E.P. Sanders – Paul: The Apostles life, Letters, and Thought
E.P. Sanders needs no introduction, he has written extensively on Judaism (second temple/1st century) contributing to New Testament studies while radically redefining the field. Many are familiar with his game-changing book, “Paul and Palestinian Judaism.” This book shifted New Testament studies, launching a host of changes in the process (Wright, Dunn, and anyone living after Sander’s will have to read his contributions).
Sanders’ newest book, “Paul, The Apostles life, letters, and thought,” was just released in early December and published by Fortress Press. Sanders sets sail to write a biography on one of histories most beloved and controversial figures to ever walk this planet, “the apostle Paul.” This book is exactly 862 pages (yes, it’s a massive volume and worth every dollar.) The book shows Sanders brilliant historical analysis and his ability to exegete Paul’s letters with clarity and knowledge of history. Sanders situates Paul in his historical context, in other words, Sanders is not trying to make Paul relevant for pulpits and Christian messages, unless of course these messages are preaching a gospel that made sense in Paul’s world. Sanders (2015) writes, “Paul would be one of the most interesting people in the ancient world to study even if he occupied a smaller place in history. But of course, he is one of the most influential figures in the history of the Near East and the West. Paul was trying to convert gentiles (non Jews) to worship the God of Israel and to accept Jesus as Son of God and savior of the world.” Sanders believed that Paul was starting Jesus communities all through out the Palestine/Roman Empire, and announcing the news about God and his son Jesus Christ. One of the most fascinating and surprising points made by Sanders is that he does not believe Paul was a Palestinian Pharisee prior to his revelation of Jesus Christ. Sanders (2015) writes, “We noted, however, one point that counts against Paul’s being a Palestinian Pharisee: he seems not to have been highly educated in how to make general principles or vague laws in the Bible apply precisely to everyday life, which was an important point of Pharisaism.” The reason for Sanders thinking this would be because he does not believe the Book of Acts lines up with Paul's own testimony found within his letters (see Galatians), Sanders (2015) writes,"Since the primary evidence for Paul is his own letters, we must reject most the material about Paul in Acts 1-9. It is true that he was a persecutor, but not in Jerusalem. It is true that there was connection between Paul's conversion and Damascus; it is true that he went to Cilicia; but the other information about Paul in the early chapters of Acts is inaccurate, according to Paul's sworn testimony ("before God!"). The account in Acts is based on the author's Jerusalem - centric view of early Christianity."
• Paul was a man of his times (for example, think of any historical figure such as Washington or Lincoln and situate them in their context. If you take these men out of their context, you will do them injustice and commit fallacies.) In other words, Paul did not think like us on every given topic (ethics, family values, etc.)
• Paul was a 1st century Jew who was familiar with Greek language and culture. Sanders (2015) writes, “His letters show him to be a member of the Greek speaking Jewish Diaspora, and there are numerous specific points that he shares with other Greek – speaking Jews and not with Palestinian Pharisees.”
• Paul believed in one God (monotheism). Sanders (2015) writes, “He believed that there was only one God and that this God had called Abraham. He also held that Abraham’s descendants – Israelites or later, Jews – constituted the chosen people, the people whom God would protect and save (even though sometimes he had to punish them). One of God’s major acts on behalf of his people was bringing them out Egypt and to mount Sinai, where he gave them the law via Moses. Yet because of a revelation, Paul also deeply believed that the God of Israel had sent his son into the world in order to save all people, whether Jewish or not.”
• Paul’ view of Jesus/Christology. Sanders (2015) writes, “ His approach was simple: God sent Christ, who was his Son and whose death saved people from sin. From reading Rom. 1:1-6, however, we do not know what sense Christ was a ‘son.’ Paul’s statement sounds like a theory of adoption: declared to be Son (Rom. 1:1-6).” The Christ hymn, on the other hand, indicates that Christ was ‘originally in the form of God,’ though he was ‘born in human likeness’ (Phil. 2:6-7).”
• Paul was not a systematic theologian (John Calvin), but instead Paul was an ancient letter writer, writing for certain occasions that arose in Jesus communities. Paul was addressing specific problems (each Jesus community had it’s own ethical challenges that Paul felt he needed to address). Sanders (2015) writes, “Paul’s letters were not essays on selected themes that were revised and polished at leisure, nor did the editor who collected the letters rewrite them to take out rough patches.” Sanders (2015) continues to write,"Scholars often depict Paul as an academic, who wrote his letters the way we write our books: texts spread out around us so that we can look up suitable points, completing a portion of a book or essay, and then going back over it three or ten times or more, trying to get it in order and ensuring that it says just what we intend. I wish to repeat that it is very dubious that Paul traveled with twenty or so heavy scrolls that the Hebrew Bible in Greek required. If he had them with him, it is unlikely that he could have taken the time to unroll one after the other, looking for related quotations to combine."
• Sanders believes that only 7 of the letters were actually written by Paul (Romans, 1-2 Corinthians, Galatians, Philippians, 1 Thessalonians, Philemon).
• Paul believed that Jesus would come back in his lifetime (see 1 Thess. 4-5, Phil. 3:20-21, Rom 13:11-12). In Sanders (2015) writes,"Early Christianity was highly eschatological. The etymological meaning of "eschatology" as "teaching or discussion of last things," is somewhat misleading. Ancient Jewish eschatologists did not expect the end of the world, but rather divine intervention to change it and make it better. The cosmos would not disintegrate; rather, the old order would end and a new and better one would begin."In Sanders view, this obviously never happened and the early Christians struggled to find new ways of talking about Jesus and his second coming (see 2 Peter 3).
• Sanders (2015) sums up Paul’s theology when he writes, “(1) God sent his Son; (2) he suffered and died by crucifixtion for the benefit of humanity; (3) he was raised and was now in heaven; (4) he would soon return; and (5) those who belonged to him would live with him forever. Paul’s gospel, like others, also included the admonition to live by the highest ethical standards: “May your spirit and soul and body be kept sound and blameless at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ” (1 Thess. 5:23).”
Sanders has shown his erudite ability, time and time again, of masterfully handling history, exegesis, Judaism, and Paul. There are very few scholars in the history of the world who have shifted and changed field studies. Sanders is one of those rare Scholars who has come on the scene correcting misunderstandings and arguing pervasively for a new reading in light of new information and findings. One may not agree with Sanders on every point, but his work is a force to be reckoned with. Time will tell, but many from here on out will continue to define their workings of Paul around this man’s contributions to Pauline/NT studies.