Torah as Custodian

Yesterday I had one of those accidents of discovery that makes life so much fun. I was researching opinions on Ephesians 2, preparing for some Bible studies our congregation will have around the campfire this Sukkot. I was reading my favorite Ephesians commentary by Markus Barth (in the Anchor Bible series), when he made some remarks about Galatians 3. It’s a commentary on Ephesians, so this was not something I expected.

On page 292, Barth refers to to Galatians 3:24 and the custodian or pedagogue metaphor Paul uses there to describe the Torah. Something Barth said opened my eyes to a dimension I had completely missed before. My thoughts are not complete and it may be this will come out jumbled and incoherent. It may be there will be holes large enough for study Bibles to fit through in this exposition (but you will be sure and let me know, I presume).

What is Paul’s point about the Torah being a custodian or pedagogue? Before I get into the exposition, I should make sure all readers know that in the Greco-Roman world affluent families often had a custodian in charge of the education of the boys. The custodian was not the teacher so much as a supervisor of their education. He made sure the boys got to school and did their work. I have read that he was also responsible for teaching them manners.

The Common View
The view I have heard commonly expressed is that this custodian metaphor of Paul “clearly” shows that Paul regarded the Law as an unnecessary relic of the past. When we were children, we needed a tutor, but as we are grown up in Messiah, the custodian is no longer needed. The child is Israel and the grown-up is the church. Israel needed a custodian because they were primitive, but the church is more sophisticated now, with Messiah on the scene, and no longer in need of childish instruction. The Torah of Israel, then, was instruction for primitive minds.

A Moderate View
I have also heard a more moderate and less appalling view. Again the child is Israel and the church is the grown-up, but the work of the custodian (the Law) is viewed more positively. One of the custodians purposes was to teach manners to the children. When the child moves into the next phase of life, the custodian’s work is finished, but the custodian’s teaching remains. That is, the boys will still follow the manners taught by the custodian even though the custodian is no longer active in their lives. Thus, the Law has continuing relevance even if it is not an active covenant any longer.

Working Toward a Positive View of Law and Israel
Reading Markus Barth’s comments mentioned above, I saw that there were elements I had completely missed in my earlier readings of Galatians 3. Specifically, I saw in Barth that I had not paid attention to the pronouns in the custodian passage:

Now before faith came, we were confined under the law, kept under restraint until faith should be revealed. So that the law was our custodian until Christ came, that we might be justified by faith. But now that faith has come, we are no longer under a custodian; for in Messiah Yeshua you are all sons of God, through faith.

Barth’s comment is revealing:

Sheer reliance upon “works of the law” cannot bring God’s blessing to the nations, for the law is given as a custodian only to Israel.

I have seen the importance in other places in Paul’s letters of distinguishing between the “us” and the “you.” The “us” is Israel and the “you” is the nations. Often people read the “us” as the apostles and the “you” as the non-apostles, but in some places in Paul’s letters it could be strongly demonstrated that Paul’s “us” refers to his people, the people of Israel (try Ephesians 1 for a compelling reading that may surprise you if you’ve not thought of the pronouns this way before).

Think about the flow of Galatians 3:23-29 with the pronouns distinguished in this way:
— Before faith came, we Jews were confined under the Torah
— The Law was a custodian for us Jews until Messiah came
— Now that faith has come, we Jews are no longer under a custodian
— For in Messiah, you Gentiles are all sons of God
— (thus we can see that being sons of God is not due to works of Law)
— Rather, all who are baptized into Messiah have put on Messiah
— So that neither Jew nor Gentile is superior (nor male/female, etc.)

Now, how would this argument fit into Paul’s larger purpose in Galatians? Remember he is teaching Gentiles who are confused about these matters not to give in to Jewish proselytizers seeking to convert them and put them under Torah. They are seeking the Abrahamic blessing (mentioned in Galatians 3:8) by converting and becoming Jews rather than by putting on Messiah and being accepted as they are.

Paul’s response: the Torah is Israel’s custodian, not yours.

It’s a pretty good argument.

In the larger picture of Galatians 3, I think Paul is saying something like this: God announced long ago a plan to bless you Gentiles through Abraham. But this does not happen by Law-keeping (conversion). Law-keeping brings a curse when you fail. That is why Messiah had to take Israel’s curse on himself. And in Messiah that blessing came to you Gentiles. Don’t forget that the promise of blessing through Abraham was prior to the Law. And a prior promise is not cancelled by a later covenant. But the Law was given to foster righteousness until Messiah came. The Law was Israel’s custodian until Messiah came. The law was never your custodian, you confused Galatians, but ours. Furthermore, God has, in Messiah, changed even our relationship to the Law. It no longer functions as a custodian for us. And you Gentiles are under the blessing apart from the Law. So now we see there is no exclusion, but Jew and Gentile are equally under blessing remaining as Jews and Gentiles with no conversion (or assimilation).

What do you think? I’d like to hear some of you out there weigh in . . .


About Derek Leman

IT guy working in the associations industry. Formerly a congregational rabbi. Dad of 8. Nerd.
This entry was posted in Bible, Christian, Gentiles, Judaism, Messianic Jewish, Theology, Torah. Bookmark the permalink.

6 Responses to Torah as Custodian

  1. mjaymc says:

    So, brother Leman, are you suggesting the law is for no one now or Israel and Jews only?


  2. mchuey says:

    Out of curiosity, what is Herr Barth’s perspective on the composition of Ephesians? Genuine Pauline authorship or pseudonymity?

    Never heard this ever addressed from a Messianic point of view–or the fact that “in Ephesus” is missing from the oldest manuscripts of Ephesians 1:1.


  3. judahgabriel says:


    Non sequitur.

    If you stick with the “you” and “we’s”, you’ll see Paul say, “We’re not under a custodian.”

    If your interpretation were correct, Paul would be saying,

    “Israel is not under a custodian.”


    And if you are further correct that Paul is telling gentiles not to keep the Torah, then he is also telling Israel not to keep the Torah.

    If all that were the case, Paul would be in opposition to the Messiah.

    He’s not, so I believe you’re interpretation is incorrect.

  4. Mjaymc:

    I said that I am considering the interpretation that Israel’s relationship to the Torah is altered, not that Israel is free to break the Torah. In Messiah, a Jewish person is still called to Torah, but something has changed. I suspect the primary change is the end of condemnation and curse.


  5. Judah:

    Of course, as you know, I do believe that some parts of the Torah are only required of Israel (the identity markers such as Sabbath, dietary law, circumcision, fringes) and some apply only in the land.

    However, my point here (or my interpretation of Paul’s point here) is different. He is saying to Gentiles: don’t let anyone tell you you must come under the yoke of Torah, converting and joining the synagogue, and that this will bring you the Abrahamic blessing. The Torah was our custodian, not yours. Even our relationship to Torah has changed (see my comment to mjaymc above). How much more then should you Gentiles see that Torah-keeping is not the way to be included in Messiah. You are already included (as the Torah and prophets testify).


  6. mjaymc says:

    Thanks Derek

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