law” was changed but rather that there is “of necessity a transference in law (or ordinance)” in order to have a transference of the priesthood to the Lion of the Tribe of Judah. In the same way, we must understand “works of law” here to refer not to the whole Torah but to a particular subset or aspect of the Torah.

To understand what Paul means by “works of law,” we need to understand the related phrase, “under law” (and not “under the law,” as it is rendered in nearly all translations) which first appears in 3:23, but is defined for us in 4:21-31. Paul begins that section with a question: “Tell me, you who desire to be under law, do you not listen to the Law (ton nomon)?” He then goes on to give an allegory (or midrash) about Sarah and Hagar, which he explains as meaning (v. 24), “these women are two covenants, one from Mount Sinai bearing children who are to be slaves; she is Hagar.” Therefore, in Paul’s theology, to be “under law” means to be under the Sinaic covenant.

“Works of law” therefore are the particular aspects of the Torah’s commandments which set apart those under the Sinaic covenant, “to live as Jews” (2:14), with a special emphasis on circumcision (vv. 12, 3), but also including other ceremonial and purity commandments which set the Jew apart in the world, including the sabbaths and feasts (cf. Rom. 14:5-6, Col. 2:16).

Dead-Sea-ScrollThe term “works of law” may actually have been a common one in Paul’s world. Among the Dead Sea Scrolls is one entitled, “These are some of the works of the Law (ma’aseh haTorah) of the Essenes,” which goes on to describe the practices of their particular sect, with a special eye to ritual and purification. (See for a good, quick summary of their beliefs). Indeed, there were many sects of Judaism in the 1st Century, and doubtless just as many different “works of the law.” Pity the poor Gentile trying to figure out just whose ritual he needed to follow in order to “really” enter Israel and secure a place for himself and his family in the World-to-Come! (For a long time, I thought this was the major issue behind Galatians, but more careful exegesis proved otherwise.)

Again, I’ll point out that the above conclusions are not simply those of a Messianic with an axe to grind against sola fide. N.T. Wright came to a similar conclusion in his own studies: “[James Dunn’s] proposal about the meaning of ‘works of the law’ in Paul – that they are not the moral works through which one gains merit but the works through which the Jew is defined over against the pagan – I regard as exactly right. It has proved itself again and again in the detailed exegesis; attempts to deny it have in my view failed.”1

We will return to the issue of which commandments are set up as cultural “signs” to set Israel apart at a later date, but for now what I will emphasize is that again, while Paul did not believe that these signs of the covenant had the power to save in and of themselves, he did not see them to be in opposition to the true Good News of Messiah, as the proper translation of Gal. 2:15-16 (especially seen through the lens of Acts 21) makes clear: “We Jews by nature, and not sinners of the Gentiles, know that a man is not declared righteous [in Hashem’s eyes] by [ritual] works of [the covenant of] law except through the faithfulness of Messiah Yeshua. We have [therefore] believed in Messiah Yeshua so that we may be declared righteous by the faithfulness of Messiah and not by [ritual] works of [the covenant of] law, since by the [ritual] works of [the covenant of] law no flesh will be saved.”

Paul’s continued statement in v. 19 that, “Through law to law I died, that I might live to God” does not mean that Paul died to the Law, the Torah, but rather, “Through [really understanding the covenant of] law to [the covenant of] law I died.” Paul continued to be faithful to the strictest keeping of the Torah, but now did so through fidelity of the new covenant offered through the blood of Messiah rather than “the covenant which I [Hashem] made with their [Israel’s] forefathers in the day I took them by the hand to bring them out of the land of Egypt, My covenant which they broke, although I was a husband to them” (Jer. 31:32).

So if, on the one hand, these works of law—the whole Torah of Moses, circumcision, and even the extra-Torah traditions (Acts 21:21)—were entirely compatible with trusting Yeshua as Messiah in the Jew, why does Paul seem to be so negative on Gentiles keeping them? The answer is that the Gentile disciples were being drawn away from the covenant with Messiah and depending on becoming Jewish by these “works of law” in order to be saved.

These early Christians had already turned in faith to Messiah and were cleaving to God faithfully in the face of persecution from the Imperial cult, the guilds, and even their own families. Hashem received their “vows” of faith and in turn demonstrated that he had already accepted them through Messiah by pouring out the Holy Spirit (Acts 10:44-47, Gal. 3:2)–and he had accepted them as Gentiles, not as Jewish proselytes, exactly as he had announced that he would through his servants the prophets (Isa. 11:10, 19:25, 49:6; Amos 9:11-12). However, this brought about the controversy described in Acts 15:1-6, where the Gentile Christians were being told, “That’s wonderful that you believe in God now, but if you really want to be part of the Holy People, you need to become Jewish like us.” They were being told to be “of works of law” rather than “of faith[fulness]”–that is, to depend on the ritual works that define a Jew rather than on faith in and faithfulness towards Messiah, who had already accepted them into his kingdom. They were being turned away from dependence on Messiah to dependence on Jewishness.

Does this mean that a person of Gentile birth who wishes to keep the Sabbath or the Feasts or kosher or whatever is therefore automatically putting himself “under law” and therefore outside of the covenant of grace? Not at all. Paul himself encouraged the Corinthians to keep the Passover (1Co. 5:8) and counseled tolerance between those who keep the Feasts and those who do not (Rom. 14:5-6)–both without distinguishing between Jew and Gentile. Moreover, Isa. 56:6-7 (which Yeshua himself quoted) contains a Divine invitation for Gentiles who wish to participate in the Sabbath and even participate in the Temple service. Insofar as a Gentile disciple could participate in Israel’s communal life without depending on being accepted, Paul had no objection. However, what I don’t think he ever could have anticipated was the degree to which his writings, meant to liberate the Gentiles to be able to figure out how to conform their own cultures to the framework of Scripture, would be used as a weapon to actively forbid Jewish disciples of a Jewish Messiah from continuing to live as Paul himself did—a Torah-observant Jew.


1N.T. Wright, “New Perspectives on Paul,” retrieved from on May 26, 2013.

2 Replies to “Common Mistranslations – Galatians 2:15-16, Part 3”

  1. Can “nomos” without the article mean “that by which I consciously obey and follow written commands”? Because I’m not aware that I am keeping God’s law; I just keep it. I may become aware afterwards, in hindsight, but at the time God’s life is lived through me and I am unaware of it, consciously. In fact I find my consciousness gets in the way of God’s law being fulfilled through me, it gets in the Spirit’s way as I live. My consciousness takes a back seat as the life of Christ is lived through me by the Spirit. I do not purpose to obey God; I obey him, naturally. I do not consciously obey God; his word is obeyed as I live. The law is a picture of the life of God. I don’t follow a picture of life, but I live that life itself. What do you say? Can “nomos” without the article mean “that by which I consciously obey and follow written commands”? Thanks. Richard


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