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In Rom.2:14, does φύσει (physis, ‘by nature’) modify backward or forward? Does Paul say, “When Gentiles, who do not have the law by birth, do what the law requires ...” Or does he say, “When Gentiles, who do not have the law, instinctively do what the law requires ...”

Though both readings make sense within Paul’s argument, and though I’d like to hear from a Greek grammatician whether it’s more likely for φύσει to modify the word immediately preceding it or the verb four words later, I suggest the former reading is the better option for two reasons.

  1. As I read the LSJ definition of φύσει, the former meaning, pointing to origin or birth, is better attested. The instinct-related references seem to pertain to animals.

  2. More convincing for me, the former meaning aligns with the undisputed reading of v.27 in which Paul summarizes his argument: “The one who is not circumcised physically [φύσεως] and yet obeys the law will condemn you who, even though you have the written code and circumcision, are a lawbreaker” (NIV). In v.27, Gentiles are uncircumcised by nature;so 'by nature'; they do not obey'obey the law by naturenature'.

By Paul’s reckoning, Gentiles are born outside the law, and though they may sometimes obey it, they will still be judged (vv.14-16, following 1:18-32). On the other hand, those who call themselves Jews (v.17), that is, those naturally born under the law, though they claim to obey it, really do not – they will also be judged (vv.17-25). According to Paul’s gospel, Jews have no special title to God’s favor simply by virtue of their birth, and neither can they earn it by their works, which always fall short. Both Gentiles and Jews merit God's wrath ... and are therefore also objects of God's grace.

It seems to me, then, that translations which leave the meaning of v.14 unclear – in which ‘by nature’ could point either backward or forward – are on solid ground, but those that side with the latter reading are not. It is more consistent with Paul's full argument here to say Gentiles are not born under the law, than to say they obey it instinctively.

In Rom.2:14, does φύσει (physis, ‘by nature’) modify backward or forward? Does Paul say, “When Gentiles, who do not have the law by birth, do what the law requires ...” Or does he say, “When Gentiles, who do not have the law, instinctively do what the law requires ...”

Though both readings make sense within Paul’s argument, and though I’d like to hear from a Greek grammatician whether it’s more likely for φύσει to modify the word immediately preceding it or the verb four words later, I suggest the former reading is the better option for two reasons.

  1. As I read the LSJ definition of φύσει, the former meaning, pointing to origin or birth, is better attested. The instinct-related references seem to pertain to animals.

  2. More convincing for me, the former meaning aligns with the undisputed reading of v.27 in which Paul summarizes his argument: “The one who is not circumcised physically [φύσεως] and yet obeys the law will condemn you who, even though you have the written code and circumcision, are a lawbreaker” (NIV). In v.27, Gentiles are uncircumcised by nature; they do not obey the law by nature.

By Paul’s reckoning, Gentiles are born outside the law, and though they may sometimes obey it, they will still be judged (vv.14-16, following 1:18-32). On the other hand, those who call themselves Jews (v.17), that is, those naturally born under the law, though they claim to obey it, really do not – they will also be judged (vv.17-25). According to Paul’s gospel, Jews have no special title to God’s favor simply by virtue of their birth, and neither can they earn it by their works, which always fall short. Both Gentiles and Jews merit God's wrath ... and are therefore also objects of God's grace.

It seems to me, then, that translations which leave the meaning of v.14 unclear – in which ‘by nature’ could point either backward or forward – are on solid ground, but those that side with the latter reading are not. It is more consistent with Paul's full argument here to say Gentiles are not born under the law, than to say they obey it instinctively.

In Rom.2:14, does φύσει (physis, ‘by nature’) modify backward or forward? Does Paul say, “When Gentiles, who do not have the law by birth, do what the law requires ...” Or does he say, “When Gentiles, who do not have the law, instinctively do what the law requires ...”

Though both readings make sense within Paul’s argument, and though I’d like to hear from a Greek grammatician whether it’s more likely for φύσει to modify the word immediately preceding it or the verb four words later, I suggest the former reading is the better option for two reasons.

  1. As I read the LSJ definition of φύσει, the former meaning, pointing to origin or birth, is better attested. The instinct-related references seem to pertain to animals.

  2. More convincing for me, the former meaning aligns with the undisputed reading of v.27 in which Paul summarizes his argument: “The one who is not circumcised physically [φύσεως] and yet obeys the law will condemn you who, even though you have the written code and circumcision, are a lawbreaker” (NIV). In v.27, Gentiles are so 'by nature'; they do not 'obey the law by nature'.

By Paul’s reckoning, Gentiles are born outside the law, and though they may sometimes obey it, they will still be judged (vv.14-16, following 1:18-32). On the other hand, those who call themselves Jews (v.17), that is, those naturally born under the law, though they claim to obey it, really do not – they will also be judged (vv.17-25). According to Paul’s gospel, Jews have no special title to God’s favor simply by virtue of their birth, and neither can they earn it by their works, which always fall short. Both Gentiles and Jews merit God's wrath ... and are therefore also objects of God's grace.

It seems to me, then, that translations which leave the meaning of v.14 unclear – in which ‘by nature’ could point either backward or forward – are on solid ground, but those that side with the latter reading are not. It is more consistent with Paul's full argument here to say Gentiles are not born under the law, than to say they obey it instinctively.

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In Rom.2:14, does φύσει (physis, ‘by nature’) modify backward or forward? Does Paul say, “When Gentiles, who do not have the law by birth, do what the law requires ...” Or does he say, “When Gentiles, who do not have the law, instinctively do what the law requires ...”

Though both readings make sense within Paul’s argument, and though I’d like to hear from a Greek grammatician whether it’s more likely for φύσει to modify the word immediately preceding it or the verb four words later, I suggest the former reading is the better option for two reasons.

  1. As I read the LSJ definition of φύσει, the former meaning, pointing to origin or birth, is better attested. The instinct-related references seem to pertain to animals.

  2. More convincing for me, the former meaning aligns with the undisputed reading of v.27 in which Paul summarizes his argument: “The one who is not circumcised physically [φύσεως] and yet obeys the law will condemn you who, even though you have the written code and circumcision, are a lawbreaker” (NIV). In v.27, Gentiles are uncircumcised by nature; they do not obey the law by nature.

By Paul’s reckoning, Gentiles are born outside the law, and though they may sometimes obey it, they will still be judged (vv.14-16, following 1:18-32). On the other hand, those who call themselves Jews (v.17), that is, those naturally born under the law, though they claim to obey it, really do not – they will also be judged (vv.17-25). According to Paul’s gospel, Jews have no special title to God’s favor simply by virtue of their birth, and neither can they earn it by their works, which always fall short. Both Gentiles and Jews merit God's wrath ... and are therefore also objects of God's grace.

It seems to me, then, that translations which leave the meaning of v.14 unclear – in which ‘by nature’ could point either backward or forward – are on solid ground, but those that side with the latter reading are not. It is more consistent with Paul's full argument here to say Gentiles are not born under the law, than to say they obey it instinctively.