As many of you know, among mere mortals, I consider the apostle my chief theological and pastoral hero.
Paul by E.P. Sanders was first published in 1991, but now it’s out in an illustrated edition (2009) with a bit of revision here and there.
Below are summaries of Sanders take on various aspects of Paul’s Life and Thought:
On Paul’s Mission
Sanders argues that Paul saw God’s plan in history in two ways: 1. His rescue of Israel; and 2. His rescue of the Gentiles. The first of these is attributed to Jesus, God’s servant to the Jews (Rom. 15:8). Then Paul saw himself as fulfilling the second half of God’s plan, “Apostle to the Gentiles in the Messianic Era” (Rom. 11:13; 15:14-16).
On Paul’s Life and Letters
Sanders is not totally convinced that Paul studied under Gamaliel I. Rather, the author of Acts drew an inference because Paul was an outstanding Pharisee and Gamaliel the leader of the party (p. 14).
Romans, 1 and 2 Corinthians, Galatians, Philippians, 1 Thessalonians, and Philemon he attributes to Paul. “Fortunately Paul wrote letters, and equally fortunate someone collected, edited, and published some of them” (p. 15).
He argues also from 1 Clement, a letter from the Bishop of Rome to the Corinthian church around A.D. 96, that Paul was executed in Rome, during his first imprisonment, at the close of Acts 28. A follower of Paul wrote 1 and 2 Timothy, Titus, the Pastoral Letters.
On Paul’s Method and Message
While he seen as debating in the marketplace, synagogues, and debating publicly, Sanders believes that when Paul entered a new city, “he probably took a room in which to ply his trade, and he talked with whoever came in or walked past” (p. 33). Regarding his message, Paul “preached the death, resurrection, and lordship of Jesus Christ, and he proclaimed that faith in him guaranteed a share in his life” (p. 34). This Sanders says we can know with “a good deal of precision” from Paul’s surviving letters.
On Paul’s View of the Return of the Lord and the Resurrection of the Dead
At first, argues Sanders, Paul said nothing about life after death for believers, since he believed Jesus was returning in his lifetime and that of his converts. But when believers started dying in Thessalonica, Paul had to modify his eschatology (pp. 44ff).
Furthermore, in combining both Greek and Jewish ideas of immortality, Paul believed that “at death the soul ascends to heaven, to await the resurrection; at the resurrection soul and body are reunited” (p. 53).
On Paul’s View of Righteousness by Faith and Being in Christ:
Sanders devotes two chapters to Paul’s view of Righteousness by Faith and Being in Christ: first in his letter to the Galatians and then in his letter to the Romans. In his Letter to the Galatians, Sanders aruges that when Paul speaks of “righteousness by faith,” he has in mind how the Gentiles are included in the renewed family of God, a view shared by N.T. Wright.
Regarding Paul’s Letter to the Romans, Sanders says that despite differences between Romans and Galatians the problem is substantially the same: “that of Gentile inclusion in the people of God.” He adds: “The single most important theme of Romans is equality of Jew and Gentile” (pp. 106-7).
For Sanders, while dikaioun, “to righteous” (a term he favors over “to justify), has a legal aspect in its active use, he believes that in its passive use Paul forced it to mean “changed, transferred, incorporated into another person” (p. 77).
On Paul’s Christology
To Paul, Jesus was indeed the Son of God. But what occupied Paul’s thought, though he held to a forensic and judicial aspect of Christ saving us through the Cross, was “participation in Christ and a change of one’s state from being under Sin to living in the Spirit” (p. 130).
Sanders believes Paul held to what would later be called “Adoptionism”: Jesus was adopted by God as Son, not born that way. He cites Romans 1:1-4 as his proof text (p. 131).
On Paul’s View of the Law
Sanders argues that Paul presented different views of the Law according to the circumstances: in one case, the Law was a badge of membership for the Jews (Rom. 9:4); in another, as a set of ethical standards for corrective behavior (Rom. 13-8-10).
But the chief purpose of the Law: “God gave the law in order to condemn, with the ultimate purpose of saving people through Christ” (p. 145).
On Paul’s View of the Salvation of Israel and the World: Romans 9-11
In Romans 9-11, Sanders says that according to Paul the Jews had one problem: “Rejecting Jesus as the Christ” (p. 189). God’s solution to the problem: “God will save Israel by means of the Gentile mission, which will make them jealous and lead hem to accept Christ” (Ibid.)
Regarding the problematic Romans 11:25-27, Sanders portrays Paul as a Covenant Theologian: “God has made a covenant with Israel, and he will keep it, whether they are obedient or not” (p. 191).
Then Sanders ends his radical and challenging book with the apostle Paul as a universalist. This Sanders argues from Romans 11:32-36; 5:18; and 1 Corinthians 15:21-22.
If you wish to have your view of Paul challenged, I highly recommend that you read Paul: A Brief Insight by E.P. Sanders.