Monday, April 11, 2016

Book review of E. P. Sanders, Paul: The Apostle's Life, Letters, and Thought

Yung Suk Kim

Sanders, E. P.
Paul: The Apostle’s Life, Letters, and Thought
Minneapolis, MN: Fortress, 2015. Pp. xxxv + 862. Paper.
Price $39. ISBN 9780800629564.

This introductory book on Paul by Sanders is the longest book (862 pages except for front matters) that I have ever reviewed and is also the most comprehensive volume of Paul and his major letters (1 Thess, 1-2 Corinthians, Galatians, Philippians, and Romans). This book is, in a way, a compilation and the product of his lifelong studies on Paul, aiming at first-time readers of Paul. But this does not mean that this book’s content is easy or shallow, or that its argumentation is naïve or simplistic. Part 1 (with 4 chapters of more than 140 pages), Paul’s Life, is very clear and profoundly handles Paul’s life from critical historical perspectives. Then Part 2 (which is 20 chapters long!), The Letters, contains a vast amount of complex information and discussions partly because it covers too many topics given space and partly because the topics themselves are difficult exegetical issues (for example, homosexual activity in 1 Corinthians). There are two appendixes attached at the end of the book, which is very helpful for in-depth researchers who want to go deeper in matters of Paul’s theology: “Homosexual Practices in Greece and Rome”; “Where Was Galatia? Who Were the Galatians?” This book also includes various helpful indexes plus a short glossary: index of ancient and biblical literature, index of authors, and index of subjects. It is no question that Sanders is one of the most erudite Pauline scholars who not only has published a number of important works on Paul, but has paved a new way of understanding Paul’s relationship to, or background of, first-century (and Second-Temple) Judaism, which is not a legalistic religion but the religion of grace. But even with this new understanding of Judaism in the first century, I cannot help but say that in the end, Sanders’ conclusion about Paul’s thought or theology is very limited, as I shall come back to this later.

First, obviously, Sanders’ method is a historical-critical literary approach, and he seems to say that he is not interested in the theological interpretation of scriptures, having an attitude that Paul is Paul and he is not us. Well, that is a good position taken by historians. But this dichotomous position between then and now is not really desirable to take because virtually every interpretation, including a self-proclaimed, objective historian like Sanders, is contextual and ideologically minded. I say this because every interpretation is presupposed. For example, one of Sanders’ undergirding pillars for his view of Paul is the so-called Two Dispensations (Law’s period and Christ’s era), which is his hermeneutical choice. Otherwise, the text does not refer to the two periods in a pellucid context. Another example is his interpretation of the Greek genitive pistis christou (“faith of Christ”), and he chooses to go with the objective genitive meaning (“faith in Christ”) even if he acknowledges that a majority of scholars go with the subjective genitive meaning (Christ’s faithfulness). Otherwise, he never refers to Christ’s faith. That is clearly his choice in matters of translation and interpretation. An irony is that while Sanders attacks Luther’s legalistic interpretation of Judaism and Law, he ends up with another Luther interpretation because his primary interpretation of Paul is always “righteousness by faith in Christ,” which  is called the forensic salvation perspective (like an imputed or imparted righteousness in the case of Augustine and Luther). When Sanders says, “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), this conclusion reflects his own hermeneutical lens about Paul; in other words, he read Paul’s mind through his own mind. Otherwise, there are no crystal-clear references about this in Paul’s text. I will come back to this issue later. Again, while Sanders’ historical-critical literary method produces a wealth of good, sound information about Paul and his thought, his interpretation is very limited because of his reading lens as such, exposing weaknesses here and there.

Second, Sanders’ major arguments in this book are many, so I will list some and briefly explain them below:
1.      Eschatology: The dominant view of Paul’s eschatology is the imminent Parousia when there will be a one-time complete transformation. So much so that in 1 Thessalonians, one of his early letters, Paul told the Thessalonians to earnestly wait for the day of the Lord. But as time went and new situations arose to Paul’s ministry such as in Corinth or in Galatia, Paul needed to deal with them, and the solution was to comfort them with realized eschatology: God is already here and the Spirit is already here for Christians. While Paul’s imminent eschatology did not change drastically, he adopted elements of realized eschatology in dealing with local congregations. In the end, Paul’s eschatology may be characterized with the “already but not yet” slogan.
2.      The Two Dispensations: Paul thought about his relationship with Judaism through these two dispensations: Judaism and Christianity. The logic is that if one is right, the other must be wrong. Law is good because it is God’s gift, but it must be bad because it is not Christ.
3.      Erga nomou (“Works of the law”) in Gal 2:16 and elsewhere does not refer to the Torah in general or to good deeds, but it refers to specific laws that regulate matters of Jewish identity; for example laws regarding circumcision, food, and the Sabbath. That is, a different gospel preached at Galatia, according to Paul, is a strings-attached gospel. What is wrong with this attachment is not because it is law but because gentiles are forced to become Jewish. Compulsion is a problem because such laws are not essential to the Gentiles.
4.      Pistis christou: As I mentioned before, Sanders persistently translates this famous phrase (e.g., Rom 3:21-26 and Gal 2:16) as “faith in Christ” (an objective genitive sense). This decision by Sanders has to do with his view of the Two Dispensations.
5.      Dikaiosyne theou (“the righteousness of God”) in Rom 3:21-26 and Gal 2:16 is understood as an individual righteousness (so the objective genitive meaning). Otherwise, he does not talk about God’s righteousness (the subjective genitive).
6.      Soma christou (“The body of Christ”) is found in 1 Cor 6:15-16; 10:16; 12:27, and Rom 7:4. Sanders clearly connects “the body of Christ” in 1 Cor 12:27 to an organism metaphor. However, “the body of Christ” in 1 Cor 6:15-15; 10:16, and 12:27, in particular, has more to do with “union with Christ,” which requires participation in Christ in some way that he does not specify.
7.      Christology: In Rom 1:4, Jesus is “declared to be the Son of God,” which implies that Jesus was adopted as the son of God. This language of adoption seems to be Paul’s main Christology. At other times, however, his Christology is high, as he employs the Christ hymn in Phil 2:6-11.
8.      The role of the Spirit: Sanders articulates on Paul’s diverse expressions of the Spirit. The Spirit is the Spirit of God, and at other times it is also the Spirit of Jesus. The Spirit is responsible for Christian life from beginning to end. The Spirit language also has to do with sonship: children of God are those who are led by the Spirit.
9.      The role of Jesus’ death: In Rom 3:21-26, Jesus’ death is necessary for the redemption of Christians once and for all. There will be no salvation without Jesus’ death.
10.  Resurrection body in 1 Cor 15: Paul’s view of the resurrection body is not a resurrection of the flesh, but it is a spiritual body, an oxymoronic expression.
11.  Place of Israel: Paul defends the place of Israel (Rom 9-11): “All Israel will be saved” (Rom 11:26); similarly, Paul says, “For God has imprisoned all in disobedience so that he may be merciful to all.” This sounds like universal salvation in the end.
12.  Law: Paul’s view or use of the Law is mixed and conflicting: 1) according to the two dispensations, the Law must be bad because there is a new way of Christ which is through faith in Christ; 2) but it must be good as well because it is God’s gift. Yet, there are other kinds of good ethical laws that must be kept all the time (for example love of God and love of neighbor), whereas some laws (“works of the law”) are not essential to keep for the Gentiles.

