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The Coherence of Paul's View of the Law: The Evidence of First Corinthians

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  05 February 2009

Frank Thielman
(Beeson Divinity School, Samford University, Birmingham, Alabama 35229, USA)


Students of Paul's theology have directed much attention in recent years to the coherence of Paul's view of the law. Fascination with the subject is understandable since, at least for some, nothing less than the value of Paul's thinking for Christian theology is at stake in the debate.1 Most of the debate's energy has naturally focused not upon First Corinthians but upon the three epistles in which Paul speaks most fervently and frequently about the law: Gal-atians, Romans, and Philippians.2 Paul does, after all, use the word νόμος only eight times3 in First Corinthians whereas in Galatians, Romans, and Philippians, he uses it over a hundred times. In these three letters, moreover, the issue of the law is front and centre, for Paul is arguing energetically in all three against opponents who are trying to impose the law upon his Gentile converts. In First Corinthians, however, even if Cephas at one time passed through the community, there is nearly nothing to indicate that Judaizing had become a problem.4

Copyright © Cambridge University Press 1992

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1 See especially Räisänen, Heikki, Paul and the Law (WUNT 29; Tübingen: Mohr, 1983) 264–9 and 2nd ed., 1986, xviGoogle Scholar. Watson, Francis, Paul, Judaism and the Gentiles: A Sociological Approach (SNTSMS 56; Cambridge: Cambridge University, 1986) 179–81CrossRefGoogle Scholar also questions the continuing value of Paul's view of the law for Christian theology, although Watson's case is not built on the theory that Paul is incoherent.

2 Second Corinthians has not attracted the same amount of attention as these three letters, despite Paul's references to the ‘letter engraved on stone’ in 3.6 and to the ‘covenant’ in 3.6 and 3.14. See, however, Sanders, E. P., Paul, the Law, and the Jewish People (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1983) 137–41.Google Scholar

3 If genuine, 14.34 would increase the count to nine. The reading νόμῳ at 7.39 is clearly secondary.

4 References to Cephas in 1.2, 3.22, and especially 9.5 indicate that he may have visited Corinth during a missionary tour. If so, tensions may have arisen between Paul and the Corinthians based on Corinthian contact with Cephas. See Manson, T. W., ‘The Corinthian Correspondence (1)’, Studies in the Gospels and Epistles (ed. Matthew, Black; Philadelphia: Westminster, 1962) 190209Google Scholar and Barrett, C. K., ‘Cephas and Corinth’, Essays on Paul (Philadelphia: Westminster, 1982) 2830Google Scholar. Nothing within First Corinthians, however, clearly indicates that the tension, if it existed, involved the Jewish law. Theissen, Gerd, ‘Legitimation and Subsistence: An Essay on the Sociology of Early Christian Missionaries’, The Social Setting of Pauline Christianity: Essays on Corinth (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1982) 2767Google Scholar suggests that it had sociological origins.

5 Thus Räisänen's contention in ‘The “Hellenists” – A Bridge between Jesus and Paul’, The Torah and Christ: Essays in German and English on the Problem of the Law in Early Christianity (Publications of the Finnish Exegetical Society 45; Helsinki: 1986) 285 that ‘When among Gentiles [Paul] simply bypasses [the law], treating it as a nonentity’ does not appear to be strictly true. It is true that Paul does not mention the law in his correspondence with the Gentile Thessalonians; but First Corinthians was written to a predominantly Gentile readership among whom Judaizing was not a problem, and yet Paul brings the law into his argument on five occasions. This alone demonstrates the important place which the law held in Paul's theology.

