Das: From Weber to the New Perspective, and Beyond

I started A. Andrew Das’ Paul and the Jews.

In what I read yesterday, Das narrated the history of scholarship concerning Paul and the Jews.  According to Das, Ferdinand Weber in 1880 presented rabbinic Judaism as a religion that focused on works—-a religion in which God gave people a place in the World to Come only if their good deeds outweighed their bad deeds.  According to Das, Weber acknowledged that rabbinic Judaism held that Jews “might benefit from the treasury of merits earned long ago by the patriarchal ancestors of Israel”, but he still maintained that “the accounting of individual deeds remained strict” (Das’ words on page 4).  The result, for Weber, was twofold: some Jews were self-righteous about their deeds, whereas other Jews were insecure about whether or not they attained enough good works to be saved, and they also viewed God as “remote and inaccessible” (Das’ words).

According to Das, Weber had his critics, such as George Foot Moore and many Jewish scholars.  But Das states that “The dissent was drowned out by a chorus of voices from within the ranks of Christian biblical scholars, especially German Lutherans, who were drawing upon Weber’s work as the standard for good scholarship on Judaism” (page 5).

Das narrates that the situation began to change in 1977, with E.P. Sanders’ scholarship.  Sanders highlighted Mishnah Sanhedrin 10:1’s statement that all Israel has a place in the World to Come, maintaining that rabbinic Judaism held that “only those who had deliberately acted in defiance of the God of Israel were excluded from a place in the world to come” (Das’ words on page 7).  That meant that only the most unrepentant Jews would be barred from the good afterlife, contra Weber’s claim that Jews needed more good deeds than bad to make the cut.  Sanders also noted that Judaism had provisions for atonement, which meant that even the bad deeds could be removed from people’s records.  (I have not read Weber, but I wouldn’t be surprised if he, too, was aware of that point and mentioned it in his book.)  I appreciated Das’ definition of covenantal nomism, which is an essential feature of Sanders’ characterization of Judaism: “God’s gracious election and covenant relationship with the people, along with the merciful provision of sacrifice and atonement for failure, enveloped and formed a framework around the Jews’ observance of the Law’s requirement, the embedded ‘nomism'” (page 8).  This reminds me of Lloyd Gaston’s view that Paul thought Jews observed the law within the context of God’s gracious covenant with Israel.

But, on pages 11-12, Das describes issues that traditional and subsequent scholarship have had with the New Perspective, which Sanders held.  First of all, there were passages in Paul that present humans as unable to accomplish the demands of the Torah.  Many advocates of the New Perspective have said that Judaism did not require perfect obedience to the Torah, and Paul realized that, so Paul was not countering Jewish legalism but rather was elevating Christ (not the Torah) as the only path to righteousness for Jews and Gentiles as well as seeking to include Gentiles into God’s people.  (Of course, scholars who believe in the two-covenants—-that Paul wanted Jews to observe the Torah while not requiring Gentiles to do so—-divert somewhat from this view, though they, too, may be considered part of the New Perspective.)  But more traditional scholars do not think that makes sense of passages in which Paul criticizes boasting in one’s observance of the law, or despairs over the human inability to keep the law.

Second, Das states that subsequent scholarship views Judaism as more complex than Sanders thought.  On page 11, Das states:

“Sanders grossly generalized the complexities of Second Temple Judaism.  The Jews held God’s grace, God’s mercy, and repentance in a lively tension alongside the necessity for people to do God’s law.  The shape of this tension varies from writing to writing and from genre to genre.  The emphasis may fall toward one extreme or the other.”

The debate over the Old and New Perspectives on Paul and Judaism highlight to me how hard it is to generalize religions as religions of grace or works, for Judaism and Christianity have both, and different adherents emphasize different facets of the religions.

About jamesbradfordpate

My name is James Pate. This blog is about my journey. I read books. I watch movies and TV shows. I go to church. I try to find meaning. And, when I can’t do that, I just talk about stuff that I find interesting. I have degrees in fields of religious studies. I have an M.Phil. in the History of Biblical Interpretation from Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati, Ohio. I also have an M.A. in Hebrew Bible from Jewish Theological Seminary, an M.Div. from Harvard Divinity School, and a B.A. from DePauw University.
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