Sundays With St. Paul: “Uphold the Law” in Romans 3:31…

For our discussion this week we were instructed to look at Romans 3:31 and discuss what Paul meant by “we uphold the law.” It seems that throughout Romans Paul is anticipating pushback from his Jewish audience about their “chosen-ness.” Romans 3 begins with a question of what the “advantage” of a Jew even is in light of their newfound faith in Christ, which goes to show Paul knew what he was writing would threaten the privileged status of the Jewish community. Sanders and Thielman were our guides in this week’s discussion.

In his discussion of the preceding verses to 3:31, Sanders notes “that the term ‘boasting’ in Rom. 3:27 picks up the same term in 2:17, 23.”[1] In those verses, “boasting” is an “assumption of special status on the part of the Jews.” Discussing the same verses, Thielman says, “Paul criticizes the Jew who relies on and boasts in the law, but the reliance and boast of which he speaks are in the possession of the law, not in its observance.”[2] So, then, Paul seems to have been addressing Jews who felt their privileged status (not by anything they’ve done, but by what they possess) being lessened by “this faith,” as he says in Rom. 3:31.

If Romans 2 is likening the Gentile “law” to the Jewish law – in the sense of practice, rather than knowledge of – and Romans 3 shifts to the “advantage” of a Jew, then it seems Paul is, overall, readjusting the Jewish role in this newfound Christian faith: It isn’t to convert all the Gentiles to Judaism (as is indicated by being so adamantly against circumcision and separation at the dinner table in Galatians), but rather to teach the Gentiles of what it means to “love one’s neighbor.”

Of course, I’m borrowing from Thielman’s discussion:

“If possession of the law gives the Jew no advantage over the Gentile on the day of judgment, as Paul has argued in chapter 2, then what is the value of the Jews’ supposed election? Paul replies that the benefit of being a Jew is great, despite what he has said previously. The reason for this is that the Jews have been entrusted with the ‘oracles of God.’ They possess, in other words, ‘form of knowledge and of the truth in the law’ (2:20) and therefore, as 2:17-20 says, have an advantage over Gentiles in knowing God’s will. Gentiles may possess some intuition of God’s requirements and so have an elementary understanding of the law in themselves, but the Jews’ possession of the law is so great an advantage that they can instruct the Gentiles in the knowledge of God.”[3]

With Paul’s likening of the Gentile to the Jew in 3:29 and his dismissal of “boasting” in 3:27, it then seems that 3:31 is a capstone to his argument for equality between Jew and Gentile; “[upholding] the law” is only possible after equality is established.[4] If Jew and Gentile are equal, then the “advantage” Paul refers to in 3:1, as Thielman explains, then becomes about what they are to do: teach the Gentiles “in the knowledge of God.” It seems to me that Paul redefines the Jewish possession of the law not as a point for a privileged status, but rather for a role of responsibility – to teach the law to the Gentiles who do not have it.

What do you think Paul means in Romans 3:31 in light of what’s discussed here? Is there another part of Romans 3 that you think is crucial for understanding Paul in 3:31?

[1] E.P. Sanders, Paul, the Law, and the Jewish People (Fortress Press, 1983), 33.

[2] Frank Thielman, Paul & the Law: A Contextual Approach, (InterVarsity Press, 1994), 179.

[3] Thielman, 175

[4] I mean “capstone” in the sense of establishing equality; not an end-all to the discussion. Paul continually emphasizes this equality throughout Romans.

4 thoughts on “Sundays With St. Paul: “Uphold the Law” in Romans 3:31…

  1. In Rom 3.31’s νόμον οὖν καταργοῦμεν διὰ τῆς πίστεως; μὴ γένοιτο• ἀλλὰ νόμον ἱστάνομεν Paul is basically returning to the point or “question” he raises in 3.21, which itself is the beginning of a section (3.21-26) where Paul finally unpacks the positive content of what he hints at in 1.1-5 and then 1.16-17. He addresses how the impartial Judean god can enact his saving righteousness to Gentiles who are mastered by their passions (e.g., 1.18-32) and to Judeans who are likewise “under sin” alongside Gentiles (3.9).

