Book Review – EP Sanders, Paul and Palestinian Judaism: A Comparison of Patterns of Religion

Book Paul Palestinian JudaismSanders’ book on Paul and Palestinian Judaism presents an argument for Judaism that is commonly represented as foundational for the New Perspective on Paul. Being sympathetic to the NPP I believed I should read it. It’s an old book, written in 1977, about forty years ago. But it still influences discussion of Judaism and Paul today.

  • Link: Amazon
  • Length: 627
  • Difficulty: Heavy, Academic
  • Topic: Theology, Judaism, Paul
  • Audience: Academics, Educated ministers and laypersons
  • Published: 1977

This is a long review because of the quotes. They are representative and capture the main points of his book.

This post is one of my book reviews.

Quick Links


    • Paul and Judaism in New Testament Scholarship
    • The holistic comparison of patterns of religion
    • Sources
    • I Tannaitic Literature
      1. The persistence of the view of Rabbinic religious as one of legalistic works-righteousness
      2. The Use of Rabbinic material
      3. The nature of Tannaitic literature
      4. The election and the covenant
      5. Obedience and disobedience; reward and punishment
      6. Reward and punishment and the world to come
      7. Salvation by membership in the covenant and atonement
      8. Proper religious behaviour: zakah and tsadaq
      9. The Gentiles
      10. The nature of religious life and experience
      11. Conclusion
    • II The Dead Sea Scrolls
      1. Introduction
      2. The covenant and the covenant people
      3. Election and predestination
      4. The commandments
      5. Fulfilment and transgression; the nature of sin; reward and punishment
      6. Atonement
      7. The righteousness of God and the righteousness of man
      8. The religious life
      9. Conclusion
    • III Apocrypha and Pseudepigrapha
      1. Ben Sirach
      2. 1 Enoch
      3. Jubilees
      4. The Psalms of Solomon
      5. IV Ezra
    • IV Palestinian Judaism 200 b.c.e. – 200 c.e. Conclusion
      • Covenant and law
      • The common pattern of religion : covenantal nomism
      • Apocalypticism and legalism
      • Sects and parties
      • Judaism in the time of Jesus and Paul
    • V Paul
      1. Introduction
      2. The solution as preceding the problem
      3. Pauline soteriology
      4. The law, the human plight and the relationship of the solutions to it
      5. Covenantal nomism in Paul
      6. Judgment by works and salvation by grace
      7. Coherence, relevance and sources
    • I Text and Translations
      • A Rabbinic Literature
        • The Mishnah
        • The Tosefta
        • The Babylonian Talmud
        • The Palestinian Talmud
        • The Mekilta of R. Ishmael
        • Sifra
        • Sifre Numbers
        • Sifre Deuteronomy
        • Reconstructed Tannaitic Midrashim
        • The Fathers according to R. Nathan
        • Later Midrashim
      • B Dead Sea Scrolls
      • C Apocrypha and Pseudepigrapha
      • D Bible
    • II Reference Works
    • III General

Main points

Sanders begins his study by reviewing the current understandings of first century Judaism in his era.

He discusses popular understandings held by many protestants and advocated by the scholars Weber, Bousset and Bultmann.

Typically these scholars portray Judaism as legalistic, works oriented and self-righteous with little to no emphasis on grace and forgiveness of sin.

Sanders believes these protestant scholars have imposed the standard Lutheran framework of justification by grace through faith and not through works of law onto the Jewish sources. Sanders observes they have not faithfully represented the Rabbinic sources faithfully. They are portraying a wrong view of Judaism.

He then looks at other scholars in Judaism, Moore and Davies particularly and says their attention to the sources are much better and have destroyed the arguments about Judaism presented by Weber, Bousset and Bultmann.

He then notes that despite what Moore and Davies have written, protestants largely ignore what they have said and still continue to represent Judaism as legalistic, works oriented and self-righteous with little to no emphasis on grace and forgiveness of sin.

With this in mind he addresses his chief aims of his book.

Chief aims

Another way of stating the matter is to explain that I am trying to accomplish at least six things. The chief aims are these:

  • to consider methodologically how to compare two (or more) related but different religions;
  • to destroy the view of Rabbinic Judaism which is still prevalent in much, perhaps most, New Testament Scholarship;
  • to establish a different view of Rabbinic Judaism;
  • to argue a case concerning Palestinian Judaism (that is, Judaism as reflected in material of Palestinian provenance) as a whole;
  • to argue for a certain understanding of Paul;
  • to carry out a comparison of Paul and Palestinian Judaism.

These various aims are not contradictory but complementary, and I think that it is reasonable to try and achieve them all in one book. It should be noted that the fourth and sixth constitute the general aim of the book, while I hope to accomplish the others along the way. (xii)


Soon afterward Sanders will discuss his selection of primary sources.

We shall here do no more than briefly indicate what material will be-used in the study, discussing problems of date and provenance in as much detail as seems necessary in the chapters devoted to each body of material. The sources for Paul are obviously his letters. The problems of authenticity and the use of Acts will be discussed in Part II below.

A few comments are necessary here, however, about Palestinian Jewish sources for the years 200 b.c.e. to 200 c.e.

It is my general intention to consider the entire body of material available from this period, although limitations of time and space have imposed some restrictions on the works which receive detailed treatment.

We shall begin with the consideration of early Rabbinic (Tannaitic) literature, which I take to be, on the whole, the latest body of literature to be treated here. The reason for beginning with Tannaitic literature is twofold.

In the first place, this literature has been primarily in mind in most major comparisons of Paul and Judaism which have been carried out by New Testament scholars (for example, Davies and Schoeps). It thus deserves pride of place.

