In fact, the Jews were saved — if they were saved at all — by faith. The Law was, to the Jews, much as the Sunday assembly is to Christians. Christians don’t attend the assembly to be saved. They’re saved; therefore, they attend the assembly.
The assembly is an opportunity to encourage others, to form community with fellow believers, to learn God’s will more perfectly, and to express our love for God in worship. For the Jews, obedience to the Law was much the same thing — at least in theory.
Just as some Christians take a legalistic view of the assembly, making it a means of salvation — give up an hour or two to God earn seven days of salvation — some Jews saw the Law legalistically. In fact, there were several different perspectives on the Law present in Judea when John the Baptist arrived, and we’ve consider some of these recently.
The key, though, is that it seems likely that most Jews considered themselves to still be in Exile. After all, most Jews lived outside of Judea and Galilee. Many remained in Babylon. Many more were scattered across the Roman Empire. Moreover, no one believed that the Messiah had already come, that the Kingdom had been established, or that the Spirit had been outpoured as promised by the prophets.
There had been some false messiahs, but they’d proven false. There were a few prophets — such as Anna who prophesied in the Temple regarding the Messiah. But there were no prophets of the highest order. There had not been anyone like Isaiah or even Zechariah since the time of Ezra and Nehemiah.
The throne was occupied by Herod, named “King of the Jews” by Caesar, even though he was an Edomite — descended from Esau rather than Jacob — very far removed from the household of David. The high priest, although a Levite, was not a descendant of Zadok, and he was a vassal to Rome. The priesthood was corrupt — an opportunity to profiteer at the expense of pilgrims.
The synagogue system, created by the Jews most likely during the Babylonian Captivity, had made the Sabbath not only a day of rest but a day of prayer, Torah study, and community.
Meanwhile, a system of rabbis was developing in which the rabbis taught the Oral Law, that was a more-or-less official interpretation of the Torah, seeking to apply the Law to First Century circumstances. The rabbis actually considered the Oral Law more binding than the Torah itself, because the Torah was often difficult to understand and apply, whereas the Oral Law was designed to answer practical, everyday questions.
Indeed, the Torah/Oral Law distinction was very much like the traditions of today’s Churches of Christ. Our interpretations are often considered more binding than the text itself. After all, there is no list of Five Acts of Worship in the Bible. Nor do we find a Five-Step Plan of Salvation. These are interpretations taken from multiple texts by multiple authors directed to multiple audiences. So we can easily understand and excuse a disagreement about the text — but not about the interpretations that define us as a denomination.
Of course, the Jewish sect that the NT seems most focused on is the Pharisees. Contemporary scholarship disagrees as to the nature of the Pharisees. The Pharisees that Jesus encounters in the Gospels were legalists of the worst sort, but the literature we have from outside the NT does not paint such a severe picture. In fact, after the Temple was destroyed, the Pharisees were the only surviving sect, and they invented the Judaism of later times — a Judaism with no Temple.
But I disagree with much contemporary scholarship in that I take the NT descriptions of the Pharisees and the Judaizing teachers who so plagued Paul’s ministry as quite accurate. But we often see them in the light of Reformation-era debates over works salvation. The Pharisees were likely not so much worried about salvation as bringing about the end of Exile and the establishment of the Kingdom.
That is, the Pharisees were much like contemporary Premillennialists. They were focused not only on the prophecies but taking steps to manipulate God into fulfilling the prophecies. That is, they figured that if they could obey Torah strictly enough — and encourage others to do the same — God would grant repentance, restoration, and the Kingdom.
Just so, many modern Christians believe that by establishing the state of Israel and fighting this or that war we can bring about the Second Coming. We can help God honor his prophecies! But God isn’t looking for help in that sense. What he wants is nothing more than circumcised hearts. Now and then.
Whether we tithe our mint, dill, and cumin or vote the pro-Israel ticket, either way, God is unimpressed. He wants what John the Baptist preached: repentance.