Paul and Judaism

So far, Paul. And Judaism? Sanders’s claims notwithstanding, statements of the kind we have just seen in Paul are not normal fare in Jewish texts of the period.6 We need to look at Sanders’s claim more closely.

In assessing it, it is important to bear in mind the context in which, and the purpose for which, Sanders was writing: as he portrayed the situation (with, perhaps, a pinch of caricature of his own), scholars interested in highlighting the contrast between “salvation” in Judaism and Paul’s understanding of salvation by grace had long made things easy for themselves by caricaturing the former as based exclusively on works—as though humans were deemed capable of “earning” a place in the age to come (and as though Jews were given to boasting of their righteousness in doing so!). Against such a view, Sanders’s arguments are a sufficient, even cogent, refutation: most Jews certainly believed that they were the chosen people of God, that God had been good to Israel, that God was willing to forgive the sins of the repentant, that among God’s gifts were rites of atonement, etc. Jews had a strong sense of human need for divine grace; they did not imagine their merits a match for what God had given them, or sufficient in themselves to “earn salvation.”

So much at least is clear—and memorably conveyed by the claim that grace played the same role in Judaism as it did for Paul. But the fine print of Sanders’s own discussion makes equally clear that the parallel with Paul requires several qualifications. I give you three.

1. Sanders makes the point, explicitly and repeatedly, that a contrast between works or merit on the one hand and faith or grace on the other is not native to Judaism. New Testament scholars may have thought that Judaism taught salvation by works rather than faith, but

the antithetical contrast, not by works but by faith, is Paul’s own.… Paul’s own polemic against Judaism serves [for misguided modern scholars] to define the Judaism which is then contrasted with Paul’s thought. (4)

The Rabbis did not have the Pauline/Lutheran problem of “works-righteousness,” and so felt no embarrassment at saying that the exodus was earned; yet that it was earned is certainly not a Rabbinic doctrine. It is only an explanatory device. One might have expected the Rabbis to develop a clear doctrine of prevenient grace, but grace and merit did not seem to them to be in contradiction to each other. (100)

Grace and works were not considered as opposed to each other in any way. I believe it is safe to say that the notion that God’s grace is in any way contradictory to human endeavour is totally foreign to Palestinian Judaism. The reason for this is that grace and works were not considered alternative roads to salvation. (297)

For Paul (as we have seen), if something is “by grace,” it cannot be by “works,” since “otherwise grace would not be grace” (Rom 11:6). At this point, the head-scratching begins: How can his view of grace be the same as that of works?

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