EP Sanders and the Truth about Jewish Legalism

https://i2.wp.com/2.bp.blogspot.com/_mE-ymNvQsJ0/TL7y45U1llI/AAAAAAAAAYw/giGN1XHEhyQ/s1600/sanders.jpgI’ve only just recently (some might say finally) picked up EP Sanders’s monumental Paul and Palestinian Judaism.  For those that don’t know, Sanders’s 1977 study was an attempt to take a careful look at extra-biblical Judaic literature around the turn of the ages.  The goal was to begin to sketch out the cultural landscape of Judaism in first century Palestine and then review Paul in light of that material.

One does not get far into the book before realizing that some major mountains of our traditional understanding of Christianity are being moved.

For example, among the hallmarks of Western Christianity’s understanding of first century Judaism has been its rampant legalism.  In fact, I recall learning at some point in Sunday school that a Pharisee’s raison d’etre was to get the people of Israel to follow the law with such precision that God had no choice but to honor their good deeds.  (I doubt we were using the phrase raison d’etre in middle school, but memory is a funny thing.)

Yet rather early in Sanders’s study we find these foundational statements regarding the nature of at least one brand of Judaism from the ancient world.

Keeping the commandments is Israel’s response to the God who has chosen them, who has made a covenant with them, and who dwells with them – even when they are not perfectly obedient. … The only reason for elaborating and defining man’s obligations under the covenant is that God’s faithfulness and justice in keeping his side are beyond question (82, emphasis mine).

Judaism, at its core, has always been about the grace of God towards the people of Israel.  They have been chosen and saved for no particular reason other than the fact that the Creator elected them to be his vessel through which to save all of creation.  The law that comes from that, and later the interpretations of the law in later Judaism, is the appropriate grateful response to God’s first act of provision.  This is not a religion of legalism, but of grace.

This belief about first century Judaism’s legalism (and, subsequently, the claims of both Jesus and Paul) has been rooted in Luther’s reading of the New Testament in light of 16th century Catholic indulgences.  Although Luther’s reactions to the Catholic church in his own day were altogether appropriate and rightly corrective, the crisis of his times colored his interpretation of Paul and the Judaism from which Paul emerged.

Luther saw people throughout Europe literally buying their way to heaven and railed against it.  He then read Paul’s justification-by-grace-through-faith-and-not-by-works as meaning that Paul was fighting essentially the same problem 1500 years earlier.

While it turns out that may not have been the case – that Paul was actually fighting some other battle – few Christian scholars in the last 500 years have been able to mount much of a challenge to Luther’s interpretations.  So we’ve largely inherited this notion that the Gospel is really a battle against an inherent and sinful legalism residing in every human being.  And it’s the grace of God, only exhibited in Jesus’ death on the cross, that really gets us where we’ve been trying so hard to go.

OK, so this has largely been an information dump as background to where I really want to go with this.  Tomorrow I want to ask the question as to what this may actually mean for our presentations of the Gospel.  Stay tuned.

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