The History of the Interpretation of the Apostle Paul


Dr. Peter M. Head [Web Page]


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E. P. Sanders

and the New Perspective on Paul


I. Introduction

a)       Paul and Palestinian Judaism: A Comparison of Patterns of Religion  (London: SCM, 1977).

b)       J.D.G. Dunn’s Manson Memorial Lecture (4.11.1982): ‘The New Perspective on Paul’ BJRL 65(1983), 95-122.


II. Christian Writers on Judaism

G.F. Moore, ‘Christian Writers on Judaism’ HTR 14(1921), 197-254.

a)     Eighteenth century writers had tried to show agreement of Jewish views with Christianity

b)       Late nineteenth century writers emph. Judaism as antithesis of Christianity: legalistic religion, God inaccessible, one must earn salvation by good works/merit (e.g. F. Weber, System der altsynagogalen palästinischen Theologie aus Targum, Midrasch und Talmud, 1880; Jüdische Theologie aus Grund des Talmud und verwandter Schriften, 1897).

c)       This view became dominant in NT scholarship (via Schürer, Bousset, Billerbeck), esp. Bultmann

d)       Moore, Judaism in the First Centuries of the Christian Era: The Age of the Tannaim (3 vols, 1927-30): emph. Rabbinic literature


III. Käsemann and Stendahl

a)       K. Stendahl, ‘The Apostle Paul and the Introspective Conscience of the West’ HTR 56(1963)199-213, Paul Among Jews and Gentiles (London: SCM, 1976), 78-96 (with response to K on pp. 129-133).

a.        Questions that concerned Augustine and Luther not those of Paul; danger of modernising Paul.

b.       Paul interested in role of Law in Messianic time and consequences of Messiah’s arrival for relationship between Jews and Gentiles; Rom 9-11 central.

c.        Phil 3 shows Paul not to have had a troubled conscience as a Jew

d.       Salvation-history is the fundamental aspect of Paul’s theology; justification by faith developed as apologetic for Gentile mission and inclusion in church.

b)       Ernst Käsemann, student of Bultmann, confessing church struggle, Prof in Mainz, Göttingen, Tübingen ‘Justification and Saving History’ (1965f) in Perspectives on Paul (1969), 60-78.

                                             i.      Split with Bultmann: 1949 letter re attacking B in his lectures):

‘That God establishes his right over this earth is indeed something different from what you call our new understanding of being, and is, as it seems to me, the subject which strangely unites the New testament writings in all their diversity. You doubtless will only be able to call this message mythological. But the message stands and falls precisely with this mythological message, at least in my view! (from Riches, p. 132).

                                            ii.      Salvation-history used by Nazis and is opposed to true Protestant doctrine of justification by faith.

                                          iii.      Theology of the cross emph. Discontinuity with Judaism

                                          iv.      Righteousness of God = God’s judgement of the world, the establishment of his right over the world

                                           v.      War on two fronts (p. 76 n27)

                                          vi.      More: Perspectives on Paul (Tübingen, 1969; ET, 1971); Commentary on Romans (Tübingen, 1973; ET, 1980)

c) Bibliog.: J. Riches, A Century of New Testament Study (Cambridge: Lutterworth, 1993), 125-136; D.V. Way, The Lordship of Christ: Ernst Käsemann’s Interpretation of Paul’s Theology (Oxford: Clarendon, 1991); N.T. Wright, ‘The Paul of History and the Apostle of Faith’ Tyndale Bulletin 29(1978), 61-88 (‘all the major issues in Pauline interpretation are contained (at least by implication) in this debate’, p. 61).

IV. W.D. Davies, Paul and Rabbinic Judaism

a)       Generally emph. Jewishness of Paul over against Hellenistic influence (Hist-Rel. School):

b)       “The work is ... an attempt to set certain pivotal aspects of Paul’s life and thought against the background of the contemporary Rabbinic Judaism, so as to reveal how, despite his Apostleship to the Gentiles, he remained, as far as was possible, a Hebrew of the Hebrews, and baptized his Rabbinic heritage into Christ.” (p.xvii)

c)       “the application to the Person of Jesus those concepts which Judaism had reserved for its greatest treasure, the Torah, so that we felt justified in describing the Pauline Christ as a New Torah.” (p323)

d)       “Paul was the preacher of a New Exodus wrought by the ‘merit’ of Christ who was obedient unto death, but this New Exodus like the Old was constitutive of community, it served to establish the New Israel; it also led to the foot of a New Sinai, and Paul appeared before us as a catechist, the steward of a New Didache that imposed new demands. ‘Torah”, ‘Obedience’ and Community’ then are integral to Pauline Christianity no less than Judaism.” (p323)

e)       For Paul “the acceptance of the Gospel was not so much the rejection of the old Judaism and the discovery of a new religion wholly antithetical to it, as his polemics might sometimes pardonably lead us to assume, but the recognition of the advent of the Messianic Age of Jewish expectation.” (p324)


V. Ed Parish Sanders, Paul and Palestinian Judaism

Paul and Palestinian Judaism: A Comparison of Patterns of Religion  (London: SCM, 1977).

a)       General: b. 1937, Texas, Union Seminary, McMaster, Oxford, Duke.

