E.P. Sanders and the New Perspective on Paul

E.P. Sanders and the New Perspective on Paul June 3, 2014

E.P. Sanders
In 1977, E.P. Sanders published Paul and Palestinian Judaism, which agreed with the central thesis of Stendhal and developed it through looking at sources from second temple Judaism. In this volume, Sanders briefly overviews the different evaluations of second temple Judaism which scholars have promoted in the recent past. In the 19th century, due to the work of F. Weber, it was generally understood that Judaism of the second temple period was a religion of “works righteousness.” Jews supposedly believed that God would weigh one’s good deeds against his bad to determine the fate of that man. One could gain extra merit through a “treasury of merits” of sorts. Sanders concludes that Weber’s evaluation was deeply flawed, though remained somewhat unchallenged in his day. This same view of Judaism was promoted by Bousset, Schurer, and Bultmann. Many Jewish scholars refuted Weber’s claims, and Sanders believes successfully, yet their work was not of much effect. Weber’s view still was the majority opinion. 

Sanders attempts to prove that Weber’s view is flawed by evaluating the writings of the second temple period extensively. According to Sanders, there was an overall coherence of a “pattern of religion” in Judaism. “A pattern of religion does not include every theological proposition or every religious concept within a religion. The term ‘pattern’ points toward the question of how one moves from the logical starting point to the logical conclusion of the religion.” (Paul and Palestinian Judaism pg. 17) This can be loosely placed under the rubric of soteriology. Though there were certainly diverging views of Judaism in the second temple period, there was an overall basic soteriology which permeated the majority of second temple literature. Sanders labels this soteriology “covenantal nomism.” Covenantal nomism is the idea that the Jews believed themselves to be in the covenant by grace, but maintained their status in the covenant by obedience. In other words, the emphasis was on God’s electing grace rather than on strict law-keeping. God chose the nation of Israel to be His own, thus one was in the covenant by God’s choice, not by works. The role of law-keeping was one of maintaining status, rather than gaining status. One could lose “salvation” by breaking the commandments, yet one could not gain “salvation” by keeping commandments. 

The question naturally comes as to why God elected the nation of Israel. Sanders posits that there were three different answers to this question in second temple literature. One answer was that the covenant was offered to all nations, yet Israel was the only one to accept it. The second opinion was that the nation was chosen because of the merits of the patriarchs. The third was that God elected the nation simply because he chose to; it was a matter of pure grace. The first two answers still put the covenant in the hands of human merit, yet Sanders does not see this as harmful to his thesis. It does not matter how or why the covenant was initiated in the first place. What matters is that those in the covenant in the second temple period were personally initiated apart from what they had done.

In the second part of this book, Sanders evaluates the theology of Paul in light of the pattern he has uncovered in Second Temple literature. Sanders works from the epistles of Paul which he sees as undisputed. These include: Romans, Galatians, 1 and 2 Corinthians, Philemon, Philippians, and 1 Thessalonians. In Sander’s view, Paul argued from solution to plight. Paul saw Christ as the solution, thus realizing that there must be a problem that man needs to be saved from. First came his conviction of redemption in Christ and then came his view of the law. “Paul’s logic seems to run like this: in Christ God has acted to save the world; therefore the world is in need of salvation; but God also gave the law; if Christ is given for salvation, it must follow that the law must not have been.” (pg 475) Agreeing with Stendhal, Sanders observes that in his description of himself in Philippians 3, Paul calls himself “blameless.” Under the law he did not have a deep inward struggle with sin. When Paul preached, he most likely did this the same way. The content of his preaching was not the conviction of sins and then redemption in Christ, but instead began with the message of salvation through Christ. 

