“Therefore bear fruit in keeping with repentance; and do not suppose that you can say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham for our father’; for I say to you that from these stones God is able to raise up children to Abraham.” (Matt.3:9)
E.P. Sanders, in his seminal 1977 work, “Paul and Palestinian Judaism: A Comparison of Patterns of Religion”, submits a theory of “covenantal nomism”, and, in kind, a form of bilateral ecclesiology.
Essentially, and overly simply, the theory is that the Jewish people are in covenant status with God, and that this places them in a different category regarding the message of the gospel presented by the apostles. In effect, according to bilateral ecclesiology, there are two paths to salvation. One for the Gentile (Jesus), and another for the Jew (Jesus and/or covenant faithfulness in Torah).
This theory, further popularized by Mark Kinzer in his 2005 book “Post-Missionary Messianic Judaism: Redefining Christian Engagement with the Jewish People”, challenges a traditional Christian understanding of soteriology, as revealed in the New Testament.
This post will not be able to adequately deal with all the implications of this theory, or the positive influence that these author’s works have had on the state of relations between Christians and Jews. Nor will I seek to criticize either author. Particularly Rabbi Kinzer, who, probably more than any other person, is chiefly responsible for the recent move by the Roman Catholic Church to revisit Her relationship with the Jewish people, even going so far as reflecting an official bilateral ecclesial position in a recent document released by the Vatican. See Rabbi David Rosen’s comments on this development here: https://www.rabbidavidrosen.net/wp-content/uploads/2016/02/Jewish-Vatican_Relations_-_-Opportunities_and_Problems_October_2011.pdf
The path to reconciliation between Judaism and Christianity must necessarily include concessions and statements which we may struggle to embraces, as well as huge amounts of respectful dialog. From a Christian standpoint, at least, it can be deeply unnerving to consider the implications of such theories. In light of how the gospel is apparently presented in the apostolic texts, in which only confession of and faith in Jesus Christ is offered as an acceptable path to reconciliation with God, we should take some time to question the validity of “covenental nomism”.
There are aspects of the discussion which must be laid out before us, before we seek to reach an opinion.
For one thing, E.P. Sanders’ work opened the door (it had been opened previously, of course, but his work was a benchmark moment) to the emerging research, now in full bloom, on Paul, and the great apostle’s relationship with Judaism. This research, known at the first as the “New Perspective on Paul”, has many branches of thought. Today, scholarship is rather divided on the issue. Some top scholars, such as John Barclay, view Paul’s gospel as a radical departure from normative Jewish thought concerning the path of salvation, and believes that Paul’s emphasis on grace and the (supposed) unmerited favor of God represents a form of universalism within the Pauline texts. His thoughts on the subject can be found here: https://www.auburn.edu/~allenkc/barclay1.html
This is echoed by others as well.
Popularly, author WM Paul Young has put forth a widely-embraced form of universalist doctrine in his books, “The Shack” and “Lies We Believe About God”, and essentially attempts to refute the exclusivity of the Christian message of salvation through faith in Jesus. For the record, traditional Protestant Christian doctrine rejects this theory. However, with the exception of the Roman Catholic Church, and other small independent groups, it also rejects covenantal nomism.
Many Jews and messianic believers who practice Orthodox Judaism have responded positively to the concept of covenantal nomism and the theory of bilateral ecclesiology. It offers a validation of Rabbinic Judaism as a legitimate path for a genuine relationship with God for a Jewish person, and further (perhaps more importantly) validates the Jewish people as being within the confines of ongoing covenant relationship, even uniquely so, before God, and effectively refutes Replacement Theology, so central to the writings and teachings of the Church fathers of the early centuries of Christianity, as well as being embraced within the creeds and doctrines of the Reformers five hundred years ago.
Along similar lines, universalism often finds fertile ground in the thinking of Jews and Christians, since it effectively eliminates the tension created by polemical readings of the apostolic writings that casts Judaism at odds with the Christian faith. According to most Christian renderings of the text of the New Testament, Jews who reject Jesus are outside of God’s covenantal care, and therefore beyond his salvation reach. Naturally, a person with such an understanding would find it quite difficult to embrace Rabbinic Judaism as a legitimate expression of faith. So, a universalist understanding allows for both Rabbinic Judaism and normative Christianity to co-exist equally in standing before a God who desires to save more than to impose a standard of particularity and distinction in practice and creed. While this author does not accept a universalist understanding, in one sense at least it does, along with the aforementioned concepts of covenantal nomism and bilateral ecclesiology, allow for important steps towards creating meaningful dialog between Jews and Christians, particularly at a theological level, if not always in ground-level practice and community.
