Revisiting the distortion

I found this in the comment of another blog post and think it deserves (non-typological but literal) re-publication:

I have read both volumes of Justification and Variegated Nomism. After reading the first volume (for those who do not know, the one interacting with Sanders’ view of Judaism) I was pleased to find that almost every published review I read (and I read many) had the same opinion of it that I did: excellent (though uneven in quality) collection of essays that critically engage Sanders and a concluding-summary essay (Carson’s) that misrepresents the contributors.

Though the contributors have differing assessments of the adequacy of Sanders’ model for their assigned types of Jewish literature, most think that Sanders’ critique of the traditional view of Judaism (e.g., merit-theology, earning salvation, priority of “works” over “grace,” traditional Lutheran-Reformed views of Judaism, etc.) is correct; many think his “covenantal nomism” model helpfully captures the dynamics of their assigned Jewish works to varying degrees; a common criticism (one of the same ones I have of Sanders too) is that Sanders asks Protestant questions of Jewish sources. Just for fun, one of the authors (Richard Bauckham) doesn’t think Sanders went far enough: Bauckham thinks that 4 Ezra also manifest the pattern of “covenantal nomism.” Those who have read Sanders will know that 4 Ezra was a writing he considered an exception to “covenantal nomism.” He thought it represented good ‘ole fashioned legalism.

Don’t get me wrong, some contributors were more critical of Sanders than others, but they did not advocate a return to the traditional view of Judaism (e.g., legalism, etc.). Some think Philip Alexander’s essay is an exception, but his main critique is mine: stop asking Protestant questions of Jewish sources. Mark Seifrid’s tendentious essay on righteousness language in the Hebrew Bible and Early Jewish sources is also a highly critical exception that remains difficult to take seriously (I doubt many broader scholars would deny that it’s a highly theologically-motivated/slanted treatment of the data). Carson made me laugh when he referenced perhaps the most inane snipped of it in his RTS lectures; how Seifrid points out that “covenant” and “faithfulness” never occur next to each other in the Hebrew Bible. That’s about as persuasive a criticism to broader scholars as me pointing out to folks here that “Christ’s righteousness” is a phrase that never occurs in Paul’s writings.

Carson’s summary essay, however, gives the impression that the contributors were far more critical of Sanders than they actually were and that they were critical of Sanders in ways that they were not. Carson does this primarily through the rhetoric of the “diversity” of Early Judaism; e.g., Sanders is right about some ancient Jewish sources, but in general it’s just so diverse, it’s just so diverse, it’s just so diverse, etc. etc. etc. Overall Carson, through this rhetoric, implies the irrelevance of Sanders’ work for reading Paul. He furthermore implicitly (and this comes through quite clearly in the 2nd volume of the series) leaves open the option of just reading Paul and ancient Judaism the way they’ve always been read. The logic seeming to be that since the Sanders challenge has been overcome, there is now no viable competing alternative to the traditional view.

This is disingenuous historical arguing that only persuades non-specialists and/or people who just want to know that the NPP is wrong and traditional readings are correct. The fact that Sanders’ formulation only applies to a few (and not most) early Jewish sources would in no way certify traditional readings of Paul and cleaned-up traditional articulations of Judaism in the old Lutheran-Reformed mold. One has to offer positive arguments for the traditional readings as well. Given my focus thus far how Carson’s concluding essay to volume 1 misrepresents matters, his suggestion in the RTS lectures that people there just skip all the essays in the volume and read only his introduction and conclusion is…well…humorous to me.

Carson’s rhetoric of “Judaism is just so diverse” is a smoke-screen for smuggling in a cleaned-up traditional view of Judaism. One can see this from his own words elsewhere. See, for example, the revised version of his dissertation, “Despite all the diversity which enriches intertestamental Judaism, certain trends are so clear they can scarcely be ignored. With the partial exception of the Dead Sea Scrolls, legalism is on the rise, and with it merit theology” (Divine Sovereignty and Human Responsibility, 120).

Just to be clear, I too affirm the diversity of Hellenistic and Roman-era “Judaism.” In fact, my own projects seek to deepen articulations of that diversity by emphasizing…well…perhaps more on that when I or others I know who are tracking down the same path publish our thoughts on this : ).

BTW, the main problem with the second volume of the series is that the authors start with “the conclusions” of volume 1, by which they mean what Carson’s concluding essay distortingly lays out. They generally do not grapple with how they need to offer positive arguments for why the traditional questions they still bring to the texts are the most salient and contextually fitting, if that makes sense.

This may be more of a reply than you wanted or expected. A while back I started writing a review-article of the Justification and Variegated Nomism series. Perhaps I will complete and publish it at some point in the future. For now you get part of its basic argument :).

Quite amazing. And, by the way, even if some essential point of orthodoxy was at stake (which is totally not the case), Job’s warning would still apply:

Will you speak falsely for God
and speak deceitfully for him?
Will you show partiality toward him?
Will you plead the case for God?
Will it be well with you when he searches you out?
Or can you deceive him, as one deceives a man?
He will surely rebuke you
if in secret you show partiality.
Will not his majesty terrify you,
and the dread of him fall upon you?
Your maxims are proverbs of ashes;
your defenses are defenses of clay.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *