If second-Temple Jews believed that the creator God, the lord of the covenant, was going to do all this, the question then presses: how could one tell, in the present, who were ‘the righteous’, the ones who would be found to be on God’s side on the great coming day, the ones who would inherit ‘the coming age’? This is how the question which much later theology has rendered so abstract and timeless – the question of ‘justification’ and, beyond that, of ‘salvation’ itself as conceived within western theology – comes into focus in actual first-century discourse.
Having said that, we are bound to find it frustrating that we have almost no texts from this period that do what we would like, namely, speak from a clearly Pharisaic point of view about what Paul the apostle calls ‘justification by works of the law’. The closest we get, as is well known, is the Essene document 4QMMT. Though this document arguably criticizes the Pharisees, it appears to share, so far as we can tell, a sense of the shape of how eschatology works in relation to election and thus to present justification, enabling us to make the substitution of Pharisaic elements for Essene ones in the hope that we will thereby come closer to the answer.
The point can be summarized thus. First, God will soon bring the whole world into judgment, at which point some people will be ‘reckoned in the right’, as Abraham and Phinehas were. Second, there are particular things, even in the present time, which will function as signs of that coming verdict. Third, those particular things are naturally enough the things that mark out loyal Israelites from disloyal ones; in other words (remember Mattathias!) strong, zealous adherence to Torah and covenant. Fourth, as a result, those who perform these things in the present time can thus be assured that the verdict to be issued in the future, when the age to come is finally launched, can already be known, can be anticipated, in the present. This, I believe, is what a first-century Pharisee would have meant by ‘justification by the works of the law’.
Paul and the Faithfulness of God, 184.