A foundational assumption of those who adopt some version of the ‘New Perspective on Paul’ is that Second-Temple Judaism was a not a religion of works-righteousness, but of grace. ‘Works’ were not seen as the way of meriting salvation, as has often been thought, but rather were the ‘boundary-markers’ of God’s people; the things that marked them out as belonging to him.
I have long viewed this with some suspicion. There seem to be too many instances in the Gospels when people did seek to justify themselves before God. D.A. Carson (in ‘We Proclaim the Word of Life’, p25) draws attention to some of these, as recorded in Luke’s Gospel:
- When a lawyer stood up to ‘test Jesus’, we are told that ‘he wanted to justify himself’ (Lk 10:29).
- When, in Lk 16:15 the Pharisees heard what Jesus had to say about money and sneered at him, the Lord replies, “You are the ones who justify yourselves in the eyes of others…”.
- When Jesus tells the story of the Pharisee and the tax collector, only the latter ‘went home justified before God’ (Lk 18:14), the former having been too busy justifying himself to see any need to be justified by God.