Volume 45 - Issue 1

Leviticus 18:5 and the Law’s Call to Faith: A Positive Reassessment of Paul’s View of the Law

By Etienne Jodar


Paul’s use of Leviticus 18:5 in Romans 10:5 and Galatians 3:12 is generally understood as showing Paul’s negative view of the Mosaic law. The apostle would be using Leviticus 18:5 to show that the law comes short of the principle of faith. This paper shows that the difficulties with such an understanding of Leviticus 18:5 in Romans 10:5 and Galatians 3:12 are both theological and exegetical. The proposed thesis is that Leviticus 18:5 powerfully brings trust in God into play, and thus can be used by Paul to show that the law calls to faith. Leviticus 18:5, then, would not come short of the logic of faith as some commentators assert. Informed by Second Temple Judaism’s understanding of Leviticus 18:5, this manuscript follows an exegetical method that gives particular attention to words like γάρ, δέ, ἀλλά, and ἐκ in Paul’s unfolding argument. The article shows that interpreting Leviticus 18:5 as a call to exercise faith makes good sense of Paul’s train of thought in both Romans 10:5 and Galatians 3:12.

Although much ink has been spilled since Richard B. Hays’s alarming statement concerning the pervasive misinterpretation of Leviticus 18:5 (“the man who does them [the statutes and ordinances of the law] shall live by them”), to this day no explanation of how Paul uses this text in both Galatians 3:12 and Romans 10:5 convinces a majority of interpreters.1 Many interpretations leave something to be desired because either they appear somewhat unorthodox to some scholars2 or they rest on suboptimal assumptions.3 If one is to properly understand Paul’s view on the Law (and the New Testament’s), however, it is necessary to arrive to a conclusion on how Paul uses this crucial text.

Traditionally, Paul’s use of Leviticus 18:5 has been understood as the antithesis to faith. As Howard observes, interpreters have focused their attention on the “doing” language of this text.4 However, because this antithetical interpretation suffers from different kinds of difficulties, a growing number of exegetes prefer not to interpret Paul’s use of Leviticus 18:5 as antithetical to the principle of faith.5 Disappointingly, the alternative noncontradictory interpretation lacks a major element: it fails to explain the role that Leviticus 18:5 plays in Paul’s lines of argument, both in Romans 10 and Galatians 3. Both interpretations will be detailed in the first section of this paper, whose goal is (1) to explain the major objections to the antithetical interpretation and (2) to explain how Leviticus 18:5 functions in Paul’s flow of argument in Romans 10 and Galatians 3. Immediately connected to this second goal is this paper’s thesis: Leviticus 18:5 powerfully brings trust in God into play and thus can be used by Paul to show that the law—rightly understood—encourages the exercise of faith.6 Presupposing a coherence in Paul’s thought and a fundamental unity in Scripture, this study homes in on the broader question of Paul and the law and highlights the oft-overlooked purpose of the law to foster faith.

1. Interpretation of Paul’s Use of Leviticus 18:5

Because others have listed and classified the plethora of interpretations of Paul’s use of Leviticus 18:5, this author will not repeat the task.7 Presenting the two structural, and polar, interpretations will be sufficient for our purposes: the antithetical interpretation and the noncontradictory interpretation.

The essential characteristic of the antithetical interpretation is that it sees something akin to an antithesis between law and faith. In Romans 10:4–8, Paul would present a righteousness based on the law (v. 5 [Lev 18:5])—a concept different from “faith” because it consists of “doing”—in order to contrast it with righteousness by faith (v. 6). Fundamental to this interpretation is the adversative meaning ascribed to the conjunction δέ in verse 6. The text reads,

For Christ is the end [τέλος] of the law for righteousness to everyone who believes. For [γάρ] Moses writes about the righteousness that is from the law that [ὅτι] the one who does these things will live by them.8 But [δέ] the righteousness that comes from faith speaks like this: Do not say in your heart, “Who will go up to heaven?” that is, to bring Christ down or, “Who will go down into the abyss?” that is, to bring Christ up from the dead. On the contrary, what does it say? The message is near you, in your mouth and in your heart. This is the message of faith that we proclaim. (Rom 10:4–8)

Under this interpretation, verse 5 explains verse 4—that Christ is the τέλος of the law—in an indirect way: (1) “doing” the law ensures salvation, but (2) no one can perfectly “do” the law; therefore, (3) salvation is by faith in Christ and not by “doing” the law. According to this interpretation there is something of a false promise in the law because no one can reach life the way God indicated in Leviticus 18:5. Thus, for Douglas J. Moo, “The Mosaic law holds out the promise of life for those who do it. But no one can ever achieve life through the law, because it is impossible to do it.”9 Paul’s use of Leviticus 18:5 in Galatians 3:12 is understood similarly.10

The noncontradictory interpretation, on the other hand, does not construe Romans 10:5 (and thus Lev 18:5) as opposing the righteousness of faith mentioned in verses 6–8. There would be no antithesis between law and faith in Romans 10:4–8. Concerning Paul’s use of Leviticus 18:5 in Galatians 3:12, the noncontradictory interpretation does not usually view Leviticus 18:5 as being in harmony with the principle of faith as in Romans 10.11

2. Objections to the Antithetical Interpretation

First and foremost, the antithetical interpretation is based on the assumption that “doing” the law is somehow antithetical to exercising faith.12 This antithesis between faith and works, however, may in fact exist only in the lexical realm, not in real life or in the law.13 As will be shown hereafter, Paul’s emphasis in Romans 10 on “doing” on the one hand (with the Leviticus 18:5 quotation) and believing on the other (with the Deuteronomy 30:12–14 quotation) does not have to be construed as a real antithesis between faith and works.14

When Leviticus 18:4–5 speaks about “doing” the statutes and ordinances, faith does not need to be discarded. There is evidence that God’s asking his people to “do” the commandments is tantamount to demanding “faith.”15 This seems supported by the numerous times this parlance is used in connection with the exhortation to love and trust God. Deuteronomy 11:22 is a good example. God says, “If you will be careful to do all this commandment that I command you to do, loving the Lord your God, walking in all his ways, and holding fast to him, then the Lord will drive out all these nations from before you.”16

Second, foundational to the antithetical interpretation is the presupposition that in Leviticus 18:5 God is requiring perfection; nothing less than perfection would attain the “life” that Leviticus 18:5 promises. This understanding, however, faces a major difficulty. Howard remarks concerning how this verse was understood in Tannaitic Judaism, “The point is not one of perfection of life.”17 So if Leviticus 18:5—rightly understood—were actually demanding perfection, and if this were something that Paul wanted to stress about this verse, it would seem that Paul should have made it more plain because in all likelihood his audience did not construe this verse as demanding perfection.18 In fact, this verse cannot demand perfection because offering sacrifices for sin was part of “doing” the commandments; law-keeping is not equivalent to perfection. The antithetical interpretation, however, rests on such a presupposition.

