*Scroll down past this media section to find the written notes

4. “Works of Law” Part Two: Examining Galatians 2:16


Now that we have briefly examined circumcision in Section One and Two, and the background to proselyte conversion/works of the Law in Section Three, let us begin to finalize our examination of works of the Law by singling out its first use in Galatians at Galatians 2:16.  We will revisit this verse when we get to it in the Excursus portion of my commentary below; its treatment in this section is merely intended to be an “appetizer.”  Indeed most commentators on Paul identify this verse as a part of one of the central theological threads of the letter to the Galatians.  Let’s put my thesis to the test and see if my understanding of works of the Law fits with the context of Galatians 2:16.  Let us start this section by reminding ourselves of Dunn’s working definition of Paul's term “works of the Law.”  Commenting on Galatians 2:16, Dunn writes:


‘Works of law’ are nowhere understood here, either by his Jewish interlocutors or by Paul himself, as works, which earn God’s favour, as merit-amassing observances. They are rather seen as badges: they are simply what membership of the covenant people involves, what mark out the Jews as God’s people; given by God for precisely that reason, they serve to demonstrate covenant status. They are the proper response to God’s covenant grace, the minimal commitment for members of God’s people. In other words, Paul has in view precisely what Sanders calls ‘covenantal nomism’. And what he denies is that God’s justification depends on ‘covenantal nomism’, that God’s grace extends only to those who wear the badge of the covenant. This is a historical conclusion of some importance, since it begins to clarify with more precision what were the continuities and discontinuities between Paul, his fellow Jewish Christians and his own Pharisaic past, so far as justification and grace, covenant and law are concerned.


More important for Reformation exegesis is the corollary that ‘works of the law’ do not mean ‘good works’ in general, ‘good works’ in the sense disparaged by the heirs of Luther, works in the sense of self-achievement, ‘man’s self-powered striving to undergird his own existence in forgetfulness of his creaturely existence’ (to quote a famous definition from Bultmann). The phrase ‘works of the law’ in Galatians 2.16 is, in fact, a fairly restricted one: it refers precisely to these same identity markers described above, covenant works – those regulations prescribed by the law which any good Jew would simply take for granted to describe what a good Jew did. To be a Jew was to be a member of the covenant, was to observe circumcision, food laws and sabbath. In short, once again Paul seems much less a man of sixteenth-century Europe and much more firmly in touch with the reality of first-century Judaism than many have thought.[1]


I think Dunn is onto something quite relevant in regards to our study in Galatians with his explanation about works of the Law.  But we also need to be reminded that many religious Jews of Paul day most often already viewed their existing covenant status as secured based on Jewish identity (read here as circumcision), rooted as it was in the corresponding foundation of the “Merit of the Fathers (i.e., based on HaShem’s faithfulness to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob)[2].  Owing to the fact that even if Paul's term “works of the Law” referred to that “different gospel”[3] with its “badges” that marked out existing covenant members as they walked in maintenance and repentance according to Torah, because of the nationalistic Jewish policies being enforced in those days, those non-Jews seeking inclusion by these badges still at some time had to take on legal Jewish status if they were not quite sure if they were already born with it.  We can catch hints of this errant  “Jewish-only” policy as we recall verses like, “Or is God the God of Jews only?” Rom. 3:29, and “We ourselves are Jews by birth and not Gentile sinners…” Gal. 2:15, and “Unless you are circumcised [read here as Jewish] according to the custom of Moses, you cannot be saved,” Acts 15:1.


This is why I believe, when Paul has the Gentiles wishing to join Isra'el in focus, it is necessary to interpret Paul’s phrase “works of the Law” not merely as legalism (mechanical obedience to the Law), but rather as a technical term referring to a specific 1st century deficiency surrounding Torah observance and proselyte conversion for Gentiles, but it takes digging into the historic cultural and sociological context of covenantal nomism to see this technicality more clearly (see Section Five below).  Yes, any approach to HaShem that circumvents the work of the Cross is tantamount to legalism, but 1st century (Jewish) Isra'el did not see themselves “working” their way towards God’s grace.  To be sure, they believed, per election, that God singled them out from among the nations as an act of pure grace!  And this would not be an entirely inaccurate viewpoint.  In their eyes, the Torah is not a burden!  It is a gift of grace from a loving Father!  What I am trying to say (along with Sanders, Dunn, Wright, Hegg, Nanos, etc.) is that I believe it is not entirely accurate to identify 1st century Isra'el’s “works of the Law” through the lens of 21st century “merit theology.”


