Paul’s “Works of the Law” in the Perspective of Second Century Reception, by Matthew J. Thomas – A Review

Easily the most important work in Pauline Studies, and likely in Biblical Studies as a whole, of the current decade is Matthew Thomas’ published Oxford dissertation, Paul’s “Works of the Law” in the Perspective of Second Century Reception. This book is not merely an entry into the ongoing discussion of various perspectives on St. Paul’s understanding of salvation and relationship to Judaism. Thomas bridges the fields of New Testament studies and patristics to deliver what may be a definitive blow to the Lutheran, and thereby typical Protestant reading of St. Paul. As a published dissertation with minimal editing, this book is written in academic form and makes its arguments in academic fashion. If one follows through on the threads here exposed, however, the result should be a sea change in the Western reading of the Apostle.

Luther’s reading of St. Paul, which became the foundation for the Protestant Reformation, interpreted the Apostle’s references to “the works of the law” as referring to all works in general. As a correlate, this reading presumes that Judaism in the first century, and Pharisaism in particular, saw salvation as a matter of raw legalism. The Torah consisted of a series of hundreds of commandments, the keeping of which would earn one salvation. The traditional Protestant understanding is not that the Pharisees were wrong about the keeping of the Torah’s commandments earning salvation, but that humans, due to original sin and depravity, are unable to keep the Torah’s commandments perfectly and cannot earn it themselves. Further, by violating the commandments, humans have earned demerit, they are sinners. Christ, then, in this view, both takes the punishment for human sin, conceived of as legal demerit, and keeps all of the Torah’s commandments earning salvation for humans. This then means that not only are human persons not obligated to keep the Torah, but that to attempt to do so is to reject the perfect works of Christ and try to substitute one’s own.

This reading, standard within Protestant circles for 450 years, began to be questioned toward the end of the 20th century. Criticism focused not directly on the reading of St. Paul as such, but on the presuppositions outlined above that are required to support that reading. The finding of the Dead Sea Scrolls and advanced studies of Second Temple Judaism produced a very different picture of what the Judaism of the first century AD in general, and pharisaism in particular, from Luther’s presumptions. Pharisaism was not a legalistic system in which one earned personal salvation or eternal life. There was a lively sense of forgiveness and grace. Second Temple Judaism understood that the Torah contains means of dealing with human sinfulness, ways of purification and repentance. This then required that what St. Paul is calling “works of the Torah” couldn’t be referring to keeping the commandments or doing good. Further, the numerous places where the New Testament, and St. Paul himself, speak positively of the Torah never jibed well with the Lutheran reading. This school of thought became known as the “New Perspective on Paul.” It argued that the “works of the law” which St. Paul describes specifically refer to the works that were commanded to Israelites, and only Israelites, within the Torah. These particular commandments, for example circumcision and keeping kosher, were never given for Israel to enforce them upon their neighbors. Rather, they were commandments that distinguished Israel from her neighbors. These were the commandments which St. Paul would not see enforced upon Gentiles coming to worship the God of Israel through Jesus Christ.

Scholarship is, unfortunately, divided into enclosed compartments that rarely speak to one another. The vast majority of the literature regarding the old and new perspectives on Paul, as well as a newer school that seeks to understand St. Paul within Judaism, has taken place purely within the realm of New Testament studies. Arguments have therefore centered almost entirely on the precise reading of the Pauline Epistles and debating the relative merits of various constructions of Palestine Judaism in the first centuries BC and AD. Thomas brings a novel approach, which should not be so novel as it is. He asks the question, “How did the earliest Gentile Christians read and understand St. Paul?” Not only did these Christians have St. Paul himself within their historical memory, they lived alongside and had continuing interactions with early Rabbinic Judaism. It is, at best, a difficult argument to make that St. Paul’s immediate successors completely misunderstood him, whereas Western Europeans of the sixteenth or twentieth centuries finally solved the riddle of his meaning.

To find these first heirs and interpreters of St. Paul, Thomas turns to the second century AD. He systematically works through every extant document, Christian, Gnostic, or otherwise that mentions “works of the law.” Further, he treats every text which cites the Pauline texts that refer to these “works” as well as texts which speak about the relationship between the Apostle himself, and Christian in general, to the Torah and its commandments. He develops each text separately, seeking to draw out what it is saying as an individual text, rather than attempting to directly trace a through line. Nonetheless, over the course of his treatments in the books, a pattern emerges. There are of course, variations of perspectives within the text. Many of the texts, due to the subject of research, are dealing with Marcionism and other early heretical views. Despite this, the texts all ultimately understand St. Paul’s use of the phrase “works of the law” in a way consonant with the “new perspective,” and not with Martin Luther.

What makes this book so important is that the evidence here adduced makes the Lutheran perspective on St. Paul’s writings untenable. To maintain it, beyond a stubborn fideism, requires a belief that St. Paul completely misunderstood the Judaism which he practiced for much of his life and in which he had advanced to the status of being a teacher. It also requires that the churches founded by St. Paul and the Christians therein, whose grandparents had known him personally, completely misinterpreted his words and likewise completely misunderstood the religion of the Jewish communities in their midst. It requires that though the Apostle’s real teaching was lost for a millennium and a half, it was rediscovered by Western Europeans engaged in a contest with Rome. It requires that the resemblance between their reconstructed Pharisees and their caricatures of Rome is pure historical happenstance. It requires that in the late twentieth century, Protestant scholars came up with a new reading of St. Paul independently which somehow matches up with the mistaken reading of the first ancient commentators. Luther’s reading of St. Paul, which undergirds Protestant identity and the Protestant theological system, requires all of the stretching and twisting required above and more. Or, as Thomas here lays out, one can simply accept that St. Paul’s earliest readers got him right.