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Book Reviews and Summaries

Judaism in Justification and Variegated Nomism

D. A. Carson, Peter O'Brien, and Mark Seifrid

D. A. Carson, Peter O'Brien, and Mark Seifrid

In contrast to Sanders’ emphasis on the essential consistency of Palestinian Judaism’s pattern of religion, the essays in Second Temple Judaism emphasize the nomistic diversity, or variegation, that ancient Judaism exhibited.

Consequently, a concise summary of the whole volume that appreciates the variegated findings of each author would be difficult to produce. Therefore, below are brief, individual summaries for each of the essays. For more detailed summaries of the arguments in chapters 2–15, see Carson’s concluding essay (505–48). The bracketed numbers below refer to the chapter numbers in Second Temple Judaism; all parenthetical references also refer to this work unless otherwise noted.

To jump to the summary for a specific essay, choose one of the following: psalms and prayers, scripture-based stories in the pseudepigrapha, expansions of scripture, didactic stories, apocalypses, testaments, wisdom, Josephus, the Tannaim, the targums, Philo, Qumran, righteousness language, the Pharisees, and summaries and conclusions.

[2] Psalms and Payers (Falk) “If [his] aim was to give a sort of ‘lowest common denominator’ soteriology that would be recognized by most of the divergent expressions of Judaisms [sic], Sanders’s covenantal nomism would serve fairly well, given his generous allowances of flexibility. To do so, however, would be akin to grouping apples, oranges, and bananas together as ‘fruit.’ For comparative purposes, such a harmonizing approach is of limited value. It masks very different conceptions of the problem of sin, the balance of focus on nationalism and individualism, and most significantly the boundaries of the covenant” (56).

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[3] Scripture-Based Stories in the Pseudepigrapha (Evans) This literature promotes the role of obedience to the law in determining one’s membership in the people of God. “This is not to say that the authors of these writings did not view God as gracious and forgiving; they did. There is no indication, however, that they believed that people could gain God’s acceptance apart from obedience to the Law” (72).

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[4] Expansions of Scripture (Enns) First Esdras “generally” supports Sanders’ thesis, “albeit indirectly” (75). The additions to Daniel affirm the necessity for true Jews to “worship the true God whatever the circumstances,” and these additions would have functioned to affirm to their readers God’s faithfulness by describing how he had delivered his people in the past (83). The additions to Esther communicate a similar message (87). Pseudo-Philo “never ceases to remind his readers of the obligations God makes on them, but these obligations are nothing less than the special privilege of those who already enjoy covenant status. Covenant precedes law” (92). Jannes and Jambres, however, is too problematic to use in developing an affirmation or critique of Sanders’ thesis (87–88), but Sanders’ general assessment of Jubilees “seems to be sound” (97).

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[5] Didactic Stories (Davies) “With the exception of Aristeas, none of these stories . . . gives a very clear hint as to what it is about Judaism and the Jewish people that makes it important for them to be preserved. Such a question, perhaps, was not worth asking and the answer taken as self-evident” (131). What is clear from these stories, however, is that “no Jew is an island, and in the fate of every Jew lies, potentially, the fate of the Jewish people” (131).

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[6] Apocalypses (Bauckham) First Enoch substantially supports Sanders (148). Yet, 2 Enoch, even more than 4 Ezra (172), advocates a legalistic form of works-righteousness (156). The section of the Apocalypse of Zephaniah that probably would discuss the consequences of Zephaniah’s righteous deeds is missing, but on hearing his sins rehearsed, Zephaniah does plead for forgiveness because of the greatness of God’s mercy (158). Consequently, in the absence of a manuscript that contains the missing text, one may tentatively assume that Apoc. Zeph. supports Sanders’ argument. Third Baruch has a similar perspective (185); by contrast, Second Baruch emphasizes the need that the righteous have for God’s mercy, while also viewing the possibility of faithful obedience to the law rather more positively than does 4 Ezra (181). The Sibylline Oracles have a complex, literary history that includes the intermingling of (Diasporic) Jewish material with material that is substantially Christian or, at least, material that underwent a substantial, Christian redaction (Eissfeldt 616). The material most relevant vis-à-vis Sanders’ thesis comes from books 4 and 5 and seems to indicate that: (1) the whole law was given to Jews and Gentiles alike and (2) one’s fate depends on how one comports with the law (186–87).

