3. “Works of Law” Part One: Proselyte Conversion (Understanding the Background)

 

In this section, I will begin to demonstrate how our discussion about circumcision (in the first two sections of this commentary) and Sha'ul's phrase ‘works of the Law’ (alternately ‘works of Law’) actually work in tandem with one another.  My understanding of the phrase ‘works of the Law,’ in conjunction with my convictions about the relevance of Torah in the lives of Jewish and Gentile Christians, occupies a central place in my interpretation and application of the book of Galatians.  These next three sections on works of the Law (and proselyte conversion), covenantal nomism, and justification, will, therefore, appear much longer than other topical sections to my commentary.

 

The book of Galatians contains a few technical terms and phrases that make it a bit more difficult for the average Bible student to understand from a casual reading perspective.  I believe the term “circumcision” is one of those terms since it functioned as a metonym for Jewish identity.  I also believe “works of the Law” is a technical phrase in Paul.  To be sure, a “best practices” hermeneutic will seek to uncover the historical, grammatical, social, religious, and linguistic contexts of the passages in question before attempting to apply a practical application. 

 

It is no secret that God commanded Isra'el to circumcise both their native born male children as well as foreigners who joined the family clan, way back in Genesis 17:9-14, and repeated again briefly in Leviticus 12:1-3.  Equally true is the fact that in the Genesis narrative with Dinah and the sons of Shechem, that “forced circumcision” for the purpose of inclusion into the existing community of Isra'el is portrayed:

 

The sons of Jacob answered Shechem and his father Hamor deceitfully, because he had defiled their sister Dinah. They said to them, “We cannot do this thing, to give our sister to one who is uncircumcised, for that would be a disgrace to us. Only on this condition will we agree with you—that you will become as we are by every male among you being circumcised. Then we will give our daughters to you, and we will take your daughters to ourselves, and we will dwell with you and become one people. But if you will not listen to us and be circumcised, then we will take our daughter, and we will be gone (Gen. 34:13-17, ESV).

 

We may also note that according to the Exodus narratives, if a foreigner wished to eat of the commemorative Passover meal (later clarified in 2nd Temple Judaism to pertain exclusively to the specific meal that was eaten in Jerusalem using lambs slaughtered in the Temple), that he was required to take on circumcision so as to be counted as a “native of the land”:

 

And the Lord said to Moses and Aaron, “This is the statute of the Passover: no foreigner shall eat of it, but every slave that is bought for money may eat of it after you have circumcised him. No foreigner or hired worker may eat of it. It shall be eaten in one house; you shall not take any of the flesh outside the house, and you shall not break any of its bones. All the congregation of Israel shall keep it. If a stranger shall sojourn with you and would keep the Passover to the Lord, let all his males be circumcised. Then he may come near and keep it; he shall be as a native of the land. But no uncircumcised person shall eat of it. There shall be one law for the native and for the stranger who sojourns among you (Ex. 12:43-49, ESV).

 

In point of fact, the texts that mention Gentile circumcision do NOT explicitly teach that Gentiles referenced are actually converting to become Jews by taking on circumcision.  However, by the 1st century, Isra'el operating under the false security that their covenant status was secured by their ethnic status abused this fundamental commandment by identifying their males—as well as any Gentiles who joined Isra'el—exclusively as circumcised Jews.  Even the modern Stone Edition TaNaKH translation of the Old Testament published by ArtScroll, an exclusively (non-Messianic) Jewish publication, interprets those instances where Gentiles take on circumcision as if the Gentiles have become proselytes to Judaism. Observe this lengthy quote from this online copy of the Talmud, Tractate Yevamot (folios 47a and 47b), where the Gentile proselyte enters the mikvah (baptismal) waters as a “foreigner” but comes out as a “Jew”:

 