According to the antithetical interpretation, the law points to Christ (as stated by Rom 10:4) in that no one can “do” the law, so Christ has to do it on one’s behalf. That Christ is the τέλος of the law in such an indirect way assumes much understanding (too much?) of the Israelites that came out of Egypt. They would have understood (1) that someone else would observe the law in their place and credit his obedience to them (2) after their realizing that they could not “do” the law. In all likelihood this understanding was not reached by many because the Jews seem to have believed in the possibility of fulfilling the law.19 This appears to nip in the bud the assumption that the Israelites would have understood Leviticus 18:5 as unachievable and thus that Christ had to do the commandments in their place.20

Third, the antithetical interpretation makes Paul’s logic obscure and significantly complex. Why would Paul present the law under a negative light in Romans 10:5 when his aim is to explain that Christ is the τέλος of the law? (v. 4).21 Paul indeed uses the conjunction γάρ in the opening of verse 5—a conjunction that usually introduces an explanation.

The antithetical interpretation, then, suffers from the perplexing phenomenon of Paul’s setting the law in contrast to itself in Romans 10:5 and 10:6 (with the quotations of Lev 18:5 and Deut 30:12–14 respectively). Although not following the view presented hereafter, Hamilton notes the problem: “It would be very strange for Paul to quote Moses’s words in Leviticus 18 to point to law-based righteousness, followed by quotations of Moses’s words in Deuteronomy 30 to point to faith-based righteousness.”22 Under the antithetical interpretation, Paul would ascribe a curse to Leviticus 18:5 but not to Deuteronomy 30:12–14. The immediate context of Deuteronomy 30:12–14, both before and after, however, underlies a dreadful curse. It says, “When all these things happen to you—the blessings and curses” (Deut 30:1), and “See, today I have set before you life and prosperity, death and adversity” (Deut 30:15). If Paul views Deuteronomy 30:12–14 positively in Romans 10:6–8—that is, as a call to exercise faith—although the curse motif lays in the background, he could certainly view Leviticus 18:5 in the same positive manner, that is, as a call to faith as well.

Fourth, the antithetical interpretation presupposes that there are two paths to salvation (although only one can practically lead to it).23 Under this interpretation, the Old Testament would offer the path of “faith”—congruent with Deuteronomy 30:12–14 and Habakkuk 2:4—and the path of “doing”—allegedly that of Leviticus 18:5—something that comes short of the logic of faith. As Kaiser remarks, however, “There was no alternative route to eternal life offered in the Old Testament.”24

This antithetical understanding raises the question of why God would have given the Israelites a second (and misleading?) way to gain life in Leviticus 18:5. To see in this a teaching device for the Israelites to understand that they needed, rather, to be saved by faith is presupposing an incompatibility between “doing” and “believing,” as if the two could not go together and as if one could not be the expression of the other.25 As mentioned above, the Old Testament does not understand the command to “do” the law as void of faith or opposed to it, and the New Testament assumes that true faith is active and working. The alternative supposition that the law lost its salvific capacity with the coming of Christ and that, ever since, the law could not save because it demands perfect obedience also presents weaknesses.26

According to Kaiser, a better understanding of this matter would be that a righteousness based on the law is only a “misconception of Paul’s generation of Jews.”27 Or probably more likely is the fact that a personal righteousness based on the law does exist—as that attested in 2 Samuel 22:21–2528yet is not salvific and can be opposed by Paul when it becomes a claim of salvation on God.29

Another objection (never raised to my knowledge) is that an alternate path to salvation is hardly consistent with Paul’s saying that it is “evident” (δῆλον) that no one is justified by the law (Gal 3:11).30 If an alternate path to salvation existed (even a hypothetical one or one impossible to follow), Paul would certainly not have rebuked the Galatian believers by using the word “evident.” It would simply not have been “evident” because there would have been an alternate path presented in the Old Testament.31

3. Paul’s Use of Leviticus 18:5 in Romans 10:5

This section focuses on the thesis proper of this article, namely that Leviticus 18:5 powerfully brings trust in God into play and thus can be used by Paul to show that the law calls to faith. Before explaining why Leviticus 18:5 zeros in on the trust factor, two building blocks of the noncontradictory interpretation must be briefly presented.

Foundational to the noncontradictory interpretation is that in Romans 10:5 Paul is explaining the declaration that he made in verse 4. This is most natural after the conjunction γάρ, which signals an explanation; verse 4 said that the law has Christ as its goal,32 and now Paul explains how. In order to do it, Paul goes to the Pentateuch to cite a proof-text—Leviticus 18:5. At a prima facie level, one would thus expect this quotation to support the declaration that Christ is the goal of the law (Rom 10:4). Second, because of the objections raised above, δέ (in verse 6) is understood as connective rather than adversative; both the canonical context and the immediate context demand such a use.33

Leviticus 18:5 constitutes a call to faith for the simple reason that it is a promise. It basically says, “You will have life if you choose me.”34 Putting oneself in the Israelites’ shoes helps to grasp how it constitutes a call to faith rather than a human way to gain life. The first thing that would have come to mind at the hearing of these words in the wilderness is “Really?” “Should I believe God?” “Is he trustworthy?” “Will he truly grant me life if I choose him? If I ‘do his statutes and judgments’ (Lev 18:4) rather than follow the ways of the nations?”

