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The “Works of the Law” in Gal. 2:16

October 26, 2011

“We who are Jews by birth and not from among ‘Gentile sinners’ know that a person is not justified by works of the law, but through the faithfulness of Jesus Christ, even we have believed in Christ Jesus, in order that we might be justified through the faithfulness of Christ and not by works of the law, because by works of the law no one will be justified.”

(Gal. 2:15-16)


The letter to the Galatians is generally considered to be one of the most important epistles penned by the apostle Paul.[1]  As such, it has played a significant role in the theological reflection and doctrinal development of the Christian Church.[2]  One of the central passages in the letter is 2:15-21 where, for the first time, Paul articulates his understanding of justification by faith over and against justification by works of the law.  Although there are a number of important interpretational issues hidden within this apparently simple but dense passage, the present essay will focus on reconstructing the meaning of the phrase “works of the law” (ἔργων νόμου) in 2:16 from within its historical and literary contexts.

Historical Context

It almost goes without saying that the apostle Paul was the author of the letter to the Galatians.  As Longenecker remarks, “If Galatians is not by Paul, no NT letter is by him, for none has any better claim.”[3]  After identifying himself by name (1:1), Paul goes on to share some important autobiographical information that sheds important light on the occasion and purpose of the letter (1:11-2:14).[4]

While the authorship of the letter is not contested, the identity of the recipients certainly is.[5]  Paul addresses the letter to the churches in Galatia (1:2), and later refers to them as Galatians (3:1).  The uncertainty of the recipients is caused by the fact that the name could be used in both an ethnic and geographic sense.[6]  This has given rise to what is commonly
referred to as the northern and southern hypotheses.  Although convincing arguments can be mounted in support of either position, the weight of evidence seems to lean towards the southern hypothesis.[7]  However, the precise location does not have any significant bearing on the interpretation of the “works of the law” and will thus not be pursued here.

Since Paul’s last visit to the believers in Galatia, a group of “troublemakers” had begun to infiltrate the churches (1:7; 5:10, 12).[8]  We know nothing about these individuals apart from that which we find in the letter itself.[9]  It seems that Paul himself is not exactly sure of the identity of the individuals who are troubling the Galatians either (3:1; 5:7, 10).  But according to the nformation that had reached him, these “troublemakers” were trying to impose the requirements of the Jewish Law upon those in the faith.[10]  This was revealed specifically in the way they were urging the believers to become circumcised (5:2-12; 6:12-13; cf. 2:3-5).  This was an outward sign of an inward concern they had over ethnic identity.  They believed that the Gentiles had to become Jews by circumcision before they could become true Christians.  As McKnight points out, they “saw their message as Jesus Christ plus Moses, not just Moses, not just Jesus Christ.”[11]  Paul thus charges them with preaching a distorted gospel (1:6-9).  There also seems to be hints that these “troublemakers” were casting doubt on Paul’s apostolic credentials, which helps to explain the extended autobiographical account of the divine origin of his calling and commission to preach the gospel (1:11-24).  Therefore, from the evidence presented within the letter, the picture that emerges of these “troublemakers” is that they were Jewish Christians who were teaching that Paul’s gospel was incomplete without obedience to the Law and specifically circumcision.  As far as they were concerned, Christ was subordinate to the Law.[12]

Literary Context

In his landmark commentary, Betz convincingly demonstrated that Galatians is an apologetic letter.[13]  Following the typical epistolary prescript and introduction (1:1-10), the first major section is the narratio (1:11-2:14), which contains a brief statement of the facts relevant to the charge being addressed; the second is the propositio (2:15-21), which contains a statement on the points of agreement and a statement on the points that are contested; and the third major section is the probatio (3:1-4:31), which is considered the most important part of the letter because it contains the proofs that that will determine whether or not the case will succeed.[14]  The passage being considered in the present essay falls between the narratio and the probatio, summing up the content of the former and setting up the arguments of the latter.[15]  Longenecker thus describes 2:15-21 as being “not only the hinge between what has gone before and what follows but actually the central affirmation of the letter.”[16]