In the second place, Tannaitic literature offers a better opportunity of describing a pattern of religion than much of the literature which is presumably much older, such as Jubilees and the various portions of I Enoch. The latter works are relatively short and have specialized concerns. We can best proceed first by investigating the larger and more comprehensive Tannaitic literature and then by enquiring to what extent the pattern of religion which became standard in later material (assuming that a pattern did become standard) was also operative early.

Secondly, we shall study the other relatively large body of material of more or less coherent origin, the Dead Sea Scrolls. The study will be primarily limited to the major Scrolls from Cave I and the Covenant of Damascus.

Thirdly, we shall deal with a selection of works from the Apocryphal and Pseudepigraphical writings, from Ben Sirach to IV Ezra. Several works which probably come from Palestine and which can be dated to the period under consideration have been omitted, however, partly to save time and space and pardy to avoid needless repetition.

The two principal omissions are the Testaments of the Twelve Patriarchs and II Baruch (the Syriac Apo­calypse of Baruch). The Testaments are omitted largely because of the vexing problems of date and Christian interpolations.

It would be necessary to carry out a full-scale literary analysis in order to deal with the Testaments, and the potential results, which a preliminary study indicates would be largely repetitive, would not appear to warrant the expenditure of time and space.

II Baruch has been omitted primarily because of its close connection with IV Ezra. Although there is no universal agreement on this point, I take II Baruch to be dependent on IV Ezra, rather than vice versa.

The view­point of the author is not the same, but again a preliminary investigation has indicated that the overall study would not benefit appreciably by including a full discussion of II Baruch. …

Even if generally late, the Targums may, to be sure, contain early traditions, but these must now be sought out one by one. In general, the present state of Targumic studies does not permit the Targums to be used for our purposes. At present, the Targums can be used in motif research, in which one can investigate a given theme or idea and attempt to date the Targumic material which is relevant.

6 We are not at the stage, however, of being able to discuss the view of religion and the religious life in the Palestinian Targum to the Pentateuch, and especially not to date a coherent view of religion to the period which falls within our purview. …

It is this study of bodies of Jewish literature which is here undertaken. Despite the sources omitted from direct consideration, the range of material used in the study is quite wide, and, taken together, it should permit fair conclusions as to the main streams of religion in Palestinian Judaism. (p24f)

Overall Sanders has emphasis on material that comes from Palestine. He is dealing with early Rabbinic (Tannaitic) literature. Rabbis were the authority figures in Judaism. Later Jewish material carries this early foundation.

He looks at the Dead Sea scrolls which have coherent material, recognising much of it is fragmented.

He looks at the apocryphal and pseudepigraphical writings from Ben Sirach to 4 Ezra. He says some works have been omitted to save space, time and avoid repetition.

He has not included the Aramaic Targums. Its present state does not permit study.

To me his sources seem quite exhaustive and as he said, ‘should permit fair conclusions as to the main streams of religion in Palestinian Judaism’.

Pattern of religion, not systematic theology

One key expression used by Sanders is ‘pattern of religion’. He explicitly distinguishes this from ‘systematic theology’ a number of times. So it will be helpful to see why he looks at Palestinian Judaism as a pattern of religion rather than a systematic theology.

The eclectic use of Tannaitic – material

The term ‘eclectic’ may be a little misleading, since it is not proposed to use the material in such a way as to obscure differences in opinion, time and place. Nevertheless, it is an important aspect of the present study to argue that there is a general understanding of religion and the religious life which informs and underlies all of Tannaitic literature.

It is evident that there are, difficulties about considering any large body of literature to reflect one view of religion.

Further, recent trends in the study of early Rabbinic literature, which involve breaking it down into as many substrata as possible, would seem especially to argue against a large constructive hypothesis covering more or less all of it.

An objection from such a viewpoint would be fatal if we wished to show that there was one systematic theology operative in the entire period (as did Weber, Billerbeck and others surveyed above); or if we wished to argue for one point of view on any given point, whether of halakah, ethics or some such speculative question as the coming of the Messiah; or if we wished to argue for some overarching philosophical or sociological point of view.

In all these respects, Tannaitic literature is very varied.

It is my contention, however, that with regard to the question of how religion and  religious life worked, how the religion functioned (how one gets in and stays in), a common pattern can be discerned which underlies otherwise disparate parts of Tannaitic literature.

This is a contention which cannot be proved in advance, but only by actually carrying out the requisite analysis. Throughout the subsequent sections we shall be concerned with the question of whether or not a pattern is artificially being imposed on the thought of the Rabbis, and the question will be returned to directly in the conclusion. (p69) (All bolding is mine)

Basically after looking at all the sources Sanders says Judaism is quite varied.

He says no one systematic theology could hold it all together in one view. He says this throughout his study of Judaism and it is very clear as he considers differing Rabbinic views on various topics.

He also shows several times how some views held together could often be seen to conflict with one another. But Judaism didn’t really have a problem with that either. Basically they were not systematic theologians.

That being said he says there is a basic pattern which most seem to hold to. I’ll quote it again, but later he says;

Not every single document studied contains every one of the motifs just listed. I Enoch, for example, is notably ‘defective’. I believe that even in the various parts of I Enoch one can see enough to justify the assumption that the elements which are not mentioned are presupposed.

Thus one can note the requirement of obedience and infer that something must have been given to be obeyed, even though the giving of the law is not rehearsed.

Similarly, we may note the existence of the theme that the righteous receive mercy while the wicked are punished strictly for their deeds. This again seems to imply the view that election and salvation as such are not by works of law, although obedience is the condition of remaining righteous.

