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?

  • 4
    ...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
  • 2
    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

5 Answers 5


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, 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
  • 3
    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

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!

  • 1
    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, 2022 at 16:52
  • 1
    @Michael16 By the law is the knowledge of sin. It was added because of transgressions. Of itself, it justifies nobody.
    – Nigel J
    Feb 19, 2022 at 16:55
  • 1
    I have asked about this to many who claim to know Greek and all have remained silent, which proves that this is the most biased translation at least about the anti-law faith alone theology of sin, as started by Augustin/Luther etc. If the given law could (still) give life then righteousness comes through it. Same as 2:21. The idea of depravity is also making God a liar for commanding and then punishing man. @NigelJ if justified nobody then all saints went to hell and God turns out to be a liar. See Rom 10:4-6 the one who does them shall live by them. But faith righteousness is different.
    – Michael16
    Feb 19, 2022 at 16:59
  • 2
    @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, 2022 at 17:06
  • 1
    @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, 2022 at 17:07

I will demonstrate how the traditional translation is wrong and prove that nomos is definite, and the translation of the New Jerusalem Bible, is the correct one. The crucial issue is not about the “Law” being without article, but what is the condition (whether it was given or is able to make alive, or both?), and what is the linguistic function of “given”.

  • NJB: “If the Law that was given had been capable of giving life, then certainly saving justice would have come from the Law”. Also see New Catholic Bible 2019, and Jonathan Edwards.

  • beta.Septuagint.org translation: “For if the law that was given is that which is able to give life, then righteousness may truly be from the Law”.

  1. The anaphoric article is not required for a definite noun, especially when its quality is being discussed, just like in John 1:1. Monadic nouns especially don’t require article all the time, like world, Christ, Sun, Law etc. for a definite noun.

See “Porter, Idioms, 105. See also Young, who comments, “When the author wants to focus on the quality, character, nature, or class of the noun, he will omit the article” (68). Likewise, Zerwick notes, “The omission of the article shows that the speaker regards the person or thing not so much as this or that person or thing, but rather as such a person or thing, i.e., regards not the individual but rather its nature or quality” (Biblical Greek, 55)”. From Going Deeper with NT Greek.

In short, it is clear enough that when Paul referred to ‘law’ or ‘the law’ he assumed that his readers would think first and foremost of the Torah. The presence or absence of the definite article seems to make little or no difference. We certainly cannot deduce that the anarthrous nomos means something like ‘the principle of law’ and that only ho nomos, ‘the law’, refers to the Mosaic law.9 See further my Theology of Paul  131–3.

and in chapter 2 Law in Galatians, p.452:

The second clue is the denial to the law of any role of giving life: had the law been able to give life (dunamenos zōopoiēsai) then righteousness would be from the law (3.21). This affirmation, we should note, is Paul’s response to the question whether the law is against the promises of God. ‘Of course not!’, says Paul; ‘for had the law been given which was able to make alive, then righteousness certainly would be from the law’ (3.21).

2.1.1 The Arthrous and Anarthrous Use of Nomos
In the last century in particular, certain scholars argued that nomos without the definite article refers to law in general and not specifically to the Mosaic law.31 But this distinction has been refuted by Eduard Grafe and Peter Blaser.32 Grafe observes that the equation of the two forms is seen in the usage of hypo nomon (Gal 3:23) and ho nomos (Gal 3:24), and in Rom 2:23-27 where what the Jew breaks is nomos (vv 23, 25) and what the uncircumcised person keeps is ho nomos (vv 26-7).33 George E. Howard also observes that in such passages as Rom 2:17; 13:8; Gal 6:13; and Phil 3:5 the contexts require that nomos refer to the law of Moses.34 1 might add that at several places it appears in the same verse both with and without the definite article, with no apparent difference in meaning. Gutbrod notes that in the LXX there is no discernible difference in meaning if the article is absent.

