Aug 9, 2012

E.P. SANDERS AND PALESTINIAN JUDAISM

part 2 on a series of posts on the NPP
E. P. Sanders published Paul and Palestinian Judaism in 1977.[1] This book challenged classically “Lutheran” views about Paul’s doctrine of of justification by investigating a massive amount of material surrounding Second Temple Judaism (Judaism circa 200 BC-AD 200). The book was a tour de force through primary sources, such as the Tannaitic literature, the Dead Sea Scrolls, the Apocrypha and Pseudepigrapha. Many scholars found it convincing enough to assert it was no longer feasible to believe Jews during Paul’s time held to a merit theology for theirs was a grace-based religion (Sanders dubbed it ‘covenantal nomism’). The authors I have read on this subject –even those who oppose the NPP— agree Sanders contributed greatly towards understanding of Second Temple Judaism.[2] His work helped scholars see the Rabbis were not crass proto-Pelagians, for ‘grace’ was in their theological vocabulary.[3] On many levels, Sanders helped us better discern the diversity of Rabbinic theology. Sanders even managed to expertly weave together several ideas which had been circulating in New Testament scholarship for some time into a workable synthesis. However, many scholars think we should still be cautious in accepting Sanders’ final conclusions.[4]
NPP critics have used Sanders own data set to show his interpretations at key junctions were either contradictory or simply incorrect.[5] James Hamilton summarizes: “Avemarie has shown that Sanders’s description does not match the Tannaitic materials. Elliott demonstrates that his work does not fit the Qumran and Pseudepigraphical litera­ture. Gundry, Schreiner, Das, Kim, Gathercole … argue that the Pauline literature does not match the description of Judaism that Sanders offers…”.[6] Hamilton says that, “to the extent, then, that N. T. Wright’s conclusions regarding the nature of Paul’s conversion and his conception of justification depend on Sanders’s Judaism, the picture is distorted.”[7] One can do more damage to Sanders’ conclusions by reviewing sources which he omitted, such as Josephus and 2 Enoch. In Josephus, the concept of grace receives very little space and 2 Enoch embraces a quid pro quo legalism.[8] Among the works Sanders does survey is 4 Ezra, which includes ‘perfection imagery’. The theology behind this work does not fit well into the ‘covenantal nomism’ structure proposed by Sanders. He softens the blow by viewing it as an exception to the rule.[9] These considerations severely weaken the strength of his thesis and call into question the overstatements by Wright and others about the rock-solid certainty of Sanders’ re-construction of Second Temple Judaism.[10]


[1] E.P. Sanders, Paul and Palestinian Judaism (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1977).
[2] A representative remark can be found by Moisés Silva in Justification and Variegated Nomism: The Paradoxes of Paul, Vol. 2 ed. D. A. Carson, Peter T. O'Brien, and Mark A. Seifrid (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2004), 238.
[3] This does not mean Sanders is automatically correct in his conclusion that Judaism of the era was purely a religion of grace. His concept of the ‘pattern of religion’ of Second Temple Judaism being one of ‘covenantal nomism’ is by definition semi-Pelagian. Sanders thinks first-century Jews believed they ‘got in’ the covenant by grace but ‘stayed in’ by works. This may not be Pelagian but this is certainly semi- Pelagian. Besides, some Jews of the period did advocate works-righteousness, such as the author of Sirach 3:30, who wrote, “As water extinguishes a blazing fire, so almsgiving atones for sins.”
[4] John Piper elaborates on this warning in Chapter 1 of The Future of Justification: A Response to N.T. Wright (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2007).
[5] Guy Waters does a fine job of this in chapters four and five of Justification and the New Perspectives on Paul: A Review and Response, (Phillipsburg, NJ: Presbyterian and Reformed, 2004).  
[6] The full names of the scholars Hamilton mentions are: Friedrich Avemarie, Mark Elliott, Robert Gundry, Tom Schreiner, Andrew Das, Seyoon Kim, Simon Gathercole.
[7] James M. Hamilton Jr., “N. T. Wright and Saul’s Moral Bootstraps: Newer Light on ‘The New Perspective,” Trinity Journal, 25NS (2004).
[8] For details, see Paul Spilsbury’s contribution (‘Josephus’) in Volume 1 of Justification and Variegated Nomism ed. D. A. Carson, Peter T. O'Brien, and Mark A. Seifrid (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2001), 241-260. Spilsbury calls Josephus’s approach  “patronal nomism”.
[9] Sanders, Palestinian Judaism, 409.
[10] “Sanders … dominates the landscape” … “until a major refutation of his central thesis is produced” … “I do not myself believe such a refutation can or will be offered…”. N.T. Wright, What Saint Paul Really Said: Was Paul of Tarsus the Real Founder of Christianity? (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdman’s, 1997), 20.

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