Is the Torah to be considered as a dead husband that nobody liked anyway? This is the way many Christians interpret Romans 7:1-6: “For the woman who has a husband is bound by the law to her husband as long as he lives. But if the husband dies she is released from the law of her husband” (verse 2 of Romans 7:1-6). Paul refers to an ancient halachah (principle of the law) to illustrate his new relationship to the Torah because of his faith in Jesus. But one question is never asked when studying Romans 7:1-6. And it is only when the full impact of Paul’s Jewish heritage is understood in light of his entire teaching concerning the believer’s response to the Torah that this question can be carefully considered. Nonetheless, we must ask: Was Paul speaking about the death of the Torah or was he referring to the death of the flesh? Is the Torah, for Paul, a dead husband?
I found myself wondering if sola scriptura as offered by Lawson would match up with how Young is interpreting Paul in Romans 7.
To interpret Paul correctly on this passage, it is first imperative to recognize that the saying, “when a person dies he is free from the law and the commandments” (kivan shemet adam naaseh chofshi men hatorah vehamitzvot), was a well-known concept in halachah, which probably was almost proverbial in ancient Jewish thought (b. Nidah 61b and parallels). When Paul says that he is writing to those who know the law (Romans 7:1), it is clear that he speaks concerning a practice of halachah with which the Jews in the congregation of Rome would be quite familiar. The marriage laws concerning a woman and her husband would also be fairly well known. Of interest to the issue is the fact that Rabban Gamaliel the Elder, who according to Luke was the teacher of Paul in his early days as a student in Jerusalem, addressed questions relating to these laws in the Mishnah. Gamaliel the Elder taught that a woman is free to remarry even if only one witness gives testimony that her husband had died (m.Yeb. 16:7). Scholars have noted that the passage in Romans 7:1-6 might well betray the influence of Paul’s teacher Gamaliel. While the similarity between Paul and Gamaliel on this point of halachah should not be denied, it is also true that such teachings were probably common knowledge to Jewish men and women who lived pious lives according to their devout faith. Paul could have been acquainted with this principle from many sources, including Gamaliel the Elder.
I tried to choose the most representative paragraph in Young’s brief article to illustrate that a thorough understanding of not only scripture but of Judaism (or the various Judaisms) as it (they) existed during Paul’s lifetime is absolutely essential to correctly understanding Paul. Without addressing the complete social, religious, historical, national context in which Paul was writing, plus his education and as much of his “psychology” as we can apprehend after all this time, we are quite likely to get Paul wrong and, as a result, construct completely erroneous theologies, doctrines, and dogmas based on our misunderstanding, all the while believing we are standing on the rock-solid foundation of “sola scriptura.”
But am I being unfair? After all, I do believe the Bible (correctly understood) is the basis for a life of faith. I just think it’s more complicated than reading the Bible and taking the text (especially in English) at face value.
I recalled that a gentleman named Tim Hegg, who is well-known in Hebrew Roots circles, took exception to another criticism of sola scriptura, written by First Fruits of Zion (FFOZ) author, Pastor Jacob Fronczak for Messiah Journal issue 111 (Fall 2012).
The full text of Hegg’s rebuttal can be found at TorahTalkOnline.com (PDF) but I’ll take the liberty of inserting the relevant quotes here.
According to Hegg, Fronczak asserted “it (the Bible) needs no outside help to be correctly interpreted”as a tenet of sola scriptura. Hegg responded:
Sola Scriptura holds that the Bible must be interpreted according to its historical, grammatical sense. This means that knowing the history, culture, and language in which the inspired word is given is necessary for receiving its divinely intended message. But Sola Scriptura also states that the Bible is self-interpreting, meaning that since it is God’s inspired word as a whole, it is never self-contradictory. Therefore, the truth of the Scriptures is found in the whole of the Bible’s message, allowing the whole to interpret the parts
The first part of Hegg’s response sounds good, but it is dependent upon how well the interpreter knows the “historical grammatical sense” and how much they’re willing to take into account the “history, culture, and language in which the inspired word” was given. In other words, would the interpreter who is an adherent of sola scriptura take into consideration ancient Jewish thought and Paul’s relationship with Rabban Gamaliel the Elder when attempting to understand Paul’s relationship with and description of the function of Torah in the community of first century Jewish believers?
