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Reflections on Sanders' Paul and Palestinian Judaism

As part of a project interacting with Sanders pivotal work, Paul and Palestinian Judaism, my thoughts included the following:

One also wonders to what extent the Rabbinic sources of the Tannaitic period reflect the religious praxis of the first century AD in general. In other words, though Rabbis seemed to generally emphasize obedience only after assuming covenantal election, it does not follow that legalistic attitudes could not arise in the daily religious life of the Jew. Orthodoxy, as it were, might not guarantee orthopraxy. It must be recognized that Sanders is initially carrying out a comparative analysis of ancient sources reflecting Judaism from its own perspective. In the end, however, one must weigh both the perspective of the New Testament writings on Judaism (written primarily by Jews!) and the deviations with respect to covenantal nomism in the Jewish (non-New Testament) sources.

Though Dunn and Wright have picked up the slack in this regard, it appears to me that covenantal nomism is virtually assumed by many and applied to Paul. I think there may be more work to do on covenantal nomism as a pattern of religion during Jesus’ and Paul’s respective lifetimes.

3 Responses to Reflections on Sanders' Paul and Palestinian Judaism

  1. josh,

    you mentioned that one must also consider “the perspective of the new testament writings.” i think one of sander’s goals in that book, though, is to clarify exactly what the NT is saying. another goal is to pinpoint which judaism paul might be addressing in any given letter. i think sanders would have agreed that the NT portrays judaism(s), but his questions investigate which one(s) and in what ways.

    after reading sanders’s book the first time, i was surprised that his take on covenantal nomism is basically how i read the hebrew bible. that is, i read it as though God establishes covenant relationships, and the laws and expectations are essentially covenant stipulations more than anything else, but also boundary markers and cultural identifiers. in other words, i don’t believe the israelites in the HB worked their way to God or perceived themselves as working for salvation. instead, law and works were ways of keeping/breaking covenant faithfulness. i wish more NT types like sanders (or wright, dunn, or even piper for that matter) would demonstrate a basic familiarity (or even concern) with the ANE background for and relational nature of covenant in the HB. it would solve a lot of their problems. but alas, bultmann prevails in that we don’t seem too interested jewish backgrounds of the NT.

    so, although i have sympathy for his take on covenantal nomism, i would probably have to disagree with his theory that it was a very late development in jewish thought (if i’ve read him correctly on that point). he makes a good point, though, that apparently the pharisees were the most hardline (and possibly unique) about law-keeping and salvation. it is equally interesting that paul’s former association with judaism was apparently with the pharisaic variety.

    still, yes, he needed to weigh in many more jewish sources. but, his book is massive and he was breaking new ground – he simply could not cover everything. it’s just as important to follow the conversations on early judaism and the NT since sanders. i think the legacy of his work lies ultimately in the fact that up-and-comers like myself weren’t given a monolithic take on early judaism.

    good post, good stuff for conversation


    • Great thoughts, Mike. I agree that the HB does not promote hard legalism. Also, I, too, find Paul’s background interesting. I think it is highly relevant to consider his writings in understanding Judaism not least because he was associated with the Pharisees. As I understand it, there just aren’t many sources from the pre-70 period from a Pharisaic or Sadducean perspective.

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