It is certainly not the case that there is uniformity of systematic theology among the material studied, and this is not implied by arguing for a basic consistency in the underlying pattern of religion. (p422-3)

Getting ‘in’ by Grace


Sanders does have a lot to say on grace and election and the reasons for it. Due to space reasons I won’t be summarising it sorry. But I found this interesting.

The theme of gratuity
We may begin by noting several passages in which a Rabbi explicitly states that entrance into the covenant was prior to the fulfilment of command­ments; in other words, that the covenant was not earned, but that obedience to the commandments is the consequence of the prior election of Israel by God.

Thus, for example, these two statements attributed to contemporary Rabbis of the middle of the second century, R. Joshua b. Karha and R. Simeon b. Yohai: Joshua b. Karha said:

Why does the section Hear, O Israel (Deut. 6.4-9) precede [the section] And it shall come to pass if ye shall hearken [diligently to my commandments]} – so that a man may first take upon him the yoke of the kingdom of heaven and afterward take upon him the yoke of the commandments. (Berakoth 2.2)
Simeon b. Yohai made the same argument, referring to Ex. 20.2f. and Lev. 18.1-3. In each case the statement ‘I am the Lord your God’ precedes and grounds the commandments which follow. ‘When it says “I am the Lord thy God”, it means this: Am I not he whose kingship you took upon yourselves at Sinai ?’ When the Israelites answer affirmatively, God replies, ‘You have accepted my kingship, accept my ordinances.’

Accepting God as king, which means accepting him as protector and defender as well as law­ giver, is followed by explicit commandments. The kingship of God over his chosen people always involves them in keeping the ordinances of the king, for that is the proper relationship between king and people; but the acceptance of God’s kingship always precedes the enjoining of the com­mandments. (p85-86)

Sanders later says there is no clear explanation by the Rabbis as to why Israel was elected. Election is not always thought to be by grace.

We have already seen passages in which God’s election was thought of as being totally gratuitous, without prior cause in those being elected. But the Rabbis regarded God as reasonable, as the just judge who, while he may temper his judgments with mercy, is neither capricious nor arbitrary. Thus one finds that the Rabbis could not rest content with simply saying that God chose Israel, but inquired why he did so. They wished to explain that it was not ‘odd of God to choose the Jews’.

There are basically three kinds of answers given by the Rabbis to the question of why God chose Israel.

One answer is that God offered the covenant (and the commandments attached to it) to all, but only Israel accepted it.

The second answer is that God chose Israel because of some merit found either in the patriarchs or in the exodus generation or on the condition of future obedience.

The third answer is really not an answer at all; that is, it does not in fact give a reason beyond God’s own will: it is that God chose Israel for his name’s sake. We may deal with each of these in turn. (p87-8)

About the second answer Sanders says;

We have been considering the statements that God chose and redeemed Israel because of the merits of the exodus generation, because of the merits of the patriarchs and because of deeds yet to be done, as sub-categories of one general type of explanation: God chose Israel because of their deeds, either past, present or to be done in the future. (p97)

Is there a clear doctrine as to why Israel was elect?

If we ask what the doctrine on why Israel was elect was, we get no clear answer. It is clear throughout that there is a universal conviction that Israel was elect and that election entailed commandments.

But there are differing explanations of why God chose Israel.

It was not uncongenial to the Rabbis to say that God chose Israel out of sheer mercy – either before the commandments were given or ‘for his name’s sake’.

Yet it is also apparent that the Rabbis wished to be able to find a reason for the election. But not one of the causes suggested can stand scrutiny as a systematic explanation of God’s election of Israel. (p99)

He considers the idea of election by merit a little further.

Even if the view that God chose Israel only because of some past or present or future merit were Rabbinic doctrine – which it is not – this would still not prove that individual Israelites had to earn salvation. Even if the election had been earned in the past, there is no thought that subsequent Israelites must continue to earn their place in the covenant as individuals, or that the covenant must be re-won in each generation. For whatever reason God chose Israel in the past, the a priori expectation would be that in subsequent generations the covenant would remain effective, that God would keep his promises to redeem and preserve his people. (p101)

Righteousness, a maintained status

I’m always interested in how the Old Testament views the righteous. Here is the Jewish view.

Proper religious behaviour: zakah and tsadaq

Thus we have seen, on the one hand, that the righteous are those who are saved: they are those who receive their reward in the world to come and who walk in the garden of Eden with God. As another passage has it, all the righteous, like Moses, are ‘gathered up’ by God.

On the other hand, the righteous are those who obey the Torah and atone for transgression.

Many have inferred from this a strict system of works-righteousness – those who obey the law are saved – but this would not be an accurate interpretation of the Rabbinic view.

The universally held view was rather this: those who accept the covenant, which carries with it God’s promise of salvation, accept also the obligation to obey the commandments given by God in connection with the covenant.

One who accepts the covenant and remains within it is ‘righteous’, and that title applies to him both as one who obeys God and as one who has a ‘share in the world to come’, but the former does not earn the latter. (p204) …

Being in the covenant both provides salvation and requires obedience:

one who rebels excludes himself from God’s covenantal promises, while one who repents is restored to the covenant by God’s grace. It is assumed that the repentant wicked man will be obedient after his repentance.

Being righteous in the sense of obeying the law to the best of one’s ability and repenting and atoning for transgression preserves one’s place in the covenant (it is the opposite of rebelling), but it does not earn it.

