Law, Legalism, and Antinominiam in Early Judaism and Christianity

Law, Legalism, and Antinominiam in Early Judaism and Christianity April 5, 2021

David Lincicum, Ruth Sheridan, and Charles M. Stang (editors)

Law and Lawlessness in Early Judaism and Early Christianity.
WUNT 420; Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, 2019. pp. 232. hardback. $149.00. ISBN 978-3-16-156709-4.

A lasting caricature of ancient Judaism is that it was a religion of works-righteousness that can be characterized as “legalism” especially when juxtaposed with the notion of grace in the Christian religion as epitomized by the apostle Paul. For case in point, Rudolf Bultmann once used the heading “Jewish legalism” to summarize the substance of Judaism as a backdrop to Christianity. While complaints were lodged against this thesis of endemic Jewish legalism by Jewish authors themselves, rabbinic specialists, and experts in Judaica, it was E.P. Sanders’ 1977 work Paul and Palestinian Judaism that gained wide acceptance for the thesis that the Jewish religion of Palestinian was not legalistic. In his view, Palestinian Judaism was a form of “covenantal nomism” where “one’s place in God’s plan is established on the basis of the covenant and that the covenant requires as the proper response of man his obedience to its commandments while providing means of atonement for transgression” (PPJ, 75). In the aftermath, New Perspective scholars argued that Paul’s problem with Judaism was not legalism, but its ethnocentrism. On this revised scheme, Paul’s perception of Judaism was that it was too ethnically exclusive if not outright xenophobic in its rejection of Gentiles or else for compelling male Gentiles to judaize to the point of circumcision. This led to the charge of Jews clinging to a “national righteousness” (N.T. Wright; James D. G. Dunn), “ethnocentric covenantalism” (Bruce Longenecker), and “ethnocentric nomism” (M. Bird). Others tried to resurrect the charge of legalism by trying to show the inadequacies of “covenantal nomism” and by describing Jewish ideas of salvation as a “synergistic nomism” of divine grace and human effort (Timo Laato).[1] Or else Paul had no problem with Jews and Judaism other than being himself convinced that Jesus the Messiah was God’s instrument for bringing Gentiles into communion with Israel’s God which required only a minimal judaizing by Gentiles (Mark Nanos; Pamela Eisenbaum; Paula Fredriksen). It was also possible to retort that Christian scholars who condescend over Judaism for its moral rigor, rituals and rites, and community boundaries are trading in Protestant currency and can stick their critique in their theological pipes and smoke them (Jacob Neusner).[2]

Sanders was right insofar that in post-biblical Jewish literature there exists a wide variety of texts that prove that Jewish authors were conscious of God’s grace, mercy, and covenant-love for the people of Israel (see e.g., Wis 12.16, Tob 3.2-4; Jub 16.26, 1QH 11.11-15, 15.18-20; 4 Ezra 8.32, 36, m.Sanh. 10.1).[3] Even so, Jewish authors – sometimes within the same work – can put an emphasis on Torah-righteousness, purity, separation from Gentiles, and a storehouse of good deeds. In some cases, salvation is achieved by a synthesis of inherited privileges and indicative performance (see e.g., 4 Ezra 6.5; 7.77; 8.33, 36; 2 Bar 14.12; 51.7; Pss. Sol. 9.3-5). Sanders often referred to m.Sanh. 10.1 which reads, “All of Israel, even sinners and those who are liable to be executed with a court-imposed death penalty, have a share in the World-to-Come [with appeal to Isa 60:21].” To all ears that sounds very grace-based and corporate until one reads further that the “exceptions” are “One who says: there is no resurrection of the dead derived from the Torah, and one who says: The Torah did not originate from Heaven, and an Epicurean, who treats Torah scholars and the Torah that they teach with contempt.” Salvation might well be for all Israel, but only for all who have demonstrated a commitment to a certain way of being Israel.