God’s promise, therefore, permits the Israelites to exercise faith in response to it. The words of Leviticus 18:5 are a platform for faith to arise; Leviticus 18:5 creates the need for faith. Although Paul recognizes that the Jews of his time distorted the law—and probably with this very verse!—looking for a “law of righteousness” in it (Rom 9:31), it is more reasonable to take this verse as a promise demanding faith rather than representing a principle inferior to “faith” as many commentators still do.35 For Paul, Leviticus 18:5 is one of the tersest proofs that “believing” is a central component of the law. It seems that Leviticus 18:5 is about faith for Paul, not a “doing” short of the principle of faith.36 In order to make this point exceedingly clear, Paul will show that other passages of the Law (in particular Deut 30:12–14) discard the idea of self-righteousness and exhort faith.

By showing that believing was possible in the law, Paul lays the foundation of his demonstration that the law has Christ as its goal (v. 4). Why? Because without the possibility of exercising faith, the law could not have Christ as its goal since the gospel of Christ demands faith. Now Paul can continue with his argument showing that the law not only creates the need for faith (Lev 18:5) but truly exhorts everyone to this very faith (Deut 30:12–14). It would seem that the only way to be justified according to the law—and the only way that exists in the law—is the way of faith.

The Deuteronomy 30:12–14 quotation appears to explain how Leviticus 18:5 should be understood—as a call to faithful obedience rather than a command to achieve one’s own salvation. Paul characterizes faith as renouncing to doing what God has already done (going up to heaven or going down into the abyss [Rom 10:6–7]). This is confirmed with Paul’s next words: “The word is near you” (v. 8). In the context of Deuteronomy, “the word is near” implies that God has brought the commandment.37 Therefore, since God has already done everything that is necessary—by bringing the commandment to the generation of Moses and Christ to the generation of Paul—trying to do what only God can (and has already done) does not characterize faith.

Paul’s omission of the word “do” in his quotation of Deuteronomy 30:12–14 in Romans 10:6–8 probably arises from the fact that Israel was confused by it, looking for a law of righteousness and pursuing the law as if it depended on works (ὡς ἐξ ἔργων [Rom 9:32]) and not faith (οὐκ ἐκ πίστεως [Rom 9:32]). By amending the quotation from the Old Testament, Paul removes all possible misunderstandings and shows that the law is not about works apart from faith but about trust in God. By using Deuteronomy 30:12–14, Paul shows that the “doing” of Leviticus 18:5 is really about having faith in God’s promise.38

As he shows that faith is exhorted by the law, Paul blends the Deuteronomy passage with the gospel of Christ in a pesher way (τοῦτ᾿ ἔστιν, v. 6, 7). By asserting that the message of Deuteronomy 30:12–14 is consonant with the message of faith (τοῦτ ἒστιν τὸ ῥῆμα τῆς πίστεως κηρύσσομεν [Rom 10:8]), the impression given is that the law commands a trust in God which is of the same nature as the trust in Christ demanded in the new dispensation. In Fuller’s words, “[Paul] was showing that the righteousness set forth by the law was the righteousness of faith. Since the wording of the law can be replaced by the word ‘Christ’ with no loss of meaning, Paul has demonstrated that Moses himself taught that Christ and the law are all of a piece.”39

In summary, with verses 5–8 Paul is proving that the righteousness of God that most Jews missed was attested by the law. Since this righteousness comes only by faith, he had to prove that the law demanded this very faith. He quotes two passages (Lev 18:5 and Deut 30:12–14) to prove that faith was not only possible but actually really exhorted by the law. In his line of argument, he starts with Leviticus 18:5 because it is a passage that, by the greatness of its promise, powerfully directs the focus towards trusting the God of the promise. Also, since Leviticus 18:5 is probably the main verse which some Jews misunderstood in looking for a “law of righteousness,” Paul explains what the true sense of Leviticus 18:5 is with Deuteronomy 30:12–14, namely, a call to faith. Paul’s use of Deuteronomy 30:12–14 (especially with his explanations [τοῦτ’ ἔστιν]) shows that the trust in God that the law demands is analogous to the trust that Christ demands. Some Jews missed Christ when he came to earth because they missed the exhortation to believe God that is encouraged in the law to begin with.40

4. Paul’s Use of Leviticus 18:5 in Galatians 3:12

The other and only time Paul uses Leviticus 18:5 is in Galatians 3:12. While some interpreters favor the noncontradictory reading in Romans 10:5, they usually do not favor it in Galatians 3:12, thus viewing Paul as setting Leviticus 18:5 against Habakkuk 2:4 in an antithetical fashion.41 The result is that their case for a noncontradictory reading in Romans 10:5 is weakened due to the greater likelihood that Paul uses Leviticus 18:5 consistently—whether to contrast law and faith or to correlate them. The following paragraphs show that this article’s thesis can find exegetical support in Galatians 3 as it did in Romans 10.

The central issue in Galatians is whether the law plays a role in justification. Paul sternly denies it (Gal 2:16, 3:21) criticizing those who identify with the works of the law (ἔργα νόμου) rather than with faith. His consternation reaches a pinnacle in Galatians 3:10 when he says that those “of” the works of the law are cursed (ἐπικατάρατος). It is in this context that he uses Leviticus 18:5. This Old Testament quotation follows two other quotations from the Old Testament, Deuteronomy 27:26 and Habakkuk 2:4. Galatians 3:10–12 reads,

For all who rely on works of the law are under a curse; for [γάρ] it is written, “Cursed be everyone who does not abide by all things written in the Book of the Law, and do them.” Now it is evident that no one is justified before God by the law, for [ὅτι] “The righteous shall live by faith.” Now the law is not of faith, rather [ἀλλ’] “The one who does them shall live by them.”

Unfortunately, many interpreters come to the Leviticus 18:5 quotation of Galatians 3:12 with the presupposition that sinless perfection is required to have the life that God promises.42 They, then, usually read the implicit impossibility premise of Galatians 3:10—the fact that no one can abide by all things written in the Law—into Galatians 3:12.43 One result is that the negativity of Galatians 3:10 is superimposed on Leviticus 18:5, thus not letting this Old Testament text make its own contribution in Paul’s argument. With the Leviticus 18:5 quotation Paul has moved on in his argument;44 he is no longer proving that those who rely on the works of the law are cursed—this he did in verse 10 with a quotation from Deuteronomy 27:26. With Leviticus 18:5 he is contrasting what he just said in the first half of Galatians 3:12, namely, that “the law is not of faith.”

