We see St. Paul telling the Corinthians in 1 Cor 9:20-21 (NRSVCE):

To the Jews I became as a Jew, in order to win Jews. To those under the law I became as one under the law (though I myself am not under the law) so that I might win those under the law. To those outside the law I became as one outside the law (though I am not free from God’s law but am under Christ’s law) so that I might win those outside the law.

Elsewhere, he also says:

... If anyone else has reason to be confident in the flesh, I have more: circumcised on the eighth day, a member of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew born of Hebrews; as to the law, a Pharisee. (Phil 3:4-5)

One wonders as to why St. Paul says that he is not under the law as such, when he is proud of his Jewish ancestry. Moreover, the Pharisees were known for their scrupulosity in abiding with the law. My question therefore is: According to Catholicism, why did St. Paul treat himself as a seasoned Jew and a Pharisee who was not under the law?

  • 1
    For a Protestant Reformed answer to a related question see hermeneutics.stackexchange.com/questions/40135/… Commented Jun 14, 2021 at 5:53
  • Perhaps oversimplifying, I like to think that according to Paul's philosophy regarding the Law, under the Law, a good Jew "obeys the Law and lives," but under the new covenant in Jesus's blood, the order is reversed. Instead of "obey the Law and live," Paul "lived--or received new life, regeneration, becoming a new creation by God--and then obeyed the Law. In Romans Paul tells us clearly that after conversion and the new birth, "the just requirement of the Law is fulfilled IN US, who walk not according to the flesh, but according to the Spirit" (8:4 NASB). Commented Jun 16, 2021 at 11:26

2 Answers 2


I consulted the Encyclopedia of Theology, a Concise Sacramentum Mundi edited by Karl Rahner, and found a section headed ‘The Law in Paul’. Herein is found the answer to your question, and I now simply quote the relevant parts (with all emphases mine):

“Paul and Judaism see the law as an independent theological entity: according to the claim of those who submit to it, it is an independent way of salvation, in competition with faith in Jesus Christ.

While Paul leaves untouched the social conception of the law upheld in Judaism, the salvific function of the law becomes a problem for his theology… the law as a way of salvation must be excluded. Salvation consists in the justice of God, i.e., in the fulfilment of the promises made to the patriarchs. Whereas in Judaism justice is achieved by the fulfilment of the law, Paul goes back to the close connection of justice with faith in Gen 15:6 (Abraham) and, with the help of scriptural proofs, is able to show that the promises, and therefore their fulfilment also, are linked to this justification by faith. The law, therefore, as a way of salvation is excluded because those who observe it hope thereby to achieve righteousness, whereas Scripture demonstrates that righteousness is linked with faith. Law and faith (in Jesus Christ) are made exclusive alternatives. Paul goes on to demonstrate that man could never have obtained righteousness by the way of the law, for no one (as Paul postulates) can fulfil it completely (Rom 3:20-30; Gal 3:10; 5:3; cf. 6:13). Hence all men come under the curse which is the penalty threatened in Deut 27:26. But Jesus alone can free man from this curse, for in him is promised the opposite of the curse, the blessing for all peoples already promised to Abraham…

From the time of Adam until Christ the power if sin prevailed, activating the sphere of the sarx, and bringing the sinful works of the flesh to light (von Dulmen), so that the power of sin signified both the sinful act itself and also the state of bondage to sin, while law assisted sin to gain power and life (1 Cor 15:56). For with the advent of the law all became guilty of transgression. In contrast to sin, however, law is only destructive in its effects and function, not by nature. Sin avails of the law in order to kill. The law is the catalyst which reveals the ruinous and hopeless state of man. But when the curse of the law is concentrated upon Jesus he endures the penalty of death, and thereby sets aside the demand of the law. For this reason, and also because the law is no longer used to demonstrate the presence of sin, Christ is the end of the law