Whilst Jewish authors bound themselves to God’s election and mercy, nonetheless, there were different views as to how that worked out in practice, in a particular crisis, among in-group debates over covenant loyalty, and amidst perceptions of apostasy. I would be prepared to argue that an emphasis on Torah-observance, community boundaries, ethics, purity, and performance arises in specific contexts: (1) Intense eschatological hopes: one will only enter the future state/age if one belongs, believes, and behaves in a certain way! (2) Sectarianism: Torah-observance matters, but whose precise halakhah avails before God?; and (3) Rites of entry: What must outsiders do to become insiders? In some soteric schemes and social contexts, there could be a very hard accent placed on performance even if this was accompanied with a presumption of divine initiative and divine enablement in salvation.

Thus, grace is certainly ubiquitous in Judaism, but so are its spectrum of efficacies and reciprocities (a point rightly expressed by John Barclay). Thus, there was no definitive or uniform account of “salvation” other than something divinely authored and humanly appropriated in a given context. As such, Jewish literature was diversified on the nature, scope, agents, entrance, and end of salvation. Scholars have accordingly recognized the diverse ways of construing Torah and grace in Judaism yielding “variegated nomism” (D.A. Carson, Mark Seifrid, and Peter O’Brien), different accounts of “divine agency” (Jason Maston; Preston Sprinkle), and diverse “perfections” of grace among Jewish authors (John Barclay).[4]

I grasped this point during my doctoral studies while reading through Philo where I came across an intriguing statement in his De Sacrificiis where Philo discussed those who seem themselves as somehow deserving of divine favor. There, Philo writes:

For though they confess that the supreme Ruler is the cause of the good that has befallen them, they still say that they deserved to receive it, for that they are prudent, and courageous, and temperate, and just, so that they may well on these accounts be esteemed by God and be worthy of his favors (ἄξιοι διὰ ταῦτα καὶ παρὰ θεῷ χαρίτων νομισθῆναι) . . . and Moses reproves the man who looks upon himself as the cause of the good things that have befallen him in this manner, “Say not” says he, “my own might, or the strength of my right hand has acquired me all this power, but remember always the Lord thy God, who gives thee the might to acquire power” [Dt. 8.17]. And he who conceives that he was deserving to receive the possession and enjoyment of good things (ὁ δὲ ἀξιόχρεων ἑαυτὸν ὑπολαμβάνων κτήσεως καὶ ἀπολαύσεως ἀγαθῶν), may be taught to change his opinion by the oracle which says, “You do not enter into this land to possess it because of your righteousness, or because of the holiness of your heart; but, in the first place because of the iniquity of the nations, since God has brought on them the destruction of wickedness; and in the second place that he may establish the covenant which he swore to our fathers” [Deut 9:5]. (Philo, Sac. 54-57 [Yonge]).

This passage supposes that there were some Jews, in Alexandria at least, who thought that they did deserve God’s blessings and others like Philo who were adamant that they could not earn such blessings. This suggests that we are confronted with a variety of conceptions about salvation and its supposed deservedness in Judaism.

Concerning Gentiles, there were plenty of ways of conceiving of their problem and their deliverance (Matthew Thiessen), a variety of “patterns of universalism” (Terence Donaldson), including an “ethical monotheism” one finds espoused in Philo (Migr. Abr. 59) and Josephus (Apion 2.209-10). Indeed, a comparison of Josephus, Ant. 20.17-48, Gal 2:1-21, Acts 15:1-31, and Justin, Trypho. 8.3; 10.3 demonstrates Jewish, Jewish Christian, and Gentile Christian concerns over how and to what degree Gentiles have to judaize in order to be saved/included. Importantly this was not merely about “What must I do to be saved?” but more “Who are God’s people and how can you tell?” In which case, as Christian communities attempted to discern their continuities and discontinuities with common Judaism, they were required to negotiate notions of election, ethnicity, ethics, and eschatology in light of dual commitments to a Jewish heritage and messianic hope. This is why the most heated debates within the early church were not explicitly over a soteric formula, but about food and fellowship, because tables encoded the meaning and scope of salvation (e.g., Gal 2:11-14).

