According to the Rabbis, Paul misunderstood the Hebrew Scriptures and attempted to impugn Judaism by alleging that the Mosaic Law inevitably placed everyone under a curse (Gal. 3:10-12). The Rabbis also correctly point out the many salutary effects of the Law: that it imparts wisdom and conversion (Psalm 19) and that it delights the soul and imparts blessing and peace (Psalm 119). In light of this, it seems that Paul is missing the boat when he proclaims that the Law kills.
Did the Law really bring death (Rom. 3:19-20; 11:32; Gal. 3:22)? Didn’t the Apostle Paul misconstrue the Hebrew Scriptures? Didn’t he erroneously impugn the Law of Moses as the inevitable source of condemnation and death, rather than a source of wisdom, blessing, and conversion (Psalm 19:7-8)? In Why the Jews Rejected Jesus, David Klinghoffer, a columnist for the Jewish Forward, offers a resounding “yes!” He charges that Paul so badly twisted the Hebrew Scriptures that he became “the first person to imagine the essence of what would become Christian theology.” Klinghoffer contends that Paul’s interpretation was so novel and distorted, that no one else would have come up with it, not even Jesus. More specifically, Klinghoffer alleges,
- Paul had misunderstood the verse just quoted from Deuteronomy: ‘Cursed be every one who does not abide by all things written in the book of the law, and do them.’ The Hebrew word he took to mean ‘abide by’ really means ‘uphold.’ In other words, the Jew was expected to uphold all the Torah’s commandments, affirming that they were God’s will. But there was no expectation of perfect conformity in his actions. The rabbis made this clear.
While Paul understood the Law to teach that any infraction resulted in a curse, Klinghoffer insists that the Law requires Israel to merely, “uphold all the Torah’s commandments.” Mustn’t Israel also actually perform all the laws? Not according to Klinghoffer! For him, it seems that to uphold them simply means “affirming that they were God’s will.” From where does he derive this piece of sophistry? From the Talmud! His endnote cites B. Sanhedrin 81A.
Clearly, Klinghoffer is not alone in this assessment. The thirteenth century sage and Talmudic jurist, Rabbi Mosheh ben Nachman (Nachmanides), wrote regarding Deuteronomy 27:26, “This refers to a person who denies the Divine origin of any commandment of the Torah and considers its fulfillment valueless.” Conspicuously absent was any acknowledgement that Israel had to obey all God’s commands, and that they would fall under His curse if they failed to do so. Similarly, Gerald Sigal wrote,
· [Deuteronomy 27:26] does not refer to the breaking of the Law by an ordinary individual. It is, as the Rabbis explain, a reference to the authorities in power who fail to enforce the rule of the Law in the land of Israel (J.T. Sotah 7:4). The leadership of the nation is thus charged, under pain of the curse, to set the tone for the nation and make the Law the operative force in the life of the nation.
As appealing as it might be to the ordinary Israelite that the curses would only apply to the “leadership,” the context rules against this interpretation. Instead of addressing the “leadership,” the curses are explicitly addressed to “all”:
- And the Levites shall speak with a loud voice and say to all the men of Israel: “Cursed is the one who makes a carved or molded image. (Deut. 27:14-15)
Paul did Maintain that the Law Brings Condemnation as Klinghoffer Charges
Paul had often asserted that the Mosaic Law kills, and that it is removed through the Messiah’s atoning work:
- For as many as are of the works of the 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’ (quoting Deuteronomy 27:26). But that no one is justified by the law in the sight of God is evident, for "the just shall live by faith." Yet the law is not of faith, but "the man who does them shall live by them” (quoting Leviticus 18:5). (Galatians 3:10-12; also Col. 2:13-14; Rom. 7:9-11; 3:19-20; 2 Cor. 3:6, 9)
According to Paul, the Law is strictly about performance. One violation brought guilt and consequences. Did Paul misread Jesus in this respect?
Paul’s Interpretation Matched Jesus’ and His Apostles’
Jesus also taught that a single infraction was enough to bring condemnation. One wrong motive or word could open the mouth of hell:
- You have heard that it was said to those of old, “You shall not murder, and whoever murders will be in danger of the judgment.” But I say to you that whoever is angry with his brother without a cause shall be in danger of the judgment. And whoever says to his brother, “Raca!” shall be in danger of the council. But whoever says, “You fool!” shall be in danger of hell fire. (Matthew 5:21-22)
A portfolio of sins wasn’t required for condemnation; a single word was enough! Even looking at a woman lustfully established candidacy for the fires of hell (Mat. 5:27-30). James wrote similarly (James 2:9-10). For all the Apostles, the commission of the slightest sin provided grounds for concern. Peter wrote that our model is perfection Himself (1 Peter 1:15-16). Nothing short of this is adequate. In order to support his claim, he cited Leviticus 11:44-45, affirming that the Law represented an uncompromising standard. John assured his readership that any sin was damning, but more importantly, that Christ had trumped them all (1 John 1:9; 2:1-2; 3:4).