Our Rabbis taught: If at the present time a man desires to become a proselyte, he is to be addressed as follows: 'What reason have you for desiring to become a proselyte; do you not know that Israel at the present time are persecuted and oppressed, despised, harassed and overcome by afflictions'? If he replies, 'I know and yet am unworthy', he is accepted forthwith, and is given instruction in some of the minor and some of the major commandments. He is informed of the sin [of the neglect of the commandments of] Gleanings, the Forgotten Sheaf, the Corner and the Poor Man's Tithe.  He is also told of the punishment for the transgression of the commandments. Furthermore, he is addressed thus: 'Be it known to you that before you came to this condition, if you had eaten suet you would not have been punishable with kareth, if you had profaned the Sabbath you would not have been punishable with stoning; but now were you to eat suet you would be punished with kareth; were you to profane the Sabbath you would be punished with stoning'. And as he is informed of the punishment for the transgression of the commandments, so is he informed of the reward granted for their fulfilment [sic]. He is told, 'Be it known to you that the world to come was made only for the righteous, and that Israel at the present time are unable to bear either too much prosperity, or too much suffering'. He is not, however, to be persuaded or dissuaded too much.  If he accepted,  he is circumcised forthwith. Should any shreds which render the circumcision invalid remain, he is to be circumcised a second time. As soon as he is healed arrangements are made for his immediate ablution, when two learned men must stand by his side and acquaint him with some of the minor commandments and with some of the major ones.  When he comes up after his ablution he is deemed to be an Israelite in all respects.[1]

 

With regards to our text here in Galatians, in the words of Dr. Hung-Sik Choi, adjunct professor at Torch Trinity Graduate School of Theology here in Seoul, South Korea, circumcision, with its corresponding “mark of Judaism” was basically being “forced” upon the Gentiles wishing to join the existing Jewish communities:

 

It is entirely likely, therefore, that the importance of circumcision as a prerequisite for becoming a Jew and as the mark of the convert to Judaism was the theological rationale of the agitators. They would have insisted that the Galatians must enter Israel through circumcision in order to become the people of God; for them salvation is within Israel exclusively. Since the concept of Abraham as the prototypical proselyte was present in Judaism (Jub. 11.15-17; Apoc. Abr. 1-8; Josephus, Ant. 1.154ff.; Philo, Virt. 212ff.; Gen. Rab. 46.2), they may well have argued that the Galatians should be circumcised in order to be proselytes as Abraham was. At any rate they no doubt argued that the only way for the Galatians who were not Abraham’s physical offspring (“aliens”) to become the members of Abraham’s family who can inherit the Abrahamic blessings was by accepting circumcision, an entrance requirement into the people of God.[2]

 

We will hear more from Dr. Choi later below.  Sufficient for now is the importance of realizing that this proselyte conversion policy caused no small of amount of grief to the Apostle to the Gentiles, which renders this misuse of circumcision (viz, Jewish identity) all the more tragic given the fact that Paul actually still places value in circumcision itself (read Rom. 2:25; 3:1, 2).  However, even more unfortunate is the emerging Christian Church’s wholesale rejection of this covenantal sign as a relevant obedience marker in the communities of HaShem.  Basically, it appears that ancient Isra'el turned circumcision into a mark of Jewish identity, and then created social policies that enforced a Jewish-only membership into its covenant communities, along with its concomitant Torah observance and maintenance of membership.

 

Paul's ‘works of the Law’ surely includes Torah observance on some level, whether that observance is identified as legalistic or not.  This aspect of works of the Law is quite easy to ascertain from the way Paul uses this phrase in his letters.  However, it is the socio-religious aspect of this technical term that seems to be largely absent from many mainline Christian commentaries.  The Church seems to have forgotten (or doesn't know) that Torah in ancient Isra'el (as it does today) plays a vital social function to shape the very foundations and patterns of religious Jewish life.  If Jewish Isra'el had shared this religious foundation of Torah with the rest of the world the way she was supposed to do (cf. Deut 4:5-8; Isaiah 42:4; 49:6; Matt 5:14-16) then I suppose Paul would never have needed to pen his famous words in Galatians at all.

