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Paul, the Law, and the Jewish People Paperback – June 1, 1983
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About the Author
- Publisher : Fortress Press; 1st edition (June 1, 1983)
- Language : English
- Paperback : 240 pages
- ISBN-10 : 0800618785
- ISBN-13 : 978-0800618780
- Item Weight : 14.3 ounces
- Dimensions : 6 x 0.51 x 9 inches
- Best Sellers Rank: #1,230,835 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)
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He wrote in the Preface to this 1983 book, “The present work consists of two essays, each of which treats a question of importance for understanding Paul’s relationship to Judaism. The first essay… on the law, deals with the central problem for understanding Paul’s thought about his native faith. The first and third chapters expand and clarify, and sometimes correct, the account of Paul’s view of the law which was sketched in ‘Paul and Palestinian Judaism.’ The essay also takes up aspects of Paul’s treatment of the law which were no previously touched on, and I attempt to consider the problem of Paul and the law as a whole… I have taken into account some of the most important critical assessments of my earlier work. The second essay deals with a question which I did not consider in that volume, Paul’s thought about and relationship to his fellow Jews. This question requires also us to consider Paul’s self-understanding and activity as apostle of Jesus Christ…
“In ‘Paul and Palestinian Judaism’ I did not intend to explore Paul’s Jewishness, his overall relationship to Jewish tradition and thought… the subject was limited to how ‘getting in and staying in’ were understood by Paul and his near contemporaries in Judaism. The present work, however, does focus more closely on Paul’s general relationship to contemporary Judaism… Thus the present work… is intended to be an independent monograph which deals with Paul’s thought about the law and his own people, and with the consequences of his views and his practice for the relationship of his churches to Judaism. More precisely, the work addressed an important chapter in the history of the emergence of the Christian movement as a separate religion. It may be that the survival of Galatians and Romans leads us to put too much emphasis on Paul’s role in that development, but it is nevertheless important to understand his role, and in particular his thought about the law, the Gentiles, and the Jews.”
In the Introduction, he states, “Thus we come already to one of our principal conclusions: the question being addressed determines what Paul says about the law. The fact that there are ‘negative’ and ‘positive’ statements by Paul about the law has always been observed, and there have been various explanations… the explanation which proceeds from determining what QUESTION is being addressed differs from the explanation which is based on distinctions of meaning which Paul consciously had in mind (e.g., the law as an external code legalistically performed and the law as the ethical principle of love).” (Pg. 10)
He argues, “These three considerations---the character of the terminological argument in favor of GENTILES being ‘righteoused’ by faith, which is based on proof-texts; the fact that Paul states in his own words what he takes the proof-texts to mean; and the subordination of [Galatians 3:10-13 to verse 8]… seem to be to be decisive against the view that the thrust and point of the argument are directed toward the conclusion that the law should not be accepted because no one can fulfill all of it. The argument seems to be clearly wrong that Paul, in Galatians 3, holds the view that SINCE the law cannot be entirely fulfilled, THEREFORE righteousness is by faith.” (Pg. 22-23) Later, he adds, “We cannot, then, say that Paul never thought that everybody sins; simply that that view is not put forward as the ground of his own view that righteousness must be by faith, to the exclusion of doing the law.” (Pg. 25)
He points out, “The argument is that one need not be Jewish to be ‘righteous’ and is thus against the standard Jewish view that accepting and living by the law is a sign and condition of favored status. This is both the position which, independently of Paul, we can know to have characterized Judaism, and the position which Paul attacks. In other terms, Paul’s ‘not by works of law’ shows that he had come to hold a different view of God’s plan of salvation from that of non-Christian Judaism. It was never, he argues, God’s intention that one should accept the law in order to become one of the elect. Though fully evident now that Christ has come, God’s intention to save on the basis of faith, not the law, was previously announced in Scripture. The case is made above all by Abraham, who was chosen without accepting the law. This is, in effect, an attack on the traditional understanding of the covenant and election, according to which accepting the law signified acceptance of the covenant.” (Pg. 46)
He suggests, “One of the most striking features of Paul’s argument is that he puts everyone, whether Jew of Gentile, in the same situation. This is best explained by hypothesizing that he thought backwards, from solution to plight, and that his thinking in this, as in many respects, was governed by the overriding conviction that salvation is through Christ. Since Christ came to save all, all needed salvation. The fact that Paul can equate the status of Jew and Gentile is explicable on this hypothesis and is simultaneously the best proof that Paul did not begin by analyzing the human condition.” (Pg. 68)
