In the last presentation of the year in the School of Christian Thought Faculty Forum, Dr. Hittinger abstracted his paper, “Private ownership, common use,” a paper that examined Thomas Aquinas’ and Jacques Maritain’s use of Aristotle’s Politics in their cases for private property. Absent, of course, was the voice of Scripture, for this was a philosophical discussion, not a biblical discussion. However, I am a textually oriented scholar and pastor, so my mind immediately goes beyond Aristotle and look at biblical text, and in doing so my mind goes back to some of my very first publications.
What follows is my retelling of observations made in a lecture titled “Did We Get Jesus Right? Jesus in the Canonical and Apocryphal Gospels” by Simon Gathercole and response by David Chapman at Lanier Theological Library on September 8, 2012. My retelling will appear as a text box entitled “Understanding Gnosticism Today” in the forthcoming 4th edition of Church History in Plain Language.
Two analogies or comparisons may help us assess Gnostic claims about Jesus. The first is about historical proximity. The church’s Gospels are written about 30 to 65 years after Jesus’ life. This span of time would be comparable to a professor’s (age 55 at year 2010 in our thought experiment) relationship to the Vietnam War or the Korean Conflict. This professor can assess what he reads about these conflicts with his own living memory and that of his eyewitness contemporaries. By contrast the earliest Gnostic Gospel is probably written 140 years after Jesus’ life (and much longer for all except the Gospel of Thomas). This span of time would be comparable to our professor’s relationship to the Civil War. Our professor would have no living memory of or connection to these events. Fortunately it is one of the remarkably well-documented events in all of history; otherwise we would be precariously dependent upon a limited number of stories without living memory to serve as an anchoring restraint.
Another comparison centers upon the difficulty of offering historical reconstructions of events and persons. There have been a great many books and movies that reconstruct the life and work of Abraham Lincoln. These typically share some general consensus about the outline of his basic life story, family, and service but still vary about his motives, religion, and person. But a very different reconstructing of his life emerges from the vampire mania of contemporary culture. This carnivorous cultural phenomenon seems to offer a variety of takes on a seemingly endless variety of topics. Its reconstruction of Lincoln replaces some of the consensus story and supplements the surviving elements of the story. Intriguing elements take on new significance; e.g. Lincoln was prone to long sleepless nights and he could handle an axe. Even the overall reconstruction yields an interesting insight; slavery, like vampire wars, was draining the life-force from slaves and the nation for the sake of money (see the numerous reviews). The book picturing Abraham Lincoln as a vampire hunter is typically understood as fantasy; but on the issues of proximity and methodology, it is an illuminating comparison to the Gnostic versions of Jesus. The old narrative is replaced or supplemented to make a substantially different story.
But these observations or stories are but new and creative versions of a longstanding conversation. The second- century Irenaeus mocked his Gnostic opponents saying “there were no Valentians before Valentinus;” he drew attention to the publically accessible chain of custody (so Robert Wilken in The First Thousand Years, p45) – the church claimed to be recipient of eye witness testimony from Jesus’ followers. Early churchmen were aware of the variety in the four Gospels which Irenaeus embraced, but they believed these Gospels had the right “big picture.” Irenaeus compares Gnostic readers to bad craftsmen who take the pieces of a mosaic and offer a picture of a dog while losing sight of the noble royal subject. The question was not who could come to a text and venture a creative reading but which text faithfully pictured Jesus and who read the text faithfully.
So, is God’s law really a curse in disguise? Well, some Christians think so. I’ve heard them say as much, likely so have you. Part of the reason they do is something Paul wrote in Galatians 3:13:
“Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law, having become a curse for us—for it is written, “Cursed be everyone who hangs on a tree– . . . “ (RSV)
The phrase I’d like to consider is “the curse of the law.” What did Paul mean by it? How did/does Christ redeem us from it? All this talk of blessing and curses probably strikes you as kind of strange.
Well, let’s back up to consider the broader context of the letter.
Not long after Paul left the churches he founded in Galatia false teachers moved in and started teaching a form of the gospel which was not good news at all. These false brothers were insisting that non-Jews live like Jews in order to get in on the benefits of Christ. What does it mean to live like a Jew? Well, several things. They would have to observe Sabbath as a day of rest, keep certain dietary rules and regulations, celebrate Jewish holidays, promise to uphold all of God’s law, which included men being circumcised. Paul referred to these as “the works of the law.”
