One Law, One People: Thoughts on Covenantal Nomism
By Ariel ben-Lyman HaNaviy
The Historical Problem: Covenantal Nomism and Ethnocentric Jewish Exclusivism
What Mark Nanos and other recent scholars (E.P. Sanders, James D. G. Dunn, N. T. Wright, et al) describe, as pertaining to Paul’s 1st century Judaism and how it reportedly defined itself, has been carefully labeled as Covenantal Nomism. Indeed, a “new perspective on Paul” is on the rise. What is Covenantal Nomism? Theopedia.com provides a brief description for us to examine:
Covenantal Nomism is the belief that first century Palestinian Jews did not believe in works righteousness. Essentially, it is the belief that one is brought into the Abrahamic covenant through birth and one stays in the covenant through works. Suggests that the Jewish view of relationship with God is that keeping the law is based only on a prior understanding of relationship with God (www.theopedia.com/New_Perspective_on_Paul).
E.P. Sanders is known for coining the term “covenantal nomism.” This term is essential to the NPP view, as Sanders argues that this is the “pattern of religion” found in Second Temple and Rabbinic Judaism. The term is used as “shorthand,” that is, a shortened term used to describe a larger idea. Sanders defines this idea as such:
“Briefly put, covenantal nomism is the view that one’s place in God’s plan is established on the basis of the covenant and that the covenant requires as the proper response of man his obedience to its commandments, while providing means of atonement for transgression.” (E.P. Sanders, Paul and Palestinian Judaism, p. 75)
This is important because it has huge implications for one’s understanding of first-century Judaism and thus for one’s interpretation of how Paul interacted with it. If covenantal nomism is true, then when Jews spoke of obeying commandments, or when they required strict obedience of themselves and fellow Jews, it was because they were “keeping the covenant” – it was not out of legalism.
Sanders says that, “one’s place in God’s plan is established on the basis of the covenant.” Therefore, as long as a Jew kept their covenant with God, he remained part of God’s people. How does one keep the covenant? Sander’s tells us “the covenant requires as the proper response of man his obedience to its commandments.” All of Judaism’s talk about “obedience” is thus in the context of “covenantal nomism” and not legalism. As a result, Judaism is then not concerned with “how to have a right relationship with God” but with “how to remain his covenant people.” This has sometimes been compared to the issue of “keeping” or “losing one’s salvation.”
The New Perspective on Paul, also called New Perspectivism (hereafter NPP) is a system of thought in New Testament scholarship that seeks to reinterpret the Apostle Paul and his letters. In brief, the NPP is a reaction to the Lutheran Paul (i.e. the traditional interpretation of him). Proponents of the “Lutheran Paul” understand him to be arguing against a legalistic Jewish culture that seeks to earn their salvation through works. However, supporters of the NPP argue that Paul has been misread. He was actually combating Jews who were boasting because they were God’s people, the “elect” or the “chosen ones.” Their “works,” so to speak, were done to show they were God’s covenant people and not to earn their salvation. The result is a Judaism that supposedly affirmed sola gratia (grace alone). Presently, its effects are seen in the academic world of New Testament scholars, particularly those who focus their attention on Pauline studies and the study of first century Judaism.
- What Sha’ul is really talking about when he employs the Greek phrase “ergon nomos,” translated most often as “deeds of Law” is in actuality a technical phrase that the Judaisms of Sha’ul’s day employed to speak of the halakhah, that is, the proper way in which a Jew is to walk out Torah.
- Indeed, the prevailing view of the sages of the 1st Century held to the common belief that Isra’el and Isra’el alone shared a place in the world to come. Thus, if a non-Jew wished to enter into HaShem’s blessings and promises, such a person had to convert to Judaism first.
- For Sha’ul no such ‘man-made” conversion policy existed in Scripture!
- By contrast, Sha’ul taught most assuredly that Gentiles were grafted into Isra’el the same way that Avraham was counted as righteous by God in B’resheet (Genesis) chapter 15: faith in the promised Word of the LORD.
- The halakhah that teaches Gentile inclusion only by way of conversion (read most often as “circumcision” in Galatians) was naturally at odds with the True Gospel of Gentile inclusion by faith in Yeshua plus nothing!
- If we understand that quite often Sha’ul’s use of the term circumcision in Galatians is actually shorthand for “the man-made ritual that seeks to turn Gentiles into Jews” then the letter begins to make more sense Hebraically and contextually.
- God is the God of both Jews and Gentiles! One need not change his station in life before God can accept him. What is more, the real change that takes place in a person’s life is effected by the Ruach HaKodesh when, because of Yeshua’s bloody, sacrificial death, the sinner takes on the status of righteous! Man cannot add to that which God perfects. A conversion to Judaism (a.k.a. circumcision), in Sha’ul’s mind, added nothing to those wishing to be counted as true Israelites in the Torah Community. To Sha’ul, their genuine faith in the Promised Word of HaShem, as evidenced by the genuine working of the Spirit among them, was all the “identity” they would ever need! Once counted as righteous by the Righteous One Himself, all the new [Gentile] believer needed to do was begin to walk in that righteousness, a walk already described in the pages of the Written Torah, a walk formerly impossible due to the deadness of flesh and bondage to sin.
- Failure to continue in genuine trusting faithfulness for either Jew or Gentile participants invited God to place them in a position that Sha’ul called “broken off.” In other words, natural branches (Jews) could be broken off because of lack of trust, and grafted-in branches (Gentiles) could also be broken off due to lack of trust (read Romans chapter 11)! Far from purporting that some “ethnic-driven” halakhah secured one’s place in the ‘olam haba (Age to Come), the native born Jew, the convert Jew, and the good old fashioned Gentiles all faced the same penalty for remorseless lack of faith: spiritual death. We see then that the Torah is the universal document for both peoples and it outlines God’s plan for all mankind, both Jews and Gentiles.
The “mystery of the Gospel” is that Isra’el is actually comprised of both Jews and Gentiles! To be grafted into the family of God is to join oneself to a Jewish Olive Tree without having to succumb to any kind of man-made conversion policy whatsoever! To this end, one becomes submissive to the instructions and righteousness of God, and inherits the blessings of God, whether he is of Gentile or Jewish stock!
Thus, as we unlock some of Paul’s technical phrases we find that:
- “Works/Deeds of [the] Law”=most often refers to a prevailing Jewish policy that teaches that the Torah is for Jews only and that ethnic status is the qualifying factor for pleasing God.
- “Under [the] Law”=most often is shorthand for “under the condemnation of the law as it pertains to unregenerate sinners, their proclivity and slavery to sin, and the just punishment reserved for such individuals.”