Being “Under the Law”—ὑπὸ νόμον

Let us now examine the expression “under the law” and see if this yields similar results as those just discovered. A brief caution however needs to be mentioned. There will not be as much time and energy devoted to this topic as the “works of the law” debate had.[1] I am choosing this procedure because both of these treatments serve the wider purpose in showing that the negative statements concerning Torah are made in light of the salvation historical situation the apostle to the Gentiles found himself in. Now that this is stated let us proceed.

The phrase itself written as ὑπὸ νόμον appears eleven times[2] in the Pauline literature (Rom 6:14-15; 1 Cor 9:20 [4x]; Gal 3:23; 4:4-5, 21; 5:18).[3] It is also of interest to observe that the phrase only occurs in the Pauline literature and nowhere else.[4] The prominence in Galatians might give us a clue to the Pauline framing of this phrase.[5] The danger in Galatians is that of Christians turning back to the Mosaic Law from which they have been set free. The debate among scholars is if the phrase refers to something more elaborate. For example: Does it refer to “curse of the law” or some kind of condemnation of the law?[6] This will not be the ultimate concern in this section.[7]  What we will try to achieve here is to again see that the phrase ὑπὸ νόμον (like ἔργα νόμου) appears in certain pericopes in which the apostle makes salvation historical assertions. As there is no time and space to look at all the occurrences, we will specifically pay attention to the appearance in Galatians.[8] In Galatians itself we will have a closer look at 3:21-4:7 since here the phrase is used most often (3x) and in close proximity within a single pericope.[9]

Before we delve into this text we need to look at the preceding argument and why the question in 3:21 is raised at all. Though we do not have a systematic theological approach by the apostle here (or for that sake anywhere else in the Pauline corpus), yet one of the main themes the apostle is stressing is that justification/righteousness is not achieved via works of the law (see treatment above) but by faith in Jesus Christ (see e.g. 2:16; 3:2, 5, 10).[10] Prior to 3:21 Paul has just argued that the Law was instituted 430 years after the promise God made to Abraham (3:17). Further he argues that the Law was added τῶν παραβάσεων χάριν.[11] This answered his former question “Why then the law?” Daniel B. Wallace rightly turns our attention to the significant consideration that “Paul is here restricting his discussion to the purpose of the law in relation to soteriology.”[12] The apostle does not give us a full fledged understanding of Torah and its relation to the Christian, but he reasons about Torah as he just talked about God’s promises being made to Abraham prior to the Mosaic Law. Believers (like Abraham) are justified by faith and heirs of that promise (3:29). But if that is the case then the question “Why then the law?” is making sense as it seems that it was superfluous.

Yet the ultimate question which needed to be asked is the one found in 3:21 “Is the law then contrary to the promises (of God)?”[13] which Paul answers in a detailed manner. But his main answer comes right away: “Certainly not!” Before 3:21 we already got a glimpse at the answer. In 3:19 Paul has already stated that the Law was added “until the offspring should come to whom the promise was made” or as Fung translates “[the law] was added to make wrongdoing a legal offence. It was a temporary measure pending the arrival of the ‘issue’ to whom the promised was made.”[14] The temporal factor plays a major role in the entire pericope. F. F. Bruce comments: “The law, then, was to remain in force until the coming of Christ; this is repeated in greater detail in vv 23–25” (see below).[15] Some argue that in light of Paul’s Jewish education the apostle would see the advent of the Messiah and the abrogation of Torah. Leo Baeck writes that “if the ‘Days of the Messiah’ have commenced, those of the Torah came to their close. On the other hand, if the Law, the Torah, still retained its validity, it was proclaimed thereby that the Messiah had not yet arrived.”[16]

The first reason given by Paul for the giving of the Law is that it was “added on account of transgression” (3:19a).[17] Schreiner rightly points out that in light of Paul’s argument this reason is given to demonstrate that Torah was never meant to ultimately deal with the sin problem. The second reason (see above) was to show that the Law was a temporary institution.[18]