It is note­worthy that the question ‘how can one become righteous?’ is not asked. Being righteous is not the goal of a religious quest; it is the behaviour proper to one who has accepted the covenant offered at Sinai and the commandments which followed the acceptance of God’s kingship. Tsaddiq, like zakka’i and its cognate words, is primarily a word indicating not an achieved, but a maintained status. (p205, bold mine)

I bolded what I thought is really important. It’s commonly taught righteousness means sinless perfection and that God demands perfect obedience. In this view, obedience has an either/or relationship with atonement and forgiveness of sin.

Actually, God didn’t command ‘perfect’ obedience. After doing a study on the word group ‘keep’. I found God commanded the Israelites to keep the law. There’s a difference.

Sanders argues Judaism understood righteousness as a both/and relationship between

  1. obeying the law to the best of one’s ability, and
  2. repenting, and
  3. atoning for transgression.

All three are required to maintain a person’s righteous status in the covenant. This is easily comparable to the notion Christians are required to persevere in their faith (Col 1.22-23). Clearly this also involves repentance and obedience.


Sanders has a lot to say about repentance in Judaism. But for now let’s look at how he captures Judaism’s understanding of obedience.

The burden of obedience

We should not from the start Sanders is keen to repeatedly note perfect obedience is not required to stay in the covenant. Rather the ongoing intention to observe the law and remain is what is required.

As often as New Testament scholars have criticized Rabbinic religion for its multitude of commandments – too numerous to know, let alone to perform, as Bultmann put it “Rabbinic scholars have pointed out that Judaism does not regard the obligations which God imposed upon his people as onerous.”

They are instead regarded as a blessing, and one should fulfil them with joy. They are accompanied by strength and peace, and they are a sign of God’s mercy: ‘At Sinai He appeared to them as an old man full of mercy.’

This passage in the Mishnah puts the point succinctly : R. Hananiah b. Aksashya says:

The Holy One, blessed is he, was minded to grant merit to Israel; therefore hath he multiplied for them the Law and com­mandments, as it is written, It pleased the Lord for his righteousness’ sake to magnify the Law and make it honourable (Isa. 42.21).

From another point of view, the Rabbis could comment that God did not give the (ordinary) Israelite many commandments, although he had given the priests many.

In any case, whether the commandments are regarded as being a blessing, because so numerous, or as relatively light, because less numerous than those which govern the priesthood, there is no complaint anywhere in Rabbinic literature about the burden of the commandments, despite the fact that they appear burdensome to New Testament scholars.

We should consider why this is so. To the outsider looking in, reading the Mishnah for the first time, let us say, the laws do seem complex, bewildering, inconsequential, and therefore burdensome.

To the Rabbis they could never appear inconsequential, since God had commanded them. Further, for people who lived in a community where many of the commandments were observed by daily routine, the biblical laws as interpreted by the Rabbis would not appear complex or difficult. Thus when R. Joshua says that studying two halakot both morning and evening and seeing to one’s business affairs is counted as fulfilling the whole Torah, he does not mean that no other commandments would be fulfilled. Many more would be fulfilled by daily routine. Thus R. Meir said that ‘there is no man in Israel who does not fulfil a hundred mitsvot every day’.

Even if the number is reduced to seven, the general point is the same: the Israelite is surrounded by commandments which he fulfils daily.

There are ready analogies in modern life. The total of international, national, state or provincial, and local laws which govern us all are much more numerous, and if they were all printed, together with some of the juristic arguments about them, they would seem much more bewildering and formidable.

The Rabbinic halakah is analogous to modern law in that it aimed at providing regulations for all areas of life. It thus presented no particular burden for its adherents, but only the obligation to know and observe laws which is common in human societies.

The Rabbinic laws, to be sure, had the force and sanction of divine command­ments, and in that way are totally unlike modern bodies of law. The only point is that there is no particular problem about learning almost any number of regulations and observing them. We all do it.

The Bible, and consequently the Rabbis, brought many things under the head of divine commandments which we should consider part of a civil or criminal code or even simply advice on good manners. These things thus have a certain distinctive character in Judaism, but the number and complexity of the rules and regulations is not especially remarkable. The obligation to obey was not seen by the Rabbis as imposing a heavy burden on observant Jews. (p110-111, bold mine)

At the end of Deuteronomy Moses finishes giving the law and says;

11 “For this commandment that I command you today is not too hard for you, neither is it far off. 12 It is not in heaven, that you should say, ‘Who will ascend to heaven for us and bring it to us, that we may hear it and do it?’ 13 Neither is it beyond the sea, that you should say, ‘Who will go over the sea for us and bring it to us, that we may hear it and do it?’ 14 But the word is very near you. It is in your mouth and in your heart,so that you can do it. (Dt 30.11-14)

Moses seems to give the same impression the law is not too hard to keep.

Likewise obedience has a role in the process of a Christians salvation. As Calvin observes.

But though it is by mercy alone that God admits his people to life, yet as he leads them into possession of it by the course of good works [obedience], that he may complete his work in them in the order which he has destined, it is not strange that they are said to be crowned according to their works, since by these doubtless they are prepared for receiving the crown of immortality. (3.18.1)

In like manner Sanders observes obedience is a necessary consequence of being beneficiaries of the covenant, but maintains their salvation is dependent on God’s mercy and faithfulness to his covenant promises.

Salvation by covenant membership and atonement

Sanders weighs in about the Jewish understanding of salvation and atonement.

All Israelites have a share in the world to come.

The all-pervasive view is this: all Israelites have a share in the world to come unless they renounce it by renouncing God and his covenant. All sins, no matter of what gravity, which are committed within the covenant, may be forgiven as long as a man indicates his basic intention to keep the covenant by atoning, especially by repenting of transgression.

