All my life i've grown up hearing this never-ending, all-consuming debate about faith, works, salvation being a gift, trying to earn your salvation, what counts as a work, etc. etc. And there are billions (give or take a few) of passages in Paul, where supposedly, Paul is equally as consumed with this subject where he relentlessly tries to convince a lot of 'salvation-earners' to become 'gift-receivers.'
But now i'm starting to question the entire frame of that debate. i'm not saying that Paul never uses the terms "faith," "works," etc. And i'm not saying the Bible gives no relevant information for answering questions related to that debate.
i believe this worn out debate was iron-cladly framed around the time of the Reformation. In a very practical, very day-to-day sense, everyone was working desperately to earn their salvation. People paid priests to say mass repeatedly for all their dead family members and themselves, hoping to puchase 'get-out-of-purgatory-asap' cards from God via the system. People bought indulgences, not just as some sort of sick permission to sin, but in many cases just out of fear of longer punishments in purgatory, or possibly fear of amassing a hellbound amount of negative spiritual equity.
To make an incredibly long, complicated, and interesting (and often politically motivated) story short, the Reformers saw how sickening this whole way of life was. And so they read Paul for themselves and were shocked/relieved/equipped by how distraught Paul was in his own day about people being convinced of God's blessings coming via "works" rather than "faith." Thus was born a debate between Catholics and Protestants about faith alone or faith and works being required for salvation. And soon was born a debate between various Protestants about what counts as a work (maybe even exercising one's own will freely!).
Here we are in the 21st century, and we've inherited a juggernaut--this faith/works debate that has carried on for 500 years and really has not lost any momentum by some accounts. i theorize that we are swept up in mass of issues in this debate generated by a very real historical situation in the 16th century, and we, in turn, read back into Paul's day that same sort of situation. Paul must've been dealing with nearly the same sorts of problems faced by the Reformers. Why? Well, because he uses many of the same terms they do, and makes many of the same explicit claims they do.
i definitely just bought the frame of the debate hook, line, and sinker, and never thought to question it. But now i am: Was Paul's historical/ideological circumstance really the same as that of the Reformers? i'm starting to think it really wasn't. i think we've read the Reformation back into Paul and assumed that the Jews were like evil, work-hungry, graceless Catholic imperialists who didn't want anyone to feel safe and secure in their salvation.
But this seems not to fit the Jews for at least two reasons.
(1) As i understand it, Jews didn't believe in earning God's favor because they believed they were born with it. They were born into a special covenant with God insomuch as they were ethnically Jewish. It wasn't a matter of needing to work one's way up to heaven and Judaism was the right way to do that. The Jews already were God's chosen people and the recipients of God's blessings. Things like circumcision and Sabbath keeping were not means by which to merit those blessings; they were distinguishing marks that set Jews apart from everyone else in the world--proving that God had elected them and no one else (which, if you notice, is more similar to the Reformers position than with the Catholics).
(2) Jews weren't concerned about going to heaven pretty much at all! "Salvation" for the Jew was not about going to heaven when you die or some matter of eternity. In the Old Testament, when Jews cried out for God to save them, their requests were about the here and now. The Jews desired God's justice to be served against their oppressors in this life. The Jews wanted God to rain down wrath on their oppressors just like He had to Pharaoh in Egypt and the Philistines throughout the book of Judges. And in Jesus' day, this was certainly true. The Jews weren't looking for some 'heavenly' Messiah to fix their intangible, cosmic sorts of spiritual problems. They were looking for an 'earthly' Messiah to solve their very tangible, very practical, very day-to-day problems--namely, being under the thumb of the Roman Empire.
Their past was riddled with oppression and trouble and even punishment from God because they had frequently lost their distinctiveness. They had openly mixed with non-Jews maritally and religiously and all sorts of trouble ensued for them as a result. Eventually their incessant idol-whoring led to the Babylonian and Assyrian captivity. And after that restoration from captivity, that's when they really never had trouble with idolatry again. God's most severe punishment finally drove the lesson home for them. Now rather than being so susceptible to embracing the idols of other cultures and losing the distinctive features which defined their race, they became hyper-distinctive. They tenaciously adhered to the very Jewish elements of Judaism (Circumcision, Sabbath, Feast Days, etc.). Why? It proved they were different. It proved they had been God's special people all along, and no one else was. For Jews, God's election wasn't about what would happen after they died. Election was a very this-world concept.
Based on the above, it doesn't make a whole lot of sense to me to think that Paul was debating with the Jews in a way similar to how the Reformers debated with Catholics. What must've been so jarring to Jews was the idea that God could have a "new" special, chosen people--namely, Christians. And even when Jews brought themselves to accept this, they still couldn't stomach the idea that non-Jews could be Christians too. Why? Because they felt robbed. 'If that's true, then what's so special about being Jews?' It's like being Jewish didn't really count for anything this whole time. Or being Jewish didn't really distinguish them from the rest of the world, if what Paul was saying was true. It was an identity crisis. They had been special to God because they were Jewish. But if anyone could be a Christian, then how is it that they were special at all anymore? Thus, i don't think Paul was berating them about trying to pay for their salvation from God, but rather trying to persuade them (and the Gentiles whom they were confusing left and right) that it was no longer their Jewishness ("works," "works of the law," etc.) that made them God's special people, but their Christianity ("faith"). [And if this depiction is at all accurate, notice then it offers no direct answers at all to the questions dealt with in the Reformation.]