Review of Paul: The Apostle’s Life, Letters, and Thought by Sanders

June 24, 2016

paul sandersSanders, E. P. Paul: The Apostle’s Life, Letters, and Thought. Minneapolis: Fortress, 2015, pp. 777, $39, paperback.

E.P. Sanders is one of the most well-known New Testament scholars in the world today due to the tremendous influence of his 1977 book Paul and Palestinian Judaism. His commanding explanation of the “pattern of religion” found in rabbinic and Second Temple Jewish sources turned Pauline scholarship away from previous caricatures of Judaism to a fresh interaction with the primary sources. It also laid the foundation for the “new perspective” on Paul.

But although we are familiar with Sanders the scholar, in this book we meet Sanders the teacher. Paul is a book written by the retired Duke professor for undergraduate students. It is a complete exposition of the apostle’s undisputed letters, and, while Sanders has written several books on Paul, this is the first one in which he addresses all of Paul’s thought in one place. This book gives us another side of Sanders—here we get a peek inside of his lecture hall where Sanders quotes Shakespeare, Milton, Kipling, and Poe; explains how he teaches his Greek students to bring out the force of Paul’s phrase me genoito (“Hell, no!”); tells us how striking he finds Paul’s boasting in weakness and that Galatians 3:6-29 is his “favorite argument in the whole world” (p.536); notes his great admiration for the commentaries of J. B. Lightfoot; and even recounts the conclusions of previous student term papers.

The book begins with four chapters on Paul’s life, examining the evidence of both Acts and Paul’s letters. He tends to see contradictions between these two bodies of evidence rather than attempting to harmonize apparent discrepancies. He emphasizes Paul’s background in the Greek-speaking Diaspora, questioning the claim of Acts that Paul’s education was in Jerusalem and arguing against Martin Hengel that “Hebrew of Hebrews” (Phil 3:5) does not refer to Paul’s ability to speak Hebrew but rather to Paul’s lineage (pp.24-28). Sanders argues that we do not see many traces of unique Pharisaic ideas like precise application of the law in Paul’s letters (p.54) and that Paul’s role in persecution was not linked particularly to his being a Pharisee (pp.80-81). In this section we see a glimpse into Sanders’ great learning of ancient Jewish literature, but in my view he probably overemphasizes Paul’s background in the Greek-speaking Diaspora. For example, Sanders suggests that Paul’s Bible was the LXX (the Greek translation of the Hebrew Bible) which he had probably memorized as a boy (pp.60-62, 72-76). But while Paul certainly made use of these Greek translations and he may have memorized them, his quotations sometimes differ from our copies of the LXX and follow our copies of the Hebrew Bible (MT) instead. Further, Paul never claims the inspiration of the Greek translation as Philo does of the Greek translation of the law (Life of Moses II.37).

Was Paul converted to Christianity?  Sanders rightly notes that this common question is really is a debate over the meaning of “conversion”—if it means that Paul “turned from” the Jewish God then he did not convert, but if it means that he “turned to” a new revelation of the Lord then we can say he was converted (2 Cor 3:16) (pp.101-102). Sanders argues that Paul then became apostle to the Gentiles and only indirectly to the Jews (appealing to Rom 11 and seeing a contradiction with Acts). In typical Sanders fashion, he summarizes the apostle’s message under several bullet points: “(1) God had sent his Son; (2) he suffered and died by crucifixion for the benefit of humanity; (3) he was raised and was now in heaven; (4) he would soon return; and (5) those who belonged to him would live with him forever” (p.119). He then offers some interesting reflection on how Paul traveled (probably by foot) and how he financed his journeys (not by inherited wealth but through patrons). Some reflection on 1 Corinthians 9 might have rounded out the picture here.

