A Study of Nomos (Law) in Galatians 3:11

Semantic range in general (ca. 700 BC – 200 AD)

A. Bauer, Arndt, Gingrich and Danker

1. Law

2. "A rule governing one’s actions," that is, a "principle, norm"

3. An individual stipulation of a law

4. The law received by Moses

5. Jewish religion

6. "A collection of holy writings precious to the Jews."

a. The Pentateuch

b. The OT in general

7. Christianity

B. Liddel and Scott

1. Law of God

2. Law

3. Statue or ordinance made by authority

4. Custom (with kata)

5. Melody, strain (esp. a type of early melody created by Terpander for the lyre as an accompaniment to Epic texts)

6. In architecture, a course of masonry

7. Can be personified

A sample of non-Christian Gentile literary usage

  1. Aristotle (born ca. 384 BC), Constitution of the Athenians 7.1
  2. Nomos is used to refer to a standard, in this case established by humans, that demands conformity and can be transgressed—which results in punishment: "And he established a constitution and made other laws (nomous), and they ceased to observe the ordinances of Draco, except those relating to homicide. They wrote up the laws (nomous) on the Boards and set them in the Royal Colonnade, and all swore to observe them; and the Nine Archons used to make affirmation on oath at the Stone that if they transgressed any one of the laws (nomon) they would dedicate a gold statue of a man; owing to which they are even now still sworn in with this oath."

  3. Plato (born 428 BC), Theaetetus 173c-d
  4. Nomos is a legal term, referring to the requirements set down by the government: "The leaders, in the first place, from their youth up, remain ignorant of the way to the agora, do not even know where the court-room is, or the senate-house, or any other public place of assembly; as for laws (nomous) and decrees, they neither hear the debates upon them nor see them when they are published…"

  5. Demosthene (born 384 BC), On the Crown 18:12
  6. Nomos is a legal entity that can assign punishment: "The crimes he has laid to my charge are many, and to some of them the law has assigned severe and even capital punishment" (ta men oun katêgorêmena polla, kai peri hôn eniôn megalas kai tas eschatas hoi nomoi didoasi timôrias).

  7. Polybius (born ca. 200 BC), Histories

Nomos is used to describe a legal obligation: "and, therefore, availing themselves now gladly of the arrival of the Macedonians, they came in arms and not only those who were legally obliged to serve (ou monon osois o nomos epetatte strateuein), but even some of the elder men."

Jewish literary usage

A. Philo (born ca. 20 BC)

1. The Posterity and Exile of Cain 94.2

In the context, nomos is a reference to the Law God had given to the Jews. He speaks of this law as a standard that requires good and whose demands are binding: "The Law (nomos) is so far from allowing what is evil to be substituted for what is good, that it does not even allow that which is beautiful to take the place of what is troublesome."

2. On the Creation 143

Nomos appears twice in this passage. The first time it speaks of that which is "well ordered." The second time it refers to a "divine law" which constitutes nature’s "right relation." The idea of harmony and orderliness is common to both, and the second occurrence adds the concept of constancy and stability. "Now since every well-ordered State has a constitution (epei de pasa polis eunomos exei politeian), the citizen of the world enjoyed of necessity the same constitution as did the whole world: and this constitution is nature’s right relation, more properly called an ‘ordinance,’ or ‘dispensation,’ seeing it is a divine law (nomos theios)."

B. Josephus (born AD 37)

Josephus sometimes uses nomos to mean law in general (Antiquities 1:18). More frequently he seems to use it of the Jewish Scriptures in whole or in part (1:10,12), but predominantly for Josephus nomos is a reference to the body of laws given to Moses (3:205; 4:209ff; 4:223).

