Fantasy vs. Reality: Luther’s Struggle vs. What Judaism Actually Believed, Part 2

Last time I introduced the idea that Luther misread his Bible. He thought he saw in the Judaism of Paul’s day a reflection of ideas from his own time. He thought of 2nd Temple Jews as legalistic Catholics from his time period. He did not understand either the Judaism of his own day or the Judaism of Paul’s time.

I have done a number of articles called “Fantasy vs. Reality.” In each case I am addressing a common misunderstanding and contrasting it with solid evidence for what was really going on. In this case, Luther’s reading was the fantasy. The reality is supplied by reading 2nd Temple Jewish literature and finding out what they actually believed. E.P. Sanders has done this quite well and his reading is widely accepted. Some dispute Sanders’ reading, but other major scholars like N.T. Wright and W.S. Campbell accept his work as the definitive reading of Judaism in Paul’s time.

Did the Jews of Paul’s day believe that they needed to keep Torah perfectly to earn a place in God’s kingdom? Were they working to build up merit?

Not exactly. First, they didn’t think so much about individual salvation. They thought about having a place in God’s covenant people. God would save his covenant people as a whole. Therefore, they didn’t worry so much about doing something to make themselves stand out in God’s mind as someone worthy of saving. They simply wanted to be counted in with Israel.

Second, they did not imagine that the standard was either perfection or even some rigorous program of Torah observance. The standard was not so difficult in their minds. They believed that all who followed the basic prescriptions of Torah (circumcision, Sabbath, etc.) were including themselves in Israel and this being saved along with all Israel.

Sanders calls this view covenantal nomism. It is the idea that God chose Israel by grace and that individuals can be included in that grace by belonging to Israel. They were in the covenant by grace (just being born a Jew) and they stayed in the covenant by obeying the Torah (that is what he means by nomism, with nomos meaning law). Obeying the Torah here does not mean perfect obedience that is so good you earn salvation by being perfect. Nor does obeying Torah imply that sins cancel a person’s place in God’s salvation. Second Temple Judaism firmly believed in God’s forgiveness. Torah obedience meant keeping the identity markers of Israel, like circumcision and Sabbath, in order to belong to the covenant people.

There were three main platforms to this Judaistic view of God’s plan for salvation:
1. The election or choosing of Israel by grace.
2. The gift of the Torah and Israel’s obligation to follow it.
3. Reward and punishment in this world and in the World to Come.

Luther’s opponents nullified grace. They encouraged a system of merit. By contrast, Paul’s colleagues in Judaism believed firmly in grace. This is what many modern readers of the New Testament fail to understand.

So, am I saying that the Judaism of Paul’s day had it right?

No, I am not. The Judaism of Paul’s day was prone to an error of presumption. I think the same error plagues modern Christendom. We presume that our ongoing relationship with God is not crucial believing that we have already arrived.

I think the best critique I have seen of covenantal nomism came from John the Baptizer. Addressing a group of Pharisees who came to judge whether John’s preaching was valid or not, John said to them:

And do not presume to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our father,’ for I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children for Abraham. Even now the axe is laid to the root of the trees. Every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. I baptize you with water for repentance, but he who is coming after me is mightier than I, whose sandals I am not worthy to carry. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and with fire. –Matthew 3:9-11

In other words, John told them God’s standard was a little higher than they imagined. They did not have automatic salvation by belonging to Israel. That is why John came preaching repentance. It wasn’t the identity markers of Israel (circumcision, Sabbath, temple) that saved them. They needed to actually walk with God, living under his kingship.

I would call the view of Paul and the apostles COVENANT FIDEISM, being in the covenant by faith in the God who made the covenant and living out the covenant by faith. Covenant keeping without faith is an empty thing.

The way people enter God’s covenant is by believing in it and the God who made it. To stay in the covenant requires a life of continuing faith.

You might ask, “Well, didn’t those religious leaders who approached John have such faith? After all, they believed in God enough to keep his Torah.”

I believe John would respond by saying that their faith was in the wrong object. Their faith was in their own status as Jews rather than in God’s promises and calling.

How can I say that their faith was deficient? How can I say that their faith was lacking?