    Crucially, in 3.21 Paul asserts that the Judean god’s saving righteousness is both revealed apart from the law and “testified to by the law and the prophets,” a seemingly bizarre disjunction (of sorts) for Paul to make given that for many Judean intellectuals of this period (as evidenced by their writings) the law itself was this god’s means of causing his people to participate in eschatological blessing. Instead of being revealed through the law, for Paul this δικαιοσύνη θεοῦ is revealed διά the faithfulness of Jesus Christ (3.22; or you can opt for the objective genitive if you so prefer). Paul thus dissociates this faithfulness of Christ (and what that means for Christ followers) from the law. In 3.22-26 Paul then, to oversimplify, offers a snapshot of the mechanics of how this works, largely turning on interrelated ethnic and eschatological logics of Christ being a decisive figure whose actions cause/allow others to participate in the Judean god’s blessings. And again, given how Paul frames the section in 3.21, all of this, according to Paul, happens apart from and in seeming contradiction to this god’s own law, but in a way somehow testified to by the law and the prophets.

    Without spelling out the particulars of 3.27-31, suffice it to say that there Paul continues discussing the same basic issues as in 3.21-26, though it becomes even more explicit that the entire discussion revolves around questions about Gentile participation, apart from the law, in the blessings of the impartial Judean god, who is also the god of Gentiles.

    Romans 3.31 highlights how 3.21’s point remains a framing concern. Paul has claimed that the Judean god’s eschatological inclusion of Gentiles happens through “faith(fullness)” precisely apart from the law, but that it is testified to by the law. In other words, Paul asserts that his position that the Judean god now righteouses people apart from the law (i.e., that the Judean boasting of 2.17-24 and 3.27 are excluded), despite seeming to contradict the law, is actually authorized by the law itself.

    Romans 3.31 returns to and explicitly re-raises these points. Given the law-dissociated nature of the “faith(fullness)” that Paul has been explicating, the question of whether “we” nullify/abolish (καταργέω) the law through such faith(fullness) (διὰ τῆς πίστεως) is, for Paul, an obvious question. Deploying a characteristic Pauline strong negation, Paul asserts μὴ γένοιτο! On the contrary, “we” uphold the law (3.31b).

    In Rom 3.31 Paul thus refocuses on a framing issue of 3.21-31. Also of great importance, in 3.31 Paul furthermore orients the reader for his following (strategic) sketch of Abraham in Romans 4, which will illustrate precisely how Paul represents the law validating his claims; how the law somehow witnesses to apart-from-the-law righteousing of Gentiles through “faith(fullness).”

    None of this is to deny the obvious relationships of Paul’s claims in 3.27-31 to, for example, points he makes in 2.17-3.9 (some of which you touch on in your post). But since you covered that I thought I would focus a bit on 3.21-30’s and then Roman 4’s relevance for understanding 3.31, or, rather, 3.31’s relevance for understanding Romans 4 and then the preceding material in 3.21-30…

  2. Dr. Leander Keck in the video commentary portion to one of his Disciple Bible Study series lessons stated that Paul believed in the imminent Second Coming of Christ and in the interest in not having Gentiles left out of the Kingdom believed that certain ‘shortcuts’ to table-fellowship (kingdom sharing) for Gentiles with Jews could be tolerated. I then go back to Acts 15.19-20 for the basics of this and conclude that the final, integral instruction is 15.21 “For Moses from ancient generations has in every city those who preach him, since he is read in the synagogues every Sabbath”, i.e., 15.20a’s instructions consisted of 15.20b *AND* 15.21. (Thayer’s Lexicon for γάρ in Acts 15.21 states (II.) that “[i]t adduces the Cause or gives the Reason of a preceding statement or opinion” and further (II.3) “[t]o sentences in which something is commanded or forbidden, γάρ annexes the reason why the thing must either be done or avoided”.)

    Your statement “It seems to me that Paul redefines the Jewish possession of the law not as a point for a privileged status, but rather for a role of responsibility – to teach the law to the Gentiles who do not have it” helps affirm for me that the shortcuts could be immediately accepted and that Gentiles could get the rest of the Mosaic Law (if time allowed) in the synagogues, somewhat contrary to your conclusion that “it isn’t to convert all the Gentiles to Judaism.”

    I’ve stated this opinion before here, but y’all seem to keep leading me back to it! :)

  3. Dear Jeremy, have you considered tagging all of your “Sundays With St. Paul” posts as “Sundays With St. Paul” in addition to tagging them as Apostle Paul? It would be helpful, I think, to do so, since this would make it easier for others to see/find/link the full series of posts that you have written under this heading. Best, Wayne

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