For purposes of comparison, let us examine traditional Christian perspectives as well as recent Pauline interpretations of Galatians 2:16.  Martin Luther himself has an excellent commentary to Galatians available for free if one does an Internet search for it.  While I agree with the general theological aspects of his comments to Gal 2:16 (viz, “good works will not justify, only faith justifies”), I nevertheless disagree with the specific historical and sociological background that he implies Isra'el held to:


Knowing that a man is not justified by the works of the law, but by the faith of Jesus Christ.

For the sake of argument let us suppose that you could fulfill the Law in the spirit of the first commandment of God: "Thou shalt love the Lord, thy God, with all thy heart." It would do you no good. A person simply is not justified by the works of the Law.


The works of the Law, according to Paul, include the whole Law, judicial, ceremonial, moral. Now, if the performance of the moral law cannot justify, how can circumcision justify, when circumcision is part of the ceremonial law?


The demands of the Law may be fulfilled before and after justification. There were many excellent men among the pagans of old, men who never heard of justification. They lived moral lives. But that fact did not justify them. Peter, Paul, all Christians, live up to the Law. But that fact does not justify them. For I know nothing by myself," says Paul, "yet am I not hereby justified." (I Cor. 4:4.)[4]


I do not believe 1st century Isra'el was hoping to enter into covenant (be justified) with God via Torah obedience (works of the Law).  A cursory reading of the various daily, weekly, monthly, and yearly, (and sometimes longer!) loyalty to the commandments as outlined by Moshe on HaShem's behalf do not indicate that God was expecting perfunctory (let alone perfect!) performance of commandments for the sake of justification from him.  Torah itself simply does not lend to such an interpretation.  Quite frankly, Luther’s rhetoric seems more likely to strongly echo his own quibble against the Papacy of his day than to accurately describe Paul’s intentions.


Matthew Henry’s ubiquitous Concise Commentary on this passage is, in my experience, representative of mainstream Christian views:


2:15-19 Paul, having thus shown he was not inferior to any apostle, not to Peter himself, speaks of the great foundation doctrine of the gospel. For what did we believe in Christ? Was it not that we might be justified by the faith of Christ? If so, is it not foolish to go back to the law, and to expect to be justified by the merit of moral works, or sacrifices, or ceremonies? The occasion of this declaration doubtless arose from the ceremonial law; but the argument is quite as strong against all dependence upon the works of the moral law, as respects justification. To give the greater weight to this, it is added, But if, while we seek to be justified by Christ, we ourselves also are found sinners, is Christ the minister of sin? This would be very dishonourable to Christ, and also very hurtful to them. By considering the law itself, he saw that justification was not to be expected by the works of it, and that there was now no further need of the sacrifices and cleansings of it, since they were done away in Christ, by his offering up himself a sacrifice for us. He did not hope or fear any thing from it; any more than a dead man from enemies. But the effect was not a careless, lawless life. It was necessary, that he might live to God, and be devoted to him through the motives and grace of the gospel. It is no new prejudice, though a most unjust one, that the doctrine of justification by faith alone, tends to encourage people in sin. Not so, for to take occasion from free grace, or the doctrine of it, to live in sin, is to try to make Christ the minister of sin, at any thought of which all Christian hearts would shudder.[5]


Continuing our look at Galatians 2:16, I want to shift from general Christian views to perhaps some popular Messianic Jewish views.  I want to use, most extensively, some material from a Messianic Jewish commentary on the book of Galatians, written by David Stern, translator of the Complete Jewish Bible. In my opinion, Stern still writes from a decidedly “Lutheran” perspective with regards to the legalism of the 1st century; Stern seems to describe works of the Law in terms of merit theology, with its attendant “perversion of Torah into a set of stiff rules and focus on the minutia of commandments.”  I believe Stern was working from a time prior to the discovery of 4QMMT and perhaps that is why, even though his overall purpose as a Messianic Jew is to exonerate Torah, in the end, his interpretation of works of the Law sadly misses the mark quite a bit.  Nevertheless, I want to put his views on the table due to his important contributions to the Messianic Jewish movement as a whole.


"Having known but that not is being justified man out of works of Law if ever not through faith of Messiah Yeshua, also we into Messiah Yeshua we believed, in order that we might be justified out of faith of Messiah and not out of works of Law, because out of works of Law not will be justified every flesh."  This is a literal rendering of verse 16 from the Greek.  Being declared righteous by HaShem is the goal of all men who seek HaShem. Righteousness can be defined in two ways: "behavioral righteousness,” actually doing what is right, and "forensic righteousness,” being regarded as righteous in the sense (a) that God has cleared him of guilt for past sins, and (b) that God has given him a new human nature inclined to obey HaShem rather than rebel against him as before.