Trying to find the right term to describe all these soteric schemes is notoriously hard! What “ism” should we label these diverse phenomena without prejudicing one’s account of Jewish writings and without reducing Judaism to the negative foil for Christianity’s gospel of (Protestant) grace? I do not have one and I can only conclude that within Second Temple Judaism there was a spectrum of views about how to live faithfully between covenant and command, divine gift and human response, national election and individual actions, or between grace and works.

What is notable is that same tension is reflected in early Christianity in the dual emphases laid upon salvation by faith and judgment according to works (e.g., Jn 5:24-29; Rom 2:12-16; 3:21-26; 14:10; 2 Cor 5:10; 1 Jn 2:1-5; 3:10, 14, 23; 5:1-5). Furthermore, in the specific case of the apostle Paul, his anthropological pessimism, his unique hermeneutical approach, combined with a resolute focus on the soteric singularity of the Christ-event, in tandem with his emphasis on divine agency, led to a specific formulation of divine charis that evoked allegations of antinomianism (Rom 3:7-8; 6:1-2; 1 Cor 9:21; Jas 2:14-24). In other words, the same soteriological tensions and variations within Judaism played out in early Christianity albeit with a distinct eschatological, messianic, and pneumatic focus.

The preceding analysis is an unusually long introduction for a book review, but it is given to show the importance and necessity of a volume like Law and Lawless in early Judaism and early Christianity edited by David Lincicum, Ruth Sheridan, and Charles M. Stang. As the editors point out in their introduction, the stereotypes of legalistic Judaism compared to an early Christianity that annuls or abrogates the Jewish law persists. The problem is both the sweeping generalisations about ancient Judaism and primitive Christianity as well as the complex ways that law-observance is articulated in both traditions. In fact, the essays in the book “aim to bring to the fore the legalistic and antinomian dimensions in both traditions, with a variety of contributions that examine the formative centuries of these two great religions and their legal traditions” (1). The book thus “explores how law and lawlessness are in tension throughout this early, formative period, and not finally resolved in one direction or the other” (1). The editors point out that this tension works itself out in second temple Judaism with different views on the appropriate halakhah to obey the Torah, the alleged Paul vs. Matthew stoush, Luther’s law vs. gospel dialectic, antinomian controversies among Calvinistic puritans, and even soft antinomianism among Hasidic traditions (1-3). All that is to say that there was a real diversity in the ways that “law” and “lawlessness” were understood and articulated in Jewish and Christian literature.

Lutz Doering’s essay “Law and Lawless in Texts from Qumran” pays particular attention to how the Qumran texts conceive of lawlessness. Accounts of lawlessness appear in three specific discourses: (a) The historic lawlessness of Israel, from which the sectarians have escaped by joining the community, and so become an obedient remnant arising from the ashes of exile; (b) the relapse or defection of group members into various types of lawlessness; and (c) contemporary lawlessness by other Jews who have a faulty halakhah, calendar, and cultus. Doering concludes that charges of lawlessness were rhetorically and socially important as they shaped the identity of the community and functioned as a deviant label for those outside the community.

Grant Macaskill engages the topic of “Law and Lawlessness in the Enochic Literature” with a focus on 1 Enoch and 2 Enoch. Notwithstanding the questions of whether there was an “Enochic Judaism,” the extent of the Enochic corpus, the dating of the Similitudes, and the provenance of 2 Enoch, Macaskill believes that both books assume the normativity of the Mosaic Torah. 1 Enoch testifies to a particular halakhah and concurrently has a focus on divine mercy and forgiveness. Righteousness is required for life but in the context of a divine gift of wisdom to attain it. The lawlessness that 1 Enoch, esp. the Epistle of Enoch, is worried about pertains to injustices. In contrast, 2 Enoch possesses a “stark moralism, with no place for forgiveness or restoration” (47) which coheres with Francis Andersen’s observation that 2 Enoch is typified by a “conventional moralizing” where “a blessed afterlife is strictly a reward for right ethical behavior” (OTP 1:96-97). Macaskill’s verdict about 2 Enoch is that, “Potentially the text provides a window onto the existence of communities that interacted with Jewish ones, sharing in their monotheism, sharing elements of their morality and their rejection of idolatry, yet lacking the rich covenantal framework of Torah” (47).