The first argument that Paul puts forward in the propositio is in vv. 15-16 which he will develop more fully in 3:1-18.  It flows directly out of his rebuke of Peter in 2:11-14 regarding table fellowship at Antioch.  Prior to the arrival of a certain group of men from James, Peter had been content to eat with Gentiles (2:12).  Presumably, these men were from Jerusalem where most Christians were “zealous for the Law” (Acts 21:20).  Upon their arrival, Peter separated himself, causing the other Jewish Christians to do the same.  The immediate question that arises from this incident is whether or not Jewish Christians and Gentile Christians belong at the same table, an issue which carried significant social and ethnic implications.[17]  Most notably in this context is the Jewish understanding that eating with Gentiles, including those who had become Christians, meant crossing the line that was drawn by the Law.[18]  Paul sees the actions of Peter in this situation being very similar to those of the “troublemakers,” which is precisely why he tells this story in this way.[19]  “How is it” he questions Peter, “that you compel the Gentiles to live like Jews?”  (v. 14).  Although it is difficult to know where Paul ends this rebuke and begins stating his argument,[20] it seems that v. 15 marks the transition into his theological reflection of this incident that took place at Antioch.[21]

“Works of the Law”

Paul begins the propositio by building on common ground:[22] “We who are Jews by birth and not from among ‘Gentile sinners’.”  This last phrase “Gentile sinners” (ἐξ ἐθνῶν ἁμαρτωλοί) was a technical term for those who were outside the covenant.[23]  Paul identifies himself as a Jew and describes the typical Jewish attitude towards their ethnic identity – they were in, the Gentiles were out.  But, as Wright puts it, “he is about to show that in the gospel this ethnic identity is dismantled, so that a new identity may be constructed.”[24]  As Jews by nature, and Christians by faith, they knew “that a person is not justified by works of the law but only through the faithfulness of Jesus Christ.”[25]  Paul assumes that “this is the proper and normal view of Jewish Christians, in light of what they know and believe about the work of Christ.”[26]  But what exactly does Paul mean when he speaks of “works of the law” (ἔργων νόμου)?[27]  As Betz has noted, it is important to remember that Galatians “is composed of a great deal of doctrinal ‘abbreviations.’  These abbreviations are difficult to translate.  Commenting upon them means that they must be dissolved into the doctrinal statements which they intend to abbreviate.”[28]  This process must be carefully guided by that which has been discovered in the literary and historical contexts.

The phrase “works of law” is used by Paul eight times,[29] three of which occur in here in Gal. 2:16.  There is general agreement among biblical scholarship that when Paul speaks of “the Law” he has the Jewish Law, the Torah, in mind.[30]  As Witherington notes, the debate primarily centres not on what law Paul is referring to but rather what sort of works he has in mind.[31]  Is Paul referring to all works of the Law or just some in particular?  Or is he referring to legalism?  Traditionally, Paul’s statements about the “works of the law” have been understood as a denial that human beings can achieve salvation by their own works.[32]  This position is still held by some who argue, largely from their understanding of the argument in Romans, that the phrase refers to actions that are performed in obedience to the Law, actions that could be regarded as meritorious.[33]  In a similar vein, others have argued that, while the Law itself is good, the phrase is targeted at those who follow the demands of the Law in a spirit of legalism.  Bruce states that “Paul had no ready word or phrase in Greek to express what we mean by ‘legalism’, and therefore had to use ‘law’ or a phrase containing ‘law’ to express it.”[34]  Westerholm takes a slightly different approach when he maintains that “works of the law” refers to the inability of people to fulfil the requirements of the Law.[35]

These interpretations all seem to have been built upon a distorted understanding that first century Judaism was essentially a works-based religion.  In his ground-breaking study Paul and Palestinian Judaism, E. P. Sanders convincingly demonstrated that Judaism never taught that individuals must earn favour with God through good works.  Instead, as those who were already members of God’s covenant people, obedience to the Law was the way in which they maintained their position in the covenant, not how they entered it.[36]  Thus, any obedience or “works of the law” was an integral part of the covenant.  It would seem only natural then, that the phrase would refer to the obligations laid upon the Israelites by virtue of their covenantal membership.[37]  This historical understanding makes perfect sense of the literary context.  By withdrawing from table fellowship with Gentile believers, Peter was not striving to earn salvation by his own good works.  Instead, he was seeking to maintain the boundary between the Jewish Christians – those in the covenant, and the Gentile Christians – those who had to conform to the requirements of the covenant.[38]