 

But that is not what happened.  Sadly, National Isra'el began to boast about this possession called Torah, to the exclusion of anyone else who did not belong to Jewish Isra'el.  Thus, I maintain that Paul uses ‘works of the Law’ in his letters to identify ancient Isra'el’s wrongly imposed ethnic markers, identifiers which in turn functioned to regulate Gentile immigration into covenant Isra'el, with circumcision/proselyte conversion describing the legal Jewish status needed to belong to the people group of Isra'el.  It appears, then, that Paul did not invent this term, but was instead using language familiar to Jews (and likely many Gentiles) of his day.  To be sure, ‘works of the Law’ is not exclusively Pauline.  However, up until the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls, Pauline authors believed it to be a phrase perhaps invented by Paul since it had no direct equivalents in extant literature anywhere.  The ancient Hebrew fragments from Qumran however, specifically the one classified as 4QMMT, changed all of that. 

 

Bishop N.T. Wright notes that ‘MMT’ is the transliterated acronym of the phrase “some of the works of the Law,” מקצת מעשי התורה (C27). MMT is reconstructed from six Qumran fragments, none of them complete (4Q394–399). It seems to be a letter, written in the mid-second century BCE, from the leader of the Qumran group to the head of a larger group, of which the Qumran sect was once a part. He reproduces an English translation of the fragment that contains our phrase ‘works of the Law’ in his commentary on 4QMMT and Justification:

 

Now, we have written to you some of the works of the Law, those which we determined would be beneficial for you and your people, because we have seen that you possess insight and knowledge of the Law. Understand all these things and beseech Him to set your counsel straight and so keep you away from evil thoughts and the counsel of Belial. Then you shall rejoice at the end time when you find the essence of our words to be true. And it will be reckoned to you as righteousness, in that you have done what is right and good before Him, to your own benefit and to that of Israel.[3]

 

His summary comments to these findings are presented in his conclusion:

 

The comparison and contrast between Paul and MMT, in short, highlights for us today the way in which Paul’s writing on justification belongs firmly within its Jewish context, and the significance of the new thing Paul was saying precisely within that context – exactly the sort of point for which Earle Ellis has become famous. On the one hand, we only understand Paul if we see that, like the author of MMT, he was making the comprehensible second-Temple Jewish point that the eschatological moment had arrived, that the community of the new covenant had been established, and that the proper definition of this community in the present was a matter of the utmost urgency. On the other hand, by contrasting Paul with MMT we can see the difference it made when the eschatological event in question consisted of the crucifixion and resurrection of the Messiah. No longer would the new covenant community be defined in terms of a sub-set of ethnic Israel, marked out by ‘works of Torah’, defined this way and that with a developing halakhah. The new covenant community formed through the death and resurrection of the Messiah, and the gift of the eschatological Spirit, would be known by the faith which that same Spirit evoked through the gospel, the faith that acknowledged Jesus as the risen Messiah and Lord. And that meant that the community was open to all. Herein lies the deep Jewishness of Paul, and his greatest innovation.[4]

 

Having just examined “b’rit milah” in Section One and the “ouch factor” of circumcision in Section Two, we should be asking the following vital questions at this point:  “From a 1st century socio-religious Jewish perspective, how exactly does circumcision fit in with works of the Law?  After all, isn't circumcision actually included in the commandments spelled out by the Law itself?  Why are they listed as two distinct and ostensible Gentile requirements in Acts 15:5?”[5]

 

The Church observes that Isra'el—both then and now—is preoccupied with Torah observance.  The Church assumes this is because Isra'el hopes to gain right standing with HaShem through her devoted obedience to even the Law’s smallest of details.  The Church labels this devotion to Torah “Works of the Law,” taken from the phrase found eight times in six verses in Paul’s writings.[6] Based on the context of Paul’s negative comments about this term, the Church chooses to interpret this phrase as “mere commandment-keeping done for the sake of ostensibly gaining favor in God’s eyes.”  Given this simple caricature, it is easy to understand why historic Christianity has equated this phrase with legalism.  What is more, with this premise firmly in view, it is a short step for the historic Church to then reject the covenant sign of circumcision, since it is naturally assumed by the Church that Isra'el also hopes to be accepted by God as righteous based significantly on merely being the “Chosen People.”

