EP Sanders

Not as strange at it might seem

I am currently trying to narrow down the focus of my PhD research topic, which has proven to be quite the endeavor.  Admittedly, part of the struggle was the lack of a “plan-B” when I learned that my original topic had to be set aside.  However, a “plan-B” quickly emerged–not only through stimulating conversations with my astute supervisors but also (quite honestly) out of necessity–and this recent “plan” is beginning to take on a nice shape.  The next few weeks will be crucial in this regard, and depending on how they go, either I will provide the details of the project here in this blog or I will announce the hunt for a “plan-C”.  

In the midst of working on my current proposed idea, I have had to explore various writings related to a buffet of scholarly issues.  One of the key issues that will most likely become relevant for my topic is the so-called “New Perspective on Paul”–NPP, for short.  (I say “so-called” simply because the framework for this perspective was established just over 30 years ago; and in the scholarly world, a 30-year-old idea is an academic Methuselah).  The inherent difficulty with this is that the amount of literature on the NPP is enormous;[1] thus, to even begin to wrestle with current scholarly positions on the NPP proves to be an undertaking in itself.  What is more, a portion of this material tends to be polemical mud-slinging; thus, the researcher occasionally will have to wade through the sloppy shrapnel in order to find clues of what was being maintained.  

A Quick Summary
The key players for the NPP are: Krister Stendahl, E.P. Sanders, James Dunn, and N.T. Wright.  (I’m going to side-step dealing with Dunn and Wright in this summary).  In the early 1970s, Stendahl[2] argued that the apostle Paul’s struggle with faith vs. Law (Torah) was being perceived through the lens of Martin Luther’s personal battle with grace/faith vs. works (of the Church).  In other words, because Luther was struggling with issues of legalism and works-righteousness being touted by the Church, Luther read Paul’s struggle (namely in Romans 7) in the same way.  Stendahl argued that this is not the proper way to understand Paul–nor is it the right way to do historical and/or theological investigations.  This then opened the door to a slew of questions about the dilemma that Paul was indeed facing between faith and Law.  The key question was: should the post-Reformation portrait of a legalistic, works-righteousness Judaism be viewed as normative, or is there something behind that portrait that needs to be seen and understood?

The work of E.P. Sanders has been viewed as the “bombshell” (Don Carson) dropped on this discussion, and it had serious implications on New Testament scholarship.  In his massive volume, Paul and Palestinian Judaism,[3] Sanders sought to reveal that the traditional views of an overly legalistic, work-righteousness Judaism were not only untrue in the main but also representative of a very small fringe of Jewish writings from a later period.  In place of this, Sanders argued that Judaism had been primarily a religion of salvation by faith/grace–because that was the nature of the covenant with Abraham–and that works of the Law were only performed for the sake of “staying in” the covenant.  (Sanders would coin the phrase, “covenantal nomism” for this notion).  In other words, an Israelite did not do the works of Torah in order to be saved (or, declared righteous); an Israelite did works of Torah in order to maintain his or her (righteous) status within the covenant.  It was only in later traditions that the idea of being saved (or, declared righteous) by works emerged–namely in texts like 2 Enoch4 Ezra, and 2 Baruch.  Thus, for Sanders, it would be more likely for the apostle Paul, as a devout Pharisee, to be in harmony with covenantal nomistic ideas within mainline Judaism.[4]  

A Perennial Concern
However, one of the major sticking points in Sanders’ expose of covenantal nomism is this statement:

It seems likely that Paul’s thought did not run from plight to solution, but rather from solution to plight. The attempts to argue that Romans 7 shows the frustration which Paul felt during his life as a practising Jew have now been mostly given up, and one may rightly and safely maintain that the chapter cannot be understood in this way.  The chapter describes, rather, the pre-Christian or un-Christian life as seen from the perspective of faith.  It may be further observed on the basis of Phil. 3 that Paul did not, while “under the law”, perceive himself to have a “plight” from which he needed salvation (Paul and Palestinian Judaism, 443)

This argument from Sanders raised the obvious question: so, what then is Paul arguing for and/or against in his letters–namely, Galatians and Romans?  What is the “solution” and what is the “plight”?  The simplistic (and slightly overgeneralized) answer is: for Paul (according to Sanders), the “solution” is that faith in Christ is the only means of salvation, and the “plight” is that the Law is not that means–i.e. the Law is not faith.  The issue therefore is not faith-righteousness vs. legalistic-works-righteousness; instead, the issue is the ramifications of the new covenant established in Christ.  So, for Sanders, the “solution” is that covenant membership is brought about by faith/grace; yet, the nature of the (new) covenant is characterized by one’s relationship with Christ, which is freedom from the Law.  The “plight”, therefore, is that the nature of the former covenant–i.e. maintaining the Law–has been replaced because of the establishment of the new covenant in Christ.  