He asserts, “It seems wise not to look for Paul’s ‘real’ point of view within the tortured explanations of the relationship between the law and sin. We must back away from strict exegesis of Romans 7 to understand Paul’s thought. He was absolutely convinced that God sent Christ to save all humanity on the same basis, and therefore apart from law. He has already… argued extensively that righteousness does not come by keeping the law. Yet he thought that God gave the law. He attempted to hold these convictions together in different ways. Each attempt… is, in that sense, part of a coherent line of thought. But in and of themselves the attempts are not harmonious… we learn that he did not begin his thinking by analyzing the human condition, nor by analyzing the effect of the law on those who sought to obey it. Had he done so we should doubtless find more consistency.” (Pg. 80-81)
He says, “We should recall… two of his principal convictions: all are to be saved on the same basis; he was called to be the apostle to the Gentiles. Putting these convictions into practice understandably resulted in deleting circumcision, Sabbath, and food laws from ‘the whole law’ or ‘the commandments of God.’ Yet we must also bear in mind that Paul himself offered no theoretical basis for the de facto reduction of the law… We cannot determine to what degree he was conscious of his own reduction of the law. He certainly knew that circumcision, Sabbath observance, and dietary restrictions were commanded in the Scripture… Yet he offered no rationale for his de facto limitations, but insisted that those in the Spirit keep what the law requires.” (Pg. 102-103)
Later, he adds, “It is equally understandable that ‘the law’ had to correspond to his view of God’s plan: he had sent his son to save all who believe, without distinction. Thus concretely the law was modified by the revelation of the universal lordship of Christ and consequently by the requirements of the Gentile mission.” (Pg. 114)
He argues, “I have come to the conclusion that there is no single unity which adequately accounts for every statement about the law. Against those who argue in favor of mere inconsistency, however, I would urge that Paul held a limited number of basic convictions which, when applied to different problems, led him to say different things about the law… Paul may most obviously be charged with true incoherence [by] the statements in Romans 2 that the sole basis of salvation is fulfillment of the law… Romans 2 remains the instance in which Paul goes beyond inconsistency or variety of argument and explanation to true self-contradiction… I still see Paul as on the whole a ‘coherent,’ though not a ‘systematic’ thinker.” (Pg .147-148)
He clarifies, “In saying that the debate between ‘faith’ and ‘law’ is a debate about an entry requirement, I do not mean to imply that, for Paul, faith was required only at the point of entry to the body of Christ… There was no dispute over the necessity to trust God and have faith in Christ. The dispute was about whether or not one had to be Jewish.” (Pg. 159) He further asserts, “I think that Paul had found a canon within canon… It is this: those parts of the Scripture which mention faith, righteousness, Gentiles, and love are in, as are those which accuse Israel of disobedience; parts which disagree with this interior canon, particularly the parts about the Gentiles, whether explicitly or by implication, do no count.” (Pg. 162) He later adds, “He knew that righteousness is only by faith in Christ, but he still tried repeatedly to find a place for the law in God’s plan… he desperately sought a formula which would keep God’s promises to Israel intact, while insisting on faith in Jesus Christ.” (Pg. 199)
He concludes, “Knowing the outcome, we can see in the Pauline letters the nucleus of much of Christianity’s understanding of itself. It would appropriate Israelite history and also claim to transcend it. It would rely on Jewish Scripture and find its truth therein, but it would not hesitate to dismiss unwanted parts and to supplement it with new words, some ‘from the Lord’ and some on human authority. Many aspects of Jewish thought and tradition would be retained, but hew patterns of thinking would emerge. The development of a new covenantal nomism would proceed… in many ways [Christianity]… achieved its own identity by pursuing the course … which involved the simultaneous appropriation and rejection of Judaism.” (Pg. 209-210)
Like its predecessor, this book will be “must reading” for anyone studying Jewish/Christian theology, Paul’s theology, the “New Perspective on Paul,” or the historical background for Jesus and the New Testament.
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A common criticism of NPP is that it allegedly teaches salvation by works. In fairness to NPP advocates – it doesn’t. In fact, the key re-discovery of E. P. Sanders, which began the whole NPP movement, was that 2nd Temple Judaism never taught a fifty-one per cent works-based salvation. Ancient Jews kept the Torah for much the same reason modern Southern Baptists keep the Ten Commandments (or at least nine of them) – as a response of love and fidelity. Thus, Jews didn’t do good works to get into God’s covenant of grace but in response because they were already in. Sanders also deserves much praise for this aspect of his theory.
