Legal Metaphors In The Epistles -- By: Francis Lyall

Journal: Tyndale Bulletin
Volume: TYNBUL 32:1 (NA 1981)
Article: Legal Metaphors In The Epistles
Author: Francis Lyall


Legal Metaphors In The Epistles

Francis Lyall

The Tyndale New Testament Lecture, 1980

I. Legal Metaphors And Roman Law

It is generally agreed that much of our language is metaphoric. We often communicate not by the precise exposition of idea, but by analogy and symbol. We grasp things said metaphorically, without necessarily completely understanding them. Pruned of the richness of metaphor our language would be impoverished. Indeed what I have said just now is couched in the metaphors of manual dexterity and of gardening. But the function of communication is communication. Unless the symbol expressing the idea is comprehended by the recipient in the way it is understood by its user, the transmission of information or feeling through the use of the idea is defective. We must therefore seek to understand the picture-language of the NT in the way its users would have done. The Lamb of God is not a cuddly toy.1

This applies no less to the legal metaphors in the epistles than to any of the others. In order to understand what is being communicated by a metaphor drawn from the law, we have to understand what the law on the matter was and meant in its ordinary employment. This has, two applications. First we may look at ideas as they appear in different legal systems in NT times;2 the recipients of the epistles, and certainly their later readers, would have interpreted legal language by the law they knew, and it is interesting and informative to see. what they would have found. The second application is to ask what was the intention of the writers; what did they understand by these words, and what did they intend to convey and believe they were conveying by these technical expressions? Both elements require us to find a source, or sources for the legal metaphors.

In the case of the legal metaphors in the epistles there are three main possible sources. There is Roman law, Greek law and Jewish law. Roman law was the law of the Empire or rather the law of imperial citizens. That law, was present wherever a Roman went. It was found in the courts of the Roman officials and governors, and in the Roman colonies scattered throughout the territory of the Empire. Such colonies were embedded within an alien legal environment, for the Romans did not impose their own law, but left the indigenous law of an area still applicable to its inhabitants. They interfered with the

indigenous law only as required for reasons of state.3

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