Posted by: mattcolvin | July 4, 2013

More on “Through the Letter and Circumcision” (Rom. 2:27)

Repost from my old Fragmenta blog, from June 22, 2004:

Dorothy Sayers, describing a domestic scene in the Wimsey-Vane household, from the short story, Talboys:

“If I had a child belonging to me,” said Miss Quirk, “I would never permit anybody to lay a hand on him. All my little nephews and nieces have been brought up on enlightened modern lines. They never even hear the word ‘don’t.’ Now, you see what happens. Just because your boy was told not to pick the peaches, he picked them. If he hadn’t been forbidden to do it, he wouldn’t have been disobedient.”

“No,” said Harriet, “I suppose that’s quite true. He would have picked the peaches just the same, but it wouldn’t have been disobedience.”

“Exactly,” cried Miss Quirk, triumphantly.

This gives us a good idea of what is going on with the preposition dia in Romans 2:27. In an early blog entry, I wrote that the verse ought by rights to be translated, “The by-nature-uncircumcised that does the Torah will condemn you who through the letter and circumcision (dia grammatos kai peritomes) are a transgressor of the Torah.” But all English translations except the KJV mistranslate dia either a concessive (“though having the letter…” — NASB) or a simple relative (“you who have the written code” — ESV).

The key is in the word “transgressor,” Gk. parabates. It is not equivalent to “sinner.” Parabasis is more than just sin. It is a technical term for Paul, and he explains it a little in 4:15: “For where there is no Torah (nomos), neither is there transgression (parabasis).”

Returning to Romans 2:27, we see that “through” is indeed the correct translation of dia, contrary to all the modern English versions. If the Israelite were not in possession of the written Torah (gramma) and obliged to obey it by circumcision (peritome), he would not be a transgressor (peribates). It is through circumcision and possession of the Torah that sin (hamartema) is focused and made worse, so that it becomes transgression. One can be a sinner without the Torah and circumcision, but if one is to become a transgressor, it will be precisely through those things.

Incidentally, if this is the case, and Paul has a meaningful distinction to make between “sin” and “transgression,” then Westminster is again using terms in a sense other than scripture when it speaks of “Every sin … being a transgression of the righteous law of God” (WCF and defines sin as “any want of conformity unto, or transgression of, the law of God” (WSC Q. 14). These definitions are fine, theologically speaking, but inadvertently obscure our understanding of Scripture.

It may be just such a systematics-driven misunderstanding that has been causing all the modern translators to stumble over the dia in Romans 2:27.



  1. Interesting, I did notice the NIV and NASB provide the alternative in a footnote though. I definitely agree with your logic in light of 4:15, but I wonder how this idea of Paul’s relates to 3:9 where all are under sin and the priority of sin to Torah in 5:12-13, although “sin [hamartia] is not reckoned when there is no law” (NRSV) here is difficult because the Gentiles still sinned and were thus under wrath (1:18ff). Is the dominant translation thus exegetically defensible? If so, then I suppose translators opted for this one rather than the literal “through” as it implied a causal link between law and sin, despite this being suggested elsewhere (7:11-13).

    • The Gentiles’ suffering consequences (wrath) for their sin is not what Paul means by “ouk ellogeitai” (“is not reckoned”). He means that the sin of, say, Cain or Lamech did not have the same far-reaching consequences for other people because unlike Adam and Christ, these others were not under a covenant in which they acted for others (“Law”). The Jews were in such a covenant, and blew it.

      • Cool, thanks, that makes sense.

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