Joshua Garroway provides an entertaining and engaging essay in “Paul: Without Judaism, Without Law.” He offers a creative juxtaposition between the apostle Paul and German rabbi Samuel Holdheim (1806-60). Paul and Holdheim wanted to renew Judaism by revising the Law, Paul for his messianism, Holdheim for his modernism. Garroway notes that both figures were exponents of an “unfinished, or incomplete, antinomianism” as “Each wished in principle to revoke the authority of the Law, but neither carried this conviction through to its ultimate conclusion, to dismissing the Law unconditionally as a relevant expression of God’s will (52). I found Garroway’s contribution rewarding because he is clearly sympathetic to the “Paul within Judaism” Schule [though he calls it the “radical new perspective”] with its view that, “The Law has become obsolete, yes, but only for Gentiles. It promotes sin for Gentiles. It fails to offer justification for Gentiles. For Jews, on the other hand, the Law remains in force as the terms of their covenant with God” (52 [italics original]). Garroway points out that while it is true that Paul undoubtedly orientates his antinomianism (i.e., his Torah-free gospel) to Gentile audiences, nonetheless, this is premised on: (1) The “newness” of salvation “now” whereas the Torah belonged to the former era that he even associates with a ministry of death (2 Corinthians 3); (2) Paul’s biographical sections where he considers his own Jewish Christ-believing example as normative or at least relevant for Gentile Christ-believing groups hence his becoming “one without the Law” (1 Cor 9:20) and “through the law, I died to the law” (Gal 2:19). Garroway notes that, “Paul’s declaration of death to the Law generally escapes the notice of commentators of this radical new perspective” (56 n. 22); and (3) Garroway surmises: “No one disputed that Pau[l]’s ostensible aim in Gal 3:1-29 is to demonstrate for Gentiles why they should not yoke themselves to the Law, but he does not make his case by suggesting that the Law has lost its significance for Gentiles alone. On the contrary, Paul constructs his argument around the historical experience of the Jews [hence the “we” verbs in Gal 3:23-25], concluding that faith has replaced the Law as the mode by which Jews relate to God. All the more so, Paul intimates, Gentiles would be foolish to pursue the Law” (57 [italics original]). The paradox of Paul’s thought as Garroway observes is that Paul doesn’t want to abrogate or disparage the Torah, rather, he wants to see it fulfilled and upheld even if unobserved (62). For case in point, Garroway says the “Law of Christ” (Gal 6:2) “is not some alternative Law, revealed by Christ, that has replaced the Law of Moses, but rather [it is] the reducible essence of the Mosaic Law which, when fulfilled, constitutes fulfillment of the entire Mosaic Law (63). In the end, Garroway concludes that Paul, much like Holdheim has a complicated relationship with antinomianism. For Holdheim, Judaism was Law-bound as a Jewish possession and wisdom for a just and moral society, whereas for Paul, the messianic age was Law-bound insofar as the coming of Christ enabled the fulfillment of the love command (64-65).

Paul Fredriksen’s contribution is “Origen and Augustine on Paul and the Law.” Fredriksen points out that Origen and Augustine wrestle with the fact that Jesus and the early apostles were law-observant whereas the catholic church is not and the “not” cannot go the Marcionite or Manichean route. Origen’s solution, she argues, was to claim that with the coming of the Spirit the true meanings of the Law was revealed and it was only for pragmatic purposes that the apostles kept the Law. Augustine, on the other hand, said that Christ taught his followers to love the Law rather than fear it, the Law was optional for Jewish believers, but not an instrument of salvation for Gentiles. The insight of her essay is that the perception of Paul as lawless or lawful depends entirely on one’s hermeneutics and the rival theologies one is combatting.