The heart of this book comprises nineteen chapters on Paul’s letters, in which Sanders the teacher engages their major “topics” (an important exercise in which he makes his students engage). Two chapters introduce the letters, followed by two on 1 Thessalonians, seven on the Corinthian correspondence, four on Galatians, one on Philippians, and three on Romans. Sanders only covers the seven letters whose authorship is undisputed (really six, as he does not discuss Philemon in depth). So he does not discuss Ephesians, Colossians, 2 Thessalonians, 1 Timothy, 2 Timothy, or Titus. I can’t imagine how long this book would be if he discussed all thirteen! He argues that Paul dictated the letters himself, that he did not revise them, and that “they reveal his mind at work” (p.155). He very tentatively holds to John Knox’s position that Onesimus the runaway slave later became the bishop of Ephesus and compiled Paul’s letter collection (pp.155-57). Finally, he takes a chronological approach in his presentation because he has come to the conclusion that it is important to study development in Paul’s thought (a change from his earlier view [p. xxxi]). By “development” Sanders does not mean that Paul changed or retracted his earlier positions but that he grew in his understanding of the significance of Christ Jesus (p.172). At the end of the day Sanders most discusses development in Paul’s eschatology as Paul wrestled with the imminence of the Lord’s return.

Regarding matters of introduction, Sanders argues that 2 Corinthians has been edited. Originally 2 Corinthians 10-13 was the painful letter written before 2 Corinthians 1–9 (p.231). It is also possible that 2 Corinthians 6:14—7:1 is part of the letter that Paul wrote the church before 1 Corinthians (ibid.). While he sees merit in the idea that the difficult 1 Corinthians 14:33b-36 was a secondary edition, he ultimately argues that Paul is probably answering different questions, “one about head-coverings (chap. 11) and one about one particular female member on the congregation who tried to do all the talking (chap. 14)” (p.286) The two pieces of advice are truly contradictory—“the one true contradiction in Paul’s letters of which I am aware” (p.287). But it is only a contradiction in that Paul applies one maxim in one case and another in another (ibid.). Sanders views 2 Corinthians 8–9 as the last part of the Corinthian correspondence (p.434). He holds to the North Galatian Theory of the audience of Galatians, and he suggests that the letter must have been written after Corinthians but before Romans because of theological developments (p.448). Philippians was written between Galatians and Romans during an imprisonment in Ephesus (pp.582-83). And Romans was Paul’s final letter whose main theme is the equality of Jews and Gentiles before God (p.615).

One of major theses of this book is that students and scholars should distinguish Paul’s conclusions and the reasons for those conclusions from Paul’s actual arguments as they are presented in his letters. Paul’s conclusions are usually clear, but his arguments are what make him so difficult to understand (p. xvi). Moreover, Paul’s conclusions typically came to him before he had formulated his arguments (p. xxviii). Readers familiar with Sanders will recognize this statement as a variation of his well-known idea that for Paul the “solution” of Jesus Christ came to him before he developed the “plight” of human sinfulness. Finally, Sanders argues that we should assume that Paul’s conclusions were more important to him than his arguments (ibid.). This line of thought comes up so frequently in the book that I do not think it is an overstatement to call it the most important idea of the book (e.g., pp.283, 315, 466, 473, 536-37, 628, 654). In my view, it is also one the weakest ideas of the book. While Sanders is probably correct to observe that Paul worked out his arguments after coming to his conclusions, does he expect us to believe that Paul did not actually think his arguments were important, valid, and true (i.e., good reasons to come to this conclusion)? Granted, we can sometimes overstate our arguments in the midst of a heated verbal debate. But was Paul constantly doing that in his written letters—making arguments he knew to be incorrect because he was so convinced of his conclusions? If we asked Paul, “Are your arguments good arguments?” would he say “no, I just said that because I was so convinced of my conclusion for other reasons.” This view seems unlikely to me. With that said, I do think Sanders makes a helpful point that Paul’s arguments are those of a first-century Jew, and this is why he is sometimes so confusing to modern readers (e.g., the typological argument of 1 Cor 10:6-13 [p.315]).