I can say that because when God came to lead his people those leaders who confronted John did not follow. They believed they had already received it. They had it already. They didn’t need to follow any prophet calling for repentance. They believed they were right already.

They were not responsive to God’s new call. Therefore, their faith, though allegedly in God’s covenant, was really in their own worthiness.

When Paul speaks in Romans 3:21 about a righteousness of God manifested not by works of Torah, this is what he means. He means a righteousness that is not based on status, but in ongoing faith and responsiveness to God.

The fantasy of Luther is that Jews were like legalistic Catholics, that they were like the followers of Pelagius in the days of Augustine. He erroneously imagined that Paul’s words were in opposition to legalism: a system of self-merit. This led Luther to distort the balance of Law and Grace. Evangelical Christians are still plagued with this problem. In contemporary evangelicalism, there is a struggle to find any reason at all to do good works or to be obedient. Salvation is so divorced from good works and obedience that contemporary Christians often fail to attain to them. After all, why worry about goodness when God has already declared you perfect.

Oops! That sounds like the very Jewish leaders John the Baptizer repudiated. Ironic isn’t it. The sin of presumption is still around. Paul would be against modern Christian presumption every bit as much as ancient Jewish presumption.

The reality is that Paul’s message and the message of the New Testament is a call for people to believe in and be responsive to God. It does involve obedience to commandments. It does mean more than mental assent to a belief. It’s a covenant, not a get-out-of-hell free card. And covenant means an ongoing life of faith and faithfulness.

About Derek Leman

IT guy working in the associations industry. Formerly a congregational rabbi. Dad of 8. Nerd.
This entry was posted in Christian, Judaism, Messianic Jewish, Paul, Theology, Torah. Bookmark the permalink.

16 Responses to Fantasy vs. Reality: Luther’s Struggle vs. What Judaism Actually Believed, Part 2

  1. Derek,

    Hmmmm. It seems to me that John the Baptizer was not critiquing the covenant status of the Jewish people as defined in the earlier part of your paper so much as critiquing presumption. It is this attitude of presumption which offends God, no matter who manifests it.

    For example, if a Southern Baptist feels his spiritual issues with God are in the bag and presumes to say, “I know I’m saved because I walked forward at a meeting at First Baptist Dallas when I was a boy of twelve,” is not this presumption an offense to God despite whatever merits there might have been in his adolescent experience? Here again, it is the presumption which offends God.

    Therefore, are you right in asserting that John the Baptist was attacking the covenant status of those who came to hear him, or was he not rather critiquing their presumption?

    More later.

  2. And, by the way, it cannot be shown nor properly alleged that all of the Jews who came to hear John were presumptuous. He was calling ALL to repentance, and critiquing the particular weaknesses of each group, (See Luke 3:10-14). The particular temptation of the people of God, whether they be first century Jews or 21st century Baptists is presumption–but it their presumption, not their covenant status which is being exposed here.

    A challenging question in view of the foregoing: what of the Jew who trusts in God’s covenant promises to his people, and who rejoices in the mercifulness of God? Is he presumptuous? And is a candidate for John’s rebuke?


  3. Yaakov says:

    Stuart; Derek:

    I would agree with you here Stuart that Yochanan was calling all Israel to repentance. However, I would question your statement that the real temptation of the people of G-d is presumption.

    In another section of one of these blogs, Deuteronomy 30 has been raised. I would suggest the issue may be more of a lack of, or refusal to actively seek repentance. I do not think this lack on the part of Israel is a reult of presumptuousness. Rather it may be a lack of several more basic realities. Israel has failed to recognize the the “blessings and the curses” HaShem speaks of, and until such time as they (we) do, we will be burdened in the physical world with our Yetzar Hara.

    We must first, as the sages teach us, repent in a specific manner, not unlike deciding to make a change in our lives when we truly recognize a behavior we desire to change. The formula is clear – the heart must first recognize and acknowledge, and the mouth must confess – without this process change cannot be initiated. I would add these two precursors are necessary but not sufficient for change. One must then do.

    Israel has not necessarily presumed, but perhaps ignored. Until such time that we seek G-d’s ways with our hearts, we remain in exile. The talmud (Shabbos) teaches us that when we meet the conditions for repentance, we then put ourselves in the position for Divine intervetion which will remove from us the evil inclination entirely – this ocurring only int he time of Mashiach.

