Paul and Palestinian Judaism: A Brief Review

This is a brief review which I prepared for Prof. Harry Gamble’s seminar on Paul in Modern Scholarship. As I only had two days to reread key parts of the book and write the review (someone else was originally scheduled to present, but had to leave town at the last minute), many other things could have been added or discussed in additional detail; perhaps I can expand it in my free time. Aww, who am I kidding? 😉

Now if I can just master Nick Norelli’s knack for getting publishers to send him books for free, I’ll be in business…


E.P. Sanders, Paul and Palestinian Judaism: A Comparison of Patterns of Religion (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1977). 627 pp.

E.P. Sanders’ magisterial reevaluation of ancient Judaism and its relationship to Pauline thought represents one of the most significant contributions to the scholarly study of religion in the latter half of the twentieth century, inaugurating the movement which became known as the “new perspective on Paul” (a moniker coined by his contemporary James Dunn in 1982). Like many novel works, it was not immediately embraced by the larger community; intense editorial criticism delayed its publication for nearly two years (Sanders 2004: 17). Its eventual appearance and reception, however, permanently altered critical conceptions on a number of major fronts, most notably the nature of Jewish faith and praxis during the Second Temple and early rabbinic periods. Interestingly, its structure and substance suggest that the proper nouns included in its title should be reversed; the enigmatic subject of Palestinian Judaism is taken up first, and is examined in much more detail than that of Paul. The heart of the survey is prefaced with the fundamental conceptual judgment that the most effective antidote to the erroneous assumptions surrounding the relationship between Judaism and Christianity in antiquity is an honest, full-fledged comparison of their religious “patterns,” a term which Sanders defines as “how getting in [to a particular religion or group] and staying in are understood” (italics original; p. 17). Such a project will not only illuminate the true quality of this relationship, but will also provide an increased understanding of each religion as an independent entity.

Sanders continues with a poignant overview of the all-too-familiar characterization of Judaism as a static and stale community trudging along the hopeless asymptotes of legalism and works-righteousness. It is “at best an inadequate religion and at worst one which destroys any hope of a proper relationship between God and man” (p. 35). This attitude was adopted in various forms by an overwhelming majority of scholars in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries—including Emil Schurer, Wilhelm Bousset, and Rudolf Bultmann—and persisted despite the appearance of occasional critiques “by scholars who have known the material far better than any of its proponents” (e.g., G.F. Moore; p. 59). Sanders sets out to achieve its permanent annihilation by means of a comprehensive analysis of the extant textual sources, from the tractates of the Mishnah to the Dead Sea Scrolls to the apocryphal and pseudepigraphical literature. Or, to use Thomas Best’s more diplomatic assessment, he “seeks to convince New Testament scholarship as a whole that it has been talking all along about the wrong Judaism, a Judaism which in fact did not exist except as a convenient foil against which to prove the superiority of the apostle Paul” (Best 1982: 67). In any case, the results are striking. With the singular exception of the Wisdom of Ben Sira, a document likely written in the second century BCE which does not adopt a particularly universal or futuristic outlook, this corpus agrees on a fundamental point: “obedience maintains one’s position in the covenant, but it does not earn God’s grace as such” (italics original; p. 420). Here Sanders highlights the undeniable pervasiveness of the theme of the extension of divine mercy to the righteous, with its implicit corollary that their deeds, while certainly positive, have not been sufficient to merit their salvation. In place of the traditional misconceptions, he offers a summary sketch of the religious system actually supported by the sources, which was apparently prevalent throughout Palestine before the destruction of the Second Temple and which he terms “covenantal nomism” (p. 422):

1) The election of Israel

2) The bestowal of the Law
a. Divine implication: maintenance of the election
b. Human implication: requirement of adherence to the Law

3) The reward of obedience and the punishment of divergence

4) Provisions for atonement
a. Result: restoration of the covenantal relationship

5) Assurance of salvation to those who remain within the covenant due to obedience, atonement, and mercy

Although the term “covenant” is by no means omnipresent, and is especially scarce in the writings of the rabbis, this is attributed to its status as a matter of course; “the covenant was presupposed, and the Rabbinic discussions were largely directed toward the question of how to fulfill the covenantal obligations” (italics original; p. 421).