Uniformly, the Apostles maintain that the Law is about doing as opposed to merely acknowledging that it is God’s will. Nowhere in the Bible do we find any excuse for a cavalier attitude about the commission of even one sin!
Did Paul Misconstrue the Hebrew Scriptures?
If Deuteronomy 27:26 alone had posited that a single infraction was enough to bring down a curse, we might have grounds to attempt to reinterpret this verse to bring it into line with other teachings on the subject. But this verse is part of a much greater chorus. Throughout the Law, Israel is repeatedly warned that they had to obey and not just acknowledge every command (Lev. 26:14-16; Exodus 20:6; 23:21-22; 24:3; Deut. 5:29; 6:24-25; 8:1; 10:12; 11:8, 26-28, 32; 12:28; Jer. 11:3-5; 7:22-23).
This truth is poignantly illustrated by God’s first law: “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" (Gen. 2:17). Contra Klinghoffer, Adam’s problem was never that he had failed to acknowledge that this command had come from God. This was never an issue.
Of course, sins could be forgiven, but this is a far cry from Klinghoffer’s assertion that merely acknowledging that the Law came from God was enough. The damning reality of just one sin is brought home graphically by Ezekiel:
- But when a righteous man turns away from his righteousness and commits iniquity, and does according to all the abominations that the wicked man does, shall he live? All the righteousness which he has done shall not be remembered; because of the unfaithfulness of which he is guilty and the sin which he has committed, because of them he shall die. (Ezekiel 18:24)
It’s important to note that punishment never had to wait until sin reached a certain number. There is no “wait-and-see” policy; nor does grace require God to extend a second or third chance. Ezekiel simply mentions “the unfaithfulness of which he is guilty and the sin which he has committed.” This could be a matter of just one sin! In other words, it was presumptuous for any Israelite to think, “With my perfect record, I’ve got it made and now can afford to relax!”
The reality of the sacrificial system further enforced the idea that every Israelite had to make payment for every offense. It wasn’t enough to merely acknowledge a lapse; a sacrificial offering had to be made. Nowhere in Hebrew Scriptures can we find any justification for the idea that it was acceptable to renege on any law. Instead, every transgression carried with it a penalty.
Hebrew Narratives Also Demonstrate the Damning Power of Even One Sin.
Even more problematic for Klinghoffer’s thesis that “there was no expectation of perfect conformity in his [the Israelite’s] action,” are the numerous Old Testament narratives that show just how damning a single infraction could be.
Moses struck the rock instead of speaking to it, as the Lord had directed. Consequently, the Lord informed him that "Because you did not believe Me, to hallow Me in the eyes of the children of Israel, therefore you shall not bring this assembly into the land which I have given them" (Numbers 20:12). It would have been ludicrous for Moses to protest, “Lord, since you don’t require perfect conformity to Your Word but rather my acknowledgement that this Word is indeed Your Word, You are acting a bit heavy-handed in my regards.”
Klinghoffer would have had a better case had Moses habitually transgressed, but this was Moses’ only recorded sin during his forty desert years with Israel. In Leviticus 24, during a fight, one Israelite cursed God. The Lord determined that he should be put to death. Clearly, the Lord did expect perfect conformity to His Law and not just an acknowledgement that it was God’s Law. The punishments for Adam’s sin, Cain’s sin, and Achan’s also speak elequently in support of this fact.
Klinghoffer’s interpretation fails to accord with any aspect of the Hebrew Scriptures, but is the New Testament interpretation Scripturally accurate?
Making Sense of the New Testament Interpretation
From the New Testament perspective, it’s easy to wrongly conclude that God had set up Israel for failure. Who was righteous enough to avoid the curse? Nobody (Psalm 130:3; 143:2; Eccl. 7:20; Isaiah 64:6)! Had God demanded the impossible?
