Matthew J. Thomas contributes to an ongoing discussion that surrounds the meaning of “the works of the law” in Paul’s writings. Thomas demonstrates how early Christians understood Paul through the reception of the apostle’s teaching in the second century. It is obvious that the apostolic teaching would have an immediate effect on Christians who presumably understand what Paul meant when he spoke to them. Not only that, but they also lived in a similar word with a shared culture.
Thomas quotes Lewis in this regard:
“The idea that any man or writer should be opaque to those who lived in the same culture, spoke the same language, shared the same habitual imagery and unconscious assumptions, and yet be transparent to those who have none of these advantages, is in my opinion preposterous. There is an a priori improbability in it which almost no argument and no evidence could counterbalance” (209, citing “Modern Theology and Biblical Criticism” in Lewis 1977).
This seems to be an imminently sane conclusion. And Thomas pursues this line of thought throughout his work, Paul’s ‘Works of the Law’ in the Perspective of Second Century Reception. His study concludes that second century Christians understood Paul’s works of the law along similar lines to the new perspective(s) on Paul rather than the old perspective (i.e., the 16th century reformed view).
Thomas interrogates texts that relate to the works of the law in Paul by asking a number of questions: What is meant by works of the law, what does the practice of these works signify, and why are these works not necessary for the Christian? While admitting that some texts more closely relate to Paul’s writings than others, the focus of his study lies on The Didache, The Epistle of Barnabas, certain letters of Ignatius, The Epistle to Diognetus, The Apology of Aristides, The Dialogue with Trypho, Peri Pascha, and Against Heresies along with certain other second century writings (Barnabas may actually be written around 70 AD).
Given the thoroughness and careful presentation of his conclusions, the main thesis cannot be easily gainsaid. These early Christians understood the works of the law to be certain Jewish laws like circumcision and sabbath observance.
This conclusion, however, does not exactly lead to the conclusion that second century writers would support the new perspective or maximally that this reception history shows that Paul would accept every new perspective conclusion! In some ways, that must be the case since it has become obvious that Paul often means the works of specific Jewish laws in his letter, for example, to the Romans. Even an old perspective proponent like Douglas Moo could accept such a view.
The real issue centres on whether or not obedience to works of the law entails the pursuit of personal salvation in Paul rather than as identity markers of inclusion into the community the faith. In this sense, Paul could either mean that obedience to the law does not justify because good works cannot save us (old perspective); or he could mean that circumcision (and so on) cannot save us because they are particular works of the old covenant and so insufficient for salvation.
As Thomas notes, Marcionism and a certain kind of return to Judaism played an important role in the early church—they were among primary “heresies” of early Christianity. Small wonder then, that the early Christians rightly picked up on Paul’s de-emphasis on the works of the law like circumcision against the second group while also perhaps unconsciously speaking of the fulfillment of the law of Christ in continuity with scriptural patterns (against Marcion).
This study thus still does not resolve the question of whether or not Paul opposed works-based salvation (old perspective) as well as the practice of Old Covenant laws (new perspective). Both can easily be true in different ways. God justifies “the ungodly” (Rom 4:5) as the old perspective would emphasize since there is no one whose works, even if they are works of the Torah, can justify them before God. Yet with the new perspective, it is easily possible to see specific works of Torah observance as the specific works in question here.
This latter view seems almost assured since when Paul says, “For we hold that one is justified by faith apart from works of the law” (Rom 3:28), he immediately follows up by saying, “Or is God the God of Jews only? Is he not the God of Gentiles also? Yes, of Gentiles also” (Rom 3:29). Why else would Paul press the point that God is the God of not Jews only but also gentiles unless the “works of the law” in Romans 3:28 meant works of the Torah? (This being a key observation by N. T. Wright)
With all this said, Thomas certainly advances the discussion and rightly (in my view) reads the early evidence. But the conclusion that the old perspective is thereby proven wrong by this evidence goes too far—not that Thomas himself makes such a bold statement.
Thomas has written a brilliant historical study that further clarifies the meaning of “works of the law” in Paul. Anyone invested in this debate should read Paul’s ‘Works of the Law’ in the Perspective of Second Century Reception. His conclusions clarify second-century reception of this pauline theme.
The publisher provided me with a review copy of the book.