Justification and Variegated Nomism

D. A. Carson, Peter O'Brien, and Mark Seifrid
D. A. Carson, Peter O'Brien, and Mark Seifrid
If first-century Judaism had a different shape than much New Testament scholarship has traditionally assumed, then an understanding of the New Testament’s—and especially Paul’s—negative critique of Judaism, as well as the positive, doctrinal affirmations predicated to some degree upon this traditional view of Judaism, may need to be revised. The direction this revision has taken based on the trajectory Sanders set in the last portion of Paul and Palestinian Judaism (431–556),1 provides the impetus for the Justification and Variegated Nomism set (Carson, O’Brien, and Seifrid 5). This set attempts to determine “whether ‘covenantal nomism’ serves us well as a label for an overarching pattern of religion” in Palestinian Judaism (Carson, O’Brien, and Seifrid 5).

Sanders himself recognized some degree of diversity within the Second Temple literature (e.g., 4 Ezra; see Carson, O’Brien, and Seifrid 427–28). Rather than affirming the essential content of Sanders’ thesis, however, the essays in Justification and Variegated Nomism’s first volume (The Complexities of Second Temple Judaism) advocate that

[T]he literature of Second Temple Judaism reflects patterns of belief and religion too diverse to subsume under one label. . . . [At the same time, i]t is not that the new perspective has not taught us anything helpful or enduring. Rather, the straitjacket imposed on the apostle Paul by appealing to a highly unified vision of what the first-century ‘pattern of religion’ was like will begin to find itself unbuckled” (Carson, O’Brien, and Seifrid 5).2


1 To be sure, others have articulated similar positions, but Sanders’ work has provided the flashpoint for recent development in this area of Pauline scholarship. As an illustration of this prominence, Second Temple Judaism addresses Sanders most directly, by comparison, scarcely mentioning other scholars who, like W. D. Davies, have articulated similar readings of Judaism, or who, like James Dunn and N. T. Wright, have articulated their own (slightly different) versions of the implications that Sander’s reconstruction has for Pauline interpretation (cf. Carson, O’Brien, and Seifrid 4–5).

2 Similarly, Sanders says, “If we ask what the doctrine of why Israel was elect was [in the Tannaitic literature], we get no clear answer. It is clear throughout that there is a universal conviction that Israel was elect and that election entailed commandments” (Sanders 99).

In this post:

D. A. Carson, Peter O'Brien, and Mark Seifrid
D. A. Carson, Peter O'Brien, and Mark Seifrid
E. P. Sanders
E. P. Sanders

Judaism in Paul and Palestinian Judaism

The New Perspective on Paul has its beginnings in “the Sanders revolution” (Wright 18). Indeed, without Sanders’ considerable historical work, the movement would almost certainly not be the significant force it is today. Paul and Palestinian Judaism is Sanders’ most systematic presentation of the fruits of his extended historical survey of Judaism, and one can scarcely work long in Pauline studies without reckoning thoroughly with this work (cf. Carson, O’Brien, and Seifrid 4).1 The first two-thirds of the work surveys ancient Judaism and attempts to draw some conclusions about it, especially as these conclusions relate to the frequently-leveled charge that the Judaism of the period was systemically legalistic. That is, Sanders is interested to discern whether Palestinian Judaism, by its very nature, encouraged or even demanded legalism.

To build a case for his answer to this question, Paul and Palestinian Judaism provides Sanders’ examination of vast quantities of Jewish literature. Overall, Sanders thinks that this literature represents the covenant as preceding and necessitating the commandments, rather than portraying the covenant as being preceded by the commandments and merited by obedience to them. As such,

“[t]he all-pervasive view [of what constitutes the essence of Jewish religion and of how that religion ‘works’] can best be summarized as ‘covenantal nomism.’ Briefly put, covenantal nomism is the view that one’s place in God’s plan is established on the basis of the covenant and that the covenant requires as the proper response of man his obedience to its commandments, while providing means of atonement for transgression” (Sanders, Paul and Palestinian Judaism 75; italics added).

