Book Review: Paul: A Very Short Introduction by E.P. Sanders

As promised recently, this is my first foray into looking at the New Perspectives on Paul. Sanders has been name that keeps cropping up in my reading, particularly as referenced by Tom Wright, but this was the first book of Sanders’ that I’ve read. It’s not his most scholarly; it is meant as a brief introduction to new readers and summarises much of what Sanders has written before.

He begins by looking at the person and character of Paul, contrasting the different sides of him as seen through Acts and through Paul’s own writings. Sanders subscribes to the idea that Paul wasn’t the author of the pastoral epistles though, disappointingly, he states this as a fact and doesn’t attempt to give any evidence of this. If you’re interested in this matter, please see my critique of the evidence (including a link to the source) here. So the body of work that Sanders looks at is a little more restricted than we might think at first.

From this platform, he begins to look at Paul’s theology, with a look at belief in resurrection and Jesus’ return. This is a fairly brief overview, possibly too brief. For a much more detailed work on this subject, if it interests you, I’d recommend Wright’s The Resurrection of the Son of God. Sanders stays relatively uncontroversial here, but he doesn’t stay on such safe ground for long.

From here, he moves onto the theological background in which Paul was writing. The two main themes here are monotheism and providence. He touches on the very sensitive (to some) issue of predestination and free will, noting that Paul and his contemporaries did not think of them as mutually exclusive, thus circumventing the debates that have ranged since the issue was emphasised during the Reformation.

Sanders then goes into some detail on the book of Galatians (and as it’s quite a short epistle, I’d recommend you read it before delving into this chapter). Here, he tries to wrest back the idea of ‘righteousness by faith’ from Luther, who Sanders thinks didn’t grasp the issue properly. This section is intensely fascinating, though quite dense. I thought I had been reading for ages, only at one point to see that I had only gone through 5 or 6 pages in an hour. Some of the argument may have been lost on me, I admit, as I couldn’t help but think that “to be made righteous” and “to be justified” were, and are, two different ways of saying the same thing. But Sanders is keen to drive a wedge between the two, expounding the idea of the pressures put on Gentiles to convert to Judaism in order to become the children of Abraham.

From here, his focus switches predominantly to the book of Romans, contrasting the different audiences that Paul was writing to and his imperative for doing so. Here, he does get quite technical and nuanced but it is well worth reading through it with due care.

Although the book may be called “A Very Short Introduction” one should not be fooled into thinking this means “a very simple introduction.” There is some meaty theology in here, along with discussions on Greek grammar and some fairly detailed reasoning. But don’t let that put you off. Even though Sanders does occasionally use more exotic words like “eschatology” or “soteriology” (which you can look up in a dictionary) his writing style is very accessible and he makes a good job of explaining the difficulties involved, especially on the difficulties of translating Greek to English.

There is a very distinct emphasis on Galatians and Romans, so it is difficult to tell whether this really is an accurate study of all of Paul’s thinking, as his other books (besides the pastorals which, as I said, were discarded as non-Pauline) are relatively marginalised.

Having determined that to not be “justified by law” was to contrast finding one’s identity in Christ, rather than by dismissing rules, Sanders then moves on, quite naturally, to how Paul viewed behaviour. Here, Sanders’ own views come to the fore, somewhat. I will admit to being surprised, as I had read that he described himself as a “liberal, modern, secularized Protestant” which sounds right up my street. Yet I found him to be surprisingly conservative, advocating a puritanical and ascetic interpretation of Paul. Of course, such a view is not wholly unwarranted but it is also, I would argue, not necessarily the whole picture. Sanders does try to wriggle in a little liberalism into his argument by stating that Paul’s traditionalist Jewish approach to personal morality was moderated  in instances where he was confronted with pastoral issues and forced to think about the matter.

The book ends with Sanders looking at Romans 9-11 and the salvation of Israel. Here, he highlights how Paul’s emphasis changes and swings from one position to another within the space of a few chapters. Paul’s view on who would and who wouldn’t be saved are touched on, though much of the discussion on this has already taken place. The book ends quite abruptly without any kind of overarching conclusion. Instead, Sanders leaves us with a few questions about whether it is right to try to “systemise” Paul since his thinking was that of “an apostle, an ad hoc theologian, a proclaimer, a charismatic who saw visions and spoke in tongues – and a religious genius.”

There is much food for thought in this little book, and I would well recommend you have a taste. I wouldn’t wholly agree with every angle Sanders uses and would probably say there are facets of Paul’s writings which have been overlooked. Nonetheless, it is a good introduction, particularly for someone wanting an overview with some solidity to it.