Assuming NPP correct (and many other reputable scholars don’t), this theory needs to be taken to its proper logical conclusion. This is where problems arise.
Paul’s letters such as Galatians are said by Sanders and other NPP proponents as not condemning moral keeping of the Law as a response of grace. Instead, Paul is addressing those badges of covenant membership or boundary-markers, which were parts of the Law that signified Jewish ethnicity and thereby excluded Gentiles from fellowship.
Thus, ‘the works of the law’ in this sense are the things which, by definition, the gentile cannot do. The ‘works of the law’ here are precisely the Jew-specific performances which mark out the Jewish communities from their pagan neighbours. These boundary-markers were things that one could distinguish who was a Jew or Gentile by seeing who followed these laws.
NPP and others take this to include not just circumcision but also the seventh-day Sabbath and biblical food principles. The problem is NPP proponents seem a little hazy on how they pick or choose – or rather how they say NPP Paul picked and chose – some boundary-markers over others. The explanation given is that these rules were supposedly, the three things which every Jew in the ancient world, and many pagans in the ancient world too, knew were the boundary-markers between Jews and pagans.
The fatal flaw in NPP logic is it ignores the most widely understood boundary-marker of 1st century pagan Rome – monotheism. The most Jew-specific thing in the ancient world that distinguished Jews from their pagan neighbours was belief in just one God, together with its associated practices of prohibiting idol worship. As a practical illustration, under Roman law the Jews alone were allowed to pray for Caesar rather than to him.
In terms of ethnic identity the Jews were rather flexible regarding Sabbath-keeping, as the Maccabean Revolt demonstrated (1 Macc. 2:31-41). By contrast, idol worship was so sensitive a subject that Jews were fanatical about it to the point of being virtually suicidal, best seen in their explosive reactions whenever a pagan ruler attempted to erect a statue in the Jewish Temple – to Zeus, Caligula or Jupiter.
Gentiles ‘could do’ the Sabbath and food principles without fully converting to Judaism, minus the sacrificial Temple rites, in a way they couldn’t with say circumcision. Even before Christ, Gentiles not only kept the Sabbath and biblical food principles during the NT period but continued doing so for some centuries. Both the book of Acts and early Church sources suggest this. If the Epistle of Barnabas had to tell Christians off for keeping the Sabbath and food laws, then it suggests some Christians were still doing just that - some time after the apostolic age.
To his credit, Sanders admits these problems. He admits his NPP version of Paul has no theoretical basis for a de facto reduction in some aspects of the Mosaic Law for Gentile believers but not others. Sanders admits his NPP Paul has no explanation as to why monotheism and the prohibition against idolatry are still binding on Gentiles but the Sabbath is not, given all three commandments are equally “cultic” (i.e. govern God-human relationship) and not merely “ethical” (i.e. govern human-human relationship).
Sanders also admits the NPP version of Paul seems to ignore Isaiah 56:6-8, which foresaw Gentiles keeping the Sabbath during the Messianic Age. This NPP Paul even contradicts Jesus Himself, who explicitly cites Isaiah’s prophecy in Mark 11:7.
Sanders can’t offer much in way of a concrete explanation for all this, although kudos that he tries. All he really comes up with is some speculation based on the ancient works of pagan writers such as Seneca, Persius and Tacitus. While monotheism also admittedly set Jews apart from Gentiles, NPP Paul seems to cancel biblical precepts because the pagan philosophical elite ridiculed them. In other words, NPP Paul had no systematic way of viewing the Law but simply allowed the dominating alien culture of the time to browbeat him into ignoring Jesus, his fellow apostles and the what the Law itself said about which parts applied to Jews and which to Gentiles (cf. 1 Cor. 1:18; Col. 2:8).
Either we accept this capricious, illogical if blatantly unscriptural NPP version of Paul, which would really be a false prophet Paul, or we realise perhaps the NPP proponents are not reading Paul right. An alternative version of Paul may be staring us in the face – not “NPP Paul” but “Ger-toshav Paul”.
Ger-toshav was the implicit division of the Mosaic Law, which didn't impose all 613 rules of Judaism on Gentiles. It is Ger-toshav that the Apostles were probably referring to in Acts 15:20. Richard Bauckham and Géza Vermes have done some work on this recently.
Sanders does mention the Ger-toshav principles, but then ignores it out of hand. I wish he had dealt with the possibility of Ger-toshav Paul in much greater detail, because Ger-toshav Paul would align with both the Law itself (proving continuity between the OT and NT) and the other apostles at the Jerusalem Council. Alas, he hasn't.