In my previous post, Martin Luther and the works of Torah, I argued the basic premise that Luther was closer to understanding the phrase “works of the Law” in Paul’s epistles than the early Catholic view and the similar but slightly different view of the “works of the law” as boundary markers of Jewish identity. However, I still took Luther to have misinterpreted the phrase in a couple of ways, including the idea that Paul is referring to human efforts to obey God. While not inconsistent with Paul’s overall presentation of the Gospel, I argued that “works of the law” refers to a set of prescribed works gleaned from the interpretation of the Torah.
Now, if you are familiar with Jewish traditions and history, you would be familiar with the idea of the Oral Torah, which according to Jewish tradition were a set of traditions reputedly passed down orally from Moses down to the period of the Second Temple. The Oral Torah was to give clarity and understand that was not had in the Written Torah. However, these traditions were then written down in the 2nd century CE in the Mishnah. Most likely, however, these oral traditions did not actually come passed down from Moses, but it was a set of traditions that started after the return from the Babylonian exile with Ezra the scribe and then gradually expanded upon by later Jewish sages and scribes until Paul’s day.
This Oral Torah, otherwise known as halakhah, were legal rulings and practices that would allow devout Jews to obey every commandment (also known as mitzvot) from God in the Pentateuch because it was hard to understand. This would make it hard to obey God’s commandments if one did not understand what they were all referring to. Halakah offered educated interpretations of the Torah so that devout Jews could learn how to obey God’s commandments.
Essentially, devotion to the Torah in Second Temple Judaism recognized the distinction between the Torah from Moses and the interpretive application of the Torah. However, unlike our modern critical tendency to separate the sacred text from the interpreter of a text and not investing the authority of the sacred text into the interpretation, this wasn’t the case among the prevailing form of Pharisaical Judaism in the Second Temple period. The tradition that the Oral Torah originated from Moses represented the belief that the Oral Torah was authoritative alongside the Written Torah. So, devout Jews, especially those who believed in the authority of the Rabbis, they would not have made spoken of the halakhic application of the Torah as different from the Torah. Rather, they might be inclined to think of the relationship between the mitzvot of the Written Torah and the halakah of the Oral Torah as two sides of the same coin. Given the necessity of these traditions to interpret the Written Torah, one could not seek to try to obey God’s commandments apart from them.
So, when Paul refers to the works of the Torah, I think he is specifically referring to the halakhic prescriptions. Rather than ruling out the role of Torah outright, Paul focuses on the way the Torah gets used by these traditions. To that end, Paul’s rejection would be similar to the Qumran community. The Qumran community’s dependence upon the “Teacher of righteousness” perhaps shows them as one group who rejected the interpretive traditions of the Pharisees, starting a sect based upon a splitting off from the tradition. In a similar fashion, I would suggest Paul is doing something similar with Jesus as the central figure, analogous to the Qumran’s Teacher of righteousness.
Are there any signals of this being Paul’s meaning by the phrase “works of the Torah?” I would suggest there is one place where it becomes very evident, Romans 3.27-31.
Then what becomes of boasting? It is excluded. By what law? By that of works? No, but by the law of faith. For we hold that a person is justified by faith apart from works prescribed by the law. Or is God the God of Jews only? Is he not the God of Gentiles also? Yes, of Gentiles also, since God is one; and he will justify the circumcised on the ground of faith and the uncircumcised through that same faith. Do we then overthrow the law by this faith? By no means! On the contrary, we uphold the law. (NRSV)
Paul’s discourse makes the best sense here if we recognize the relationship devout Jews saw between the Torah and its interpretive application. Paul’s vision of God’s righteousness in Romans 3.21-26 is taken to exclude the possibility of boasting by a Torah observant Jew referred to in 2.17. This likely refers to a type of boasting in the expectation of God’s vindication of faithful Israelite’s who know God because of their observation of Torah, which is a theme throughout the Wisdom of Solomon. As a result, the interchange between the hypothetical interlocutor and Paul seems to be addressing what grounds Paul rejects such boasting. Then, the questions “By what law? By that of works?” makes coherent sense if works of the Torah refers to the halakhic interpretation. It would read as if the interlocutor is asking Paul as if he is relying on some halakha to exclude this type of boast. His appeal to the law of faith cements Paul’s point: Paul gives no place for boasting not based upon the Rabbinic interpretive traditions but based upon the faith of Jesus Christ as has just been described in 3.21-26. This will be further will be expanded upon by going back to the Pentateuch and recounting the narrative of Abraham’s faith in Romans 4. In so doing, Paul goes back to the Torah and derives a different interpretation that diverges from the halakhic traditions. In other words, Romans 3.27-31 becomes readily understood in a coherent manner if we interpret Paul’s discussions with the interlocuter based upon the Jewish halakhic tradition and Paul’s rejection of it.
