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The old versions show a positive view of the law in Gal 3:23 showing it as guardian keeping in protective custody, but some new versions show the picture of a jailer or kidnapper by using the words captive and prisoners. Which translation is better and has there been a change in modern bible interpretation that caused this?

NLT Before the way of faith in Christ was available to us, we were placed under guard by the law. We were kept in protective custody, so to speak, until the way of faith was revealed.
NKJV "we were kept under guard by the law, kept for the faith which would afterward be revealed"
RV "kept in ward under the law, shut up"
NRSV "we were imprisoned and guarded under the law until faith would be revealed"
TEV "the Law kept us all locked up as prisoners, until this coming faith should be revealed"
NJB "we were allowed no freedom by the Law; we were being looked after till faith was revealed"
ESV "we were held captive under the law, imprisoned until the coming faith would be revealed"
NET "we were held in custody under the law, being kept as prisoners until the coming faith would be revealed"
WE "the law held us in prison like slaves. We were kept there until the one to believe in should come"
(THGNT) Πρὸ τοῦ δὲ ἐλθεῖν τὴν πίστιν ὑπὸ νόμον ἐφρουρούμεθα συνκλειόμενοι εἰς τὴν μέλλουσαν πίστιν ἀποκαλυφθῆναι.

If you can search scholarly sources on this, it will be very beneficial to read their discussion. Paul has used the word phrourew as guardian with reference to God elsewhere.

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    I see this verse as a hyperlink to the story of Noah's ark. Israel was shut up in the law, just as Noah and his family were boxed up inside the boat. For a time. After Noah's sacrifice of some of the clean animals (a shadow of Christ's sacrifice), they were told: "Everything that lives and moves about will be food for you. Just as I gave you the green plants, I now give you everything." Which foreshadowed the end of the kosher diet. Apr 4, 2023 at 20:03

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The key to understanding Paul's thought in v23 is to note from the next verse that the law is described as our PAIDAGOGOS.

Social changes have made it almost impossible to find a concise translation of this word which conveys the full sense. The AV says "schoolmaster", the RSV says "custodian". I have coined and use the label "teaching-slave".

The image is the practice in Greek and Roman society of keeping a slave who would have the responsibility of looking after the children, giving them their lessons and also bringing them up generally. That was the PAIDAGOGOS, a kind of male Mary Poppins (with much less status and even less income). These slaves were notoriously strict with their charges, because that was the only way to gain obedience from children who could not respect them as slaves.

Obviously this was an unwelcome form of tutelage, which was necessary as long as the children could not take responsibility for themselves, and which they would escape once they became of age.

That image is the background of the opening verses of ch4. Even the heir to the estate, as long as he is a child, is no better than a slave, because he is under the authority of guardians [who are slaves themselves]. And that is what it means to be under the law. It means living in a state of controlled tutelage appropriate only for children.

And that is the explanation of v23. If we are Jews, we are confined by a law which acts as our "teaching-slave", and kept under that restraint until the possibility of faith is revealed, which is when we grow up and gain the freedom of adulthood (ch4 v3, v7). Translators will miss this if they focus too much on one verse at a time instead of looking into the context with some awareness of social history. The best translation might have been "guardianship".

P.S. The metaphor doesn't quite work for the Gentiles, so Paul is obliged to add the alternative metaphor of "adoption" (ch4 v4). Paul rarely has scruples about mixing metaphors.

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This answer should be seen as an addendum to the excellent answer of Stephen Disraeli.

In Gal 3, V23 should never be divorced from V24 which reads:

23 Now before faith came, we were held in custody under the Law, having been locked up until the faith being about to be revealed, 24 so that the Law has become our trainer-guardian/tutor unto Christ, so that we might be justified by faith.

Note that these two verses act in parallel with the two highlighted words used almost synonymously. Their meaning is as follows:

  1. φρουρέω (phroureó) = "held in custody"; occurs in 2 Cor 11:32, Gal 3:23, Phil 4:7, 1 Peter 1:5. Its BDAG meaning is:
  1. to maintain a watch, guard, eg, 2 Cor 11:32; 2. to hold in custody, detain confine, eg, Gal 3:23; 3. generally to provide security, guard, protect, keep, eg, Phil 4:7, 1 Peter 1:5.
  1. παιδαγωγός (paidagógos; hence our English word, pedagogue) = "trainer-guardian/tutor"; occurs in 1 Cor 4:15, Gal 3:24, 25. Its BDAG meaning is:

the man, usually a slave, whose duty it was to conduct a boy or youth to and from school and to superintend his conduct generally; he was not a 'teacher' (despite the present meaning of the derivative 'pedagogue') ... When the boy became of age the παιδαγωγός was no longer needed ... In our literature, one who has responsibility for someone who needs guidance, guardian, leader, guide (...) The law as a παιδαγωγός. Paul evaluates the Mosaic law as a παιδαγωγός εἰς Χριστόν Gal 3:24, where the emphasis is on the constrictive function of the law in contrast to freed in the gospel ...

It is also helpful to recall just how this παιδαγωγός worked - in Roman society (the world of Paul and the NT) the παιδαγωγός carried a "stimulus" - a large stick with which to beat the boy if he stepped out of line or needed further "encouragement" to study or get answers correct.

Thus, the poor student would have felt as though he had been imprisoned by this παιδαγωγός whom he felt acted as jailer! Hence Paul's metaphor!

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  • Where is the reference to the stick?
    – Michael16
    Apr 4, 2023 at 3:13
  • @Michael16 - there is no reference to the stick/stimulus - that was general knowledge about Roman historical practice.
    – Dottard
    Apr 4, 2023 at 3:33

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