Six months later, I’ve finally gotten around to finishing EP Sanders’s epic classic, Paul and Palestinian Judaism. For those not in the know, Sanders’s 1977 forever shifted the course of both Pauline studies and our awareness of the first century Jewish world. Alas, 36 years later, his groundbreaking insights have not penetrated the depths of common Christianity.
Below are three of Sanders’s main points. Give them a read and ask yourself whether you’re there (or had ever even thought anything like these).
1. The Judaism of Jesus’ and Paul’s day was NOT legalistic. Sanders’s research covers all the Jewish literature we have from the 200 years before Christ and the 200 years following. Nowhere does he find evidence for a religion that was trying to earn its way to God. To be sure, devout sons and daughters of Abraham would have been meticulous in attempting to follow the Law given at Sinai (or some interpretation thereof). None of them, however, would have thought that their careful obedience would have saved them.
Rather, Jews of the day would have believed they would be saved by Yahweh by virtue of their place within the covenantal community. That is, a Jew is saved because she is a Jew. God had already acted through Abraham and Moses and David to declare His salvation for the people of Israel. It was a gracious gift given to the nation. Jews followed the Law, then, in order to stay in the covenant.
2. Paul’s primary contribution to the theology of Christianity was NOT salvation by grace. The analysis Sanders gives on this point is long and detailed, but suffice it to say that when Paul argued against the Law and for grace, it wasn’t because he thought the Law was bad and grace was a new thing God was doing. No, Paul, as a good Jew, would have thought that the Lord always acted graciously in saving His people. How God was doing it might have been new, but that God saved by grace was not.
For Paul, what was new was his declaration that salvation came through Jesus Christ. The Lord had done a new thing in the death and resurrection of Jesus. There was, then, no other path to salvation and the life of the Age.
3. Everything revolves around Christ, who is the solution. OK, so for most Christians this has always been the case. Christ is the center. What might be new for some is in the way we think about Paul’s arguments. Any time Paul may have encountered a problem, whether thinking about a troublesome situation in a particular church or, say, the general human condition, his first thought was likely Christ, who he was and what he had done. Christ is the answer for every problem.
Where the rubber meets the road on this third point is that Paul probably didn’t begin thinking through issues with, say, humanity’s plight, and then discover that Jesus was the solution. That is, Paul would not have thought, “Well, it’s obvious that all people are depraved and in need of a savior. It’s obvious we’ve all been long separated from our Creator. It’s obvious the Law was worthless in saving us. Therefore, Jesus accomplished all that was necessary to remedy these dire situations.” Rather, Paul started with the Christ event: Jesus was crucified, raised, and ascended to God’s right hand. Therefore, we must have needed a savior, Jews and Gentiles alike. Paul worked backwards, from the solution he knew to be true, to the plight that was unveiled by the solution.
Christ is the center.