What Paul means when he says, “The law is not of faith, but ‘the one who does them will live by them’” (Gal 3:12), is not straightforward at all.45 Surprisingly, however, it is commonly understood as something tantamount to “the law is not of faith, because it requires dutiful performance of its commands.”46 This interpretation is problematic for the following reasons. As just mentioned, it imposes an understanding upon Leviticus 18:5—that, incidentally, is contrary to the meaning it had in its original context.47 Second, it construes a causal relationship between Paul’s statement “the law is not of faith” and its accompanying text Leviticus 18:5. While the relationship between statement and quotation is causal in Galatians 3:10 and 3:11 (with γάρ and ὅτι introducing Deut 27:26 and Hab 2:4, respectively), Paul does not mark the relationship between “the law is not of faith” and the Leviticus quotation as causal; he uses the adversative conjunction ἀλλά.48 Third, it is not corroborated by the concise underlying Greek text, and thus is open to the charge of subjectivity.49

Willitts seems more cautious when he suggests, “The law is not of faith, but the law is from ‘the one who does these things will live by them.’”50 His reading, however, does not untie the crux interpretum, and he recognizes that Paul’s saying remains enigmatic.

The key to unlock Paul’s saying certainly lies in the contrastive conjunction ἀλλά. Willitts construes the ἀλλά clause as borrowing the subject of the previous clause (“the law” in “the law is not of faith”). The following chart gives a visual presentation of Willitts’s understanding:

First Clause Conjunction Second Clause (Lev 18:5)
NA28 ὁ δὲ νόμος οὐκ ἔστιν ἐκ πίστεως ἀλλ’ ὁ ποιήσας αὐτὰ ζήσεται ἐν αὐτοῖς.
Willitts ὁ δὲ νόμος οὐκ ἔστιν ἐκ πίστεως ἀλλ’ [ὁ νόμος ἔστιν ἐκ]
ὁ ποιήσας αὐτὰ ζήσεται ἐν αὐτοῖς

Supplying “the law is from” does not necessarily follow, however. The conjunction ἀλλά did not limit Greek writers to using the subject of the preceding clause. It seems best, therefore, to leave the clause as Paul wrote it, that is, not supplying anything. This allows for an interpretation where the ἀλλά conjunction taken together with the first clause defines how Paul understands Leviticus 18:5 (second clause), rather than an interpretation that depends on a preunderstanding of what Paul means with Leviticus 18:5.

Knowing that ἀλλά marks a contrast, ποιήσας αὐτὰ ζήσεται ἐν αὐτοῖς (Gal 3:12b, the Lev 18:5 quotation) must somehow be contrary to “the law is not from faith” (Gal 3:12a). A possible contrast for “the law is not from faith” is “faith is from the law” (note the reversal of “law” and “faith”). ποιήσας αὐτὰ ζήσεται ἐν αὐτοῖς could thus mean that faith is from the law. Now, for this hypothesis to be even viable the conjunction ἀλλά needs to be capable of introducing a reversal of substantives. Biblical literature shows that it is in fact not uncommon for ἀλλά to do so. Consider John 15:16, where Jesus says, “You did not choose me, but [ἀλλά] I chose you.” There the conjunction ἀλλά introduces a reversal of substantives that is highlighted in the following visual:

The same reversal of substantives is marked by ἀλλά in John 10:18; Romans 11:18; 1 Corinthians 11:8, 9; 2 Corinthians 12:14; and 2 Maccabees 5:19. I like to call this an alla-chi construction.51

That Paul might be using ἀλλά in Galatians 3:12 to announce such an incoming reversal of substantives is thus a viable hypothesis. The law is not from faith; it is the other way around—faith is from the law. This is represented by the following visual.

If this is correct, Paul would be using Leviticus 18:5 to say that faith is from/of the law because this text stands in place of the reversal of substantives that ἀλλά can introduce. In other words, the Leviticus quotation would be used by Paul in a metonymical fashion for expressing the thought “faith is from/of the law,” probably meaning that faith comes from the law.52

Is this interpretation possible? In other words, can Leviticus 18:5 be tantamount to “faith is from/of the law” for Paul? Since this verse is a promise (from the Law) and since promises have to be held to by faith, it seems possible. The following visual summarizes the proposed understanding.

First Clause Conjunction Second Clause (Lev 18:5)
Galatians 3:12 ὁ νόμος οὐκ ἒστιν ἐκ πίστεως ἀλλ’ ὁ ποιήσας αὐτὰ ζήσεται ἐν αὐτοῖς.
Meaning faith → law Complete reversal law → faith

Although original, this understanding fits the context nicely. Leviticus 18:5 would make its own contribution to the warning against the necessity of the law in matters of righteousness (Gal 3:6–12). If a function of the law is to bring faith in God into play (in order to be justified by faith) the logical implication is that Gentiles that believed without the law (the Galatians received the Spirit by faith, not by the works of the law [Gal 3:2]) do not need the law for justification.

Paul, then, uses the key verse of Judaism to advance his argument. He advances it, not by making this text say what is impossible to see from the Leviticus context—namely that this text embodies a principle inferior to pure faith (traditional interpretation)—but by drawing an inference from it: the goal of the law is to lead to faith. If this is true, the Galatians that reached faith without the law do not need the law for salvation. The logic is clear, the rhetoric excellent. Paul skillfully turns the incorrect interpretation of Leviticus 18:5 on its head. He is not ready to hand over Leviticus 18:5 to his opponents.

5. Conclusion

The exegetical and theological weaknesses of construing Leviticus 18:5 as somehow antagonistic to faith in Romans 10:5 demand a better interpretation. This paper builds a case to show that Leviticus 18:5 is best understood as a call to faith. This verse encourages faith because it is a promise and because promises demand the exercise of faith. It, therefore, does not come short of the principle of faith as many commentators still suggest.

Although simple, this solution is a core element that proponents of the noncontradictory interpretation have not provided thus far. They posit that Romans 10:5 is consonant with the righteousness of faith mentioned in Romans 10:6–8, but exactly why and how Leviticus 18:5 functions in Paul’s unfolding argument is left unexplained.

