The Continuing Quest for Jewish Legalism -- By: Kent L. Yinger

Journal: Bulletin for Biblical Research
Volume: BBR 19:3 (NA 2009)
Article: The Continuing Quest for Jewish Legalism
Author: Kent L. Yinger


The Continuing Quest for Jewish Legalism

Kent L. Yinger

George Fox Evangelical Seminary And George Fox University

In spite of widespread acceptance of the nonlegalistic character of first-century Judaism (following E. P. Sanders), some Pauline scholars continue to interpret the apostle’s statements against a backdrop of Jewish legalism. Rather than accuse Paul of misconstruing his own religious heritage, they choose a variety of paths to rediscovering legalism in Judaism. This article highlights seven of these approaches to rediscovering legalistic Judaism, all of which are deemed thus far unsuccessful, largely due to inadequate definitions of legalism.

Key Words: legalism, Paul, Judaism, Sanders, New Perspective

The Current Situation In Pauline Studies
Vis-À-Vis “Legalistic Judaism”

The tone of NT and especially Pauline scholarship vis-à-vis Judaism has changed significantly since 1977. That year saw the publication of E. P. Sanders’s Paul and Palestinian Judaism, with its vigorous portrayal of nonlegalistic Judaism.1 In broad outline, this picture of a kinder, gentler, grace- filled first-century Judaism has been widely accepted.2 Even those who remain somewhat critical speak of a near consensus that no longer views rabbinic soteriology as centered in the balancing of transgressions and good works, that is, in a form of works righteousness.3 While continued

nuancing of Sanders’s portrayal is certainly in order, a simple rejection is almost nonexistent.4 On a more popular level, unfortunately but not surprisingly, most voices continue to reflect a pre-1977 view of first-century legalistic Judaism.5

What has just been stated about the reception of Sanders’s new perspective on Second Temple Judaism does not apply to his less favorably received perspective on Paul.6 The “new perspective on Paul” [hereafter, NPP] appeared with this nomenclature in a Manson Memorial Lecture delivered by James D. G. Dunn in November 1982.7 As with most subsequent proponents of the NPP, Dunn builds upon Sanders’s new perspective on Judaism, while going in some new directions regarding Paul.

  1. First-century Judaism(s) were not legalistic, but were characterized by covenantal nomism (so Sanders).
  2. Because Jews were not esp...
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