  • See PhD Thesis The role of ἐπαγγελία in Galatians with particular focus on 3:14-22 (2022), Benjamin Walker, p.105, “For if the law had been given such that it could make alive”. He references David Gordon in notes.

  • T. David Gordon writes in Promise, Law, Faith 2018 p. 151, n74:

KJV, RSV, NRSV, and ESV all translate the first νόμος here as “a law” yet translate the second (νόμου) as “the law,” though both are anarthrous. Paul is not speaking hypothetically about some other law in the first clause; he is still continuing the reasoning he began earlier, contrasting the Sinai covenant to the Abrahamic covenant. It would be just as well to render it in such a manner that this is clear, such as: “If the law that was given was able to make alive, then righteousness would be by the law.” This contrary-to-fact condition is defective only by not including the particle ἄν, but this “defect” is common in the NT.

  1. The issue is not whether the relative clause is restrictive or non-restrictive, since often it is ambiguous; the issue is whether the noun is definite. The article is omitted only for the qualitative description of a definite noun.
  • 1 Tim 6:17 ἀλλ' ἐπὶ θεῷ τῷ παρέχοντι (but on God, who richly provides).
  • Acts 15:17 λέγει κύριος ποιῶν ταῦτα (says the Lord, who does these things).
  • 2 Cor 1:21-22 θεός, ὁ καὶ σφραγισάμενος ἡμᾶς (God, who also sealed us)
  • 2 Tim 1:14 πνεύματος ἁγίου τοῦ ἐνοικοῦντος (Holy Spirit which dwells)
  • 1 Tim 2:5-6 ἄνθρωπος Χριστὸς Ἰησοῦς, ὁ δοὺς ἑαυτὸν (The man Christ Jesus, who gave himself)
  • Romans 8:33 θεὸς ὁ δικαιῶν (God is the one who justifies) NASB

We realize that the point of definite-article is incorrect. Context determines that the noun is very definite.

Conditional construction:

The rearrangement of words by Susan to reach to my translation is unnecessary, since the phrase is not about explaining what was given, as in the references “the grace that was given to me” τὴν χάριν τὴν δοθεῖσάν μοι (Rom 15:15, 1Cor 3:10, Gal 2:9), rather the focus is the adjectival-participle that describes the noun’s quality. Some commentators recognize that the condition is about law’s efficacy (ho dynamenos), despite not realizing the translation blunder. Meyer’s argument somewhat states that the article with the adjective covers the noun as well.

  • Meyer: νόμος] just as in the whole context: the Mosaic law, although without the article, as in Rom 2:21, 3:11, 3:18; Winer, p. 117 [E. T. 152]. ὁ δυνάμ. ζωοπ.] The article marks off the definite quality which, in the words εἰ γὰρ ἐδόθη νόμος, is conceived by the lawgiver as belonging to the law (Winer, p. 127 [E. T. 167]; Kühner, ad Xen. Mem. ii. 7, 13): as that which is able to give life; and this is the point of this conditional sentence. [Meyer]
  • νόμος, the law) .....—εἰ γὰρ, for if) The conditional force does not fall upon was given, for the law was certainly given, but upon was able (could have).—ὁ δυνάμενος, that was able) The article shows that the emphasis is on δύναμαι. The law would wish [to give life] (Bengel Gnomen)

Susan asserted that edothe is the conditional verb of the protasis, she seems to be assuming the traditional and outdated rules that the second class conditionals are always in the past tense (imperfect or aorist), which explains why she had to rearrange the words to make the participle into a past tense verb for the proposed translation (if the given law is able). This is an outdated view held before the development of verbal aspect. The intermediate level Grammar books like Wallace only provides the general rules and overviews. Stanley Porter (Idioms), explains how that temporal view of the verbs ignored verbal aspect. Boyer (Second class conditions) for details and some exceptions like the present tense protasis in John 8:39 “If you are Abraham’s children, you would be doing the deeds of Abraham. NET. Εἰ τέκνα τοῦ Ἀβραάμ ἐστε, τὰ ἔργα τοῦ Ἀβραὰμ ἐποιεῖτε· We can conclude that the participle is the condition of the protasis.

