In our previous post, we examined the sundry texts from which Paul quotes in his great catena of quotations in Rom 3.10-18. But the thought unit is not yet complete; Paul makes his assessment of the implications in 3.19-20. This followup makes Paul’s intent clearer, although it is frequently misread (verse 19, in particular; I think this is likely also the case with verse 20, but my understanding of the verse is still being formed).
Gentiles Under the Law?
Verse 19 offers this perspective on the catena: “Now we know that whatever the law says, to those in the law it speaks, so that every mouth may be closed and all the world may become guilty/liable to God.”
Some misread this statement to mean that Paul thinks that “all the world” is “in the law.” This, however, is not possible. In 2.12, Paul contrasts those who sin “in the law” (identical terminology to 3.19) to those who sin anomos (“apart from the law;” on the analogy of “in the law,” the understanding is “outside the law”). The clear assumption on Paul’s part is that Torah is for Israel, not for Gentiles, who are outside the law’s polity.
When approaching 3.19, it must be recalled that Paul’s imaginary interlocutor is a Jew. The assumption common to Paul and his ostensible argument partner is that Gentiles on the whole are subject to judgment; he does not need the catena in order to demonstrate that. Rather, Paul’s concern has been to show (mostly from the Psalms) that there is no “king’s X” exempting Israel from judgment.
Liability to Judgment
This is crucial to Paul’s argument, because as we have seen, he has already demonstrated in 3.1-8 that Israel as a whole is guilty; but it has been his aim to show that this guilt is not simply to be overlooked. This is why the passages from which he quotes are so consonant with the sort of guilt he has established in the preceding passage: his kinsmen have sinned against God Himself by disbelieving His promises, rejecting His Messiah, and indeed, becoming guilty of His blood. And as it happens, the Psalms from which Paul quotes are all Davidic, and the wicked are defined over against him, just as the righteous are defined in relation to him. Thus we can infer a sort of “how much more” argument: If the wicked were those who opposed David – himself a sinner – and they were held responsible and judged on that account, how much more is it the case with those who oppose the Son of David, the promised Messiah Himself: they are liable for their guilt. (Actually, the “how much more” goes further, as we’ll see in considering v 20a.)
“Liable” is thus likely the sense of hupodikos here, although not a lot rests on that, as Paul’s point involves the guilt involved in the liability. While this is the only appearance in the Bible, BADG identifies liability or answerability as the normal meaning of the term, based on comparisons to Philo and Josephus – despite the fact that English translations of Romans 3.19 often render it “guilty.”
Paul’s Use of Psalm 143: Covenant Lawsuit
This brings us to verse 20, which at first glance appears to put things back into the framework of general lawbreaking: “Because from works of Torah no flesh shall be justified before Him, for through Torah is the knowledge of Sin.”
The first part of verse 20 is a modified allusion to Psalm 143.2 (142.2 LXX). Paul’s text reads, “from works of Torah no flesh shall be justified before Him.” In the LXX, the verse as a whole reads, “And do not enter into judgment with Your servant, because no one living shall be justified before You.” (The LXX sticks very close to the Hebrew in this case.) The latter part of this allusion is nearly identical, except that Paul has substituted “no one living” with “no flesh.” This fits, not only with Paul’s widespread use of flesh in Romans, but also with the connection he makes between flesh and death. Without contradicting the original intention of Psalm 143, Paul wants to say that in a real sense those who are in the flesh are not really living.
As for the rest of Paul’s statement, he has substituted the idea of Yahweh entering into judgment with humans with his own theme phrase “works of Torah.” (One question this raises is whether he is simply bringing Ps 143.2b into the context of his own discussion of works of Torah, or whether in fact works of Torah is in some sense intended to be epexegetical of Yahweh’s entering into judgment with men. We’ll leave this to one side, although it’s fascinating and bears further investigation.) Men will not be justified from works of Torah before Yahweh.
More on that in a moment, but first let’s backtrack.
Psalm 143, as it turns out, is yet another text which mentions (wait for it) the divine righteousness: “Hear my prayer, Yahweh, hearken to my supplications in Your steadfastness; answer in Your righteousness” (Ps 143.1; note also v 11: “For the sake of Your name, Yahweh, preserve me; in Your righteousness bring my soul out of distress”). By my count, that’s now six of eight Old Testament texts referenced in this chapter so far which deal with the righteousness of God in the context. Still think that Paul’s usage of the phrase is independent?
