Paul, Judaism, & Legalism

In my CT article on Paul, I questioned the common assumption that Paul left a legalistic Judaism at his conversion for the freedom of Christianity.  Robert Gundry responded in a letter to the editor:

In “The Paul We Think We Know,” Timothy Gombis stated that “[f]irst century Judaism didn’t have a legalism problem.” Instead, “it had an ethnocentrism problem.” Nobody doubts the existence of ethnocentrism.

But readers of CT shouldn’t infer that all scholars deny legalism. To be sure, Gombis notes that in a Dead Sea Scroll, Jews recognized “the absolute need of divine grace for salvation.” But the question is whether they thought meritorious works on their part were needed to supplement God’s grace. Yes, they did, as another Dead Sea Scroll attests: “Now we have written to you some of the works of the Law …. And to your own benefit and that of Israel, it will be credited to you as righteousness when you do what is right and good before him [God]” (contrast with Rom. 4:1-6).

Prior to his conversion, Paul himself considered his Pharisaic behavior meritorious: “as to the Law, a Pharisee; as to zeal, a persecutor of the church; as to the righteousness in the Law, having become blameless,” in which works he put “confidence” because he considered them “gains” (Phil. 3:4-7).

So at least in this respect “The Paul We Think We Know” arises out of correct thinking after all.

Gundry rightly notes that there is not a consensus among NT scholars that Judaism was not legalistic.  Further, he helpfully isolates some of the main issues up for debate.  Did Jews maintain that God’s grace must be supplemented by meritorious works?  Did Paul, prior to his conversion, have this mindset? 

I’ll roll out some thoughts about this over the next few days.

First, at the popular level, the notion that Paul’s Judaism was a legalistic religion which he abandoned at his conversion has been repeated so often that it has become established fact.  Because of this, many evangelicals assume that if they picked up a Jewish text from Paul’s day, it would contain guidelines in straightforward fashion on “how to work your way to heaven.”  They might expect a table of contents to list sections on “Why we believe in salvation by works,” or “Why the merit system is superior to grace.”  

They would be surprised to find passage after passage stressing the grace and mercy of God in salvation.  The following passage from “The Community Rule,” a document among the Dead Sea Scrolls, reads like an evangelical devotional:

Surely justification is of God; by his power is the way made perfect . . .  As for me, if I stumble, God’s lovingkindness forever will save me.  If through sin of the flesh I fall, my justification will be by the righteousness of God which endures for all time.  Though my affliction break out, he will draw my soul back from the pit, and make firm my steps on the way.  Through his love he has brought me near; by his lovingkindness he will provide my justification.  By his righteous truth he has justified me; and through his exceeding goodness he will atone for all my sins.  By his righteousness he will cleanse me of human defilement and the sin of mankind—to the end that I praise God for his righteousness, the Most High for his glory (1QS 11.10-15).

Citations of Jewish texts that stress God’s grace don’t settle the issue, of course.  But the portrayal of Judaism as crassly legalistic is simply not sustainable and should be jettisoned.  That assumption, pervasive among the evangelical laity, was my target in the article.

More to come on the grammar of grace and works . . .

18 thoughts on “Paul, Judaism, & Legalism

  1. AKMA

    And of course, the mirror image assumption is that no Christian texts could be found that seem to advocate the necessity of behaving in particular ways.

  2. bobmacdonald

    The psalms support the grace you speak of and the love of Torah – which is not legalistic, but God’s teaching and instruction – as one would learn from a mother. Note Paul’s use of psalm 143:2 in Romans 3:20
    and do not go to judgment with your servant
    for no one living is righteous in your presence
    You can turn this on its logical head if you think you are logical – but ‘following Jesus’ requires work – just like a marriage requires work. Justification should be the least of our worries. Being present to our spouse, being present to the needs of others, knowing the presence of God – all these are work. All that logic that Paul turns on the mental gymnastics of his day (and ours) is there to get us to stop worrying about justification and to work to live with each other in peace – something Christians have never done for themselves let alone with those who are not of their household of faith.

  3. dik

    I wonder if Gundry sees the OT as legalistic, since Psalm 106:31 tells us that the actions of Phinehas were credited to him as righteousness – language very similar to that quoted by him from the DSS which he contrasts with Rom, 4:1-6.

  4. Scott C

    I read your CT article (not aware it existed) and it had greater clarity than the previous article your posted here that I commented on. I think I am starting to understand you a little more, though there are a lot of fuzzy areas and further questions I have.

    You appear to de-emphasize an individualized and personal context for the gospel. I agree with much of what you say about our independent culture. I call it the ‘lone-ranger’ mentality. However, a couple of questions that strike me are these. Do you believe the NT emphasizes personal conversion? Furthermore, I would be curious to understand your theology of regeneration. What in your estimation is regeneration and is it a personal experience?

    1. timgombis

      Hey Scott,
      We’re steeped in an individualistic culture and the corporate dynamics inherent in the NT have been downplayed or overshadowed to a great extent. I’m just trying to re-emphasize an important part of the NT and its message. You can see here for a post on the first audience of the NT.

      Yes, personal conversion is there and God does indeed regenerate people by his Spirit. I’ve only tried to bring to mind how it is that a corporate experience of being God’s people is what being Christian is all about.

      1. Scott C

        If your concern is to re-emphasize the corporate dimension of the NT, then I have no squabble with you. However, I was getting the impression that you were doing that precisely at the expense of the individual dimension. If that is not the case, then a roadblock has been cleared for me to hear you out a little more.