6 Those who attribute little or no value to Acts as a source for the chronology of Paul's life dissent from this view and place Galatians between the Thessalonian and Corinthian correspondence. See Riddle, Donald, Paul: Man of Conflict (Nashville: Cokesbury, 1940)Google Scholar; Jewett, Robert, A Chronology of Paul's Life (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1979)Google Scholar; and Knox, John, Chapters in a Life of Paul (rev. ed.; Macon, Georgia: Mercer University, 1987)Google Scholar. Others, such as Bruce, F. F., Commentary on Galatians (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1982) 4356Google Scholar, regard Galatians as Paul's earliest extant letter. Nevertheless, a large number of scholars continue to place First Corinthians immediately after the Thessalonian correspondence. See, among others, Kümmel, W. G., Introduction to the New Testament (rev. ed.; Nashville: Abingdon, 1975) 252–5, 278–9, 304Google Scholar; Wilckens, U., ‘Zur Entwicklung des paulinischen Gesetzesverständnisses’, NTS 28 (1982) 154–90CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Price, James L., The New Testament: Its History and Theology (New York/London: Macmillan/Collier, 1987) 335Google Scholar; and Fee, Gordon, The First Epistle to the Corinthians (NICNT; Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1987) xi.Google Scholar

7 ‘From the Jewish point of view … an absurd statement’, Barrett, C. K., The First Epistle to the Corinthians (HNTC; New York: Harper & Row, 1968) 169Google Scholar; ‘… One of the most amazing sentences [Paul] ever wrote’, E. P. Sanders, Law, 103; ‘One of the more remarkable statements Paul ever made’, Gordon Fee, First Corinthians, 312; ‘One of the most radical statements Paul makes about the law’, Schreiner, Thomas, ‘The Abolition and Fulfillment of the Law in Paul’, JSNT 35 (1989) 48.Google Scholar

8 Dial. Trypho. 10, trans. Falls, Thomas B. in Writings of Saint Justin Martyr (FC; New York: Christian Heritage, 1948) 163Google Scholar. On the question of precedent among Jews and Jewish Christians for sentiments about the law such as Paul expresses here see Räisänen, ‘Bridge’, 286–8; Segal, Alan F., ‘The Costs of Proselytism and Conversion’, Society of Biblical Literature Seminar Papers, 1988 (Atlanta: Scholars, 1988) 362–9Google Scholar; and Thielman, Frank, From Plight to Solution: A Jewish Framework for Understanding Paul's View of the Law in Galatians and Romans (NovTSup 61; Leiden: Brill, 1989) 54–9CrossRefGoogle Scholar. Räisänen, ‘Bridge’, 291–2 believes that Paul's connection with the early Hellenistic Christian community may explain the unusual language in 7.19. The Hellenists, he argues, may have been the first Jewish Christians to dispense with or allegorize the ritual requirements of the law in the interests of the Gentile mission, while at the same time maintaining a positive stance toward the law generally.

9 Dodd, , ‘Ἔννομος Χριστοῦ’, More New Testament Studies (Manchester: University of Manchester, 1968) 134–48Google Scholar. See also Davies, W. D., Paul and Rabbinic Judaism: Some Rabbinic Elements in Pauline Theology (4th ed.; Philadelphia: Fortress, 1980) 142–6Google Scholar and Longenecker, Richard N., Paul, Apostle of Liberty: The Origin and Nature of Paul's Christianity (New York: Harper & Row, 1964) 183–90.Google Scholar

10 Israel's Law and the Church's Faith: Paul and His Recent Interpreters (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1988) 201 n. 11.Google Scholar

11 The full sentence in the LXX is ‘And now let us covenant with our God to cast out all our wives and their offspring as you should counsel. Arise, terrify them with the commands of our God – even as the law [states], so let it be [done]’ (Ezra 9.3–4a).

12 In the phrase ‘commands of God’ in 1 Cor 7.19 both ἐντολή and θεός are anarthrous, whereas the analogous phrases in the LXX usually use the article with ἐντολή. This does not mean, however, that Paul has no specific commands of God in mind. See BDF §257 (2) for examples of ‘omission of the article … by assimilation to an anarthrous noun’. Weiss, Johannes, Der erste Korintherbrief (MeyerK; 10th ed.; Göttingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 1925) 186Google Scholar comments, correctly it seems to me, that in both this passage and in Romans 2 Paul speaks from the perspective of Diaspora Judaism.

