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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