Robert Gundry sums up a traditional Protestant conception of first-century Judaism:
[T]he question is whether [Jews of Paul’s day] 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).
I stated yesterday that the popular assumption that first-century Judaism was a system of crass legalism is inappropriate. This portrayal is simply wrong, misrepresents the varieties of Judaism of the first century, and leads to a misunderstanding of Paul before and after his conversion.
A second thought in light of Prof. Gundry’s response. This traditional Protestant conception assumes a certain grammar or logic that connects Jewish statements of God’s grace and statements of the necessity of obedience. As the above citation of Gundry reveals, that grammar is one of supplementation. Jews thought that “meritorious works on their part were needed to supplement God’s grace.”
The problem here is that the very same phenomenon is pervasive in both the Scriptures of Israel and the New Testament. Statements of God’s mercy and grace can be found alongside statements of the necessity of obedience.
In addition to a few passages noted by contributors to the conversation yesterday, one could cite a number of Psalms, including 15 and 145:19-20a. God’s favor rests upon the righteous, the one who does what is right, the one who fears God.
Mary utters Scripture-inspired praises in her Magnificat. She extols the Lord, whose “mercy is upon generation after generation toward those who fear him.”
In Romans 2:5-8, Paul, in continuity with his Jewish heritage, states that the final judgment is in accordance with a person’s life-direction, that is, his works (as he does in 2 Cor. 5:10).
But because of your stubbornness and unrepentant heart you are storing up wrath for yourself in the day of wrath and revelation of the righteous judgment of God, who will render to each person according to his deeds: to those who by perseverance in doing good seek for glory and honor and immortality, eternal life; but to those who are selfishly ambitious and do not obey the truth, but obey unrighteousness, wrath and indignation.
James agrees with Paul, configuring the grammar between faith and works similarly:
But are you willing to recognize, you foolish fellow, that faith without works is useless? Was not Abraham our father justified by works when he offered up Isaac his son on the altar? You see that faith was working with his works, and as a result of the works, faith was perfected; and the Scripture was fulfilled which says, “and Abraham believed God and it was reckoned to him as righteousness,” and he was called the friend of God. You see that a man is justified by works and not by faith alone (James 2:20-24).
The problem, then, for the traditional Protestant conception, in the wake of the Reformation, is what to do with passages that speak of God’s favor to those who fear him, his grace towards those who obey, and judgment according to works. Since we find the very same phenomenon in the Scriptures of Israel and the New Testament as in Jewish texts, why do we not assume that the underlying grammar is not legalism? On what basis do we assume that biblical passages have a grammar of grace while Jewish texts reveal a grammar of legalism?