Gentiles and Torah: Romans 2:14 and the Nature of Biblical Greek Adverbs

October 14, 2022 // Kevin Grasso


Share this Post


Romans 2:14 in Greek reads ὅταν γὰρ ἔθνη τὰ μὴ νόμον ἔχοντα φύσει τὰ τοῦ νόμου ποιῶσιν, οὗτοι νόμον μὴ ἔχοντες ἑαυτοῖς εἰσιν νόμος·

We can translate this as 'For whenever gentiles who do not have Torah naturally do the things of the Torah, they are the Torah for themselves, though not having the Torah.'

I have left some ambiguity in my translation, particularly with the word 'naturally,' which will be our topic today. I will suggest a better translation at the end after we resolve the ambiguity. Most translations, such as the ESV and NASB 1995, leave this ambiguity out.

ESV: For when Gentiles, who do not have the law, by nature do what the law requires, they are a law to themselves, even though they do not have the law.

NASB 1995: For when Gentiles who do not have the Law do instinctively the things of the Law, these, not having the Law, are a law to themselves.

The trouble is how to understand the word φύσει, which is usually translated 'by nature' or 'instinctively.' Both of these translations connect this word with doing the law (which we have translated as Torah throughout, since it is specifically the Torah that gentiles do not have). However, a minority view among translations is to take the word φύσει as modifying the previous clause, the 'not having the Torah.' We see this in the Christian Standard Bible, for example:

So, when Gentiles, who do not by nature have the law, do what the law demands, they are a law to themselves even though they do not have the law.

In my own translation, I have left it ambiguous, but how I read the verse should give away my position. If we say 'For whenever gentiles who do not have the Torah naturally, do the things of the Torah..." then the understanding is that the gentiles do not naturally have the Torah. If we say 'For whenever gentiles who do not have the Torah, naturally do the things of the Torah...", then the meaning is that the Torah is performed by means of something within the nature of gentiles. I will argue that the grammar and context supports the former. There are two main considerations here: first, how adverbs work and second, what Paul thinks about gentiles.

The Nature of Adverbs

Let's talk about adverbs. Adverbs can modify different parts of a sentence, and this is often dependent upon syntax. For example, we can say something like 'Olivia naturally loves cake' or 'Naturally, Olivia loves cake.' These two sentences are not normally interpreted in the same way. When we put 'naturally' after the subject, it means that, according to Olivia's nature, she loves cake. When we put it before the subject, the word 'naturally' actually modifies the entire clause, so it means something like it is natural that Olivia loves cake. Other adverbs go in different places or are disallowed by certain verbs. So an adverb like 'swiftly' normally goes at the end of the sentence, such as in 'Olivia is running swiftly,' but a verb like 'love' doesn't like that adverb. We would never say 'Olivia loves cake swiftly.'

In light of this, let's go back to our verse. The question is whether the sentence should be read as τὰ μὴ νόμον ἔχοντα φύσει or φύσει τὰ τοῦ νόμου ποιῶσιν. In other words, is it more likely for this particular adverb to combine with ἔχοντα or ποιῶσιν, and do we have evidence of this adverb coming at the end of the verb phrase or at the beginning. The form φύσει is only found a handful of times in the New Testament, and it is normally found with nonverbal predicates, such as copula clauses. We'll come back to an example like this later.

We do have an example from Josephus's Antiquities 16.89 of φύσει combining adverbially with ἔχω in the phrase τὸ δὲ ἀληθὲς ἀφʼ ἧς εἶχεν φύσει κακοηθείας 'but the truth was, from which (his mind) he had malevolence naturally'. Here, the adverb φύσει comes after the verb εἶχεν, and what is being described is a state. This fits well with our example where φύσει also comes after the verb, and a state is being described.

So are there any examples with ποιέω, or at least an eventive verb, where φύσει is used adverbially? In fact, every example of φύσει used adverbially in Paul modifies a state. Granted, there are only 4 occurrences of this, but it is still suggestive. The same is also true for the two occurrences of φύσει in the Septuagint--both modify a state. The examples from Josephus, of which there are 91, also seem to conform to this general pattern. Of course, we cannot prove that φύσει could not have been used with eventive verbs in Koine Greek, even if we looked through all of the examples that we have.

All of these examples, however, point in the same direction--it is more likely that φύσει is modifying the state ἔχω rather than the event ποιέω. The adverb would then refer to a state that holds by nature rather than something that would be done naturally. In English, 'naturally' can modify either, but that doesn't mean that φύσει works the same way in Greek. The data, in fact, suggests otherwise.

Paul and Gentiles

The second consideration is what Paul says about what gentiles are naturally. Suffice it to say, he doesn't have the nicest things to say about them. For example, one of the other uses of φύσει in Paul comes from Galatians 2:15, which says Ἡμεῖς φύσει Ἰουδαῖοι καὶ οὐκ ἐξ ἐθνῶν ἁμαρτωλοί 'We are Jews by nature and not sinners from the gentiles'. In other words, Jews are not flagrant sinners naturally as the pagans of other nations are.

More references could be added, but this is very clear--gentiles are, at least by nature, sinful. And this makes perfect sense from Paul's perspective. How could other nations be naturally obedient if they did not have the Torah, God's revelation to humankind? But if other nations did not naturally have the Torah to guide them, they would naturally be sinners.

The Interpretation of Romans 2:14

I am by no means the first to suggest this reading, though I do not know of others who have argued for it on the basis of the nature of φύσει. Most argue it from the next verse, which also favors the reading we have been arguing for. It says that such show that the Torah has been written on their hearts. What humans have the Torah written on their hearts that would lead them to obey the Torah? Those who are part of the New Covenant as given in Jeremiah 31:31-34.

Through the power of the spirit and God writing the Torah on the heart, the people will be empowered to obey Torah. As Paul says in Romans 8:4, it is only people who walk according to the spirit that can fulfill the righteous requirement of the Torah. It would be very odd for Paul to say that the only people who can fulfill the Torah are those who have the Spirit and also those who are gentiles without the Torah and without the Spirit, whom Paul elsewhere calls sinners by nature.

This, however, is what the ESV and NASB 1995 translations require us to say. The most natural way to translate our verse, then, is 'For whenever gentiles who do not naturally have Torah do the things of the Torah, they are the Torah for themselves, though not having the Torah.' These people are gentile Christians who are empowered by the Spirit to obey the Torah, as described in Romans 8:4. They have the Torah written on their hearts and are a part of the new covenant. Such an interpretation makes the best sense of the adverb φύσει, Paul's perspective on the nature of gentiles, and how these doers of Torah are described.