The “Legalism” of Second Temple Judaism

What did Jewish people living during Second Temple Judaism believe about salvation? The New Perspective on Paul argues that Protestants have read the beliefs of Roman Catholicism back into the Judaism of the New Testament. Rather than trying to understand the beliefs of Jewish people on their own terms, the New Perspective believes that we have badly misread the original sources on early Judaism. Are Protestants correct that Roman Catholicism is repeating the errors of Second Temple Judaism in denying that we are saved by grace alone? Remember, the Reformation was never about the necessity of God’s grace for salvation, something both sides agreed on, but the sufficiency of his grace to save without human merit. Let’s briefly examine the original sources to see what they say.

One of the reasons Protestants have read first century Judaism as they have is because Roman Catholicism draws from Jewish apocryphal writings to establish their beliefs about salvation. Ecclesiasticus or Sirach 3:3 (not Ecclesiastes!) says, “Whoever honors his father atones for sin.” Ecclesiasticus 3:30 says, “Water extinguishes a blazing fire: so almsgiving atones for sin.” Wisdom 6:18 declares concerning Wisdom, “And love of her is the keeping of her laws, and giving heed to her laws is assurance of immortality.” Tobit 12:9 is quoted often to support the belief in indulgences: “For almsgiving delivers from death, and it will purge away every sin. Those who perform deeds of charity and of righteousness will have fulness of life.” 2 Maccabees 7:9 recounts the story of Jewish martyrs who based their assurance of salvation on their martyrdom: “And when he was at his last breath, he said, ‘You accursed wretch, you dismiss us from this present life, but the King of the universe will raise us up to an everlasting renewal of life, because we have died for his laws.'” 2 Maccabees 12:45 says that we can make atonement for the dead: “But if he was looking to the splendid reward that is laid up for those who fall asleep in godliness, it was a holy and pious thought. Therefore he made atonement for the dead, that they might be delivered from their sin.”

N. T. Wright has mocked the idea that Second Temple Jews were a kind of “proto-Pelagians” trying to earn salvation by pulling themselves up by their own bootstraps. But Psalms of Solomon 9:7 sounds rather “Pelagian” to me: “Our works are subject to our own choice and power. To do right or wrong [is] in the works of our hands.” The Apocalypse of Zephaniah 3:5-7 states that our names are written in the book of life based on our good works: “I said, ‘O Angel who are these?’ He said, ‘These are the angels of the Lord Almighty. They write down all the good deeds of the righteous upon their manuscript as they watch at the gate of heaven. And I take them from their hands and bring them up before the Lord Almighty; he writes their names in the Book of the Living.” 2 Baruch 51:7 speaks of those who are, “Saved because of their works and for whom the Law is now a hope.” 4 Ezra 9:7-8 sounds rather “Catholic” when it says that we are saved by both faith and works: “And it shall be that everyone who will be saved and will be able to escape on account of his works, or on account of the faith by which he has believed . . . will see my salvation in my land.”

The writings of the Qumran community as revealed in the Dead Sea Scrolls reflect the common Jewish belief that sins can be atoned for apart from the shedding of blood. In 1QS 3:8 we read, “And by the spirit of uprightness and of humility his sin is atoned. And by the compliance of his soul with all the laws of God his flesh is cleansed by being sprinkled with cleansing waters.” With the destruction of the temple in 70 A.D., modern Jews, together with Muslims, argue that God can forgive sin without his justice and wrath being satisfied against the sinner. But as Christians we know that there is no forgiveness of sins without the shedding of blood (Heb 9:22). God’s justice must be satisfied for him to be a righteous judge (Prov 17:15; Rom 3:24-26; 4:5). As for whether the New Testament views Judaism as “legalistic,” Paul answers that question in Romans 10:3: “For, being ignorant of the righteousness that comes from God, and seeking to establish their own, they did not submit to God’s righteousness.” I have also written on what Paul means when he speaks of “works of the law,” selections from the church fathers on justification, and Martin Luther on justification.


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