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  • Writer's pictureJarrett Ford

Paul in Perspective: Part 3, Paul and the Jews

St. Peter's Basilica, Rome | Photo: iStock

The previous posts have detailed the firestorm set off by E. P. Sanders’book Paul and Palestinian Judaism. It forever changed the traditional view of first-century Judaism and with it the modern view of Paul. Since Luther, it had become common to understand first-century Judaism as a form of legalism, a religion that prescribed works to heal the enmity between God and man. Sanders denied such a view, arguing that Judaism was, in fact, a religion of grace much like Paul’s. Therefore, Paul, in his magisterial letters Romans and Galatians, was not critiquing his fellow Jews’ legalism, nor was he commending his gospel of grace in its place. Again, both Paul and his fellow Jew believed in grace. Rather, according to Sanders, Paul was locating God’s saving action in Jesus instead of the law. With these claims, Sanders’ attempted to put the old Lutheran view to rest.

But did he succeed?

The answer is “no,” at least not entirely. Sanders may very well have changed the topography of Pauline studies (ironically much like Luther did before him), but the views of the surly old German monk are still alive and well. To frame up Sanders's shortfalls, we must consider the following two questions: Was Sanders correct about first-century Judaism? And was he right about Paul?

So, to the first question: was first-century Judaism a religion of grace, as Sanders claimed? The answer is, it depends. Perhaps the most comprehensive response to Sanders came in a two-volume work titled Justification and Variegated Nomism. The adjective “variegated” sums up the essence of the argument. When scholars went back to search the primary Jewish sources of the first century, they found that some believed in grace; some didn’t. Their views on the law varied, hence the term variegated nomism. (Remember that nomism refers to “law”).

For example, the famous Habakkuk commentary found amongst the Dead Sea Scrolls interprets Habakkuk 2:4 to mean that a man will live by virtue of his faith and works. It is hard to see how such an interpretation shouldn’t be considered legalism. The community that produced this commentary fairly clearly thought that one must work for salvation. Contrary to Sanders’ initial claim, the classic faith versus legalism critique of Romans and Galatians would not have gone out into the void. It had a target represented by at least some Jews of the first century. Not all Jews ascribed to a work-based system, but some certainly did.

Furthermore, one cannot help but ask why Sanders excluded Paul from this pool of data? Was Paul not a first-century Jew? If Paul argued that the Jews of his day were legalists, does it matter whether or not their literature spoke to the contrary? For many evangelicals, the immediate answer to this question is no. God inspired Paul’s writings. His words can’t but be true. Therefore, his descriptions of the Jews likewise can’t but be true. We must understand that Sanders was no evangelical. Sanders labels himself a theological liberal, and as a liberal, Paul is just one conversation partner among many, not an authority from which he should submit. Sanders thought Paul fallible.

In response to Sanders, one might justifiably claim that he is wrong at this point. An evangelical has no obligation to deny his convictions concerning the Bible simply because Sanders said he should. But even on its own terms, Sander’s argument excluding Paul from the first-century data contains some glaring weaknesses.

Suppose for a second that Paul’s statement may or may not be true as Sanders thought. What was Sander’s argument for excluding him as a witness to first-century Judaism? Well, Sanders argued that a critic of a movement could not be a witness to said movement’s views. You don’t want to read about a bunch of Democrats to understand the position of the Republican Party and vice versa. This is just basic sense. Drawing on this logic, Sanders argued that even if Paul did describe the Jews as legalists, as a foe of his kin, Paul was not to be trusted. He simply wrote misguided propaganda that misconstrued the views of his kin. Paul’s accusations of legalism merely slandered the piety of the Jews.

The problem, though, is this analogy doesn’t fit Paul. Paul was not a no-holds-barred enemy of the Jews. A man that can say that he wishes he was accursed for the sake of his “foe” is not a foe (see Rom 9:3). Even though he disagreed with them, Paul loved his fellow Jew. He wanted to see them come to faith and succeed. His statements in Romans 9 and the whole logical flow of Romans 11 shows he did not set out to mar the reputation of the Jews. He simply thought they were wrong. Therefore, he should not be dismissed simply because he criticized his fellow Jew. In fact, to the contrary, I think a good case can be made that Paul should receive prime of place when it comes to the historical data.

