The Meaning and Origin of ‘The Letter Killeth, but the Spirit Giveth Life’

 

By Dr Oliver Tearle

The phrase ‘the letter killeth, but the spirit giveth life’ is associated with the New Testament, and specifically with the writings of St Paul. But what does St Paul mean when he declares that ‘the letter killeth, but the spirit giveth life’? What letter, and why does it kill?

To discover the meaning of this famous quotation, we need to turn to the Second Epistle to the Corinthians, and specifically, to Chapter 3, Verse 6.

The two Epistles to the Corinthians form part of a suite of books from the New Testament known as the Pauline epistles: those letters written by St Paul (or attributed to him, at least) to various churches that had been set up, mostly by Paul himself. In this case, St Paul – and his co-author of the epistle, Sosthenes – are addressing the early church at Corinth, in southern Greece.

St Paul is thought to have founded a church at Corinth in around AD 51, during his second missionary voyage. Scholars believe he wrote 2 Corinthians in around AD 57, while he was travelling to Corinth. In 2 Corinthians 13:1, Paul reports that this visit will be ‘the third time I am coming to you’, addressing the people of Corinth directly.

At the time, there were rival factions in Corinth, and Paul’s intention in sending the Second Epistle ahead of his arrival was to urge moderation and forbearance amongst the people of Corinth (i.e., don’t let’s all fight amongst ourselves).

If we pick up the King James Bible and read 2 Corinthians 3:6, we find the following verse:

Who also hath made us able ministers of the new testament; not of the letter, but of the spirit: for the letter killeth, but the spirit giveth life.

But to understand the full context for St Paul’s assertion that ‘the letter killeth, but the spirit giveth life’, it’s worth reading the first six verses of 2 Corinthians 3. The chapter begins:

Do we begin again to commend ourselves? or need we, as some others, epistles of commendation to you, or letters of commendation from you?

Ye are our epistle written in our hearts, known and read of all men:

Forasmuch as ye are manifestly declared to be the epistle of Christ ministered by us, written not with ink, but with the Spirit of the living God; not in tables of stone, but in fleshy tables of the heart.

Paul begins this chapter by pointing out that he is not doing what he is doing as some act of self-promotion. He is not ‘commending’ or promoting himself. Instead, they can see for themselves that he is carrying God’s message. They are like a letter come to life in human form, which can recommend Paul, and his cause, by word of mouth. But these letters are not written by Paul, but by Christ.

And such trust have we through Christ to God-ward:

Not that we are sufficient of ourselves to think any thing as of ourselves; but our sufficiency is of God;

Paul urges that he is not special in terms of the ability or intellect he possesses. He, and his followers, are not sufficient in and of themselves to do God’s work, but God provides them with what they need to be sufficient.

Who also hath made us able ministers of the new testament; not of the letter, but of the spirit: for the letter killeth, but the spirit giveth life.

God is the one who has made them able and sufficient ministers of the new covenant.

And now ‘letter’ changes its meaning, referring not to an ‘epistle’ or missive, but to the letter of the law. Specifically, St Paul is thinking of the Mosaic law which God handed to Moses on Mount Sinai (in other words, the Ten Commandments). This ‘letter killeth’ because a blood sacrifice was required: an animal had to be killed to atone for every sin committed by the people of Israel.

And in a broader, more metaphorical sense, the ‘letter killeth’ because the law required death to pay for death: ‘an eye for an eye’, as the Old Testament phrase has it.

But the New Testament, and Christ’s sacrifice in the form of the Crucifixion and Resurrection, changed this. Now, sins could be forgiven, and death was not necessary to pay for death. Through baptism, the ‘spirit’ that passes from Christ to his followers gives them life, rather than demanding death.

Or, in other words, the former covenant – the Old Testament law – was written in letters on stone, but the new covenant, brought by Jesus Christ, is written within the spirit. So ‘the letter killeth, but the spirit giveth life’.

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