Few books have impacted biblical studies in the past decades more than E. P. Sanders' Paul and Palestinian Judaism. This groundbreaking book has been instrumental in a reevaluation of many long-held presuppositions about Judaism at the time of Paul and Jesus, and about how Paul related to that heritage. I've long heard it referred to, cited, and criticized, so I thought it was finally time that I read it for myself. And I'm extremely glad I did.
First, a word about my reading, which was a bit selective. I chose to read the conclusions he draws at the close of the first two thirds of the book, dealing with his reevaluation of Judaism and his assertion of "covenantal nomism" as the overriding framework at the turn of the era. I then read the remainder of the book, dealing specifically with Paul and his relation to the Judaism of his day as reconstructed by Sanders. I'm not competent to comment on the foundational aspect of his thesis that Judaism is typified in Paul's day by covenantal nomism, that entry into the covenant was by God's grace and that works served to maintain that relationship as a way of staying in, other than to say it is obvious that Sanders was instrumental in awakening a reappraisal of the sources and a questioning of some long-held assumptions. I have found it to be a compelling argument, even if not completely convincing on all counts.
His chapters on Paul are uniformly well written and well argued. His foundational claim is that Paul reasoned from solution to plight, and not the other way around, so that the driving force in Paul's thinking was not what was wrong with Judaism or the Law or with humanity in general, but instead by his conviction that Jesus Christ is Lord and is the only way for salvation. This basic premise causes a reevaluation of Paul's thought process and illuminates Paul's thinking in a fresh way. Instead of focusing on justification by faith as the peak of Paul's theological reasoning (his "pattern" of religion in Sanders' terminology), participation with Christ moves more toward center stage. It is the need of Jesus Christ as Lord that is the decisive factor in his distancing himself from Law observance: not that it is futile or wrong-headed or unable to attain righteousness, even if these are also his conclusions, but first and foremost that it isn't focused on Jesus Christ as Lord. His focus on the participationist stream of Paul's thinking is especially enlightening, as he shows how important the theme of dying with Christ is to Paul's understanding of salvation. In his discussion of works, Sanders asserts that "Salvation by grace is not incompatible with punishment and reward for deeds," (517) and that is the position he asserts as Paul's. With regard to covenantal nomism, he says that Paul's view of works is in perfect agreement (518) with the Judaism of his day, but (and this is an important qualifier) Paul's pattern of religion is fundamentally different than covenantal nomism. He stresses this a number of times, asserting that while there is substantial agreement, there is a basic difference (548). That difference is Christ. Paul's pattern of religion, described as "participationist eschatology," is typified by participation in Christ, a change in lordship from the lordship of the flesh or sin to Christ, and being under grace instead of under the law. It is a transfer that takes place, and that is decisive. Even though Paul does spend a good bit of time talking about the role of works, and is rightly concerned with justification by faith, which Sanders includes in his scheme, it is Christ that takes center stage, and union with Christ that is the driving force of his thought. Anything that is pointing toward a different goal is entirely useless, and thus the observance of the Law in order to obtain righteousness is not so much destructive or in need of reformation as it is working in a totally different order than union with Christ.
Even though his discussion of Paul isn't much more than a hundred pages, this short review can only scratch the surface of this seminal work. I came to it with a pretty good acquaintance with many critiques of Sanders' work, and I look forward to continuing to sift this great piece of reasoning and argument. At the very least, it is abundantly clear that he has brought to light a number of themes in Paul that are too often underplayed or subordinated (such as participation or lordship), or at least, that were until after he published this study. I look forward to continuing to study Paul's theology and soteriology, and this important work is clearly one of the indispensable stopping points along that way.