At present the law only has a part to play in bringing out the obstinacy of the unbelieving section of Israel, which opens the way for the Gentiles to be taken into the community (Rom 9:11).” Klaus Berger, pp 828-829 (1981 edition)

That is why Paul did not boast in his Jewish heritage, but boasted in Christ and how faith in this risen saviour had set Paul free from bondage to the law, to be free in Christ. Paul exquisitely shows from the Hebrew scriptures how the law was a shadow pointing to Christ, the reality, so that both Jews and Gentiles putting faith in the finished work of Christ on the cross could have the chains of bondage (to sin and death – sarx ) smashed ( Col 2:13-232). That is why Paul said that he would preach nothing but Christ crucified, as the end of the law (1 Cor 1:23 & 2:2). His point was that all things must lead to the risen Christ, and the law served that purpose for those who did not see the preaching of the cross as ‘foolishness’ but as the power of God unto salvation (1 Cor 1:18, Eph 3:8).

This does not mean that Paul was lawless, or even that he took a light view of law-breaking. On the contrary, he shows in Romans 8:4 that "the righteousness of the law might be fulfilled in us" [Christians who walk after the Spirit.] He exposed as false those who accused him of despising the law (Antinomianism). See Romans 3:31 & 7:7-25.


Answer Summary

I believe this answer is applicable to both Protestants and Catholics and the answer is rather obvious when examining the larger contexts of both passages that:

  • As a Christian he no longer put himself under the law because he considered righteousness from God based on faith is of surpassing value: resurrection from the dead.
  • In the 1 Corinthians passage, he put himself under the law only behaviorally, for evangelistic purpose.
  • In the Philippian passage, he highlighted his Jewish standing as blameless under the law only to show his credential against the false teachers.

Supporting Explanation

Why Paul rejected righteousness under the law

To answer this question, we need to consider the larger context: Phil 3:1-14. In v 6 we read the curious phrase "as to righteousness under the law, blameless" implying that Paul could still qualify as righteous via the OT law. So why did he regard his law-based righteousness as "rubbish" (v 8) and chose to be righteous based on faith (v 9) even though it means he had to suffer for Jesus's sake (v 10)? The Catholic Jesuit America web article The "Surpassing Value of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord" explained the reason, which simply what Paul mentioned in v 10-11: sharing Christ's power of his resurrection and to attain the resurrection from the dead. Having faith in Christ means to be his slave (v 12), forgetting his past identity as a Pharisee (v 13), and pressing on for the heavenly prize (v 14).

1 Cor 9:19-23

In 1 Cor 9:19-23 the clue is in the preceding verse 19: "For though I am free with respect to all, I have made myself a slave to all, so that I might win more of them." We also need to see the verses in the larger context of 1 Cor 8:1-11:1 about Food Offered to Idols. In Chapter 9 he offered himself as an example of giving up something for the spiritual edification of others. Although as a Christian Paul was free from food laws, he didn't insist on this freedom when preaching the Gospel to Jews who were still under the law, and thus only ate kosher food in their company (one can imagine sharing the gospel over a meal). Instead he behaviorally put himself temporarily under the law so not to offend Jews in order to win Jewish converts, although in his heart he affirmed his freedom from the law under Christ.

Phil 3:4-5

In the Philippian passage, again, we also need to consider the larger context (Phil 3:1-11): a warning about the "evil workers", of those who "mutilate the flesh" (verse 2). It's a warning to the Philippian church, of teachers who require Christians to circumcise themselves. It is similar to Paul's warning to the Galatian church. Like freedom in Christ mentioned in the 1 Cor 8-11:1 passage, Paul taught the Philippian church that they were free from the circumcision law. As a circumcised law-abiding Pharisee since birth, Paul was saying in vv 3-6 that he was more qualified in law-based righteousness than the false teachers. But the later vv 8-9 makes it clear that he was actually no longer proud of his blameless under the law, regarding it as "rubbish". He only mentioned it in vv 4-5 as rhetoric to show the Philippians that he has more standing under the law compared to the false teachers.

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