  4. Yaakov says:


    Several months ago on your blog you wrote of salvation reagrding indiduals such as A. Heschel, Ellie Weisel, The Chofetz Chiam, and their “fate ” in the world to come. You were raising the question whether such people, although not “believers” in Yeshua, would be left in “darkness” in the world to come – a question of salvation –

    Can you posit additional thoughts concerning the salvation of not only Tzadiks, but the rest of us as Jews, who may not believe in Yeshua, or who may have proclaimed such faith without even knowing such was not done with the heart. Perhaps this is a matter of presumption as you note above.

    In your opinion is belief in Yeshua necessary and sufficient for salvation?

  5. Shalom Bayit says:


    The only Jewish source I can think of on this subject is B. Talmud Shabbat 31 a.

    We can discuss this further at Genes site. I am not sure if this is the proper venue and will of course defer to Derek. It appears to me that the discussion in this forum is related to Christian views of Jews as seen through several prisms. I think that courtesy dictates that if they want us to stick to that topic and to avoid Jewish points of view that we move this discussion elsewhere as we discussed previously.

    In addition ,I am not quite clear what either Derek or Stuart are ultimately aiming at. I see that Derek has added some hybrid theological terms that attempt to address some errors in the way Jews relate to the question of justification. I dont recognize the terms from anything in Judiasm. I will state what I think he is saying in declarative English and of course he can correct me where I am wrong.

    It sounds like he is saying that Protestant theology has mistaken Jewish practice at the time of Paul for certain medeival Catholic practices and world views that Luther found objectionable. I infer from this that he is saying that this affects the way some Christians view Jews and Judaism today. He believes that this misses the essential error in Jewish thinking about these matters.

    I do know that “presumption” is a sin in Catholicism, and that Catholic spirituality tends to stress a continuum with “scrupulocity” at the other end. ( Noone tends to these nuances of the inner states of conscience like Catholics from my observation )

    I personally am not clear that the comments made by John the B were not meant to imply something about covenental status BTW. What else could bringing forth new types of Jews from stones mean but a change? Certainly solves the whole “matrilineal/ patrilineal” thing that Gene has going over there.

  6. Shalom Bayit says:


    Israel has not necessarily presumed, but perhaps ignored<<<<

    I think you are making a good point here. Unfortunately the majority of Jews simply are not encouraged to think in these categories at all. The problem that Derek Stuart and others have addressed is simply defined away. Furthermore the issue becomes so complex and so murky for Jewish people that to carefully investigate this issue is beyond the intellectual capacity and frankly the stamina of the average person. To add to this, as we pointed out in previous discussions, noone really has much of an interest in providing
    guidance for those sturdy individuals who might actually be asking questions of the sort needed to address this issue. It is odd to say in a forum like this but I think we have concluded that it there just isnt any reinforcement for those with a knowledge base to address this issue with serious Jewish seekers. How much more so for the average Jew who just isnt even aware that its a problem.

    I think we come back here to the “Saul Alinsky” question again. Who is going to care enough about this issue to overcome the inertia and apathy surrounding the Jewish people?

    The energy and motivation will in my opinion have to come from “Simple Jews” and not from those preoccupied with the nuances of theology.

  7. Yaakov says:

    Dear Stuart and Derek

    Will you be responding to comments above? I would welcome your collective thoughts

  8. Guest says:

    I believe we are made righteous by G-d, not by depending on our own works or acts of obedience. (Romans 3:21-31)

    I also believe that we are made holy through a life in obedience to G-d, which for Jews means Torah observance. A life without holiness, a faith that does not lead to acts, is empty and in vain. (Yakov/James 2:14-26)

    Luther was wrong a lot of times. But not always. I think he was right in appreciating the difference between justification (being made righteous by faith, as a free gift of grace) and sanctification (being made holy by obedience).

    We obey G-d and keep the mitzvot, not to get to heaven, be our own redeemers (only G-d can be our Redeemer) or “help” Him out in atoning for our sins, but because we love Him.

    Good shabbes!

