E.P. Sanders’ influence on the study of Paul the Apostle has reverberated now for nearly 40 years, ever since the publication of his Paul and Palestinian Judaism in 1977. The amount of ink that has been spilled since then, from those either in support or opposed or cautious, has been voluminous. Just considering the aggregate of counter arguments in opposition to Sanders’ conclusions regarding ‘covenant nomism’ and the mutuality between Paul and early Judaism on the issue of God’s grace has made approaching the issue somewhat unmanageable. Or, if you are willing to jump into the fray on either side, prepare to spend months if not years reading and thinking through the various arguments ad naseum.
I would like to point you, however, to what I see as the strongest arguments in considerate and respectful opposition to Sanders. The irony is that the following observation was published within a year of PPJ‘s release.
Jacob Neusner’s excellent, and lengthy, review (Neusner, “Comparing Judaisms”) doesn’t go for what many might perceive to be the ‘jugular’ of Sanders’ argument, i.e. that Judaism was a religion of ‘grace’ as much as Paul’s Christianity was.
Instead, he asks whether Sanders has
actually sat down and studied (not merely “read”) one document . . . beginning to end, and analyzed its inner structure, heart, and center? . . . Does Sanders so grasp the problematic of a Rabbinic compilation that he can accurately state what it is that said compilation wishes to express—its inner generative problematic? (p. 182))
So Neusner is questioning the methodology employed by Sanders, which, to put it crudely, seem to have entailed reading through rabbinic texts until the word or topic of grace was found, then amassing all those instances, comparing them with each other and with Paul, and then ending up with a picture of Rabbinic Judaism that looks quite familiar to Paul.
What Sanders didn’t do was take the time to find what Neusner calls the ‘generative problematic’, or the central concern of the author(s) that stipulated the writing in the first place. The theological centre of each text was not sought out nor elucidated, therefore, any conclusions regarding the use of ‘grace’ are questionable, because the context in which ‘grace’ was used is different in each case.
Thus, we learn an important lesson from Neusner about comparing religions, or their texts. We must probe the inner core of a text before drawing conclusions about observations we make on the surface.
And this holds true for texts both biblical and otherwise.