Were there any specific requirements?  It would seem so.  Gal. 2:16 forms the immediate conclusion of the two preceding incidents recorded in the narratio which centred on the issues of circumcision (2:3-6) and the observance of Jewish food laws (2:12-14).  Dunn has pointed out that these two issues in particular had been central to Jewish identity and covenant faithfulness since the Maccabean crisis (1 Macc. 1:60-63).[39]  This helps us understand why they appear to have been test cases pushed upon the Galatian believers by the “troublemakers.”[40]  This does not mean, however, that “works of the law” only refers to circumcision and food laws.  Paul rebukes Peter for compelling the Gentiles to live like Jews (2:14), which seems to indicate that the phrase includes more than just these two covenantal markers, but the whole Jewish way of life summed up in the Law.  This understanding is also confirmed by the way in which Paul employs the phrase elsewhere in Galatians, especially in 3:9-10 where the antithesis is drawn between those who are “of faith” (ἐκ πίστεως) and those “of works of the law” (ἐξ ἔργων νόμου), clearly referring to two different modes of existence, the latter being those who view the observance of the Law as obligatory for God’s people.[41]  Thus, I think Witherington is correct in affirming that for Paul “works of law” refers to actions performed in obedience to the Law, “or more specifically acts performed in response to any and all commandments of the Law,” but wrong in denying that Paul is “simply concerned with specific laws,” or “with the social function and effect of the Law separating Jews from Gentiles.”[42]  The whole context has shown that that the phrase includes both the Law in general, and the specific laws in particular, from a covenantal perspective.  Hays appears to be the closest to the truth when he concludes that

The phrase does not refer only to markers of ethnic identity; in principle, it refers – as Dunn has acknowledged – to the comprehensive range of actions required by Torah. But the immediate context of Galatians suggests that “works of Law” points especially to the few litmus-test practices where Jewish identity was symbolically at stake.[43]


The present essay has attempted to reconstruct the meaning of the “works of the law” from within the historical and literary context of Galatians.  The historical context revealed important insights into the Law-driven agenda of the “troublemakers” who were specifically stirring up the Gentile believers to become circumcised.  The literary context further revealed the centrality of the propositio in the structure of the letter and how Paul’s theological statements in that section grow directly out of the incident at Antioch over ethnic separation.  Drawing on these two contexts, the meaning of the “works of the law” was shown to be referring not only to the covenantal boundary markers of circumcision and food laws, but also to the Jewish Law in general which distinguished Jews and Gentiles.  In condemning these “works of the law” as a means of justification, Paul is saying that our true covenantal identity is no longer found in the Law, but
in “the faithfulness of Jesus Christ.”

[1] Along with Romans and 1 and 2 Corinthians, F. F. Bruce identifies Galatians as a “capital” epistle of Paul. See The Epistle to the Galatians: A Commentary on the Greek Text (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1982), 1.

[2] Richard Hays, “The Letter to the Galatians: Introduction, Commentary, and Reflections,” in The New Interpreter’s Bible, vol. 11 (Nashville, TN: Abingdon, 2000), 184. For a detailed history on the impact of Galatians throughout the Christian era, see Richard Longenecker, Galatians, Word Biblical Commentary 41 (Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson, 1990), x1ii-1vii.

[3] Longenecker, Galatians, 1viii.

[4] James D. G. Dunn, A Commentary on the Epistle to the Galatians (London: A & C Black, 1993), 3.

[5] The destination of the letter is also bound up with issues surrounding the dating of the letter.

[6] G. W. Hansen, “Letter to the Galatians,” in Dictionary of Paul and His Letters, edited by Gerald F. Hawthorne (Downers Grove, IL: Intervarsity, 1993),323-326.

[7] For a detailed discussion of the two hypotheses, see Bruce, Galatians, 3-18; Longenecker, Galatians, 1xi-1xxii. Both are convinced that the weight of evidence favours the southern option.

[8] Regarding the labelling of these opponents, Dunn points out that it is important not to call them “Judaizers” as that was the term used to describe one “who lived like a Jew”, not one who tried to get others to judaize (Galatians, 9 n 2).

[9] Building on the work of J. L. Sumney, Ben Witherington issues 11 cautionary parameters that he believes will lead to a balanced and careful approach in identifying Paul’s opponents. See Grace in Galatia: A Commentary on Paul’s Letter to the Galatians (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1998), 21-25.

[10] The frequent use of the word νόμος (32 times) reveals this was one of the central concerns of the letter. See also the keys phrases “works of law” (2:16), and “under the law” (3:23; 4:4-5, 21; 5:18).

[11] Scot McKnight, The NIV Application Commentary: Galatians (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1995), 24.

[12] Hays, Galatians, 195.