No! Uniformly, the Bible holds Israel accountable, not God. However, God was always merciful (Psalm 103:10; Ezra 9:13; Neh. 9:31; Dan. 9:18) when Israel humbled themselves and confessed. However, the condemnation was a necessary piece in the puzzle:
- Scripture [Law] has confined all under sin, that the promise by faith in Jesus Christ might be given to those who believe. But before faith came, we were kept under guard by the law, kept for the faith which would afterward be revealed. Therefore the law was our tutor to bring us to Christ, that we might be justified by faith. (Galatians 3:22-24)
According to Paul, the Law and its curse illuminated grace and Messiah. But was Paul merely imposing his own philosophy on the Hebrew Scriptures? No! This same message is implicit to the entire body of Scripture. It seems that the Law’s curse in regards to his sin with Bathsheba enabled David to see grace even more poignantly:
- Blessed is he whose transgression is forgiven, whose sin is covered. Blessed is the man to whom the Lord does not impute iniquity…I acknowledged my sin to You, and my iniquity I have not hidden. I said, ‘I will confess my transgressions to the Lord,’ and You forgave the iniquity of my sin. (Psalm 32:1-5)
In contrast, Klinghoffer’s distinction between obeying the Law and upholding the Law (merely “affirming that they are God’s will”) will not produce the desired results. Such a law will not convict or condemn anyone! Why should it as long as we have the recourse of easily acknowledging that the law is “God’s will?” If no one is convicted, then no one needs to be forgiven. No one will cry out for mercy, and therefore receive mercy. Grace is then irrelevant—so too the sacrificial system, Christ and His New Covenant, and the need for a circumcised heart (Deut. 30:6).
Besides, a legal code that only requires affirmation is absurd. Imagine a police officer stopping you for going 60 in a 25 MPH zone. Would you say to the officer, “I didn’t violate the law, because I affirm that the law is the will of the state? The state doesn’t expect perfection from me.” It would be equally ridiculous to say, “Officer, I have been driving for 20 years without a speeding ticket. Therefore, I don’t deserve one now.” If such illogical reasoning had prevailed in Israel, any violation of Mosaic Law could be easily dismissed.
Rather than finding contradiction between Paul and the Scriptures of Israel, we find a glaring chasm between Klinghoffer and the Scriptural Tradition he claims to represent. In spite of Klinghoffer’s allegations, a rich and illuminating consistency emerges among Jesus and the Apostles on the one hand, and the Scriptures they embraced on the other.
How then is it that the Jewish establishment could be so wrong, while a handful of renegades led by a condemned Rebel would be so consistently right—unless, of course, they had Divine guidance?
 David Klinghoffer, Why the Jews Rejected Jesus (New York: Doubleday, 2005), 112.
 Klinghoffer, 110-11.
 This citation reads, “When R. Gamaliel read this verse he wept, saying, ‘Only he who does all these things shall live, but not merely one of them!’ Thereupon R. Akiba said to him, ‘If, so, defile not yourselves in all these things is the prohibition against all [combined] only, but not against?’ [Surely not!] But it means, in one of these things; so here too, for doing one of these things [shall he live].” While R. Gamaliel was disturbed by the obvious interpretation that an Israelite had to perform each command in order to live, R. Akiba felt that this couldn’t be the right interpretation. Instead, he suggested that by “doing one of these things” [commands of God], it would be sufficient to “live.” In this, Akiba falls prey to the all-too-human impulse to soften or “humanize” the Law.
In a more recent commentary, the Jewish Study Bible (New York: Oxford University Press, 2004, p.427), we read in reference to Deuteronomy 27:15-26, “In the context, the twelve curses correspond to the twelve tribes…The resulting incongruence points to the many editorial revisions that this chapter has undergone.” Since “incongruence” is left undefined, we are left to conclude that it refers to the fact that the Chosen People are issued 12 warning curses. However, rather than pointing towards human editorializations, this tends to point in the direction of Divine authorship. Why would any people stand for such threats and negative prognostications (Deut. 32) unless they were miraculously assured of God’s supernatural presence!
 The Socino Chumash, A.Cohen (ed.), (Hindhead, Surrey: The Soncino Press, 1947), 1123.
 Gerald Sigal, The Jew and the Christian Missionary: A Jewish Response to Missionary Christianity (New York: KTAV Publishing House, Inc., 1981), 18. However, after confining the curses to the leadership, Sigal then contradicts his argument: “Thus, Deuteronomy 27:26 could declare as cursed only those who reject the means by which atonement for sins may be achieved. If one does not repent sincerely for his sins, he is cursed because he failed to save himself from the clutches of sin.” Sigal is here on more solid ground. Although we might quibble with his wording, Sigal correctly acknowledges that the curse is not God’s last word. There is God’s forgiveness extended through the Mosaic sacrificial system. Although this “forgiveness” wasn’t the full forgiveness of the Cross, it was the means by which God, in His forbearance, passed over sin (Rom. 3:25). However, Sigal fails to realize that by shifting his argument to acknowledge the necessity of forgiveness, he is thereby acknowledging that the Law brings a curse with any and every sin. By admitting this, he has unwilling thrust himself into Paul’s embrace.
 All Bible quotations are from the New King James Version.