Yeshua has made forensic righteousness available to everyone by paying on everyone’s behalf the penalty for sins which HaShem’s justice demands, death. Forensic righteousness is appropriated by an individual for himself the moment he unreservedly puts his trust in HaShem, which at this point in history, entails also trusting in Yeshua the Messiah upon learning of him and understanding what he has done. The task of becoming behaviorally righteous begins with appropriating forensic righteousness (through Yeshua); it occupies the rest of a believer’s life, being completed only at the moment of his own death, when he goes to be with Yeshua. What is important to keep in mind here is the difference between these two kinds of righteousness. Each time the Greek word "dikaioo" ("righteousness") or a cognate is encountered, it must be decided which of these two meanings of the word is meant. In the present verse and the next, all four instances of "dikaioo" refer to forensic righteousness. But in verse 21, the related word "dikaiosune" refers to behavioral righteousness.


"Works of law,” translates the Greek phrase "ergon nomos” e[rgon novmoß. Since the word "nomos" means "Law," and is usually referring (from the Septuagint) to the Moshaic Law, i.e. Torah, most Christians usually understand "works of law" to mean "actions done in obedience to the Torah.” But this is wrong. One of the best-kept secrets about the New Testament is that when Sha'ul writes "nomos" he frequently does not mean "divine law" but "a man-made system of law.” This phrase ("ergon nomos"), Scripturally found ONLY in Sha'ul’s writings, occurs eight times, and always in technical discussion of the Torah: Gal. 2:16, 3:2, 5, 10; Rom. 3:20, 28. Two other uses of "ergon" ("works") are closely associated with the word "nomos" ("law") in Rom. 3:27; 9:32. Even when he uses "ergon" by itself, the implied meaning is frequently "a man-made system of law-related works,” see Gal. 5:19; Rom. 4:2, 6; 9:11; 11:6; Eph. 2:9; 2 Tim. 1:9; Titus 3:5. There are 17 other instances when it is neutral.  In order to interpret Sha'ul correctly one needs to understand that the phrase "ergon nomos" does not mean deeds done in virtue of following the Torah the way HaShem intended, but deeds done in consequence of perverting the Torah into a set of rules which, it is presumed, can be obeyed mechanically, automatically, legalistically, without having faith, without having trust in HaShem, without having love for HaShem or man, and without being empowered by the Ruach HaKodesh (Holy Spirit).[6]


I disagree with Stern’s working interpretation of works of the Law.  Don't get me wrong.  I agree with the theology behind what he is saying (works-righteousness, viz, legalism, will never save anyone, and a legalistic misuse of Torah is obviously displeasing to the God who gave the Torah).  I simply disagree with the historic plausibility of Stern’s interpretation of the phrase works of the Law.  To be sure, in the case of the Galatian congregation, I maintain that the specific social issue that drove Paul to write the letter was the “different gospel,” the gospel that was “contrary to the one Paul preached,”[7] which sought to transform Gentiles into Jews via a man-made ceremony of conversion, performed under the guise of “covenant inclusion.”  I don't, as Stern seems to infer, believe that Paul set out to explain the differences between “Spirit-led Torah obedience” and “legalistic perversion of Torah commands.”[8]  To appreciate the consternation that this halakhah caused Sha'ul, one has to understand that within the 1st century Judaisms, the prevailing view was that “all Isra'el have a place in the World to Come,” a maxim based on a popular rabbinic interpretation of the key phrase “Your people are all righteous…” of Isaiah 60:21, as explained in the Mishnah at Tractate Sanhedrin 10:1.


What is more, from the perspective of the Ethnocentric Jewish Exclusivism of the 1st century, since Isra'el and Isra'el alone were granted this gift from HaShem it was necessary in the minds of the proto-rabbis to convert Gentiles into Jews before they could enjoy the status of “full-fledged covenant member.”  In order to accomplish this task, a ceremony had been invented—a ceremony not found in the Torah itself.  The ceremony included circumcision for the males.  Because of this feature, the entire sociological situation was subsumed under the label “circumcision.”  Thus, “works of law” becomes a sort of “short-hand” way for Sha'ul to describe the proselyte prerequisite for non-Jews, which primarily included circumcision but eventually went on to include Sabbath, food laws, and other purity issues imposed on covenant members wishing to maintain a status of “righteous” in the commonwealth of Isra'el.  And given these unique insights into the minds of the early Judaisms, we see why it is necessary to avoid simply labeling any form of Torah obedience—whether from the 1st century or from the 21st century—as legalism, viz, merit theology the way I perceive Stern seems to be characterizing the phrase works of the Law.” 


