In Romans 3:20, Paul writes that no one is δικαιωθήσεται by works of the law (ἔργων νόμου). The only other place I know of the phrase in the New Testament is in Galatians. Does this phrase have use outside of Paul?

In a case like the Galatians with whom Paul had spent time, I would expect them to be familiar with any of his particular vocabulary having heard his teaching. But would the Romans have known what he meant by "works of the law" when they encountered it in the letter or would they have looked to the rest of the letter to explain what he meant?

  • @Soldarnal-See new Answer on an old, but important, Question, by Ray Grant.
    – ray grant
    Commented Jul 6, 2023 at 20:01

2 Answers 2


Short Answer: Yes, they would know what he meant

The longer answer is that the letter to the church in Rome (1:7) was to a mixed group of Gentiles (1:13) and Jews (2:17). Most believe the church started from some of the Jews present at Peter's preaching during Pentecost, the "visitors from Rome" (Act 2:10; NKJV/ESV/NASB).

Starting at 2:17, Paul begins more specifically addressing the Jewish audience of his letter, and the fact that they may still "rest" (NKJV) or "rely" (ESV/NASB) on the law, and how this is not what they need to rely in (2:25-29), for both Jews and Gentiles are sinners (3:9-18), and the law points that out (3:19).

So the context of v.20 speaking of the "deed" (NKJV) or "works" (ESV/NASB) of the law is within the section of the letter more specifically targeted to the Jews (v.9 and v.19 the "we" is Paul speaking in solidarity with the Jewish race, even though he was not in solidarity with those who were attempting to keep the law for purpose of being considered righteous—the "you" group of 2:17-24).

So the Jewish part of the church of Rome would certainly know what ἔργων νόμου referred to, and the Judaizing influences present in the church from the Jewish crowd probably made the Gentile believers aware as well (and if not, they had their Jewish fellow believers to educate them about it).1

Used Elsewhere? Yes, in some Qumran Literature

Robert Mounce notes in Romans, Vol. 27, The New American Commentary (Nashville: Broadman & Holman Publishers, 1995), 111 n.182:

The anarthrous phrase ἔργων νόμου refers to that which the [Mosaic] law requires. Fitzmyer points out that while the phrase has not been found in the OT, it has turned up in the Qumran literature, thus making Paul a “tributary to a genuine pre-Christian Palestinian Jewish tradition” (Romans, 338–39)

From the bibliography, Mounce is referring to the Anchor Bible commentary of J. A. Fitzmyer, Romans (New York: Doubleday, 1993).

The use in the Qumran literature confirms a more widespread understanding of the concept of "works of the law" in Jewish circles (from which the argument I make here is based).

Further research found this reference from James M. Hamilton Jr., "N. T. Wright And Saul’s Moral Bootstraps: Newer Light On 'The New Perspective,'" Trinity Journal 25 (2004), 152 n.70, which indicates at least one Qumran document the phrase is found in (and references a debate about the significance of that):

There has been some debate over the relevance of the text referred to as “4QMMT” (4Q394-399). “MMT” abbreviates Miqsat Ma‘ase ha-Torah (מקצת מעשׂי התורה), “Some Works of the Law.” Dunn thinks that this document “preserves a vocabulary and manner of theologising which left its mark on a wider spectrum of Jewish thought and practice, and that it was just this sort of theologising and practice which confronted Paul in Antioch and which he wrote Galatians to counter” (James D. G. Dunn, “4QMMT and Galatians,” NTS 43 [1997]: 153). Wright outlines five reasons why he thinks this claim will not stand (N. T. Wright, “Paul and Qumran,” BRev [October 1998]: 18, 54).2

According to the Wikipedia article, the dating of 4QMMT is roughly contemporary to Christ's birth (the "early" part of 1st century BCE/CE, or as I prefer, BC/AD). That is before Paul's time.


1 For some discussion of meaning of "works of the law" (not necessarily endorsing all conclusions, but for your information), see T. Schreiner, "Did Paul Believe in Justification by Works? Another Look at Romans 2," Bulletin for Biblical Research 3 (1993): 131-158.

2 It is worth noting that there is an article by Martin G. Abegg specifically discussing 4QMMT: "4QMMT C 27, 31 and 'Works Righteousness'", (Dead Sea Discoveries 6/2 [1999]: 139-147).

  • 2
    Thanks, the addition of the actual Qumran reference is very helpful.
    – Soldarnal
    Commented Jun 26, 2014 at 0:59
  • @Soldarnal: You are welcome. I also added a JSTOR article link you might be interested in.
    – ScottS
    Commented Jun 26, 2014 at 15:57

Jews in Italy There was a large Jewish close-knit community with a synagogue in Rome, as well as other major capitals in nations around the Mid-east, ever since the Diaspora, when Jews were expelled from Judea in 586 B.C. The fact is substantiated in the New Testament by the incident of the expulsion of all Jews from Rome by the Roman emperor, Claudius. Ironically, they were expelled because of rabid arguments over one called Chrestus (Christos, probably; Acts 18:1-3). No doubt these heated discussions were over the requirements of the Law, or the cessation of them due to the ministry of Christ.

