Works of the Law in the Second Century

Category: ALL, Interviews, Outreach

Matthew J. Thomas
Paul’s “Works of the Law” in the Perspective of Second Century Reception
WUNT 2.468; Tubingen: Mohr/Siebeck, 2018.
Available at Mohr-Siebeck.

Matthew Thomas has written a great book on “works of the law” (erga nomou) in Christian writings of the second century.

Paul maintains that believers are justified by faith apart from ‘works of the law’, a disputed designation that represents a fault line between tradition Pauline perspectives and the New Perspective on Paul. In sum, does “works of the law” mean “works which the law requires” i.e. all of them, or does “works of the law” mean specific works which separate Jews from Gentile, i.e. circumcision, Sabbath, and food laws? Matthew J. Thomas concludes that second century readings of Paul opposed works neither due to moralism, nor primarily for experiential or social reasons, but because the promised new law and covenant, which are transformative and universal in scope, have come in Christ – which does sound a bit like E.P. Sanders – the problem with the Torah is that the Torah is not Christ!

A few things to note:

  • Most commentators, even James Dunn now, would accept that works of the law refers to the law in its entirety, even if certain laws might socially stick out.
  • Paul deliberately universalizes the phrase “works of the law” in places such as Gal 2:16 and Rom 3:20, where he says that by works of law “no flesh” will be justified before him, relating “works” to an anthropological problem of human evil and disobedience. 
  • Even in 4QMMT, where the context is clearly sectarian halakah, works of the laws refers to that which is “good and beneficial for you and your people.”
  • However, there was a common tradition, from Jerome to Martin Bucer, to treating works of the law as “Jewish ceremonies” or referring merely to the ceremonial aspects of the law.
  • I’ve also argued myself that:

We should pay particular attention to the ethnocentric elements of “works of law” because of three factors: (1) A cursory read of Menahem Stern’s Greek and Latin Authors on Jews and Judaism shows how acutely aware pagan authors were of Jewish separation and the loathing and vituperative rhetoric that they voiced against the Jews because of their distinctive practices (e.g., Tacitus Histories 5.5).  (2) I am struck by how Justin Martyr in his discussion of the law with Trypho immediately makes the center of attention fall on Jewish separation from Gentiles. (3) We have to acknowledge that the primary issue in Galatians and Romans was the conditions and basis of Gentile acceptance into mixed churches. 

  • This why I favour the definition of “works of the law” given by Francis Watson, the Jewish way of life codified in the Torah. This refers to the whole Torah, not just its ceremonial or social parts, but when the law is lived out, it leads to a distinct Jewish ethos and leads to a separation of the Jewish ethnos from Gentile spaces and people.

It is in this context that I think Thomas has made a great contribution to the topic. He divides the evidence into three categories: direct evidence (Justin Martyr, Irenaeus), supporting evidence (Ignatius of Antioch, Epistle to Diognetus, Melito of Sardis), and circumstantial evidence (Didache, Epistle of Barnabas, Aristides).

Thomas points out that the evidence supports something along the lines of a NPP interpretation. He writes:

While not uniform, the early perspectives on works of the law are found to be largely cohesive, with the Mosaic law being the law in question, and the specific points in conflict including the works of circumcision, Sabbath, regulations regarding food, sacrifices, observance of Jewish feasts and fasts, and a focus on the temple in Jerusalem. The practice of these works represents an identification with the Jewish people and the old covenant, as well as with humanity’s juvenile state before Christ’s advent. These works are opposed for a variety of reasons, the most prominent of which are the arrival of Christ’s law in the new covenant; the prophetic witness of Scripture; the universal scope of the new covenant; the heart transformation produced by Christ, which renders the Mosaic law unnecessary; and the examples of Abraham and the righteous patriarchs, who were similarly justified apart from these practices. With respect to the works themselves and the significance of practicing them, the so-called new perspective is found to correspond quite closely with these second century perspectives, while the old perspectives lacks similar parallels; in early conflicts with Jewish parties, there is no evidence of Christian objections to a Jewish insistence on good works, nor are Jews critiqued for trying to earn their salvation. This does not amount to a complete endorsement of the new perspective form these early witnesses, however. Among the new perspective writers, only Wright’s reasoning for why these works are rejected aligns substantially with the patristic witnesses, and portions of the old perspective’s anthropological reasoning for rejecting these works carries at least some correspondence with these early perspectives (pp. 19-20).

A notable work on Pauline reception in the second century, Paul and Judaism, works of the law, Jewish and Christian relationships, and patristic theologies of the old covenant and old testament.

Works of the Law in the Second Century