Some of the major theses of this book peak to the issues at the heart of the new perspective on Paul. Sanders argues throughout for a sharp separation between “works of the law” and good deeds in Paul’s letters (p.498). “Works of the law” in Galatians and Romans refer mainly to circumcision (p.513; 630), not charitable deeds (p.562). This is a well-known position of the new perspective, and Sanders is sometimes very strong on this point: “These verses against reliance on ‘works of the law’ are often converted into reliance on ‘good works or ‘good deeds,’ the sorts of things for which Boy Scouts and others are applauded. And then it is thought that Paul was against ‘good deeds.’ Nothing could be a worse perversion of what Paul wrote. As we have seen several times, he was 100 percent in favor of good deeds and urged people to do more and more (1 Thess. 4:10)” (p.630). Sanders is right that Paul says Christians should pursue good works and “fulfill” the law through love of neighbor. He is also right that circumcision is the major issue in Paul’s statements about “works of the law” in Galatians. But he fails to interact with the many critics of the new perspective who point out that Paul’s statements against relying on “works of the law” actually do refer to moral obedience and not merely the boundary markers that distinguished Jews from Gentiles—e.g., Paul’s statement that no one will be justified by works of the law in Romans 3:20 concludes an argument which accuses all people of being under the power of sin or not having done what is good (cf. Rom 4:6-8 and Rom 9:11).

I was very interested to see that Sanders continues to emphasize a point often quoted from Paul and Palestinian Judaism—namely, the idea that Paul’s most important criticism of Judaism is that it was not Christianity. Paul’s most important critique was certainly not legalism (a point Sanders makes very clear), and it was not even a critique of ethnocentrism (as many other new perspective scholars have argued). Rather, “According to Rom. 10:1-4, what is wrong with the Jews is that they are not Christian; what is wrong with Judaism is that it does not accept Christianity” (681; cf. 536-37, pp.610-611, and 611n35). There is certainly truth in this claim. At the heart of Paul’s critique of Judaism is that the Jewish people as a whole did not confess Jesus as Lord. However, Paul’s logic in Romans 9:30-33 and 10:1-4, two parallel passages that basically make the same point, is that it was their attempt to establish their own righteousness with the law that actually led the Jewish people away from believing in Christ (on this important criticism of the new perspective see Dane Ortlund’s Zeal Without Knowledge, Bloomsbury, 2014). In other words, Paul does seem to have a category for a kind of “self-righteousness” that leads one away from accepting the righteousness of God through faith in Christ. How does Sanders respond to this logic? Romans 9:30-33 represents Paul’s argument, not his actual conclusion (pp.677-80).

As a critic of the new perspective, I clearly disagree with some of Sanders’s conclusions. But even on these contested issues of Paul and the Law, I think his observations are helpful—e.g., the way he frames Paul’s wrestling with “two dispensations” (the coming of the law and the coming of Christ). He really listens to Paul and attempts to explain him accurately. His writing is clear and passionate. And he is intellectually honest, willing to admit when he does not know something and telling readers when he personally disagrees with Paul on some issue.

How should students think about this book? If they are looking for a basic introduction to the new perspective on Paul, this may not be the first book to read. N. T. Wright’s What St. Paul Really Said is shorter and more accessible. If they are looking to dig deeper into the most important contributions of E. P. Sanders, this may not be the right book either. His most influential books on Paul will likely continue to be Paul and Palestinian Judaism and Paul, the Law, and the Jewish People. However, if they are looking for a basic introduction to Paul’s letters and thought, this would be a very helpful book. Sanders makes it clear from the beginning of the book that he writes as a historian, not as a theologian (pp. xxxiv-v). Sometimes his theology does peak through, which is basically a liberal Protestant perspective. But for the most part he follows his claim to stick with history, making this book a treasure trove of historical information about Paul’s life and letters.

Kevin McFadden

Cairn University, Langhorne, PA


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