Was Second-Temple Judaism a legalistic religion?

This is the first instalment of the Paul & The Law series.

There is now a huge scholarly consensus that although certain elements of legalism remained in Second Temple Judaism, it simply was NOT a religion oriented towards (or expecting from its followers) 100% legalistic perfection. 


1.  The Jews didn’t believe that perfection in law-keeping was needed in order to be counted as part of the people of God.  The ‘Sanders Revolution’ has all but made this a fixed point in subsequent discussions on Paul and the Law.


Thielman, on Sanders:


“Covenantal nomism (was)... the view that one’s place in God’s plan is established on the basis of the covenant and that the covenant requires as the proper response of man his obedience to its commandments, while providing means of atonement for transgression. 


“Judaism from Ben Sira (about 200 B.C.) to the Mishna (about A.D. 200), therefore, was, despite all its diversity, a religion of grace that kept works on the ‘staying in’ side of the religious pattern and did not allow them to intrude on questions of ‘getting in’.” (Paul & the Law: A Contextual Approach, Frank Thielman 1994 p.30-31)


Wright, explaining Sanders’ position:


“(Sanders’) major point…can be quite simply stated:  Judaism in Paul’s day was not, as has regularly been supposed, a religion of legalistic works-righteousness…Most Protestant exegetes had read Paul and Judaism as if Judaism was a form of the old heresy Pelagianism, according to which humans must pull themselves up by their moral bootstraps and thereby earn justification, righteousness and salvation.  No, said Sanders. 


“Keeping the law within Judaism always functioned within a covenantal scheme.  God took the initiative, when He made a covenant with Judaism; God’s grace thus precedes everything that people (specifically, Jews) do in response.  The Jew keeps the law out of gratitude, as the proper response to grace – not, in other words, in order to get into the covenant people, but to stay in…Keeping the Jewish law was the human response to God’s covenant initiative.” (What Saint Paul Really Said, N.T. Wright 1997, p.18-19 italics in the original)


Dunn, summarizing this (very rare) consensus:


“…Membership of the covenant people is a presupposition (Deuteronomy is addressed to those who are already the people of Israel).  Consequently the function of the law (again as archetypically expressed in Deuteronomy) is not to enable ‘getting in’ to the covenant people nor to make it possible to earn God’s acceptance…Obedience to the Torah is a requirement for continuing membership of the covenant, for life within the people, and for gaining a portion in the life of the world to come.” (Paul & the Mosaic Law, (ed. James Dunn) 1996 p.312)



2.  The purpose of Judaism’s key symbol, the Temple(!), exists precisely to grant forgiveness in the context of grace.  Howard reminds us that:


“…The Levitical system of sacrifices provided a means whereby man, when he sinned, could obtain forgiveness.  In fact, observance of the law to a large degree involved the offering of sacrifices for the atonement of sins.  To keep the law was, among other things, to find cultic forgiveness for breaking the law…For Paul to have argued that the law demanded absolute obedience and that one legal infraction brought with it unpardonable doom, would have been for him to deny what all the world knew, namely that the Jerusalem temple stood as a monument to the belief that YHWH was a forgiving God who pardoned His people when they sinned.” (Paul: Crisis in Galatia, George Howard 1979, p.53)


And Dunn:


“Nor did God require a sinless perfection from His people or require that His forgiveness had to be earned.  The whole sacrificial system, including the sin-offering and the Day of Atonement, was provided by God as a means of conveying forgiveness to the penitent.” (The Justice of God: A Fresh Look at the Old Doctrine of Justification by Faith, Dunn & Suggate 1993, p.15)


Finally, Wright:


“No Jew who failed to keep Torah, and knew that he or she was failing to keep Torah, needed to languish for long under the awful threat of either exclusion from the covenant people or…eternal damnation.  Remedies were close at hand, prescribed by God’s grace within the Torah itself.” (The Climax of the Covenant, N.T. Wright 1991, p.145)



Paul’s negative comments on the ‘works of the law’ (which we’ll look at later), then, was most probably not an attack on legalistic self-sufficiency.  After Sanders, it will not be easy to juxtapose Pelagianism and what the ‘unbelieving Jews’ of Paul’s time believed.




Next:  What did Paul mean by ‘works of the law’, ‘justification’, ‘faith’, ‘justification by faith’, etc.?  (but this might take a while, *smile*)

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