This paper shows that Galatians 3:12 presents no serious objection to the view that Leviticus 18:5 can best be understood as a call to faith. If the ἀλλά conjunction introduces a reversal of substantives (alla-chi construction) in Galatians 3:12 as it does in other contexts, then Paul views the law as bringing faith into play because he would be equating Leviticus 18:5 with the meaning “faith is from/of the law.” Although impossible to prove (Paul did not write “faith is from/of the law”), an implied reversal of substantives introduced by ἀλλά that would give such a meaning to Leviticus 18:5 is perhaps the best solution; neither superimposing a preunderstanding upon Galatians 3:12, nor construing ἀλλά as causal, nor supplying unwarranted words to the concise Greek wording has better exegetical grounds. As mentioned, this interpretation does not weaken Paul’s firm warning against legalism. On the contrary, it reinforces it: If a function of the law is to bring faith in God into play (my proposed view of Leviticus 18:5), Gentiles that reached “faith” without the law do not need the law for salvation.

If the thesis presented in this paper should be deemed plausible, then the noncontradictory interpretation should gain momentum. The major weakness according to detractors of this interpretation (that since Paul uses Leviticus 18:5 as a contrast to “faith” in Galatians 3:12, he must be doing the same in Romans 10:5) indeed vanishes.

The last obstacle for the noncontradictory interpretation is Philippians 3:6–9. There Paul contrasts his personal and non-salvific righteousness derived from the law with the righteousness of faith. As succinctly pointed out, this does not demand rejecting the noncontradictory interpretation. It is possible that Romans 10:5 (and thus Lev 18:5) is about the imputed righteousness of the law—the same found in Deuteronomy 30:12–14 and Habakkuk 2:4—which comes by faith. It is thus not necessary to interpret Leviticus 18:5 as coming short of the principle of faith like many interpreters still do. While Jews misunderstood Leviticus 18:5 looking for a law of righteousness, Christians can misunderstand it too, looking for a foil for faith. Misinterpreting Leviticus 18:5 is an ever-present danger.53

[1] For Richard B. Hays, “The efforts of some commentators to drive a wedge between these two texts [Lev 18:5 and Deut 30] as though they represented radically different conceptions of righteousness have wrought disastrous consequences for Christian theology” (Echoes of Scripture in the Letters of Paul [New Haven: Yale University Press, 1989], 76).

[2] For example, Francis Watson’s view (Paul and the Hermeneutics of Faith [New York: Bloomsbury T&T Clark, 2004]) that Paul’s apparent inconsistencies regarding the law come not from his own theologizing but from different voices in the Pentateuch itself has not yet convinced all conservative scholars. For a similar interpretation, see Jean Noël Aletti, “L’argumentation de Ga 3,10–14, Une fois encore: Difficultés et propositions,” Bib ٩٢ (٢٠١١): ١٩٣. Solutions that rest heavily on extrabiblical literature are generally rejected. Such is the case of Louis Martyn, who attempts to solve Paul’s use of Habakkuk 2:4 and Leviticus 18:5 by using textual forms of Paul’s time (“Paul’s Understanding of the Textual Contradiction between Habakkuk 2:4 and Leviticus 18:5,” in Quest for Context and Meaning: Studies in Biblical Intertextuality in Honor of James A. Sanders, ed. Craig A. Evans and Shemaryahu Talmon [Leiden: Brill, 1997], 465–73). Resting also on extrabiblical literature, Joel Willitts attempts to interpret Paul’s use of Leviticus 18:5 in Galatians 3:12 in light of the later Jewish interpretative tradition (“Context Matters: Paul’s Use of Leviticus 18:5 in Galatians 3:12,” TynBul 54 [2003]: 105–22). Both Martyn and Willitts recognize that their solutions are tentative.

[3] These will occupy the second section.

[4] George E. Howard, “Christ the End of the Law: The Meaning of Rom 10:4ff,” JBL 88 (1969): 333.

[5] Especially in Romans 10:5. As mentioned below, the case of Galatians 3:12 is more complex.

[6] To my knowledge, the scholar that comes the closest to this paper’s understanding of Leviticus 18:5—and in particular of why this verse is about faith—is Hays (Echoes of Scripture in the Letters of Paul, 76). Unfortunately, Hays does not develop this important element and does not have a consistent understanding of Paul’s use of Leviticus 18:5 in Romans 10:5 and in Galatians 3:12 (Echoes of Scripture in the Letters of Paul, 208 n. 87). See also The Faith of Jesus Christ (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2002), 179, where Hays construes Leviticus 18:5 as being “incompatible” with faith in Galatians 3:12).

[7] For various current interpretations, as well as the history of interpretation, see Friedrich Avemarie, “Paul and the Claim of the Law according to the Scripture: Leviticus 18:5 in Galatians 3:12 and Romans 10:5,” in Beginnings of Christianity: A Collection of Articles, ed. Jack Pastor and Menachem Mor (Jerusalem: Yad Ben-Zvi Press, 2005); Alain Gignac, “Citation de Lévitique 18:5 en Romains 10,5 et Galates 3,12: Deux Lectures Différentes des Rapports Christ-Torah?,” EgT 25 (1994): 367–403; François Refoulé, “Romains, 10:4: Encore une Fois,” RB 91 (1984): 321–50; Douglas C. Mohrmann, “Of ‘Doing’ and ‘Living’: The Intertextual Semantics of Leviticus 18:5 in Galatians and Romans,” in Jesus and Paul: Global Perspectives in Honor of James D. G. Dunn for his 70th Birthday, ed. B. J. Oropeza, C. K. Robertson, and Douglas C. Mohrmann (London: T&T Clark, 2009), 151–72; and Preston M. Sprinkle, Law and Life: The Interpretation of Leviticus 18:5 in Early Judaism and in Paul, WUNT 241 (Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, 2007), 142–51, 168–70.

[8] There is a text-critical issue concerning the placement of ὅτι. With other interpreters, I believe that the placement of ὅτι after γράφει found in several manuscripts does not make a significant difference in meaning. See Sprinkle, Law and Life, 166–67 n. 2 for more details.

