Handwritten Ordinances or Record of Debt?

In the New Testament there are various words used when referencing the Old Testament (e.g. nomos, graphe and gramma)*. On just two occasions (Eph 2:15 and Col 2:14) Paul uses another word: dogma (literally “ordinances”). Paul must have had a particular idea in mind, common to both Ephesians and Colossians, in selecting this very particular word.

The first of these occasions is translated pretty consistently across Bible versions:

“For he himself is our peace, who has made us both one and has broken down in his flesh the dividing wall of hostility by abolishing the law of commandments expressed in ordinances [dogma] that he might create in himself one new man in place of the two, so making peace” (Eph 2:14-15 ESV)

Yet when it comes to Colossians, the ESV wanders off into obscure new territory:

“And you, who were dead in your trespasses and the uncircumcision of your flesh, God made alive together with him, having forgiven us all our trespasses, by cancelling the record of debt [dogma] that stood against us with its legal demands. This he set aside, nailing it to the cross”. (Col 2:13-14, ESV)

Firstly, we should note that the word ‘dogma’ has no connotations of debt. Secondly, across the entire NT there is, in any case, no notion of human debt – whether owed by us or paid by Christ. So why did the translators introduce such a notion, and how should this verse read? Both Young’s Literal Translation (YLT) and David Bentley Hart (DBH)’s translation seek to remain as true to the Greek as they can:

“And you—being dead in the trespasses and the uncircumcision of your flesh—He made alive together with him, having forgiven you all the trespasses, having blotted out the handwriting in the ordinances that is against us, that was contrary to us, and he hath taken it out of the way, having nailed it to the cross;” (Col 2:13-14, YLT)

“And, while you were dead in trespasses and in your foreskin of flesh, he gave you life along with him, forgiving all trespasses, Expunging what is written by hand against uscontrary to us—in ordinances, and has removed it, out of the way, nailing it to the cross” (Col 2:13-14, DBH)

So the literal reading is of ordinances that are handwritten and are against us, contrary to us.

Now we know that the Torah was written by two agents: the Decalogue was written by the finger of God on tablets of stone (Ex 31:18) whilst the rest of the Mitzvot were written down by the hand of Moses (Ex 24:3-4).

Although the Law was good (Rom 7:12) it nevertheless served to separate Jew from Gentile. Christ’s desire was to remove this distinction, so that both Jew and Gentile would unite to become one with himself (John 17:20,21, Eph 1:9). It is not difficult to see that many of the 613 Mitzvot stood in the way of that end.

The context of Ephesians is of Jew and Gentile unity, and of Colossians it is of Gentile inclusion by the means of the cross of Christ. By examining the context the case becomes perfectly clear. “Dogma” refers to the ordinances written by Moses which created separation and hostility, and stood in the way of Gentiles being welcomed into God’s Family. This is what was nailed to the cross!

So we can safely reject the ESV’s ‘record of debt’ as an act of creative eisegesis.

(Yet again we need to be alert to inconsistencies in translation. Any given Greek word should always be translated into the same English word or else we are skewing our texts).

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* The main words which describe the OT are:

– “nomos” (literally “regulations”) translated as “Law”

– “graphe” (literally “a document”) translated as “Scripture”, and

– “gramma” (literally “writing”) translated as “written code” or “letter”.

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