Not only can we examine the number of cases (previous blog), we can also ask how representative was the evidence? In other words, how much like the real world was the evidence that was examined? If the cases studied do not reflect what is actually happening in the world, then the conclusion will not hold true. In the case of some views on the Bible, they are a reflection more of one’s own perceptions than of the ancient context.
In this case, a Bible Study example might be understanding Bible verses in their own context. If we take something as if it was written in our own context, or perhaps our assumptions about the ancient context are wrong, then a lot changes with certain verses. Over the last 30 or more years, E.P. Sanders studies on Ancient Palestine have reformed how Christians look at subjects that the Gospels and the Pauline Epistles address. The big one is justification. For the most part, these backdrop studies have enriched some difficult territory of theology, and all because we are clearer on Palestinian Judaism. In other words the evidence we now have is more representative of those times/contexts that what many have worked from previously.
One of the biggest discoveries was that ancient Judaism never looked their Old Testament laws as some kind “works righteousness” pathway. Many Christians often say, “Well that was the Old Testament, this is the New Testament.” Then, they move to tell you that the Old Testament was about laws and the New Testament is about grace. However, this could not be further from the truth. Christians too should recognize that the God of the Old Testament is the God of the New. Moreover, things like laws and social mores were available in their communities as the very grace of God. They had to figure out how to live in community and God was a big part of this.
Now, why this really matters is that as Reformers like Martin Luther and others claimed that the Catholic Church was basically making the same error as early Judaism. That meant, that all of Paul’s discussions on “works” are talking about any and every “good work” done by a Christian. Many in the Protestant world still cringe when someone tells them that Jesus or Paul wanted their followers to “do good works.” They like to repeat that the just shall live by faith or it is by grace through faith so that no one can boast. All of that is in the Bible, to be sure, but good works in general are the outworking of our justification. Luther himself saw this, and that is why his argument was against specific good works that Catholicism was calling good works (such as rosaries etc). He was very clear that anything Jesus commanded to do was a good work and should be done (See his book on Good Works).
What E.P. Sanders works has done, is to highlight that “doing good” is the extension of our relationships with God, and not something that one is trying to earn their place in heaven. Moreover, it helps us to see the Jews as not trying to work their way to heaven, like so many have claimed. Instead, they were relying on the grace of God and they even relied on their election by God. Jews were not notching their belts making sure they could go to heaven when they died. They were looking forward to the coming of the Messiah who would set this world back to rights.
So…as we have had more representative information come through ancient studies, it has affected the way we look at how Jesus lived in the first century, what Judaism was back then, and how to view Paul’s complex discussion on Law, good works, and grace. .