E. P. Sanders: The Christological Interpretation of Paul
Recently, Frank Thielman has presented the current state of Pauline scholarship in the following fashion:
The most prominent representative of this position is E. P. Sanders. Sanders argued that Judaism was not and had never been a religion of “worksrighteousness,” by which is meant a religion in which meritorious works automatically “earn” one's salvation (Sanders 1973, 1977). There had always been a recognition both of God's freedom and of God's mercy in judgment. Judaism was rather a religion of Covenantal Nomism through which salvation had been granted to Israel by a free act of grace, the Covenant, to which the proper response was obedience to its terms. Jews were saved through this grace unless their disobedience was such that it marked them as having renounced the Covenant. This seems to me a fairly accurate broad statement of “the Jewish pattern of religion.” Note its crucial point that in Judaism no one has ever completely fulfilled the requirements of the Law, so God's justification will always have to be informed by mercy or grace. Such a Judaism is clearly much less amenable to treatment as a foil or background for a spiritual revolution by which “legalism” was replaced by grace and spirituality in Paul. For Sanders, Paul leveled no attack on Judaism at all, indeed hardly even a critique. One way of summing up Sanders's position would be to say that the traditional contents of a putative Pauline critique of Judaism cannot be accepted because they would make Paul a fool or a liar. Judaism was particularly marked neither by self-righteousness nor by legalism, if by the latter we understand a dry, nonspiritual or commercialistic religious attitude.
Most interpreters, at least in the last decade, have concluded that Paul's view of the law can only be explained if we assume that he had abandoned Judaism and looked back on his “former way of life,” including his devotion to the law, wholly from the standpoint of his experience with Christ. (Thielman 1989, 1–2)
Therefore, claims Sanders, Paul's own soteriology can hardly be described as universalistic, since it was entirely dependent on faith in Christ, a matter which is as particular as membership in (or conversion to) the Jewish People (1983, 23). For Paul, argues Sanders in a famous formula, the only thing wrong with Judaism was that it was not Christianity (1977, 552). On Galatians 3 (a text which will be discussed at length below) Sanders writes:
In the midst of a sometimes bewildering series of arguments, quotations, and appeals, there seem to be only two sentences in Galatians in which Paul states unambiguously not only what his position is (which is never in doubt) but why he holds it. These statements are [2:21 and 3:21]. Put in propositional terms, they say this: God sent Christ; he did so in order to offer righteousness; this would have been pointless if righteousness were already available by the law (2:21); the law was not given to bring righteousness. That the positive statement about righteousness through Christ grounds the negative one about the law seems to me self-evident. (1983, 27)
Not quite self-evident, Sanders's interpretation depends (as all do) on the choice of particular texts on which to hang the rest. One could just as easily suppose that in these verses Paul is arguing further for his view of the Law, which is grounded, however, elsewhere. On my view, the elsewhere is, of course, the issue of salvation for all: Jews and gentiles alike. Sanders's position in Paul and Palestinian Judaism requires that we assume that there was nothing in Paul's position, thinking, or affect vis-à-vis his prior Judaism that led to his experience on the Damascus Road.
Nor has Sanders substantially revised his position on this question. In his Paul, the Law, and the Jewish People, he writes:
One of the most striking features of Paul's argument is that he puts everyone, whether Jew or Gentile, in the same situation. This is best explained by hypothesizing that he thought backwards, from solution to plight, and that his thinking in this, as in many respects, was governed by the overriding conviction that salvation is through Christ. Since Christ came to save all, all needed salvation. The fact that Paul can equate the status of Jew and Gentile is explicable on this hypothesis and is simultaneously the best proof that Paul did not begin by analyzing the human condition. (1983, 68)
This account, however, entirely begs the question of what brought Paul to his recognition that salvation is through Christ. What happened to him was either a psychological or a supernatural miracle. If we, however, reverse the logic, as I do, then he was prepared for his experience by a deep sense of plight—not personal, but theological. We can account for Paul's putting everyone in the same situation by assuming that this was exactly what was bothering him about Judaism, namely that it did not “equate the status of Jew and Gentile.” Since, then, all need salvation, Christ came to save all. The nature of the plight is derivable from his letters and (as Sanders himself recognizes) it is consistent with what we know of first-century Judaism in its several varieties. Accordingly, the view of Paul presented in this book accepts all of Sanders's claims above except the “solution-to-plight” direction and the argument that Paul's cannot be a universalist position because of its requirement of faith.
