For many years I was unable to garner from some author useful truths if I knew that we had some fundamental disagreement, or if the author taught something which I did not approve. I spent decades throwing babies out with bathwater. I imagine it was not until I was in my forties and went to Fuller’s School of Intercultural Studies for an M.A. and then a PhD that learned to appreciate and garner benefit from people with whom I did not entirely agree. I don’t know what you would call this but I call it maturation, progress, and a discernment forged in study and experience.
Ed Parish Sanders, known as E. P. Sanders, is one of those people from whom not only I myself, but multitudes have learned much that is valuable, even though he has some theories and perspectives with which I must disagree. So join me in washing the baby, and even if the water seems dirty, let’s not throw the baby of truth out!
E. P. Sanders was born in 1937 in Grand Prairie, Texas. From such beginnings he became very much a world citizen. He was if course a New Testament scholar, and one of the principal and earliest proponents of the New Perspective on Paul. He had been Arts and Sciences Professor of Religion at Duke University, North Carolina, from 1990 until his retirement in 2005. He was also a Fellow of the British Academy. He attended Wesleyan College, Fort Worth (1955-1959) and Perkins School of Theology at Southern Methodist University, Dallas (1959-1962), then spent a year (1962-1963) studying at Göttingen, the University of Oxford and in Jerusalem. He earned a D. Theol. from Union Seminary in NYC in 1966, D. Litt. from the University of Oxford in 1990, and a D. Theol. from the University of Helsinki. He was the author, co-author or editor of 13 books and numerous articles.
He taught at McMaster University (Hamilton, Ontario) from 1966 to 1984. In 1984 he became Dean Ireland’s Professor of the Exegesis of Holy Scripture at the University of Oxford and a Fellow of Queen’s College, positions he kept until his move to Duke University in 1990. He has also held visiting professorships and lectureships at Trinity College, Dublin, and the University of Cambridge. Without any doubt, he has ranged far from the plains of Grand Prairie, and taught is some of the most elite institutions of our day.
Sanders is one of the grandfathers of the New Perspectives on Paul. In his blockbuster first book, Paul and Palestinian Judaism, and in subsequent texts, he set out to consider methodologically how to compare two (or more) related but different religions; to destroy the view of Rabbinic Judaism which is still prevalent in much, perhaps most, New Testament scholarship; to establish a different view of Rabbinic Judaism; to argue a case concerning Palestinian Judaism (that is, Judaism as reflected in material of Palestinian provenance) as a whole; to argue for a certain understanding of Paul; and to carry out a comparison of Paul and Palestinian Judaism.
He is best remembered for his exploration of what he terms “covenantal nomism.” This term names his conviction that for Judaism, “obedience maintains one’s position in the covenant, but it does not earn God’s grace as such. It simply keeps an individual in the group which is the recipient of God’s grace.” (Paul and Palestinian Judaism, 420) In other words: “obedience is universally held to be the behavior appropriate to being in the covenant, not the means of earning God’s grace.” (p. 421). For Sanders, “Israel’s situation in the covenant required the law to be obeyed as fully and completely as possible … as the only proper response to the God who chose Israel and gave them commandments” (p. 81).
He fleshes out the meaning and implications of covenantal nomism in this fashion:
(1) God has chosen Israel and (2) given the law. The law implies both (3) God’s promise to maintain election and (4) the requirement to obey. (5) God rewards obedience and punishes transgression. (6) The law provides for means of atonement, and atonement results in (7) maintenance or re-establishment of the covenantal relationship. (8) All those who are maintained in the covenant by obedience, atonement and God’s mercy belong to the group which will be saved. An important interpretation of the first and last points is that election and ultimately salvation are considered to be by God’s mercy rather than human achievement (p422).
This is certainly not the Paul I was introduced to fifty years ago. But also, this is not the version of Judaism that most Christians I know of entertain. Since the time of Justin Martyr (103-65), the church has reflexively commended Jesus and the gospel by making unflattering comparisons to Judaism. As Father Edward Flannery taught us in The Anguish of the Jews, his book about anti-Semitism, the early church was in competition for the pagan soul. Justin taught the church to make its “sale” through downgrading the “competition” (Judaism). Sanders helped us recognize that we had been sold a bill of goods.
We can and should still commend the gospel. But we absolutely do not have to nor should we denigrate Judaism to do so!
Again, there is much that Sanders teaches with which I take exception (although not indicated here). Ground-breaking visionaries are not usually right about everything, because they are the first explorers of hitherto uncharted territory. But each has a flash of light that illumines our darkness. This is the light Sanders shared.
I hope you will join me in saying, “Thanks.”
Much of the material in this post is based on material about Sanders organized by Peter M. Head, found on line at http://www.tyndale.cam.ac.uk/Tyndale/staff/Head/Lent_07_Handout.htm