Paul and Rabbinic Soteriology: A Review Article -- By: Karl T. Cooper

Journal: Westminster Theological Journal
Volume: WTJ 44:1 (Spring 1982)
Article: Paul and Rabbinic Soteriology: A Review Article
Author: Karl T. Cooper


Paul and Rabbinic Soteriology:
A Review Article

Karl T. Cooper

In Paul and Palestinian Judaism,1 E. P. Sanders offers us a view of Judaism2 which is unified in focus, rich in detail, and challenging in its implications. Sanders writes as a New Testament scholar, and addresses his challenges to the community of New Testament scholars in particular; but the issues with which he deals are so basic that any Christian reader will be forced to rethink his position.

The reader is grateful for the careful and self-conscious way in which Sanders lays out what he intends to accomplish (p. xii). Of his six chief purposes, he singles out two as constituting “the general aim of the book”: “to argue a case concerning Palestinian Judaism (that is, Judaism as reflected in material of Palestinian provenance) as a whole” and “to carry out a comparison of Paul and Palestinian Judaism.”

Sanders’ case concerning Palestinian Judaism is clear: Palestinian Judaism is characterized by a unitary “pattern of religion,”3 which Sanders labels “covenantal nomism.”

The ‘pattern’ or ‘structure’ of covenantal nomism is this: (1) God has chosen Israel and (2) given the law. The law implies both (3) God’s promise to maintain the 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 salvation are considered to be by God’s mercy rather than human achievement.4

In the course of establishing this case, Sanders cites passage after passage from Tannaitic literature,5 the Qumran documents, and intertestamental literature; but he does more than this. He also meets head-on the prevailing view of Palestinian Judaism among New Testament scholars in an effort to destroy it once and for all.

The view which Sanders combats sees Palestinian Judaism (or some branch thereof) as a religion of legalistic works-righteousness, wherein God’s approbation must be earned by good works in a system of strict justice. Sanders investigates with meticulous care the arguments that have been brough...

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