Sanders has produced another powerful (but not irrefutable) argument for his position. He argues that there is a contradiction within Paul between repeated statements that the Law condemns and kills and also-repeated statements that the Law (or the “old dispensation”) was “glorious” (both together in 2 Corinthians 3). This apparent anomaly is explained by Sanders as a case in which the contrast is not between evil and good but between good and greater good:
The simplest explanation of this dual form of contrast seems to be that [Paul] came to relegate the Mosaic dispensation to a less glorious place because he found something more glorious and that he then, thinking in black-and-white terms, developed the death/life contrast. I cannot see how the development could have run the other way, from an initial conviction that the law only condemns and kills, to a search for something which gives life, to the conviction that life comes by faith in Christ, to the statement that the law lost its glory because a new dispensation surpasses it in glory. (1983, 138)
As I have already said, this seems like an ineluctable claim. There is, however, another possible solution. Paul, while feeling that the Law was sweet and good (glorious) in his former life, was nevertheless deeply disturbed by its exclusive and ethnocentric implications. Having discovered Christ as the solution to this plight, i.e., as the way to render Torah salvation for all, he now perceives that the former condition not only is less glorious than he thought and less glorious than the present condition but, in the absence of a turn toward the Lord, can only bring death and not life. When the Torah is read as a signifier for that which it truly signifies, its lesser glory is then apparent. When, however, it is read only for the letter, then that letter itself brings death and not life.
Thus even in the 1983 book, where he considerably clarifies his interpretation of Paul and definitively argues (to my mind) that the major thrust of Paul's thought on these topics was the salvation of all in Christ, Sanders still does not allow this to be the motivating force behind Paul's ministry. Sanders's book contains the best single demonstration of the thesis that Paul's critique dealt not with individual self-righteousness on the part of Jews but with “their own righteousness,” righteousness that is reserved for Jews, namely, the Law (1983, 36–43). But Sanders's ultimate understanding of Paul still wavers between two (partially incompatible) positions: According to one Paul was primarily motivated by christology, and according to another his primary motivation was the question of inclusion of the gentiles. Thus Sanders writes:
This gives us another way of defining Paul's attack on the law—more precisely, what he found inadequate in it. I said just above that it is the notion of Jewish privilege and the idea of election which he attacks, and I have elsewhere written that his real attack on Judaism is against the idea of the covenant and that what he finds wrong in Judaism is that it lacks Christ. (1983, 47)
Which is it: the notion of privilege, or the lack of Christ? Here, I think, Sanders tries to harmonize his previous claims that the only thing wrong with Judaism was that it was not Christianity with his newer understanding that there is a genuine critique of Judaism in Paul's work, although on an entirely different basis from the Lutheran slander. “The argument is that one need not be Jewish to be ‘righteous’ and is thus against the standard Jewish view that accepting and living by the law is a sign and a condition of favored status. This is both the position which, independently of Paul, we can know to have characterized Judaism and the position which Paul attacks ” (1983, 46). This is just right, but despite mighty efforts to harmonize—“What is wrong with the law, and thus with Judaism, is that it does not provide for God's ultimate purpose, that of saving the entire world through faith in Christ”—Sanders still leaves the christological and universalist aspects insufficiently integrated. Thus he can still write, “Paul's view of the law depends more on the exclusivism of his Christology than on anything else” (1983, 57, n. 64). Sanders still seems to hold that Paul came to Christ, realized that faith in the cross was God's plan for salvation, and then disqualified the Jewish Law for salvation; he does not argue that Paul realized that the Jewish Law could not be the means for salvation because it was only for Jews and came to Christ to solve that problem.
Sanders has forever changed the way that Paul will be read by scholars and interpreters of his work. In his masterwork, he finally achieved what several Christian and Jewish scholars (including Davies) had tried for decades to achieve—to demonstrate that the slander of early Judaism promulgated by interpreters of Paul was simply and finally just that, a slander. Pauline studies will never be the same, at least on English-speaking soil. New commentaries on the corpus advertise themselves as “the first full commentary on the Epistle” since the advent of the new paradigm (Dunn 1988; Barclay 1991). And indeed, Sanders has achieved a paradigm shift in the Kuhnian sense. Whatever criticisms have been leveled against Sanders's work, he has accomplished a gigantic breakthrough, which, I think, will never be reversed: He demonstrated that descriptions of the Judaism against which Paul is allegedly reacting must be based first and foremost in realistic and accurate descriptions of actually known Judaism and cannot be simply “reconstructed” from the Pauline texts themselves. Let me repeat this point: Whatever any interpreter ends up saying about Paul and Judaism from now on starts from actual Jewish texts and not from Paul. Judaism must not be treated as an unknown to be reconstructed by Pauline scholarship. Whether or not one agrees (and I often do and as often do not) with the details of Sanders's own interpretations of Paul, he has laid the foundations for a reading which neither slanders Judaism nor slanders Paul by making his account of Judaism a slander. As a professional and confessional student of rabbinic Judaism, I find Sanders's descriptions of my religious tradition unfailingly apposite to my own intuitions about this tradition. This is the gigantic advance which Sanders has wrought. The following brief quotation is exemplary of Sanders's clarity, accuracy, and intellectual integrity:
The correct exegetical perception that Paul opposed Judaism and that he argued christologically becomes—without argument or exegetical demonstration, but on the ground of basic theological assumptions— an assertion that he opposed the self-righteousness which is typical of Judaism. This step has doubtless been facilitated by more than a century of reading Jewish literature as evidencing self-righteousness. But the supposed objection to Jewish self-righteousness is as absent from Paul's letters as self-righteousness itself is from Jewish literature. (1983, 156 [final emphasis added])