What is most helpful for our purposes, however, are the properties that he ascribes to this legislation given through Moses. He conceives of these laws as standards defining what is right and what is wrong (4:209-211) which, therefore, should be used to govern our actions (4:223, "be content with this, having the laws [tous nomous] for your masters and governing all your actions by them"). If we fail to accord with the commands of the Law, we have transgressed and are forewarned by the law that punishment is at the door (4:225, 209-211, "standing upon a raised platform from which he may be heard, [the high priest should] recite the laws (tous nomous) to the whole assembly…For it is good that these laws should be so graven on their hearts and stored in the memory that they can never be effaced. Thus they will be kept from sin, being unable to plead ignorance of what the laws (tois nomois) enact; while the laws (te nomoi) will speak with great authority to sinners, in that they forewarn them what they will have to suffer and will have so graven on their hearts through the hearing that which they command, that they will for ever carry within their breats the principles of the code: which if they disdain they are guilty, and will have brought their penalty upon themselves"). The Law of God, however, is not simply a cause of guilt and punishment for the disobedient; it is also a "source of felicity" if followed (4:211) and in "possession of superior wisdom" (4:224).

C. The Septuagint

1. Particular ordinance or set of ordinances of the Mosaic Law pertaining to a specific issue, such as the "law of the Passover," o nomos tou pasxa in Exodus 12:43 (See also Ex 12:49; Lev 6:18; 7:1, 37).

2. Moral will of God in general—probably as it is manifestation in the Law of Moses (Ps 18:8; 118:72, 77, 85, 92, 142, 174). It is praised as being wise, perfect, and a source of joy and guidance.

3. The manner of men (2 Sam 7:19).

4. Specific decree of one in authority (Esther 1:20)

5. Body of divine commands (Ezra 10:3; Is 51:4, 7; Jer 8:8; Ez 7:26; Lam 2:9).

6. Law of Moses (Hab 1:4; Deut 31:9, 12), which contains commandments to be done (Deut 29:28; 30:10; 32:46).

7.The commands of Moses in their written form are referred to as the "book of the law (nomon)" (Deut 28:58; 28:61; 29:20; 29:26; Josh 1:8; Neh 8:3, 8); specific parts can be referred to as "words of this law (nomon)" (Deut 27:3; 27:26).

Non-canonical Christian literary usage

  1. Lampe, A Patristic Greek Lexicon

  1. Law
  2. Established principle, custom
  3. Human or secular law in contrast to Christianity
  4. Rule or standard of any kind
  5. Divine Law

    1. Moral law
    2. Divisions of the OT law (i.e., moral, ceremonial, civil)
    3. Natural law
    4. The laws of nature
    5. The command given to Adam
    6. Law of Moses, Pentateuch, Decalogue, OT, all Jewish latreia

Non Literary Usage (after ca. 299 BC)

  1. Moulton & Milligan

    1. Particular ordinance
    2. Book of law ("en nomou gegraptai" used often in legal phraseology)
    3. Quasi-personified law

New Testament usage

  1. James
  2. It is clear that James uses "nomos" to refer to the moral will of God. It is not always clear whether he has in mind the manifestation of this will through Moses or something else. But what is significant for our purposes are the properties he attributes to the moral will of God or "nomos."

    "Nomos" is something which must be kept and not judged (4:11), indicating that it is a standard in authority over us. This standard contains specific commands such as "do not kill" (2:11), indicating that it is a moral standard. Thus, it is an authoritative standard defining what is right and what is wrong. This standard, furthermore, functions as a judge over us because all of its commands must be kept (2:10) and failure to do so by breaking it results in being convicted, or judged, by it as a transgressor (2:9). Thus, it seems not only that right behavior is defined as conformity to the law and wrong behavior as disharmony with the law, but that our conformity (or lack thereof) to the law has legal, judgmental consequences.

  3. Other non-Pauline writings

  1. OT in general (John 10:34; 15:25; Mt 12:5?)
  2. The Pentateuch (Mt 11:13; Lk 16:16; Lk 24:44; Jn 12:34; Acts 13:15; 28:23), though the commanding portions seem to be at the forefront, making it hard to make a clear distinction between this category and the next.
  3. The Mosaic legislation with its moral commands and obligation to be kept at the forefront (Mt 7:12; 22:40; Lk 2:22, 39; 8:5; Jn 1:17; 7:19, 23; Acts 7:53; 13:38). As the standard of right and wrong (Mt 7:12, etc.) it condemns behavior that violates its sanctions (Jn 7:51; 18:31; 19:7; Heb 10:28).
  4. The Mosaic legislation with its covenant nature in the forefront (Heb 7:12, 19, 28; 10:1, 28), containing specific precepts (Heb 9:19).
  5. The moral will of God, perhaps manifest in a way other than through the Mosaic covenant (Hebrews 8:10; 10:16).