Amazingly enough, given how God’s righteousness is frequently spoken of, the pleas of Psalm 143.1 and 2 contrast two scenarios: one in which Yahweh answers according to His righteousness, and one in which He enters into judgment with His servant. And yet, in association with this latter case, David says that before Yahweh no one living is righteous.
What we find, then, is that the tendency to associate divine judgment with a perfect standard is not utterly wrong. David himself confesses that if Yahweh enters into judgment with anyone, that person is ruined, for before Yahweh, no one living is righteous.
But how can we fit these two sides of the story together?
Let’s start by recognizing what is widely overlooked regarding the nature of judgment in biblical terms. Note what “entering into judgment” entails. It does not simply mean that God is sitting as an impartial judge. To “enter into judgment” with someone means to take opposing sides in a case: prosecutor and accused.
Thus it is not at all inconsistent of David to appeal to Yahweh, “Judge me according to Your righteousness” – or even, “judge me according to my righteousness” (Ps 7.8) when he is seeking aid over against his enemies and his afflictions. Because David knows that Yahweh has covenanted Himself to His people, and He judges in their favour.
But it is an utterly different story if God makes a covenant lawsuit against His own people; then there is no longer a mediary to whom to appeal (cf 1 Sam 2.25). All disputes involve at least one unrighteous party; in any dispute between Yahweh and men, it is certain that no man living can possibly be righteous. (For a biblical instance of a “covenant lawsuit” between Yahweh and His people, see e.g. Micah 6.1-5.)
For whatever reason, then, Paul places “from works of Torah” in place of “entering into judgment.” Whatever that reason is, one thing is clear: the scenario which he is addressing has man in contention – legal dispute – with God Himself. And Paul says that if Yahweh has entered into dispute with men, being an observant Jew isn’t going to cut it.
This again comports well with our reading 3.1-8: Israel has quite literally entered into judgment with Yahweh by prosecuting the Messiah, who in fact is Himself Yahweh. Again, no amount of devotion to works of Torah is going to save them in such a contention.
The second part of 3.20, intended in some way to ground the statement of 3.20a (“for”), sounds somewhat like chapter 7, where Paul says that the law became an occasion of sin for the flesh – like the commandment itself became a temptation (“rules are made to be broken”).
The frequent understanding of the statement in 20b is that the law identifies sins – yet, even given the factors of chapter 7, it’s hard to think that understanding the argument in that fashion does not produce a non sequitur.
But there is a further problem: Paul does not say that through the law is the knowledge of sins (plural), but sin (singular). This is why I have capitalized Sin in my translation above. As we progress through Romans, we find that Sin is not simply an abstraction of individual misdeeds (although it certainly is reflected in such misdeeds); it is a power which rules over all men in Adam (e.g. 5.12), a power broken only by union with Christ who conquered it in His death (6.6ff).
“Knowledge” here probably doesn’t simply refer to an intellectual apprehension of something; Paul seems to be using the term in the more full-orbed biblical sense that entails experiencing something from the inside out. The fullest experience of Sin, the power, is discovered within the context of Torah. This is true, in part, because it specifies commandments and prohibitions, just as the tree was specifically prohibited to Adam. Thus one’s experience under the law involves awareness that is not the case outside of it.
However, there still seems to be more involved than that. Paul writes, not merely that Torah identifies sins, as we’ve mentioned; he says that “the law came in to increase the trespass, but where Sin increased, grace abounded all the more” (5.20). Sin comes to be “accounted” in the context of Torah (5.13), to the effect that Torah brings wrath, while where there is no Torah there is no transgression (4.15).
Verse 3.20b is likely a summary statement of what Paul says later, then. The statements of chapter 7 are certainly related to this, but if anything, this verse is closer to the more foundational thoughts in chapter 5, particularly 5.20: the law entered in order to increase the trespass.
Whatever else we may say regarding 3.20b (and 5.20 etc), one thing should be clear. Being under Torah – indeed, being devoted to Torah’s works – is not itself the deliverance of Israel. Rather, in some way Torah has provoked Israel’s rebellion to the degree that she has disbelieved and entered into judgment against her Messiah and her God – all in the name of the law itself. This reveals the extent of Israel’s trouble. She is under Sin, and under judgment; she has entered into a court dispute with Yahweh Himself, where no flesh will be justified.