        It has long been my contention that American Evangelicalism places a premium on a brand of Christianity that allows each individual to treat the faith with a consumerist mentality. There is very little emphasis upon our corporate solidarity as the body of Christ. The choices people make with regard to participation in the local church become matters of personal convenience and the spirit of Acts 2:42-26 is completely lost.

  5. S Wu

    I agree with you, Tim. I look forward to reading your next posts on this matter.

    I do think that Professor Gundry makes a good point, and that’s not necessarily contradictory to yours. But in terms of the Old Testament, I see God’s grace everywhere. From memory I think Moses says in Deuteronomy that it’s by God’s grace that Israel was rescued from slavery in Egypt (I am paraphrasing), not because of their own righteousness.

    In my culture “salvation” (not in the Pauline sense) is by means of a matrix of good works, piety, submission to our ancestral religion and a set of cultural values. “Good work” is part and partial of the mix. As I came to faith in Christ, I found it tremendously liberating to know that it is by means of the pistis of/in Christ that I may have life eternal. But then again it makes perfect sense that this relationship (individual and communal) with Christ has everything to do with faithfulness and allegiance to him, and a life that reflects the image of the Son is an integral part of that allegiance.

    1. timgombis

      Good thoughts, S. It’s important to note that in cultures where there are legalistic assumptions, the gospel of grace is indeed liberating. It’s another question entirely, however, whether or not such issues were up and running in Paul’s case and in the letters to Romans and Galatians.

      1. S Wu

        You are right, Tim. I will try to explain what I said below. But I won’t claim that I am right, because obviously you have thought about these matters more than I.

        I think it is important that we do not import our own cultural experience into Paul’s letters. At the same time I think we need to be aware that we cannot be entirely detached from our Western culture (and I have lived in the West for over 26 years). I think one important thing we have learned from Dunn and others is that there is a sociological aspect of “works of law”, in that it’s a social identity marker for the Jews. My question then is: How much do we really understand “social identity marker”, since we are so individualistic anyway? If I seek help from a much more communal culture – ie. in my case, my first culture – I find that what is “social” is also simultaneously religious, and often “performance” is part of the mix. In other words, coming from the perspective of a much more communal-religious culture, I tend to think that we tend to compartmentalize different categories too much.

        Thus when I read the Torah, I find both “performance” somewhere, although it does not necessarily at all mean “legalism” (ie. not in terms of its Western definition today). What I have difficulty explaining here is what “performance” means. Again, I don’t mean legalism per se, but a way of life that somehow defines us as a people, and yet it requires some elements “works”.

        In other words, I find that the pre-New-Perspective view far too individualistic. At the same time I find Dunn’s view somewhat neglects the “individual” element (unless I’ve read Dunn wrongly, which is quite possible). Can we totally separate the two? Should we?

        Of course one then has to ask whether Paul and his audience had the same understanding. Did Judaism in Paul’s days view “works of law” in this way? What I am trying to do is to acknowledge that there is a cultural gap between us and Paul, and it might help if we seek help from cultures today that are less individualistic.

        I do not say the above from a Reformed reading of “law”. Nor am I saying that my first culture is superior when it comes to interpreting the Paul’s letters. Instead, I would like to suggest that we need to consider whether our Western training still unwittingly influences us more than we realise.

        Having said all that, I am probably assuming too much in terms of what you are saying in this post and what you are going to say in the future on this matter. So, I guess what I have said here may not be relevant after all.

      2. timgombis

        Thanks for that, S. I think I understand what you’re saying and I agree. I’m still trying to wrap my head around it all, but I do think that a new conception is still necessary to get at the apostolic proclamation. The binary of legalism vs. grace is a poor one, and I agree that while the NPP has been salutary, it’s only been partially corrective. I’m trying to put some thoughts together but haven’t quite arrived at a point where I’m happy with how I’ve done it. The next few posts may be experimental along these lines, so we’ll just see how it goes!

  6. joey

    “Now we have written to you some of the works of the Law …. And to your own benefit and that of Israel, it will be credited to you as righteousness when you do what is right and good before him [God]”

    Don’t know who Mr. Gundry is, but apparently he hasn’t been reading NT Wright. There is no need to read the Reformed definitions of “salvation by works” or “righteousness” in the above reference at all.
    Show him the way, Tim.

    1. timgombis

      Prof. Gundry is a senior NT scholar and, more importantly, a serious Christian gentleman. He just so happens to be a proponent of a traditional Protestant reading of Paul and his relationship to Judaism.

      1. joey

        Wasn’t intending to question Mr. Gundry’s sincerity. Only making the point that things like “works of the Law” and “credited to you as righteousness” have been repeatedly addressed in Wright’s works; and even I, as a lay person, know that. I would have thought that Mr. Gundry’s response would have reflected that knowledge and he would have formulated his argument with those things in mind.
        Moving on.

      2. timgombis

        Cool, Joey. I must say that while I’ve wanted to see a substantive response/critique of Wright’s work on Paul and Judaism, or even of the precise contributions made by NPP folks, it’s been lacking. Most responses I’ve seen are simple reassertions of traditional positions. There have been quite a few treatments of that quotation in 4QMMT, so I agree with what you’re saying.

  7. joey

    I cannot say enough how much I appreciate what you’re saying and how you’re saying it. The things you’re saying are right where I am and have arrived at quite independently from you – which amazes me and reinforces with me the notion that truth is a network.
    We need more scholars, like yourself (and unlike me), putting these things into terms that the rest of us can understand. This is what I see you doing.

  8. Pingback: Elsewhere (09.14.2011) | Near Emmaus

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