Third, Sanders’ strong points in this book will be briefly mentioned. He is most erudite in the area of Second-Temple Judaism’s literature and its intersections with Paul’s life and thought. Part 1, Paul’s Life (about 140 pages, a book length), is, in my view, the treasure of the book because there is ample information and discussions about Paul’s life. Overall, Sanders’ reading of Paul’s method is very convincing; that is, he argues that Paul starts with local contextual issues and draws conclusions first, followed by his various supportive arguments, sometimes with terminological arguments. In that sense, Paul’s scriptural interpretation method is not unique but similar to other Jews. The only difference with his contemporaries is that he has his Christ-leaned conclusions already. So Sanders is right when he says that Paul is not a systematic theologian but a minister-theologian (traveling) who deals with everyday issues throughout his gentile mission.

However, there are a few weaknesses in his arguments. First, there is no consideration of the subjective genitive meaning of pistis christou (“faith of Christ”) in his interpretation of Paul. In fact, as many scholars already pointed out the importance of the subjective genitive meaning (Christ’s faith), the subjective interpretation makes a more sense than the objective one. Second, likewise, dikaiosyne theou (“the righteousness of God”) was understood as an individual righteousness. But in fact, Paul’s gospel begins with God (“the good news of God” in Rom 1:1; 15:6). So it would be certainly very plausible to read the dikaiosyne theou phrase as a subjective genitive (God’s righteousness) because it is God’s initiative of love and justice, which is shown in the world through Christ’s faithfulness (Rom 3:22). This subjective meaning makes a smoother and more logical sense than the other. This understanding seems clear in Rom 3:22: “God’s righteousness through Christ’s faith for all who have faith.” Look, what Paul says here is that God’s righteousness coming through Jesus’ faith may reach people who also have faith like Jesus or like Abraham (I may call this kind of Paul’s gospel “threefold theology of Paul”). Third, Sanders’ interpretation of soma christou (“the body of Christ”), as I stated before, is very limited because the body metaphor can be read as a living metaphor. He is actually close to that possibility of reading in 1 Cor 6:15-16 and 10:16 where he talks about unity and participation in Christ. It would have been better if Sanders had thought about a “living” metaphor—so “the body of Christ” as a Christ-like body because the body is a site of living. Fourth, the Two Dispensations theory is weak because, for Paul, Christ can be understood as fulfilling the law as in Rom 10:4, not replacing it. The problem is not the Torah itself but the crooked human heart, the misuse of the law, or the narrow interpretation of the law, which is shown for example on the issue of circumcision in Galatians.

Before closing, I like to mention the book’s stylistic issues. There are too many repetitions and/or redundancies of the same ideas or words throughout the book; I read the author’s excuses about this in the Introduction. But those excuses cannot justify this. Chapters in Part 2 may need a clearer structure than the current because there are some topics that keep coming throughout. I also have to say that I noticed an embarrassing error in the middle of the book; there are four columns of translations (four different versions), but they were completely messed up with the author’s translation missing and with mistaken headings of versions (512).

Even if there are some limitations in his arguments or things to which I cannot agree, it is no question that I owe Sanders a lot in my in-depth understanding of Paul. I admire his critical spirit and rigorous approach to Paul and his letters that defy an easy compromise with any. I thank him for this lengthy, yet informative book on Paul that will last long for generations to come. I have no hesitation that I will highly recommend this valuable book to anyone who wants to engage Paul in his historical context, especially in view of first-century (and Second-Temple) Judaism and Jewish Diaspora experience.


I have two books about Paul: Christ's Body in Corinth (Fortress, 2008) and A Theological Introduction to Paul's Letters (Cascade, 2011).