[9] Douglas J. Moo, “The Law of Christ as the Fulfillment of the Law of Moses: A Modified Lutheran View,” in Five Views on Law and Gospel, ed. Wayne G. Strickland, Counterpoints (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1996), 333. Stephen Westerholm asserts, “God’s law promised righteousness to those who did its commands ([Rom] 10:5; cf. 2:13), though righteousness was in fact never achieved that way” (Perspectives Old and New on Paul: The “Lutheran Paul and His Critics” [Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2004], 329). For Martyn, Paul finds in Leviticus 18:5 a “false promise” (“Paul’s Understanding,” 472).

[10] Jason C. Meyer argues, “The Law principle of conditional covenant life in Lev 18:5 is not gracious in a Pauline sense because it rests on human obedience, not on a call to trust God’s intervening work in behalf of humanity” (The End of the Law: Mosaic Covenant in Pauline Theology, NAC Studies in Bible and Theology 6 [Nashville: B&H Academic, 2009], 161).

[11] See, for example, J. Ross Wagner, Heralds of the Good News: Isaiah and Paul in Concert in the Letter to the Romans (Leiden: Brill, 2003), 160–61; John E. Toews, “The Law in Paul’s Letter to the Romans” (PhD diss., Northwestern University, 1977), 254; Daniel P. Fuller, Gospel and Law: Contrast or Continuum? The Hermeneutics of Dispensationalism and Covenant Theology (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1980), 98–99; and Hays, Echoes of Scripture in the Letters of Paul, 208 n. 87. A notable exception is M. A. Kruger, “Law and Promise in Galatians,” Neot 26 (1992): 311–27.

[12] This section builds upon Walter C. Kaiser Jr., “Leviticus 18:5 and Paul: Do This and You Shall Live (Eternally?),” JETS 14 (1971): 19–28; Howard, “Christ the End of the Law”; and Toews, “The Law in Paul’s Letter to the Romans.” The assumption that “doing” the law is somehow antithetical to exercising faith is widespread among scholars who nonetheless have a high view on the law. For example, Brian S. Rosner says, “The law is of doing, not of faith” (Paul and the Law: Keeping the Commandments of God, NSBT 31 [Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2013], 70). Richard N. Longenecker understands Leviticus 18:5 as having to do with “doing and living by its prescriptions and not with faith.” Leviticus 18:5 would thus “refer to Law and to doing but not to faith” (Galatians, WBC 41 [Waco, TX: Word, 1982], 120). For Avemarie, “Lev. 18:5 proves that the Law, since it calls for doing, has nothing to do with faith” in Galatians 3:12 (“Paul and the Claim of the Law according to the Scripture,” 138). Meyer says, “Gal 3:11–12 highlights the impotence of the law in that it is not based on believing, but on doing” (The End of the Law, 162. See, however, 165 n. 166). For Westerholm, “The basic principle of the law is that it requires deeds, ‘it does not rest on faith’” (Perspectives Old and New on Paul, 305). For the theological liberal Heikki Räisänen, Galatians 3:12 means that “the law has nothing to do with faith, because it requires that its commandments be ‘done’ if man wants to ‘live’” (Paul and the Law [Philadelphia: Fortress, 1986], 163).

[13] Contra Mark A. Seifrid, who writes, “When Paul rejects the saving value of the ‘works of the law’ in Galatians and Romans, he does so with full recognition that he is dealing not merely with a misreading of the law, but with the law itself. The law is a ‘law of works,’ which demands deeds of obedience in order to obtain the offer of life (Rom. 3:27; cf. 10:5; Gal. 3:12)” (Christ, Our Righteousness: Paul’s Theology of Justification, NSBT 9 [Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2001], 105). Räisänen similarly writes, “Any interpretation that lets Paul only reject a misunderstanding but not the Torah … has no chance of survival except in the abstract” (Paul and the Law, 44).

[14] Paul also quotes Deuteronomy 9:4 (and possibly 8:17) in Romans 10:6. For convenience’s sake, this paper talks about Romans 10:6–8 as being the quotation of Deuteronomy 30:12–14.

[15] That which Pharisees have become known for in achieving a “doing” void of “believing” should not lead us to think that this is what the Law is demanding in Leviticus 18:5. Some Pharisees may well have had faith in God despite their exacting “doing” of the law (Nicodemus and Gamaliel?). But foremost, there are evidences that the “doing-without-faith” that came to characterize the Pharisees’ spirituality was actually not the “doing” which the law exhorted: Jesus did not understand the Pharisees as good doers of the law. He rebuked them for not attending to the weightier matters of the law (Matt 23:23) and for disobeying the commandment of God (Matt 15:3). Matthew 23:3 reads, “They [scribes and Pharisees] preach, but do not do [οὐ ποιοῦσιν]” while John 7:19 reads, “None of you does the law [οὐδεὶς ἐξ ὑμῶν ποιεῖ τὸν νόμον].”

[16] Another example is Deuteronomy 6:1, 3–4, where “to do the commandments” is juxtaposed with loving God with all the heart. See also Nehemiah 1:5.

[17] “The point is that Israel is to serve Yahweh rather than the gods of the nations” (Howard, “Christ the End of the Law,” 334).

[18] Howard, “Christ the End of the Law,” 334. Watson rightly says, “This broad contrast does not require that the human action that leads to salvation of ‘life’ must be perfect or sinless; such an assumption is irrelevant to Paul’s argument, and contradicts Leviticus itself” (Paul and the Hermeneutics of Faith, 326).

[19] Paul, for example, affirmed to be blameless in the observance of the Law (Phil 3:6). The Law itself claims that observing the law is not too difficult or beyond reach (Deut 30:11).

[20] By this objection neither the substitutionary atonement of Christ nor the impossibility to observe the Law without sinning is called into question. It is the assumption of Israel’s perfect understanding of the substitutionary atonement of Christ (assumed in the antithetical reading) that is questioned.

