Freedom, Slavery, Torah: The Freedom Paradigm and the Mosaic Law in 2 Cor 3:1–4:6

In the history of interpretation, 2 Cor 3:1-4:6 has occupied an especially contentious space. Most scholars conclude that this passage is one of the apostle’s most negative discourses about Jews and the Torah. While I do not disagree that Paul implicitly denigrates the Torah, I contend that his argument in this subsection of his letter of reconciliation (2 Cor 1-7) is not concerned with Jewish matters as such and is not advocating a categorical abrogation of Torah. Instead, I argue in this paper that the key to the interpretation of 3:1-4:6 is 3:17, “where the spirit of the Lord is, is freedom.” This singular usage of the term “freedom” in 2 Cor, while often overlooked by scholars, invokes an entire conceptual paradigm integral to the meaning and function of this section of the letter. In nearly contemporaneous discussions of freedom, philosophers such as Cicero, Dio Chrysostom, and Epictetus relativized the distinction between slavery and freedom by expounding the popular Stoic paradox that every good man is free and every bad man a slave. In these discussions, the law often presents a hurdle to freedom. The truly free man—the sophos—is only subject to the unwritten law, or natural law. When Philo of Alexandria takes up this discussion in his Every Good Man is Free, the Torah poses a challenge for him vis-à-vis these traditions because of the scriptural emphasis on the writtenness of the law. Philo’s solution is to cast the Torah as the embodiment of the natural, unwritten law established by God at creation. In 2 Cor 3:1-4:6, Paul engages in the same philosophical conversation to a different end. For him, the Torah limits divine revelation because of its writtenness and human mediation through Moses. Paul stages the Mosaic law as a foil for his own gospel, which purportedly causes people to turn to the Lord for themselves, in Christ, and through the spirit engraved on their hearts. Simultaneously, Paul reaffirms his own authority and commission, casting himself as the paradigmatic free sophos.