Was the Law given or not?

The condition is the participle phrase alone “able to make alive”. The passive “given” is an adjunct, and the argument is the participial phrase. An adjunct can be removed from the sentence, as Dunn removes it (had the law been able to give life). Those who count “given” along with the “able to make alive” as the condition are likely to mistranslate the verse by mistaking edothe as the main condition. This mistranslation implies that the law was never effective, since no such effective law was ever given. It is widely believed that certain passive words are used without the agent, as divine passive, when referring to God’s act. Such words are given, added, written etc. See John 1:17 ‘ὁ νόμος διὰ Μωϋσέως ἐδόθη’ For the Law was given through Moses. The word “given” as adjectival to the law is common. The mention of recipient and agent are unnecessary. Linguists differentiate between the verbal/eventive passive and the adjectival/stative passives. It should be noted, if the argument was about a certain indefinite law, then the author should rather use the indefinite determiner τίς (certain/some) or heteros nomos, to be precise.

If the life giving law was never given, then this entails only two possibilities. One, the source of the Mosaic law was not God, but evil angels, Satan (a view held by many). Second: God was the giver of the law, but by falsely presenting it as the law of life, God had committed an evil deception with Israel for thousands of years. In both cases, God turns out to be evil. Most scholars are oblivious as to how huge problem does this verse posits to their doctrine. It should be noted that the typical claims about man’s defectiveness (depravity) in obeying the law is irrelevant to the topic, however, that too makes God immoral and unjust in expecting obedience from a defective creation.

The Gal 2:21b has confused many commentators. Dunn explains, “This line of argument has caused commentators difficulty, since it seems to deny the established Jewish association between the Torah and life, to which Paul has already referred”. Similarly Douglas Moo.

Dunn, Galatians, 192; similarly, Moo: “how are we to square Paul's reference to the typically Jewish view that the one who does [the commandments of the law] will find life by them’ [Lev 18:5] with his claim here that no law can make alive?” (Galatians, 238).

  • Heikki Raisanen argues on the passage that Paul makes many self-contradictory statements, and that the law of Moses was not from God, but from evil angels. So do Albert Schweitzer, J. L. Martyn, Martinus de Boer etc.
    • Martinus C. de Boer (PhD, Union Theological Seminary) is Professor of New Testament at Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam, Paul Theologian of God, Apocalyptic. “God may have had nothing to do with the Sinaitic law and does not stand behind it”.


The argument about the incapability of the law is temporal, it became ineffective after serving its role of a protective guardian until the coming of the Messianic age. Paul never argues that the nobody was ever justified by the law, which would imply that the patriarchs died unsaved. Temporal context of the ending of law should not be ignored in verses like Gal 2:16 "no one is justified by the works of the law", Gal 3:11 "no one is justified by law". The context of Galatians doesn’t present the law as defective. For Paul, even the idea of law being contrary to anything from God’s plan takes the strongest rebuke “God forbid”, or “by no means”; he cannot possibly go on in the same sentence to call the law defective, nonchalantly. We can imagine how impossible would be the blasphemous thought of the law being defective, rendering God himself as defective and a deceiver, for Paul. Thus, considering the overall theology of the Jewish religion, & Galatian’s context, we conclude that the traditional translation of Galatians 3:21 that the effective law was not given (down from Jarome’s Latin Vulgate) is highly inappropriate and misleading.

The reason for the mistranslation could simply be the Gentile’s ignorance of the theology of Jewish religion or God they were joining, since an accurate translation/interpretation doesn’t simply require knowledge of language but also the context, culture, ideology behind the source text. For the heathens, qualities like lawlessness, and impropriety for God is tempting, hence, Marcionian flourished. The correct translation is about the effectiveness of the given law after its abrogation under new covenant. The translators and their Bible societies are recommended to follow along the line of NLT, NJB, and NCB.

