Justification and Variegated Nomism. Vol. 1

  • D. A. Carson, Mark A. Seifrid, Peter T. Obrien
  • Jan 1, 2002
  • Series: Volume 5 - 2002

Carson, D. A., Peter T. O'Brien, and Mark A. Seifrid. Justification and Variegated Nomism. Vol. 1: The Complexities of Second Temple Judaism. Tubingen: Mohr Siebeck; Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2001. xiii + 619 pp. Paperback, $44.99. ISBN 0-8010-2272-X.

My fifteen- and eleven-year old daughters, who are used to seeing me come home with fairly esoteric titles of books to read, and usually give me the benefit of the doubt that there really is some value in them, were particularly hard to convince that a book with a title such as this could make any sense to anyone, much less be of value! In fact, when its companion, second volume on The Paradoxes of Paul is released, the set will be arguably the most important evaluation of and response to date to E. P. Sanders' ground-breaking 1977 work, Paul and Palestinian Judaism.

Put simply, the last twenty-five years of Pauline scholarship has come to see the so-called "new look" on Paul become the reigning paradigm. Contrary to classic Reformation thought, Paul was not a scrupulous Jew, increasingly frustrated with his inability to keep the Law perfectly and thus merit God's favor. Indeed early first-century Palestinian Judaism was a religion of "covenantal nomism." Jews understood they were already right with God by virtue of birth into the unique covenant God had made with his elect people, Israel; the role of obedience to the Law was one of "staying saved," not "getting saved," and was not too different from Paul's concept of faith working itself out through love (Gal. 5:6). The major difference between Paul and the Judaism of his day, then, for Sanders and the new look, is the acceptance of Jesus as the promised Messiah, not a contrast between grace and works-righteousness.

There have been a variety of protests to these sweeping paradigm changes, especially in evangelical circles, and particularly in the full-length monographs of Westerholm, Schreiner, Thielman, and Kruse. But no one, inside or outside of evangelical circles, had ever thoroughly canvassed the Jewish literature demonstrably in existence in the first half of the first century to test Sanders' claims about the dominant "pattern of religion" of the Judaism in Israel at that time. To do so would require some sustained examination of all of the books of the apocrypha, pseudepigrapha, Dead Sea Scrolls, Josephus, Philo, and the earliest traditions from the oldest rabbinic literature, with a view to examining their doctrines of salvation and righteousness. The task is far greater than what any one scholar can do in any reasonable period of time; not even Sanders surveyed this broad a swath of texts. But this is precisely what Carson's, O'Brien's and Seifrid's volume has done, with the help of an international team of experts on the relative segments of the Jewish literature just itemized. They represent a broad cross-section of theological perspectives, including evangelicals (most notably Richard Bauckham, Craig Evans, Markus Bockmuehl, and Mark Seifrid), more liberal Protestants (most well-known here are Donald Gowan and David Hay), at least one Catholic (Martin McNamara), and one world-class biblical scholar who professes no religious faith at all (Philip Davies).

The way the topics get divided up are as follows: "Prayers and Psalms," "Scripture-Based Stories in the Pseudepigrapha," "Expansions of Scripture," "Didactic Stories," "Apocalypses," "Testaments," "Wisdom," "Josephus," "Torah and Salvation in Tannaitic Literature," "Some Targum Themes," "Philo of Alexandria," "1QS and Salvation at Qumran," "Righteousness Language in the Hebrew Scriptures and Early Judaism," and "The Pharisees Between 'Judaisms' and 'Common Judaism'."

The title and subtitle of the volume readily betray its central thesis. Becoming right (and staying right) with God in Second Temple Judaism is too complex and diverse a phenomenon to be summarized either by classic Reformation caricatures of Judaism's works-righteousness or by Sanders' covenantal nomism. That there is an emphasis on obedience to the Torah pervasive in almost all the literature (thus, "nomism") is undeniable, but the larger theological categories into which such obedience fits are varied indeed (thus, "variegated"). Certain documents tend more toward an emphasis on God's prior electing grace in establishing the covenant with Israel (most notably, the penitential psalms and prayers, 1 Esdras, Jubilees, 1 Enoch, the Testaments of Moses and of Job, Sirach, and the Wisdom of Solomon). Others tend more toward what Protestants have classically considered a legalistic works-righteousness or merit theology (especially Joseph and Aseneth, the Life of Adam and Eve, 2 Enoch, 4 Ezra, the Testament of Abraham, and 2 Baruch). Most of the demonstrably intertestamental Jewish writings contain statements or sections that lean in each direction, and one is usually not quite sure how their authors held the two together if indeed they did at all (generalizations that are particularly apposite within the earliest centuries of rabbinic material). Once in a while there is evidence for redactional development over time of one particular document, creating internally competing theological perspectives (most notably, in the Community Rule from Qumran). And even those documents that seem best to fit Sanders' paradigm contain enough qualifiers to suggest that "covenantal nomism" must at least be nuanced to embrace a greater diversity of theological corollaries than the new look on Paul has typically recognized.

