How did "works of the Law" function?

The bigger question relative to these works of the Law concerns whether they functioned within primarily a salvific or social context.[1] The traditional interpretation of these “works of the Law” in Paul’s argument is that they served a salvific function, that is, Jews practiced said works to merit salvation before the Lord. Paul thus juxtaposes these works against faith as a contrary principle of how an individual’s relationship with God fundamentally works. God does not justify based on works but graciously on the basis of faith. More recent interpretations regard these works of the Law as having instead a social function, that is, proper practice of them marks one out as a faithful member of God’s covenant community, while improper practice of them marks one as outside that community. James D. G. Dunn is well known for his argument that works of the Law acted as “badges” or “boundary markers”; he relies heavily on similar phrasing within the Dead Sea scrolls to affirm this social function.[2] This is similar to the arguments made by Wright relative to the attitudes of the Jewish Christians who had come to Galatia after Paul: They themselves were already marked as part of God’s covenant community by virtue of their proper obedience to the Law; they had believed in Jesus as well. Their requirement of the Galatians was essentially to get the first marker right, and then the second would have value for them as well.[3]


  1. Yes, this is an overly simplistic way to explain the issue, but my intention is to clearly show the differences between the two interpretations. This language impresses me as somewhat helpful.  ↩

  2. See Dunn, Romans, 154; Dunn, “4QMMT and Galatians,” 147–153. The connections of Galatians with 4QMMT are striking and Dunn’s conclusion (p. 153) is not unreasonable: “MMT preserves a vocabulary and manner of theologising which left its mark on a wider spectrum of Jewish thought and practice, and that it was just this sort of theologising and practice which confronted Paul in Antioch and which he wrote Galatians to counter.” My initial response is that the fundamental social situation in Antioch (a mixed-ethnicity social group within a predominately Gentile environment)—or within Galatia for that matter—did not match the one implied by 4QMMT (a singularly Jewish, separatist group), so the connection between the motivations of Peter and company in Antioch may have been quite different. Even so, the connections Dunn notes on the whole have merit and are persuasive.  ↩

  3. See Wright, Pauline Perspectives, 429, which is a reprint of Wright, “Justification: Yesterday, Today, and Forever,” 49–63, where this argument occurs on p. 55. This is a particularly potent argument, in my view. Traditional exegesis has viewed Paul’s opponents in Galatia as Jewish Christians who had placed their faith in Christ but also were requiring a work; they were Christian brothers who were fundamentally wrong in adding a requirement to faith in Christ. But the exegetical and historical data makes much more sense to view these individuals as Jews who had never left their adherence to works of the Law behind; they had professed faith in Christ but never changed their thinking of the importance of works of the Law. Their fundamental theological flaw was not in adding works to faith, but in adding faith to works.  ↩