In his study of Sophocles, Tragedy and Civilization , Charles Segal points to several Greek terms that might be translated as “civilization” and that capture various aspects of civilized life:

NOMOS = the established institutions, customs, and norms of a people
POLITEIA = the form of government, especially the constitutional forms
PAIDEIA = culture as manifested and transmitted in poetry and art

All of these, he suggests, are to be contrasted with PHUSIS, nature, which when applied to mankind describes man in a semi-bestial or savage state. Segal, following the lead of structuralist criticism, examines Sophocles in terms of the conflict of PHUSIS and NOMOS.

Among other things, this raises a question about interpretation of Paul. Is it possible that by NOMOS Paul means something more like “civilized order” than like “rules”? Specifically, his claim that justification does not come by Jewish “law” would be a claim that human salvation does not come through observance of the customs and norms of the law, nor conformity to those institutions. But the claim also has a polemical edge against Gentiles, especially Romans, who offered SOTERIA (salvation) through the imposition of Roman NOMOS (civilization). That Paul is playing with the problematics of nature and civilization might be indicated by his use of PHUSIS and NOMOS in Romans 2. Plus, at some points in Romans, it does seem clear that Paul is not using NOMOS to refer to the “precepts of the written law” but to something like the “order prescribed by the law” (eg, Rom 8:1ff). What’s being contrasted is the law-order, the civilization of sin and death that characterized the OC, and the law-order or civilization of the Spirit that characterizes the NC.

More on: Classics

Articles by Peter J. Leithart

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