The Error of E.P. Sanders’ Perspective on Paul

The Catholic should not be so keen to jump on board with the “New Perspective on Paul”. Scott Hahn points out a dreadful error in E.P. Sanders’ Paul and Palestinian Judaism (Kinship by Covenant, pp. 377-379) .

Sanders wrongly overemphasizes covenantal unity in the redemptive history of Israel. The numerous infractions of Israel, its kings, and its priests against the covenant by way of idolatry are not given serious consideration in Sanders’ system.

Sanders is correct to point out the reality of the presupposed “covenantal nomism” of Second Temple Judaism. What Sanders forgets is that the covenant has been breached and the Deuteronomoic curses have left everything in a rather pessimistic situation with the full weight of covenantal curses falling upon Israel.

Sanders desires to characterize St. Paul’s pessimistic view of Judaism as a psychological justification for Paul’s conversion to Christ. Sanders would have us believe that Paul invented the idea of a covenant-cursed Israel in order to justify Paul’s existential angst over becoming a Christian. Sanders thus sees Paul creating a “good” Christianity that supercedes a “bad” Judaism – a so-called Pauline doctrine that Sanders doesn’t appreciate.

Paul, however, did not invent anything of the sort. Inter-testamental and rabbinical writings reveal that Judaism essentially understood itself as living in the exile of the “cursed” and awaiting a final redemption that was fundamentally eschatological and “Davidic”. The Palestinian Jew of the first century A.D. had little hope in a renewal of the Levitical system. What they desired was a renewed covenant in the likeness of the covenant established with David. In short, they had hope in the coming of a Davidic king – a Messiah figure. This expectation can be seen as early as Ezekiel’s description of the eschatological temple – a temple that does not have a High Priest but only a Davidic Prince who enters the sanctuary.

It is the renewed Davidic covenant that St. Paul believes and preaches.

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