13 Cf. the judgement of Wilckens, U., ‘Statements on the Development of Paul's View of the Law’, Paul and Paulinism: Essays in Honour of C. K. Barrett (ed. Morna, Hooker and Wilson, S. G.; Cambridge: Cambridge University, 1982) 19Google Scholar that ‘without any doubt [7:19] signifies the preservation of those laws of the Torah that have not been annulled by Christ’.

14 It may be significant, however, that Phil 3.5–9 occurs within the context of an argument against placing confidence in physical circumcision. Paul's negative statements about the law in vv. 5, 6, and 9 are prompted by his negative evaluation of circumcision in vv. 2–4.

15 The fading in Second Corinthians 3 refers to ή διακονία τοῦ θανάτου (v. 7, cf. v. 9), not necessarily to every part of the Mosaic law.

16 I am working under the conviction that First Corinthians is a unity. For a discussion of partition theories together with a convincing argument against them, see Hurd, John Coolidge Jr, The Origin of I Corinthians (Macon, Georgia: Mercer University, 1983) 43–7Google Scholar. The question of whether είδωλόθυτος in this passage refers both to marketplace food and to food eaten at a cultic meal in a pagan temple or whether it refers only to the latter need not detain us here. For the range of options together with a persuasive argument that Paul refers to eating meat in a cultic setting throughout, see Fee, First Corinthians, 359–63.

17 Paul's apostolic authority is also an issue here as Barrett, First Corinthians, 200 and Fee, First Corinthians, 392–4 maintain. In view of 11.1, however, it is difficult to agree with Fee that apostolic authority is the primary issue in this passage.

18 Walter Bauer explains that this phrase ‘nach Menschenart blickt auf die Weise der Menschen, wobei überwiegend an ihre Minderwertigkeit im Vergleich zu Gott gedacht ist’ and appropriately draws attention to Paul's use of the phrase in 3.3; 15.32; Rom 3.5; Gal 1.11; and Gal 3.15. See Griechisch-deutsches Wörterbueh zu den Schriften des Neuen Testaments und der frühchristlichen Literatur (6th ed.; ed. Kurt Aland and Barbara Aland; Berlin/New York: de Gruyter, 1988) 135Google Scholar and Malherbe, A., ‘The Beasts at Ephesus’, JBL 87 (1968) 80 n. 78.Google Scholar

19 So also Conzelmann, Hans, 1 Corinthians (Hermeneia; Philadelphia: Fortress, 1975) 154.Google Scholar

20 Andreas Lindemann, ‘Die biblischen Toragebote und die paulinische Ethik’, Studien zum Text und zur Ethik des Neuen Testaments (ed. W. Schrage; Berlin: de Gruyter, 1986) 255. See also Deidun, T. J., New Covenant Morality in Paul (AnBib 89; Rome: Biblical Institute, 1981) 158Google Scholar. To the argument that Paul cites the law as only one piece of evidence among many, Deidun adds the thesis that Paul has allegorized the text, denied its literal meaning, and therefore revealed that he did not take the law's commands seriously. This charge might also be brought against Paul's ‘use’ of the law in 7.19 and 9.19–21. If Paul has strayed so far from the literal meaning of the law, can he legitimately be said to consider the law authoritative? It was possible, however, for a Hellenistic Jew who regarded the law as authoritative to ignore in various ways its literal sense. See Ep. Arist. 139–71, a text which Deidun does not mention in his note (no. 25) on this problem. Paul's hermeneutical method in 9.9 is in any case not allegorical but, as Fee, First Corinthians, 406–9 maintains, analogical.

