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Book Reviews > New Testament > Paul and the Mosaic Law

Simon Gathercole
Lecturer in New Testament at the University of Aberdeen, Scotland

Paul and the Mosaic Law
James D.G. Dunn, ed.
Details: 2001, Eerdmans, Amazon.comISBN: 0802844995
Posted: August 12, 2004


This paperback edition and part-translation of the 1994 Durham-Tübingen Symposium on ‘Paul and the Mosaic Law’ will do much to widen the audience of this important collection of essays. The contributors are some of the key players in the contemporary debates on the issue, and the original German contributions to the symposium and to the original edition are available in English for the first time.

In the first chapter, Hermann Lichtenberger (‘The Understanding of the Torah in the Judaism of Paul’s Day’) identifies a number of areas of progress in recent study of Judaism. The old dangerous caricatures of Judaism as a religion of purely external obedience are on the wane. Older works such as Schürer’s History of the Jewish People in the Age of Jesus Christ and Billerbeck’s source-book providing rabbinic parallels to the NT are being superseded by studies which have a more sympathetic attitude to Judaism. But Lichtenberger also rightly warns that E.P. Sanders’ work must not become a ‘new Billerbeck’. Sanders’ work also has numerous problems - Lichtenberger mentions the criticism by Friedrich Avemarie, for example, that Sanders systematises Judaism too much.

N.T. Wright’s piece on Romans 2 is particularly interesting. He makes an important contribution in his argument for Rom 2.14-15 as referring to gentile Christians, and that 2.12 makes clear that gentiles are not subject to judgment according to Torah. The chapter is a useful and clear statement of his position that Paul is responding to Israel’s extended exile (Rom 2.23-24). It also sets out his understanding of Israel’s sense of national privilege as God’s chosen people irrespective of how much Israelites sinned. This last point (one of the key elements of the ‘New Perspective’ on Paul) goes too far in reacting against traditional understandings of Jewish self-righteousness/works-righteousness, however. The evidence in the book from Lichtenberger (pp. 21-22) and Barclay (p. 308) shows how Josephus ‘boasts’ of Israel’s greater adherence to their laws by comparison with the other nations.

It is also good to have the work of Otfried Hofius translated into English for the first time (as far as I am aware) in this volume. Hofius’ chapter (‘The Adam-Christ Antithesis and the Law’) argues that the Adam-Christ antithesis is central to the understanding of Rom 5.12-21, and that the statements about the Law are relatively incidental to that section. However, where the Law is mentioned, it lies squarely on the ‘Adam’ side, and is not part-way between Adam and Christ in terms of its contribution to salvation. Its function is merely to declare the pattern of sin and death that Adam inaugurated, and the fact that humanity is thus subject to God’s condemnation. This contrasts sharply with the positive view of the Law presented elsewhere in the book. (See, for example, Dunn’s criticisms on p. 322).

For anyone involved in research on Paul, this volume is a must. For the undergraduate wanting to get a feel for the key issues in current debates on Paul and the Law, one could hardly do better than the brief conclusion by J.D.G. Dunn (‘In Search of Common Ground’) at the end of the volume. This section sets up the issues, and collects together some of the discussion which took place at the Symposium, although this material is sometimes slanted in favour of Dunn’s own views. This comes out, for example, in another often repeated New Perspective emphasis: that Judaism’s view of obedience to the Law did not make ‘final acceptance by God conditional on that obedience’ (p. 312). But, as a number of scholars have shown, eschatological salvation in Judaism was precisely dependent upon obedience to the Law. (See, for example, elsewhere in the book: Lichtenberger, pp. 15-16. 22-23; Hengel, p. 33; Stanton, p. 105).

There is, unfortunately, not space to discuss all the essays in the volume. Hengel’s essay (‘The Attitude of Paul to the Law’) argues in particular detail that Paul’s doctrine of justification apart from works of the Law could not have originated in the dispute at Galatia, but rather had its source in his conversion. Stanton’s chapter (‘The Law of Moses and the Law of Christ - Galatians 3.1-6.2’) defends the thesis that Paul does not completely abandon the Law of Moses, and makes a number of criticisms of E.P. Sanders along the way. A debate between S. Westerholm and H. Räisänen focuses around Romans 9-11, while Hans Hübner covers Rom 7, and John Barclay Rom 14-15. There are two chapters on the Law in 1 Corinthians (by Peter Tomson and Stephen Barton), two on Galatians 2 (J. Lambrecht and Bruce Longenecker), and one on 2 Corinthians 3 by Karl Kertelge. Richard Hays’ piece on Rom 3-4 is a particularly useful (and characteristically well-written) statement of his positions on these key chapters. Some of the sections in the book are more technical than others, and the volume is not intended as an introduction to Paul and the Law. It is in general much more suited to research students and scholars than to undergraduates and ministers.

Simon Gathercole

University of Aberdeen

Previously appeared in Themelios 27.1 (2001), pp. 57-58.