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NPP Reading No.1

Was Paul a Covenantal Nomist?

An Evaluation of Sanders’s “Covenantal Nomism” by Peter O’Brien

Sanders found a common pattern in his treatment of Palestinian Judaism which he labeled “covenantal nomism.” He summarized it as follows:

The “pattern” or structure” of covenantal nomism is this: (1) God has chosen Israel and (2) given the  law. The law implies both (3) God’s promise to maintain the election and (4) the requirement to obey. (5) God rewards obedience and punishes transgression. (6) The law provides for means of atonement, and atonement results in (7) maintenance or re-establishment of the covenantal relationship. (8) All those who are maintained in the covenant by obedience, atonement and God’s mercy belong to the group which will be saved. An important interpretation of the first and last points is that election and ultimately salvation are considered to be by God’s mercy rather than human achievement.

In its simplest form, which has been expressed by a slogan, the “pattern of religion” in Second Temple Judaism is that “getting in” the covenant is by God’s grace, while “staying in” comes about through obedience to the law.

The first volume of our two-volume set, Justification and Variegated Nomism: A Fresh Appraisal of Paul and Second Temple Judaism. Vol. 1: The Complexities of Second Temple Judaism, examined the Jewish literature of this period, “asking fundamental questions about the pattern of the relationships between God and human beings, about righteousness and salvation and eschatology and grace and works and faith and law.” A major purpose of this endeavor was to determine just how pervasive the pattern of “covenantal nomism” was in the literature.

First, the pattern of covenantal nomism was reflected in some parts of the respective corpora examined, but it was not found everywhere. Accordingly, it is “not that sanders is wrong everywhere, but he is wrong when he tries to establish his category is right everywhere.”

Secondly, Sanders’s model is reductionist for, while it occasionally represents one strand of biblical ideas, complementary motifs are often ignored, so that “the resulting synthesis may be far removed from the result of reading the entire Hebrew canon.” Further, a number of features show the model is flawed. Personal worth and meritorious righteousness are a strong focus in some of the literature (e.g. Judith and Tobit). Personal faithfulness is sometimes enjoined, but the question of whether the people will persevere to the end is not addressed (Additions to Esther). An overwhelming emphasis on meriting salvation by obedience to the Law results in human achievement taking center stage and God’s grace being marginalized (4 Ezra). Sometimes the second pole of “staying in” is so underscored that “getting in” is neglected (4 Macc), while elsewhere God’s people “get in” by grace and “stay in” by his determined grace as well (Testament of Moses). Accordingly, one strand of Sanders’s covenantal nomism fails to find anything like consistent support in the sources.

Thirdly, covenantal nomism is misleading, not only reductionist. Using this category across very diverse literature engenders the assumption that there is more uniformity than is actually the case. Sanders’s notion of “getting in” is about how the community becomes the people of God. But Philo’s focus, for example, is on the individual’s pilgrimage toward God, not in being “saved” in traditional senses. “Sanders’s formula is rather difficult to falsify, precisely because it is so plastic that it hides more than it reveals, and engenders false assumption that lose the flavor, emphases, priorities, and frames of reference, of these diverse literary corpora.” Further, although sanders has constructed covenantal nomism as an alternative to merit theology, his construct is so flexible that it actually includes a great deal of merit theology. Although both “getting in” and “staying in” need to be nuanced it is the latter, in particular, that is almost infinitely flexible. Carson questions whether “covenantal nomism has become a rubric so embracing that it includes within its capacious soul huge tracts of work-righteousness or merit theology.” Does the model not include obedience as a matter of faithful conformity to God’s gracious revelation that is enabled by God’s help? Along with a human contribution to the entire scheme that earns a reward (Judith), many texts point to a works-righteousness (the Tannaitic literature), different kinds of merit theology (2 Enoch, 4 Ezra and 2 Baruch) and an atoning function of the martyrs’ deaths in 4 Maccabees.

Fourthly, it has been suggested that the problem is even deeper, namely that the very categories of covenantal nomism are mistaken. Josephus’s approach, according to Spilsbury, ought to be called “patronal nomism” since it seems to be more indebted to ancient systems of benefaction and patronage than notions of grace and obedience. It is also questionable whether “getting in”, as far as Jubilees is concerned, is to salvation or, as Enns suggests, to some sort of preliminary election with salvation being reached by “staying in.”

Fifthly, Seifrid has shown that “covenant” and “righteousness” are not often linked in the Old Testament. God’s righteousness is to be understood first in a creational context. There are consequent difficulties in identifying God’s righteousness with his covenantal faithfulness, as well as defining human righteousness in terms of being in the covenant.

Finally, although the category of covenantal nomism fits some parts of the corpora (but certainly not everywhere), even in those parts the fit is not very good. So, for example, the possibility of sinlessness (for which there is no need for grace) was raised in relation to the Psalms and Prayers. Those who sang the Hodayot at Qumran had joined the community by choice (rather than by grace?); while the Lives of Adam and Eve so emphasizes an elaborate penance that is necessary to return to god, that “getting in” the covenant did not seem to be particularly marked by grace.

The upshot of all this is that the model of covenantal nomism as a category that actually reflects the shape of divine-human relationships in Palestinian Judaism (or that of the Roman empire as a whole) during the Second Temple period is seriously flawed, and requires so many qualifications and adjustments that it should now be abandoned.


Peter O’Brien, “Was Paul a Covenantal Nomist?” in Justification and Variegated Nomism. Volume 2: The Paradoxes of Paul (Baker 2004), pp. 252-253.


To read: Second Thoughts on the “New Perspective on Paul”. Part 1/2 LINK

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