 

Tying our discussion on circumcision (read here as Jewish identity) with our discussion on works of the Law, we can readily affirm that most Christians also know that by the 1st century, the Judaisms of Paul's day began to use the term “circumcision” as a stand-in term to designate Jewish identity (cf. Gal. 2:7-9).  But many may not know that also by Paul's day, the term circumcision had shifted from the simple physical act with its corresponding sign of the Abrahamic covenant as recorded in Genesis chapter 17 to a more broad sociological and religious term indicating a status of “righteous before God” based on simply being a Jewish member of the commonwealth of Isra'el.  Works of the Law—which obviously included covenantal circumcision—then becomes part of the socio-religious fabric of those groups advocating the Jewish-only policies that regulated supposed covenant membership, policies that Paul likely held to prior to his faith in Yeshua (read Gal. 5:11), policies he eventually identifies as “another gospel” in Galatians 1:6-9.

 

That the Torah (with its attendant “works of the Law”) along with Jewish identity/circumcision had taken on socio-religious functions in Paul's day is attested to by Dr. Choi in his short survey of recent Galatians studies, quoted here at length for us to examine.  Choi makes several references to James D.G. Dunn’s thoughts in the following lengthy quote:

 

Scholarly attention has also concentrated on a sociological approach to Paul’s letters. Some scholars have focused on Paul’s authority in relationship with the churches in Galatia. Most interpreters have agreed that one of the critical issues in Galatia is the social issue of how Gentiles enter the people of God. Thus, commentators have argued that Paul’s Gospel of justification by faith is to be understood in light of this social issue. Many scholars shed some new light on the issue of Paul’s attitude to the law and Judaism and the disputes between Paul and the agitators in Galatia by means of such a sociological approach. In particular, Dunn highlights ‘the social function of the law’ which he believes to be important for understanding the mind-set with which Paul is engaging in Galatians. He argues, “Unless this social, we may even say national and racial, dimension of the issues confronting Paul is clearly grasped, it will be well nigh impossible to achieve an exegesis of Paul’s treatment of the law which pays proper respect to historical context.” Dunn is distinctive in understanding the social function of the law that “serves both to identify Israel as the people of the covenant and to mark them off as distinct from the (other) nations.” In light of the social perspective on the law, Dunn understands the works of the law “as not only maintaining Israel’s covenant status, but as also protecting Israel’s privileged status and restricted prerogative.”[7]

 

Indeed Dunn’s own words on his definition of “works of the Law” are telling.  Commenting on Paul and Romans chapters 2 and 3 we read:

 

Paul introduces the phrase, somewhat oddly, at the conclusion to the first main part of the exposition (Rom. 3:19-20); again the implication must be that its meaning or reference was either well known or self-evident.  Since the second half of the preceding discussion was a refutation of Jewish presumption in their favoured status as the people of the Law, the ‘works of the Law’ must be a shorthand way of referring to that in which the typical Jew placed his confidence, the Law-observance which documented his membership of the covenant, his righteousness as a loyal member of the covenant.  This is confirmed by the way in which in the following paragraphs ‘works of the Law’ are associated with ‘boasting’ (3:27, 28; 4:2), thus explicitly recalling the earlier passage where Paul specifically attacked his own people’s presumption as being the people of the Law (2:17-20, 23), with circumcision once again serving as the distinguishing mark of ‘the Jew’ (2:25-29).[8]

 

