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Fire in the Bones [Biblical, Heterodox Christianity]: Paul

It took a while, but I finally finished E.P. Sanders “Palestinian Judaism and Paul” text. The first portion of it was fantastic, and I highly recommend it to anyone interested in Christianity. The second half was not nearly as good. Perhaps I was not an ideal audience for the 3rd quarter (on Qumran) because I had already been reading a bunch on the dead sea scrolls, so I didn’t see much new in Sander’s book. The last portion, on Paul, was mostly frustrating because the author ended up just repeating himself over and over again in ways that did not further substantiate his argument.

One point that the author made very early was that Paul’s letters could not possibly be seen as refuting the Jewish understanding of salvation because he never discusses repentance. It was one of those “why didn’t I see that earlier” moments. Repentance is the most important aspect of practical salvation in the Jewish ethos, so a discussion that so clearly omits any mention of it cannot be primarily meant as a critique against Jewish salvation-theory. It would be like a Soviet political theorist criticizing the entire American system of government without ever mentioning democracy or separation of powers.

Another thing I took from Sanders was a nice way to articulate an idea that I have had for a long time but could not put eloquently. It is related to the point made in the last paragraph. Christians often present the Law as a false path to salvation…that is to say a path that:

  • Someone might believe to lead to salvation

The problem with this is the first statement, the presumption that the Jews actually suggested that the law was a path to salvation. In reality, the Jews saw salvation as something that was already promised to them. The intention to keep the Law functioned as a marker of who was within the scope of that promise, but not because it made someone righteous. Rather the intention to keep the law indicated that the person accepted Israel’s God as the rightful King of creation. If someone disavowed the Law, he could lose the inheritance promised to Israel not because he became unrighteous but because he failed to recognize God as the genuine article and thus was no longer part of the covenant.