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[7] Testaments (Kugler) An investigation of the testament literature “is not entirely favorable for Sanders’s thesis. Although the Testaments of the Twelve Patriarchs do evince Sanders’s covenantal nomism, the Testament of Moses embraces the concept of election but rejects the idea that ‘obedience [to the laws] . . . or atonement and repentance for transgression’ are ultimately necessary ‘for remaining in the covenant community.’ And while the Testament of Job admits a God-fearer into the community of the elect, it only requires of him trust in God to maintain that relationship” (189–90; insertion and italics original).

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[8] Wisdom (Gowan) “With reference to Sanders’s terms, ‘getting in’ is clearly attributed entirely to the divine initiative in [Sirach, Baruch, Wisdom of Solomon, and 4 Maccabees]. The[se documents] affirm the existence of a special relationship between God and Israel; and Sirach, Wisdom of Solomon, and 4 Maccabees base their teachings on the certainty that the sovereign and merciful God is faithful to that relationship. . . . [For Baruch, s]taying in does not depend entirely on human obedience, but depends on mercy that transcends merit. Confession of sin and appeal for forgiveness play a larger role than in other books. The need for repentance and forgiveness is also dealt with in Sirach, and this shows that the author does not operate with a strictly merit-based theology. The background of persecution in Wisdom of Solomon and 4 Maccabees leads to more interest in divine support for those suffering for their faithfulness than concern about what they may have done wrong” (238).

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[9] Josephus (Spilsbury) Instead of covenantal nomism, one may characterize Josephus’s nomism more accurately by the phrase “patronal nomism.” “‘Patronal nomism’ is more than just ‘covenantal nomism’ by another name. It is, in fact, a thoroughly Romanized translation of a biblical concept into a new idiom” (252). This idiom designates “an exchange relationship in which people enjoy the blessings of God’s patronage to the extent that they display gratitude in the practice of their lives for the divine benefaction which is God’s law” (259).

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[10] Torah and Salvation in Tannaitic Literature (Alexander) “Tannaitic Judaism can be seen as fundamentally a religion of works-righteousness, and it is none the worse for that. The superiority of grace over law is not self-evident and should not simply be assumed” (300).

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[11] Some Targum Themes (McNamara) “It is clear that according to the [Palestinian] Targum Israel’s election was not due to her own merits” (331). Moreover, “[s]ince both the covenant and the law are as central to the Targums as they are to the biblical text which [the Targums] translate, it may be permissible to describe the religious approach of the Targums, in so far as this can be reconstructed, as ‘covenantal nomism’” (355). It may, however, be “questionable whether ‘covenantal nomism’ is an apt description of any form of Jewish religion. The term ‘nomism’ tends to denote a static position, conformity to a set of rules. . . . [Yet, t]he covenant is not a term that describes a static religion” (355).

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[12] Philo of Alexandria (Hay) While affirming Philo’s basic agreement with his own view, Sanders admits that Philo: (1) does not clearly articulate a view of the law, Israel’s redemption, or life after death and (2) is especially concerned with individuals seeking God (see 370). “To these qualifications two others should be added: (1) Philo says very little about God’s covenant(s) with Israel, and (2) his framework of religious thought is not soteriological (despite his frequent references to God as ‘savior’). Adding together all these qualifications, it would seem, after all, not very useful to speak of Philo as a representative of ‘covenantal nomism’” (370). Still, Philo “does not think of human free will as absolute and his concept of grace is not synergistic. Fundamentally Philo considers that human responsibility centers in thankfulness to the Creator, who is the source of all that is good within each soul. Everything finally hinges on divine grace” (378).

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[13] 1QS and Salvation at Qumran (Bockmuehl) Sanders’ description of the Qumran community’s pattern of religion was able to stand because of the relatively narrow text base with which he was able to work. This text base included primarily the Damascus Document, the Community Rule, the War Scroll, and the Hodayot (382). He also cites the Habakkuk and Psalms commentaries and the Midrash on Eschatology (4QFlor), but he does so very sparsely (382). Working in the mid-1970s, Sanders’ work on Qumran’s pattern of religion was rather ahead of the publication of the data that it properly required, the last volumes of Discoveries in the Judean Desert only being published in the mid-1990s. Consequently, if anywhere, Sanders can certainly be forgiven here for some imprecision in his treatment (383).

