What is the origin of the phrase "A law unto himself", and did it originally have the meaning popularly associated with it?
#100180. Asked by davejacobs. (Oct 13 08 1:37 AM)
Nowadays, if we say that a person is a law unto himself, we generally mean that he makes his own rules and is not subject to the same rules and conventions as the rest of us.|
However, the phrase seems to mean something different in St Paul’s epistle to the Romans, from which it originates: In the King James version, verses 10 to 15 of chapter 2 read:
But glory, honour, and peace, to every man that worketh good, to the Jew first, and also to the Gentile:
For there is no respect of persons with God.
For as many as have sinned without law shall also perish without law: and as many as have sinned in 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 the Gentiles, which have not the law, do by nature the things contained in the law, these, having not the law, are a law unto themselves:
Which shew the work of the law written in their hearts, their conscience also bearing witness, and their thoughts the mean while accusing or else excusing one another.)
“These … are a law unto themselves” seems to mean that they naturally recognize the dictates of the law even though it has not been expounded to them. So the Gentiles are not “a law unto themselves” in the general modern sense: they are subject to the same law as the Jews, even though they have acquired their knowledge of it by a different route.
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