Works of the Law: The Problem with Rapa, Dunn, and Wright
One of the RBL reviews provides a good springboard for discussion.
Rapa, Robert K.
The Meaning of the Works of the Law in Galatians and Romans
Review by Guy Waters
Rapa evidently follows Dunn and Wright in his understanding of the term "works of the law", arguing that observances like circumcision, food laws, holy days functioned as badges of covenant membership, or boundary markers, for the Jewish people, and were seen this way by Greco-Roman pagans. But Philip Esler has rightly criticized this for two reasons:
"It is most unlikely -- especially in a fiercely competitive culture such as that of the ancient Mediterranean -- that one group (here comprising Greeks and Romans) would take its cue on how to regard another group from the latter's own self-understanding, rather than engaging in the usual process of simplifying and stereotyping, often in a derogatory nature... Equally implausible is Dunn's assumption that insiders would, in effect, define themselves only with respect to 'overt signals' and not also 'value orientations' and that they would concern themselves with the public face of the boundary to the exclusion of its private mode." (Galatians, p 183)Rapa also wishes to maintain that Paul affirmed the law as a whole while disparaging its works (also like Dunn and Wright). From the review: "Paul expresses in Galatians and Romans an integrated and consistent theology of the law. Paul's objection to the law, as evidenced from the 'works of the law' texts, are not absolute. They are directed toward a particular abuse of the law by certain individuals."
But Paul speaks of dying to the law as a whole, not to the works of the law. "Works of the law" and "law" are actually almost synonymous. The use of a broad range of lexical items to cover the same area reflects a typically sectarian strategy, called "overlexicalization" (on which see especially, Malina and Rohrbaugh's Social Science Commentary on the Gospel of John).
It's true that in some contexts, Paul objects to works of the law as particular observances which effectively limit salvation to the Jewish people. This is, after all, why Paul was driven to attack the Torah on behalf of his Gentile converts. But in a context like Rom 9:30-10:8, Paul goes beyond saying that the law is over as a "badge of privileged election". He says the entire law is finished, period, and Moses himself anticipated it would be a dead-end project. Christ-believers, in Paul's view, now have access to the best which the law promised but never delivered, by an entirely different route: the spirit. Paul's objection to the law is thus indeed absolute, against Rapa, having little to do with "abuse" and everything to do with sectarian redefinition.