Moore has put it this way: ‘A lot in the World to come’… is ultimately assured to every Israelite on the ground of the original election of the people by the free grace of God . . .

[It] is not wages earned by works, but is bestowed by God in pure goodness upon the members of his chosen people, as ‘eternal life’ in Christianity is bestowed on the individuals whom he has chosen, or on the members of the church. (p147)

Notice his stress on God’s electing grace and salvation assured for all those who are covenant members. He describes a corporate understanding of election and salvation rather than an individual. He also has a strong emphasis on ongoing repentance and atonement for sins.


Sanders continued emphasis on repentance and atonement in Judaism should discredit any view that Judaism was legalistic and held a strong merit theology. I’ve addressed at greater length Sanders depiction of Judaisms recognition of sin in this topical post here.

There are, however, certain characteristics of repentance which it will be useful to our study to bring out. We should also give a general description of the significance of repentance in Rabbinic eyes.

Although it is quite accurate to use the English word repentance for the Hebrew word teshubah, we should note that the etymologies are different. Whereas repentance seems to refer to a mental act (‘rethinking’), the Hebrew verb shub means literally ‘turn’ or ‘return’.

In actual use, however, the two words are employed in the same way. English usage of the word ‘repent­ance’, of course, is greatly influenced by the biblical injunctions to turn back to God. As Moore defines repentance in Judaism, it appears no different from what would be understood by the English word:

To the Jewish definition of repentance belong the reparation of injuries done to a fellow man in his person, property, or good name, the confession of sin, prayer for forgiveness, and the genuine resolve and endeavour not to fall into sin again.

Repentance and God’s forgiveness, as Moore points out repeatedly, are the necessary means of salvation in a religion which emphasized obedience.

Thus repentance may homiletically be said to be one of the things created before the world; it was created second, just after the law itself.

Repent­ance belongs to the religious behaviour of the righteous man; it was not considered that a man would have nothing to repent for.

The question of perfect obedience to the law hardly arises in the Tannaitic literature. (p175-176) …

Repentance was considered to be the condition on the basis of which God forgives. God did not force one to maintain an obedient and repentant attitude against his will.

What is wrong with the view that repentance in Rabbinic religion is a work which earns ‘mercy’ is that it leaves out of account the fundamental basis of that religion, namely, God’s election of Israel. The theme of repentance and forgiveness functions within a larger structure which is founded on the understanding that ‘All Israelites have a share in the world to come’. This view, it is clear, is based on an understanding of the grace of God.

Here we must refer both to the nature of the Rabbinic material and the overall structure of Rabbinic religion. The Rabbinic religion was framed by election at one end and a share in the world to come at the other. All those who remained within the covenant partook of the covenant promises. As we have repeatedly pointed out, the Rabbis never doubted God’s fidelity to the covenant. What they dealt with was how man could best be faithful. (p177) …

Thus repentance is not a ‘status-achieving’ activity by which one initially courts and wins the mercy of God. It is a ‘status-maintaining’ or ‘status- restoring’ attitude which indicates that one intends to remain in the coven­ant. To use other language, one is already ‘saved’; what is needed is the maintenance of a right attitude toward God.

Without it, the mercy of God is of no avail. One enters the covenant by accepting God’s offer of it; one remains in it by continuing to accept it; and this implies repentance for transgressions. (p178)

Likewise repentance has a role in the process of a Christians salvation. As Calvin observes.

God indeed declares, that he would have all men to repent, and addresses exhortations in common to all; their efficacy, however, depends on the Spirit of regeneration. … Those whom God is pleased to rescue from death, he quickens by the Spirit of regeneration; not that repentance is properly the cause of salvation, but because, as already seen, it is inseparable from the faith and mercy of God. (3.3.21)

In like manner Sanders observes repentance is a necessary consequence of receiving the covenant. According to one statement of him the role of repentance and atonement were immediately recognised after the law of Moses was given. Sanders again maintains salvation is dependent on God’s mercy and faithfulness to his covenant promises.

4 Ezra, the odd one out

Sanders does consider 4 Ezra in some detail. 4 Ezra is the odd one out.

The treatment of IV Ezra will be somewhat different from the treatment of the preceding works, and we shall not analyse one by one the various themes traditional in a covenantal type of religion; for there is only one question to be determined: whether or not the covenant maintains its traditional efficacy in the view of the author of IV Ezra. To anticipate the conclusion: the view argued for here is that it does not, that in IV Ezra one sees how Judaism works when it actually does become a religion of individual self-righteousness. In IV Ezra, in short, we see an instance in which covenantal nomism has collapsed. All that is left is legalistic perfectionism. It must immediately be noted that this view is contrary to the generally prevailing view. (p409)

Sanders says ‘all that is left is legalistic perfectionism’. He quotes the interaction between the seer and an angel to explain why. Its not what we may initially think.

The plight of man is returned to by the seer: {what is the point of the promise of salvation for obedience when everyone in fact sins} (7.116-26). The angel again agrees with the seer’s pessimistic appraisal of man’s situation, adding the exhortation that those who are victorious (and obey the law) can receive the promised salvation (7.127-31).

‘Ezra’ then launches his most moving appeal, based as it is on the entire Jewish conception of the mercy of God and his steadfastness toward his chosen people. God is called ‘compassionate’ and ‘gracious’ (he accepts the repentant); he is ‘long-suffering’, ‘since he is ready to bestow favour rather than exact’. He is ‘of great mercy’, ‘good’ and, most important, ‘forgiving, for if he did not pardon those that were created by his word, and blot out the multitude of their iniquities, there would, perchance, be very few left of an innumerable multitude’ (7.132-40). Here are all the traditional Jewish terms for God, used in an appeal for mercy.

