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Thursday, May 18, 2006 

"Paul, the Law, and the Jewish People" Part 1

The highlight of most of my days is typically the beginning. I work two jobs and go to school so I don't have time for much recreational activities. Thus I get a lot of my reading time done early in the morning, most often at Starbucks. Reading at Starbucks with a coffee in hand and often times my mp3 player is about as relaxing as it can get for me.

This morning I finished E.P. Sander's Paul, the Law, and the Jewish People and once again found myself pleased with Sander's work. Sanders writes in a peculiar style that is easily readable and enjoyable. Even when your mind cannot digest anymore, there is something about Sanders' style that makes you want to keep on reading. There are very few scholars who write in such a fashion (Dunn and Allison would be two others). I of course by no means subscribe to every conclusion Sanders produces but I cherish the insight I discover every time I read him.

Those of my readers who are familiar with the "New Perspective on Paul" have probably already read this book and so I'm not going to provide a thorough review. Well known is that Sanders' interpretation of Paul falls within the bounds of the New Perspective which he himself initiated with his monumental Paul and Palestinian Judaism. The purpose of the first section of the book is to lay out his argument for understanding Paul as emphasizing that the law is not a membership requirement:

"The attack on righteousness by the law is against making acceptance of the law a condition of membership in the body of those who will be saved. The reasons for his position which are thus far visible can be immediately connected with one of his primary convictions: salvation is available to all on the same basis, faith." (p. 48, emphasis added)

Thus what Paul is attacking is not a misguided Jewish legalistic use of the "works of the law" but the "works of the law" as, to use Dunn's phrase, boundary markers which highlight the distinctions between Jew and Gentile. These distinctions (circumcision, sabbath, and dietary laws) Paul seeks to obliterate by declaring that all are justified on the same basis, namely, faith. It is the misuse of Jewish privilege that's in view in Paul's critique of the law and not a Jewish legalism.

In the next section of the book, Sanders tackles the issue of the purpose of the law. Sanders highlights the dilemma that arises once Paul has asserted that justification comes from faith apart from "works of the law":

"We earlier said that Paul was in a dilemma, since he thought, as a good Jew, that God gave the law, while he also was convinced, on the basis of the revelation of Christ to him, that the law could not produce righteousness." (p. 73)

If the law cannot provide the righteousness that comes only by faith, what then was its purpose, granting that the law was given by God? This is Paul's dilemma. He now has to seek a way to hold together two incontrovertible facts: that God gave the law, and that justification is only by faith in Christ apart from that law. Sanders' concludes that Galatians provides a solution by asserting that the law fits into God's plan in a negative sense:

"the ultimate purpose of God's action was to prepare for salvation; the law was given in order to increase the trespass, with the intent that grace would ultimately reign." (p. 70).

The situation in Romans is not, at first all that different. The law for the first six chapters of Romans is viewed in a very negative light. In fact, Rom. 5:20ff agrees with the purpose of the law in Galatians: to increase trespasses and so condemn. More than this, however, is the close association of the law and sin to the point that they almost become the same entity. Yet, Paul, Sanders' informs us, shifts his thought drastically when he comes to Romans 7:7-25. It is perhaps, necessary to quote Sanders' at length here:

"in Rom. 7:7-13 paul still holds (1) that God gave the law; (2) that the law and sin are connected. But here the relationships among the law, God's will, and sin change: the law is good, it was even given 'unto life' (7:10), but it was used by the power alien to God-not by God himself, but by sin (7:8,11,13). That produced a situation contrary to the will of God. Thus there is an alteration in Paul's view of the relationship between sin and God's intention, and between God's will and the law (he gave the law to save, an intention which was frustrated, rather than with the intent to condemn). These changes seem to be required by the new role given to sin: it is now an active agent which employs the law against the purpose of God." (p. 73-74, emphasis his)

What is Sanders' trying to convey in this passage? Simply that God originally gave the law with the purpose of leading to life, but Sin (as a personified power) frustrated this plan of God by causing humanity to be unable to fulfill its requirements. Sin uses the law to its own end, to increase trespass and thus to condemn. It is the misuse of the law by Sin which brings to necessity the sending of Christ and justification on the basis of faith alone. The Law in and of itself is still a good thing. And so, rightly I think, Sanders sees Paul as inconsistent at this point from all else he has said concerning the law prior to Rom. 7 and in the Galatian epistle.

After this, Sanders' concludes with a brief discussion concerning Paul's assertions about the "fulfilling of the law" in the lives of spirit-led believers which is, not surprisingly, very similar to the covenantal nomism that Sanders described as a description of Judaism in Paul and Palestinian Judaism.

But since it is the problem of the relationship, soteriologically, between Christians and the Jewish people that has been on my mind lately I want to move onto the second part of Sanders' book which concerns this topic. Yet I've gone on too long now and so will finish this review in the next post.

I think Sanders' discussion of the law's purpose in chapter 2 is the best part of the book.

I find other interpretations of Rom 7 equally compelling though. Paul's more positive estimation of the law after Galatians can be accounted for in a variety of ways: he may have changed his mind after struggling through theological dilemmas as Sanders suggests; he could have revised his earlier arguments for expeditious reasons, out of concern for the bad reputation he had acquired after Galatians (so Tobin, Paul's Rhetoric in its Contexts); or maybe he was trying to resolve ethnic conflict in the Roman church, with the success of his strategy depending on acknowledging the value of each group's ethnicity; i.e. there had to be something good about the law and being Jewish (so Esler in Conflict and Identity in Romans). Sometimes I think there's truth in all three.

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I agree that this section on the purpose of the law was the best of the book which was disappointing because I was looking for a more extended discussion on Paul's relationship to the Jewish people.

I haven't studied the issue in detail. But it's clear that Paul was in the throes of a crisis when he wrote Galatians. He is on the defensive and afraid that he's losing a battle where a core element of the Gospel and the unity of the Church are at stake. He hasn't had time to detach from the situation and develop a more nuanced position.

Hence his remarks about the law in Galatians are somewhat intemperate or one-sided. By the time he wrote Romans, he was less alarmed, less defensive, and he had gained some perspective.

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