One issue that commonly comes up in reading the Gospels or Paul’s epistles is the allegation that the conservative Jews in Jesus’ day believed that they were righteous enough to earn standing with God. I don’t find any evidence for such a claim in the text of Scripture. I think one might possibly fit Jesus’ telling the parable of the Pharisee and the Tax Collector into such a situation, but that parable does not by any means demand such a situation.
There is real counter-evidence. For example, in the Sermon on the Mount:
Ask, and it will be given to you; seek, and you will find; knock, and it will be opened to you. For everyone who asks receives, and the one who seeks finds, and to the one who knocks it will be opened. Or which one of you, if his son asks him for bread, will give him a stone? Or if he asks for a fish, will give him a serpent? If you then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father who is in heaven give good things to those who ask him! (Matthew 7:7-11 ESV)
Notice that Jesus, in public teaching, does not argue that Jewish believers are evil. Rather, he argues from the agreed-upon premise that they are all evil to the conclusion that they can trust that God loves them.
Does this sound like a people who trust in their own goodness to be right with God?
Likewise, when Jesus defends the woman caught in adultery, he again expects his hearers to admit to their own sinfulness. In this case, he is actually talking directly to the Pharisees:
And as they continued to ask him, he stood up and said to them, “Let him who is without sin among you be the first to throw a stone at her.” And once more he bent down and wrote on the ground. But when they heard it, they went away one by one, beginning with the older ones, and Jesus was left alone with the woman standing before him. Jesus stood up and said to her, “Woman, where are they? Has no one condemned you?” She said, “No one, Lord.” And Jesus said, “Neither do I condemn you; go, and from now on sin no more” (John 8:7-11 ESV).
That is a strange strategy to use with people who are confident in their own righteousness. And yet it worked. (By the way, some scholars doubt this story was original to John’s Gospel. Even so, it constitutes extremely early testimony to what Jewish people thought of themselves.
This is yet more reason to be skeptical of interpreters of Romans 2 who think that “well-doing” (v. 6), “everyone who does good,” “doers of the law” (v. 12), “do what the law requires” (v. 14), “obey the law” (v. 25), etc, refer hypothetically to perfect or sinless obedience. The assumption that the Jews thought such sinless obedience was possible, and the way to salvation, while also admitting that they were evil and allowing that they were too sinful to condemn a woman caught in adultery is problematic at best. We would need to see evidence of some kind of theology that rationalized such admissions of unworthiness.
But I don’t see anyone really trying to be consistent in their interpretation on this point. They just feel free to interpret Paul as if we all know his opponents were self-righteous people who thought they could and were supposed to merit God’s favor.
Cross-posted at 2k+