But the angel picks up only the last words: ‘This age the Most High has made for many, but the age to come for few’; ‘many have been created, but few shall be saved!’ (8.1-3). God’s character as compassionate, gracious, forgiving and the like is effectively denied; or at least the seer’s argument on the basis of those characteristics is denied: say what he will about how God should prove himself compassionate, the seer’s appeal for the restoration of sinners is refused. (p414-5)

4 Ezra depicts God as merciless. A god who refuses to forgive sinners who repent and seek mercy. It does not paint a picture of self righteous law mongers. Rather it depicts the plight of sinners. The ongoing assessment of most of Judaism is that they are sinful and need mercy. When mercy is sought however it is denied.

One has here the closest approach to legalistic works-righteousness which can be found in the Jewish literature of the period; for only here are the traditional characteristics of God – he freely forgives and restores sinners and maintains the covenant promises despite transgression – denied.

Put another way, IV Ezra differs from other literature which we have studied by viewing sin as a virtually inescapable power (see 3.20), while still considering it to be transgression of the law which must be punished accordingly.

We noted that in Qumran men, even the elect, were considered to be ‘in sin’ in the sense of being participants in human frailty, but that human frailty as such did not condemn. Means were provided for the atonement of most transgressions, and the elect were not ‘lost’ despite being ‘in sin’.

In IV Ezra, however, the human inability to avoid sin is considered to lead to damnation. It is this pessimistic view of the human plight which distinguishes the author from the rest of Judaism as it is revealed in the surviving literature. (p418)

I think it’s fair to say 4 Ezra is the odd one out. It does not represent the mainstream Jewish literature Sanders has studied.

Palestinian Judaism, Conclusion

This quote summarises Sanders ‘Covenantal Nomism’, Palestinian Judaism’s pattern of religion.

The ‘pattern’ or ‘structure’ of covenantal nomism is this:

  1. God has chosen Israel and
  2. given the law. The law implies both
  3. God’s promise to maintain the election and
  4. the requirement to obey.
  5. God rewards obedience and punishes transgression.
  6. The law provides for means of atonement, and atonement results in
  7. maintenance or re-establishment of the covenantal relationship.
  8. All those who are maintained in the covenant by obedience, atonement and God’s mercy belong to the group which will be saved.

An important interpretation of the first and last points is that election and ultimately salvation are considered to be by God’s mercy rather than human achievement.

Not every single document studied contains every one of the motifs just listed. I Enoch, for example, is notably ‘defective’. I believe that even in the various parts of I Enoch one can see enough to justify the assumption that the elements which are not mentioned are presupposed.

Thus one can note the requirement of obedience and infer that something must have been given to be obeyed, even though the giving of the law is not rehearsed.

Similarly, we may note the existence of the theme that the righteous receive mercy while the wicked are punished strictly for their deeds. This again seems to imply the view that election and salvation as such are not by works of law, although obedience is the condition of remaining righteous.

It is certainly not the case that there is uniformity of systematic theology among the material studied, and this is not implied by arguing for a basic consistency in the underlying pattern of religion.

The Qumran definition of the covenant and the commandments ‘given by the hand of Moses’ certainly differs from the Rabbinic; but there is agreement on the primacy of the covenant and its significance and on the need to obey the commandments.

The means of atonement are not precisely identical, but there is agreement on the place of atonement within the total framework.

That differences within a common pattern can cut very deep is shown by the existence of the Qumran community as a separate sect, but the differences should not prevent us from seeing what was common.

Thus to the frequent assertion that there were numerous Judaisms in the Palestine of the period studied, one can reply yes or no, depending on just what is meant. There were obviously different groups and different theologies on numerous points. But there appears to have been more in common than just the name ‘Jew’. (p422-3)

Responding now to the representations of Palestinian Judaism by the likes of Weber, Bousset and Bultmann Sanders writes.

The frequent Christian charge against Judaism, it must be recalled, is not that some individual Jews misunderstood, misapplied and abused their religion, but that Judaism necessarily tends towards petty legalism, self-serving and self-deceiving casuistry, and a mixture of arrogance and lack of confidence in God.

But the surviving Jewish literature is as free of these characteristics as any I have ever read.

By consistently maintaining the basic framework of covenantal nomism, the gift and demand of God were kept in a healthy relationship with each other, the minutiae of the law were observed on the basis of the large principles of religion and because of commitment to God, and humility before the God who chose and would ultimately redeem Israel was encouraged. (p427)


Paul apostle thumbI’ll spend less time quoting from this part of Sanders book. It’s good, but not as good as his research into Judaism. None the less I’ll give a brief summary of what I picked up.

Sanders spends several pages arguing that justification by faith cannot be the centre of Paul’s thought. He draws mainly on Schweitzer’s and Kasemann’s arguments.

He devotes a lot of time talking about the solution of Jesus Christ precedes the problem of mankind’s sin. He considers Paul’s view of himself before conversion, what he learnt at his conversion about Jesus and what he then learned about the plight of humanity as a result.

Basically Sanders argues Paul started from Jesus Christ, died on the cross and risen to new life, Lord or all. Then works backward from that point revising what he understood of sin, humanity’s plight and the place of Judaism and the law of Moses.

Sanders gives a lot of attention to Paul’s concept of participating in Christ. For those familiar with the concept ‘union in Christ’ this is all familiar material. It involves membership in the church (body, members), belonging to Christ (in Christ) and being drawn into Christ’s death, burial and resurrection.

