Did Paul Really Say that Jesus Became “a Curse”?

Many things written by the apostle Paul have been deemed “hard to understand” (2 Peter 3:16). One of the misunderstood passages by Paul is the one referred to in the title of this article.

Paul’s letter to the Galatians has been considered one of the most important for understanding Paul’s attitude toward Judaism and the Torah. He certainly says much about “works of the law” (he mentions it five times in this letter alone). His overall argument in this letter to his Gentile (non-Jewish) converts in the Roman province of Galatia is that they do not need to become circumcised in order to be saved from the coming wrath that the God of Israel was about to unleash on the world. A divine mechanism had just been put into place, according to Paul, by which Gentiles could join their fellow Jews in avoiding the wrath and entering into a new age, one ruled by God and administered by his messiah (Christ).

In Galatians, Paul explains how this mechanism works. Paul argues that “Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us – for it is written, ‘Cursed is everyone who is hanged on a tree’” (Galatians 3:13). There is a lot to unpack in this seemingly simple passage so let’s begin by determining the nature of the target audience and who “us” is.

It is imperative that when reading Paul’s undisputed letters (i.e., deemed authentic by all scholars) that we remember that he is writing to non-Jews (Gentiles). They are the targets of his mission: “James [the brother of Jesus], Cephas [i.e., Peter], and John, who were acknowledged pillars, recognized the grace that had been given to me, they gave to Barnabas and me the right hand of fellowship, agreeing that we should go to the Gentiles and they to the circumcised” (Galatians 2:9). The Gentiles are polytheist (i.e., pagan) Greco-Romans.

When writing to these Gentiles, Paul employs a number of Greek rhetorical devices that would have been recognizable to his Gentile recipients (while, alas, they escape many modern readers). In this passage, Paul identifies with his collective audience, his Gentiles converts, by including himself among them. When Paul says that “Christ has redeemed us” he means “us Gentiles.” Paul, of course, is not a Gentile. But this technique of argumentation allows him to speak as if he is one of them. Keep in mind, too, that Paul is not writing to all people everywhere for all time. He is speaking to his Gentile converts in Galatia.

This makes sense because of what Paul says next. The “curse of the law” Paul implies they are under is not a curse for Jews. Jews have the law as part of their everlasting covenant with God. It is not a curse for them. On the contrary, it provides them with the means to live according to God’s will as a specially chosen people. The law can only curse them if they reject it. So who is cursed according to Paul’s Jewish understanding? Non-Jews! There are several passages in Hebrew scripture which provide the basis for this belief.

“Cursed is he who does not confirm the words of this law by doing them” (Deuteronomy 27:26). “But it shall come about, if you will not obey the LORD your God, to observe to do all His commandments and His statutes with which I charge you today, that all these curses shall come upon you and overtake you” (Deuteronomy 28:15). “Thus says the LORD, the God of Israel: Cursed be the man who does not hear the words of this covenant that I commanded your fathers when I brought them out of the land of Egypt” (Jeremiah 11:3-4).”

By the time of Paul, there was an understanding among certain Jews that all the world’s people were responsible for keeping Torah but that only Israel had accepted it when it was offered. Be that as it may, it was a universal Jewish axiom that Gentiles were, by default, cursed (there were sometimes exceptions for so-called “righteous Gentiles” but these were very few in number).

Next, Paul says that Christ redeemed Gentiles from the curse of not abiding by the law by becoming accursed himself. How and why did Christ do that? Paul cites a passage from Torah that he believes refers to Christ (by the way, for those who argue that Paul rejected Torah, one must explain why he relies on it for every proof text he employs to support his arguments): “If a man has committed a crime punishable by death and he is put to death, and you hang him on a tree, his corpse shall not hang all night on the tree, but you shall surely bury him on the same day – for he who is hanged is accursed of God” (Deuteronomy 21:22-23). Paul equates this passage with Jesus’ death on the cross (a “tree”). In this way, Jesus became accursed. Now that we have the “how,” it is time to address the “why.”

Paul has established that Gentiles are under a curse simply for being Gentiles. They have not accepted God’s law and this situation puts them under a curse. Jesus was executed by crucifixion, hung on a “tree,” and became cursed. But Jesus did not reject Torah. Nevertheless, by being hung on a tree he found himself rejected by Torah, accursed by the provision we cited above. That puts Gentiles and Jesus Christ, at least temporarily, in the same situation: they are all accursed. For that moment, Jesus has become like a Gentile. So now what?

Paul taught that God “raised Jesus from the dead” (Galatians 1:1). The curse Jesus fell under by way of his crucifixion was divinely undone, reversed. The cursed Jesus became the exalted Christ creating a pathway from curse to redemption that others could follow. To take advantage of this new possibility, Paul advised, Gentiles must baptized into the death and resurrection of Christ. Paul wrote, “Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? We were buried therefore with him by baptism into death, in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life” (Romans 6:3-4).

For Paul, then, the most important aspect of the life of Jesus Christ is this death-curse-redemption trail blazed for the benefit of the non-Jewish world, heretofore denied salvation other than by conversion to Judaism. It is this theological supposition that is at the heart of Paul’s entire missionary career. He brought this message to the non-Jewish world “until the full number of the Gentiles has come in” (Romans 11:25). Then he believed the end of the age would arrive. By doing this, Paul believed he was fulfilling the prophecy of Hebrew scripture: “At that time they shall call Jerusalem the throne of the LORD, and all the nations [i.e., Gentiles] will be gathered to it, to Jerusalem, for the name of the LORD; nor shall they walk anymore after the stubbornness of their evil heart” (Jeremiah 3:17).