In the light of various posts on the ‘New Perspective on Paul’, I thought I’d better clarify what E.P. Sanders meant by this term.
It will be recalled that Sanders could find little evidence that the Judaism of the 1st century AD (and therefore the Judaism confronted by the Apostle Paul) was beset by merit theology – the idea that salvation can be ‘earned’ by one’s ‘good works’. Instead, says Sanders, it was characterised by ‘covenantal nomism’:-
Sanders summarises his position as follows:-
- God has chosen Israel and
- given the law. The law implies both
- God’s promise to maintain the election and
- the requirement to obey.
- God rewards obedience and punishes transgression.
- The law provides for means of atonement, and atonement results in
- maintenance or reestablishment of the covenantal relationship.
- 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 implication of the first and last points is that election and ultimately salvation are considered to be by God’s mercy rather than human achievement.
E.P. Sanders, Paul and Palestinian Judaism
A few quick comments:-
1. In Sanders’ view, then, obedience to the law is not how you ‘get in’ to the covenant, but how you ‘stay in’. But this itself is a pretty clear form of legalism.
2. Notwithstanding Sanders’ impressive scholarship, subsequent writers have often accused him of selectivity and misunderstanding with regard to the evidence around the beliefs and practices of 2nd-Temple Judaism. Was it so committed to grace (as opposed to law) as he supposes? When Josephus, for example, talks about God’s grace, he says that it will be given to those who deserve it: but this is legalism.
3. I have often thought that Sanders and others neglect the most obvious evidence with regard to the beliefs and practice of 1st-century Judaism, namely the documents of the New Testament. I am thinking particularly of the Gospels, and of the teaching of Jesus in, say, Luke 18:-
Lk 18:9 To some who were confident of their own righteousness and looked down on everybody else, Jesus told this parable…
Lk 18:18 A certain ruler asked him, “Good teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?”
In fact, Sanders was only able to maintain his position by denying that the Gospels faithfully represented the views of the Pharisees, thinking that reflected instead a later attitude of the church towards the Jews.
Grogan cites Frank Thielman (Paul and the Law):-
Grogan himself draws attention to