There should, however, be no doubt as to where the heart of Paul’s theology lies. He is not primarily concerned with the juristic categories, although he  works with them. The real bite of his theology lies in the participatory categories, (p502)

A little later he decides against Paul expressing a new kind of covenantal nomism.

Thus one can see already in Paul how it is that Christianity is going to become a new form of covenantal nomism, a covenantal religion which one enters by baptism, membership in which provides salvation, which has a specific set of commandments, obedience to which (or repentance for the  transgression of which) keeps one in the covenantal relationship, while  repeated or heinous transgression removes one from membership.

On the other hand, we must note the inadequacy of the covenantal categories for understanding Paul. …  But the primary reason for which it is inadequate to depict Paul’s religion as a new covenantal nomism is that that term does not take account of his participationist transfer terms, which are the most significant terms for  understanding his soteriology.

The covenantal conception could readily  encompass the discussion of Christ’s dying for past transgression, but it is  not adequate to take into account the believer’s dying with Christ and thus to the old aeon and the power of sin.

The heart of Paul’s thought is not that one ratifies and agrees to a covenant offered by God, becoming a member of a group with a covenantal relation with God and remaining in it on the  condition of proper behaviour;

but that one dies with Christ, obtaining new life and the initial transformation which leads to the resurrection and  ultimate transformation, that one is a member of the body of Christ and one Spirit with him, and that one remains so unless one breaks the participatory union by forming another.  (p513-4)

Saved by grace and judged by works

Sanders has often been criticized for his emphasis on obedience being a condition for remaining ‘in’. Here he distinguishes it from salvation.

Thus Paul’s assurance of salvation was not assurance that his work was perfect nor that at the judgment nothing would be revealed against him for which he could be punished.

In all of this, Paul’s view is typically Jewish. As we saw above, the distinction between

being judged on the basis of deeds and punished or rewarded at the judgment (or in this life), on the one hand, and

being saved by God’s gracious election, on the other, was the general view in Rabbinic literature.

It is a very straightforward distinction, and it should occasion no surprise when it meets us in Paul. Salvation by grace is not incompatible with punishment and reward for deeds.

It agrees with this that in Paul, as in Jewish literature, good deeds are the condition of remaining ‘in’, but they do not earn salvation. (p517)

Then he quotes Rom 11.22, 1 Cor 6.9f and Gal 5.21 which I think put more emphasis on resisting and eliminating sin than good works. Soon afterward he says;

Paul did not mean that not sinning in the specified ways, but behaving correctly, would earn salvation, just as the Rabbis and other Jewish authors whom we studied did not mean that obedience earned salvation;

but wilful or heinous disobedience would exclude one from salvation.

On both these points – punishment for transgression and reward for obedience as required by God’s justice, but not as constituting soteriology, and correct behaviour as the condition of remaining ‘in’ – Paul is in perfect agreement with what we found in Jewish literature. (p517-8)

I can see Sanders drawing criticism for his emphasis on good deeds for remaining ‘in’ here. I don’t think he has drawn the right conclusions from the passages he has quoted. He would have been better off quoting Rom 2.6-11 and Gal 6.7-10 to justify his argument.

Personally I would draw upon Mk 9.43-48, Rom 8.13 and Heb 10.26f as well as 1 Cor 6.9f and Gal 5.21 to argue the condition for remaining ‘in’ has more emphasis on the removal of sin in a person’s life than the performance of good deeds. (Unless of course the neglect to do good deeds are instances of omissional sin.)

When Sanders considered the expression the ‘righteousness of God’ he first performs a survey of current scholarship. He looks at Bultmann, Kasemann, Muller, Stuhlmacher, Kertelge, and Conzelmann. He rightly believed it best to draw upon the Old Testament to understand the expression. He summaries his position thus;

We shall state below, in brief theses, the results of the analysed discussion, and conclude our study with some critical observations regarding the various emphases within the Kasemann-oriented line of interpretation.

The Old Testament conception of God’s righteous acts on behalf of his people, seen in the context of God’s covenant-faithfulness, is the theological presupposition for Paul’s thinking on God’s righteousness and the justification of man.

The religio-historical Sitz im Leben of the term dikaiosyne theou is apocalyptic Judaism, and especially the Qumran community. Thus, dikaiosyne theou is a technical term which has come to Paul with certain pre-formed associations.

Within pre-Pauline tradition, the concept of God’s righteousness was associated with the following:

(a) the creation-tradition, which sees God as the sovereign Lord over his creation;

(b) the conception of the cosmos as a forum in which a judicial trial between God and Israel (the world) is staged;

(c) the belief in the impending eschatological judgment in which God’s faithfulness toward his own would once again manifest itself.

These associational complexes of ideas have thoroughly determined Paul’s use of the term dikaiosyne theou, though he has transformed the term’s content in keeping with his own Christological-soteriological kerygma.

For Paul, dikaiosyne theou is the redemptive action of God, not a description of God’s essence, nor of man’s essence before God. Over against his tradition, the term designated more than the renewal of the old covenant, but is universalized to include the entire creation: God acts redemptively on behalf of all men. Again, over against his tradition, Paul speaks of God’s righteousness as present now in the Christ-event. In this eschatological redemptive intervention, God has broken into the old aeon and is creating the new aeon.

The manifestation of the ‘righteousness of God’ is that event in the context of which justification takes place. Though the juridical-forensic overtones are present in the Pauline use of the terms dikaiosyne and dikaiounj dikaiousthai, they are not in the foreground. The forensic declaration is more than simply a proclamation; it is at the same time ‘effective’ declaration: The man who is ‘declared righteous’ by God stands under his sovereign, creative-redemptive disposal.

