A (Sort of) Book Review: Paul and Judaism Revisited

Paul & Judaism Revisited

Preston M. Sprinkle, Paul & Judaism Revisited: A Study of Divine and Human Agency in Salvation (Downer’s Grove: IVP Academic, 2013).

Yes, another book on Pauline theology. Much ink has been spilled on the topic of Paul’s relationship to Judaism and Pauline soteriology over the past few decades. Much of the debates stem from the 1977 publication of E.P. Sanders’ Paul and Palestinian Judaism which opened up a new conversation about what Paul and his Jewish contemporaries believed, and how Saul the Pharisee’s views changed after his “conversion” and his change of identity to Paul the Apostle. So, is another volume needed? Is there more to say? Incredibly, yes, there is more to be said. Preston M. Sprinkle is a relative newcomer to the discussion, part of a very cool group of young scholars emerging and doing impeccable research in the field of Pauline studies (see also J.R.D. Kirk, and my instructor in Paul Andrew Pitts for example). Sprinkle first got noticed for co-authoring Erasing Hell with Francis Chan, co-editing (with Michael Bird and Francis Watson) and contributing to this volume. Sprinkle is a busy guy these days, publishing this book, and Fight: A Christian Case for Non-Violence in 2013, and has Charis: God’s Scandalous Grace for Us slated for release this summer. He also teaches at Eternity Bible College (and contributes to their faculty blog), and is a pastor/elder at Anthem Church.

What it’s about:

As I began reading this book, I quickly concluded that the title is not really a fitting title, and may even be a tad misleading. The subtitle clarifies a bit, but this isn’t a book on Paul and Judaism, but Paul and Qumran, a specific sect within Judaism, and a specific aspect of the theology of Paul and Qumran. As Sprinkle notes, comparing Paul to first century Judaism is a complicated task, because Judaism was far from being a homogeneous group at the time. We must speak of first century Judaisms (see Wright, NTPG, 167ff or Neusner, Judaism When Christianity Began, 4-10). So Sprinkle narrows in specifically on comparing the texts of Qumran and Paul’s letters, addressing the specific issue of agency in salvation. Paul has traditionally been read as dismissing the Judaism he was raised with, which it is said placed responsibility on human agency for salvation (ie. humans must repent, accept/submit to the Lord’s commands, and follow Torah to be saved). Traditional readings of Paul suggest he rejected that view, and accepted a view of divine agency alone (“justification by grace”), which placed salvation as the initiative of God alone whose grace makes repentance possible (prevenient grace, which means that repentance happens not to gain God’s grace, but because God’s grace is already at work).

Sprinkle’s aim is to investigate the issue of agency in salvation in the Qumran texts and Paul and decipher if there is continuity or discontinuity between the two. He investigates both Qumran and Pauline texts to see if either or both affirmed human agency or divine for salvation. Ultimately sprinkle concludes that for the most part, the Qumran texts and Paul show discontinuity, with Qumran affirming (for the most part, as some exceptions exist) an element of human agency- that people must repent, and turn towards Torah to be delivered. In other words, the Qumran authors believed that people must do something first in order to gain God’s favour. Sprinkle argues that Paul counters this with an entirely divinely initiated justification; that God justifies the wicked, and gives his grace to sinners, which initiates a new relationship. Humans are drawn to God not because they have repented or sought God of their own accord, but because God has worked to make reconciliation possible.

Sprinkle uses a structure derived from two streams of thought in the Old Testament; Deuteronomic and Prophetic restoration (chapter 2). In the Deuteronomic model (which Sprinkle argues is adopted in the majority of the Qumran texts) which is based on Deuteronomy 28 (among other passages from Deut.) which contains an “if… then” model. If people turn from sin, repent, and follow after God’s commandments, they will be restored and blessed. If they continue in wickedness, they will be rejected by God and under a curse. In the prophetic model, Sprinkle argues, the prophets of Israel declared a great act of God which is based on God’s compassion and mercy would begin the restoration of God’s people; a model not contingent of the obedience or repentance of the people. In other words, within the Old Testament there is an underlying tension when it comes to God’s restoration/deliverance of people.

