While Luther's general view of both Judaism and Paul would be sustained for the next four centuries, there was nonetheless a general tendency (recorded by Moore (1)) to attempt to show Christianity as cohering with Judaism, as its natural successor that any right-minded Jew should immediately convert to on those grounds alone. While there could still be a sharp bite of anti-semitism (they didn't convert, because Jews weren't right-minded), the emphasis was on continuity. This changed with the publication of F Weber's 1880 System der altsynagogalen palastinischen Theologie aus Targum Midrasch und Talmud. Weber's view would soon come to dominate Christian scholarship's opinion of Palestinian Judaism (1). Thus, for example, we find the following list regarding the interpretation of the term "works of the Law":
The most popular interpretation in the history of the church is that works of law refer to the attempt of human beings to establish their own righteousness by meritorious deeds (so Luther, Calvin, Sanday and Headlam, Burton, Barrett, Bruce, Bultmann, Käsemann, Cranfield, Morris, Fung). Works of law are often equated with legalism in this interpretation.
While we will come back to the phrase "works of the Law" later (in our discussion of The New Perspective itself), for now we'll focus instead on that particular interpretation of Judaism--as a religion of legalistic works-righteousness--and a whirlwind tour of the general model. The specifics will largely be left for later sections, where they will be discussed (and contrasted) with Sanders' covenantal nomism.
Weber's Judaism, which would later be endorsed (with subtle differences) by such notables as R H Charles, Wellhausen, Bousett, and of course Bousett's student, Rudolf Bultmann, had the following notable points (here drawing heavily from Sanders, 1977): The fall of man estranged man from God, though does not represent original sin in the Christian sense. An account was kept of both good deeds and sin, which would be weighed against each other in the judgment. Repentence exists, but its functionality is limited; it does not justify one, and it fails to bring one to the kingdom of heaven, which remained locked due to the aforementioned estrangement. Man was granted another chance, by being given the Law. The acceptance of the covenant provides short-lived grace, which is then reneged with the worship of the golden calf (a very curious interpretation!).
Fulfillment of the Law warrants salvation. Since no one can fulfill all of the Law, it ultimately comes down to the previously mentioned merits and demerits, which are weighed against each other. Additional good points can be earned for good works over and above the Law. Atonement both exists and is effective, but apparently has little effect on the final weighing (according to Sanders, Weber never really describes this conundrum).
Finally, and perhaps most misinformed, Weber suggests that God in Judaism was inaccessible.(3)
This view was disseminated rapidly. It was thus repeated by notable scholars like Albert Schweitzer and R H Charles, shortly before the turn of the century, could thus repeat it without reservation (though the latter omits the two falls) (4). Curiously (and just to mix it up a little with something not drawing heavily from Sanders), Charles could also cite Schechter and his take on the Law, in reference to Tobit, despite the fact that he is difficult to reconcile with Weber (5).
This view was later taken over by Bousett, though he would deny the possibility of transfer of merit. He would, in turn, pass it on to his student, Rudolf Bultmann, who, being the giant that he was, rapidly passed it on to NT scholarship at large, with some existentialist additions (6)
Meanwhile, Koberle's important (if incorrect) work on Judaism led to the important realization that Judaism is founded on the election. However, he saw the election as a form of nationalism, and the interpreted the literature as indicating that the commandments were a yoke. He sees Judaism as ultimately and inevitably leading to the pessimism of IV Ezra, however, he recognizes that Judaism could not have survived such a view. Here he finds the birth of the "weighing" of merits and demerits against each other. (7)
Perhaps most notable is the general absence of dealing with literature first-hand. Weber's view was, for the most part, simply repeated. It became more dangerous (and more easily promulgated), however, with the publication of Billerbeck's lenghty compilation of parallels between the NT and Rabbinic Literature. Billerbeck, having endorsed Weber's view, provided "parallels" which were frequently the product of his own imagination and preconception. Many NT scholars, lacking either access or training relevant to Tannaitic literature simply cited Billerbeck as though he was the primary source. (8) This misuse of Rabbinic material would become the basis for perhaps the most oft-referenced paper to ever come out of the JBL, former SBL president Samuel Sandmel's still relevant Parallelomania, which amounted to a crucifixion of those using Billerbeck for Rabbinic material.
Out of breath yet? Our rapid survey can perhaps be summed up as follows: There was (and in some circles still is) a pervasive view among NT scholars of Rabbinic Judaism being a religion of legalism, where one's standing before God was based on the weighing of merits, God was largely inaccessible, and atonement and grace largely ineffective as a means to correcting oneself. Judaism was viewed as a religion that brought salvation through obedience to the Law.
This can hardly be considered a thorough assessment of the view of Judaism as legalistic. I emphatically encourage any interested party to read Sanders' Paul and Palestinian Judaism, esp. p.33-59, for a more detailed survey.
(1) E P Sanders, Paul and Palestinian Judaism, Philladelphia Pa.: Fortress Press, 1997, 33. Hereafter PPJ
(2)John E. Toews, Romans, (Believers church Bible commentary Scottdale, Pa.: Herald Press, 2004), 414.
(3) PPJ, 36-38
(4) PPJ, 39 n22
(5) R. H. Charles, Apocrypha of the Old Testament, 1:304-305.
(6) PPJ 44-47
(7) PPJ 42-43
(8) PPJ 42