The research on Paul has continued in exciting directions, with the work of such scholars as Mark Nanos, Paula Fredriksen, Magnus Zetterholm, David Rudolph and others, who have continued beyond the “New Perspective on Paul”, introducing the concept of “Paul within Judaism”, which frames Paul as a faithful Jew; not just coming from within Judaism and branching into new, uncharted directions, but actually operating within normative Judaism throughout his ministry, teaching it’s concepts and theology, and it’s worldview, all while upholding the distinction of the Gentile follower of Jesus, according to the standards of Acts 15 and the Jerusalem Council. This is the perspective embraced by myself and the perspective from which I teach today.
(above: Dr. David Rudolph, PhD, Director of the Messianic Jewish campus of the King’s University, Gateway, and author of “A Jew to the Jews: Jewish Contours of Pauline Flexibility in 1 Corinthians 9:19-23”, 2016)
Along the way, however, there is often a general acceptance of such theories such as covenantal nomism without adequately reconciling the shortfalls of the theory as found in scripture and in secondary sources.
After all, a strict reading of Sanders’s theory would suggest that every Jew through history is “protected” under the covenants God made with their ancestors, irregardless of their own personal relationship with God and their own faithfulness to the covenant, or lack thereof. In fact, covenantal nomism, taken to the logical end-game of the theory, renders the writings of the apostles as little more than the work of a group of sandwich-board-wearing extremists who repeatedly declare the sky to be falling when in fact God has every intention of rescuing all those with Jewish blood. As if Sanders wishes to say, “Relax, people….remember the covenant? You have grace.”
See the problem? Simply, grace does not work that way in the Bible or in Jewish writings, anywhere. God, according to the writers of the sacred texts, does not randomly appropriate “grace” and “eternal life” to wicked men who have no interest in His ways. He reserves this status for those who practice “teshuvah”, or biblical repentance, and put themselves under the “yoke” of His commandments, voluntarily.
What’s more, God reserves special “grace” or status, for those who perform extraordinary acts of righteousness and display exceptional faith. See: Noah, Enoch, Abraham, Joseph, Moses, Joshua, Caleb, Pinchas, David, etc, etc….all the way to Cornelius and Peter. God even makes covenants with some of them.
This reveals an important problem in both the Christian and the Messianic Jewish view of salvation. It turns out that both groups are still clinging to a Lutheran view of soteriology, one which fails to account for the full revealing of scripture on the subject.
Generally speaking, most messianic believers, when pressed on the subject, will confidently declare that Torah represents the “instructions in righteousness” that one needs to live a Christian life successfully, but that everyone is saved by grace, and that this is something that has nothing to do with “works” or “righteousness according to deeds“. This doctrine is mostly based upon a single passage of scripture (Eph.2:8-9) at the complete exclusion of thousands of passages which declare something quite different. Basic hermeneutics utterly demands a revisiting of the meaning of Eph.2:8-9, based simply on this principle alone.
This is the common understanding of both traditional Christians as well as messianic believers, as stated already, and this position is marshalled in defense against charges of legalism levied against those who practice various forms of Messianic Judaism, or Hebrew Roots. Yet, there is a problem which most messianics fail to recognize in their theology: If everyone is saved by grace and not through deeds of righteousness, then of what benefit are all the traditions, restrictions and practices of Judaism, if none of these things contribute to one’s standing before God?
If in fact our “works” of righteousness have literally nothing to do with the final judgment, then it would appear that the critics of Messianic Judaism as a legitimate practice of faith are quite right in declaring the practice to be a waste of energy at best, and a return to “bondage” at worst. Those of us in the movement must come up with a better answer than simply saying the practice is “more authentic”.
After all, living without electricity may be considered more “authentically human”, yet what’s the point? We have electricity, so why not use it?
In other words, if all I need to be saved is to believe in Jesus, and the rest is arbitrary, then why go through all the extra work?
In apostolic thought, just exactly how are people saved? How about the teaching of Jesus? What does he have to say about it?
Is E.P. Sanders correct in stating that Judaism is not a “works-righteousness” faith, but rather is based on “grace”, in the same manner that Christianity is? And is this presumption even valid to begin with?