‘Justification’ is not a possession over which the justified one can freely dispose. It is a state, an existence which is begun and continued in faith. God’s redemptive action demands man’s response. ‘God’s righteousness’ is the powerful manifestation of his grace which calls to a life of obedience.

With Bultmann and Conzelmann, the newer interpretation affirms the anthropological ‘orientation’ of God’s righteousness, but understands the content of the term dikaiosyne theou itself as qualifying the Christological- soteriological concern of Paul: the creative intervention of God in human history. (p539-40)

Judaism – ‘staying in’, Paul – ‘getting in’

I found this really helpful to understand how he distinguishes the righteous language in mainstream Judaism with Paul.

Here, however, there is also a major shift; for to be righteous in Jewish literature means to obey the Torah and to repent of transgression, but in Paul it means to be saved by Christ.

Most succinctly, righteousness in Judaism is a term which implies the maintenance of status among the group of the elect; in Paul it is a transfer term.

In Judaism, that is, commitment to the covenant puts one ‘in’, while obedience (righteousness) subsequently keeps one in. In Paul’s usage, ‘be made righteous’ (‘be justified’) is a term indicating getting in, not staying in the body of the saved.

Thus when Paul says that one cannot be made righteous by works of law, he means that one cannot, by works of law, ‘transfer to the body of the saved’. When Judaism said that one is righteous who obeys the law, the meaning is that one thereby stays in the covenant.

The debate about righteousness by faith or by works of law thus turns out to result from the different usage of the ‘righteous’ word-group. (p544)

I disagree with him on what Paul meant by justification by works of law, but we need to remember Dunn hasn’t come onto the scene yet.

Judaism is wrong because it is not Christianity

Now for his most famous quote.

Our analysis of Rabbinic and other Palestinian Jewish literature did not reveal the kind of religion best characterized as legalistic works-righteousness. But more important for the present point is the observation that in any case that charge is not the heart of Paul’s critique.

As we argued in the discussion of Paul’s attitude toward the law (Chapter V, section 4), the basis for Paul’s polemic against the law, and consequently against doing the law, was his exclusivist soteriology. Since salvation is only by Christ, the following of any other path is wrong. (p550) …

The fundamental critique of the law is that following the law does not result in being found in Christ; for salvation and the gift of the Spirit come only by faith (Rom. 10.10; Gal. 3.1-5). Doing the law, in short, is wrong only because it is not faith. …

The actual basis of Paul’s critique of Judaism can be seen in one other way. Paul seems to ignore (and by implication deny) the grace of God toward Israel as evidenced by the election and the covenant. But this is neither because of ignorance of the significance of the covenant within Jewish thought nor because of the demise of the covenant conception in late Judaism. Paul in fact explicitly denies that the Jewish covenant can be effective for salvation, thus consciously denying the basis of Judaism. (p551) …

In short, this is what Paul finds wrong in Judaism: it is not Christianity. (p552)

On reflection

On reflection I found that Sanders work was bereft of Jewish prophecies concerning future events. Getting in and staying in do of course play a big part in religion. But what about eschatology? I blog through the Old Testament and I find it is riddled with prophecies and promises anticipating future events. Sanders has not highlighted prophecies in his writings that anticipate a future event where God will save his people.

Further work on covenantal nomism

Another book was written by a number of scholars called Justification and Variegated Nomism. Don Carson (a reformed scholar) initiated it with the express intention of refuting Sanders work.

Sanders has often been criticized for not discussing some sources. This book made up for that by reviewing some stuff he already had covered and reviewing other sources of Jewish literature in that period he had not covered.

The results of the study further confirmed Sanders pattern of religion.

In the table the last two entries (Tobit, Judith) I added myself after reading them. They are only short. I believe they too fit covenantal nomism.

Source on Judaism Sanders Justification and Variegated Nomism
Early Rabbinic (Tannaitic) literature Covenantal Nomism
Dead Sea scrolls Covenantal Nomism
Apocryphal and Pseudepigraphical writings Covenantal Nomism
4 Ezra Does not fit. Exception to the rule. Pleas for atonement and forgiveness rejected. Richard Bauckham ‘fits covenantal nomism fairly well’
Josephus Paul Spilsbury ‘gave general assent to Sanders’ position’, ‘basically upheld Sanders thesis’
Maccabees Donald E Gowan – 4 Macc, ‘literature supports Sanders thesis’
Additions to Daniel Peter Enns, ‘deep agreement with Sanders’
Tobit Observance of Jewish festivals, Prayer, Reliance on God’s mercy 3.3; 6.17; 7.12; 8.16; Exhortation to obey 4.5f; Acknowledging Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, dependance on God for straight path 4.19; almsgiving delivers from death, purge away every sin 12.9; Acknowledge the LORD o Sons of Israel 13.3; Repentance 13.6;
Judith Dependance on God 4.16-17; his people Israel 4.17; 13.27; Covenant 9.18; Mercy 7.4; 7.17-23;


Sanders’ book is a watershed in studies on Judaism and will be remembered for a long time. In light of his work he has deepened my understanding of Judaism, consequently the Old and New Testaments.

The book is long and academic. It engages with large amounts of scholarly material. So I wouldn’t encourage mainstream Christians to read it.

That being said, I’d recommend this book to theologically educated Christians interested in getting a first-hand view of Sanders work. Too many people simply dismiss him by reading reviews of his work. I don’t think it’s fair to pass him off without reading him directly.

I don’t know much about Judaism, but even I could see he has an amazing grasp of the Jewish sources and his interaction with his academic peers is good. He has highlighted very well that scholarship can be very biased and dismissive of evidence if it conflicts with tradition.

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