Friday, September 23, 2005

New Perspectives on First Century Judaism

I am not an expert on the New Perspectives on Paul by any means. However, the exegetical movement has gained strength and underpins a lot of the Federal Vision controversy. As obvious from some discussions on previous posts it leads to dramatically different readings of Paul, and the Bible as a whole. The main tenant of the NPP is that first century or second temple Judaism was a religion of grace and not a religion of works. Thus NPP advocates have to now read the condemnation of Judaizers not as a condemnation of works as a whole because that is a misunderstanding of Judaism. This allows them to find a more positive role for works in places like Romans 2.

Instead of arguing about specific exegesis, which will get no where since the presuppositions are different, let us examine first century Judaism. Admittedly, I do not have access to all of the material, but I think an argument can still be made that Judaism is indeed a Pelagian religion of works, not one of grace.

One source of first century Judaism is the Apocrypha. These are the books that are often included in Romanist Bibles, but not in Protestant ones. They were written during the second temple period and thus give us a glimpse Judaism at that time. These books do not put forth a picture of Judaism as a religion of grace. In fact, Romanists often quoted from Ecclesasticus (sometimes called Ben Sirach) to prove works are needed during the Reformation. First and Second Maccabees are even worse as they encourage the keeping of Hanukkah, make the law keeping of Judas Maccabeus as the basis of his victories, and show us that sin offerings for the dead can atone for the sins of the dead. While that may be a mercy for the dead soldiers it is a mercy grounded on the law keeping of Judas. The additions to Esther seem to linger on law keeping adding that Esther hated her marriage bed because it was with the Gentiles, and she kept away from the table of the Gentiles, and hated her position as Queen of the Gentiles. So too do the additions to Daniel adding stories where vindication is given to upright Jews like Susannah not by the miraculous mercy of God, as Daniel in the Lion’s Den, but by wisdom and legal maneuvering. Third Maccabees is again about remaining loyal to Jewish law even in a foreign land. It even goes as far to suggest that God will reward the law keeping. Fourth Maccabees blatantly offers salvation through ‘virtue’ and obedience. Psalm 151 gives more glory to David than to God. Even if the Prayer of Manasseh does suggest mercy, it is clearly in the minority. Many of these second temple Judaism books are heavy with Pelagianism.

Another source is the Mishnah. This gives us a good glimpse into what the Rabbis of the first century taught. Here Sanders fails to convincingly show grace in Judaism. We see ideas such as Gehenna, a place where those whose works were balanced between good and evil go to scream and pay for their evil deeds before heading up to heaven. The school of Shammai follows this doctrine. It is a Pelagian doctrine since man must still pay for his sins himself through suffering. Many rabbis seemed to also argue that election of Israel was also grounded in obedience, either in that of a patriarch or the future obedience of Israel. Others thought the covenant had been offered to all nations, and only Israel accepted it. These reasons are blatantly Pelagian. Sanders pushes them aside and emphasizes the fact that Israel is elect as proof of grace. Ignoring the works basis of that election.

I have a hard time seeing where first century Judaism can be seen as anything but a Pelagian system where works/obedience serve as the basis for salvation. Allow me to quote the end of Ecclesasticus (51:30), “Do your work in good time and in his own time God will give you your reward.”


Fred Carpenter said...

Lee, here's one example in Galatians where it is NOT about self-help works righteousness: when Paul confronted Peter about perverting the gospel in Gal. 2, it was not about legalism or earning meritorious works before God, it was about Peter's denial of the mystery of the gospel(Eph. 6:19), i.e., the idea of refusing communion w/gentiles and denying the gospel that God had not really created one new man from two new men (Eph. 2). People were being excluded, literally rejected and denied fellowship, which Paul said was a perversion of the gospel.

Also, I'm trying to read you correctly, but your reward comment made me think... Are you saying God doesn't reward us in this life in any way? Can you explain how, if/when/how you see good works and rewards in any shape or fashion?


Lee said...

I do not think that God rewards us according to our works. The Bible seems fairly clear that in this life that is not the case. God brings the sun and rain upon both the just and the unjust. Job was considered a righteous man, yet he received trials upon trials.
As for the next life, our works are not the basis for entering. That is clearly the mercy of God. Our works will be put in the fire to see what is chaff and what is good. However, there is no corresponding punishment given.