Also, when Hegg says that “the Bible is self-interpreting, meaning that since it is God’s inspired word as a whole, it is never self-contradictory. Therefore, the truth of the Scriptures is found in the whole of the Bible’s message, allowing the whole to interpret the parts,” he seems to be leaving out the necessity of understanding the context to its fullest degree.
By that, I mean in order to resolve those areas of the Bible that seem internally inconsistent (how Paul in some parts of the Bible seems pro-Torah and in other parts seems anti-Torah), we have to employ a much wider net of information gathering than I think Christian interpretive tradition is willing to allow.
Here’s more about what I mean:
If Paul employs a known analogy from halachah in Romans 7:1-6, perhaps the Jewish tradition can throw light upon Paul’s message and the conclusion he desires to draw from the evidence he cites. The sage, R. Simeon ben Pazzi, taught “…and the servant is free from his master”(Job 3:19). A person, as long as he lives is a servant to two masters: the servant of his Creator and of his [evil] inclination. When he does the will of his Creator, he angers his inclination, and when he does the will of his inclination, he angers his Creator. When he dies, he is freed, ‘the servant is free from his master!’ (Ruth Rabbah 4:14, M. Lerner pp.78-80). Rabbi Simeon ben Pazzi’s saying, “When he dies, he is freed…” not only recalls Paul’s words in Romans 7:1-6, but also provides a clear parallel in thought to his discussion of the servant who either is enslaved to his evil inclination or to his Creator in the preceding chapter of Romans. In Romans chapter 6, Paul teaches that an individual is either a servant of sin to obey the flesh or a servant of righteousness to obey God.
In order to grasp the meaning of how Young is understanding Paul, not only is understanding other areas of scripture necessary, but understanding ancient, and to a certain degree, modern Judaism is required as well. If you had no idea Paul was employing “a known analogy from halachah in Romans 7:1-6,” you might not consider investigating Jewish tradition in order to “throw light upon Paul’s message.”
The conclusion you draw about what Paul is saying can be dramatically altered by inserting or omitting the Jewishness of Paul’s thinking, education, life experience, personal history, and teachings. If Paul was a disciple of Rabban Gamaliel, we know, as a disciple, he would have memorized his Master’s teachings to the degree that he could teach from the same perspective and understanding. To the degree that Paul became a disciple of Jesus (although not in a traditional sense), Paul would also have studied and memorized all of the teachings of this Master. If we don’t understand the full impact of what that means in terms of the late Second Temple model of Jewish discipleship and look to the relevant sources that would support authentic comprehension of Paul’s letters, we’re going to miss the point of everything Paul wrote, and as a result, misunderstand the very fabric of what it means to be a Christian.
I encourage you to read the full content of Young’s commentary on Paul and Romans 7. It only takes a few minutes, but it may also open your eyes, not only to Paul as you’ve never seen him before, but to the level of complexity involved in approaching and interpreting the scriptures. Sola scriptura is a good, basic place upon which to stand, but if you aren’t employing the proper interpretive tools to correctly understand “scripture alone,” you aren’t going to have a very accurate view.
The Church created a basic set of interpretations early on in order to foster separation between Gentile Christianity and Judaism, with Judaism and the Jewish people cast in the role of the villain. We like to think we’ve come a long way in revising our understanding of the Bible, but the deep core of those original interpretations lives on, underground, unseen, and most Christians are unconscious of how much they permeate their (our) Biblical thinking. We have it within ourselves to dismantle those ancient assumptions and to take a fresh look at Paul. Interestingly enough, we’ll have to go back even before the so-called “Church fathers” to our “Jewish fathers” and their fathers, to the Jewish Paul and the Jewish Gamaliel, to see a vision of Jesus and of Paul that has been lost since the time of the apostles.
Only with such a lens can we see not only what Paul wrote, but the intent, the thought, the heart he used to pen his letters and what he wanted his original audience and us to understand.