21 Hays, Richard B., Echoes of Scripture in the Letters of Paul (New Haven: Yale University, 1989) 225Google Scholar n. 36. Cf. Weiss, Der erste Korintherbrief, 238–9.

22 The Ethics of the New Testament (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1982) 205–6.Google Scholar

23 Cf. Paul's use of temple language in 3.16–17, 6.19, and 2 Cor 6.16 where, however, he uses ναός rather than ίερόν. Newton, Michael, The Concept of Purity at Qumran and in the Letters of Paul (SNTSMS 53; Cambridge: Cambridge University, 1989) 55 and 59Google Scholar points out that, in a way reminiscent of Qumran, Paul's eschatological convictions caused him to identify the Christian community and the individual believer with the temple. These eschatological convictions were at work in a similar way in his attitude toward the Jewish law. See the comments on Paul's eschatological hermeneutic in Hays, Echoes, 168–73.

24 This attitude toward the law receives further confirmation in Rom 3.19 and Gal 4.21 where Paul indicates that the law continues to ‘speak’.

25 Cf. Beker, J. Christiaan, ‘Paul the Theologian: Major Motifs in Pauline Theology’, Int 43 (1989) 352–65Google Scholar who argues that there is a coherent, subtextual centre to Paul's thought generally although it takes a wide variety of forms in various contingent situations.

26 Bornkamm, Günther, ‘The Missionary Stance of Paul in I Corinthians 9 and in Acts’, Studies in Luke-Acts (ed. Keck, Leander E. and Martyn, J. Louis; Philadelphia: Fortress, 1980) 194Google Scholar; cf. Paul (New York: Harper & Row, 1971) 174.Google Scholar

27 Francis Watson, Gentiles, 29 argues from the aorist tense of ἐγενόμην in v. 20 that Paul once preached the gospel to Jews but then abandoned that strategy and began preaching the gospel to Gentiles. Έγενόμην in v. 20 probably does not refer to past time, however, for in v. 22 Paul uses the same word to describe his present ministry among the ‘weak’.

28 This is the position of Dodd, ‘Ἔννομος Χριστοῦ’, 134; Barrett, First Corinthians, 215; and, with some hesitance, Fee, First Corinthians, 430–1.

29 See, for example, Barrett, First Corinthians, 211; Watson, Gentiles, 29.

30 See, for example, Westerholm, Israel's Law, 205–9 and Lindemann, ‘paulinische Ethik’, 255–6.

31 See Betz, Hans Dieter, Galatians: A Commentary on Paul's Letter to the Churches in Galatia (Hermeneia; Philadelphia: Fortress, 1979) 176 n. 126Google Scholar. Ancient Jewish writers used the phrase ‘yoke of the law’ to mean ‘living according to the Jewish law’; see, for example, m.Abot 1.5; m.Ber. 2.2 (‘yoke of the commandments’), and 2 Apoc. Bar. 41.3.

32 Westerholm, Israel's Law, 206.

33 M. Abod. Zar. 2.3 forbids eating meat which comes out of a pagan temple and 4.8–5.12 strictly governs the consumption of wine owned by a Gentile and therefore possibly tainted by the Gentile practice of pouring libations. See also 4 Mace 5.1–4 where Antiochus orders his soldiers ‘to force each one of the Hebrews to taste the flesh of swine and είδωλοθύτων’ but many refuse.

34 Moffatt, James, The First Epistle of Paul to the Corinthians (MNTC; London: Hodder and Stoughton, 1938) 123Google Scholar; Barrett, First Corinthians, 215; Bruce, F. F., 1 and 2 Corinthians (NCB; Grand Rapids/London: Eerdmans/Marshall, Morgan & Scott, 1971) 88Google Scholar; Fee, First Corinthians, 362, 384, 393.

