E. P. Sanders, one of the most influential New Testament scholars of this century, passed away on November 21, 2022, at the age of 85.
Although I am highly critical of his view on Paul and Judaism, I cannot overemphasize the impact he brought about through his magnum opus Paul and Palestinian Judaism: A Comparison of Patterns of Religion (1977), in which Sanders surveys Jewish-Palestinian literature (200 BC to 200 AD; e.g., early Tannaitic; the Dead Sea Scrolls; Paul’s writings, etc.) and challenges the traditional belief that Second Temple Judaism was a legalistic religion of works-righteousness.
The pattern that he finds in Palestinian Judaism is not works-righteousness but what he calls covenantal nomism. To borrow his own language (Paul and Palestinian Judaism 422):
- God has chosen Israel and given the law.
- The law implies God’s promise to maintain the election and the requirement to obey.
- God rewards obedience and punishes transgression.
- The law provides for means of atonement, and atonement results in maintenance or reestablishment of the covenantal relationship.
- 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.
So, according to Sanders, you “get in” by God’s act of grace (covenant) but you “stay in” by adhering to the law of Moses (nomism). The law does not get you in, but it will keep you in.
Literature by and on Sanders is legion. Whether you agree with him or not, the impact that his scholarship has had upon our understanding of Paul and his relationship to the Judaism of his day is undoubtedly tremendous.