The Law as "Schoolmaster"

Notes © 1997, 2008 by T.L. Hubeart Jr.

Gal. 3:24 (KJV) Wherefore the law was our schoolmaster to bring us unto Christ, that we might be justified by faith.

On the "Interactive Bible's" web site we are informed that this is an "undisputable" error in translation, and that the proper rendering is "attendant" because "the law was the one who brought us to Christ, not taught us about Christ." The foundation of this objection is not very clearly stated, but from other sources we can piece it together; a footnote in the New Berkeley Version states that the Greek word paidagogos (which is in Strong's Concordance as G3807) signifies "a man, usually a slave, who guided a boy to and from school."

However, the following expositors explain the passage in a manner that supports the KJV's rendering, understanding the law as having to do with teaching us, not only with bringing us to Christ:

Some other translations seem closer to supporting the KJV's "schoolmaster" than the rendering "attendant":

Also, Darby, RV/ASV, NAS, NKJV all give "tutor." (Mention of a couple of other interesting translations will be made below.) In fact, the same Gk. word is at 1 Cor. 4:15, translated "instructors" in the KJV.

Elsewhere in the Bible we find that the law gives a "shadow of good things to come" (Heb. 10:1; Col. 2:17); was "not made for a righteous man," but for the sinful, and is good if used lawfully (1 Tim. 1:8-9); and that the law points to Christ but says "the man which doeth those things [commands of the law] shall live by them," while righteousness from faith says believe on Christ (Rom. 10:4-11). This sounds very much consistent with the KJV's description of the law as a "schoolmaster."

Consider also that several of the Church Fathers agree with the teaching role of the law:

The most that one could say in arguable critique of the KJV's translation here (which is actually Tyndale's and was carried over into the Great, Geneva, and Bishops' Bibles) is that the paidagogos was a somewhat different figure in antiquity from the "schoolmaster," which for most of us probably evokes images of Washington Irving's character Ichabod Crane. But in fact the very Greek word used here also includes connotations which are not at all suited to the context. Just after defining the paidagogos as "a slave who served as tutor, guardian, and servant of the child put in his care," and who taught him the "alphabet and simple reading," Jerome Carcopino in his informative book Daily Life in Ancient Rome (Yale University Press, 1940, p. 104) observes that "The spoiled son of a wealthy family had a splendid time putting his so-called 'master' in his place, the place suited to a servant, whether he called himself a tutor or not," citing Plautus' Bacchides by way of illustration. But clearly Paul is not suggesting that the one bringing us to Christ was a servant who could be put in his place!

One should also bear in mind that at the time when the KJV was translated, only scholars trained in the classical languages would have appreciated the subtle distinctions between the Greek term paidagogos and the English word "schoolmaster." Indeed, even some more recent versions suggest difficulty among contemporary translators; Young's Literal invents a term, "child-conductor"; NIV delves into paraphrase ("So the law was put in charge to lead us to Christ...Now that faith has come, we are no longer under the supervision of the law"); and the Holman Christian Standard Bible gives "guardian" with a footnote including the comment that "In our culture, we do not have a slave who takes a child to and from school, protecting the child from harm or corruption." (HCSB's further remark that the paidagogos "was not a teacher" is, as clearly demonstrated above, not entirely accurate but shows that even learned men struggle with explaining the exact connotations to English readers.) It seems clear that the best way of rendering paidagogos into English in the 16th and 17th centuries was to use a functional equivalent, "schoolmaster," just as it made sense to use the word "candlestick" in passages like Matt. 5:15 because that was more intelligible in 1611 than it would have been to coin a neologism like "lamp-stand." And since the above quotations clearly demonstrate the teaching role of the paidagogos, the choice of the word "schoolmaster" seems to have been a judicious one.

In short, something that seems consistent with the interpretation of so many expositors, both in antiquity and our own times, and which is not even contradicted by a plurality of modern versions, cannot reasonably be construed as an "error."

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