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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, 2016 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, 2016 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, 2016 at 8:15
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    The sense is this: If a law unto life had been given then righteousness would come by that law. The whole section is demonstrating how and why righteousness is by faith apart from law and that no such law unto life was given. Aug 30, 2021 at 12:53

2 Answers 2

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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.

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  • 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, 2016 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, 2016 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, 2016 at 2:54
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Is "the law" appropriate while "a law" is not? You provided five translations of the verse, four taking certain liberties, you felt, due to them not following a strict translation. Here is a literal translation, to compare with the "dynamic equivalence" of the NLT which you think is more appropriate:

"Why then the law? ...the law, then, [is] against the promises of God?

  • let it not be! for if a law was given that was able to make alive, truly by law there would have been the righteousness, but the Writing did shut up the whole under sin, that the promise by faith of Jesus Christ may be given to those believing. And before the coming of the faith, under law we were being kept... so that the law became our child-conductor - to Christ, that by faith we may be declared righteous, and the faith having come, no more under a child-conductor." Galatians 3:19-25 Y.L.T.

In other words, "Is the Writing, the given law of God, a law that makes righteous by the keeping of it? No!"

I've quoted a good bit more than the bare text in question, because I think that when all the different translations are read from verses 1 to 29, a clearer understanding comes as to what they are saying about whether the law of Moses, the Writing, could give life.

To do all the translations justice, the need is to start reading them from ch.3 vs.1 to the end of the chapter. Once Paul's argument is grasped, in total, then the different way law is written about, in verse 21 in particular, is understood. The problem, as explained in the question, might be due more to not being able to see the wood for the trees, than a critical error in a tiny bit of a verse regarding translation, or (worse) a doctrinal bias.

Paul has a consistent theology of always calling the law of God not only good, but perfect. He is clear - there is no fault with the law of God. All the fault lies with sinners being unable to keep the perfect law of God. Paul is not talking about man-made law. He is saying that no human is able to keep the perfect law of God because of their imperfection. But when it comes to the law of God then, yes, anyone keeping it perfectly would live by it and not be condemned by it. Whether that means acting (living) totally in harmony with it, or never dying because of keeping it perfectly, is not the point here. The point of verse 21 is that righteousness only comes with keeping the righteous law of God 100% - all the time - an impossibility. And the whole of Paul's exposition makes that clear.

As one modern American theologian put it, "The law is not a standard we achieve; it's a bench-mark we fail." Read all of Galatians chapter 3 in light of that stark truth, and see the truth of what's being said. Especially note the importance of verse 24; the purpose of God's perfect law was not to give sinners even a hope of living via keeping it perfectly. On the contrary, it was to convince them that the whole world is a prisoner of sin with no hope until they accept how it points them to faith in Christ. The law of God was 'charged' with the task of leading them, like school-children being driven to school. It was not charged with the task of getting them to keep it perfectly and so granting them life that way. It was there to expose their sinfulness, and their need of faith in Christ as the only means of life.

I believe that when verse 21 is kept in context of the whole chapter, there is no problem. If a translation has "if a law" or "if law" or "if the law"; it matters not, because the point of that verse is to destroy the prideful notion that righteousness could come by law-keeping. And as sinners are unable to achieve life with their attempts at keeping God's perfect law, they certainly are not going to achieve life via any, or all, other laws!

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  • The translation wrongly says the law was never able to give life, bec no able law was ever given. The point of the context is that the law has expired only now after the coming of the seed. To say that the law was useless is to call God satan. It was the guardian UNTIL Christ came, NOW faith/promise came we are NO LONGER under the law. I will post my detailed ans soon to explain how the whole verse is the biggest mistranslation. You can post a counter answer to debate, but it requires Greek. See my ans on Could the law give life hermeneutics.stackexchange.com/a/60681/16757
    – Michael16
    Feb 19 at 16:52
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    @Michael16 By the law is the knowledge of sin. It was added because of transgressions. Of itself, it justifies nobody.
    – Nigel J
    Feb 19 at 16:55
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    @Michael16 The law justified nobody because all the saints pleased God due to their faith. Faith that pleases God is utterly devoid of any righteousness we suppose we might have, or have earned. It's utterly all about the righteousness of God's free pardon to those who exercise that faith.
    – Anne
    Feb 19 at 17:06
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    @Michael16 Abraham believed God and there was accounted to him unto righteousness. But the law is not of faith : he that doeth shall be justified. But none does. All fail.
    – Nigel J
    Feb 19 at 17:07
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    @Michael16 Comments are not for protracted discussion. Please initiate chat for further discussion. No further comment from myself.
    – Nigel J
    Feb 19 at 17:10

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