  1. Pauline Epistles in general
  2. Paul’s use of "nomos" is perhaps even more varied than that in the rest of the NT. On occasion he uses it to mean "principle" (Ro 7:23; 3:27?; 8:2?). Sometimes it means the whole OT (1 Cor 14:21) and sometimes the Pentateuch (1 Cor 9:8?; Gal 4:21; Ro 3:18ff?). In the far majority of cases, however, "nomos" refers to the body of commands given through Moses (Ro 2:12ff; 3:19; 5:20; 7:7; Gal 3:17ff; 1 Cor 9:8; 14:34). Even in the instances where it appears that Paul has the Pentateuch as a whole in view, it is seems that this is the predominant emphasis such that it is unclear whether or not he might simply have in mind the Mosaic legislation contained in the Pentateuch.

    Most interesting, as with James, are the properties that Paul ascribes to the Mosaic Law. He views it as an authoritative standard because it is something that people can be "under" (Ro 3:19) and something which demands subjection (Ro 8:7), ought to be followed (Ro 2:13ff; 2:23), but can be broken (Romans 2:27). Law is synonymous with command in Ro 7:12, indicating that the Law is a moral demand. The central demand of the law, in which all the others are fulfilled, is love (Gal 5:14; Ro 13:8ff).

    This indicates that the law is not simply a standard for us to follow, but is a moral standard defining what is right and wrong. For to break the law is to sin (Ro 2:23, 25) and, indeed, sin is defined by the law (Ro 2:14-15; 4:15; 5:13). But if there is no law against something, then it is right (Gal 5:23). Consequently, that which is right is that which accords with the law; that which is wrong is that which breaks the law.

    From all this it follows that the Law is a standard of judgment (Ro 2:12, 15, 27; 3:19-20) which condemns those who break it (Ro 2:12; 3:19) and works wrath upon them (Ro 4:15). But those who follow the law will have praise from the same (Ro 2:6-13).

  3. Galatians 3:11 in particular

Paul claims in 3:11 that "no one is justified by the Law (nomo) before God." What does he mean by "nomos" here? Does he mean principle, the OT as a whole, the Pentateuch, the Mosaic Law, or something else? It is my contention that he is using "nomos" here to refer to the Mosaic Law, possessing all of the attributes which we have enumerated in the previous section.

This is evident from the parallel usage of "nomos" in Galatians 3:21b. Since 3:21b is basically a restatement of 3:11, it would seem that Paul is using the term in the same way in both texts. Fortunately, 3:21b is very clear on how it is using "nomos": "For if a law (nomos) had been given which was able to impart life, then righteousness would indeed have been based on law (nomou)." It is evident that by "nomos" here Paul must mean the Law of Moses because he is referring to the law that had been "given." In context, it is the Mosaic Law which had "came" (v. 17) and been "added" (v. 19). Further, it is the fact of the coming of the Law after the promise to Abraham and alongside of the promise in such a way that it does not modify or replace that promise (3:17-20) that prompts Paul to raise the question in verse 21a which 21b is answering, "Is the Law then contrary to the promises of God?" He is clearly, then, speaking of the Mosaic Law in this question. His answer to the question in 21b, then, must also be speaking of the Mosaic Law. And it is in answering this question that he states, "For if a law had been given which was able to impart life, righteousness would indeed have been based on law." The law which had been given but was not able to impart life, then, is the Mosaic Law.

Some have claimed that Paul sometimes uses "nomos" to refer to a legalistic perversion of the law created by the Jews. Many claim that this is the meaning of "nomos" in 3:11. If that is a possible meaning in 3:11, it should be evident from what we saw in the previous paragraph that it is not a possible meaning in 3:21. Further, we know that Paul is speaking of the actual Law of Moses here and not as many Jews had misunderstood it in his day because "legalism" (the misunderstanding of the law) could not be said to have been "given" at Sinai. In fact, it would be almost nonsense for Paul to say, "For if a legalism had been given which was able to impart life, then righteousness would indeed have been based on legalism." The only meaning of law, then, that makes sense here is the Law of God given through Moses on Sinai—not the law as it is perverted, but the law as it really is.

