Paul's "Works of the Law" in the Perspective of Second Century Reception

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Matthew J. Thomas
Wissenschaftliche Untersuchungen zum Neuen Testament
  • Tübingen, Germany: 
    Mohr Siebeck GmbH & Company
    , August
     269 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


Matthew Thomas’ monograph, Paul's 'Works of the Law' in the Perspective of Second Century Reception, is a revision of his doctoral thesis at the University of Oxford. In the monograph Thomas assesses proposals on the meaning of ἔργα νόμου, “works of law,” given by the Old and New Perspectives on the apostle Paul in light of the reception of Paul in the second century. Rather than conducting a lexical study of the phrase ἔργα νόμου, Thomas uses a broader lens approach to see how ἔργα νόμου and related phrases (Thomas does not list them) are utilized in Christian literature in the 2nd century. He then assesses these texts with the criteria of “meaning,” or what is meant by the phrase “works of law”; “significance,” or what do these practices signify; and “opposition,” or why these works are not necessary for the Christian (4). Thomas utilizes the effective history (Wirkungsgeschichte) of Paul’s “works of law,” in which Thomas surveys how the smoke of the 2nd century might provide insight into the fires of the conflict around the phrase in Paul’s own letters (8).

By utilizing Wirkungsgeschichte, Thomas does not argue the meaning of the phrase is found its 2nd century reception, but rather shows that the reception of Paul gives scope to the possible meanings of the phrase. Thomas selects texts based on the presence of conflict on “works of law” that seem similar to the conflict found in Paul’s letters to the Galatians and Romans (12). This approach also prevents a “word-concept fallacy,” where only the presence of specific words or phrases indicates the presence of concepts or thoughts (12). This approach allows for a broader assessment than a lexical study of Pauline citations, since many texts paraphrase or restate Paul’s phrase.

In part 2, “Old and New Perspectives on Works of Law,” Thomas then uses his criteria of meaning, significance, and opposition to assess the approaches of key old and new perspective interpreters (23–67). For the Old Perspective, Thomas selects Martin Luther, John Calvin, Rudolf Bultmann, and Douglas Moo. Thomas focuses on the these four as 16th-century and modern representatives of the Lutheran and Reformed positions (23). Thomas assesses the Old Perspective as primarily rejecting works of the law for anthropological reasons: namely, human beings as sinners are unable to fulfill what the law stipulates. The main difference between the Reformed and Lutheran readings are in the Lutheran tradition works themselves are sinful attempts for human beings to worship themselves (38). For the New Perspective, Thomas analyzes E.P Sanders, James D.G. Dunn, and N.T. Wright. Thomas notes the various differences between these three New Perspective interpreters primarily in their understanding of the opposition to works of the law in Paul’s letters. An important distinction lies in N.T. Wright’s view, which combines both anthropological and salvation historical reasons for Paul’s opposition to law observance (59).

Thomas states in comparison to the recent debates between the Old and New Perspective, the 2nd-century reception of Paul is generally cohesive: “Paul rejects these works of Torah not fundamentally for experiential reasons, nor because they are socially exclusive, but because a promised new law and covenant of universal scope have come in Christ (20).” Thus, the reason for the rejection of these practices in the second century was not because Judaism was a works-based religion. Thomas notes, however, the anthropological critiques of the Old Perspective are not altogether absent (20).

Thomas categorizes the texts of the 2nd century into three levels of evidence. A-level texts are labeled “direct evidence,” which use the phrase “works of law” or refer to the verses in Galatians and Romans that use the phrase. B-level texts, labeled “supporting evidence,” contain discussions similar to Galatians and Romans but do not use the phrase “works of law” or cite the passages in which Paul does. C-level texts, labeled “circumstantial evidence,” are those which do not utilize the phrase “works of law” or Paul’s letters but seem to be addressing issues similar to Paul’s context (14). There are also two excurses on “Second Century Fragments” (101–108) and “The Ebionites, Marcion, and Ptolemy” (135–46). Each text comprises a chapter and is introduced, assessed for its knowledge of Paul, and then analyzed by the categories of meaning, significance, and opposition. The chapters are presented chronologically beginning with The Didache (mid-1st to early-2nd century CE) and ending with Irenaeus (175–189 CE).

Thomas concludes his work with an analysis of 2nd-century perspectives on the works law compared with modern scholarship. Thomas gives five summary statements as to why the works of law were rejected by second century Christians: (1) The arrival of the new law and covenant in Christ, whose teachings replaces the Mosaic law; (2) The witness of the Hebrew scriptures that the old covenant would cease; (3) The universal nature of the new covenant for both Jews and Gentiles; (4) The transformation in humanity wrought by Christ; (5) The examples of the righteous patriarchs without the law (217). The meaning and significance of works of the law in the 2nd century refers to Jewish practices and not works in general and so lines up more closely with New Perspective readings of Paul. However, the reason for opposition of these works in Sander’s and Dunn’s assessment finds little support in the second century (226). Thomas concludes Wright’s covenantal perspective has the most in common with the chorus of 2nd-century witnesses. There is, however, one caveat, “While Wright focuses more on the universality of the Abrahamic covenant’s promises, patristic argumentation in this regard places greater emphasis on the universal scope of the new covenant (226).”

Thomas’s study presents a significant contribution to the discussion of the reception of Paul and the question of “works of law” in general. From the perspective of this reviewer there are two critiques of the work as a whole, offered with the utmost respect and charity. Thomas gives detailed analyses of the textual traditions and relationship to Paul of each 2nd-century text he investigates. This thorough analysis comprises at least half of most of the chapters leaving limited space for the analysis of the theme of the work. Maybe this was unavoidable given the task Thomas undertakes, but I was often surprised by the length of the sections concerning works of law in each chapter. Second, there are no sections of the work in which the author undertakes a fresh analysis of the relevant passages of Paul’s corpus. Throughout Thomas’s work I desired to see how work in reception impacted his exegesis or led to fresh insights to Paul’s arguments in Galatians and Romans. Perhaps Thomas will pursue this in future publications.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Trey Moss is a doctoral candidate at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Kentucky.

Date of Review: 
March 18, 2020
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Matthew J. Thomas is Visiting Assistant Professor of Sacred Scripture at St. Patrick's Seminary and University, and Instructor in Theology for Regent College.


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