Basics of the New Perspective: Judaism as a Religion of Grace

There are a few battleground ideas and texts on which the New Perspective differs from the traditional view.  First and foremost is the nature of Judaism in the first century.  From the traditional perspective, Judaism was a legalistic religion which required works for salvation.  This was often stated but rarely proven, especially in popular presentations.  The Pharisees are often described as hand-wringing legalists who sought to burden others with onerous laws which made little sense.  Perhaps there is an undercurrent of anti-Semiticsim here, but more often than not this mis-characterization is simply the result of ignorance of what Jews actually believed in the Second Temple period.

Sanders turned the assumption that Judaism was a legalistic religion on its head – Judaism was in fact a religion centered on God’s grace, as demonstrated in his election of Israel as his people and his gracious gift of the covenant.  Of critical importance is the election of Israel as God’s people and the covenant He made with them.  Philo states: “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” (Spec. Laws 1.303).  Similar statements of Israel’s election are common in nearly all the literature of the second temple.  Equally common are statements about the covenant God sought to initiate with the people he had chosen.  Sanders cites Pseudo-Philo: “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” (Bibl. Antiq. 11.1f, JBP, 264).

Israel’s election is confirmed by God’s gift of the Law and his requirement of obedience to that law. Everything we know about Judaism in the Second Temple Period is predicated on the fact that God gave the law and he required his people to obey.   Because Israel is chosen and given a Law and the responsibility of obedience, she is liable for both rewards and punishment; to experience both God’s justice and mercy.  God cannot let an evil-doer escape.  He is all-knowing and punishment is certain (Antiq. 1.14; 3.321, 4.286).

Perhaps the most controversial point in Sanders’  view of common Jewish theology is that Judaism was a religion of grace.  As noted above, the Christians often describe Judaism as  a works-salvation in contrast to Paul’s salvation by grace alone.  Everything in Jewish religion seems to point to the grace of God in this life.  Whatever one has, whatever one is, it is only by the grace of God.  One did not do the various “works of righteousness” (circumcision, food traditions, but also shema, prayer, wearing tefillin, etc.) in order to receive grace, rather one did them in response to the grace already received.

If this is a correct understanding of Judaism, then it seems to me that it is rather a” Pauline” way of expressing ethical obligations.  Or maybe Paul is rather still Jewish in his ethical teaching!   Paul never says one can be right with God on the basis of good works, it is only by God’s sovereign choice to adopt the believer as a member of his family that we can be saved: by grace through faith.  But it is well know that Paul also gives many ethical and moral commands which he expects from his churches.  These are not requirements to be saved, but the natural response of those who are “in Christ.”

To summarize this point for Sanders: Election is what placed the Jews “into” the covenant; obedience is what “keeps them in.” There are a number of mechanisms which are used to deal with disobedience, all of which are expressions of God’s grace. There is nothing Israel did to merit this election.  Israel is given every help possible by God’s grace to assist them in the “keeping in” element.

Is this a wrong view of Second Temple Judaism?  Perhaps Sanders has overstated his case in come respects (Matt 23 makes the Pharisees out to be legalists) and Paul seems to be arguing against some form of legalism in Galatians.  There is a certain attraction to legalism since it defines the steps one must take in order to be right with God.

But on the whole, I think Sanders is correct.  A major cornerstone of the theology of the Hebrew Bible is the gracious loving-kindness of God, his hesed.  Nowhere in the Bible do we read of someone who claims to be burdened down by the impossibly heavy load the Law.  Rather, keeping the law is the proper response to a gracious God. The big difference between Paul and Second Temple Judaism is his view of Gentiles keeping the Law.  More on that later.

5 thoughts on “Basics of the New Perspective: Judaism as a Religion of Grace

  1. I think Israel was a legalistic society. One of my opinions on this is that the Jews cared only for the morality of the Law and ignored the Law’s command to be a light to all nations. Israel was supposed to be a society of Righteousness AND Justice. The traditional view, say Luther, says that Judaism is only about Righteousness, but the reason he believed this in the first place is because the Judaism we see in the time of Jesus is only a view of Righteousness. This is because Israel was not fulfilling the whole Law. Israel was really good at Righteousness, but was terrible at Justice.

  2. Ah, should we forever fear the igorance and judgement of Christians? That would be a waste of our time and energy in my opinion. Propaganda in nothing but gossip based on the opinions of the uninformed and zenophobic minds who wish to discredit the innocents to ensure their hold over the masses and obtain an ever increasing power…..for what purpose, I cannot imagine is good. This is just my own personal opinion based on my study and my observations.

  3. The belief that Judaism was a works based religion is a myth passed around by the church for many hundreds of years. Everyone seems to forget that the law was given by God himself and that He required obedience. In the Messianic era the Bible says that the ‘law will go forth from Zion” and that God will make a new covenant with His people in which the law will ‘be written on their hearts’. –Same law….the Torah. But He will have changed their hearts. They will perform ALL mitzvot out of love for God and for neighbor. We experience some of the Kingdom of Heaven now as a foretaste of what is to come by acknowledging that Messiah sacrificed his life to change our hearts. Whatever the Spirit of God leads you to do -visit the sick, feed the poor, offer an encouraging word to someone, return a piece of property to your neighbor that has blown into your yard- there are mitzvot written for all of that. You are following Torah laws. Way, way before Moses and Jesus we have Abraham: a man of great faith. Why is he a man of faith? How do we know?..Because whenever God told him to do something, he did it. He was obedient. Jesus’s little brother, James: “I will show you my faith by my works”.
    It seems that part of the problem is that people don’t realize that they only need keep the laws that APPLY TO THEM. Not even Jesus kept all 613 commandments. Some of the commandments only apply to women. Some only apply to parents. Some only apply to Levites. Some only apply to the priesthood (sons of Aaron), ect…
    I love this new scholarship on Paul (showing a Paul within Judaism). I hope it begins to clear up anti-Semitic tendencies we have in the church and begins to repair the breach between Christians and Jews.

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