Does a Jew really have a form of “guaranteed salvation” as a result of the covenant made with Abraham and then at Sinai? Is this idea taught within Judaism? The short answer is unequivocal: No.
The idea that the Jewish man or woman is not accountable for their deeds, but protected under the status of “covenantal nomism” (in the form of unmerited “grace” attributed through covenant status and not through deeds) is simply not supported either by the Bible or by secondary, extra-biblical writings of the period, including Talmud and the philosophical extrapolations known as the “Midrash”, of which there are many.
“Jewish eschatology is the ultimate step in the individualizing of religion, as the messianic age is the culmination of the national conception. Every man is finally judged individually, and saved or damned by his own deeds.” – G.F. Moore, “Judaism in the First Centuries of the Christian Era”, pg.377
This statement, derived from an exhaustive survey of Jewish literature of the period of the apostles, as well as the teachings of the Old Testament, of Jesus and of the apostles, seems rightly antithetical to modern Christian sensibilities, yet it is true nonetheless. This also runs in stark contrast to E.P. Sanders’s thesis statement that “salvation is given graciously by God in His establishing the covenant with the fathers.” (Sanders, “Paul and Palestinian Judaism”, pg.371-72)
What appears far more accurate is the notion that God preserves a remnant of the Jewish people through every generation, and also preserves a future and a hope in the land of promise for the people generally. However, there is no possible way to read the Bible or other Jewish literature in such a way that would suggest the idea that every individual Jew is “saved” by this covenant status. No, each individual Jew must stand before God and give account for their deeds, and they will be judged accordingly, and thereby rewarded with eternal life, or else cast away into “outer darkness”.
This is supported by Jesus in his own teachings. (Consider Matt. 25:31-46, and other places, for example). Also, Paul himself, the supposed “teacher of grace” reiterates this Jewish idea of “judgment according to deeds” in Romans:
“…the righteous judgment of God, who will render to each person according to his deeds: To those who by perseverence in doing good seek for glory and honor and immortality, eternal life; but to those who are selfishly ambitious and do not obey the truth, but obey unrighteousness, wrath and indignation. There will be tribulation and distress for every soul of man who does evil, of the Jew first and also the Greek, but glory and honor and peace to everyone who does good, to the Jew first and also to the Greek. For there is no partiality with God.” (Rom.2:5-11)
Both the Master’s words in Matthew 25 as well as this passage of Paul in Romans declare the same theme: the eschatological judgment of every soul is according to our deeds on earth, not according to our verbal confession or statement of faith. In neither passage is confession of the name of Jesus so much as mentioned. Creedal statements are certainly not in view, but what is in view is the righteousness of the individual according to their behavior while living.
This is shocking! What we see is that Sanders’s work to attempt to reconcile Judaism as a religion based on grace, just like Christianity, falls short of two fronts: Not only is Judaism not based on “unmerited grace and favor”, it turns out neither is Christianity!
It would appear that the soteriology (how salvation works) is the same in the mind of Jesus and his followers as it is for the Jewish non-Jesus-followers of the period. And this soteriology is not based on “unmerited grace imparted by covenant”, but rather through a testimony of righteousness, backed up by deeds and obedience to God’s ways.
The real question before us, when discussing the soteriology of Jews and Christians, has much less to do with covenant than it does with who practices righteousness, and thereby merits the favor or “chesed” of God. It appears that the theory of “covenantal nomism” is misplaced in a conversation about how one is saved.
The better discussion, rather than whether the covenants God made with the Jewish people provide a salvation distinct from, and not available to, Gentiles outside of those covenants (except through Jesus) is to define what constitutes “righteousness that results in salvation”. Is our righteousness a result of covenant? Or is it a result of something else? This question was germane to the apostles and the Council of Acts 15. Was covenant the sole source of assurance of salvation? Or was righteousness salvific in itself? Not only did the Council rule according to the latter opinion, they reinforced this through the many writings that we have today. Whether, Paul, John, Peter, or Jude, or any of the gospel writers, the message is the same: God is not partial; righteousness is the standard, not Jewish identity. Repentance. Allegiance with the Messiah. For the Jew first, and also the Greek (meaning any non-Jew).
The position of the apostles is that righteousness is imputed to those who put their faith and trust in Jesus, as the son of God, and the Jewish Messiah, through identification with him and through repentance and aligning oneself with his teachings and the teachings of his disciples. It’s important to note that regardless of one’s status of belief and identification, one must still repent, meaning turn from sin and infidelity, and turn back towards God and to obedience to His righteous standards, as a response to the invitation to do so that is found in the message of the gospel itself.