35 See especially 8.8–9.

36 So also Dodd, ‘Ἔννομος Χριστοῦ’, 135.

37 Räisänen, Law, 75 n. 171. This fluctuating practice, according to Segal, ‘Proselytism’, 368 probably means that Paul's level of observance dropped to that required of Gentile Godfearers. Nevertheless, Segal notes, ‘… he certainly considers himself still to be Jewish’.

38 See especially 1 Mace 3.5–6; 7.5; 9.23, 58, 69; 11.25; and 14.14 where the word has reference in each case either to Gentiles or to Jews who want to collaborate with Gentiles in the Hellenization of Israel. See also the discussion in Dunn, James D. G., Romans 1–8 (WBC 38a; Dallas, Texas: Word, 1988) lxix–lxx.Google Scholar

39 Wilckens' comment on this passage in ‘Paul's View of the Law’, 19 seems to me to be precisely correct: ‘Although the function of the Torah as a border between those who live within and outside God's sphere of salvation is removed, the Torah itself as God's Law is not removed. Christ is not the antipode of the Torah but its Lord.’ See also Moule, C. F. D., ‘Jesus, Judaism and Paul’, Tradition and Interpretation in the New Testament: Essays in Honor of E. Earle Ellis for His 60th Birthday (ed. Gerald F. Hawthorne with Otto Betz; Grand Rapids: Eerdmans/Tübingen: Mohr, 1987) 4352.Google Scholar

40 See Dunn, James D. G., ‘The New Perspective on Paul’, BJRL 65 (1983) 95122Google Scholar; ‘Works of the Law and the Curse of the Law (Galatians 3.10–14)’, NTS 31 (1985) 523–42CrossRefGoogle Scholar; ‘The Theology of Galatians’, Society of Biblical Literature 1988 Seminar Papers (27; ed. David J. Lull; Atlanta, Georgia: Scholars, 1988) 116Google Scholar. Heiligenthal, Roman, ‘Soziologische Im-plikationen der paulinischen Rechtfertigungslehre im Galaterbrief am Beispiel der “Werke des Gesetzes”’, Kairos 26 (1984) 3851Google Scholar; and Watson, Gentiles. Wrede, William, Paulus (Religionsgeschichtliche Volksbücher 1.5/6; Tübingen: Mohr, 1906) 72–4Google Scholar suggested long ago that Paul's polemic against the law was motivated by those aspects of the law which separated Jews from Gentiles. For a similar perspective see Sanders, Law, 17–64.

41 Grudem, Wayne, The Gift of Prophecy in 1 Corinthians (Lanham, Maryland/London: University Press of America, 1982) 185201Google Scholar, Fee, First Corinthians, 676–89 and others argue persuasively that the sign of tongues in v. 22 is meant to be a negative sign of condemnation for unbelievers. For the range of interpretive options for this passage, together with an interesting original suggestion, see Theissen, Gerd, Psychological Aspects of Pauline Theology (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1987) 74–8.Google Scholar

42 The designation of passages outside the Pentateuch as ‘the law’, however, was a normal procedure in the Judaism of Paul's day. See John 10.34; 15.25, and the comments of Conzel-mann, 1 Corinthians, 242, and Westerholm, Israel's Law, 106–7.

43 I take the next reference to be 15.56 rather than 14.34. The objections to accepting 14.34–35 as authentic seem to me slightly to outweigh arguments for its authenticity. The passage fits awkwardly into the surrounding context, whose focus is on the merits of prophecy and the pitfalls of tongues, and moves enigmatically to the end of the chapter in the western textual tradition. If it is authentic, however, the reference to the law is consistent with the positive attitude which Paul has displayed so far.

44 Paul's rendering of Isa 25.8 agrees much more closely with the MT than it does with the LXX. Paul has, however, paraphrased the verse by rendering with νῖκος. The situation is just the reverse with Hos 13.14. Here Paul and the LXX view the verse as a promise of deliverance whereas in the MT the verse refers to God's judgment upon Israel. Paul has also paraphrased Hos 13.14 by replacing δίκη with νῖκος and thus providing a catchword with which to link the verse to Isa 25.8.

