After two days of polling, it looks like most people favored Esler’s answer: Christians weren’t under any law at all, according to Paul, for the best the law promised but never delivered was now available by a different route — the spirit. Tne Torah was fulfilled in the sense that “law” no longer had any force. Commandments and moral imperatives were irrelevant to the moral dimensions of faith. I agree with Esler too. Let’s see why he’s right.
According to C.F.D. Moule (“Fulfilment Words in the New Testament: Use and Abuse”, NTS 14: 293-320) pleroma (fulfilment) refers to the consummation of the will and plan of God. Fulfilling the law thus points to the total realization of what God intended with it, though it doesn’t follow that performing the law in some way is part of that realization. It could mean that, but not necessarily.
Most scholars, especially in the wake of the New Perspective, believe that performing the law (in some way) is what Paul had in mind. (1) Mark Nanos (6 votes) thinks nothing changed for the Judean people, that the Torah remained in force, even if Gentiles were exempt from ethnic requirements. (2) James Dunn and Tom Wright (5 votes) are stronger on this point, claiming that the racial/ethnic aspects of the Torah were obsolete, that all believers fulfilled the Torah by following its ethical kernel. (3) Ben Witherington (7 votes) takes it to the next level, saying that the Torah was completely finished, fulfilled by adhering to a new law (“Christ’s law”, “the law of the spirit”) which was about imitating Christ, keeping certain commandments from the past and new ones from the present. In all three cases, the Torah is understood to be fulfilled by performing it, a part of it, or a new model of it in the new age.
Back in the ’90s I leaned towards variants of options (1) and (2), because I was so into the New Perspective and wanted to believe in an historically “Jewish-friendly” Paul. I still consider myself a New Perspective advocate, but a moderate one. I suppose I’m a double-agent like Francis Watson, who sees that “Gentile rights” were only part of Paul’s battle. Sanders had it right all along: “it was the Gentile question and the exclusivism of Paul’s soteriology which dethrone the law” — and the latter is just as important as the former. This despite Dunn, who complains that Sanders has replaced the Lutheran Paul with “an idiosyncratic Paul who in arbitrary and irrational manner turns his face against the glory and greatness of of Judaism’s covenant theology and abandons Judaism simply because it is not Christianity”. But sectarian converts are often this way — unattractive and hostile about their previous allegiances (Philip 3:4b-11) — and we shouldn’t be trying to mainstream their mindset.
Let’s give the New Perspective its due: Judaism didn’t make difficult demands, and the interpretations of Nanos or Dunn apply well enough in places like Rom 3:21-4:17 where Paul clearly has the scope of God’s salvation — “pagans as much as Jews” (Rom 3:28-30) — in view. But they fail miserably in contexts like Rom 5:1-8:17, where Paul speaks against the entire law (and the term “works” is nowhere to be found). If Paul were only trying to defend Gentiles and hold to an ethical kernel of the Torah, he would have left well enough alone at Rom 4. But he went beyond this, insisting that Jews die to the law in its entirety, as much as to the reign of Adam and sin. All of the law’s commandments (not just “Jewish works”) facilitate the victory of sin (Rom 7:7-25), and Moses even foretold that the Torah would be a dead-end project (Rom 9:30-10:13; though admittedly the Gentile issue comes into play as well in this passage). We can’t pound the round peg of Rom 5-8 into the square hole of the New Perspective. I tried doing this for years, but in the end found that scholars like Nanos and Dunn were limiting Paul’s perspective. For better or worse, the apostle thought the Torah was done with. As a sectarian convert he looked back on the era of the Jewish covenant as a dark age — even though he had actually found it personally rewarding — and at Abraham as a lone faith-figure who anticipated better things to come.
What about option (3)? Ben Witherington argues that Paul thought the Torah was fulfilled by performing a new law, the messianic successor to the old. This would be “Christ’s law” (Gal 6:2) or the “law of the spirit” (Rom 8:2) — the “new covenant” (I Cor 11:25, II Cor 3:6) — which consists of:
(1) the imitation of Christ and his apostles
(2) the keeping of those commandments reiterated by Christ and his apostles from the past (e.g. some of the ten commandments)
(3) the new imperatives urged by Christ and then his apostles.
I think this is plausible as an expression of Paul’s view before the Galatian crisis, for I Corinthians admittedly presents commandments and moral imperatives as having force. Paul recycles material from Leviticus, and in the context of circumcision being irrelevant even declares that “keeping God’s commandments is what counts” (I Cor 7:19). No getting around that statement.
But Paul later revised it by saying that “the only thing that counts is faith expressing itself through love” (Gal 5:6) — again in the exact same context of circumcision. Galatians is difficult to date, but I’ve become increasingly convinced that it comes in between I & II Corinthians, per Mark Goodacre.
Paul’s frame of mind on the subject of “keeping commandments” when he wrote Galatians and Romans is clear: it just can’t be done. That’s why Judean Christians have died to the law in its entirety (Rom 7:1-6). Being under the Torah reenacts the Edenic tragedy (Rom 7:7-13), which means that being under any commandment results in the victory of sin, because that’s precisely how sin succeeds — using any commandment against the holy purposes for which God intended it. Christ, in Paul’s view, came to liberate humanity (though the Judean people in particular) from this mess (Rom 7:24-25).
So it seriously misrepresents the Paul of Galatians and Romans (that is, the post-I Corinthians Paul) to claim that he thought believers in Christ were subject to the commandments of any law or that moral imperatives were relevant to the dimension of Christian faith — Gal 6:2 and Rom 8:2 notwithstanding. What then do we make of Paul’s occasional references to “the law of Christ”, “the law of the spirit”, and the “new covenant”?
(4) Philip Esler (12 votes), answers the question. Paul was saying that Christians had a metaphorical equivalent of the Torah, through the spirit. It’s worth citing him at length:
“The best the law can provide is love of one’s neighbor, but such love is available through an entirely different source — the spirit. In fact, agape is the first fruit of the spirit. The law and spirit are stark alternatives: ‘If you are led by the spirit, you are not under law’ (Gal 5:18). Paul is speaking of the replacement of the law by the spirit, not the continuance of the ethical aspect of the law in the new dispensation of Christ.” (Galatians, p 203)
“The law of Christ does not mean the Mosaic law redefined by Jesus, since this view is based on a failure to appreciate that Gal 5:13 envisions the total substitution of the law with an alternative path to agape. Nor does it mean a body of ethical tradition derived from the historical Jesus, since this plays no part in Galatians and is excluded by Paul’s derivation of moral behavior from the spirit. Rather, Paul uses the phrase as a striking metaphor for the way in which love, the first fruit of the spirit, becomes the guiding force in the life of those who are in Christ… The ‘law of Christ’ represents Paul’s most daring inversion… the final nail hammered into his argument that the Mosaic law is quite irrelevant in the new dispensation. Suggesting that the members of his congregations also have a law further serves in his ascription to them of a fictive ethnic identity. Not only do they have Abraham as an ancestor, they also have their own equivalent to the law, albeit only metaphorically.” (Ibid, pp 231-232; emphasis mine)
Unlike other NT authors (Matthew and Hebrews most notably), Paul does not believe in a literal new law or covenant. By the time of Galatians at least, he’d consigned law and covenant to the dustbin. The Torah was fulfilled on an entirely different avenue — the spirit.