What is more, with the term circumcision functioning as a metonym for Jewish, with “works of the Law” likely functioning as a term that envisioned both entry into the covenant via becoming “Jewish” through taking on circumcision (for those outside seeking to get in) as well as the accommodation of the maintenance of membership within the covenant that “works of the Law” provided (cf. Gal. 3:2-5), it is easy to gloss over the fact that the Torah as a whole was beginning more and more to take on a role that God never intended it to play, which was that of a prized social status for those who possessed knowledge of the Torah.  Indeed Paul hints at Jewish boasting over being “instructed from the law” in Romans 2:17-23:

 

But if you call yourself a Jew and rely on the law and boast in God and know his will and approve what is excellent, because you are instructed from the law; and if you are sure that you yourself are a guide to the blind, a light to those who are in darkness, an instructor of the foolish, a teacher of children, having in the law the embodiment of knowledge and truth— you then who teach others, do you not teach yourself? While you preach against stealing, do you steal? You who say that one must not commit adultery, do you commit adultery? You who abhor idols, do you rob temples? You who boast in the law dishonor God by breaking the Law (ESV).

 

We are now able to put three 1st century socio-religious aspects of Jewish communal life on the table for careful examination: circumcision (read here as Jewish identity), works of the Law (read here as obedience to commandments that mark out Jewish covenant membership in Isra'el), and the Torah itself as an ostensible unique possession of the Jewish people.  On this third issue, we will briefly turn to Tim Hegg’s vital work entitled ‘Is the Torah Only for Jews?’ which I downloaded for free from his site on 4/16/2003.  Hegg, quoting the rabbinic literature (Midrash Rabbah to Numbers xiv.10, Midrash Rabbah to Exodus xlvii.3, and Sifra 112c) writes:

 

In fact, it was the view of the Talmudic Sages that the Torah was offered to every nation, but only Israel accepted it. For some of the rabbis, this acceptance of the Torah made Israel worthy of God's election:

 

Why did the Holy One, blessed be He, choose them (Israel)? Because all the nations rejected the Torah and refused to accept it, but Israel gladly chose the Holy One, blessed be He, and His Torah.

 

The Torah, therefore, was the distinguishing mark (from the rabbinic viewpoint) that separated Israel from the nations.  The Midrashim state this clearly:

 

If it were not for my Torah which you accepted, I should not recognize you, and I should not regard you more than any of the idolatrous nations of the world.

 

'Yet for all that, in spite of their sins, when they have been in the land of their enemies, I have not rejected them utterly' (Lev. 26:44). All the godly gifts that were given them were taken from them.  And if it had not been for the Book of the Torah which was left to them, they would not have differed at all from the nations of the world.[9]

 

In reference to how Paul describes Gentiles as those “who do not have the Law,” in Romans 2:12-14, Dunn also comments on the notion that ancient Isra'el likely held to a common Jewish belief that the Torah that God gave to Isra'el at Mount Sinai became the sole possession and responsibility, not only of Isra'el, but more specifically and exclusively of “Jewish” Isra'el, and that this Torah marked her out as a distinctly separate people from the pagan nations surrounding her: “In other words, the Law and the Jewish people are coterminous; the Law identifies the Jew as Jew and constitutes the boundary which separates him from the Gentiles.”[10]

 

So, as I see it, we have historic Isra'el abusing vital aspects of their covenant status and Torah obligations, based in part on her developing ambivalent attitude towards foreigners joining Isra'el in connection with her own self survival mechanisms as a marginalized people group—and of course, a bit of blindness to Yeshua as their prophesied Messiah—and we end up with the developments of what I call Ethnocentric Jewish Exclusivism.  Add to this the historic Church’s misunderstanding of Torah obedience and circumcision based on her negative reaction to anything that makes Gentile believers look “Jewish,” rooted in part by Isra'el’s abuse and misunderstanding of the very same Torah that prophesied that Jesus was the true Messiah and what do we end up with?  A mess!  Put another way, historic Isra'el of then and now obviously misunderstands her own Scriptures.  Along comes the Church taking her cue from [unbelieving] Isra'el concerning the meaning of Torah observance and works of the Law, and we end up with the blind leading the blind.  Oy vey!

