Torah as Interpretation and Paul’s Dying to the Torah (Gal 2:19)

Torah as Interpretation and Paul’s Dying to the Torah (Gal 2:19) June 20, 2014

We know the Torah, in this case I mean the book of Moses, was a central element of “Common Judaism” of the late Second Temple Period, the historical period of the New Testament. Jesus’ lifestyle was shaped by it as were the lives of the Apostles and earliest Jewish believers in Jesus. But something that is regularly overlooked or at least underappreciated is that there was no Torah apart from a particular interpretation of Torah. It is impossible to speak of Torah in abstraction, to think of an “uninterpreted book of Moses”. This is demonstrated well in the Jewish literature of the period. When a work like Jubilees states that certain laws were written on heavenly tablets and existed at the creation of the world, and therefore eternal, these very laws to which it refers are in fact interpretations or renditions of the Torah of Moses. Larry Helyer puts it well, “the particular interprtetations of the Torah espoused by the author are also included in the notion of Torah” (Exploring Jewish Literature, 124).

What is the point of this observation? First, we need to be much more aware of the fact that Torah means different things to different Jews/Jewish groups in the first century. So interpretations of the Torah were major points of contention within early Judaism and the cause of the development of various strands of Judaism at the time. Second, and relevant to the New Testament, it would be theoretically possible to say that one Torah was replaced by another. And by that a person would mean, if they looked back over their past after a conversion, that they had exchanged one interpretive authority of Torah for another interpretive authority. A conversion within the bounds of Judaism then consisted of, although not exclusive of, a hermeneutical transformation from one interpretation of Torah to another.

So I ask, is that what Paul may have meant when he said: “through the Torah (of the Messiah), I died to the Torah (of the tradition of the fathers)” (Gal 2:19)?

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