Having just examined Stern’s view of Gal 2:16, let us take a look at Dunn’s specific notes to this verse as well:


As to the immediate context, the most relevant factor is that Galatians 2.16 follows immediately upon the debates, indeed the crises, at Jerusalem and at Antioch which focused on two issues – at Jerusalem, circumcision; at Antioch, the Jewish food laws with the whole question of ritual purity unstated but clearly implied. Paul’s forceful denial of justification by works of law is his response to these two issues. His denial that justification is from works of law is, more precisely, a denial that justification depends on circumcision or on observation of the Jewish purity and food taboos. We may justifiably deduce, therefore, that by ‘works of law’ Paul intended his readers to think of particular observances of the law like circumcision and the food laws. His Galatian readership might well think also of the one other area of law observance to which Paul refers disapprovingly later in the same letter – their observance of special days and feasts (Gal. 4.10). But why these particular ‘works of the law’? The broader context suggests a reason.


From the broader context, provided for us by Greco-Roman literature of the period, we know that just these observances were widely regarded as characteristically and distinctively Jewish. Writers like Petronius, Plutarch, Tacitus and Juvenal took it for granted that, in particular, circumcision, abstention from pork, and the sabbath, were observances which marked out the practitioners as Jews, or as people who were very attracted to Jewish ways.30 These, of course, were not all exclusively Jewish practices – for example, not only Jews practiced circumcision. But this makes it all the more striking that these practices were nevertheless widely regarded as both characteristic and distinctive of the Jews as a race – a fact which tells us much about the influence of Diaspora Judaism in the Greco- Roman world. It is clear, in other words, that just these observances in particular functioned as identity markers, they served to identify their practitioners as Jewish in the eyes of the wider public, they were the peculiar rites which marked out the Jews as that peculiar people.[9]


I believe that if Paul meant to specifically single out a “short list” of Torah commands that uniquely marked out covenant membership for these Galatians Gentiles seeking legitimate acceptance into Isra'el—at least from the perspective of the Influencers pressing the issue—then, ‘works of the Law’ likely does, in fact, refer specifically to circumcision and the food laws like Dunn suggests.  However, I also believe, given that Paul goes on to use ‘works of the Law’ in Romans as well as here in Galatians, perhaps we might suggest that ‘works of the Law’ could be understood as describing a kind of sectarian halakhah that served to separate any given group from another group in terms of right-living before God Almighty.  In other words, when comparing Jews to Gentiles, works of the Law served to separate the two groups on the basis of circumcision and the food laws.  However, when comparing circumcised with other circumcised Jews, the Judean version of works of the Law might not particularly be the same as the Qumran version of works of the Law and visa versa.  Of course for Sha'ul, no matter which community he would find himself visiting, either way he is certainly going to argue for entrance into the lasting people of God via faith in Yeshua (as opposed to works of the Law), and maintenance of membership via walking by the Spirit (per Gal 5:16, 18, 25, in opposition to works of the Law).


Lastly, let us see how Tim Hegg understands Galatians 2:16.  Backing up to Gal 2:15 to get a context, Hegg notes:


Thus, when Paul writes, "we are Jews by birth and not Gentile sinners," he is deliberately using the language of those who were distancing themselves from the Gentiles, and encouraging the Gentiles to become proselytes in order to leave the status of "sinner" and enter the circle of "Jews by birth."


This being the case, v. 15 is a continuation of the dialog/rhetoric of v. 14.  We might paraphrase the two verses this way:


". . . If you, being a Jew, participate with Gentiles even though the community halachah you have is against doing so, then why do you compel the Gentiles to follow your halachah when you're not even willing to be consistent? Don't you hear the argument of your chaverim ringing in your ears? "We're Jews, not 'Gentile sinners!"'


This is not the last time that we will find Paul quoting the stock clichés of the influencers. And it will be important for us to keep our eyes open for this kind of rhetorical device as we follow Paul's arguments.


