“The Law Has Become Our Tutor”

HOW many children appreciate the value of rules and discipline? Not many. For them, restrictions are tiresome. Those with the responsibility of helping young ones, however, know that appropriate oversight is absolutely necessary. And as the years pass, most youngsters will probably come to appreciate the value of the guidance received. The apostle Paul used the image of a man who protected children to illustrate an aspect of the developing relationship between Jehovah God and his people.

 Some first-century Christians in the Roman province of Galatia insisted that God favored only those who obeyed the Law that God gave to the Israelites through Moses. The apostle Paul knew this to be false, for God gave holy spirit to some who had never observed Jewish law. (Acts 15:12) So Paul corrected the wrong idea by means of an illustration. In a letter to the Galatian Christians, he wrote: “The Law has become our tutor leading to Christ.” (Galatians 3:24) The figure of a tutor, says one scholar, has “an ancient and rich background.” Understanding this background clarifies the point that the apostle Paul was making.

The Tutor and His Responsibilities

Tutors were widely used in well-to-do Greek, Roman, and perhaps even Jewish households to supervise the activities of children from infancy to puberty. The tutor was generally a trusted slave, often aged, who acted as an attendant to ensure a child’s safety and to see to it that the father’s wishes for the child were respected. All day long, the tutor accompanied the child wherever he went, attended to his hygiene, took him to school, often carried his books and other equipment, and watched over his studies.

The tutor was not usually a schoolteacher. Rather than giving formal scholastic instruction, the tutor merely administered the father’s directives in a custodial fashion. He did, however, give indirect instruction through supervision and discipline. This included inculcating decorum, imparting rebukes, and even inflicting physical punishment for misconduct. The mother and father, of course, were the child’s primary educators. Yet, as the boy grew, his tutor taught him that he should have good posture when he walked in the streets, that he should wear his cloak, sit, and eat properly, and that he  should rise for his elders, love his parents, and so on.

Greek philosopher Plato (428-348 B.C.E.) was in no doubt that childish passions had to be restrained. “Just as no sheep or other grazing beast ought to exist without a herdsman, so children cannot live without a tutor, nor slaves without a master,” he wrote. This view might seem extreme; still, that is how Plato saw things.

The constant presence of tutors earned them a reputation as oppressive guards and harsh disciplinarians, the source of an endless flow of petty, tiresome, and ineffective accusations. Even so, the tutor provided protection, both moral and physical. Greek historian Appian of the second century C.E. relates the story of one tutor who en route to school had to throw his arms around his ward to protect him from would-be murderers. When he refused to release the boy, both tutor and child were killed.

Immorality was rife in the Hellenistic world. Children, especially boys, needed protection from sexual molestation. Tutors would thus attend the child’s lessons, since many schoolteachers could not be trusted. Greek orator Libanius of the fourth century C.E. went so far as to say that tutors had to act as “guards of the blossoming youth,” to “drive out the undesirable lovers, thrusting them away and keeping them out, not allowing them to fraternize with the boys.” Many tutors earned the respect of those whom they protected. Memorial stones attest to the gratitude adults still felt for beloved former tutors when these died.

The Law as a Tutor

Why did the apostle Paul compare the Mosaic Law to a tutor? What makes this illustration particularly appropriate?

The first aspect is the protective nature of the Law. Paul explained that the Jews were “guarded under law.” It was as though they were in the protective custody of a tutor. (Galatians 3:23) The Law influenced every aspect of their life. It bridled their lustful passions and their fleshly desires. It supervised their conduct and continually rebuked them for their shortcomings, making each Israelite aware of his own imperfections.

The Law was also a protection from corrupting influences, such as the degraded moral and religious practices of the nations that surrounded Israel. God’s prohibition on intermarriage with pagans, for example, was essential to the spiritual well-being of the nation as a whole. (Deuteronomy 7:3, 4) Such statutes preserved the spiritual purity of God’s people and prepared them to be able to recognize the Messiah. These were loving provisions indeed. Moses reminded his fellow Israelites: “Just as a man corrects his son, Jehovah your God was correcting you.”​—Deuteronomy 8:5.

An essential element of the apostle Paul’s illustration, however, was the temporary nature of a tutor’s authority. When the child reached the age of maturity, he was no longer under his tutor’s control. The Greek historian Xenophon (431-352 B.C.E.) wrote: “When a boy ceases to be a child, and begins to be a lad, others release him from his [tutor] and from his [teacher]; he is then no longer under them, but is allowed to go his own way.”

It was the same with the authority of the Law of Moses. Its function was temporary​—“to make transgressions manifest, until the seed [Jesus Christ] should arrive.” The apostle Paul explained that for the Jews, the Law was a “tutor leading to Christ.” In order for Paul’s Jewish contemporaries to enjoy God’s favor, they had to recognize Jesus’ role in God’s purpose. Once they did so, the function of the tutor was fulfilled.​—Galatians 3:19, 24, 25.

The Law that God gave to the Israelites was  perfect. It fully achieved the purposes for which God established it​—to protect his people and to make them aware of his high standards. (Romans 7:7-14) The Law was a good tutor. For some who lived under its protection, however, its requirements might have seemed burdensome. Hence, Paul could write that when God’s appointed time arrived, “Christ by purchase released us from the curse of the Law.” The Law was a “curse” only in the sense that it subjected imperfect Jews to standards they could not completely measure up to. It called for the scrupulous observance of rituals. Once a Jew accepted the superior provision made possible by Jesus’ ransom sacrifice, adherence to the tutor’s restrictions was no longer necessary.​—Galatians 3:13; 4:9, 10.

Paul’s focus, then, in likening the Law of Moses to a tutor was to emphasize its custodial function and its temporary nature. Jehovah’s favor is gained, not by obedience to that Law, but by recognizing Jesus and exercising faith in him.​—Galatians 2:16; 3:11.

[Box/​Picture on page 21]


Besides writing about a tutor, the apostle Paul also used the illustrations of “men in charge” and “stewards.” At Galatians 4:1, 2, we read: “As long as the heir is a babe he does not differ at all from a slave, lord of all things though he is, but he is under men in charge and under stewards until the day his father appointed beforehand.” The functions of “men in charge” and “stewards” were distinct from those of tutors, but the point that Paul wished to make was basically the same.

Under Roman law, a ‘man in charge’ was legally appointed to act as a guardian for an orphaned minor and to manage the child’s financial affairs until the child reached adulthood. Thus, says Paul, even though such a child was theoretically “lord” over his inheritance, while he remained a child, he had no more rights over it than a slave had.

A ‘steward,’ on the other hand, was an agent in charge of an estate’s financial matters. The Jewish historian Flavius Josephus says that a young man named Hyrcanus asked his father for a letter authorizing his steward to furnish Hyrcanus with money to buy whatever he needed.

So in common with being under a tutor, being under a ‘man in charge’ or under a ‘steward’ signified a lack of freedom while one was a minor. The child’s life was controlled by others until the time established by his father.

[Picture on page 19]

A painting on an ancient Greek vase showing a tutor with his staff

[Credit Line]

National Archaeological Museum, Athens

[Picture on page 19]

A scene on a fifth century B.C.E. cup showing a tutor (with staff) looking on while his charge receives instruction in poetry and music

[Credit Line]

Bildarchiv Preussischer Kulturbesitz/​Art Resource, NY