Even when I was in seminary I held to the New Perspective thesis that the phrase “works of the law” means simply “Jewish identity markers.” A superficial reading of Galatians and how the Jews react to non-Jews getting saved in the New Testament lends support to that thesis. Further, it functions well as a sociological commentary for today: it illustrates modern Judaism’s violent hostility to the rest of mankind. Further, for non-Evangelical traditions it offers a neat harmony between Paul and James: these traditions get to affirm the Pauline warning against works (simply by defining them as Jewish rituals) yet base the rest of it on works, pace James.
Unfortunately, this thesis suffers from a number of problems:
- The New Testament never defines works of the law as such.
- Galatians 3:10 does deal with “works of the law” by referencing Deuteronomy 27:26. At the end of chapter 27 it says “cursed is everyone who fails to do all these things.” Yet not one of “these things” is a Jewish identity marker; they are all moral and political laws. This is the inverse of the above point: The New Testament does define works of the law and it is the opposite definition of the NPP thesis.
- If works of the law is Jewish identity markers, and Paul preached we were free from works of the law, then no one would have accused him or antinomianism and moral license (Romans 6).
- If works of the law is Jewish identity markers, and the gospel is simply the freedom from such, then the gospel has no meaning to anyone who isn’t a Jew.