Furthermore, in Romans 2.15, Paul describes the work of the Torah (τὸ ἔργον τοῦ νόμου) being written upon the heart of the Gentile. Here, Paul echoes the promises of the new covenant in Jeremiah 31.31-34, where God places His instruction/Torah in people’s hearts. This phrase does not readily make sense as a reference to the written Torah. Nor, would Paul likely use the phrase the work of the Torah to refer to the memory of the written Torah, as this defeats the purpose of Paul’s example (see the previous verse 2.14). In addition, the New Covenant promise of God writing the Torah in the heart would not likely be understood as giving Israelites a memory of the Torah, as the Torah prescribed practices for the Israelites to keep God’s Torah in memory (Deut. 6.5-6). In this light, it is best to take the phrase “the work of the Torah” as referring to the way the Gentile without the Torah has a certain type of custom or practice guides and directs him that is consistent with the meaning of the Torah. In that case, we can look at Paul’s usage of ἔργον in relationship to the Torah to refer to specific types of practices followed that are considered to accomplish what God commands in the Torah.
This understanding of the works of the Torah referring to specific types of practices and customs that are consistent with God’s commandments in the Torah can also help to make sense of Paul’s understanding of his rebuke of Peter in Galatians 2.11-21. For many years, I have thought there seemed to be an inconsistency between Paul’s rebuke of Peter for refusing table fellowship with the Gentiles in 11-13 and Paul’s speech to Peter in 14-21. Strictly speaking, issues of table fellowship are not mentioned in the Pentateuch, so how then does Paul’s speech about the works of the Torah fit with his rebuke of Peter. However, it appears to me that the problem was that I assumed works of the Torah referred to the commandments/mitzvot of the Torah rather than to the interpretive application/halakah. The exclusion of table fellowship with uncircumcised Gentiles was a part of the interpretive traditions. Works of the Torah as referring to halakhic interpretive applications of Torah makes Paul’s account much more coherent in my mind.
However, to be clear, Paul doesn’t ascribe to some ancient form of sola scriptura that rejects the traditions to simply develop a new ethical program fresh from the Torah. Rather, for Paul, the works of the Torah can not redeem because a person’s response to the Torah was to act against the very thing God’s commanded in the Torah (Rom. 7). As a result, any interpretive application of the Torah is fated to leave people short of God’s glory and righteousness as the powers of sin make obedience to God impossible. The Torah is intrinsically incapable of breaking the powers of sin and death. Consequently, Paul does not think that God intended the Torah to redeem Israel from sin, but as a ‘guide’ for Israel until the coming of Christ. As a consequence, any human attempt to obey the Torah would fall short. Nevertheless, God can use the Torah to make His will known, but Jewish believers would experience this impact of the Torah through their baptismal union in Christ through the Holy Spirit. Circumcision and the interpretive applications of the Torah would be to no avail for them.
In conclusion, I would proffer that the works of the Torah as the halakhic interpretive application of the Torah offers a viable route that goes between the traditional, Lutheran understanding of justification and the New Perspective on Paul’s emphasis of works of the Torah as distinguishing marks between Jew and Gentile. This focus of the NPP can be integrated into this as certainly the interpretive applications of the Torah were made in such a way that heavily distinguish Israelites from the Gentiles that impacted the way the early Church related to the Gentiles. At the same time, Paul is providing a marked limitation of human attempts to obey the Torah that Luther and later Reformers remarked about, while not having to diverge into metaphysical accounts of free will that Luther read into Paul’s comments about the works of the Torah.