Book Reviews > New Testament > Paul, the Law, and the Covenant
Thomas R. Schreiner
Professor of New Testament, The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary
The new perspective on Paul initiated by E. P. Sanders's 1977 tome, Paul and Palestinian Judaism: A Comparison of Patterns of Religion has set the agenda for discussion on Paul and the law for the last 25 years. Indeed, it seems that the new perspective is now the consensus in NT scholarship. Andrew Das, in what appears to be a revision of his dissertation at Union Theological Seminary in Virginia, joins the significant chorus of dissenting scholars by providing a fresh interpretation of the role of the law in second temple Jewish literature and major Pauline texts.
Das argues that a tension between a rigorous and perfect obedience of the law and Israel's elect status is evident in Jubilees, the Qumran literature, Philo, and the Tannaim. The demand for perfect obedience is featured, and yet atonement is available for sin. Sometimes the Tannaim emphasize God's grace in electing Israel, while on other occasions they argue that God chose Israel because of the merits of the fathers. Das maintains that the tension between obedience and covenant is relaxed in Fourth Ezra, 2 Enoch, 2 and 3 Baruch, and the Testament of Abraham. In these writings the necessity of strict obedience to the law comes to the forefront, and the covenantal mercy of God fades from view.
Das's conclusions on Judaism fit with newer research that emphasizes the diversity of second temple Judaism (e.g., the work of Friedrich Avemarie and the first volume of Justification and Variegated Nomism). Sanders's claim that second temple nomism was characterized by obedience to the law that is a response to God's grace appears to be too simplistic. The evidence is more complex and "variegated"; in some Jewish documents the demand for perfect obedience is asserted, and the centrality of the covenant seems to be pushed aside.
The majority of Das's book contains a careful and insightful interpretation of central Pauline texts on the law. The exegesis is lucid, well-argued, and wonderfully conversant with modern scholarship. Das is not satisfied with traditional or newer conclusions, but re-examines the textual evidence carefully to discern what Paul says. Even those who disagree with Das will have to reckon with and respond to his reading of the evidence.
In the space of this review, we should call attention to some of the major conclusions defended by Das. He argues that Paul rejects covenantal nomism in Galatians 3-4 and 2 Corinthians 3. The old covenant is not a gracious framework for the law. It seems, though, that he should emphasize more clearly here the salvation-historical disjunction between the old and new covenant. Still, Das rightly maintains that Paul denies any atoning function for OT sacrifices (though he wrongly, in my judgment, underplays the theme of Christ's death as a sacrifice). If OT sacrifices do not atone for sin now that Christ has come, it follows that perfect obedience is required of those who place themselves under the law, for they can no longer offer sacrifices to atone for their transgressions. The centrality of Jesus Christ as the mediator of salvation rules out any atoning function for OT offerings and sacrifices.
The notion that Paul believed perfect obedience was required is then defended from Gal 3:10. Das demonstrates that the text cannot be restricted to Israel’s corporate sin but also indicts individuals for their sin (contra those like Wright and Scott who restrict the text to the exile theme). The term "works of the law" is defined as the commands of the law in general without any special focus on the identity markers that distinguish Jews from Gentiles (contra Dunn). Das rightly says that in Rom 4:1-8 the issue is both Jewish exclusivism and a critique against works-righteousness. We should not opt for an either-or answer in this case. Paul thinks works of law are now merely works of human achievement because atonement is only in Christ (cf. also Rom 9:30-10:8). Hence, from the Jewish standpoint such works were not legalistic, but Paul reckoned them as such because of his christological framework. Das is probably correct that Paul and his Jewish opponents would conceive of works differently, but as believers we "privilege" Paul's estimate as God’s view of reality.
Philippians 3:6 has been central to the discussion of Paul's view of the law since Paul claims to be blameless in his keeping of the law. Das rightly says that Torah obedience is not the same thing as sinlessness, and that Paul refers to his verifiable and public obedience here. Still, Paul's extraordinary devotion to the Torah is futile because atonement is no longer available through the sacrificial cult of the OT. This last insight is one of the most valuable in the entire book, as noted earlier, but Das does not integrate Phil 3:6 well with Phil 3:9 where Paul rejects his own righteousness and clings to the righteousness of God (cf. Phil 3:2-3). Das rightly spies the salvation-historical character of Paul's argument but seems to minimize its anthropological character in this text.
Das's book is full of careful exegetical argumentation and fascinating insights. He rightly notes that Eph 2:8-9 rejects works because they lead to boasting. Hence, the earliest Pauline interpreter (or a later genuine Pauline epistle in my view) understands Paul as Augustine and Luther did later! He closes his book by noting that Sanders has helped us see the ethnic character of the Pauline texts, but has unfortunately excluded the Pauline critique of human achievement. Both themes are present in the text, and hence Das closes with a call for a "newer perspective." His summons should be heeded, and he has helped us remarkably in the quest to do so.
Thomas R. Schreiner
Previously appeared in The Southern Baptist Journal of Theology