Salvation in Paul is predominantly seen as a future event which he mistakenly thought to be soon. “It is further to be observed that the verb “save” in Paul is generally future or present but only once past (aorist) tense.” (pg 449) Sanders sees Paul’s motifs of salvation as more participationist than juristic. The reformation overemphasized the judicial categories of forgiveness and escape from condemnation, while ignoring the real heart of salvation, which is a mystical participation in Christ. Paul shows this in his argument in his first epistle to the Corinthians when arguing against sexual immorality. It is wrong because it affects one’s union with Christ by uniting himself to a prostitute. Sin is not merely the violation of an abstract law. This participationist language is also used in Corinthians in the discussion of the Lord’s Supper wherein one participates in the body and blood of Christ. 

Unlike many later proponents of the New Perspective, Sanders sees justification as transfer language. It describes one’s entrance into the people of God. However, this is not so much about one’s legal status. Paul indeed adopted the earlier Christian view that Christ’s death was expiatory and that man was forgiven of his sins. However, when Paul uses this language he is only expressing accepted Christian tradition, not his own point of view. Paul’s own thought emphasizes the death of Christ as delivering us from the old aeon and bringing us into the new. His death involves a changing of Lordship and causes us to die not to the penalty of sin, but to the power of sin. “Christ came to provide a new Lordship for those who participate in his death and resurrection.” (pg 499)

For Sanders, Paul did not see the law as something which was impossible to fulfill. As previously mentioned, he said himself that he was blameless under the law. The problem with the law was not that it did not offer righteousness, but that it offered the wrong kind of righteousness. Paul came to the realization that man must be righteous by faith in Christ, thus all other righteousness is excluded, meaning it cannot come by the law. He saw the problem that both Jews and Gentiles were to be “righteoused” by faith, purporting that law could not make one righteous, since it excluded gentiles. 

Paul believed, as is evident in Romans 6, that men are under the Lordship of sin. He did not come to this conclusion by any inner struggle, rather by the fact of the lordship of Christ. Since to be saved one must come under the lordship of Christ, he must have previously been under the lordship of something else; that something else is sin. This takes him so far as to overemphasize man’s sinfulness in Romans 7 which almost equates the law itself with sin. 

Does Paul accept the covenantal nomism pattern which he had received as a Pharisee? Sander

s says in some sense yes, and in some ways no. In many ways, his categories were much different. For example, he discusses the new exodus, not in covenantal categories, but instead as the escape from one aeon to another. Paul does accept the basic idea that in the new covenant there is salvation, and those outside of the covenant will not receive salvation. One enters into the new covenant by baptism, through grace, and must keep with repentance to stay within the covenant. This is seen as he often talks about justification by grace in the past tense, but in Romans 2 is able to speak of a future justification by works. However, he differs in his description of personal transgression. Transgression for Paul is not seen as something which will exclude one from the covenant, but as something which affects one’s mystical union with Christ. While Paul does sometimes speak in covenantal language, the covenantal nomism category does not fit his emphasis on the new creation. Essentially, while Paul accepts some aspects of Jewish soteriology, it is inconsistent with his participationist categories, “the primary reason for which it is inadequate to depict Paul’s religion as a new covenantal nomism is that the term does not take account of his participationist transfer terms, which are most significant terms for understanding his soteriology.” (pg. 514)

Sanders gave a much fuller treatment of Paul in his 1983 book Paul, the Law, and the Jewish People. In this book, like in the previous, Sanders contends that contrary to Protestant ideas Paul did not see the law as impossible to fulfill. The usual proof text for this idea has been Galatians 3:10, “Cursed is the man who does not continue to do all things written in the book of the law.” According to Sanders, Paul, after connecting blessing with faith, looks for a verse in the Old Testament that he can use to connect “curse” with “law.” This happens to be the verse he finds. The focus is not on “all” rather, it is on the fact that the law brings a curse. This reinforces Paul’s main idea that salvation comes by faith in Christ and not the Jewish law. Paul at times upholds the possibility of perfection under the law, but at other times makes it clear that all men in one way or another do sin. Paul never understood that these ideas might be mutually exclusive. 

In Galatians 5:3, Paul does make some use of the word “all” in Deuteronomy 27:26. The point that Paul is making is that if one is circumcised, as the Judaizers demanded, he must obey the entirety of the ceremonial law. What Paul sees as wrong with the law as a way to righteousness is not that it is impossible to fulfill, but that it is not the correct kind of righteousness, which is faith in Christ. 