Tied up in these questions of prophetic vs. deuteronomic is the issue of anthropology argues Sprinkle. Deuteronomic restoration assumes that mankind is capable of repentance and obedience on their own (anthropological optimism), whereas the prophetic model is based on the assumption that people need God to work first and enable repentance and obedience (anthropological pessimism). This Sprinkle addresses in chapter 5, arguing that Paul had a much higher level of anthropological pessimism than Qumran.

Ultimately, the argument that Sprinkle is making is to interact with the New Perspective on Paul (NPP) which saw greater continuity between Paul and Judaism, suggesting that Paul is not creating a polemic against works righteousness of Judaism, but instead is breaking down nationalistic/ethnic barriers which divided Judaism from their gentile neighbours. Paul, says the NPP, was about throwing open the Jewish monotheism and salvation message to gentiles as well as Jews. The “works of the law” which Paul confronts are ethnic identity markers which restricted covenant access to those with the markers (eg. circumcision). Thus, those works must be rejected, as the Gospel declares that God’s grace is available to all regardless of ethnic, economic, gender differences (see Gal. 3:28). Sprinkle is arguing against such interpretation, stating that Qumran did affirm a human agency view of salvation (ie. people must do something in order to receive or earn God’s favour), and that Paul clearly argues against such a stance, declaring that all people are equally sinful and in need of God’s intervention and work to justify the wicked (see esp. Romans 3). The endorsements on the back cover (Francis Watson, Thomas Schreiner, Douglas Moo and others) certainly give away where Sprinkle’s conclusions will land.

The Good

Sprinkle is a good researcher. He knows his stuff when it comes to Second Temple Judaism (the subject of his doctoral research being a comparison of Early Jewish vs. Pauline readings of Lev. 18:5). He has poured over a huge number of documents, secondary works on the subject (of which there is a seemingly infinite supply). He interacts directly with both “Old Perspective” and NPP writers, dealing adequately with the arguments on both sides. His argument has a definite and logical flow, developing his case in a coherent way (ie. he lays out his argument in a progression so it’s clear where he is going and how it relates to the previous point). He covers the key components to the issue; the role of repentance, the issue of works (which do show up in Paul as a vital part in the bigger picture of salvation, see Chapter 7), the role of the Spirit, etc. The way he places one piece on top of the previous, like stacking bricks to make a house, leads the reader along in a helpful way.

His research is highly academic, but he does seem to want to draw in people at the pastoral level to follow along too (much appreciated by us boorish folk). His style is firm and direct without the scholarly snobbery of some authors. He is able to disagree graciously with Wright, Sanders and others without being disrespectful or arrogant. He also has some moments (when discussing Pauline portions) when you can get a felt sense of his excitement about what Paul is writing. Most of the book is a very academic tone, but these digressions lose some of that style, like what he’s writing is too exciting to maintain composure. These moments could almost be described as sermonesque, as if he’s not arguing for a position so much as preaching the gospel. The scholarly distance serves authors well at times, but it can be advantageous to lose it for a time and just be excited for the content. Sprinkle does this well.

By focusing on the one issue and one sect of Judaism, Sprinkle avoids over-generalization. He can’t necessarily give us a complete picture of Paul within his Jewish context (Paul was not a member of the Qumran community, so his theological context pre-conversion would not line up entirely with Qumran), but by focusing in more, he can treat the evidence fairly and more thoroughly. While the issue of agency in salvation is not at all the only question in the conversation, it certainly is a key- one that needs further examination. This book certainly doesn’t settle the debate, but it does present an important argument, which will of course face rebuttals (and it has had a few already) from people far more qualified than myself. Although it would always be nice to take on a fuller, broader biblical discussion of a topic, the mammoth task of doing that on any one issue is overwhelming. The greater specialization of research has pros and cons. In this case it keeps Sprinkle on task, and allows him to develop and tease out more from the selected material.

