The Patriarchal Law

Have you ever found yourself listening to a teacher or preacher repeatedly using a word or phrase that you do not understand? Have you ever heard someone speak about “hermeneutics” or “premillenialism,” and then come to find out in your personal study of the Scriptures that these terms are nowhere to be found in the Bible? Teachers and preachers (like myself) often assume more than we should. We assume that people recognize the phrase “sacred hermeneutics” as “the science of interpreting the Scriptures.” We use fancy words like “eschatology” (the study of final things), but then never define it. Such often is the case when we speak of “the Patriarchal Law.” We mention it, but rarely do we help the audience understand what it is.

The English term “patriarch” derives from the Greek patriarches, which actually is made of two words—pater, meaning “father;” and arches, meaning “head” or “founder.” A patriarch is “the head of a father’s house—the founder or ruler of a tribe, family, or clan” (Nelson’s, 1986). Surprisingly, the term patriarch(s) is found in the Bible only four times. It is applied in the New Testament to David (Acts 2:29), to the sons of Jacob (twice in Acts 7:8-9), and to Abraham (Hebrews 7:4). The title of patriarch often is assigned to those whose lives are recorded in Scripture previous to the time of Moses. In Peter’s sermon in Jerusalem on the Day of Pentecost, he expanded the term to include King David (Acts 2:29). Today, however, when teachers and preachers use the phrase “patriarchal age,” they most often are referring to the time before the Law of Moses was given at Sinai. [NOTE: For the Gentiles, this “age” lasted until the coming of the Christian dispensation.]

But what about the “Patriarchal Law?” What is this law that we hear mentioned so often, yet seldom see explained? The fact is, the phrase “Patriarchal Law” is never found in the Bible. It is simply a name given to the law that governed all men from the time of Adam to the time of Moses, and for Gentiles from Adam until the Christian dispensation began. Other than Christianity and Judaism, there has been but one other law, through the ages, under which God accepted worship: This was a system that had continued since commands were first given in Eden. Although the Bible does not give this law a “proper name,” it has become known as “the Patriarchal Law.”

The Law of Moses was given only to the Israelites—and to those Gentiles who suffered themselves to be proselyted (by circumcision) to it (Deuteronomy 4:1-8; 5:1-21; Acts 2:10; 13:43; 2 Corinthians 3:1-11). But the Gentiles also were under some kind of law, for the apostle Paul stated, “where there is no law, neither is there transgression” (Romans 4:15). For the Gentiles to have been guilty of sin (which we know they were—Romans 3:10,23), they must have transgressed some law. What law was it? It was not the Law of Moses, because they were not amenable to that law. It was not the Law of Christ, because it did not come into effect until the first century A.D. Then under what law (prior to the events recorded in Acts 10—the conversion of the first Gentiles to Christianity) did the Gentiles live? They lived under the only law to which they were amenable—commonly known as “the Patriarchal Law.”

We know from both sacred and profane history that non-proselytized Gentiles were unable to participate in the Jewish covenant. We also know that God would not (and did not!) abandon millions of people to a life without hope of salvation just because they were outside the Law of Moses, since that would make Him a respecter of persons—something Peter stated very plainly He is not (cf. Acts 10:34). When Paul spoke in Ephesians 2:12 of certain Gentiles who in the past had no hope and were “without God in the world,” he did not imply that they were in that position simply because they were Gentiles, but because they were Gentiles who had not been obedient to the particular law they had been given. We know that Gentiles were, in fact, amenable to a law system that was not the Law of Moses, as Paul made clear in Romans 2:12-16 when he wrote:

For as many as have sinned without law shall also perish without the law: and as many as have sinned under the law shall be judged by the law; for not the hearers of the law are just before God, but the doers of the law shall be justified: (for when Gentiles that have not the law do by nature the things of the law, these, not having the law, are the law unto themselves; in that they show the work of the law written in their hearts, their conscience bearing witness therewith, and their thoughts one with another accusing or else excusing them).

Though Gentiles were not under the Law of Moses (as were all Jews prior to the Christian dispensation), they were under a law, which they could either obey or disobey. At least part of this law included their conscience. In his commentary on Romans, Robertson Whiteside observed:

The Gentiles never had the law of Moses, but there are certain fundamental principles that inhere in the nature of our existence and in our relations to one another. Some things are right, and some things are wrong, within themselves. If a man never had revelation from God, he would know that it was wrong to murder his fellow man, or to rob him of his possessions, or in any way to infringe on his rights. Cain sinned in killing his brother and felt his guilt, though we have no record that God had told him not to kill. God’s moral law is the same to all nations…. [T]hey [the Gentiles—EL] did have an idea of right and wrong (1988, p. 57).

The Gentiles’ Patriarchal Law involved all “the law written in their hearts,” plus whatever direct revelation they received from God. Adam, Cain, Noah, and Abraham all received direct revelation from God. These, and all others who were never under the Law of Moses (e.g., Cornelius, Acts 10), were to obey the commands given to them, as well as “law written in their hearts.” Together, these laws and eternal principles written in the hearts of man made up what is known commonly as “the Patriarchal Law.”

Although there still is much we do not understand about the Patriarchal Law, (e.g., what direct revelations they received; what “laws” were passed down from generation to generation; etc.), we can know that the Gentiles were under a law (that was not the Law of Moses or the Law of Christ), because they were guilty of “transgression” (Romans 4:15; 5:13). And if there is transgression, then there must be some law. Man has given this law a name—patriarchy.

The most important thing you must realize about the Patriarchal Law is that it is no longer in effect today. The reason it continued for Gentiles beyond the giving of the Law of Moses was because the Law of Moses was not a universal law—it was given only to the Israelites and to those Gentiles who suffered themselves to be proselyted to it (Deuteronomy 4:1-8; 5:1-21; Acts 2:10). Today, however, all Jews and Gentiles are under one law—the Law of Christ (Ephesians 2:11-22). Why is this the case? Because this new law is universal in scope. It is addressed to “all nations” and is to be obeyed by both Jews and Gentiles (Matthew 28:19-20; Luke 24:47; cf. Acts 1:8; Acts 17:30).


“Patriarch” (1986), Nelson’s Illustrated Bible Dictionary (Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson).

Whiteside, Robertson L. (1988), A New Commentary on Paul’s Letter to the Saints at Rome (Bowling Green, KY: Guardian of Truth Foundation).


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