  9. Shalom Bayit says:


    I too fail to see why a timely answer was not forthcoming to your reasonable querie. I have seen these folks patiently endlessly discuss far less pertinent subjects with people who were less pleasant.

    I think it a reasonable inference that the silence as before IS the message. I frankly at this point dont care to read the answer as it is abundantly clear to me that the politics of these questions matters far more to these people than the substance.

    As for Genes comment on the distinction between sanctification and justification I agree with it. I still am in thebdark as to how he and others in MJ view Torah observance in the absence of the Oral tradition. What does that look like? The Karaites havent been too sucessful.

    I move we continue this discussion on Genes board.

  10. Yaakov says:

    Shalom Bayit:

    I think it unfortunate that Stuart and Derek have not yet responded. I have also experienced this before as well. It is a dissapointment, but my past experience is these tend to be esoteric and academic exchanges among those who seem only interested in speaking to each other and their own agendas. Why no reponse to Jews who seek and desire to exchange very serious questions about MJ for the commoner is not only perplexing, it seems to be characteristic of MJ “leadership”.

    This sadly speaks to the state of affairs in MJ – no autherntic and subsatntial leadership – splinter groups with little apparent concern and no blatant interest for doing much more than isolated discussiions for the “select”. I am not speaking directly about Stuart or Derek, lest someone think this be the case. I speak more globally, using this blog as an example for a larger problem left unaddressed. I must ask those who claim “leadership” in MJ, what is your response to all of this? How do you expect those of us seriously questioning critical aspects of MJ and if it has a place at the table to react?

    Back to Gene’s blog.

  11. Yaakov:

    I’ve read your comment several times looking for any question directed at me. I cannot find one. I am guilty of not answering a non-existent question. I sure get a lot of public humiliation for a very small crime.

    I guess what you are demanding that I respond to, or be judged uncaring, is your suggestion that it is not presumption, but ignorance of God’s call to repentance, that is Israel’s problem.

    The answer, clearly, is both. John the Baptizer was speaking to some leaders who held a presumptuous view. Yet he also preached to the masses who suffered largely from ignorance. I don’t see why it has to be one way or the other.

    I hope there won’t be any political repurcussions from my answer. I need to get back to my self-congratulating cadre of scholars now.


  12. Shalom Bayit says:


    I dont want to deal with personal questions on the board. For clarification and closure, the comments I made an Yaacov made were not directed solely or even in any large part at you. I assume you have read the discussions we have had between Yaacov amd myself both on this blog and elsewhere. The plain text is about long standing issues we have had with what we perceive as an unresponsive MJ leadership that curiously places the struggles of real Jews on the back burner. The problem antedated you and I really dont expect you to solve it.

    I hope there won’t be any political repurcussions from my answer.<<<<

    We are hardly in a position to do anything to anyone in MJ politically. Nor do I have the personal inclination. Nor the time. Any political repercussions to any statement you might or might not make comes from others. Perhaps from your “cadre of scholars”?

    I need to get back to my self-congratulating cadre of scholars now.<<<<

    As someone who engaged in serious scholarship myself, I have great respect for individuals who aspire to careers in any type of serious research. As for self congratulating, I merely wish to point out that in the real world, difficult as it is there a numerous people who sacrifice their lives and their time to do serious scholarly work, often unrecognized. Often times it is difficult to get the time and the elbow room to do the work required. Time is often the currency of the scholar and one has to trade off other things in order to do it.

    Having said that, there are other responsibilities as well. Scholars engaged in serious research who do not have huge government grants have to teach, ( or in the case of academic medicine take care of patients). I suspect that in academic religion there may be pastoral responsiiblities that take up time.

    In these other fields, one doesnt beg off other responsibilities in order to devote ones time to research. Everyone wants to have that time but it is less and less available to everyone.

    In this instance the problem is furthered because the subject matter of the scholarship itself is that of Jews caught between Christian and Jewish heritages. In history as well as currently. ( If I misunderstand the thesis of “PMMJ” please correct me).