As mentioned above, this sheds much light on "nomos" in 3:11 because 3:21b is restating the main thrust of 3:11. For to say that righteousness is not based on law (3:21) is the same thing as to say that "no one is justified by law" (3:11). Therefore, since "nomos" in 3:21b is the Law of Moses, "nomos" in 3:11 is a reference to the Law of Moses as well—not as it has been perverted, but as it truly is. When Paul says, then, that "no one is justified by the Law," he is saying that nobody is justified by the holy, righteous, and good commands given by God through Moses.

That "nomos" in 3:11 is the Law of Moses as it really is (not as it is distorted) is also evident from the immediate verses surrounding 3:11. Towards this end, I will briefly state two preliminary (though not perhaps decisive) arguments. First, "no one is justified by law" in verse 11 seems to be a reiteration of the statement in verse 10 that "as many as are of the works of the Law are under a curse." If all those who are of the works of the law are cursed, then it follows that the law justifies none who are of the works of the law. And so it seems most natural to understand verse 11 as restating of this portion of verse 10.

This would mean that the same law which curses those who are of the works of the law (v. 10) is also the law by which they cannot be justified (v. 11). What law is it that curses in verse 10? Verse 10 is clear that it is the "book of the law"—which can only describe the law given to Moses and not legalism (since legalism is not commanded in any book God would inspire)--since this is the law that has been broken. Christ died to redeem us from this "curse of the law" (3:13). If, then, the law that brings the curse in v. 10 is the Mosaic law, and if the law that curses is the same as the law before which no one will be justified in verse 11, it follows that Paul is speaking of the Mosaic law when he writes in verse 11 that "no one is justified by law." For he is stating in another way the meaning of the fact that all who break the Law of Moses are cursed by the Law of Moses.

Second, the "law" spoken of in verse 11 is surely the same law as that spoken of in verse 12. For any other interpretation would practically ruin Paul’s flow of thought. The law in verse 12, however, is described by a statement that, in the OT, is always said in reference to the Mosaic Law: "However, the Law is not of faith; on the contrary, ‘He who practices them shall live by them.’" Since Paul is most likely to quote the OT in accordance with its original meaning, this would suggest that the "Law" he describes by this quote is the OT Law. There are objections to this which cannot be dealt with at length here, but if this is true it would follow that the "Law" in verse 11 is the Mosaic Law as well.

And so we see that, in 3:11, "nomos" is referring to the body of legislation given to the people of Israel through Moses. As we saw from his statements elsewhere, he views this body of legislation as predominantly consisting of moral commands which define right and wrong and obligate us to obedience. These things, and the fact that this Law is, consequently, a standard of judgment, are born out beautifully by this text. For it speaks of the Law as something to be obeyed (v. 10) and thus as a moral standard in authority over us. It also speaks of this Law as punishing disobedience (vv. 10, 13) and blessing obedience (v. 12), thereby indicating that it is a rule of judgment.


Douglas Moo has written an excellent article called "’Law, ‘Works of the Law,’ and Legalism in Paul." We are largely in accord with one another on nomos, especially concerning whether Paul uses it to refer to "legalism." I did not find any clear instances where the meaning is "legalism," and there are specific reasons to reject this meaning in the central passage under consideration for our purposes (Gal 3:11).

Moo has more comprehensively categorized Paul’s usage of nomos than I have and has brought out the many nuances in greater depth. For one thing, he states a very significant aspect of "nomos" that I have discovered in this study and would like to pursue further when he writes, "Nomos appears to posses the root meaning ‘something laid down, ordered, or assigned’ and hence the system of customs or rules governing equitable and/or just distribution of things in duties."

Scripture quotations are generally from the New American Standard Bible, copyright 1960, 1962, 1963, 1968, 1971, 1972, 1975, 1977, by the Lockman Foundation.


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