If it was necessary for one to be “within the Sinai covenant” to achieve this identification or this status of righteousness, in order to merit the World to Come, than it would seem that the Jerusalem Council made a huge error in ruling that Gentiles in Messiah did not need to convert formally to Judaism and take on the same level of covenant obligation as a Jew. But the fact is, they ruled without reservation that a Gentile who repents from idolatry and moral wickedness and turns towards the God of Israel through Jesus is considered to be part of the kingdom of God, and thereby through this “act of righteousness” (repentance from idolatry and trusting in the righteousness of Christ for right standing) it is reckoned to them as righteousness. So, covenant does not supply righteousness by birth or by conversion. It must be by faith and deeds, individually. It also appears clear, that those turning to God in this manner, are wooed, or drawn towards God, by the ruach (spirit) of God, since they are already exhibiting faith towards God.
Of course, it could be easily missed by a normative Christian reading this essay, that righteousness is literally defined by both Torah and the traditions of its application in practical terms. Righteousness and Torah cannot be long separated without losing the meaning and definition of both.
“Now there was a man at Caesarea named Cornelius, a centurion of what was called the Italian cohort, a devout man and one who feared God with all his household, and gave many alms to the Jewish people and prayed to God continually…an angel…said to him…’Your prayers and alms have ascended as a memorial before God.” (Acts 10:1-4)
Because Cornelius walked in righteousness and displayed faith, God extended mercy and grace towards him. Thus, it was the righteousness of Cornelius, as a God-Fearer (a category of righteous Gentile in Second Temple times) which brought salvation to his home, and brought the introduction of Yeshua (Jesus) to him through Peter. When people seek for God, He responds by revealing Himself to them. That’s how it works. God is not in the business of revealing Himself to people who show no interest in knowing Him.
But the question remains: Is this the pattern for only the Gentile? Or is this the pattern for the Jew as well?
In a discussion related to the merit of the patriarchs providing atonement for the generation, the Gemara cites Ezekiel who writes:
“The LORD said to him, ‘Go through the midst of the city, even through the midst of Jerusalem, and put a mark on the foreheads of the men who sigh and groan over all the abominations which are being committed in its midst.'” (Ezek.9:4)
The Gemara comments:
“…And what is different about the letter ‘tav’, that it was inscribed on the foreheads of the righteous? Rav said: Tav is the first letter of the word ‘tihye’, you shall live, indicating that the righteous shall live. Tav is also the first letter of the word ‘tamut’, you shall die, indicating that the wicked shall die. And Shmuel said: The letter ‘tav’ is the first letter of the word ‘tama’, ceased, indicating that the merit of the Patriarchs has ceased and will not help the wicked. Rabbi Yochanan said: The letter ‘tav’ is the first letter of the word ‘tahon’, will have mercy, indicating that due to the merit of the Patriarchs God will have mercy on the righteous…
….With regard to the statement that the merit of the Patriarchs has ceased, the Gemara asks: From when did the merit of the Patriarchs cease? Rav said: From the days of the prophet Hosea…“And now I will uncover her lewdness in the sight of her lovers, and none shall deliver her out of My hand.” (Hos.2:12) Israel will no longer be saved by the merit of the Patriarchs. And Shmuel said…It is written…”And the LORD was gracious to them, and had compassion on them, and turned toward them because of His covenant with Abraham, Isaac and Jacob and would not destroy them; neither has He till now cast them away from His presence.” (2 Ki.13:23). That was the last time that the merit of the Patriarchs was mentioned….
“….The Gemara continues its discussion of punishment in general and the relationship between a person’s actions and the punishments meted out against him in particular: Rav Ami said: There is no death without sin; were a person not to sin, he would not die…the Gemara adduces proof…There is no death without sin, as it is written; “The soul that sins, it shall die. The son shall not bear the iniquity of the father, neither shall the father bear the iniquity of the son; the righteousness of the righteous shall be upon him, and the wickedness of the wicked shall be upon him” (Ezek.18:20). A person dies only because of his own sins and not because of preexistent sin.” (Talmud, Shabbat 55a, Koren Steinsaltz, Noe edition)
It often goes without notice in Christian circles that the doctrine of original sin undermines the righteousness of Christ as well as the need for repentance. After all, if original sin is something we inherit, than requiring repentance seems rather cruel. But repentance makes sense in light of individual merit and responsibility.