[21] BDAG 998 lists the occurrence of τέλος in verse 4 under two different senses. The first is “a point of time marking the end of a duration.” As such, it can be rendered “end” or “termination.” The second sense indicates that τέλος is a word that writers of the New Testament could use when they were speaking about “the goal toward which a movement is being directed.” Under this sense the glosses listed by BDAG are “goal” and “outcome.” Most commentators prefer not to decide between the temporal and the teleological meaning (e.g., A. Andrew Das, Paul, the Law, and the Covenant [Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, 2001], 264). They say that Paul probably saw Jesus as both the end and the goal of the law. Because Paul readily uses the law to call Gentile believers to obedience, however, the temporal meaning “end” does not seem appropriate. That Paul was capable of using τέλος with the meaning “goal” is supported by 1 Timothy 1:5, “The aim [τέλος] of our charge is love.” See also Romans 6:21–22.

[22] James M. Hamilton Jr., God’s Glory in Salvation through Judgment: A Biblical Theology (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2010), 112. See also Toews (“The Law in Paul’s Letter to the Romans,” 253), who argues that Leviticus 18:5 was not understood as antithetical to Deuteronomy 30:12–14 in the Judaism of Paul’s time. The same applies to the relationship between Habakkuk 2:4 and Leviticus 18:5. Gignac remarks that “from a rabbinic standpoint, Leviticus 18:5 and Habakkuk 2:4 are by no means contradictory” (translation mine) (“Citation de Lévitique 18:5,” 387). This is also the observation of Michael Gaskell, who says that “Paul’s opponents would have seen no tension between Hab 2:4 and Lev 18:5, or between ‘faith’ and ‘doing’” (Review of Law and Life: The Interpretation of Leviticus 18:5 in Early Judaism and in Paul, by Preston Sprinkle, WTJ 71 [2009]: 501).

[23] Stephen Westerholm says that “what he [Paul] perceives as his opponents’ error is their clinging to this path which, though indeed announced by Moses, has proven unable to lead to righteousness … a path which, moreover, has now and forever been set aside” (“Law, Grace, and the ‘Soteriology’ of Judaism,” in Law in Religious Communities in the Roman Period, ed. Richardson Peter and Stephen Westerholm [Waterloo, ON: Wilfrid Laurier University Press, 1991], 69, italics mine). Martyn agrees: “Whereas Habakkuk 2:4 says that faith leads to life, Leviticus 18:5 says that the route to life lies in observance of the law” (“Paul’s Understanding of the Textual Contradiction between Habakkuk 2:4 and Leviticus 18:5,” 465). Moo also appears to reveal this understanding when he says, “The only means to attaining righteousness apart from Christ is through perfect obedience to God’s law” (“The Law of Christ as the Fulfillment of the Law of Moses,” 341). Rosner says, “For Paul, the essence of the law as law-covenant or legal code is its call for something to be done in order to find life, and this path has failed, due to universal sinfulness of humanity, and instead the law has led to death” (Paul and the Law, 72, italics mine).

[24] Kaiser, “Leviticus 18:5 and Paul,” 28.

[25] For Moo it appears to be a kind of teaching device. He says that the pious Israelite would have understood, “as God intended,” the impossibility of achieving holiness by works and would have fled in faith to the mercy of God (“The Law of Christ as the Fulfillment of the Law of Moses,” 327).

[26] For this view, see Schreiner, 40 Questions About Christians and Biblical Law (Grand Rapids: Kregel, 2010), 62–63, as well as Meyer, The End of the Law, 155–57. For Schreiner there is an antithesis between Romans 10:5 and 10:6. Here is the reason: Since animal sacrifices are not efficacious anymore after the coming of Christ, perfect obedience to the law is necessary to obtain eternal life, and thus Leviticus 18:5 opposes salvation by faith (Rom 10:6). This view presents at least three weaknesses. First, it is quite sophisticated and lacks clear scriptural support. Second, it seems to imply that salvation by the law was possible at some point in history. Third, it seems to fail to take into account original sin. Obedience could never atone for it, however perfect it might be.

[27] Kaiser, “Leviticus 18:5 and Paul,” 27.

[28] Other verses talking about the personal righteousness of the law are 1 Kings 8:32; 2 Chronicles 6:23; Psalm 18:20–24; Isaiah 57:12; Ezekiel 14:14; 18:9; Matthew 6:1; and perhaps Luke 1:6.

[29] This observation might help to answer a major objection to the noncontradictory interpretation: The righteousness of the law and the righteousness of faith are contrasted in Philippians 3:6–9. This objection is not a real challenge to the view presented here because there are strong reasons to think that in Philippians 3:6–9 Paul contrasts the righteousness of faith with the nonsalvific, personal, righteousness of the law. This is supported by the emphasis on “my” in Galatians 3:9. Both the word order and the choice of the possessive adjective ἐμήν rather than the simple possessive pronoun μου put the emphasis on “my.” As shown hereafter, it appears that the personal righteousness of the law is not in view in Romans 10:5. It is likely that in Romans 10:5 (and thus in Leviticus 18:5) Paul sees the passive/alien righteousness of the law—the same found in Deuteronomy 30:12–14 and Habakkuk 2:4—that God credits to those who have faith in him.

[30] To be sure, this observation depends on the NA28 text, which places the comma after δῆλον. Αndrew H. Wakefield remarks that it is more likely that the comma precedes δῆλον, giving an altogether different meaning to Galatians 3:11: “Because no one is justified before God by the law, it is clear that ‘The righteous will live by faith’” (Where to Live: The Hermeneutical Significance of Paul’s Citations from Scripture in Galatians 3:1–14, AcBib 14 [Atlanta: SBL, 2003], 162–67, 207–14). In my opinion, it is more likely that Paul proves the assertion that no one is justified by the law in the sight of God (Gal 3:11a) with Habakkuk 2:4 (Gal 3:11b) than that such assertion was already agreed upon by Paul and his opponents (Wakefield’s view).

[31] In addition, if an alternate path existed, Paul’s opponents could have appealed to it to reject his argument before the unsettled Galatians.

[32] The race/contest imagery that Paul starts in Romans 9:30, as well as the objections raised above seem to demand the sense “goal” rather than “end” for τέλος.

[33] The connective use of δέ is common in the New Testament. James D. G. Dunn cites Campbell, Cranfield, Badenas, and Bandstra as supporting a connective use of δέ in Romans 10:6 (Romans 9–16, WBC 38B [Waco, TX: Word, 1982], 602).