Liberal Protestant Christian: NB: Refs to “Truth, ultimate” in index refer the reader to three blank pages (30, 32, 430).

b)       Early work on Synoptic Problem: The Tendencies of the Synoptic Tradition (SNTS MS 9; London: CUP, 1969).

c)       Later work on Jesus: Jesus and Judaism (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1985; 2nd. Ed. London: SCM, 1987); The historical figure of Jesus (London: Allen Lane: Penguin Press, 1993; New York: Penguin Books, 1996).

d)       Aims of Paul and Palestinian Judaism (from p. xii)

a.        To consider methodologically how to compare two (or more) related but different religions;

b.        To destroy the view of Rabbinic Judaism which is still prevalent in much, perhaps most, New Testament scholarship;

c.        To establish a different view of Rabbinic Judaism;

d.        To argue a case concerning Palestinian Judaism (that is, Judaism as reflected in material of Palestinian provenance) as a whole;

e.        To argue for a certain understanding of Paul;

f.         To carry out a comparison of Paul and Palestinian Judaism

e)       The Introduction

a.       Paul and Judaism in NT Scholarship

                                                   i.      From antithesis to fulfilment (e.g. Davies)

                                                  ii.      Need comparison of a whole religion with a whole religion (p. 12)

b.       The holistic comparison of patterns of religion

f)        Palestinian Judaism (c 400 pages)

a.        Tannaitic Literature

i.e. Rabbinic literature between AD 70 and AD 200, including Mishnah, Tosefta, some Midrashim, sayings of early Rabbis in the Talmuds and other literature

b.       Dead Sea Scrolls

c.        Apcrypha and Pseudepigrapha

Ben Sirach, 1 Enoch, Jubilees, Psalms of Solomon and 4 Ezar

d.       Conclusions

                                                   i.      General

For Judaism: “obedience maintains one’s position in the covenant, but it does not earn God’s grace as such. It simply keeps an individual in the group which is the recipient of God’s grace.” (p420) In other words: “obedience is universally held to be the behaviour appropriate to being in the covenant, not the means of earning God’s grace.” (421).

 ‘Israel’s situation in the covenant required the law to be obeyed as fully and completely as possible … as the only proper response to theGod who chose Israel and gave them commandments’ (p. 81).

                                                  ii.      Covenantal Nomism:

“(1) God has chosen Israel and (2) given the law. The law implies both (3) God’s promise to maintain 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 slavation are considered to be by God’s mercy rather than human achievement.” (p422)

                                                iii.      “basic consistency in the underlying pattern of religion”

                                                iv.      “On the assumption that a religion should be understood on the basis of its own self-presentations, as long as these are not manifestly bowdlerized, and not on the basis of polemical attacks, we must say that Judaism of before 70 kept grace and works in the right perspective, did not trivialize the commandments of God and was not especially marked by hypocrisy. 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 God who chose and would ultimately redeem Israel was encouraged.” (p426f)

                                                 v.      4 Ezra atypical.

g)       Further books on Judaism extend the treatment, but don’t alter the fundamental perspective:

Jewish law from Jesus to the Mishmash: five studies (London: SCM; Philadelphia: Trinity Press International, 1990).

Judaism: practice and belief, 63 BCE-66 CE (London: SCM; Philadelphia: Trinity Press International, 1992; 2nd impr., 1994).

NB. Sanders, ‘The Covenant as a Soteriological Category and the Nature of Salvation in Palestinian and Hellenistic Judaism’ in Jews, Greeks, and Christians: Studies in Honor of W.D. Davies (ed. R. Hamerton-Kelly et al.; Leiden: E.J. Brill, 1976), 11-44.

h)       Paul

a.        Six letters, no Acts, no development, a theologian but nto a systematic theologian; ‘I view Paul as a coherent thinker, despite the unsystematic nature of his thought and the variations in formulation’ (p. 433).

b.       Fundamental influence of Schweitzer

c.        Two basic convictions governed Paul’s Christian life:

                                                   i.      ‘That Jesus Christ is Lord, that in him God has provided for the salvation of all who believe (in the general sense of “be converted”), and that he will soon return to bring all things to an end;

                                                  ii.      That he, Paul, was called to be the apostle to the Gentiles’ (p. 441f).

d.       The solution as preceding the problem

e.        Conclusions:

                                                   i.      Paul “presents an essentially different type of religiousness from any found in Palestinian Jewish literature.” (p543)

                                                  ii.       Fundamental agreement with PJ on grace and works:  salvation is by grace but judgment is according to works; works are the condition of remaining ‘in’, but they do not earn salvation. ... The point is that God saves by grace, but that within the framework established by grace he rewards good deeds and punishes transgression.” (p543)

                                                iii.      Differences: the meaning of “righteousness” (a transfer term rather than behaviour descriptive), the place of repentance (absent in Paul), the nature of sin (as a power rather than transgression), the nature of the “saved” group (participation with/in Christ), and the necessity of all to transfer from the damned to the saved (including Jews for Paul). (see pp 544-548)

                                                iv.      Paul’s religion is described as “participationist eschatology” (p552).

                                                  v.      Paul advocates a different type of religion, his critique of Judaism as a system of religion is total. The Abrahamic covenant is fulfilled in Christians: “In short, this is what Paul finds wrong with Judaism: it is not Christianity.” (p552)

i)         Further works on Paul:

a.        Cf. Editor: Jewish and Christian self-definition [Papers from symposia and a research project at McMaster University in Judaism and Christianity] (Philadelphia: Fortress; London: SCM)

                                                   i.      v. 1, The shaping of Christianity in the second and third centuries (1980);

                                                  ii.      v. 2, Aspects of Judaism in the Graeco-Roman period (1981), ed. with A.L. Baumgarten and Alan Mendelson;

                                                iii.      v. 3, Self-definition in the Graeco-Roman world (1982), ed. by Ben F. Meyer and E.P. Sanders

b.        Paul, the law, and the Jewish people (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1983; London: SCM, 1985).

c.        Paul  (Past Masters; Oxford & New York: OUP, 1991).

d.        ‘Paul’ in Early Christian Thought in its Jewish Context (FS M.D. Hooker; ed. J.M. G. Barclay et al.; Cambridge: CUP, 1996), 112-129.



Dr. Peter M. Head [Web Page]


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