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I do not read Hebrew or Greek but my interpretation of Pauline epistles is different than traditional protestants.

Gal 3:21 (ESV) Is the law then contrary to the promises of God? Certainly not! For if a law had been given that could give life, then righteousness would indeed be by the law.

cross ref

Gal 2:21; I do not nullify the grace of God, for if righteousness were through the law, then Christ died for no purpose.

The issue here is with a law as rendered by all major Eng translations for nomos. I don't think the article "a" is definitive or explicit here but it is a interpretive bias that the author is talking about any/all law instead of "the/this law" the law of Moses specifically. Their interpretive assumption is that all arguments are normative- as in no law can/could ever make us righteous, give life or justify rather than "the Mosaic law cannot justify now".

This is not the case in couple of versions such as

NLT 21b If the law could give us new life, we could be made right with God by obeying it.

So is this analysis correct that the original language do not state an article there but it is only an interpretive rendering? How is it justified?

additional translations varying from the majority.

GOD'S WORD Translation If those laws could give us life, then certainly we would receive God's approval because we obeyed them.

The New Jerusalem Bible (1985) If the Law that was given had been capable of giving life, then certainly saving justice would have come from the Law.

Names of God Bible If those laws could give us life, then certainly we would receive God’s approval because we obeyed them.

The majority translations imply the interpretation that the law of Moses could never give life and in fact no law could or can ever give life.

The phrase "had been given" for (edothē) also makes a big impact in the meaning of sentence in the majority of translations. Saying a law had not been given that could justify almost certainly entails a reading that no capable law had been ever given, in other words a definite meaning that Mosaic law could never justify. I see in the Englishman's concordance that word is translated "had been given" only once out of 31 occurrences. On the other hand NJB despite having "had been" does not suggest that majority meaning. The other minority versions "if the law could" is way objective and seems easy. It is surprising to me that the majority versions don't even mention the alternate translations in footnotes to show the huge significance.

It is supposed to be among the most difficult verse list for translators. Is there any discussion on this in academia?

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    ...it is a interpretive bias that the author is talking about any/all law instead of "the/this law" the law of Moses specifically... - no, it isn't. It is really the plain meaning of the Greek text. The upvoted answer below gives a clear and patient explanation of why this is so. (Cf. Burton, Galatians, pp. 193-4, starting at the bottom of p. 193.) – Dɑvïd Nov 18 '16 at 11:28
  • @Dɑvïd the established fact is not "so such law has been given" rather, "the law cannot give life". He does not write: "If a law had been given that could give life, we would definitely know of it". But "if the law could give life, it would give life or righteousness would be by it". – Michael16 Nov 19 '16 at 6:16
  • thanks for source on Witt Burton, though IVP [Walter Hansen] (biblegateway.com/resources/ivp-nt/Pauls-Exposition-Promise-Law) rightly interprets the verse though he doesnt realize the huge error in translation. IVP commentary: In order to clarify the relation of the law to the promise, Paul poses a contrary-to-fact hypothesis: If a law had been given that could impart life, then righteousness would certainly have come by the law (v. 21). The very way that Paul phrases this hypothesis indicates that he does not for a moment think the law can impart life. – Michael16 Nov 19 '16 at 8:15
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The OP questions the validity of the article "a" in English versions given the lack of a corresponding word in Greek. I will argue that "a law" is indeed an accurate translation.

There is no indefinite article "a" in Greek; good translations include it with indefinite nouns where required in English. While there are many contexts where a noun without the definite article ("the", ὁ = ho) can be definite, I see no good reason to identify this as one of them. In fact, a few observations effectively rule out this possibility:

  1. If the law of Moses, just mentioned as ὁ νόμος earlier in the verse, were in view, an anaphoric ho is expected.

  2. Regarding νόμος ὁ δυνάμενος ζῳοποιῆσαι ("a law that is able to give life") — the noun without an article followed by a relative clause headed by the article is a normal way to restrict the meaning of an indefinite noun. The construction also works to further specify a definite noun, but the article ho is expected (twice).

  3. Most importantly, the nature of the conditionality requires that the law in question not have been given.

    εἰ γὰρ ἐδόθη νόμος ὁ δυνάμενος ζῳοποιῆσαι, ὄντως ἐκ νόμου ἂν ἦν ἡ δικαιοσύνη· (NA28)
    For if a law had been given that could give life, then righteousness would indeed be by the law. (ESV)

    The structure is that of a second class conditional sentence: εἰ + indicative... ἄν + indicative. The protasis of such a statement

    indicates the assumption of an untruth (for the sake of argument).1

    The word ἐδόθη ("had been given") is the indicative verb in the protasis and is assumed in the argument to be untrue (i.e. "it was not given"). If I understand the OP correctly, he proposes that instead the author intended:

    εἰ ὁ νόμος ὁ δοθείς ἠδυνήθη ζῳοποιῆσαι...
    If the law that was given had been able to give life...

    If addition to adding the article, one must reorganize the verbs so that δύναμαι ("to be able") is the indicative (i.e. assuming "it was not able") to permit reference to law which was in fact given.

*Daniel B. Wallace, Greek Grammar Beyond the Basics: an Exegetical Syntax of the New Testament, (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1996), 689ff.

  • I didn't get your last point [if addition to adding...]. Also, does the (hoheto) translated as "which/ that" actually force the indefinite article? that word also has a wide range of translations including "the" ! But again the "if a law" sentence should end with "righteousness would come by that law" instead of "the law" as all translations use. Why are they using "the law" in the end? and how about translating it if the given law could give life then [it] could be by the law? – Michael16 Sep 21 '16 at 17:42
  • RE:(3) the point is not that the law in question has not been given; but that the law in question could not work. – Michael16 Sep 21 '16 at 17:58
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    In addition to adding....: this can be "got" with reference to the reorganized Greek above. | The ho clause here (I assume you refer to #2) is a relative clause acting as a specifier and so indicating "membership in a class of which there are other members" (Wallace, p. 244), which is the essence of an indefinite noun. | if the given law... is the Greek of the final text box above | (3) nope, not the point, but the statement requires assumption of a law not given. For further discussion, please head to Biblical Hermeneutics Chat. – Susan Sep 22 '16 at 2:54

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