  • Since the use of the article is varied throughout, I think some distinction is intended, at least in some places. So, what is the difference between law with and without the article? IOW, even if you are correct in this case, it seems like you need to show this particular non-usage is in agreement with Paul's over use/non-use. Two other issues are present: 1) Is true that no law gives life? 2) Circumcision is the primary issue. How does one distinguish "the" law of circumcision since it is given in Genesis 17, Exodus 12, and Leviticus 12 - each covering something different? May 7 at 22:51
  • The qualitative use of anarthrous (without article) is sufficient, and due to repeated mention of the same noun, article is unnecessary. The laws's temporal end is explained, and it's ability prior to its end is assumed due to consistency of religion, common sense. Circumcision and function of the law is irrelevant. The que is about the translation of the verse.
    – Michael16
    May 8 at 2:26
  • The law is paidagogos until someone accepts Christ. Those who do receive the Spirit. Those who refuse remain as they were. For the Jew who rejects Christ, they remain under the Law, which continues to function as paidagogos. May 8 at 3:32
  • No it doesn't continue to function as the guardian after it's end. It's function and purpose was temporal until the time comes. The argument is that the law is no longer in effect. No justification possible under law anymore or after the coming of promise.
    – Michael16
    May 8 at 4:43
  • You say, No justification possible under law anymore or after the coming of promise. Anymore? That is the fallacy of your argument. Galatians 3:11 says "Now it is evident that no one is justified before God by the law..." The law never justified anyone. Its current ability is the same now as before the coming of the promise. May 8 at 13:42

Paul's Gospel
According to Paul's Gospel, all people, both Gentiles and Jews, will be judged by "law." However, as Romans shows, Paul does makes a distinction between "law" and "the law."

12 For all who sinned without-Law will also perish without-Law, and all who sinned under the Law will be judged by the Law. 13 For not the hearers of law[f] are righteous before God, but the doers of law will be declared-righteous. 14 For whenever Gentiles, the ones not having the Law, are doing by nature the things of the Law, these ones not having the Law are a law to themselves, 15 who are demonstrating the work of the Law written in their hearts— their conscience bearing co-witness and their thoughts accusing or even defending between one another 16 on the day when God judges the hidden things of people according to my good-news, through Christ Jesus. (Romans 2 DLNT)
f. This is lowercase because it applies to both groups in v 12 in the different senses Paul defines next.

Law is written with the article only twice in this passage.

Verse 14 speaks of Gentiles doing "the" law by nature. The likely meaning is the Mosaic Law.1Verse 15 has τὸ ἔργον τοῦ νόμου, literally the work the law. Two meanings are possible: 1) "the" Mosaic Law doing "the" work on the heart or 2) "the" as in "any" law from God doing the work. With respect to being judged one could say the determining factor is that which is law for Gentiles and "the" law for Jews.

The Article
In his book, Greek Grammar, Beyond the Basics, Daniel B. Wallace provides an illustration2showing how the article works. Next to this, I have added similar diagrams to depict all law, works and law, and the specific law of circumcision: enter image description here

The force of the article is to "definitize." The most common use is anaphoric. When used as such the meaning is: that which I previously wrote about.3With respect to the issue in Galatians, that type of use could be problematic because "law" for Paul has an inherent force without the article, as the second illustration shows. "The" Mosaic Law does not definitize by narrowing the focus. Rather, the Mosaic Law adds to any existing law. When writing to a mixed audience of Gentiles and Jews, the common application, to "definitize" law, that is to narrow the scope, would be taken to mean only those requirements which apply to Gentiles. However, all requirements for Gentiles are included in the Mosaic Law. Therefore, with regard to the scope of law, the article must be referring to the Mosaic Law. That is, according to Paul's Gospel Gentiles are judged according to those parts of the Mosaic Law they know.

