Yet out of the whole human race He chose as of special merit and judged worthy of pre-eminence over all, those who are in a true sense men, and called them to the service of Himself, the perennial fountain of things excellent. (Phil, Spec. Laws 1.303)
I will give my light to the world and illume their dwelling places and establish my covenant with the sons of men and glorify my people above all the nations (Pseudo-Philo, Bibl. Antiq. 11.1f).
The two quotes at the head of this blog are typical of statements in the Second Temple period concerning the election of the Jewish people. As Wright correctly observes, the idea of Israel’s election is “everywhere apparent in the Old Testament” (109), and I would add, almost every present in the literature of the Second Temple period. Israel was specially called by God out of all of the nations of the world. They are given the privilege of receiving God’s Law and the responsibility of being God’s light to the entire world. It is little wonder many other nations thought Israel was exclusivist. They were, to some extent, separate from the nations because they alone were the elect of God. Monotheism alone requires exclusivism. But his exclusivism was not snobbery (or at least ought not be snobbery). Election ought to have been a solemn honor which produces humility rather than
Wright is developing ideas which first found expression in W. D. Davis Sanders (Paul and Rabbinic Judaism) and E. P. Sanders (Paul and Palestinian Judaism). Sanders’ work was so influential that the position he created quickly became known as the “new perspective” on Paul. Sanders’ major point is that scholarship has misunderstood the Judaism of the first century. It was not a “works for salvation” religion as is often stated, but rather the works of the law are a proper response to God’s election to salvation. Like Wright, Sanders is adamant that the proto-Pelagianism that is often associated with the Pharisees of the first century is a mis-reading of the data because of the imposed Lutheran / Augustinian “justification by faith” grid. By actually reading the data from the first century, one finds that there were no Jews who thought the earned their salvation by keeping the Torah.
The important elements of first century Judaism were what “got you in” and what “kept you in” (this catch-phrase has almost become a mantra in Pauline studies.) For Sanders, Jews believed that election of God “got them into” the covenant (i.e. salvation) and that good works were required to keep you in the covenant – but they were not saved by works of the law at all. For this reason Sanders describes the Jews of the first century as believing in “covenantal nomism.” Both the election of God into the Covenant and the keeping of the Law are important. Paul the Jewish rabbi found salvation outside of Judaism, and because of this he was forced to re-think his religion.
Why is this re-thinking of election so controversial? For many post-reformation theological systems, “salvation by faith” in Pauline theology requires that the Jew, the Pharisee, is the mirror opposite of Paul, and therefore a “salvation by works” theology. Paul’s argument only works if the Jews are trying to earn their salvation like Pelagius or the medieval church attacked by Luther. Sanders (and Dunn, Wright and others) challenge that assumption and shake the foundations of justification by faith. If this “new perspective” is correct, does that necessarily that the classic reformation faith is based upon a fiction? Possibly, but it may not be as bad as some of Wright’s detractors make it out to be.