Ardel Caneday makes an illuminating contribution to Pauline studies in his contribution to The Faith of Jesus Christ. Caneday rightly insists that the contested phrase pistis Christou, “faith of Christ,” cannot be interpreted in isolation.
Translators and exegetes who choose to take the phrase as a subjective genitive (e.g., “Christ’s faithfulness”) have to reckon with the consequences of this decision for understanding the rest of Paul’s work. One’s understanding of pistis Christou, for instance, inevitably affects the way the companion phrase ta erga tou nomou (“the works of the law”) is understood. Caneday’s article focuses on Paul’s use of the phrase in Galatians, and fastens on several issues.
All these issues arise in the knotty statement on justification in Galatians 2:15-16. Caneday notes that this is a “thesis” statement that is unpacked in the remainder of the letter. Thee first issue, often ignored by commentators, is the word order, and specifically the phrase ex ergon nomou. That is normally taken in conjunction with the verb: “A man is not justified by the works of law.” But in the Greek text, the phrase comes after the noun anthropos, thus yielding the phrase “a man from the works of the law.” Paul is thus not negating a way of justification, but describing a certain kind of person, one who takes his origin from the works of the law. In short, a Jew – in contrast to a “sinner out of the Gentiles” (v. 15).
That interpretation depends on Caneday’s argument that the preposition ek refers to source of origin, especially the origin of religious identity or the source of one’s “spiritual lineage.” Paul poses two choices: Some are “of the works of the law,” taking their origin and thus orientation from Moses and Torah. Some are “of faith” or “of the faith of Christ,” thus tracing their spiritual lineage back to Christ’s faithful obedience and passion. Paul lines Abraham up with the second lineage. Christ’s faithfulness thus marks a caesura in history, as the human race takes a new origin from His faithfulness. To become again one “of the works of Torah” after conversion means a reversion to an old lineage, and one that is cursed (Galatians 3).
The other key in Caneday’s reading of Galatians 2:16 is his understanding of the conjunction ean me. It is usually taken as an adversative (“a man is not justified by the works of the law but rather by the pistis Christou”), but it can have “exceptive force” (194). If we put “out of the works of Torah” with “man,” we have this: “knowing that a human from the deeds required by the Law is not justified except through the pistis Christou.” That is, even Jews who have the law and are under law are still justified by Christ’s faithfulness and not by the law or by their obedience to it.
This is illuminating to the extent that is re-arranges some of the furniture of Galatians 2. I’d suggest a couple of additional possibilities, some for and some against Caneday. First, let’s take “out of the works of the law” with “justify,” as in most translations. Then, let’s take “works of the law” as itself a subjective genitive (“the works Torah does”). Then, recognize that Paul sometimes uses “justify” to refer to an act of deliverance, for instance, from sin (Romans 6:7).
That would yield this reading: “Knowing that a man is not delivered-by-judgment from what the law does (that is, condemn and kill) except by the faith of Jesus Christ.” It would be possible to take Caneday’s view of the relation of “man” and “from works of the law” to get this: “knowing that a man whose spiritual lineage is from what the law has done cannot be delivered-by-judgment except by the faith of Christ.”
In either case, the works of the law describes what Israel needs to be delivered from, since what the law works is curse. The law that imposes the curse cannot deliver from curse and give life. Only the Faith can do that.