While I’m not sold on every aspect of Sprinkle arguments (see below) I do think he lends an important voice in the conversation. This volume was released just a short time before Wright’s mammoth Paul and the Faithfulness of God, which is interesting, given that the two authors take fairly different stances on these issues (Sprinkle even states his disagreement with Wright’s previous works). Wright (a NPP[ish] advocate) highlights Paul’s continuity in terms of monotheism vs. paganism, covenant, eschatology etc. which, argues Wright, Paul reworked through the lens of Messiah. So, in that sense, Paul has not gone into polemics with the Judaism of his upbringing, but has reinterpreted that Judaism and focuses on countering the claims of paganism. So when we take these two together they can warn us against becoming too entrenched in one limited view.

While I can’t say I’m totally sold on Sprinkle’s thesis, I also can’t say I’m sold on the NPP either. Sprinkle’s timely release calls us to notice how Paul’s reinterpretation of his former Judaism has changed, which put him at odds with his fellow Jews (or at least with the Qumran sect of Judaism). It is a strong warning to not throw the baby out with bathwater. Dismissing all of modern Pauline interpretation is risky business, and perhaps we need caution, and examine if we ought to retain much (or at least some) of what Luther, Calvin and their successors noted and emphasized. Sprinkle has made a case for keeping a strong understanding of the fact that Paul did in fact differentiate himself from at least some of his Jewish peers in the way in which he understood the agency in salvation accomplished in the Messiah. He does give us a wonderful portrayal of the Qumran understanding of agency, and does note the nuance they had. More needs to be said on the subject, but this compotent research gets the ball rolling. Hopefully as researchers flesh this out, it will take clearer and fuller shape.

The Not-So-Good

Scot McKnight reviewed Sprinkle’s work, and raised some key questions of the book some of which are questions which  came up in my mind. To summarize McKnight’s questions:

1. Does Sprinkle overplay the deuteronomic vs. prophetic, when the Old Testament appears to present a both-and situation which is perhaps more coherent than we sometimes think?

2. Is Sprinkle sufficiently taking into account the communal sense of “salvation” used in Old Testament texts? How does that relate to the individual salvation reading of Paul and the readings of salvation in Qumran?

3. Is the “works righteousness” reading of Judaism “overdone”? Or does Judaism integrate grace and obedience in a more coherent way (in other words: “are you sure Sanders and the NPP is wrong on this?”)?

4. Is Paul in disagreement with Jesus as presented in the Gospels (and James, Peter, John and Jude) since Jesus seems to make use of the deuteronomic scheme?

Mainly, I would agree with McKnight that Sprinkle’s categories may be too rigid, as Judaism in general and even Qumran specifically, was far more nuanced and complex than Sprinkle argues at times (he does make note of the nuance, but seems to minimize it at other times). For instance he calls the deuteronomic and prophetic “two ends of a spectrum” (145). I’m not sure we can say that definitively. The Qumran presentation of agency still has more in common with Paul’s than perhaps Sprinkle is trying to have us believe? Wouldn’t the opposite of completely divine agency be completely human agency? Do we see that in Qumran? Or do we see God becoming an agent contingent on some movement from people? Although at times the Old Testament (and Qumran, and Paul, and other New Testament authors) suggest one or the other, we need to see how the two ideas relate- are polemical? Or is it possible that they share significant commonalities, but differ in some ways? We have to ask, did the Qumran authors (and Paul) have such developed categories when it came to salvation?

It seems to me that most discussions on salvation tend to get off the rails because people use the term in variously nuanced ways. I (and McKnight; and he said it first, so I can’t claim it as my own original conclusion) don’t think Sprinkle adequately accounts for that. For instance, the focus of the book tends to be more on Romans and Galatians (key pieces for the doctrine of justification of course), and does make reference to other portions of the Pauline corpus, but doesn’t fully make use of these other texts to get at the more robust idea of salvation which the Pauline corpus as a whole presents us with. With specific regard to agency in salvation, Sprinkle does appear to have a point- that Qumran allows for a role for humans to play in their own salvation which Paul does not. But he may have overworked the discontinuity in soteriology. Paul certainly does not dismiss right living as part of the whole picture of salvation (which Sprinkle sees, but doesn’t really flesh out in terms of how that relates to agency, as he seems to put a definitive line between initial justification and eschatalogical salvation), and the Qumran authors’ portrayal of the extent of human agency seems quite minimal. Sprinkle may be placing too definitive boundaries on his categories and labels, and pushing Qumran and Paul further apart than they may be. By rigidly applying his terms and categories he may not be allowing the nuances to show. Paul and Qumran do not present us with rigidly divided categories and systematic thought, so things can often become blurry.

