Paul, The Law, and the Jewish People

by E.P. Sanders

I didn’t find his project to be as radical as many of his critics and followers think it is. More often that not, Sanders hedges his bets and only gives “tentative” proposals. Many of his conclusions will be familiar to those who have wrestled with the NPP:

1) Judaism was not a religion of works-righteousness.
2) Paul was a coherent thinker, if not an organized and systematic one.
3) The tensions in Paul’s theology arise from sets of convictions: He does not view Christianity as a different religion than Judaism, yet notes that it is quite different in focusing around Jesus of Nazareth and a loosening of Torah.
3a) Paul gives numerous treatments of the Law which are not easily systematized.


Per 1) I disagree with him, but any answer to this question is tricky. I certainly agree that the Law God gave to his people was not intended to be works-righteousness (otherwise God is a tricksy fellow). That is an entirely different claim than saying 1st century rabbis saw it as such. I think Sanders is guilty of conflating two issues into one. I can agree with him that the average Jew didn’t go around in a crude medieval Catholic fashion worrying about how many Hail Marys he said that day. On the other hand, and even the NPP project hints toward this, many did associate at least one level of salvation with who they were as Jews. Contrary to both critics and advocates of NPP, it really isn’t that wide a gap between salvation based on my good works and salvation based on my ethnic identity.

Per 2) This might be tough to say, but we all think it: in one sentence what did Paul really teach about the Law? You simply cannot answer it in one sentence. In some places he says its good; others its bad. Romans 2 almost reads it in soteriological terms, yet that is the exact opposite of Paul’s larger theology. Surprisingly, Sanders doesn’t opt for either easy route: he doesn’t say “Paul’s view is consistent” nor does he say “Paul is simply incoherent.” Rather, he says that Paul is operating around certain parameters from which he does budge. When faced with different ethical situations, it seems like there are different conclusions.

Per 3) This conclusion would have been easier to say pre-70 AD. While the disciples were first called Christians in Antioch, its doubtful they gave themselves that name. They would have saw themselves as good Israelites reconstituted around Jesus of Nazareth, whom God raised from the dead. This creates a real tension that isn’t easily solved until the Temple’s (and hence, Judaism’s identity) is destroyed.

i) It goes without saying that Jewish converts to “The Way” would not have to give up their identity (Paul certainly acts like a good Jew from time to time).
ii) Yet, Gentile converts would not have to embrace Jewish identity markers.

SO far both points are unremarkable. The real problem come with the next one:

iii) Jew and Gentile have to worship together as “one body.”

Sanders doesn’t really point to a conclusion so much as to highlight the problem.

2 comments on “Paul, The Law, and the Jewish People

  1. Jeronimo says:

    I have not yet read Sanders, nor have I delved much into NPP, but you may be interested in Daniel Boyarin’s “A Radical Jew: Paul and the Politics of Identity” if you have not already taken a look at it.

    Read it online free at the University of California Press site here:;brand=ucpress

    Boyarin is a rabbinic Talmud scholar, and I find his take on Paul – at least so far, insightful, but I’m only through the first half of Chapter 1. Boyarin praises but also critiques Sanders in the Introduction:

    “I will argue throughout this book that many outstanding problems in Pauline interpretation can best be approached through this hermeneutical perspective. Just to take one example, E. P. Sanders’s fine discussion of fulfilling the Law in Paul would be even stronger, I think, were he to adopt a hermeneutical understanding of Paul’s antinomies between the Law under which Christians are not and the Law which they must fulfill and can fulfill by loving their neighbors as themselves (Sanders 1983, 93–105). The letter of the Law is abrogated; its spirit is fulfilled. This very old-fashioned (patristic!) interpretation of Paul must be integrated with newer understandings of the vital role that the integration of gentiles into the People of God played for Paul. It is this integration which my book attempts essentially by claiming that the two are one: The very impulse toward universalism, toward the One, is that which both enabled and motivated Paul’s move toward a spiritualizing and allegorizing interpretation of Israel’s Scripture and Law as well.”

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