Paul & Judaism Revisited: A Study of Divine and Human Agency In Salvation

October 30, 2014 — Leave a comment


Preston Sprinkle is associate professor of biblical studies at Eternity Bible College. He co-authored Erasing Hell (remember that?) with Francis Chan and co-edited The Faith of Jesus Christ with Michael Bird. His doctoral dissertation was published as Law and Life: The Interpretation of Leviticus 18:5 in Early Judaism and in Paul. The present book, Paul & Judaism: A Study of Divine and Human Agency in Salvation is the outworking of an “educated hunch” Sprinkle had during his doctoral studies.

Specifically this hunch was derived from noticing “aspects of discontinuity that were either not detected or not emphasized among scholars” when it came to comparisons of the writings of Paul and the Dead Sea Scrolls (13). While the latter are the Jewish writings most similar to Paul, Sprinkle grew to see more discontinuity in terms of the their respective soteriological structures while doing his Ph.D. This book is an attempt to explain and explore that more fully.

Though not necessarily beach reading, that’s exactly how I read it. I didn’t intend to, but I had a whole afternoon with appropriate shade and hydration and found that I just couldn’t put it down. The opening chapter revisits E. P. Sanders monumental work Paul and Palestinian Judaism which suggested more continuity between Paul and Jewish thought than was previously imagined. Sprinkle pushes back on some of Sanders’ conclusions by examining soteriological motifs in Paul and the writings of the Jewish sect at Qumran (known as the Dead Sea Scrolls).

Before really getting to that, in chapter 2, Sprinkle compares two streams of Old Testament restoration theology. First, we see the conditional promises of restoration in Deuteronomy (which are also in Ezra, Nehemiah, and Chronicles). Second, we see unconditional promises of restoration in the prophets. The point here is to demonstrate that the Old Testament presents “diverse paradigms of restoration” rather than show which stream is more Pauline or Jewish (67). The resultant streams will be “heuristic lenses to understand and compare the soteriological structures of Paul and Qumran” (67).

In chapter 3, Sprinkle looks at how Paul and the Qumran community handle the promise of restoration from the curse of the law. While both argue along similar redemptive-historical lines, Qumran tends to have a more Deuteronomic view of the restoration (conditional on obedience), whereas Paul is radically Prophetic, to the point of discarding the need of works of the law altogether (94).

In chapter 4, Sprinkle examines the motif of the eschatological spirit. Here, he notes there is an even spread of discontinuity and continuity rather than the radical disjunction of the previous chapter (120). The main difference is that for Paul, the eschatological spirit is a divine agent that effects obedience in the restored people, and for Qumran, it is not (121). Sprinkle sees this as a major point of disconinuity.

After a brief excursus on Moses, Paul and the glory of the Old and New Covenants, Sprinkle turns to anthropological pessimim in chapter 5. The specific question is “does humanity possess the unaided ability to initiate a return to God and obey his laws?” According to didactic text the answer is yes and according to some hymnic texts, the answer is no (144). Qumran doesn’t offer a uniform portrait, but Paul does. For Paul, humanity is in desparate need of divine rescue, and though Qumran offers something close to this portrait in the hymnic texts, Paul is much more radical in his assesment.

This becomes more apparent in chapter 6 which focuses on justification. Here, Sprinkle shows that contra N. T. Wright, it is hard to sustain the argument that “Paul’s doctrine has exactly the same shape as that of MMT” (this is Wright’s quote). As Sprinkle says, “Paul’s emphasis on God’s initial act of justification of the ungodly through grace is unparalleled – even rebutted – in the Scrolls” (170). From Sprinkle’s perspective then, there is further radical discontinuity between Paul and Qumran on this issue, whereas for New Perpective advocates like Wright, there is considerable continuity. Having read both, I think Sprinkle has a better case in this argument.

Chapter 7 brings an even more contentious issue into focus. Comparing Paul and Qumran on judgment according to works, Sprinkle sees both affirming future judgment on the basis of works. However, for Paul, epeically in his didactic letters, “the source and ultimate cause of all human obedience” is God (201). In hymns from Qumran, we see some continuity with this emphasis, but never in the didactic writings. Further, Sprinkle says, “it is more than just divinely empowered obedience that will push the believer through the pearly gates, but the unilateral act of God on Calvary and in the vacant tomb that secures both the initial and final verdict for those in Christ” (203). As Sprinkle then concludes, “I have not seen anything in Qumran – not even in the Hodayot – which parallel Paul’s thinking on this.”

After another brief excursus on justification by grace now and in the future, Sprinkle’s final motif is divine and human agency, though here he is providing a survey of early Judaism on the subject. This is done to help situate Paul and Qumran on the map so to speak in his conclusion. He sees similar concerns shared with other Jewish writers, but in the end, Paul “seems to push the envelope of God’s role in salvation with a complexity and precision that is unparalleled in the literature of early Judaism” (238).

Sprinkle provides a brief concluding chapter that summarizes the findings of his study. Overall, I found his case compelling. It helps that, much like Wright, Sprinkle has an ability to make what could otherwise be an impenetrable technical discussion into something you could read at the beach. I particularly enjoy whenever a writer offers lens and organizational categories to make sense of a broad array of texts. In this case, Sprinkle brings interpretive insight into an on-going discussion on Paul’s relationship to Jewish thought. Although he ultimately comes out in a position that would be more or less a classical approach (or Old Perspective) to Paul, he ends up there via a very nuanced path. He has wrestled well with the evidence, and you’ll find that his writing is worth the read.

Preston M. Sprinkle, Paul & Judaism Revisited: A Study of Divine and Human Agency In Salvation. Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, August, 2013. 256 pp. Paperback, $24.00.

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Thanks to IVP Academic for the review copy!


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I'm an avid reader, musician, and high school Bible teacher living in central Florida. I have many paperback books and our house smells of rich glade air freshners. If you want to know more, then let's connect!

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