    It does seem to me a bit curious, although not inexplicable that you and your mentors appear to have the time for a variety of other enterprises but not to deal with this. This is not a matter of a failure to respond to a single question. Who are we kidding? Read the bulk of discussions not in your blog but elsewhere. I used to read Stuarts blog. He spent numerous cyber hours having the most inane discussions with the most rude and hostile audience I have ever seen that clearly didnt get it nor did they want to. I have read PMMJ. I have read the various positions on conversion that “Rabbi Rich” and others have put out. Clearly they spent a lot of time addressing Christian audiences and their concerns. No cyber/time to address the serious Jewish Halachic issues involved in this and their other enterprises.

    Pardon me for pointing these observations out. I merely wish to state what I believe to be obvious to all. I think that having these issues remain as an unstated subtext is not healthy and contributes to what I believe to be a significant dysfunction in our system.

    Once again, I wish to echo Yaacovs comment and wish that this not be seen personally directed at you. These issues have been simmering for me since possibly before you were ordained, maybe even before you were born. I have stated my belief that it unfair for us to use your blog to address these issues and once again thank you for your openness in allowing us this space. Clearly it is not appropriate subject matter here, and I wish to publically apologize for any comments which clearly have in your perception trespassed on your courtesy in allowing us here.

    Be well and “Merry Christimas” to all who celebrate it.

  13. Yaakov says:

    A response:

    Derek, as noted by Shalom Bayit my comments were not directed at you personally, so all should be made aware.

    However, since it was your initial statements on the blog, I perhaps ignorantly expected you to respond to something which you began – I suspected you initiated your comments for feedback and would then respond inkind. I was apparently mistaken.

    This being said, please let me echo the cooment above, apologizing for what turned out to be someting taken personally which was not meant to be.

    I too enjoy academic discussions and find them to be valuable approaches to learning. I think Shalom Bayit describes the problem well regarding the more essential issues facing everyday Jews struggling with MJ. I do not think it is your personal responsibility to address these issues, although you failed to comment about them. Why is this?

    At any rate, my apologies again for in any way offending you. I think, as a few others have noted here and elsewhere, MJ has more critical issues to be addressed by those who are equipped to do so. Perhaps you have some insight as to why such issues and those in positions to address them fail to do so.


  14. Marc says:

    Being imputed or declared righteous doesn’t mean you are aquitted of sin. An acquittal means you are 100% innocent. An acquittal of sin would be against God’s word and justice. This is how Luther misinterpreted imputed/declared righteousness as an acquittal verus a pardon.

    We are being sanctified. And we are not declared righteous until we are perfect, when we are resurrected.


  15. Marc says:

    “Can you posit additional thoughts concerning the salvation of not only Tzadiks, but the rest of us as Jews, who may not believe in Yeshua, or who may have proclaimed such faith without even knowing such was not done with the heart. Perhaps this is a matter of presumption as you note above.

    In your opinion is belief in Yeshua necessary and sufficient for salvation?”

    Belief in the Gospel is necessary for salvation.

    After the fact of the resurrection, I think that believing he rose
    is necessary according to 1 Cor. 15:1-4.

    I would base this on the prophet passage in Deut. 18 — whereby God is allowed give additonal revelation.

    I believe the basic method of salvation was the same beforehand, just
    with less details avaiable on exactly how God was going to accomplish it. Trust/or or commitment to God was still
    required, and the good news was that God had promised delieverance for his people Israel.

    This deliverance was avaiable to everyone who repented and trusted in God — even not knowing all the details.

    I believe that there where some Jews and Gentiles who did understand
    trust in God and the good news in this sense, so when they are preached to, the book of Acts characterizes it like this:

    KJV Acts 13:43 Now when the congregation was broken up, many of the
    Jews and religious proselytes followed Paul and Barnabas: who,
    speaking to them, persuaded them to continue in the grace of God.

    The idea here is that they needed to heed the additional knowledge about Yeshua,
    but they were not doing so from a position of being unsaved. They were just obeying the prophet passagage in Deut. 18.

    So of course the good news when Yeshua preached was about God’s
    deliverance that was promised, but the details of his personal fulfillment were still clouded some in the nature of prophecy.
    Only when the prophecy was fulfilled did God require it of Israel.


  16. Yaakov says:


    Thanks for your thoughtful comments.

Comments are closed.