Pauline Studies Scripture and Tradition

BOOK NOTICE: Matthew J. Thomas, Paul’s “Works of the Law” in the Perspective of Second Century Reception

In today’s world of Pauline studies it is rare to find a manuscript that is equally careful and groundbreaking. In his newly released Paul’s “Works of the Law” in the Perspective of Second Century Reception (IVP Academic, 2020), Matthew J. Thomas of the Dominican School of Philosophy and Theology has published such a volume. 

Originally his dissertation defended at the University of Oxford, this book is a republication of Thomas’s 2018 Mohr Siebeck volume (WUNT 2/468), and includes a new introduction as well as a glowing forward by Alister McGrath. Beyond McGrath, this edition comes with an impressive and diverse group of endorsers, such as John Barclay, Doug Moo, and N.T. Wright among others (go here to read them).

Thomas begins his volume by briefly touching on the debate between the old and new perspectives on Paul regarding “works of law” and then offers the following observation and questions:

Within such discussions, however, a potentially useful body of material has gone largely unexamined: the witness of the early patristic figures that followed Paul, who stand in close proximity to the Apostle’s debates and are among the earliest known readers of his epistles. In what ways might these early figures have understood the works of the law to which Paul was objecting? How might their early perspectives relate to the “old” and “new” perspectives on this issue? And what might their collective witness suggest about Paul’s own meaning?

After a section on methodology and an overview of some key voices within the old and new perspectives, Thomas attempts to answer these three questions at length. In order to best answer these questions, Thomas groups the second century figures into three main categories (A,B,C): category A are those sources that serve as “direct evidence,” that is, those voices that contain similar content and context to Paul’s regarding works of the law. In this category, Thomas places Irenaeus and Justin Martyr’s Dialogue with Trypho. Category B are those witnesses that contain broadly similar content and context to Paul’s yet without using the phrase works of the law, and as a result, are best categorized as “supporting evidence.” In this category Thomas places Ignatius of Antioch’s Magnesians and Philadelphians, The Epistle to Diognetus, and Melito of Sardis’s Peri Pascha. Lastly, sources that belong to category C are those that show only minimal Pauline influence, and here Thomas places The Didache, The Epistle of Barnabas, and The Apology of Aristides. 

On the whole, Thomas shows that the second century witnesses regarding Pauline works of the law have a unity in diversity, one that can actually be called a perspective in its own right. Thomas initially summarizes the second century perspective on the works of the law as follows: 

The law in question is the Mosaic law, which was delivered to the hard-hearted nation of Israel following the apostasy at Sinai. The principal works of this law that come into focus are circumcision, Sabbath and other Jewish calendar observances (such as new moons, feasts and fasts), sacrifices, and laws regarding food, with a focus on the temple and Jerusalem noted as well.

Thomas further suggests five reasons why second century readers of Paul argued against the necessity of observing the works of the law: 

1. The arrival of the new law and covenant in Christ, the Messiah, whose teachings and ordinances replace those of the Mosaic law; 

2. The witness of the Hebrew Scriptures, in which the prophets testify regarding the Messiah and this new covenant, and the cessation of the previous works; 

3. The universal nature of this new covenant, which is promised to be for all nations, and which has its arrival confirmed by the Gentiles receiving grace and turning to God apart from being Jews;

4. The transformation in humanity wrought by Christ, understood as the new birth or the circumcision of the heart, which renders the laws given to hard-hearted Israel unnecessary, and which allows the types and mysteries of Scripture to be rightly understood; 

5. The examples of Abraham and the righteous patriarchs, who were similarly accepted God apart from these practices, and whose righteousness confirms that the Mosaic law and circumcision were not given for humanity’s justification.

There is much more that needs to be said regarding Thomas’s volume, and I intend to do so in the future. Yet for now, Thomas is to be commended for making a significant contribution to Pauline studies, one that deserves to be read as carefully as it was written.

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