With respect to circumcision, the article would definitize by narrowing the focus. However, since circumcision is required in three different settings for three completely different reasons (see below) what is made definite is only the act of circumcision.

Works of Law - Works of the Law
This issue is more clearly illustrated by the phrase ἐξ ἔργων νόμου, literally, by works of law. Regardless of which or any law Paul composed an answer based on salvation. Conceptually, Paul is arguing from the greater to the lesser. Like the Mosaic Law which encompasses all requirements, salvation by grace through faith encompasses all works, not just works of law:

This only I want to learn from you: Did you receive the Spirit by works of [article less] law, or by the hearing of faith? (Galatians 3:2)

8 For by grace you have been saved through faith, and that not of yourselves; it is the gift of God, 9 not of [article less] works, lest anyone should boast. (Ephesians 2)

The statement in Ephesians, like Galatians omits an article with works, ἐξ ἔργων. Paul's Gospel is that one is saved by faith not by any work. Therefore, of law, without an article definitizes works. Not only is the article unnecessary to definitize, its use might imply some works might save, just not works of "the" law.

More importantly, if the force of the article is to definitize, then the force of omitting the article is to generalize when speaking of law and salvation:

Correct understanding: This only I want to learn from you: Did you receive the Spirit by any works of law, or by the hearing of faith?
Imprecise translation: This only I want to learn from you: Did you receive the Spirit by works of the law, or by the hearing of faith?

A translation of "the" law make sense but is imprecise. It shows a "definitization" which is contrary to the meaning of the actual text. By omitting the article the meaning remains as general as possible. Therefore, while it is true, the Spirit was not received by circumcision, or any other work of the law; the statement does not definitize law since all works are included in ἐξ ἔργων νόμου.

The primary reason for writing is to respond to the question of circumcision. Paul's answer is based on salvation, yet he must have the specific issue in view. As the illustration above shows, the article would be appropriate if one also had a definite law (circumcision) in mind. However, a comprehensive legal answer to the question of circumcision could address four specific laws:

Paul's use of Abraham's faith is most vulnerable on the question of circumcision. Didn't Abraham circumcise every male in his household as a sign of the covenant? In addition, only circumcised males are permitted to eat the Passover. Shouldn't Gentiles be circumcised before eating the Passover? If those of "the circumcision" are denying Gentiles the right to eat the Passover, they could argue theirs's is not a question of salvation. In this case, though it is likely an end run, those of the "circumcision" would be using eating the Passover to force circumcision.

Without ever citing a specific law, Paul knows the question of circumcision is answered at the end of the Mosaic Law. Deuteronomy only speaks of circumcision of the heart: one performed by the person and the other by God. Therefore, if one has made the choice of "heart" circumcision and God has performed this circumcision, isn't one (male and/or female) eternally circumcised? Furthermore, three individual laws of circumcision are qualified: foreskin is added in Genesis and Leviticus and the heart in Deuteronomy. The type of circumcision for the Passover is not specified. So with respect ot eating the Passover, either type of circumcision satisfies "the" law.

Galatians 3:10 and 3:21
Two verses have been composed using and omitting the article:

For as many as are of the works of law are under the curse; for it is written, “Cursed is everyone who does not continue in all things which are written in the book of the law, to do them.” (3:10)

Is the law then against the promises of God? Certainly not! For if there had been law given which could have given life, truly righteousness would have been by law. (3:21)

Verse 10 is reasonably straight forward. Works of law is definite without the article and "the law" is prefaced with "the book" which means the Mosaic Law. Paul immediately connects cursed with a specific law: Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us—for it is written, “Cursed is everyone who is hanged on a tree” (verse 13). The article refers to the Mosaic Law, but the use with a specific law which does "curse" affirms the initial statement "any" works of "any" law are under a curse.

Verse 21 follows a similar pattern. "The Law" refers to the Mosaic Law and the other two mean "any law." The verse means, Is the Mosaic Law against the promises of God? Certainly not! For if there had been any law (including circumcision) which could have given life, truly righteousness would have been by law.

