The Harsh Taskmaster in Galatians 3:24

Most Mondays, Bill Mounce – a NT Greek expert, does an article dealing with biblical interpretation in respect to NT Greek Koinonia. This week’s article deals with the law as our “tutor” in Galatians 3:24. Since HRC’s Men’s Group is currently studying Galatians and our adult Sunday School class is taking a snapshot of Galatians 3:22-24 as we go through the steps of “How to do Bible Study” then this week’s post from Dr. Mounce is most timely.

To Metaphor, or not to Metaphor? (Monday with Mounce 61)

That is the question of Galatians 3:24. I was reminded of this question this morning as I listen to my nephew preach a good sermon on Galatians 3.

Dave preaches from the NIV, so in v 24 he read, “So the law was put in charge to lead us to Christ that we might be justified by faith.” “Put in charge” is a colorless phrase that conveys a very basic meaning of authority, but it does convey meaning to almost any reader.

The NASB (also NKJV and ASV) has “become our tutor,” which defines a little more closely what the NIV means by “charge.” It is probably meant to reflect the KJV “schoolteacher.” The problem is that the Greek term παιδαγωγος evidently does not contain the sense of “teacher.” BDAG defines the word as, “the man, usu. a slave … whose duty it was to conduct a boy or youth … to and from school and to superintend his conduct.” They offer the gloss “one who has responsibility for someone who needs guidance, guardian, leader, guide” and specifically states that the word does not include the nuance of “teacher.”

The RSV had “custodian,” which was changed to “guardian” by the ESV (also in the NET); I am sure “custodian” sounded too much like the person cleaning the halls of a school after the children have gone home. The NLT typically splits the difference by including both, using “guardian and teacher.”

As you can see, the word is hard to translate. The NJB (New Jerusalem Bible) has what may sound at first like an odd translation: “serving as a slave to look after us,” but in fact it is getting much closer to the actual meaning of παιδαγωγος.

Boice defines the παιδαγωγος as this. “The pedagogue was a slave employed by wealthy Greeks or Romans to have responsibility for one of the children of the family. He had charge of the child from about the years six to sixteen and was responsible for watching over his behavior wherever he went and for conducting him to and from school” (EBC).

In other words, Paul is using not a general term for someone in charge, or a tutor, to define the relationship of the law to the Jewish people. He is using a very specific social role with very specific meanings and nuances that the native readers of the epistle would immediately understand.

George adds even more background to our understanding in his New American Commentary. “No doubt there were many pedagogues who were known for their kindness and held in affection by their wards, but the dominant image was that of a harsh disciplinarian who frequently resorted to physical force and corporal punishment as a way of keeping his children in line. For example, a certain pedagogue named Socicrines was described as a “fierce and mean old man” because of his physically breaking up a rowdy party. He then dragged away his young man, Charicles, ‘like the lowest slave’ and delivered the other troublemakers to the jailer with instructions that they should be handed over to ‘the public executioner’ ” (pp. 265-266).

And hence the problem of translation. If you are committed to translating metaphors, or perhaps it is better to call this an issue of historical backgrounds, then “guardian” is too hard to process. But if you are committed to trying to reflect ancient customs and requiring your readership to study the Bible, then using a colorless phrase like “in charge” significantly under-translates Paul’s use of παιδαγωγος.

The law was not a gentleman who kindly led its children into the ways of God. It was a harsh taskmaster, almost cruel, who identified sin and enticed the Jewish people to sin, and then by grace pointing them to the coming Christ, the only one who could make them right with God.

The Law was truly “holy, and the commandment is holy and righteous and good” (Rom 7:12). But it was not a tutor, and the Jewish people did not simply function under its authority.

Which brings us to the final question, and that is when does a translation stop being a translation and become a commentary? And what side of the dividing line do you want your Bible to stand?

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