The idea of “salvation by works of the Law” was not a theology that characterized 1st-century Judaism (any more than it does 21st-century Judaism). The “Law” was given to the Jewish people after they were redeemed from Egypt! It was designed not only to be a way of life for them in the Promised Land but to equip them for their ministry among the Gentiles. After all, Israel was called to be a “light to the nations” (see Exo 19:5-6; Deu 4:1-8; Isa 51:4; 60:1-22).
So, why doesn’t it bother more people that Paul (in Galatians 2:16), seems to be arguing against a “salvation by works of the Law” theology that did not characterize 1st-century Judaism?
For several reasons, two of which are identified below:
One, because “most Christians” are not familiar with Jewish thought—even though Yeshua and his disciples were Jews who spoke Hebrew and “had” a Jewish World-view. People are often accustomed to believing what they are taught about the Bible, even when it is based on Greek (and not Jewish) models.
Two, because the word “Law”—תּוֹרָה (torah) in Hebrew and νόμος (nomos) in Greek, mean very different things. This is based on the difference between Jewish and Greek thought generally and the respective use of these terms in Hebrew and Greek literature specifically. Unfortunately, “most Christians” are not aware of these differences and tend to think of the former in terms of the latter.
The word תּוֹרָה (torah) means “direction, instruction” whereas νόμος (nomos) means “rule, principle, norm.” And, although it is well-known that the Torah is made up of “613 commandments”—Jews do not think of them as a list of rules, each one with a “check-box” by it, so they can be “marked-off” with an “X” each day as they are observed. It is not like the list of chores, affixed to the refrigerator, that we were responsible to fulfill as children. The Torah is a living system of instructions that reflects the character of God! We try to live according to these principles—not to be “saved”—but to be “transformed into (God’s) likeness with ever-increasing glory” (2Cor 3:18) and to live our lives in the way God desires.
Two texts from the Torah are often cited to summarize its essence: “Love the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength” and “Love your neighbor as yourself” (Deu 6:4; Lev 19:18; Luke 10:27). For Yeshua and his disciples, the Torah embodied quintessential truths—“not to be abolished” (misinterpreted or misrepresented), but to be “fulfilled” (affirmed or established) (Mat 5:17). The question, “What would Yeshua (Jesus) do?” has implications that transcend ethical considerations alone.