N. T. Wright And Saul’s Moral Bootstraps: Newer Light On “The New Perspective” -- By: James M. Hamilton Jr.

Journal: Trinity Journal
Volume: TRINJ 25:2 (Fall 2004)
Article: N. T. Wright And Saul’s Moral Bootstraps: Newer Light On “The New Perspective”
Author: James M. Hamilton Jr.


N. T. Wright And Saul’s Moral Bootstraps:
Newer Light On “The New Perspective”

James M. Hamilton Jr.

James M. Hamilton is Assistant Professor of Biblical Studies at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, Houston Park Place Campus, Houston, Texas.

My objective in this essay is to demonstrate that one of N. T. Wright’s foundation stones is not squarely cut. The significance of this particular stone is such that building on it compromises the structure of the edifice Wright seeks to erect. The stone I have in mind was not cut by Wright himself; he took it from the quarry of E. P. Sanders. Therefore, my aim in this paper is to show that in spite of what Wright would have us think, Sanders’s quarry has failed inspection. Demonstrating this will entail three things: 1) a cursory introduction to Sanders’s major work;1 2) followed by a summary of two significant examinations of Sanders’s thesis;2 and 3) a brief look at Galatians 3 to glimpse Paul’s own estimation of his pre-conversion state.

I. Introduction

No fewer than ten times in less than two hundred pages, N. T. Wright reinforces his view that the Judaism that Paul knew was not “a form of the old heresy Pelagianism, according to which humans must pull themselves up by their moral bootstraps and thereby earn justification.”3 Wright is careful with his words, and so we can conclude that the repeated collocation of the phrases “moral bootstraps” and “Pelagianism” is no accident. This constant repetition, it may be assumed, is meant to remind the reader of Wright’s stated agreement on this point with E. P. Sanders:

Saul, I used to believe, was a proto-Pelagian, who thought he could pull himself up by his moral bootstraps.. .. I now believe that this is both radically anachronistic (this view was not invented in Saul’s day) and culturally out of line (it is not the Jewish way of thinking). To this extent, I am convinced, Ed Sanders is right: we have misjudged early Judaism, especially Pharisaism, if we have thought of it as an early version of Pelagianism.4

Among other things, this agreement with Sanders has profound implications for Wright’s view of justification. For if Paul is not poking a hole in proto-Pelagianism in his letters when he asserts, for instance, that “from works of law no flesh shall be justified before him [God]” (Rom 3:20

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