In 3:24 we read that the Law was a παιδαγωγός but this too is temporarily marked in that Paul states that this was “until Christ came” (εἰς Χριστόν). The prepositional phrase needs to be a temporal marker since there are many others, e.g. “until” (3:19; see above), “before” (3:23), “until the coming faith should be revealed” (3:23), “now that faith has come” (3:25), “no longer under παιδαγωγός” (3:25)[19] and because it fits the overall argument. According to Schreiner, for the believer to be “under the law” is to be “under the παιδαγωγός” (3:25), “under sin” (3:22), “under a curse” (3:10), and “under the elementary principles.”[20] Linda L. Belleville proposes the following chiastic structure:

συνέκλεισεν ἡ γραφή τα πάντα ὑπό ἁμαρτίαν (principal thesis)

a: ὑπό νόμον ἑφρουρούμεθα (past fact)

           b: ὑπό παιδαγωγόν (analogy)

                       c: ὑιοί θεού (present state; 3.26-29)

           b’: ύπό επιτρόπους καί οικονόμους (analogy)

a’: ὑπό τὰ στοιχεία τοῦ κόσμου ἡμεθα δεδουλωμένοι.[21]

With Belleville I agree that ultimately (despite defining the exact role of the Law) “[w]ith … the coming of faith in Christ, the Law’s function as guardian and custodian [however defined] ceases” and that by “ὁ νόμος Paul is thinking specifically of the legal covenant that was established on Mt Sinai” and that the Law in that sense “is no longer profitable as a legal norm and rule in a covenant relationship.”[22] With the different metaphors and analogies of παιδαγωγὸς, ἐπίτροπος and οἰκονόμος, and τὰ στοιχεῖα τοῦ κόσμου the apostle defined the temporal limitation of the Law. But this is not to say that Paul thinks only positively about the Law here. In this passage we further learn that it was an enslaving and imprisoning force (3:22-23). However, now that Christ has come, the Law as the covenant stipulation has served its purpose. This seems to be the overall argument of this pericope.

Concerning the appearance of the phrase in 1 Cor 9:20 I will only make some brief comments. In context of 1 Cor 9 the apostle writes of his rights as an apostle to illustrate proper conduct of freedom and love.[23] Within here Paul states that “[t]o the Jews I became like a Jew to gain the Jews. To those under the law I became like one under the law (though I myself am not under the law) to gain those under the law” (NET). Here Paul is not contradicting himself (as if he somehow could turn back the salvation historical clock like the Galatians were tempted to do) and actually be “under the law”. But for the sake of the gospel he would act like one “under the law” in order to be effective in his evangelistic endevour.[24]

As a conclusion I agree with Schreiner that “[w]hen Paul says that Christians are no longer under law … he means that the Mosaic law in terms of the Mosaic covenant has ceased. … Thus, Paul is making a salvation-historical point.”[25] We do have again a salvation historical remark made by the apostle. Now that Christ has appeared the new has broken into history. This does not mean, however that Paul is free as we oftentimes define freedom, but he sees himself to be “under the law of Christ.” He is not ἀνόμος θεοῦ but ἔννομος Χριστοῦ. Schnabel observes that the implicit νόμος θεοῦ needs to refer to Torah. “Auch als Christ steht Paulus noch immer unter dem Anspruch des Gesetzes als Offenbarungswort des ewigen Gottes.” To see then that Paul is ἔννομος Χριστοῦ in such a light means that the law of Christ is the “infolge der eschatologischen Heilshandelns Gottes in Tod und Auferstehung Jesus Christi modifizierte mosaische Gesetz.”[26] More will be discussed on this in the next chapter. 

If the above analysis concerning the negative statements about Torah is right, we were able to see that most (if not all the occurrences) of the phrases ἔργα νόμου and ὑπὸ νόμον were confined by the salvation historical element. All of this then will help us to further investigate Paul’s positive statements about Torah and see that those two aspects are not contradictory but rather find their significance within the broader history in which a personal God interacts and intersects with his people. 