Consequently, according to Sanders, covenant preceded commandment in ancient Judaism, and the commandments were obeyed so those already in the covenant might remain in the covenant (Sanders, Paul and Palestinian Judaism 420). Thus, Sanders avers:

The frequent Christian charge against Judaism, it must be recalled, is not that some individual Jews misunderstood, misapplied and abused their religion, but that Judaism necessarily tends towards petty legalism, self-serving and self-deceiving casuistry, and a mixture of arrogance and lack of confidence in God. But the surviving Jewish literature is as free of these characteristics as any I have ever read. By consistently maintaining the basic framework of covenantal nomism, the gift and demand of God were kept in a healthy relationship with each other, the minutiae of the law were observed on the basis of the large principles of religion and because of commitment to God, and humility before God who chose and would ultimately redeem Israel was encouraged (Sanders, Paul and Palestinian Judaism 427; italics added).

For Sanders, then, Palestinian Judaism was not the legalistic religion that has frequently appeared in Protestant, New Testament scholarship.2 Instead, during the New Testament period, Judaism itself was grounded on the gracious act of God in choosing Israel to be his people.


1 Some of Sander’s other, significant works in this area include: Jesus and Judaism; Jewish and Christian Self-Definition; Judaism: Practice and Belief; and Paul, the Law, and the Jewish People.

2 For a brief overview of the effect Sanders thinks this understanding of Judaism should have on one’s interpretation of Paul, see his Paul: A Very Short Introduction.

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Greek and Hebrew

Despite the imperial connection that might have been expected to promote the Latin tongue, “[e]ven after Rome became the world power in the first century BCE, Greek continued to penetrate distant lands. (This was due largely to Rome’s policy of assimilation of cultures already in place, rather than destruction and replacement.) Consequently, [when Pompey conquered Palestine in 63 BC (Ferguson 411) and] even when Rome was in absolute control [under Augustus in 31 BC-AD 14 (cf. Ferguson 26–30)], Latin was not the lingua franca. Greek continued to be a universal language until at least the end of the first century” (Wallace 18). Moreover, when one considers the strong Jewish presence in Palestine, it becomes clear that Hebrew and Aramaic would constitute important languages in the Palestinian milieu (cf. Poirier 55).

“Some scholars argue that (Mishnaic) Hebrew was actually the primary language of first-century Palestine [cf. Poirier 56]. Yet, Hebrew was apparently not widely used by the masses,” as very few Hebrew inscriptions remain from this period (Wallace 24; contra Poirier 59). Although Qumran, Masada, Murabba’at, and the Bar Kokhba caves demonstrate that Hebrew was widely used around first-century Palestine, the extent to which the general (Jewish) populace would have been intimate with the language is somewhat in doubt (Wilcox 979). Moreover, although the Bar Kokhba archives contain a substantial amount of Hebrew material, that Hebrew is often heavily influenced by Aramaic, and in any case, the archives as a whole contain more material in Aramaic than in Hebrew (Poirier 61, 63). Indeed, after the exiles returned, their Hebrew competency seems to have been greatly diminished (Ferguson 499; contra Poirier 56–57), hence the rise of the Aramaic targum tradition (Neh 8:5-8; McNamara 210), which provides still more persuasive evidence for Aramaic having greater currency than Hebrew in first-century Palestine. Similarly, Hellenistic and Diaspora Jews (cf. Jobes and Silva 20) adopted the LXX/OG tradition, pragmatically preferring this tradition to the proto-Massoretic text.

The targum tradition’s growth over subsequent centuries indicates a continued demand for such material, which was eventually set down in writing (Ferguson 500). Consequently, one may conclude that, while some first-century Jews (e.g., Jesus in Luke 4:16–19) certainly had a command of biblical Hebrew, large segments of the population were probably only nominally familiar with the language (Ferguson 580; cf. Wallace 24). Additionally, we should note that first-century Hebrew was in a transitional period between its biblical and Mishnaic forms, but “it is just those features in which Mishnaic Hebrew differs from Biblical Hebrew that it tends to be akin to Aramaic” (Wilcox 993). Thus, Hebrew and Aramaic may both have had currency in first-century Palestine, although the more popular Aramaic was shaping the less popular Hebrew.


In this post:

Everett Ferguson
Everett Ferguson
Karen Jobes and Moisés Silva
Karen Jobes and Moisés Silva
Martin McNamara
Martin McNamara
Stanley Porter et al.
Stanley Porter et al.
Hildegard Temporini and Wolfgang Haase
Hildegard Temporini and Wolfgang Haase
Daniel Wallace
Daniel Wallace