 

Because of the compounding of these historic misunderstandings, today (as well as 2000 years ago), Christianity has developed an unnecessary amount of paranoia surrounding circumcision, eventually going so far as to reject it altogether—a clear violation of God's words to Abraham in Genesis 17:13: “…So shall my covenant be in your flesh an everlasting covenant.”  In some ways I cannot blame them for taking this stance.  In some ways, it is as if Jewish misuse of the covenantal sign of circumcision caused God to act as a disciplining Father and “temporarily take that toy away from the Jewish people” until they could learn how to properly appreciate and apply its true, biblical meaning.  I don't mean that God reversed his policies concerning the importance and necessity of circumcision for male members of Isra'el.  What I mean is that, using his messenger to the Gentiles, God—through Paul—teaches Isra'el a valuable theological lesson regarding misusing the sign of the Abrahamic covenant known as circumcision.  How so?

 

Paul effectively “relegates circumcision to back burner status” without actually destroying the biblical command by establishing halakhah (group policy) that forbids Gentiles from taking on circumcision during their initial entry into the commonwealth of Isra'el via faith in Yeshua (cf. Gal. 5:2-6).  This is why those Jews in Acts 21:21 were beginning to fear the rumor that Paul was attempting to actually uproot Torah by forbidding circumcision for Jews as well: “…they have been told about you that you teach all the Jews who are among the Gentiles to forsake Moses, telling them not to circumcise their children or walk according to our customs.”  Paul's stance in 1 Cor. 7:19 that “being circumcised means nothing…” must've been quite shocking to Torah-zealous Jews outside of the context it was meant for, which was to show that in Messiah, Jewish identity was not a prerequisite to be accepted as righteous in the community.

 

The way I see it, the Judaisms of the 1st century were basically “glorifying” circumcision.  The rabbinic literature is replete with the significance of this ostensibly simple act.  Observe the comments made by Wikipedia:

 

During the Babylonian exile the Sabbath and circumcision became the characteristic symbols of Judaism. This seems to be the underlying idea of Isa. lvi. 4: "The eunuchs that keep my Sabbath" still "hold fast by my covenant," though not having "the sign of the covenant" (Gen. xvii. 11.) upon their flesh.

 

Contact with Greek polytheistic culture, especially at the games of the arena, made this distinction obnoxious to Jewish-Hellenists seeking to assimilate into Greek culture. The consequence was their attempt to appear like the Greeks by epispasm ("making themselves foreskins"; I Macc. i. 15; Josephus, "Ant." xii. 5, § 1; Assumptio Mosis, viii.; I Cor. vii. 18;, Tosef.; Talmud tractes Shabbat xv. 9; Yevamot 72a, b; Yerushalmi Peah i. 16b; Yevamot viii. 9a). Also, some Jews at this time stopped circumcising their children. Maccabees 2:46 records that the Maccabean zealots forcibly circumcised all the uncircumcised boys they found within the borders of Israel.

 

The Rabbis also took action to ensure that the practice of circumcision did not die out. In order to prevent the obliteration of the "seal of the covenant" on the flesh, as circumcision was henceforth called, the Rabbis, probably after Bar Kokhba's revolt, instituted the "peri'ah" (the laying bare of the glans), without which circumcision was declared to be of no value (Shab. xxx. 6).

 

To be born circumcised was regarded as the privilege of the most saintly of people, from Adam, "who was made in the image of God," and Moses to Zerubbabel (see Midrash Ab. R. N., ed. Schechter, p. 153; and Talmud, Sotah 12a).

 

Uncircumcision being considered a blemish, circumcision was to remove it, and to render Abraham and his descendants "perfect" (Talmud Ned. 31b; Midrash Genesis Rabbah xlvi.) Rabbinic literature holds that one who removes his circumcision has no portion in the world to come (Mishnah Ab. iii. 17; Midrash Sifre, Num. xv. 31; Talmud Sanhedrin 99).