When Paul heard his churches had been infiltrated by these Judaizers (as we call them), he fired off the letter we call “Galatians.” His essential argument is this: no one—Jew or Gentile—is put into a right and proper relationship with God by doing “the works of the law.” Instead, the faithfulness of Jesus has made it possible for those who put faith in Jesus to be made right with God.
In Galatians 3 Paul argues that faith all along has been what made rightness with God a reality. It started with Abraham and his covenant. It’s evident in the message of the prophets as well. Those who trust in “the works of the law”—remember, dietary rules, Sabbath observance, circumcision—soon find they are living contrary to the law. For Paul, it is clear the law is not the means of salvation. To try to make the law into something it was never intended is foolish. The law does not justify. It never did. It was never meant to.
So here is where our phrase “the curse of the law” comes in. Jesus, God’s Anointed, has redeemed us from the curse of the law. What did Paul mean? To some degree it depends on what “of” means? You need to know that the word “of” is not found in the original language of the letter, Greek. It is commonly supplied in English to express the relationship between two words (e.g., the love of God, the friend of sinners, one of my friends). In Galatians 3 the words are “curse” and “law.” So what is their relationship? In large measure it has to do with how the Greek genitive case—now I’m getting really technical—is interpreted. Let’s start with what Paul did not mean. Paul did not mean that the entire law is a curse. That would be what is known as an epexegetical use of the genitive. So: “Christ redeemed us from the curse, namely, the law, . . . “ Some have taken this approach and unfortunately missed Paul’s point altogether. No Pharisee like Paul would have ever thought of the law as a curse. If you want to know what Jews like Paul thought of the law, read Psalm 119. The longest chapter in the Bible is a celebration of the law, its goodness and its benefits. More than that, notice that even before he came to Christ Paul felt confident before God precisely because he was blameless before the law (Philippians 3:4-6). I think we can safely rule out the epexegetical genitive. Well the best candidate for understanding what “of” is may be found in the partitive genitive. The partitive genitive expresses the relationship between a part and a whole. For example, in the phrase “one of my friends”. The set is “my friends.” The subset is “one.” The “one” is part of a whole, “my friends.” This is probably the best way to read the phrase “the curse of the law.” The set is “the law.” The subset is “curse.” The phrase “the curse of the law” could be rendered “the part of the law that pronounces curses.”
“OK,” I can hear you saying, “now in English.” If you haven’t noticed, there are places in the law—especially Deuteronomy 27-28 (part of the law)—where curses are pronounced against those who violate the terms of the covenant. Ancient treaties and covenants always included a list of blessings and curses, announcing what would happen if one party kept or broke their promises. It’s much the same today in modern contracts when a lawyer spells out the trouble you’ll be in if you violate the agreement you made. In those days the penalties for breaking a promise were called “curses.” I suggest the best way to read Galatians 3:13 is this way: Now Jesus the Anointed, the Liberating King, has redeemed us from that curse-part of the law, since all of us were under the curse. How? He did it by becoming a curse for us, that is, becoming subject to the law that said “everyone who hangs on a tree is under the curse of God” (Deuteronomy 21:23). Since Jesus hung on the cross, he fell under the curse. Now how did the cursed one—Jesus—liberate us from the part of the law that pronounces curses? In a word, resurrection. When God raised Jesus from the dead, he vindicated him as His Messiah and effectively reversed the curse, not just the single curse which affected Jesus but the entire system of curses which affected all of humanity. In the resurrection Jesus became the curse-buster. As a result, the curses associated with the first covenant have been rendered null and void through Christ’s faithfulness. This apparently had been God’s purpose all along.
I’ve met Christians who question why we read the Old Testament. “The New Testament has all we need,” they say. “Jesus did away with ‘the curse of the law.’” In effect, the Old Testament law was simply a curse disguised as God’s law. Well, in a way, yes, but in the main, no. He did away with that part of the law that pronounces curses, but he didn’t do away with honor your father and mother, or do not steal, or do not murder. He didn’t do away with love God with all your heart, soul, mind, and strength. In fact, Jesus repeats these directives, affirms them, and makes them central to his own teaching. Yes, Jesus reversed the curse. Now the blessings and promises made to Abraham extend beyond the patriarch’s kin to all people who put faith in Him. But the law in all its beauty and goodness remains.