David Moffitt’s piece is titled, “Weak and Useless? Purity, the Mosaic Law, and Perfection in Hebrews” where he challenges assumptions that the author rejects the Law because its ritual aspects were external and could not effect internal purification. However, Moffitt argues that the author does not reject the logic of sacrifice or the externality of purification rituals, rather, purification makes one fit to enter permanently into God’s presence, which defines perfection. As Jesus has entered into the heavenly presence, his perfection obviates the need for purification. The Law’s limitation then is not its externality, but its association with death and corruption in the old age. Jesus’s immortal and heavenly states obviate the Law’s ritual purity codes because where there is no death the need for purity rituals disappears. In Moffitt’s own words: “The ritual elements of the Law are surely relativized, but that does not mean that they are somehow bad, inherently negative, or that Hebrews does not apply the logic of such sacrifices to Jesus. The Mosaic rituals are limited, but nevertheless good. The point for the author of Hebrews seems to be that once had been perfected and has been able to enter fully into the fullness of God’s presence, the need for the Law’s rituals of purification and forgiveness disappears” (102-3).

David Lincicum covers “Against the Law: The Epistle of Barnabas and Torah Polemic in Early Christianity.” Lincicum offers a taxonomy of approaches to the Law ranging from Torah-observant Christ-believing Jews typified by the Gospel of Matthew and Epistle of James through to halakhic disputes between Jesus and the Pharisees in the Synoptics. Concerning Paul, I heartily endorse Lincicum’s view that Paul argued for a “calculated pluralism of praxis, in which Gentiles must not be forced to keep Torah as a condition of entry into the community, but Jews may continue to observe, at least insofar as this allows for the unity of the community” (108). He adds that “one can without difficulty imagine Paul circumcising his own Jewish son, unpalatable though that may sound to certain Lutheran traditions of interpretation (108). Elsewhere, he finds a temporal restriction based on salvation-historical periodizing of history indicated by Gal 3:24 and Luke 16:16. Concerning substantive criticisms of the Torah, he points to those who divided the law into different parts such as piety, practice, and mystery (Justin Martyr) or who divided it based on its sources of God, Moses, and Elders (Ptolemy). Others distance God from the Torah by depicting it as delivered by angelic intermediaries, something implied by Paul in Gal 3:19-20 and Stephen in Acts 7:53. The Epistle to Diognetus 4.1-6 attacks the “superstitions” of the Jews, which rehearses anti-Jewish Greco-Roman tropes. Finally, there are Marcionite approaches that either attribute the Torah to an inferior deity or else like his disciple Apelles rejected the idea that the Torah was divinely given. Lincicum detects in the Epistle of Barnabas something distinctive whereby the author leverages the Golden Calf incident, treating it as a hermeneutical turning point and so “reifying prophetic anti-cultic hyperbole and so by accusing the entire Jewish tradition of an overly literal misreading of the Torah” (120). This is a good taxonomy though I wish Lincicum had considered Brian Rosner’s perspective of the Torah as retooled by Christians so as to function as “prophecy” and “wisdom” which I think would resonate with several Christian authors going back to Paul.

Paul Bradaw’s contribution is “The Ancient Church Orders: Early ecclesiastical law?” which surveys texts about church rules from the first to fifth centuries including the Didache, Apostolic Church Order, Didascalia Apostolorum, Apostolic Traditions of Hippolytus, Apostolic Constitutions, Testamentum Domini, and Apostolic Constitutions. Bradshaw points out how genuine works about church life and officers were eventually absorbed into later more propagandist works defending specific theological and liturgical positions based on a (re)imagined post-apostolic past.

Steven Fraade canvasses rabbinic literature with his essay on “Rabbis on Gentile Lawlessness: Three Midrashic Moments.” Fraade explores the question of how God could be the God of creation even while he chose Israel to be his special possession when the nations would have benefitted from the Torah. He shows how rabbinic authors answered this question with respect to the nations receiving a revelation of sorts but being disinterested in it and disobeying it, except for the nation of Israel. Whereas the nations could not even keep the Noachide commandments, Israel preserved both the written and oral Torah. A good accompaniment to this essay is the question in Judaism to what extent the Gentiles were “under” Torah, to which I recommend Bryan Blazosky, The Law’s Condemning and Enslaving Power: Reading Paul, the Old Testament, and Second Temple Jewish Literature (BBRSup 24; University Park: Eisenbrauns, 2019).

