Thursday, January 24, 2013

New Quests

1977 was a particularly important year in the history of biblical studies.  It was the year in which E. P. Sanders published Paul and Palestinian Judaism, one of the landmark books of the century in the study of the New Testament. [1] It was not the first book nor was Sanders the first scholar to argue that the predominant "Lutheran" paradigm for understanding Paul was anachronistic. Nor has Sanders' work gone without critique.  What the book did was change the tide toward reading Paul against his Jewish context.

Sanders' book reflects one of the most significant turning points in biblical studies because, after it, the interpretation of the New Testament could no longer simply read Paul or Jesus against the backdrop of the Christian history of interpretation. [2]  Sanders forced interpreters to read Jesus and Paul against their Jewish context--and an authentically understood Jewish context rather than the "straw man" Christian tradition had developed and so long utilized.

Perhaps the central claim that Sanders' book disputed was the idea that Judaism was a religion of "works righteousness." Judaism, so the dominant interpretation went, was a religion in which you tried to earn your salvation by doing good works.  Paul then counters this form of religion with a religion of grace, whereby an individual is saved by grace alone (sola gratia) and by faith alone (sola fide). The impact of the Protestant Reformation on this interpretation of Paul and Judaism is obvious.  Martin Luther saw in Paul's conflict with his opponents the ideological conflicts he himself was having with the Roman Catholic Church.

What Sanders did was to free us from these interpretive lenses by methodically working through the texts of Second Temple Jewish literature themselves, showing that this portrayal of Judaism as a "graceless" religion simply could not stand up against what the texts themselves said. What he found instead is that the grace of God is almost without exception the presupposition of any expectation that a person's actions might play a role in a right standing before God.  Jews did not keep the Jewish law in order to "get in."  They kept the law to "stay in." [3]

Sanders' famous phrase is "covenantal nomism."  Jews kept the law as a response to God's grace, not to earn it.  A Jew was, of course, born into the people of God.  Such a person did nothing themselves to get in.  Rather, keeping the law was simply God's expectation to stay in the people of God. To be sure, Sanders was criticized by some Jewish scholars for worrying about some distinctions that really were not of concern to Jews themselves. Jacob Neusner, for example...

[for more along these lines, see my overview of Romans: Paul: Soldier of Peace]

[1] E. P. Sanders, Paul and Palestinian Judaism: A Comparison of Patterns of Religion (Minneapolis: Fortress, 1977).

[2] The theological interpretation of the early twenty-first century, while representing a shift back in confessional circles toward reading the New Testament against its later Christian context, does so not on historical-critical grounds but on hermeneutical grounds. The earlier Christian interpretations of Jesus and Paul were done unreflectively and uncritically--such scholars thought they were reading Jesus and Paul in their historical context.  By contrast, theological interpretation at its best is done more on the basis of textual polyvalence and a postmodern hermeneutic that is more self-reflective.

[3] E.g., Paul, 420.


John Mark said...

If this view is correct, how do you 'explain' the Pharisees? Did they see themselves as recipients of grace, and were perhaps pursuing not salvation but holiness in their adherence to hand-washing, Sabbath observance, and so on? Did they see themselves as guardians of the faith, keeping out riff-raff (tax collectors and so on)? I know they were jealous of Jesus, this was their primary trouble with him, but what was the 'yeast of the Pharisees' if not some sort of misguided emphasis on works, however defined?
I am trying to make sense of this, if Judaism in Jesus day saw itself in a grace oriented relationship with God. As you know, I have a simple mind. Maybe this is obvious to scholars, but not to me.

Angie Van De Merwe said...

Covenant has been a debated topic, in religious circles hasn't it, as to who undertakes the covenant?

Similarly, covenant is "collectivist thinking", which our modern mind-set and laws, do not concur with, as to consent. And this was a question of Martin Luther as to authority, as well as our Founding Fathers.

Tradition "conditions" the meaning and understanding of laws in religious contexts (covenant).
Individuals consent to cooperate or not, as our society believes in voluntary association. Covenant communities, on the other hand, have witnesses within communal understandings that make for the judgments within. The individual is "at the mercy" of those that "sit in judgment". The "elders" rule by prescribing whether a certain action is within community standards. Otherwise, the covenant is broken and judgment is met out.

Similarly, our courts do bring "justice", but we seek to allow liberty not conformity in understanding the reason for the law, and we grant the individual the right to innocence until proof of guilt. Crimes are not about conformity, but about harm. Conformity is important for religion to make for "social control", while our society allows for liberty of thought and action, as long as it does not harm another.

Therefore, we are not a theocracy, but a Constitutional Republic that allow for diversity when it comes to religious understandings, although America has been influenced by the Judeo-Christian tradition.

I think that understanding the root of the Palestinian conflict fits well within a progressive paradigm. But, I am not so sure it will "work", because we are all conditioned to make judgments and these are our values that we attempt to protect. Values are what make for our goals, and what we find important. Therefore, those that defend their right to anything by appealing to God will not bend to negotiating processes, because of their belief and value of "faith", "belief" and "commitment"!

Scott F said...

@John Mark - Since the gospel portrayal of the Pharisees is somewhat contested in academic circles it is difficult to get at the true views of the scribes toward Jesus let alone their motivation.

That said, even today there are Christians who, paying lip service to the Great Commandment, nevertheless sink into legalism. Perhaps the Pharisees were in a similar situation - some seeking to the best way to respond to God's grace and others using the platform to impose their will. Can you guess which type would seek the levers of power and influence?

Angie Van De Merwe said...

As an "aside" the Reconstructionists or Dominionists theologies that use scripture to make America into their understanding, which alleviates any other way to understand or frame one's understanding of "faith". This is why Martin Luther used "consubstantiation" instead of "transubstantiation" as to communion.

"Faith" was what made the elements of the communion table "effective" and justified the partaker, not the legal requirement of ingesting the literal Body and Blood "sanctioned" by the priests in a Mass. The debate as to works is what "works" means. "Faith" only has meaning to the person who has it and this is why it is dangerous in mobs!. Mobs believing that they do "God's will" are terrorists to the rest!

Angie Van De Merwe said...

You know full well that the progressive agenda is undermining our country as to its Sovereignty and its citizens, as to issues of their personal lives and whether they will have "faith" or not!

I do not believe that there is "special revelation", therefore, what is left is the "Institution of the Church". We know Church history has "mixed reviews" and "mixed interpretations". There is no "truth" there, only political power that uses "faith" as an issue to "conform" others into a "certain, particular image of Christ". That is abuse IMO!