[1]For detailed studies of the phrase see e.g. I.-G. Hong, “Being ‘Under the Law’ in Galatians,” Evangelical Review of Theology 26, no. 4 (2002): 354–372; T. A. Wilson, “‘Under Law’ in Galatians: A Pauline Theological Abbreviation,” Journal of Theological Studies 56, no. 2 (2005): 362–392; L. L. Belleville, “‘Under Law’: Structural Analysis and the Pauline Concept of Law in Galatians 3.21–4.11,” Journal for the Study of the New Testament 26 (1986): 53–78; Joel Marcus, “‘Under the Law’: The Background of a Pauline Expression,” Catholic Biblical Quarterly 63, no. 1 (2001): 72.

[2]I am not sure why Marcus, “‘Under the Law’,” 72 only counts eight occurrences within the Pauline letters. Further Belleville, “‘Under Law’,” 54 also miscalculates the occurrences due to only counting three instead of four occurrences in 1 Cor 9:20.

[3]But we could also count διὰ νόμου (Rom 2:12), ἐν τῷ νόμῳ (Rom 3:19), and ἐκ τοῦ νόμου (Rom 4:16) and others as similar phrases. However, here we will be solely focusing on ὑπὸ νόμον.

[4]See e.g. Marcus, “‘Under the Law’,” 72–73; Wilson, “‘Under Law’ in Galatians,” 363–364; the phrase is “peculiar to Paul” so also Belleville, “‘Under Law’,” 54.

[5]Whether Paul coined this phrase or if he used the opponents’ language in his polemical writing against Torah is not of concern here. For a detailed analysis of this question see again Marcus, “‘Under the Law’.” Wilson, “‘Under Law’ in Galatians,” 364 n. 8 is not that convinced of Marcus’s work.

[6]Wilson, “‘Under Law’ in Galatians,” argues that the phrase is a rhetorical shorthand for “curse of the law (see also Hong, “Being ‘Under the Law’ in Galatians”). Wilson’s most likely longhand equivalent to the shorthand ὑπὸ νόμον is “under the curse of the law” (ὑπὸ τὴν κατάραν τοῦ νόμου) which to his admission nowhere appears in Galatians. Wilson takes ὑπὸ κατάραν (3:10) and ἐκ τῆς κατάρας τοῦ νόμου (3:13). This is interesting specifically in light of Wilson’s own criteria of what constitutes and how one finds a shorthand (or theological abbreviation). On page 364 he gives three criteria and one of those is that the shorthand must have a “discernable verbal connection”. One wonders, however, if it is possible to take the proposed longhand equivalent (which is purely hypothetical!) which itself is puzzled together by the two phrases shown above and if such would have been easily recognized by the believers in Galatia.

[7]See n. 111 for detailed studies. That the term has negative connotations in Paul’s argument stems from a salvation-historical point of view. However, the context also shows the negative aspect of the Law as an enslaving and imprisoning force. See the treatment below.

[8]The term ὑπὸ νόμον appears twice in Romans (i.e., 6:14-15). In that context, as Schreiner, Romans, 326 rightly points out, “The phrases ὑπὸ νόμον and ὑπὸ χάριν (hypo charin, under grace) are best understood in a salvation-historical sense (cf. Dunn 1988a: 339; Moo 1991: 406). They refer to different eras in God’s redemptive historical plan. The term ὑπὸ νόμον designates the Mosaic era as a whole, while ὑπὸ χάριν describes the new age inaugurated through the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.” Kruse, Paul, the Law, and Justification, 205 thinks that 6:14 is quite a surprising statement. “We might expect a Jewish Christian (as Paul was) to say that sin would not have dominion over people if they live under the law.” Yet the paradox is that “the law is fulfilled in those who are not under the law” (idem., 248; see Rom 8:3-4; 13:8-10 and my treatment of those passage in ch. 3).

[9]See Daniel B. Wallace, “Galatians 3:19-20: A Crux Interpretum for Paul’s View of the Law,” Westminster Theological Journal 52, no. 2 (1990): 225–245 for the significance of the preceding two verses in the debate on Paul and the Law. I am not addressing the overall issue of Paul and the Law in Galatians, but in the next chapter the same issue in regards to Romans will be investigated thoroughly.