Sanders agrees with Stendhal’s reading of Romans in seeing it’s theme as the relation between Jew and Gentile rather than individual salvation. He agrees with most Protestant exegetes in viewing Romans 1:16 as the theme of the rest of the book, however Sanders “would put more emphasis on the second part of the verse (to all who have faith, the Jew first and also the Greek)”(pg 30) While righteousness is an essential aspect, it is essential because it expresses the unity between Jew and Gentile. Sanders evaluates Romans 3-5, which is usually used to defend the “Lutheran” idea that the law leads to boasting because, in a Pelagian sort of fashion, one thinks he can save himself by his own obedience. Sanders believes that this boasting is not connected to any sort of legalism, but to status as a Jew. The law leads to boasting in one’s ethnicity and status as among the covenant people of God. Romans 10:3 had often been used to support the legalistic understanding of Judaism where Paul contrasts a righteousness of “their own” with that “of God.” Sanders sees “their own” righteousness not as something they did to merit salvation, but the righteousness of Israel which excluded gentiles. Sanders sees Paul’s righteousness of “my own” in Philippians 3 in the same way. It was Paul’s righteousness as a zealous Jew who believed himself to be of the covenant people of Israel, separated from Gentiles.

With all this being said, it might seem as though Paul did not have a view of universal sinfulness. To the contrary, Paul does believe in universal sinfulness and does use it in his argument. However, it is only used as a backdrop to explain why righteousness comes through faith to both Jew and Gentile. “Yet it is apparent that the argument is based on the conclusion, rather than the conclusion on the argument.” (pg 35) Paul contradicts himself in Romans 2 and 5. In chapter two he assumes that it is the same law that judges everyone, yet in Romans 5 he sees the law that condemns only the Mosaic Law, as sin was not imputed until the Mosaic Law came. This inconsistency can be explained because Paul’s purpose was not primarily to explain the plight of man, but the solution.

All of this shows that Paul was in a dilemma about the role of the law in salvation history. He attempted to somehow connect the law with sin and the curse, rather than salvation. Though he recognized that in the sense of the Old Testament, Jews would not have been considered sinners, “observant Jews are not in fact sinners by the Biblical standard” (pg 68) He sought to explain the law as serving a pedagogical purpose for the Jewish people. Paul, after explaining that gentiles are imprisoned by stoicheia, beings they worshipped which are not gods, shows that the law did essentially the same thing. This is why in Galatians, he can discuss the “we” and “us” that have been imprisoned, including both Jew and Gentile. All of this shows that Paul rejected his covenantal nomistic past as he did not see righteous, law abiding Jews as among the people of God, but saw them in the same predicament as gentiles.

With all this negativity toward the law in Paul, how do his positive statements about the law fit into his own theology? He sees the law as something that both Jew and Gentile must die to. He does not carefully distinguish the categories of moral, civil, and ceremonial law, as did the medieval scholastics. Christ is the end of the whole law. Paul therefore, sees the law as given purposefully by God, never as a means of salvation, but with a view toward the faith to come. In the end Sanders states, “All Paul’s statements cannot be organized into a logical whole.” (pg 86)


Paul does see Christians as having a duty to fulfill the law. Though he did not “work out a full halakic system,” (pg 95) Paul does give ethical commands in his epistles, which are often connected with Old Testament principles. However, it is not so simple as to say that Paul was urging his gentile converts to adopt a Jewish lifestyle apart from certain rituals of course. Not all the ethical principles Paul adopts are necessarily Jewish, although he does use Old Testament references to defend himself. So which of the Old Testament laws does Paul expect Christians to follow? The distinction between moral and ceremonial law does have some merit in Paul, as he seems to reject those aspects of the law that, “created a social distinction between Jews and other races in the Greco-Roman world.” (pg 102) This again goes back to his central conviction that salvation comes only by faith in Christ through Jew and Gentile alike, thus any barriers between these two people groups must be removed.

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