This second use sets the stage for Paul's response to a challenge based on Abraham circumcising every male in his household. An argument which continues to Chapter 4.

However, with respect to the OP's question about verse 3:21, it is worth noting in Romans Paul makes similar arguments regarding Abraham, and he also makes arguments making reference to the first man. If "law" means any instruction from God, then obviously the very first law could not bring life:

15 The LORD God took the man and put him in the garden of Eden to work it and keep it. 16 And the LORD God commanded the man, saying, “You may surely eat of every tree of the garden, 17 but of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day that you eat of it you shall surely die.” (Genesis 2)

From the beginning, law brought death to that which God had given life.

When used with law, the article means a specific law or book of laws; in the context of Galatians, the article most likely is used to definitize the requirement of circumcision, regardless of which specific requirement.

In the specific case of verse 3:21, while adding the article does make sense, it also makes something specific which Paul composed to be general. That is, no law beginning with the first man in the Garden, could bring life. Quite the opposite, law brings death.

1. For example, a Gentile could voluntarily observe the Sabbath or follow a kosher diet.
2. Daniel B. Wallace, Greek Grammar: Beyond the Basics An Exegetical Syntax of the New Testament, Zondervan, 1996, p.
3. Referring to what was previously written in the document, not some other document.

  • Such stark formulation of the use of article is fundamentally flawed. I think it is either derived or taught by Winer or others in 19th century. The view that anarthrous followed by article adjective narrows an indefinite noun. Or that the article narrows specific aspects of the definite law in general. It is interpreted from an English lense. Also the DNLT seems to be a computerised type translation, it's more harmful for readers. I think majority of learners today follow such kind of methods. That's why we see YLT like & interlinear Bible as their primary bibles without Greek knowledge.
    – Michael16
    May 8 at 4:31
  • I'm curious to know why do many still learn Greek from the old books and especially what's the reason why such type of translations are followed? Does any Greek grammar book or latest scholars promote such translations like DLNT? there was a translation done basically using computer by keeping consistency of original word to English without changing the nuances etc. I don't recall the name of that version but this DLNT seems similar which ignores linguistics or proper translation ways.
    – Michael16
    May 8 at 5:37

Too many people see this as an issue that is far more complicated than it really is.

The original Greek has a definite article before the last "law", but not before the previous instance:

  • The hypothetical, non-existent law is "a law".
  • God's existing law is "the Law".

Paul's underlying argument is about whether salvation can be earned by obeying the Law, and Paul is obviously saying no.

Compare this with receiving other honours:

  • if there were a ticket one could buy that could provide a PhD degree, then one could obtain a degree by money, not as the result of intelligence and research.
  • if there were a special pair of shoes that could win an Olympic medal, then one could obtain a medal by a device and not as a reward for performance.
  • if there were a law that could provide salvation, then one could earn salvation by obeying a law, and not as an undeserved gift from God.


  • PhDs are not given just because someone can pay for it (in theory at least).
  • Olympic medals are not awarded just because someone can find the right footwear.
  • Salvation is not given just because someone can obey the Law.

This isn't saying that money isn't needed to get a PhD, nor that good footwear is isn't needed to win a medal, nor that obedience isn't needed to receive salvation.
It is saying that while these things are necessary, they can never be sufficient.

This is what the apparent (but in fact non-existent) debate between Paul and James was about:

  • Paul's point is that following the law is necessary but not sufficient for salvation, because it is a gift that is never given to those that don't have faith.
  • James's point is that having faith is necessary but not sufficient for salvation, because it is a gift that is never given to those that don't demonstrate the effects of their faith.
  • As I explained about the use of article and elsewhere on many other topics ; this is now how it works that without article it's indefinite and with it's definite. Notice the quotes and the occurence of nomos in this chapter in Rom 2. hermeneutics.stackexchange.com/…
    – Michael16
    May 8 at 11:54

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