[13] Hans Dieter Betz, Galatians: A Commentary on Paul’s Letter to the Churches in Galatia (Philadelphia, PA: Fortress, 1979), 14-25. The literary genre is also known as forensic rhetoric in which the tactics of persuasion used in the law court are adapted into written form as a defence against accusations. See Hansen, “Letter to the Galatians,” 329.

[14] Ibid, 128.

[15] Ibid, 114.

[16] Longenecker, Galatians, 83.

[17] Space does not permit an overview of the cultural nuances of this, so see Dunn, Galatians, 117-119 for more detailed discussion.

[18] Betz, Galatians, 106. See also John 4:9; 18:28; Acts 10:28; 11:3.

[19] N. T. Wright, Justification: God’s Plan and Paul’s Vision (London: SPCK, 2009), 94.

[20] Bruce, Galatians, 136.

[21] McKnight, Galatians, 115. Contra Hays, Galatians, 230-231, who argues Paul’s speech continues through to v. 21.

[22] Ian W. Scott, “Common Ground? The Role of Galatians 2.16 in Paul’s Arugment,” New Testament Studies 53 (2007), 425-435, demonstrates that the agreement Paul refers to is between Peter and the others in Antioch, not the Jewish Christian “troublemakers.” This may lend further support to the position taken by Hays.

[23] See Dunn, Galatians, 132-133. The phrase ἐξ ἐθνῶν also occurs in Rom. 9:24; 2 Cor. 11:26.

[24] Wright, Justification, 95.

[25] For a discussion on why I have chosen to translate πίστεως Ἰησοῦ Χριστοῦ as a subjective genitive, see Hays, Galatians, 239-240; see also Witherington, Galatians, 179-182, for defence of this view against Dunn’s defence of an objective genitive translation.

[26] Witherington, Galatians, 173. Betz goes one further and calls this a “self-definition” of a Jewish Christian (Galatians, 115).

[27] J. Louis. Martyn, Galatians: A New Translation with Introduction and Commentary (New York, NY: Doubleday, 1997), 250, 262, suggests that the phrase was probably first used by the “troublemakers” and should be translated as “obervance of the law.”

[28] Betz, Galatians, 115. Hays terms these phrases “theological shorthand” (Galatians, 236).

[29] Rom 3:20, 28; Gal 2:16; 3:2, 5, 10. This phrase is only used by Paul and has no Old Testament equivalent.

[30] See James D. G. Dunn, The Theology of Paul the Apostle (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1998) 128-161, for a full treatment of Paul’s view of the Law.

[31] Witherington, Galatians, 175.

[32] Martin Luther, Commentary on Galatians (Grand Rapids, MI: Kregel, 1979) 65-76. It seems Luther imagined that both his enemies and Paul’s were the same and subsequently interpreted all Pauline literature in this way.

[33] See Douglas J. Moo, “’Law,’ ‘Works of the Law,’ and Legalism in Paul,” Westminster Theological Journal 45 (1983), 92-96; Betz, Galatians, 116. For a defence of this interpretation, which almost entirely ignores the historical and literary contexts, see also William D. Barrick, “The New Perspective and ‘Works of the Law’ (Gal. 2:16 and Rom. 3:20),” The Master’s Seminary Journal 16, no. 2 (2005), 277-292.

[34] Bruce, Galatians, 137. The fact that ἒργον is used to describe actions rather than attitues seems to discredit this position. See Giessen Georg Bertram, “ἔργον, ἐργάζομαι” in Theological
Dictionary of the New Testament
, vol. 2, edited by Gerhard Kittel (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1964), 635-652.

[35] Stephen Westerholm, Israel’s Law and the Church’s Faith (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1988), 109-121.

[36] Sanders coined the phrase “covenantal nomism” to describe this pattern of religion. See E. P. Sanders, Paul and Palestinian Judaism (London: SCM, 1977), 75, 419-428. For a critique on the percieved weaknesses of Sanders arugment, see Thomas R. Schreiner, “An Old Perspective on the New Perspective,” Concordia Journal 35, no. 2 (2009), 140-155.

[37] Dunn, Galatians, 135-136.

[38] Hays, Galatians, 239.

[39] Ibid, 136.

[40] See also McKnight, Galatians, 24.

[41] Longenecker, Galatians, 83. As far as Romans is concerned, the phrase “works of the law” seems to carry the same basic meaning, although perhaps containing slighty different nuances adapted to the particular issues being addressed at Rome. But to explore this further is beyond the scope of the present essay.

[42] Witherington, Galatians, 176-178.

[43] Hays, Galatians, 239.

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