Thus, v. 16 begins Paul's direct answer to the question that he had presented to Peter in vv. 14-15. And what is his answer? That final and ultimate covenant membership is gained through faith in Messiah, not through any ritual of conversion (for Gentiles) or even by maintaining one's covenant status through doing the mitzvot. For though Jews enter the covenant on a physical basis through lineage to Abraham, yet in terms of the spiritual blessings of the covenant, these come only to those who have the faith of Abraham-they do not come as a result of merely being physically related to the covenant.[10]


Hegg’s own interpretation of ‘works of the Law’ is provided in his commentary to Galatians as the following:


The fact that both the phrases ("works of the Torah" and "counted as righteousness") are found in this document is incredibly important for understanding the same phrases in Paul. What we now understand is that the phrase "works of the Law/Torah" was used in Paul's day to refer specific sets of rules or halachah which a group required for its self-definition. Simply put, such a list of "works of the Torah" constituted the entrance requirements into the group. Since the group would no doubt consider its own interpretations of the Written Torah to be the correct interpretation, they would also have held that only those who adhere to their halachah would be actually obeying the Torah and living righteously. "Works of the Torah," then, refers to halachah required for entrance into the covenant community (as envisioned by each sect), not personal obedience to God's word. And since covenant membership was considered one and the same with the status of "righteous," it is not difficult to understand how adhering to a given halachah to gain membership in the community was attached to being reckoned as righteous.[11]


I tend to think Dunn and Hegg combined (in contrast to the popular Christian views) offer the most accurate interpretation of Gal 2:15, 16, and works of the Law, by describing for us the important socio-religious background necessary to appreciate the unique consternation that Jewish-only works of the Law policies were causing our apostle to the Gentiles.  Interpreted in this manner, we as believers seeking justification and sanctification found exclusively in Yeshua, need only to begin to distance ourselves from a limited use and application of the Torah as some sort of entry list for Gentiles seeking legitimacy in the covenant and communities of Isra'el, as well as distance ourselves away from any supposed reliance on maintaining our place in God's people by relying on works of the Law as Jews and (basically former) Gentiles.


The negative impact that this prevailing Christian hermeneutic has for today's emerging Torah Communities (the one which interprets Paul as forbidding any sort of Torah obedience whether with right motives or not) is devastating.  To wit, we Messianic Jews and Messianic Gentiles indeed seek to become more obedient to God’s Holy Scriptures as we continue to grow and consequently answer the Holy Spirit’s tug on our heart to return to covenant faithfulness.  Imagine our shock and confusion when our Christian friends and family members who don't embrace a Torah-based lifestyle label our Torah-obedience as mere legalism!  “You guys are going back under the Law!”  “You guys are returning to legalism!”  “You guys are trying to earn your position in God’s eyes!”  These are some of the sentiments we Torah-keeping Jews and Gentiles hear from our mainstream Christian counterparts.  In my experience as a Torah-keeping Jewish man that embraces Yeshua, part of the Christian confusion can be cleared up by understanding that Sha'ul’s “works of the Law” doesn't describe mere legalistic commandment keeping, but instead captures the sociological notion of Torah-keeping for the sake of maintaining covenant membership—a sort of “social badge, boundary marker, or ostensible “Jewish” responsibility to uphold Torah because we are in a covenant partnership with HaShem” perspective.  And in the eyes of the early Judaisms, this quote unquote “partnership” started with legally-recognized ethnic Jewish identity, a view the current Torah Movement—and the mainstream Christian Church—should rightly repudiate.

[1] James D.G. Dunn, The New Perspective on Paul: Revised Edition (Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, Grand Rapids, Michigan, 2008), Section II.

[2] Recall John’s rebuke of some religious leaders who might suppose they “have Abraham as [their] father,” perhaps in hopes that the righteousness of Abraham would transfer down to them somehow.

[3] Galatians 1:6-9 (ESV), “I am astonished that you are so quickly deserting him who called you in the grace of Christ and are turning to a different gospel— not that there is another one, but there are some who trouble you and want to distort the gospel of Christ. But even if we or an angel from heaven should preach to you a gospel contrary to the one we preached to you, let him be accursed. As we have said before, so now I say again: If anyone is preaching to you a gospel contrary to the one you received, let him be accursed.”

[4] http://www.studylight.org/commentaries/mlg/view.cgi?bk=47&ch=2

[5] http://biblehub.com/commentaries/galatians/2-16.htm

[6] David H. Stern, The Jewish New Testament Commentary-Galatians (Jewish New Testament Publications, 1992), p. 535-537.

[7] Galatians 1:6-9.

[8] Stern renders the familiar “works of the Law” as “legalistic perversion of Torah commands” in his Complete Jewish Bible translation of Galatians 2:16.

[9] James D.G. Dunn, The New Perspective on Paul: Revised Edition (Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, Grand Rapids, Michigan, 2008), Section II.

[10] Tim Hegg, A Study of Galatians (www.torahresource.com, 2002), p. 68.

[11] Ibid, p. 100.