I’m still not entirely sure what I think of E. P. Sanders’ Paul: The Apostle’s Life, Letters and Thought. Most scholars who have written extensively on Paul want to write their “big book on Paul”. Examples include James D. G. Dunn’s Theology of Paul the Apostle, a little over a decade ago or Tom Wright’s comprehensive version of his apostle in Paul and the Faithfulness of God.
At one level, Sanders’ book belongs in such company: the older statesman rehearsing his views at the end of his career. At another level, this is a different kind of book. It is written, quite clearly, for undergraduates. Little is assumed, and scholarly methodology is exposed to view in a pedagogically helpful way. Sanders is, it seems, committing to paper his Paul for undergraduates. It is, above all else, clear. The reader knows what Sanders thinks, and what Sanders thinks is that he can offer a relatively Rankean delineation of early Christian history. He claims to prescind from theology, and write as an historian.
If that seems a relatively naïve and unusual claim in contemporary scholarship, it does accurately reflect the absence of present-day academic discourse from this book. The scholar most consistently cited by Sanders, is, well, Sanders. Whatever their merits, ideological criticism(s) and any hint of the cultural or linguistic turn, are entirely absent from this work. And after Sanders citing himself, the next most frequently cited scholar is Lightfoot, who’s been dead well over a century. That Sanders shows the value of older scholarship is commendable (and Lightfoot remains good value), but it would be helpful to see rather more of recent work as well.
It is, in that sense, a dated book, and, reading it with half an eye on whether and where to place it on a reading list, this causes me at least to hesitate. Nonetheless, its great strength is that it is a substantial historical exegesis of Paul by a leading scholar who both knows the ancient world, and is more concerned to situate Paul in his world, than to draw out his relevance for ours. He feels no obligation to make Paul user-friendly for the contemporary church, or to treat him as normative for present-day theology.
Not only is Sanders extremely good at moving between textual detail and larger historical picture, but he is also exemplary in the clarity of his argument and the readability of his prose. (It is, however, by deliberate pedagogical intent, somewhat too repetitive for my liking.) The reader understands why Sanders thinks what he does, and the reader’s energy is directed to understanding the primary text, rather than the secondary commentary. In that sense, his very limited engagement with more recent secondary literature serves the strength of his writing, even while underlining its constraints.
If the book is badly served by a complete lack of bibliography, it is very well served by excellent indices. This means that a student can make the most of it as a wide-ranging exegetical engagement with Paul’s text, albeit in a positivist historical context which needs rather more hermeneutical and sociological nuancing than it gets.
If anyone wants a detailed interaction with the book’s content then Ben Witherington (as always showcasing his popularising conservative tendencies) is posting a detailed summary and critique on his blog – currently up to part 30!. Here I will content myself with a single issue which, I think, raises questions about both the strengths and weaknesses of the book.
Sanders argues (with many others) that Acts is of very limited value in assessing Paul. One of the issues he particularly addresses is that of Paul the Pharisee. He sees a real discrepancy between the apostle revealed in the (undisputed) letters, and the concerns of Pharisaic Judaism. Observing Luke’s tendency to concentrate his examination of Jewish Christianity on the church in Jerusalem, he argues that Luke’s presentation of Paul as a student of Palestinian Pharisaism (at the feet of Gamaliel no less) is quite implausible.
No one can doubt Sanders is a specialist on using rabbinic traditions to recreate the Pharisees that may lie behind them, though his long-running and famous spat with the late Jacob Neusner (which I couldn’t resist alluding to in the title of this post), reminds us that the evidence is very dependent on the methodology being used to quarry it.
Here, I have questions about Sanders’ method. I suspect, that had Paul not claimed to be a Pharisee, and that quite emphatically, Sanders would have attributed the idea of Saul the Pharisee to Lukan creativity. Unfortunately for him, however, Paul is emphatic this was part of his past. The problem this gives him is that Paul’s Christian catechesis, as revealed by the letters, suggests to Sanders someone whose educational method and content, whose pedagogical and ethical interests, are a long way from his own reconstruction of the Pharisees. Sanders therefore locates Paul in a category of “Diaspora Pharisaism”, of which to be blunt, we know nothing, except (on this argument) that it doesn’t look much like Palestinian Pharisaism.
To my mind, this is a problem. It looks rather like a way of side-lining the datum that Paul was a self-proclaimed Pharisee, because Paul’s approach doesn’t look (as far as reconstructions admit) much like Sanders’ painstaking reconstruction of the Pharisees of pre-70 Palestine. Given that Paul is the only self-identified Second Temple Pharisee whose pre-70 writings we have, I think we need to give rather more weight to his writing. He is obviously not an unbiased source. Nor, unfortunately is anyone else. But if a scholarly reconstruction of Second Temple Pharisees leads us to a place where the surviving writings of a Second Temple Pharisee show only that he is nothing like a Second Temple Pharisee, isn’t it at least possible there is something wrong with the reconstruction?
That rather big caveat aside, I confess to having enjoyed reading this, for the clarity of both its thought and expression, for the honesty of its appraisal, and for the way in which Sanders places detailed engagement with the text of Paul at the heart of his work. In those respects, at least, it is potentially a very good book to put in front of beginning undergraduates, as the fruit of a long career reading and interpreting Paul. However, it can only truly be recommended when supplemented by something that surveys more recent scholarship, and helps situate Sanders himself in the broader field. For that I still know of nothing better than David Horrell’s excellent Introduction to the Study of Paul.