This concept has not been without its opponents.  In a fairly recent article,[5] Paul F.M. Zahl has adamantly argued that the entire notion of moving from “solution to plight” is completely foreign (or, “untrue to life” as he says).  For Zahl, this concept is not only untenable a posteriori, but it also defies basic logic.  His a posteriori argument is buttressed by the idea that those who work in helping ministries (or, professions) know that people do not deal with personal conflict in a “solution-to-plight” manner.  It just does not make (logical) sense to deal with problems in that way; thus, it does make sense to use the same logic with regard to Paul.  However, I think Zahl is being a bit hasty (I dare say, reactionary) in his critique of the NPP as a whole on this score.  Zahl may be right in what he says with regard to the specific “solution-to-plight” construction that Sanders provides; however, what Sanders establishes is not necessarily representative of how the NPP developed.  In fact, oddly enough, Zahl does not mention these developments (i.e. improvements) to Sanders’ original argument by scholars like Dunn and Wright.

Another Look
The idea of moving from “solution to plight” is not as strange as it might seem if understood properly.  Zahl’s employment of helping ministries/professions to support his argument works only if the context is relatively safe.  In an American context (particularly), a person who acknowledges Christ as Savior is relatively safe in how life is lived after that acknowledgement.  Generally speaking, there is little fear of how life will be affected as result of that that confession of faith (i.e. “solution”).  This is because the cultural context is not overly resistant to those who make such a choice. However, the American cultural context is not representative of other cultural contexts.  Ravi Zacharias has told of instances where he presented the gospel in foreign cultures (i.e. non-Christian ones) and that belief in Christ as Savior (i.e. “solution”) generated cultural struggles with how one now lives as a Christian in a pagan culture (i.e. “plight”).  While this analogy has its faults (as all analogies do), it does highlight the fact that “solution” can lead to “plight” in particular cultural contexts; thus, it is not as “untrue to life” as Zahl claims.

The better (though still limited) analogy for Paul is the logical one, which Zahl believes does not exist.  In book 7 of Plato’s Republic, we are told of a group of prisoners who are bound in a cave with only two sources of light: natural sunlight streaming in from an entrance behind them, and a fire on a large cleft above and behind them.  On the wall in front of the prisoners are shadowy-reflections of a puppet-show taking place by a group of people near the fire.  The shadows are only those of the puppets and not the ones using the puppets.  Because the prisoners see the shadows on the wall, and because they hear voices from behind, their natural conclusions is that the voices are those of the shadows and that the shadows are real people.  Then, for whatever reason, we see that one prisoner is released and allowed to leave the cave.  This prisoner comes into the sunlight where he is met by another who tells the freed prisoner about the shadows cast upon the wall (i.e. “solution”).  The freed prisoner is then confronted with the task of returning to the cave and revealing what he now knows to be true so that the other prisoners can experience the same liberating freedom.  However, in revealing such truths, the freed prisoner is battling preconditioned ideas of reality about what is seen and understood to be taking place before the eyes of the other prisoners (i.e. “plight”).  

I use Plato’s allegory of the cave not to draw exact parallels with Paul or to make inferences from the details.  I use it to highlight the overall logic of the allegory as supporting the idea that “solution to plight” is not a logically foreign concept (as Zahl asserts).  There are several “plights” and several “solutions” to be found in the allegory; but only one set makes the most sense of the story as a whole.  Therefore, the issue ultimately comes down to how one understands the terminology and which categories are being referred to by the key terms.  It also comes down to how one understands what is actually taking place with the argument itself.  For Paul, it is not so much about creating a strange logical framework in which he can make his argument; instead, it is Paul’s use of the strange framework in order to reveal the profundity and power of the argument.  To state this in another way, and to borrow from a scholar who is far more able-minded than myself: 

[Paul] rather proclaims the “solution” in his thematic opening in Romans 1.16-17 and in that proclamation presupposes the human “plight” which it addresses.  The very manner in which he announces his gospel in terms of the demand for faith, the inclusion of “the Greek,” the (paradoxical) priority of “the Jew,” and the revelation of the righteousness of God anticipates the content of his following argument and implicitly urges the acknowledgement of the human state which he subsequently describes.[6]

[1] For an extensive and balanced introduction to the key issues/debates surrounding the NPP, I would highly recommend “The Paul Page.” 
[2] See his article, “The Apostle Paul and the Introspective Consciousness of the West,” in Paul Among Jews and Gentiles (London: SCM Press, 1976), 78-96.  
[3] Paul and Palestinian Judaism: A Comparison in Patters of Religion (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1977).
[4] While some Jewish scholars are fine with this understanding of Paul in relation to 1st century Judaism, there are still some (non-Jewish) scholars who are not comfortable with this understanding.  A key figure supportive of the view is Jacob Neusner (“Comparing Judaisms,” History of Religions 18 [1978-79]: 177-91); and a key figure opposed to the view is Peter O’Brien (“Was Paul a Covenantal Nomist?”, in Justification and Variegated Nomism, vol. 2: The Paradoxes of Paul [eds., D.A. Carson, Peter T. O’Brien, and Mark A. Seifrid; Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2004], 249-96).
[5] “Mistakes of the New Perspective on Paul,” Themelios 26.3 (2001): 1-11.  I have not found anyone who has responded to Zahl’s argument in this article, which is partly the reason I am offering my response here in this post.  
[6] Mark A. Seifrid, “Unrighteous by Faith: Apostolic Proclamation in Romans 1.18–3.20,” in Justification and Variegated Nomism, vol. 2: The Paradoxes of Paul, 105–emphasis original.