Luther’s understanding of the law was a keystone of his theology, and of much Protestant theology until the present century. Was Luther simply wrong? That he was in fact wrong has become a central axiom for a majority of contemporary Pauline scholars in our generation (see further below) -a development which took place primarily in the last 44 years (1977-2011), gathering momentum like a veritable academic snowball.
The mainstream academic view today is that Luther wrongly assumed the ancient Jews held essentially the same theology of law and/or merit as Roman Catholicism (this interpretation itself first appeared in medieval Roman Catholicism, and which is absent in early patristic/post apostolic Christianity of the first Christian millennium, i.e. paleo-orthodoxy; the medieval paradigm continues to encounter repudiation as late theological innovation by Eastern Christianity). Luther’s paradigm of Jewish law wasn’t gotten from early rabbinical Jewish and other early extrabibllcal Jewish literature (though not long after Luther it was being widely, but -according to contemporary scholarship- illegitimately, read *into* especially rabbinic literature by many writers), but from the controversy of his own time with Roman/Latin Catholics with their “storehouses of merit,” indulgences and so forth. Luther wrongly assumed the Jews taught some key particular errors he perceived in medieval Latin Catholicism, and also read the same NT on the basis of that assumption in a powerful and majorly influential way. Locked in the struggle of his own day Luther assumed the view he opposed actually belonged to ancient Jews and was reflected in the NT. Pretty much all Protestant theology followed suit for the next 400 years.
If one can accept the notion -and it is difficult on academic grounds not to- that primary sources by Jews describing what their own religion was like before, around, and after the time of Christ are a better index of what Jews actually believed than majorly conflicting Roman Catholic, Lutheran, and later accounts which first appeared in the middle ages, the conclusion might well appear on the order of a no-brainer.
The following brief excerpt from the article “Law” in Gerald F. Hawthorne, Ralph P. Martin, and Daniel G. Reid, eds., Dictionary of Paul and His Letters: A Compendium of Contemporary Biblical Scholarship (1993) by F. Thielman tells the basic story:
“It is easy, when reading Luther, to concentrate on the theological argument with the Roman Catholic Church in which he is so energetically engaged and to miss a subtle hermeneutical impropriety in which the great Reformer and theologian has indulged. Especially in his lectures on Galatians, but elsewhere as well, Luther assumes that the Jews against whose view of the law Paul was arguing held the same theology of justification as the medieval Roman Catholic Church. This hermeneutical error would be perpetuated over the next four centuries and eventually serve as the organizing principle for mountains of Protestant scholarship on the Old Testament and ancient Judaism.
“It was frequently assumed among Old Testament scholars, for example, that at least from the period of the restoration of the Jews to Israel under Ezra, the history of Judaism was a story of spiraling degeneracy into legalism, hypocrisy, and lack of compassion. Similarly, when Protestant scholars discussed rabbinic Judaism they tended to assume Paul’s polemic against Judaism interpreted through the lens of Luther’s reaction against Roman Catholicism provided a sound basis for systematizing the religion of the Mishnah, Talmud and related Jewish writings of a later era. F. Weber’s “popular” description of Talmudic theology (1880) is typical. Keeping the many and peculiar commands of the Law, said Weber, was the means by which the rabbis believed salvation was earned. The ordinary rabbi, therefore, believed that the goal of rabbinic religion was the search for reward on the basis of merit, that God was a stern judge, and that the approaching death brought with it the fear of losing salvation due to a lack of merit.
“A large part of this portrait of ancient Judaism found its way into the interpretations of the NT generally, and especially into expositions of Paul’s writings. Widely used commentaries such as that of W. Sanday and A. Headlam on Romans (reprinted seventeen times fro 1895 to 1952), and influential books about the NT, such as R. Bultmann’s popular description of Primitive Christianity in Its Contemporary Setting (1949, ET 1956) used this picture of Judaism as a backdrop for their explanations of NT theology. In Sanday and Heeadlam’s commentary, for example, Paul’s struggle with the law in Romans 7:7-25, which they take to be a portrait of his preconversion existence, is interpreted as the natural consequence of the “stern” Rabbinic view of the Law, which, they claim, “was fatal to peace of mind” (Sanday and Headlam, 189). Similarly, Bultmann, in a section of Primitive Christianity titled “Jewish Legalism” claimed that the Jewish view of the Law in the first century made “radical obedience” to God impossible because it held that once a certain list of commandments had been kept, one was in the clear and was free to do anything (Bultmann, 69). In addition, said Bultmann, it taught that God would punish sins strictly according to the law of retribution, that salvation was never a certainty, and that even repentance and faith could be transformed into meritorious works (Bultmann, 69-71).
“The Lutheran picture of ancient Judaism now clad in the impressive robes of scholarship, did not go unchallenged among Jewish scholars. As early as 1894 the distinguished Jewish reformer C. G. Montifeore objected forcefully to what he viewed as the tendency of Christian theologians to paint rabbinic Judaism as a dark shadow against which Paul’s theology could brightly shine. The rabbinic literature, pleaded Montifeore, reveals a compassionate and forgiving God ready to lay aside even grievous infractions of the Law at the slightest movement toward repentance by the offending party. It portrays rabbis, moreover, as those who regarded Law as a gift and a delight, who placed a value on faith in God as high as Paul’s and whose daily prayer was “Sovereign Lord of all worlds, not because of our own righteous acts do we lay our supplications before thee but because of thine abundant mercies” (b. Yoma 87b). “I wonder,” Montefiore asked in an address before England’s St. Paul Association in 1900, “if there is the smallest chance that you, unlike the theologians, will believe me when I say that all this business of the severe Judge and the stern Law giver is a figment and a bugbear?”
