Criticisms of the New Perspective
Though this perspective has been highly influential, it has not been whole-heartedly accepted through out New Testament scholarship. Many reject the movement altogether, while some accept some aspects as furthering our understanding of Paul within his first century context, at the same time rejecting other aspects of this perspective as exegetically unfounded. Sanders opinion that there was enough unanimity in Judaism to construct a basic soteriology has been hotly contested. Many have still found the so-called “Lutheran” Paul to be exegetically convincing.
When viewing the overwhelming amount of second temple literature, it seems as though Sanders idea of covenantal nomism fits much of the evidence. However, it does not necessarily fit all of it. Sanders admits that 4 Ezra contains a legalistic understanding of salvation where God weighs ones merits against his demerits. This he takes to be one exception to the rule. Richard Bauckham shows that this type of legalism was not foreign to apocalyptic literature. 2 Enoch has a similar picture of a weighing of deeds which will determine one’s final salvation. He also believes that in 2 Baruch, the author does not teach a theology of grace which then leads to good works as Sanders claims, but quite the opposite. “With reference to 2 Baruch, it would be more accurate to say not simply that God bestows mercy on the righteous, but that God has mercy on the righteous because of their good works.” (Justification and Variegate Nomism Volume 1 pg. 182)
It is worthy of note that there are a couple major figures within the period that Sanders does not extensively analyze: Josephus and Philo. Philo, Sanders does discuss to an extent, though not in my opinion as much as is deserved. Sanders simply concludes that Philo must held to covenantal nomism. It is understandable why Sanders would not use Philo as representative of Judaism simply because Philo’s ideas come from Greek philosophy. However it is unlikely that Philo was the alone in his Jewish/Platonic syncretism. In a Hellenized world, as first century Palestine was, there is bound to be some influence of Greek philosophy within ordinary religious life, at least in the minds of some. If this is the case, this type of Judaism does not fit Sanders categories. While Philo did have some idea of a national covenant, the importance lay, not on this covenant, but on the acquisition of virtue.
Josephus is surprisingly absent. Sanders utilizes him for historical purposes but never once seeks to analyze his theology. Josephus does see that there is a special covenant with the Jews. God chose Moses to be the mediator of his covenant rather than Pharaoh. As Spilsbury explains, “this trust gives the Jews privileged access to God’s favor, but only to the extent that they obey the law faithfully.” (ibid pg. 259) This is not to say that Josephus’ depiction of God had nothing to say of grace, or that God required complete perfectionism, but that God’s blessing to a man still did to some extent depend on obedience to the Torah.
These and several other examples prove that Sanders’ treatment of Judaism is lacking. It is not so much that Sanders was completely wrong in his evaluation, but that he went too far than was necessary. Scholarship of the second temple period had often been sloppy and too simplistic. Sanders proves sufficiently that there certainly is more to the picture than mere Pelagianism. That does not mean, however, that this grace centered approach to Judaism was universal. It is not right to speak of a universal “Judaism”, but of “Judaisms” in the second temple period.
Even if it were sufficiently proven that Sanders thesis was correct, would this negate a “Lutheran” interpretation of Paul? I do not think so. A Andrew Das argues that in Judaism, there was a place for forgiveness through the sacrificial system. However, without this system, Judaism became inherently legalistic. Paul, when coming to the realization that Jesus was the messiah, saw that his death negated all other sacrifices as atoning. Therefore, Paul saw only a legalistic system left in Judaism. Das supports his thesis by showing that when the temple was destroyed, this type of legalism predominated such as in 4 Ezra and Josephus. It also seems that the system of covenantal nomism itself does not negate legalism. If one is in the covenant from birth, and must remain in the covenant by works, can this not also become a legalistic system? Who is to say that entrance into the covenant constitutes salvation rather than one’s eschatological vindication? Martin Luther in the 16th century was not fighting against a system which denied grace altogether. The medieval church believed that one was in the church by baptism, thus not by ones own choice, and remained in this state of grace through keeping with penance. In all the effort to separate Paul’s situation from Luther’s, similarities between the two basic soteriological systems have become even more apparent.
The crucial exegetical points argued by Stendhal, Sanders, Dunn, and Wright have been contested by several New Testament scholars of varying backgrounds. Righteousness has been defined as God’s ‘covenant faithfulness’ by New Perspective proponents. Mark Seifrid analyzes the Old Testament background of righteousness, showing that it does not often appear in covenantal contexts. Though the word ‘righteousness’ is used 524 times, and ‘covenant’ 283 times, “in only seven passages do the terms come into any significant semantic contact.”(ibid pg. 423) God’s righteousness cannot be so narrowly defined. It is essentially a creational category. It signifies God’s justice and vindication, not necessarily though possibly connected to covenant. God is often seen as righteous in his acts when dealing with the gentile nations, with whom he had no special covenant. His righteousness vindicates and punishes.
So what does Paul mean when he argues that justification is not by works of the law but by faith? Are these works boundary markers, or legalistic attempts to earn salvation? It seems that Paul is arguing against both conceptions. The law is opposed to the gospel because it requires works, whereas the gospel requires faith. It also opposes the gospel because it was given in some sense to Jews alone while the gospel is universal in scope. Paul makes this contrast clear when he states in Galatians 3:18 that the law does not rest upon faith. Law and faith are contradictory messages. One requires works, whereas the other accepts that one can do no works. Paul does not say here that a distortion of the law does not rest on faith but the law itself. The argument of Romans 4 contrasts one who tries to earn and one who does not work. Clearly the one who does not work is the one who does not try to earn his wages, but accepts the reward as a gift. The definition of law as a mere boundary marker simply does not fit the argument. The gospel is opposed to all kinds of boasting, whether it is in one’s meritorious deeds or in one’s nationality, or in one’s own wisdom. Is it not probable that Paul was arguing against all of these conceptions at once? Anything that puts one’s trust into something that is not God’s vindication in Christ is opposed to the gospel.