But the Jews were quite mobile, transitory, because most of their occupations dealt with trade, commerce, banking, etc. Often they weren't allowed to be large land-owners, or permanent residents. Occupations that were available were often those not requiring residential citizenship. So even though one emperor would persecute them, they often found relief with the next one...and returned.

Under these circumstances, when Paul wrote the Romans, there were no doubt Jewish believers, rabbis, and Christians who were ex-Jewish synagogue members...as well as ethnic Christians in Rome. There would have been no problem for church members to be conversant about the Jewish and Gentile aspects of Christianity...the Gospel...the End of the Mosaic Law...and the amazing grace of God. The Roman Empire was quite efficient concerning economic, religious, and military intercourse. The Romans would have been informed about the schisms in Jerusalem concerning grace and law.

Conversant That the Roman Christians (Jew and Gentile) were conversant with with Jewish and Christian dogma is evident by a look at Paul's vernacular in the introduction to the Roman letter. Paul assumes the recipients of the letter know about: scripture, prophets, Gospel, Son, seed of David, Spirit, holiness, resurrection, Lordship of Christ, grace, apostleship, faith, saints, etc. (1:1-8) They would have known about the conflict between the Gospel of grace and the "Works of the Law" (legalistic ethos)...but they needed additional teaching, and encouragement lest they fall into the error of the Judaizer who had harassed the young churches of Christendom. Hence the book of Romans.

Legalistic Ethic According to research by J, Julius Scott, Jr. (Jewish Backgrounds of the New Testament), legalistic thought is found in intertestiment writings such as 2 Esdras, 2 Baruch, probably "Some Precepts of Torah (4QMMT). And a source of evidence of this Jewish thought must be recognized: the New Testament!

This legalistic ethos is found in dialogue of the Jewish scholars, as well as the common folk, with Jesus:

As Jesus started on His way, a man ran up to Him and fell on his knees before Him. "Good teacher," he asked, "what must I do to inherit eternal life?" (Mark 10:17)

Then they asked Him, "What must we do to do the works God requires?" Jesus answered, "The work of God is this: to believe in the One he has sent." (John 6:28-29)

Compare the story of the Prodigal Son, and the self-righteous elder brother (Luke 15:29); and compare the story of the self-righteous Pharisee praying in the Temple (Luke 18:p)

Precept of Torah As a note, the Hebrew,ma'ase ha-Torah, (Precept of Torah, 4QMMT) is the equivalent of the Greek, erga nomou (LXX). This is the wording which is the subject of our posted question, Romans 3:20. (And is also found in Galatians 2:16, 3:2,5,10.)

Would the Romans have had to look to the rest of the letter to explain what he meant? To answer this one must recognize that Paul had already broached this topic previously in this letter:

...they are a law unto themselves, since they show the that the work of the law are written on their hearts... (Romans 2:14-15,ergon tou nomou)

This shows that the Romans are familiar with matters of the Law, before they even read 3:20! (ergon nomou) But if they overlooked the mention of the "Work of the Law" back there, they would not have had to go very far to have an explanation: the very next sentence!

But now apart from the {works of} the Law, righteousness of God has been manifested... (3:21)

But if they even then did not get the message of Romans 3:20, Paul continued to deal with the subject over and again: 3:27, nomou, ergon; 4:2, ergon; 4:6, ergon; 9:32, ergon nomou; 11:6 ergon. Works! Works! Works!

The Christians in Rome--even the Gentiles--would have known of the "legalistic ethos" of the Jewish religion, and the issues it raised for new Christians. The Jews who surrounded them, and the Judaizers in their midst, would have kept this issue in the forefront of the Christian congregation.

Even today, "the call to grace, which requires knowledge that the human is helpless to contribute to salvation, goes against the grain of the "can do" outlook of many, particularly in the Western world. It is a humbling experience to have to accept grace." (op. cit. Julius Scott, Jr. p. 277 ftnt.)

  • What is ex Jewish synagogue member Christians? The Jewish Church continue synagogue and their Jewishness they don't cease to be jew. And what is "ethnic Christians"? The religion is Jewish and the question was whether Gentiles can be included without becoming Jews.
    – Michael16
    Commented Jul 6, 2023 at 2:55
  • @Michael16-Many new Christians were put out of the synagogue. Even during Jesus's ministry, people would have followed Him, but were afraid of being expelled from the synagogue. It doesn't mean they were no longer ethnic Jews, but they were no longer accepted by their religious leaders (Jn 9:22 Acts 8:1).-----Many God-fearers (Gentiles converted to Judaism) and Gentiles (ethnics, Gk,. ethnos) were believers in the Roman church.-----"The religion was Jewish (Mosaic), but what Jesus presented was Judaism "under a New Covenant". (Gal. 2:15-16, Lu 22:20) Thanks for helping clarify.
    – ray grant
    Commented Jul 6, 2023 at 20:39
  • 1
    there were indeed many Jews in Rome at this time but "ghetto" is an anachronism. I suggest changing this to "community" unless there is evidence that they were forced to live in ghetto-like circumstances. In fact, many were Roman citizens. Commented Jul 8, 2023 at 3:46
  • @DanFefferman-Bario? Not forced , but natural gravitation to each other. Okay, tight-knit community. Eh?
    – ray grant
    Commented Jul 8, 2023 at 20:23

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