Of Paul, James, Mattathias, and Phinehas: Works and Reckoned Righteousness

From Jesus to the Church Welcome to today’s stop of the book blog tour of Craig A. Evans’s From Jesus to the Church: The First Christian GenerationI’m covering chapter 4, “Phinehan Zeal and Works of the Law: What Paul and James Are Really Saying.” Brian at Near Emmaus introduces the book here, and quotes from the introduction, which is worth repeating:

The present study is not a history of the early church; it is not even a history of its first generation. It is, rather, a study narrowly focused on the clash between the family of high priest Annas and the family of Jesus of Nazareth, a class inaugurated by a Jeremiah-related prophecy of the temple’s doom, uttered by Jesus, and ended by another Jeremiah-related prophecy, uttered by another man named Jesus.

The title, then, is a bit misleading, or at least more general than the actual contents of the book.

The rest of the tour (to date) can be found here, which is worth your reading to get your bearings in the book. The end of chapter 3 alludes to the putative difference between James and Paul over “works,” which I have addressed in part here. For Evans, there is really no conflict between the two, a viewpoint I also hold.


Evans says that to properly understand Paul’s and James’s discussions of faith and works in fuller context, one “must take into account the way Phinehas the zealous priest was appreciated among Jews and Christians in late antiquity” (78). Evans looks at a swath of literature that treats Phinehas, of which the “four major texts” (with hyperlinks to each, below) are:

  1. Numbers 25
  2. Psalm 106:28-31 (where Phinehas’s act in Numbers is importantly “reckoned to him as righteousness”)
  3. Sirach, especially Sirach 45:23-24
  4. 1 Maccabees, especially 1 Maccabees 2:24-27

There are other biblical and extrabiblical texts (e.g., Jubilees) that Evans details, as well.

He then moves on to a discussion of Phinehas and the “works of the law” at Qumran. In 4QMMT the author says that following “the works of the Law” will “be reckoned to you as righteousness.” The “priestly orientation” (85) of the Qumran text leads Evans to assert that the writer has Psalm 106 and Phinehas (a priest) in view, rather than Abram in Genesis 15:6, the only other place in the Hebrew Bible where “reckon” and “righteousness” also occur together.

On this basis, and on the basis that 4QMMT, like Phinehas in Numbers, is “sharply opposed to intermarriage with non-Jews” (86), Evans concludes:

I think it is probable that 4QMMT has alluded to the famous zealous priest, not to the great patriarch Abraham.

Paul: No Conflict with James

For Evans, this is part of the larger literary context of the faith and works discussion. What Paul is arguing against, with Abraham as his case in point, is the “place in the covenant” (87) that one finds when doing the “works of the law” that a text like 4QMMT describes. Evans helpfully reminds the reader of Paul’s opposition to Peter when the latter would not eat with the Gentiles. It is these sorts of “works of the law” (pertaining especially to ritual purity) that Paul opposes as the basis for righteousness.

In Paul there is no conflict with James, whose “works” (not, Evans notes, “works of the law”) have as much to do in context with love of neighbor as anything else. Evans’s exposition of James 2, with its reference to the “dominical teaching” of the Sermon on the Mount, is especially illuminating for getting at the intent of Jesus’ brother in calling for works that naturally flow from faith. When James says “works” he does not mean “works of the law” as the Qumran text above intends. Rather, he means actions that flow naturally and necessarily from love of God and neighbor.

Paul and James, then (and Mattathias in 1 Maccabees, for that matter), would agree: “True faith results in righteous deeds” (88).

Evaluation of the Chapter

While I’m willing to defer to a scholar of Evans’s magnitude on this, I didn’t find the priestly nature of 4QMMT sufficient evidence to suggest that the writer had only Psalm 106 in view when talking about the reckoning of righteousness. Why could he not have also had Genesis 15 in mind at the same time? He surely would have known that text, and would have known that his audience knew it, too.

The theme of intermarriage that Numbers and 4QMMT share does add significant weight to Evans’s case, but it’s hard to imagine that the author of 4QMMT didn’t also at least have Abraham in mind. After all, Mattathias in 1 Maccabees 2 was also a priest, but even with his mention of Phinehas in that text, it is Abraham whom he mentions as having his faithfulness, when tested, “reckoned to him as righteousness.” If 4QMTT does, in fact, have Abraham in view, that has potential impact on the discussion.

There were a few editorial distractions in the chapter. Of the two included sidebar lists, one (“The Hasmonean/Maccabean Leaders/Rulers”) was tangentially related to the chapter’s content, but the other (“Herodian Rulers”) had no clear connection to the content of the chapter. There was a formatting error or two, as well as a mention of “five antitheses” in the Sermon on the Mount, whereas there are six.

The chapter does a good job of setting the faith and works/works of the law discussion in broader context. Phinehas is an under-mentioned figure in Christian faith and works conversations, so I appreciate Evans’s examination at that figure in Jewish and Christian literature. Looking at more biblical and extrabiblical texts than just Genesis 15 and James 2 and Romans 4 (the usual ones) is a rewarding exercise, and Evans is a reliable guide through the textual terrain, minor critiques above notwithstanding.

Thanks to Brian at Near Emmaus for allowing me to be part of the blog tour, and to WJK Press for the review copy of Evans’s book, found here (affiliate link).

10 thoughts on “Of Paul, James, Mattathias, and Phinehas: Works and Reckoned Righteousness

  1. Good point that it may be better to see the reckoning language as both/and rather than either/or. But maybe one takes the lead if you will? Both are know and echoed, but one comes to the forefront in a particular argument.

    1. Fair enough–I think I’m willing to go that far.

      It was the “probably… has alluded… *not* to the great patriarch Abraham” that I think I wanted to take issue with. I’m sure it goes beyond the confines of what Prof. Evans could cover in one chapter, but I think I would have liked to hear more about what implications there could be if 4QMMT does also have Abraham in view… especially given the competing understandings in Christian and Jewish antiquity of Genesis 15:6.

      I’m thinking especially of Jewish tradition that held that Abraham kept all of the law, even before it was revealed, and the subsequent debate of the role that keeping of the law played in his being called righteous.

      As I say–none of that is probably news to Prof. Evans and probably goes beyond what one chapter in one book can do, but I wonder if that impacts how one reads Paul and James?

      I don’t think it has to, at least not immensely–I thought Evans’s distinction between “works” (James) and “works of the law” (Paul) was really helpful, especially as he unpacked the larger context of James.

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