Similar to McKnight’s point #2; it is important to note the distinct (post-reformation western) way in which Sprinkle approaches salvation. The individually focused soteriology is not fully faithful to Paul or Judaism. Qumran members would likely speak of the salvation of a people (presumably their own sectarian community), not a person. Is that what Paul means? Is Paul speaking of individual Christians or the Church? Further comments on that are needed.

One question which McKnight doesn’t note, but came to my mind has to do with the context of the Qumran texts. How do they relate to other Jewish sects? How widespread are the views held by the Qumran community? Is Qumran simply an exception to more mainstream Jewish opinion? If Paul was a Pharisee, we should perhaps ask more questions regarding the relationship of Qumran to the Pharisees and perhaps compare Paul to Pharisaic Judaism (which is in itself not a monolithic group, so comparison can be tricky).


Although it might look like I’m more critical than appreciative of this one, that’s not really the case (I did rate it 4 stars on Goodreads). I do appreciate the vast research done by Sprinkle, and he brings a much needed voice in the discussion, reminding us that Paul does indeed take a stand which differs from (some of?) his Jewish peers in significant ways. Sprinkle reminds us that we must not take lightly the fact that Paul presents us with a very different understanding of righteousness, salvation, the Spirit, etc from (some of?) his forbears in Judaism. While the debates surrounding Pauline theology will continue, Sprinkle makes a strong case (but not completely conclusive) for a traditional reading of Pauline soteriology. This won’t sway NPP advocates by any stretch, and likely won’t satisfy all the questions of the neutrals and fence sitters. But it is a book that I would recommend to all sides, as it raises some challenges/questions to Sanders’ reading of Judaism, and Wright’s argument in favour of seeing greater continuity between Paul and Judaism which need to be addressed. While there may be holes in Sprinkle’s argument, he successfully exposes some holes in the NPP argument, in my humble opinion. There is absolutely significant grounds to see significant elements of human agency in Qumran, which we don’t see paralleled exactly in Paul.

What Sprinkle has put together here in many ways looks like a dissertation (both in style at times, but also in terms of outcomes)- meant to propose an argument with the possibility for further discussion. I doubt Sprinkle himself would have the impression that this is meant to answer all questions, settle all arguments or become the authoritative tome on this topic. He is placing some new research into the ring to be interacted with. I’m sure we’ll hear more on this in the future.

3 Comments on “A (Sort of) Book Review: Paul and Judaism Revisited

  1. Hey, Graham, thanks for the review! I appreciate the thorough work you put into this.

    You reference Scot’s review of my work, which is a good place to start. I’d encourage you, though, to read my comments on his blog. I think he mis-represented my argument in the same places that you emphasize. First, I explain very clearly that “salvation” does not refer to how an individual “gets saved,” but to the restoration of God’s covenant with Israel. Also, I have a brief discussion (citing several sources) for my definition of “salvation.” I didn’t just assume a modern view of the term but read it in light of its first century Jewish context.

    Also, I’m not sure I pushed Paul and Qumran too far apart. I’d have to check, but I thought that I highlighted several points of continuity. But I could be wrong 🙂

    Thanks again, Graham, for the solid review!

  2. Thanks Preston for reading and engaging. I’ll have to go back through and find the section you’re referring to re definition of salvation. Your reading of Romans 3 and Galatians especially gave the impression of a more typical soteriological reading, but I’ll go back and reread.

    Thanks again for engaging.

  3. Reread the relevant section, and yes, Preston, you are correct, you did in deed clarify the nuanced meaning of salvation (“the restoration God brings to those who belong to his covenant community” p. 34), which you argue (which may be an oversimplification, but given the context, it’s hard to give a more fully explained sense) is present in both Paul and Qumran. Thanks again for engaging.

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