“Montifeore’s critique of the Lutheran caricature of Judaism at first fell on deaf ears, but through the work of several influential scholars over the next seventy years began to gain the ascendancy not only in Jewish circles, but among nearly everyone working in the field. In 1927 G. F. Moore published a two-volume study of rabbinic theology which, in contrast to Weber’s work, emphasized the role of grace, forgiveness and repentance in the earliest literature of rabbinic religion. This was followed in 1948 by W. D. Davie’s detailed study of Paul and Rabbinic Judaism in which Davies argued that Paul’s doctrine of justification by faith apart from the Law was only one metaphor among many, probably developed first in the heat of argument (Davies, 71-73), and that the apostle’s letters revealed simply a Pharisee for whom the messianic age had dawned (Davies, 71-73).
“Without question, however, the pivotal event in bringing Montefiore’s complaint from the backwater to main stream was the publication in 1977 of E. P. Sander’s Paul and Palestinian Judaism. Sander’s book was so powerful not because its approach was original but because Sanders addressed pointedly and exhaustively the distorted view of Judaism which Lutheran scholarship, and those under its influence, had produced. Sanders made his way step by step through the most influential works of modern NT scholarship in order to show that they departed from ancient Judaism as a religion in which salvation was achieved by meritorious achievement. He then embarked on a lengthy journey through not only the rabbinic literature of the first 200 years after Christ but through the Qumran literature, the apocrypha and the pseudepigrapha as well to determine how those documents answer the question. What must one do to be saved?
“His conclusion was that in all of this ancient Jewish literature, with the exception of the atypical document 4 Ezra, salvation came not through achieving a certain number of meritorious works but through belonging to the covenant people of God. The proper response to the covenant was, of course, obedience, but means of atonement were readily available for those who failed to obey fully. This “pattern of religion” Sanders called “covenantal nomism” (Sanders 1977, 75; 1992, 262-78), and, he claimed, it bears little resemblance to the description of Jewish “soteriology” in most handbooks of Protestant biblical scholarship.
“Largely as a result of this important work, most students of Pauline theology now believe that Montefiore, Sanders, and other dissenters from the classic Protestant perspective have proven their case…” (F. Thielman, “Law” in Gerald F. Hawthorne, Ralph P. Martin, and Daniel G. Reid, eds., Dictionary of Paul and His Letters: A Compendium of Contemporary Biblical Scholarship (1993).
BIBLIOGRAPHY. R. Bultmann, Primitive Christianity in Its Contemporary Setting (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1956); W. D. Davies, Paul and Rabbinic Judaism : Some Rabbinic Elements in Pauline Theology (4th ed.; Philadelphia: Fortress, 1980); T. J. Deidun, New Covenant Morality in Paul (AnBib 89; Rome: Biblical Institute, 1981); J. D. G. Dunn, Jesus, Paul, and the Law: Studies in Mark and Galatians (Louisville: Westminster/John Knox, 1990); R. B. Hays, Echoes of Scripture in the Letters of Paul (New Haven: Yale University, 1989); M. Hengel, The Zealots (Edinburgh: T. & T. Clark, 1989); H. Hübner, Law in Paul’s Thought (Edinburgh: T. & T. Clark, 1984); H. Maccoby, Paul and Hellenism (Philadelphia: Trinity Press International, 1991); C. G. Montefiore, “First Impressions of Paul,” JQR 6 (1894) 428–75; idem, “Rabbinic Judaism and the Epistles of St. Paul,” JQR 13 (1900–1901) 161–217; G. F. Moore, Judaism in the First Centuries of the Christian Era: The Age of the Tannaim (2 vols.; Cambridge, MA: Harvard University, 1927); H. Räisänen, Paul and the Law (WUNT 29; Tübingen: J. C. B. Mohr, 1983); idem, The Torah and Christ: Essays in German and English on the Problem of the Law in Early Christianity (SESJ; Helsinki: Finnish Exegetical Society, 1986); W. Sanday and A. C. Headlam, A Critical and Exegetical Commentary on the Epistle to the Romans (ICC; 5th ed; Edinburgh: T. & T. Clark, 1902); E. P. Sanders, Judaism : Practice and Belief 63BCE-66CE (Philadelphia: Trinity Press International, 1992); idem, Paul and Palestinian Judaism : A Comparison of Patterns of Religion (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1977); idem, Paul, the Law, and the Jewish People (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1983); idem, Paul (New York: Oxford University Press, 1991); S. Sandmel, The Genius of Paul: A Study in History (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1979); idem, Judaism and Christian Beginnings (New York: Oxford University Press, 1978); F. Thielman, From Plight to Solution: A Jewish Framework for Understanding Paul’s View of the Law in Galatians and Romans (NovTSup 61; Leiden: E. J. Brill, 1989); P. J. Tomson, Paul and the Jewish Law: Halakah in the Letters of the Apostle to the Gentiles (CRINT 3.1; Minneapolis: Fortress, 1990); F. Weber, Jüdische Theologie auf Grund des Talmud und verwandter Schriften, gemeinfasslich dargestellt (2d ed.; Leipzig: Dörffling & Franke, 1897; 1st ed., 1880); A. J. M. Wedderburn, The Reasons for Romans (Edinburgh: T. & T. Clark, 1988); S. Westerholm, Israel’s Law and the Church’s Faith: Paul and His Recent Interpreters (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1988); N. T. Wright, The Climax of the Covenant: Christ and the Law in Pauline Theology (Edinburgh: T. & T. Clark, 1991).