July 19, 2015

He Has Abolished the Law: Ephesians 2.13-18

The author of this epistle1 makes the startling claim that Christ "has abolished the law" (Eph 2.15). Taken out of context it seems quite shocking, and not at all like anything we find in the gospels.2 To understand it, we need to read it in context:
For he is our peace; in his flesh he has made both groups into one and has broken down the dividing wall, that is, the hostility between us. He has abolished the law with its commandments and ordinances, that he might create in himself one new humanity in place of the two, thus making peace, and might reconcile both groups to God in one body through the cross, thus putting to death that hostility through it. (Eph 2.14-16).
By "the law" is not meant the entire Torah. "Do not kill," for example, is still in force. What is meant are specifically those laws that differentiated Jews from non-Jews: circumcision,3 dietary laws, and probably Sabbath observance. These served as markers of Jewish identity, which we might consider a positive thing, but the author here seems convinced that they were a "dividing wall" that contributed to "hostility" between the two groups.

But never mind! With the death of Christ, the two have been made "one new humanity in place of the two"! Here the author is very much in agreement with Paul.

The British scholar N. T. Wright notes that, for Paul, Jesus is the fulfillment of the covenant God made with Abraham, a covenant "whose purpose was from the beginning the saving call of a worldwide family through whom God’s saving purposes for the world were to be realized."4

God had promised Abraham, "I will make of you a great nation," and that "in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed" (Gen 12.2-3). The coming of Christ is the means by which this blessing is extended to "all the families of the earth." (This is what Paul is getting at in Galatians 3.)

The law, writes Paul, "was added because of transgressions, until the offspring would come to whom the promise had been made" (Gal 3.19). The law, Paul writes, "was our disciplinarian until Christ came, so that we might be justified by faith. But now that faith has come, we are no longer subject to a disciplinarian, for in Christ Jesus you are all children of God through faith" (Gal 3.24-26). 

And then, in the climax to Galatians 3, Paul writes,
There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus. And if you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham’s offspring, heirs according to the promise. (Gal 3.28-29)
The wall of separation, i.e. those laws that separated Jew from Gentile, has come down. This is what the author of Ephesians means when he writes that Christ "has abolished the law."

Of course, while this may have made sense to Paul and those who soon followed in his wake, history since that time has told a very different story. Far from creating one group out of two, the coming of Christ has simply added another group. Far from subtracting a dividing line between peoples, it has added yet another.

If this was God's plan, to break down the "dividing wall," and end "the hostility between us," we must admit that this plan has failed, and failed miserably.

Unlike a lot of Christians on the progressive end of the spectrum, I quite like Paul and find much of value in his writings. But his interpretation of Jesus's role in God's plan for the world has been falsified by history.

[1] Although this letter identifies its author as "Paul" (Eph 1.1, 3.1) most scholars are convinced that it was written by someone else. Raymond Brown estimated between 70 and 80 percent of scholars denied Pauline authorship, and he included himself in this number (Introduction to the New Testament, 628-630). I'm inclined to agree with this, which is why I don't refer to the author of this letter as "Paul." But it was clearly written by someone who understood Paul very well, even if he differed from Paul in some respects.

[2] Cf. Matthew 5.17: "Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets; I have come not to abolish but to fulfill." Actually, this verse is probably not from Jesus himself. As John P. Meier points out, "this apparently clear statement of principle is probably, at least in its present form, a creation of Matthew or his church. Matthew’s redactional hand is clearly visible in both the wording and the placement of 5:17" (A Marginal Jew, 4.41). Ulrich Luz affirms that "It is risky to attribute this saying to Jesus and to make it the central point for interpreting Jesus' understanding of the law" (Matthew [Hermeneia], 1.211).

The contradiction between Ephesians 2.15 and Matthew 5.17 is less blatant in the original Greek, as two different verbs are used (katargeō in Ephesians, katalyō in Matthew), but it is still difficult to reconcile these two verses, and it's certainly difficult to imagine Jesus agreeing that he had "abolished the law," even in the restricted sense intended by the author of Ephesians.

[3] That the author has circumcision in view is evident from Ephesians 2.11, where he notes that Gentiles were called "the uncircumcision" by Jews, who called themselves "the circumcision." He notes that this circumcision was "made in the flesh by human hands," perhaps suggesting that this was merely a human custom.

[4] Wright, Justification, 12. It should be noted that Wright's interpretation of Paul is quite controversial, at least among Protestants who think (with some justification) that he has undermined the traditional Protestant understanding of "justification by faith." Actually, I think Wright gets Paul exactly right. But whereas Wright thinks Paul was right, I think Paul was demonstrably wrong, at least as far as his interpretation of God's plan for the world goes.


  1. OK, trying a new way of signing in :)

    I do find it confusing, all of the seeming contradictions about Jesus and the law - when he did things like healing people on the Sabbath, or allowing the disciples to eat grain in the fields on the Sabbath, or stopping the stoning of the adulterous woman, etc., were those ways of saying he was abolishing the law?

    I agree that Jesus hasn't broken down the dividing walls between believers. The spiritual director I used to have might say 'God doesn't always get what God wants' but that idea doesn't seem to be very biblical.

  2. Re: "healing people on the Sabbath": John P. Meier, in volume 4 of A Marginal Jew, surveys all of the relevant Jewish literature of the period and concludes that "the one offense of which Jesus is directly accused in the sabbath dispute stories—namely, healing the sick—is never mentioned as a breach of sabbath law in any Jewish source written from the 2d century B.C. to the end of the 1st century A.D." (248).

    The story about the disciples plucking grains on the Sabbath is a different story (actually, I'm writing something about that story right now...but I don't know how long it will take me to finish it).

    Actually, I doubt anyone accused Jesus of "abolishing" the law during his lifetime. I think that was Paul's idea, which he understood as necessary to bring Gentiles into the church. There was obviously some controversy over this, as other Jewish Christians, probably ones more closely connected to the leaders of the church in Jerusalem, clearly believed that the entire law was still in force. These are the opponents Paul speaks of in Galatians, who were trying to get the Gentile Christians there to submit to circumcision, and other things like that.

    As for the idea that "God doesn't always get what God wants": the Biblical texts do not speak with one voice on this. There are some that suggest that God is in control of everything:

    "See now that I, even I, am he; there is no god besides me. I kill and I make alive; I wound and I heal; and no one can deliver from my hand" (Deut 32.39).

    "The LORD kills and brings to life; he brings down to Sheol and raises up. The LORD makes poor and makes rich; he brings low, he also exalts" (1 Sam 2.6-7).

    Later texts moved away from this, as God became "ethicalized," as Walter Wink put it, and the idea of Satan came into being, first as a member of the heavenly court, and later as an actual enemy of God.

    But as far as this reading in Ephesians goes, I would say that that just wasn't God's plan. The idea that everyone would stop being what they were and accept Paul's message about Jesus was a fantasy.

  3. What a pleasure that you've started blogging again! I've gotten much inspiration from this blog and the previous.

    1. Thanks, Rikard. I've been on holiday the past few weeks, but should be posting again soon.