Today’s blog continues my notes on translating Galatians
Galatians 2: 15
We, Judeans by birth and not “sinners of Gentile origin”, we who know that a human being is not made right by the prescribed actions of the religious Law, but by the faithfulness of Jesus Messiah, we have put our trust in Messiah Jesus, so that we can be made right by our trust in Messiah, and not by the prescribed actions of the Law. For no flesh shall be made right by the prescribed actions of the Law.
This is a contentious translation, because it is dealing with a central teaching of Paul’s theology the precise meaning of which been disputed by the Christian Church for centuries, leading to division and even war. The nub of the argument is the meaning of the Greek verb dikaioo (to make or declare just): Does it refer to God’s merciful judgement on people or to God’s transformation of sinful people into people who are right and just? Martin Luther thought it meant the former, and his doctrine of God’s justification is a cornerstone of Reformation theology. Roman Catholic teaching includes both views, while some of the Greek fathers had fruitful ways of combining both. I incline towards a combination of both meanings: In Jesus, God declares the sinful person to be just. But this no mere judicial pronouncement; it is performative, in that the person who believes it to be true must abandon his sinful self and live towards God as a disciple of Jesus. Paul develops this meaning in the verses that follow.
But if, as we look to be made right in Messiah, we ourselves are discovered to be sinners, is Messiah then a servant of sin? Surely not. For if I rebuild the life I demolished, I establish myself as a lawbreaker. Through Law I died to Law so that I might live to God. I have been hung on a cross with Messiah; I no longer live but Messiah lives in me; and my present flesh and blood life is alive in the faithfulness of God’s Son, who loved me and handed himself over for me. I will not negate God’s kindness; for if Law makes people right, Messiah died for nothing.
The words of these sentences are simple but the way Paul uses them is passionately complex. That leads to very diverse translations. My starting point is Paul’s notion that the life of believers must be discontinuous with the way they lived before becoming believers. He says in his letter to Romans that if our lives are determined by our flesh and blood nature, we will die. He concludes that we must “die” to that nature and let our lives be determined by Messiah Jesus, who himself “died to Law that he might live to God.” This “dying to Law” he also describes as a demolition of his former life. What does he mean by “through Law I died to Law? I think he means that through his obedience to it, he found himself to be a vicious bigot who would have put Jesus on a cross. Paul’s dying to the Law is his readiness to share the curse of the Religious Law with Jesus, who loved people more than the Law and suffered the consequences.
His flesh and blood identity, his biological self-ishness, is dead, but that does not mean that he ceases to be a flesh and blood person: Jesus’ faithfulness now enlivens his mortal flesh and blood. St. John Chrysostomos, a preacher of the 4th century, in a sermon on this passage asks Paul how he can have the impertinence to say that Jesus loved him and handed himself over for him, when of course he did so for all humanity. He answers that unless Jesus died for Paul, and Peter and John Chrysostomos, “all humanity” is an empty category. Paul’s language however pushes the reader to wonder whether the love of Jesus is also for her or him.