 

According to the Midrash Pirke R. El. xxix., it was Shem who circumcised Abraham and Ishmael on the Day of Atonement; and the blood of the covenant then shed is ever before God on that day to serve as an atoning power. According to the same midrash, Pharaoh prevented the Hebrew slaves from performing the rite, but when the Passover time came and brought them deliverance, they underwent circumcision, and mingled the blood of the paschal lamb with that of the Abrahamic covenant, wherefore (Ezek. xvi. 6) God repeats the words: "In thy blood live!"[11]

 

Mark Nanos has also demonstrated most creditably that the Judaisms of the 1st century functioned with a serious theologically flaw in regards to their view of circumcision.  Let us pick up his discussion from a paper he wrote entitled “The Local Contexts of the Galatians: Toward Resolving a Catch-22,” which, at the time I downloaded it on 5-15-05, was available for reading at his site here (http://mywebpages.comcast.net/nanosmd/index.html)

 

            Paul was an outsider to Galatia (4:12-20); in fact, he is the only one from elsewhere of whom we can be certain. And Paul’s message—to the degree that it offered inclusion of Gentiles as full and equal members while opposing their participation in proselyte conversion—ran counter to prevailing Jewish communal norms for the re-identification of pagans seeking full-membership, at least according to all the evidence now available to us. Pursuit of this nonproselyte approach to the inclusion of pagans confessing belief in the message of Christ resulted in painful disciplinary measures against Paul from the hands of Jewish communal agents to whom he remained subordinate, but in ways that he considers mistaken, for he refers to this as “persecution” (5:11; cf. 2 Cor. 11:24). It is not difficult to imagine that pagans convinced by Paul’s gospel that they were entitled to understand themselves as righteous and full members of Jewish communities apart from proselyte conversion, but rather on the basis of faith in a Judean martyr of the Roman regime, would also, in due time, meet with resistance from Jewish communal social control agents. Might not the resultant identity crises of those non-proselyte associates develop along the lines of the situation implied for the addressees of Paul’s letter?

            I suggest that Paul’s gospel—or, more accurately in this case, the resultant expectations of the non-Jewish addressees who believed in it—provoked the initial conflict, not the good news of the influencers that Paul’s converts can eliminate their present disputable standing as merely “pagans,” however welcome as guests, by embarking on the path that will offer them inclusion as proselytes. That offer, on the part of the influencers in Galatia, rather represents the redressing of a social disruption of the traditional communal norms resulting from the claims of “pagans” who have come under Paul’s influence. Thus the ostensible singularity of the exigence arises not because of a new element introduced by the influencers, and does not suggest that they represent a single group moving among the addressees’ several congregations. Instead, the influencers may be understood to be similarly appealing to a long-standing norm, however independent of each other’s communities they may be acting, when faced with the same disruptive claim on the part of the new Christbelieving subgroups within their communities. The conflict arises because of the claim that their Gentile members are to be regarded as full-members of these Jewish groups apart from proselyte conversion.

 

With this background of circumcision and proselyte conversion for Gentiles in mind, we are now better poised to uncover the true meaning of phrases such as “works of the Law” and “under the Law.”  I maintain that the phrase “works of the Law” cannot simply mean “deeds done in accordance with Torah commands” if we are to give the surviving Jewish documents of the 1st century their proper place among scholarly research.  But even more important is the fact that if we interpret works of the Law as Torah observance, then we end up with Paul discouraging Gentiles (and by inclusion Messianic Jews as well) from keeping the commandments of God—a position I believe is untenable given Paul’s positive views of Torah observance spelled out elsewhere in his letters.[12]

 