Nevertheless, given the perspectives of the additional manuscripts to which Sanders did not have access, “an explanation of Qumran’s religion purely or even predominantly in classic soteriological terms today seems to be unacceptably narrow” (384). In fact, Qumran’s pattern of religion “may be at once less coherent and more peculiar than Sanders thought. First, the texts themselves manifest a number of fundamentally unresolved tensions. . . . Secondly . . . while the fact of diversity in the Scrolls in some ways invites more ready comparison with other elements in Palestinian Judaism, it also makes it more questionable to distill ‘the Qumran pattern of religion’ and then find, as Sanders does, that it is fundamentally the same as that of rabbinic literature” (412–13). Moreover, “we may have in Qumran a developing example of the sort of exclusivistic preoccupation with ‘works of the law’ against which Paul of Tarsus subsequently reacts in his letters to Gentile Christians” (414).

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[14] Righteousness Language in the Hebrew Scriptures and Early Judaism (Seifrid) “We may freely grant that the Qumran writings frequently associate ברית [covenant] with righteousness terminology [contrary to biblical practice]. Moreover, in the Qumran writings the covenant of the Community is regarded as salvific. It is not clear, however, that Sanders’s framework of interpretation holds even here. The Community regarded the covenant into which they had entered as the true will of God, which one was obligated to perform. . . . Salvation, although it comes from God alone, is found in obedience to God’s requirements” (434; cf. 438). Moreover, biblical and early Jewish literature make it quite clear that “Sanders’s description of ‘righteousness’ as ‘(Israel’s) covenant status’ is inadequate. . . . ‘Righteousness’ obviously can [also] be used with reference to conformity to divine demands” (440).

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[15] The Pharisees Between “Judaisms” and “Common Judaism” (Deines) Sanders views the Pharisees as one of several, Palestinian “Judaisms” (i.e., more or less, self-contained versions of Judaism), but he does not take the additional, normal step of constructing his view of “Common Judaism” based on Pharisaism (444). In his work, however, Sanders’ discussions of Common Judaism and its distinctions from Pharisaism typically occur in summary sections that “only qualifiedly correspond to the statements which appear in the historical overviews” (444). Yet, Pharisaism was actually “the fundamental and most influential religious movement within Palestinian Judaism between 150 B.C. and A.D. 70. . . . Pharisaism can be called normative [for this period] because whatever was integrated and thus legitimized by its recognized representatives (generally probably its scribes and priests) over time became the possession of all of Israel” (503).

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[16] Summaries and Conclusions (Carson) “One conclusion to be drawn, then, is not that Sanders is wrong everywhere, but he is wrong when he tries to establish that his category [of covenantal nomism] is right everywhere” (543). Additionally, Sanders’ thesis about covenantal nomism is misleading because: (1) it does not communicate the significant variation evidenced in the literature and (2) covenantal nomism constitutes an avatar of merit theology (544). “Sanders, as we have seen, is right to warn against a simple arithmetical tit-for-tat notion of payback. . . . Nevertheless, covenantal nomism as a category is not really an alternative to merit theology, and therefore is no real response to it. Over against merit theology stands grace (whether the word itself is used or not). By putting over against merit theology not grace but covenant theology, Sanders has managed to have a structure that preserves grace in ‘getting in’ while preserving works (and frequently some form or other of merit theology) in the ‘staying in.’ In other words, it is as if Sanders is saying, ‘See, we don’t have merit theology here; we have covenantal nomism’ – but the covenantal nomism he constructs is so flexible that it includes and baptizes a great deal of merit theology” (544–45; italics added). Therefore, “it appears that the category of covenantal nomism cannot itself accomplish what Sanders wants it to accomplish, viz. serve as an explanatory bulwark against all suggestions that some of this literature embraces works-righteousness and merit theology, precisely because covenantal nomism embraces the same phenomena. Sanders has to some extent constructed a ‘heads I win, tails you lose’ argument: it is rhetorically effective, but not a fair reflection on the diverse literature” (545; italics added).

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In this post:

D. A. Carson, Peter O'Brien, and Mark Seifrid

D. A. Carson, Peter O'Brien, and Mark Seifrid

Otto Eissfeldt

Otto Eissfeldt

About David Stark

Assistant Professor and Distance Education Administrator

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