In trying to understand what is meant in the Bible by infiltrating the first-century mind, I regularly study history. The reason that I focus so much on history is that I believe we often read into the text how we understand terms and concepts rather than extrapolating from the text how the audience at the time would have understood such. Roger Lundin identified the goal of interpretation as “the attempt to get inside the mind of the author of the work we are reading (1).” What has often been suggested is that readers “set aside [their] prejudices and enter as fully as possible into [the author’s] world (2).” However, philosopher Martin Heidegger argued that it was impossible to completely alleviate one of their prejudices and traditions (3).
With this in mind, I’m often flexible when I come across an interpretation that I deem more historical. Faith and works have long been debated in Protestant circles, and I won’t presume to bring anything new into the discussion, but I will offer something historical. In his recent tome, The Triumph of Christianity: How a Forbidden Religion Swept the World, scholar Bart Ehrman offers something that I believe can better illuminate how an ancient audience understood faith versus works.
Here’s what he wrote:
As Christianity came to develop, it was largely about the “faith”—that is, about affirming these statements [e.g., There is only one God, Christ is both fully human and fully divine, and so on]. Pagans never had to affirm anything. As odd as this seems, pagans were not required to believe truths about the gods. Paganism was instead about performing the proper, traditional cultic acts. Roughly speaking, there were three kinds of activities in pagan religions: sacrificial offerings, prayer, and divination. (p. 83)
Taking this into account, I would assume that when many pagans converted to Christianity that they believed they need only do the “works” in worship. Believing that all was needed was to do the correct things at the correct times and in the correct manner amounted to salvation would negate the sacrifice of Christ on the cross. Rather, there were doctrines to believe, confess, and then worshipful acts to perform. I believe this is partly why the New Testament often addresses the Christian’s behavior because many thought they need only do the right acts.
This would also apply to the Jews who seemed, at times, to trust more in their works of the law than in faith. This doesn’t elevate one over the other but brings what I believe to be a healthy understanding and, therefore, balance to the overall discussion. We can’t just do things without believing. Conversely, we cannot believe only and sit by idly.
- In Contemporary Literary Theory: A Christian Appraisal (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1991), 154.
- Ibid., 155.
- Ibid., 159.