Continuing in Judaica, Michael Bar-Asher Siegal tackles, “Law Corpora Compared: Early Collections of Monastic Rules and Rabbinic Literature.” Her juxtaposition includes the Babylonian Talmud and the Asketikon of St. Basil and the Rule of Pachomius. Bar-Asher Siegal finds interesting similarities in their guidance on the ascetic life, how scripture has a regulating authority in both the monastery and beith midrash, and specific instructions about the wearing of a belt and prohibitions of riding bare-backed on a donkey.

Christopher Rowland deploys his expertise in reception-history in his essay, “‘By an immediate revelation … by the voice of his own spirit to my soul’: A perspective from Reception History on the New Testament and Antinomianism.” After surveying the article on antinomianism in the Encyclopedia of the Bible and its Reception, he principally examines the seventeenth-century figures of Anne Hutchinson and William Blake as examples of people whose veridical experience provided them with impulses that contravened norms in search of a more spiritual dispensation. Rowland provides a very helpful taxonomy of antinomianism from lawlessness to divine indwelling. Notably, however, early Christianity typified by Paul, John, and even Origen represent moments were divine revelation enables one to set aside old norms in light of spiritual illumination. Rowland’s conclusion is that “antinomian tendencies were part of the particular form of interpretation of the Jewish traditions which came to be known as Christianity” and the New Testament displays “a balance between novelty and continuity” (191).

The final contribution by Michael Peppard brings us into the present context with an essay on “Law and Liberty: Circumcision Discourse from Galatia to Germany.” Peppard begins by noting ancient Greek revulsion about circumcision and Paul’s regard for it as adiaphora. However, even Christian recognition that it worships a circumcised savior was not able to prevent the legacy of anti-semitism creeping into contemporary legal debates when a 2012 Cologne court implied that male circumcision was a form of criminal assault against an infant and a doctor involved in a circumcision was found not guilty by means of ignorance. Peppard summarizes much of this debate in European law and the lingering shadow of anti-semitism it casts. His conclusion is rather piercing, “Jews and Gentiles are not done adjudicating the debate from Galatia” (214).

On the whole, this is an impressive collection of essays that deals with the issue of legalism and antinomianism and scholarly perceptions thereof. The essays successfully challenge scholarly assumptions about what Jews and Christians believed about the Law. It provides some helpful nuance for interpretations of lawlessness and antinomianism. Moreover, it posits how both religious traditions struggled with normativity and creativity in living the life of faithful devotion. In my opinion, this volume could probably use a few extra essays about the Hellenizers of the Seleucid period, Philo as a platonizing Torah-observer, allegations of the historical Jesus as a lawbreaker, Paul’s self-defense against anti-nomianism in Romans, James and Torah-loyalty, Valentinian and Sethian approaches to Torah, and something about Justin Martyr and Trypho on Torah-observance. Or then again, perhaps the volume simply needs a sequel.


[1] Cf. Kent L. Yinger, “The Continuing Quest for Jewish Legalism,” BBR 19 (2009): 375-91.

[2] I’ve surveyed these issues and the literature in some of my own works: Michael F. Bird, The Saving Righteousness of God: Studies in Paul, Justification and the New Perspective (PBM; Carlisle, UK: Paternoster, 2007), 89-103, 114-18; idem, “What If Martin Luther Had Read the Dead Sea Scrolls? Historical Particularity and Theological Interpretation in Pauline Theology: Galatians as a Test Case,” JTI 3 (2009): 107-25; idem, An Anomalous Jew: Paul among Jews, Greeks, and Romans (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2016), 8-30.

[3] See most recently Jon D. Levenson, The Love of God: Divine Gift, Human Gratitude, and Mutual Faithfulness in Judaism (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2016).

[4] See esp. George W. E. Nickelsburg, Ancient Judaism and Christian Origins: Diversity, Continuity, and Transformation (Minneapolis: Fortress, 2007); Daniel M. Gurtner (ed.), This World and the World to Come: Soteriology in Early Judaism (LSTS 74; London: T&T Clark, 2011).

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