Perhaps the most valuable fringe benefit of reading these essays for those not already somewhat familiar with the literature surveyed is that a majority of the chapters give brief overviews of the contents, setting, and larger theological contributions of each of the documents they study. We learn, for example, that Philo never rejected the literal meaning of Old Testament texts, contrary to common introductory textbook summaries; he merely highlighted an allegorical interpretation as more important in numerous instances. We also learn what is theologically idiosyncratic rather than mainstream in these books. Thus 4 Maccabees is largely unparalleled in teaching that martyrdom can atone for sin; likewise the Apocalypse of Zephaniah, in believing that sinners in hell can repent and get out.

Josephus, whom Sanders largely ignored, must be read through the grid of his objective of casting Judaism both in a positive light and in terminology intelligible to the Romans. But even granted this, his almost complete lack of reference to the covenants (replaced in part by a discussion of God's dealings with humanity in terms of Roman patronage) seriously calls into questions any theory of first-century Judaism that requires covenant theology to be pervasive and central. Similarly surprising is how rarely the language of "righteousness" is tied in with 'covenant" throughout intertestamental Judaism (indeed, even in the Old Testament), suggesting that "righteousness" is not to be equated with God's covenant fidelity (as esp. in Tom Wright's recent works). It refers instead a broader concept involving God's nature in and of itself, which can in turn be communicated to humanity, but which can also subsume creation, redemption and consummation all within its rubric.

The Targums have often been seen as teaching more merit theology than may be present, once one recognizes that the expression traditionally rendered "through the merits of" can mean simply "for the sake of" or "because of." This in turn leaves such expressions remarkably similar to Paul's affirmation in Romans 9:4-5 that the Israelites are blessed with respect to the patriarchs (the individuals whose "merits," in traditional translations of the targums, are often seen to cover or atone for later Israelite sin). As for rewards or wages on the basis of good works in the early rabbinic literature, the Gospel of Matthew includes some striking parallels, as does even Paul, so we had best not entirely jettison a central role for works in our patterns of religion!

The longest chapter in the volume provides an excellent summary and application of Roland Deines' considerable research into ancient Pharisaism, demonstrating that this branch of Jewish thought was primarily responsible for the dominant theology of "common Judaism" in Second Temple times. This conclusion challenges both Sanders' equation of common Judaism with priestly, even Sadducean thought, and the views of those like Jacob Neusner, who see little unifying theology at all in the "Judaisms" (deliberately expressed in the plural) prior to A.D. 70.

D. A. Carson, who also introduces the volume, brings it to a close with a lengthy summary, recapitulating each chapter in two-to-four pages, notes some very recent scholarship the volume was not able to take into account, and finally offers his own general conclusions. Undoubtedly many readers will scrutinize only Carson in detail and then skim or dip into the other parts of the book that prove most relevant or interesting for them. In doing so, however, they will miss some of the diversity of perspectives in the volume, for Carson's overriding agenda in his summaries is to show how at each stage "covenantal nomism" is not fully adequate to describe Second Temple Judaism. At a few points, it even seemed to me that he tried to derive this conclusion from essays in ways that their authors themselves did not.

The volume is pleasantly free from most mechanical problems, especially given its technical nature. I did, though, note that a recent Sheffield monograph was cited as if it had no date (p. 140, n. 17); is that really possible? On the last line of regular text on p. 208, the lower portions of certain letters have been cut off, making, for example, "jealousy" appear as "iealousv." On p. 256 in the quote of Against Apion, "dependant" appears instead of "dependent." Near the bottom of p. 262, "practice" appears when "practiced" is needed. A sheva is missing from the otherwise correctly pointed Hebrew mprsh on p. 307. "Has" appears instead of the grammatically correct "have" near the top of p. 311. Page 318 contains a sentence with the phrase "tradition of an the earlier literal rendering." And a Greek m is missing from the last word of the Philippians 3:5-6 quotation on p. 356.

Detailed author and citation indexes and a brief subject index round out the volume. A bibliography could have proved quite useful but undoubtedly would have considerably lengthened an already long book. Volume 2 should be even more interesting and significant, as we anticipate fresh exegesis of Paul at numerous points in light of our now much more highly nuanced understanding of Jewish backgrounds. We are indebted to this wonderful collection of studies and can only hope that those now most entrenched in the new look on Paul will take the time to study this material and allow it to influence them. It is not that we must abandon the new look altogether, but we must certainly recognize at times very significant limitations on its use and proceed accordingly. If one were forced to choose strictly between Martin Luther's and E. P. Sanders' views on the nature of first-century Palestinian Judaism, one should still probably prefer Sanders. But the reverse may well be the case when it comes to interpreting Paul himself, as I suspect volume 2 of Justification and Variegated Nomism will demonstrate.

Craig L. Blomberg
Professor of New Testament
Denver Seminary