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 . . .