45 For Isa 25.8 see Rev 7.17 and 21.4. For the influence of Hosea 13 on early Christian apocalyptic texts see Dodd, C. H., According to the Scriptures: The Substructure of New Testament Theology (London: Nisbet, 1962) 76.Google Scholar

46 He mentions it prior to this verse only in 15.3 and 15.17.

47 See Moffatt, First Corinthians, 265, 268; Weiss, Der erste Korintherbrief, 380; and the critical apparatus of the Nestle-Aland Novum Testamentum Graece, 26th ed. In response see the judicious comments of Wolff, Christian, Der erste Brief des Paulus an die Korinther (THKNT 7/2; Berlin: Evangelische Verlagsanstalt, 1982) 209.Google Scholar

48 Cf. Allo, E.-B., Saint Paul: Première épître aux Corinthiens (Études bibliques; 2nd ed.; Paris: LeCoffre, 1956) 436.Google Scholar

49 If First Corinthians was written before Galatians, this is the first hint in Paul's extant correspondence of such a role for the law.

50 J. Christiaan Beker, ‘Paul the Theologian’, has attempted to explain many of the conflicting features of Paul's thought using a modified form of this paradigm. Beker maintains that Paul does sometimes truly contradict himself in the text of his letters, but that beneath the text lies a coherent centre which can be summarized in the phrase ‘theocentric Christology’.

51 Riddle, Paul, Man of Conflict, 45.

52 Räisänen, ‘Bridge’, 300–1.

53 Watson, Gentiles, 23–48.

54 ‘Bridge’, 285.

55 ‘Bridge’, 285.

56 ‘Bridge’, 301.

57 Law, 2nd ed., xxiii-xxvi; Jacob Neusner moves in the same direction on the issue of Paul's relationship to Judaism in his article ‘The Absoluteness of Christianity and the Uniqueness of Judaism’, Int 43 (1989) 1831Google Scholar, although he does not draw from his belief that Paul and Judaism are incompatible the conclusion that Paul's ‘system’ is therefore internally incoherent.

58 See also Francis Watson's assessment of Paul's argument in Romans 2–4 in Gentiles, 120–2.

59 Law, 2nd ed., xiv-xv, esp. xiv, n. 14. Similarly, Watson, Gentiles, 179.

60 It seems to me that theories of ‘development’ in Paul's thinking about the law as they are articulated by such scholars as Drane, J. W., Paul – Libertine or Legalist: A Study in the Theology of the Major Pauline Epistles (London: SPCK, 1975)Google Scholar; Wilckens, ‘Entwick-lung’; and Davies, W. D., ‘Paul and the Law: Reflections on Pitfalls in Interpretation’ in Jewish and Pauline Studies (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1984) 103–8Google Scholar founder on this point. Schulz, Siegfried, ‘Der frühe und der späte Paulus: Überlegungen zur Entwicklung seiner Theologie und Ethik’, TZ 41 (1985) 228–36Google Scholar argues more plausibly for a difference between the early Paul, who, as First Thessalonians demonstrates, was not concerned with the law and the later Paul who had experienced the Judaizing controversy and who, therefore, made the law a topic of debate in his later letters. Even this thesis encounters difficulty, however, when we consider that Paul wrote 1 Cor 15.56 in an atmosphere free from the Judaizing controversy.

61 Paul's use of the word νόμος in different ways parallels his use of σοφία in 1.17, 20 and 21 and of γνῶσις in 8.1 and 8.7. The functions of σοφία and γνῶσις in these passages are not easily grasped because Paul gives them nearly opposite meanings within the space of a few verses. Nevertheless, no commentators to my knowledge have labelled Paul's argument in these passages inconsistent. ‘Paradox’ or ‘dialectic’ do not seem to me to be inappropriate names for this feature of Paul's style.