[10]See e.g. Thomas R. Schreiner, Galatians (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2010), 389.

[11]For the different position and their adherents see ibid., 239–240.

[12]Wallace, “Galatians 3:19-20,” 232. He further states that “the law revealed it (and perhaps provoked it)” (238) another debate we will not be able to go into.

[13]There is a minor text-critical issue as the gen τοῦ θεοῦ is missing in some of the earlier MSS e.g. P46 B it Ambrosiaster Marius Victorinus, but this would not alter the meaning of the text. See also Bruce Manning Metzger, A Textual Commentary on the Greek New Testament, Second Edition: A Companion Volume to the United Bible Societies’ Greek New Testament (4th Rev. Ed.) (London; New York: United Bible Societies, 1994), 525–526.

[14]Ronald Y. K. Fung, The Epistle to the Galatians (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1988), 158 [emphasis mine].

[15]F. F. Bruce, The Epistle to the Galatians: A Commentary on the Greek Text (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1982), 176.

[16]Leo Baeck, “The Faith of Paul,” Journal of Jewish Studies 3, no. 3 (1952): 106; quoted in Bruce, The Epistle to the Galatians, 176, who also points out that there “was an early Jewish doctrine of three epochs in world-history—the age of chaos, the age of law, and the messianic age—each lasting for 2,000 years, after which the eternal sabbath rest would be enjoyed (b. Sanh. 97a; m. Tamid 7:4).”

[17]For the different interpretations concerning this clause see Schreiner, Galatians, 239–240. In my mind the adding on account of transgression makes the most sense if we see such in reference to increasing sin. As Paul argues in Rom 4:15 “where there is no law, there is no transgression.” The Law’s purpose then—at least to a certain degree—was to expose sin. More on this see next chapter.

[18]Schreiner, Galatians, 241.

[19]This was pointed out by Hong, “Being ‘Under the Law’ in Galatians,” 364.

[20]40 Questions, 73–74.

[21]Belleville, “‘Under Law’,” 55. She sees the analogy b and b’ referring respectively to a and a’.

[22]Belleville, “‘Under Law’,” 70-71. Hong also sees that the “peculiar phrase ‘under the law’ first appears in 3:23. It is accompanied by the verb ‘were held’ (ephrouroumetha) and the participle ‘being shut up’ (synkleiomenoi), and thus refers to the condition of the Jews before the coming of faith,” “Being ‘Under the Law’ in Galatians,” 361.

[23]The argument in 1 Cor 9 runs like this: In vv. 1-2 Paul writes about his authority to which he could refer as an apostle. But in vv. 3-6 he shows them how he behaves as a missionary. Though apostles do have a right to have there needs being met (vv. 7-14) which he argues by everyday life examples, Scripture (Deut 18:1-3 and 25:4), a word from the Lord, Paul does not make use of such. In 9:15-23 the apostle gives an explanation as to why he chose not to use his right as an apostle for material support – his divine calling, his understanding of being a servant, and the gospel-centered behavior of Paul. In vv. 24-27 he concludes the chapter with athletic metaphors to talk about the purpose of the Christian life in general and his in particular.

[24]Cf. Schreiner, 40 Questions, 75.

[25]Thomas R. Schreiner, “The Abolition and Fulfillment of the Law in Paul,” Journal for the Study of the New Testament, no. 35 (1989): 55–56. See also his 40 Questions, 73 in which he states that “the phrase should be interpreted in terms of redemptive history.” In his commentary on Galatian he further writes that righteousness cannot be obtained by “works of the law” partly because of salvation historical matters. “Works of the law belong to the Sinai covenant, which has expired now that Christ has come.” Schreiner, Galatians, 389. See also D R. De Lacey, “The Sabbath/Sunday Question and the Law in the Pauline Corpus,” in From Sabbath to Lord’s Day (ed. D. A. Carson; Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1982), 161.

[26]Eckhard J. Schnabel, Der Erste Brief des Paulus an die Korinther (Wuppertal, [Germany]: R. Brockhaus, 2006), 506.

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