Sanders begins his comparatively brief treatment of Paul with an acknowledgment of the relevant sources—the seven letters which are generally classified as authentic, although the brief Letter to Philemon provides little grist for the religious mill—and a recognition of the “two readily identifiable and primary convictions which governed Paul’s Christian life” (p. 441): belief in the salvific lordship of Jesus Christ, whose eschatological reappearance was imminent, and in his own interrelated status as apostle to the Gentiles. Sanders’ emphasis upon imminent eschatology, as opposed to other elements such as justification by faith, is largely drawn from the earlier work of Albert Schweitzer, whose influence also appears in Sanders’ studies of the historical Jesus. The first conviction, that of the lordship of Christ, is clarified with the argument that an analysis of Pauline theology must begin with the apostle’s acceptance of Christ as savior, not with the theological conundrum of an inescapably sinful humanity and the arrival of Christ as solution. While the latter view, heavily dependent upon the organization of the Letter to the Romans (and reminiscent of Luther’s celebrated conscience pangs), was endorsed by Bultmann, Hans Conzelmann, and Gunther Bornkamm, Sanders opines that “[i]t seems likely… that Paul’s thought did not run from plight to solution, but rather from solution to plight… There is no reason to think that Paul felt the need for a universal savior prior to his conviction that Jesus was such” (p. 443). Pauline testimony to the character of the Christian community displays a number of features resonant with the newly defined covenantal nomism, including its assurances of salvation for its members and its requirement of observation of certain regulations, or atonement for disobedience, in order to remain within the elect. In the pithy terms of “getting in and staying in,” Paul holds that all are “out” until they accept Christ as savior, an act which may be represented as justification by faith or unity with Christ. Once “in,” members are required to conduct themselves appropriately, generally in accordance with Jewish ethical strictures. Paul breaks with covenantal nomism, however, in his rejection of the efficacy of the election and his qualified, piecemeal approach to the Law. Sanders dubs his pattern “participationist eschatology,” thus acknowledging his strongly eschatological worldview and his emphasis upon dying with Christ in order to “get in.”

Like many challenging and groundbreaking assessments, Sanders’ arguments received both lavish praise and vociferous criticism—and in a monograph of this breadth and magnitude, both are undoubtedly appropriate. As Best has noted, “After Paul and Palestinian Judaism, it should never again be possible to represent the view of first-century Judaism on a particular subject merely by citing the rabbinic passages mentioned at the appropriate spot in Strack-Billerbeck” (Best 1982: 71). But while Sanders must be commended for his leading role in the scholarly community’s radical reconsideration of its view of Judaism, his work did not emerge in a vacuum. He himself acknowledges that a number of previous commentators, including G.F. Moore, Samuel Sandmel, Krister Stendhal, and W.D. Davies, had developed and published similar ideas. Furthermore, his manipulation of the sources is occasionally questionable. It is extremely convenient that texts such as the Wisdom of Ben Sira and 4 Ezra (2 Esdras) are deemed to be irrespective of normative Judaism during this period, as their contents do not especially support his conclusions. The lack of a “treasury of merits” in the extant literature indicates that it was not relevant or applicable to its authors; the similar lack of references to the covenant, however, indicates that it was an absolutely ubiquitous concept (Best 1982: 73). Despite his repeated protestations against the polemical categorizations of traditional German scholarship, Jacob Neusner has accused him of employing a “Pauline-Lutheran theology” in his exegesis. The extensive treatment of the Mishnah, an anthology which was not codified before 200 CE, has incited questions of anachronism regarding its correspondence to Paul—although Sanders has responded that, as he was not engaged in a search for the sources of Pauline thought, such questions are unwarranted (Sanders 2004: 17). Finally, this ambitious comparative project does not significantly address the texts which are most precious to the rabbis and to Paul, and therefore could potentially provide a wealth of material for objective comparison: those of the Hebrew Bible/Old Testament. Best is quick to point out that the index contains just two passages of citations of these texts, as opposed to more than twenty pages devoted to other Jewish and early Christian writings. Nevertheless, any legitimate consideration of recent developments in Pauline studies must include a full engagement with this seminal work.


2 Responses to “Paul and Palestinian Judaism: A Brief Review”

  1. 1 Yirmeyahu
    February 24, 2009 at 6:37 am

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  2. 2 Yirmeyahu
    February 24, 2009 at 2:37 am

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