The Fallacy of Jewish Works-Righteousness

Following some recent discussions with my brother over at Shema, I have begun to study more about the prevailing view of 1st century Jewish culture and adherence to Torah. As part of this research, I recently read an article by N.T. Wright on Communion and Koinonia (the full text of which can be found here.) Which, among other things, discusses the validity of the points espoused by the New Perspective on Paul.

Wright, following Sanders’ lead, said the following (the quote is a bit long, so please forgive me):

The main thrust of Sanders’s work, which I endorse, is that first century Judaism was not a system of Pelagian-style works-righteousness. First century Jews were not imagining that they had to earn ‘righteousness’, that is, basic membership in God’s people, membership in the covenant, through doing moral good deeds. They did not regard the Torah, the Jewish law, as a ladder of good works up which they had to climb, with salvation as the reward at the top. On the contrary. As any good Calvinist could have told Sanders, they regarded the Torah as a good, lovely, God-given thing, not a ladder of good works for eager merit-earners, but the way of life for the people already redeemed. God chose Israel; God redeemed Israel from slavery in Egypt by an act of sheer grace and power; and God then gave Israel the Torah, not to earn their status with God but to demonstrate it. Now it is true, of course, that the Mishnah and Talmud, the codified commentaries and elaborations on Torah-keeping which grew up over the half-millennium after Paul’s day, do indeed look like the kind of casuistical law-mongering which many people think of today when they hear the word ‘legalism’. But Sanders’s point here stands, despite many attempts to dislodge it. The main motive for keeping the law in Judaism was not to earn membership in the people of God, or justification or salvation, but to express one’s gratitude for it, to demonstrate one’s membership, and ultimately to become the sort of person God clearly intended you to become. In Lutheran terms, it was tertius usus legis. In Calvinist terms, this was why God gave the law in the first place.

What then about the famous Pauline phrase, ‘works of law’? Here is the second insight of the ‘new perspective’ comes into play, which I shall argue is the key one for discussion we need in today’s Anglican communion in discussions of koinonia, tolerance, and boundaries. James Dunn has argued strongly, following the line of thought which I myself pioneered but taking it a stage further, that ‘the works of the law’ which Paul declares do not justify are not in general moral principles, a ‘law’ in that sense, but ‘the works of the law’ which marked out Jews from their paganm neighbours. They are, in other words, circumsion, the food laws, and the sabbaths – the three things which every Jew on the ancient world, and many pagans in the ancient world too, knew were the boundary-markers between Jews and pagans. The point in keeping these was to say, “We are Jews, not pagans outside the Torah. We are God’s people; he has made his covenant with us; we are called to be the light of the world, and by keeping God’s law we will keep ourselves separate from the world and show the world who God really is’.

The third insight which I myself bring to, and take from the New Perspective has to do with Paul’s critique of Israel. Paul’s critique of Israel is not that Israel is guilty of the kind of legalism of which Augustine criticised Pelagius, or Luther criticised Erasmus. Certainly Paul is not accusing Israel of the half-hearted moralistic Pelagianism of which, it used to be said, the average Englishman was guilty of most of the time, doing a few good deeds now and then and hoping God would notice and give him a pat on the back at the end of the day. (There aren’t so many people like that around today, as you may have noticed.) Rather, Paul is criticising Israel, his own former self included, for saying that God was exclusively Israel’s God. Israel, he says, is ignorant of God’s righteousness, and is seeking to establish her own, a ‘righteousness’ which would be for Jews and Jews only; whereas, in Jesus’ Jewish Messiah, and by the cross and resurrection, God has thrown open covenant membership, ‘righteousness’, to all who believe (Romans 10. 1-4)

This opens us up to some important insight into Paul’s Epistle to the Romans, and effectively squashes what we have for so long believed and taught about Jews. In fact, it goes to show that perhaps the view we have toted for so long about Jewish legalistic works-righteousnes is born more out of the anti-semitism of the second century than sound Biblical exegesis.

If this is the case, and there is strong evidence to support it, then the practice of Law that we have for so long forsaken as the anathema of salvation by faith may in fact have been God’s intended purpose for the early Church, and by inheritance, ours as well.

This is definitely some food for thought for those, like myself, who have struggled so vigorously with the seeming conflict between faith and works throughout the Pauline epistles. What an amazing thought that Paul may not have contradicted himself at all, but that we may have merely been blind to truth.



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