Members within a movement are often blind to its faults and inconsistencies, and it is not until one leaves the movement that he can see the faults. Provided that he remains sympathetic toward the movement, this defector may be in the best place to describe it accurately. He has no ax to grind against it, but he can stand on the outside to see it for what it is. This is what we have in Paul. So, when Paul says legalistic things concerning the Jews like “For, being ignorant of the righteousness of God and seeking to establish their own, they did not submit to God’s righteousness,” his statement could very well be accurate (see Rom 10:3). His fellow Jew might not agree with such a description, but Paul’s hindsight allows him to see what this fellow Jew does not. What the Jews thought to be pious obedience, Paul understands to be unrighteous legalism. And Paul should probably be preferred between the two even if one does not consider him infallible because he occupies this unique position.

Sanders, therefore, was wrong about the Jewish background, the spark that started it all. The first-century sources do not support his gracious reading of the Jews, and he wrongly excluded Paul from the historical pool. The answer to the first major question is no.

The second major question concerns Pauline reconstructions. Were Sanders and company correct about Paul? Again, the answer seems to be “no.” It would take far too long to detail all the textual points that would need to be made to adequately prove such a thing but consider the faith versus works dichotomy. Have any of the reconstructions, whether it be Sanders, Dunn, or Wright, successfully shown that such a dichotomy does not exist? No. Despite all the background work, some of Paul’s statements are impossible to take any other way.

For example, in Romans 4, Paul uses Abraham as an exemplar of one who is justified by faith alone. Amidst his argument, he says: “Now to the one who works his wages are not counted as a gift but as his due. And to the one who does not work but believes in him who justifies the ungodly, his faith is counted as righteousness” (Rom 4:4­5). This statement is particularly interesting because it serves as a critical axiom within Paul’s argument, meaning it is self-evident, intuitive. To use more colloquial language, it’s basic common sense. Paul uses this axiom to understand an otherwise enigmatic statement concerning Abraham’s belief in Genesis 15:6. One who works receives a wage that is something he deserves. One who believes receives an undeserved gift. Abraham believed and therefore received righteousness freely. He did not work for it. This statement unveils the core of what Paul is trying to do with Abraham, and it just so happens that this core seems to resemble Luther’s original construal of the gospel. Sinful men and women are justified—that is, declared righteous before God—by faith, not works. Consequently, although the movement sparked by Sanders has helped to shed light on various parts of Paul’s theology, in my opinion, this statement and many others show that he has failed to overshadow Luther’s original insight. The basic faith versus works gospel remains.

Consider also Dunn’s emphasis on the horizontal aspects of redemption. Can justification be flattened into reconciliation? Was Paul an ancient inclusivist who was unconcerned about being made right with God? Again, the answer is quite clearly “no.” Dunn’s reconstruction does offer some helpful insights that I will discuss in the fourth and final post, but to say that Paul’s view on justification primarily concerned inclusion in the covenant does not work.

For starters, the verb “to justify” fits uncomfortably in such a view. Imagine if someone were to say to you that he would justify you into his exclusive club. You might understand what he means from context, but his use of the term “justify” would certainly cause confusion. The word “justify” does not mean the same thing as “include,” and so also it is with the Greek word behind the English term “justify” found in Romans and Galatians. This word (dikaioō in Greek) means that one is declared to be in the right, which lends itself to Luther’s interpretation, not Dunn’s. As odd as it would be to use the term to invite someone into a club, so also would it be strange for Paul to use it to speak of Gentile inclusion in the covenant.

There are also contextual problems with Dunn’s view. Let us again return to Romans 4. In the opening lines of the chapter, Paul says the following: “For if Abraham were justified by works, he has something to boast about, but not before God (Rom 4:2; emphasis added). Notice the italicized portion. It is hard to see how a horizontal view of Paul, like Dunn’s, can make sense of this statement. Paul seems to care very little about Jew/Gentile relations in the heart of his discussion of justification. At least at this point, Paul is concerned with being made right with God.

Therefore, on two of its main peaks—the minimization of justification by faith and the emphasis on Gentile inclusion—Sanders’ New Perspective falters. In the next post, I will try to describe where Sanders’ insight actually does illuminate Paul and talk about some of the lasting effects of this so-called New Perspective.

Jarrett Ford is a Ph.D. student at the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary and an Adjunct Professor at Boyce College. He and his wife Julia have four kids and live in Louisville, KY.


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