[34] An interesting question is whether God is promising eschatological life or simply life in the land; in other words, whether this saying is soteriological or not. James D. G. Dunn has championed the nonsoteriological view and has maintained that Leviticus 18:5 was understood nonsoteriologically by early Judaism (The Theology of Paul the Apostle [Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1998], 154). For Simon Gathercole, the verse is nonsoteriological in its original context, but Judaism wrongly understood it soteriologically. Gathercole produces better evidences than Dunn and proves that by and large (with the exception of Philo), this verse was understood soteriologically in early Judaism (“Torah, Life, and Salvation: Leviticus 18:5 in Early Judaism and the New Testament,” in From Prophecy to Testament: The Function of the Old Testament in the New, ed. Craig A. Evans (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, 2004), 126–45. Although an interesting question, knowing whether God promised “life in the land” or “salvation” in Leviticus 18:5 does not affect the thesis of this paper; either way, the call to faith is present.

[35] A good example is Westerholm, who comments on Galatians 3:12 that “the basic principle of law is that it requires deeds, it ‘does not rest on faith’” (Perspectives Old and New, 305–6).

[36] Kruger agrees and adds that “doing the law must be seen in close relation to Paul’s use of the noun ἔργον for faith (Rom 2:7, 15; Phil 1:6, 22; 2:30; 1 Thess 1:3; 2 Thess 1:11)” (“Law and Promise in Galatians,” 323).

[37] Moo, The Letter to the Romans, rev. ed., NICNT (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2018), 671–75.

[38] This faith, as hinted above, finds its expression by general observance of God’s commandments.

[39] Fuller, Gospel and Law, 86.

[40] Some Jews were simply in a state of unbelief. Jesus reproached the religious Jews of not believing the writings of Moses (John 5:46–47). “Unbelief” is Paul’s very evaluation of himself before conversion: He says in 1 Timothy 1:13 that he acted in unbelief (ἀπιστίᾳ). See also Romans 3:3.

[41] See for example Wagner, Heralds of the Good News, 160–61; Toews, “The Law in Paul’s Letter to the Romans,” 254; Fuller, Gospel and Law, 98–99; Hays, Echoes of Scripture in the Letters of Paul, 208 n. 87. A notable exception is Kruger, “Law and Promise in Galatians,” 311–27.

[42] As shown above, this is neither the way this text was understood by the Jews of Paul’s time, nor what God asked in Leviticus 18:5.

[43] The dissertation of James W. Carlson illustrates this phenomenon. He states, “It is imperative to see that the impossibility premise of Gal 3.10 extends to 3.12” (“The Curse of the Law and its Promise of Life” [PhD diss., Fuller Theological Seminary, 2011], 248).

[44] The conjunction δέ in the opening of verse 12 indicates a new development (Steven E. Runge, Discourse Grammar of the Greek New Testament [Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, 2010], 28–36).

[45] Speaking about Galatians 3:12, Thomas R. Schreiner, says, “This is one of the most difficult verses to interpret in the entire Pauline corpus” (Galatians, ZECNT [Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2010], 210).

[46] See, Rosner, Paul and the Law, 67.

[47] In its original context it is a promise of life based on faith. A faith that, as mentioned above, finds its expression in the “doing” of God’s commandments rather than the practices of the Canaanites.

[48] Although challenging the common understanding of Galatians 3:10–12, Ben C. Dunson presents this problem in “‘The Law Evidently Is Not Contrary to Faith’: Galatians and the Republication of the Covenant of Works,” WTJ 79 [2017]: 249–51. He views the Leviticus 18:5 quotation as “support[ing]” the claim ὁ νόμος οὐκ ἔστιν ἐκ πίστεως. The quotation, however, follows the adversative conjunction ἀλλά, not a causal conjunction. Another problem is that, for Dunson, although the Mosaic covenant does not teach that perfect obedience would lead to justification, Paul would have used Leviticus 18:5 to give this impression to the Galatians. But, if the Mosaic covenant does not teach that perfect obedience leads to justification, it remains to be shown why the Galatians would have understood this from the Leviticus 18:5 quotation.

[49] One problem comes from the meaning of the preposition ἐκ. For Meyer, The End of the Law, 160, it appears to mean “based on.” He translates, “The law is not based on faith.” Westerholm translates like the NRSV, “The law does not rest on faith” (Perspectives Old and New, 305, 326, italics mine). Because none of the six senses of ἐκ listed in BDAG validates these renderings, it seems best not to opt for such presuppositionally driven renderings. In fact, as shown below, the normal glosses “of” or “from” make sense in Paul’s argument.

[50] Willitts, “Paul’s Use of Leviticus 18:5 in Galatians 3:12,” 118.

[51] This name is given because of the arrows that form the Greek letter Χ (chi). The same construction and reversal of substantives is found in Ignatius (Magn. 10.3) and in Philo’s writings (Opif. 133; Leg. 1.2; Sacr. 19; Somn. 2.116). This author was not able to survey much extra-biblical literature but supposes that other alla-chi constructions exist.

[52] So Willitts, “Paul’s Use of Leviticus 18:5 in Galatians 3:12,” 118, who says that the Leviticus 18:5 quotation indicates “from where the law derives.” (italic his). Christopher Zoccali understands the phrase “is from” (ἔστιν ἐκ) as presenting the whole from which the following is a part. He proposes that the Law is not part of “faith,” but the contrary (ἀλλά) is true: “Faith is part of the law” (“What’s the Problem with the Law?: Jews, Gentiles, and Covenant Identity in Galatians 3:10–12,” Neot 49 [2015]: 377–415, italics mine).

[53] Hays, commenting on Leviticus 18:5, rightly remarks, “There is a sad irony here. Paul agonized over the fact that his Jewish contemporaries failed to understand that Israel’s law pointed to the righteousness of faith; now, Christians make the same tragic error when they fail to acknowledge that the law and the prophets bear witness to the righteousness of God and when they think that Torah and Christ are antithetical. It is the same hermeneutical mistake, viewed from the two different sides of the schism that it created” (Echoes of Scripture in the Letters of Paul, 77).

Etienne Jodar

Etienne Jodar is a PhD student in New Testament interpretation at Bob Jones University Seminary in Greenville, South Carolina.

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