As convenient as it is to simply interpret “works of the Law” every place we find this phrase in Paul as if Paul were discouraging “works done in obedience to the Law,” I find this hermeneutic to be unfair to the context of Paul’s writings and to the scriptures as a whole.  The context of Paul’s use of the phrase “works of the Law” likely describes Jewish people hoping to maintain right-standing as Jewish covenant members with God by keeping the commandments of the Law.  But it might just as well be describing Gentiles wishing to gain covenant membership into the community of Isra'el by taking on Jewish status (viz, circumcision) and then likewise maintaining membership status by keeping the commandments imposed upon them as proselytes (‘circumcision’ plus ‘works of the Law’ working in tandem like two sides of the same coin to confer a status of ‘righteous’ that unfortunately was not acceptable to God).  Either side of this “coin” would be a misuse of the Law, since both represent striving under the power of the flesh (see Paul’s rebuke in Gal. 3:3).  Since Paul's letter to the Galatians is primarily directed towards his Gentile readership, I tend to work from the understanding that “works of the Law” is Paul's way of speaking against the hopelessness of Gentile proselyte conversion to Judaism for supposed covenant membership into Isra'el—and thus achieving the status of “righteous” before God—that the works of the Law supposedly offered.

 

Surely Paul must have been knowledgeable about the motives behind those seeking “self justification” for the ostensible sake of covenant membership.  After all, “works done in obedience to the Law” that are motivated by a genuine love for God and man cannot be what Paul is discouraging, right?  Remember, Paul actually affirmed, “…what matters is keeping the commandments.” (1 Cor.7:19)  To be sure, the Messianic Jews in Acts 21:20 were all “zealous for the Law” and the believers in Jerusalem seemed to find this position acceptable.  What is more, Paul himself argues in Romans 2:25 that “circumcision [“Jewish” membership in Isra'el] was indeed of value if you obey the Law.”  So, for later Christian authors to assert that Paul frowned upon keeping Torah for any reason—no matter the intensions of the individual who is doing the Torah-keeping—finds no support from the scriptures.  On the contrary, the Old Testament is replete with the fact that God is very much pleased with obedience to his Law and readily punishes cold-hearted Torah-breakers.

 

We conclude then that Paul must of necessity have been working from the understanding that many Jews likely assumed they were already genuine and lasting covenant members in Isra'el based on God’s election and/or based on their own Jewish identity gained at birth, and that many Gentiles without these pedigrees were likely seeking some sort of covenant membership into Isra'el as offered via the proselyte conversion policy enforced in those days (read Acts 15:1 with Matthew 23:15 in mind).



[1] http://www.come-and-hear.com/yebamoth/yebamoth_47.html

[2] Hung-Sik Choi, The Galatian Agitators’ Theological Rationale for Circumcision (Torch Trinity Journal paper), p. 12-13.

[3] http://ntwrightpage.com/Wright_4QMMT_Paul.pdf

[4] Ibid.

[5] Acts 15:5 “But some believers who belonged to the party of the Pharisees rose up and said, “It is necessary to circumcise them and to order them to keep the law of Moses.” (ESV)

[6] ESV “Works of the Law” (Greek= ἔργων νόμου ergon nomou) is found in Rom. 3:20, 28; Gal. 2:16(3x); 3:2, 5; and 3:10.

[7] Hung-Sik Choi, A Survey of Recent Galatians Studies (Torch Trinity Journal paper), p. 136-137.

[8] James D.G. Dunn, Jesus, Paul, and the Law (Westminster/John Knox Press, 1990), p. 221.

[9] Tim Hegg, Is the Torah Only for Jews? (www.torahresource.com, 2003), p. 5, downloaded on 4/16/2003.

[10] James D.G. Dunn, Jesus, Paul, and the Law (Westminster/John Knox Press, 1990), p. 221.

[11] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Circumcision_in_the_Bible#In_rabbinic_literature

[12] See for instance 1 Cor. 7:19, “Being circumcised means nothing, and being uncircumcised means nothing; what does mean something is keeping God's commandments.”