Rabbinic Judaism, as reflected in the Talmud, is consistent with Jesus and the apostles in terms of its doctrine of who merits the World to Come . That we fail to recognize this is more a result of the reinterpretation and selective reading of the apostolic texts, in light of later developments within Christianity, and not from an intellectually honest approach to the text in light of the reality of Jewish theology as it was understood in the period.
The implications are far-reaching.
At the first, we were discussing the concept of covenantal nomism and bilateral ecclesiology, which suggest that Judaism, like Christianity, teaches salvation by grace, through covenant, just as Christianity does, but that the grace afforded the Jew is distinct from the path of the Gentile, who does not have the Torah.
However, now, we see that an unexpected development has transpired. Whereas the original theory centered on Torah and Torah observance under covenant, contrasting distinct obligations between Jew and Gentile (a real issue but not germane to salvation), now we recognize that in fact, the soteriology of the apostles (how they teach we are saved) is consistent with a Jewish understanding of “The Two Ways” presented in Deuteronomy and also the Didache (an early epistle used to disciple new believers, believed to be the work of the generation immediately following the first apostles). In others words, there is a “path of life” and a “path of death”, and it is related to our deeds, not our statements of faith.
“See, I am setting before you today a blessing and a curse: the blessing, if you listen to the commandments of the LORD your God, which I am commanding you today; and the curse, if you do not listen to the commandments of the LORD your God, but turn aside from the way which I am commanding you today, by following other gods which you have not known.” (Deut.11:26-28)
The Gentile follower of Jesus is actually saved the same way as a Jew, it turns out. Not in a different manner. Both must practice faith towards God, individually. Both must accept and align themselves with the Jewish king, the Messiah, revealed by God and made manifest to all through resurrecting him from the dead.
But, as mentioned earlier, the path to the acknowledgment of this on both sides is not simple, and compromise is necessary in communication until such explosive concepts can be reintroduced to both the Jewish and Christian world. First, the Christian Church must eliminate the doctrines it holds which make it nearly impossible for an observant Jew to recognize Jesus (and Paul) as observant Jewish men, living within Judaism. This is paramount, since a “European Jesus” does not look or act or sound Jewish. This must be fixed.
For Rabbinic Judaism, the irony is that Christianity represents the very manifestation of a major part of the traditional Jewish eschatological hope, as the concept of the nations “streaming to Zion” to learn to Torah from the king of Israel is a concept found in the prophets of Israel, and emphasized by the apostles of Christ. However, it has been difficult for the Jewish people to recognize this fact in the face of the triumphalism and persecution at the hands of the Church through the ages. Nonetheless, it is a new day, and the Jewish people must come to terms with a religion which, while markedly different than Judaism in many practical ways, is still founded squarely upon it, and the Church must be able to engage with willing Jewish participants in meaningful exchange. The Rabbis must put aside their fears and prejudices and do so, for the sake of the kingdom of God. There is much that the Church can learn from them, but there are also things that Rabbinic Judaism can learn and benefit from in return.
Triumphalism must end, and the Church must recognize the primary role that the Jewish people hold in relation to the covenants of God and the role of interpretation. The Church needs the Jewish people to remain Jewish. To practice Judaism. To preserve the faith of the forefathers. But the Jewish people need the Church. They need the Messiah. They long for him. They need the Gentile Christian as a testimony of who Israel is. Right now, however, the Church is not often a testimony of Israel’s glory, but rather reflects a blight, an embarrassment, and an eyesore that one must avoid, for the sake of self-preservation. This must change. The Church must change it’s testimony towards Israel and the Jewish people. It must revise it’s doctrine. It must reevaluate certain dogmas that make it nearly impossible for an observant Jew to accept the gospel. The reason why the Church must change its doctrine and not the Jewish people is that the Bible is a Jewish book.
Like it or not, Judaism is the religion of the Bible.
The purpose of this post was to introduce the reader to the concepts of “covenantal nomism”, “bilateral ecclesiology”, and “universalism”, three approaches to the text of scripture that fail to acknowledge the urgent call of the gospel as presented by the apostles in the New Testament.
The Jew is saved the same way as the Christian. But, surprise, it turns out the Christian is saved the same way as the Jew. That is the point. There are not “two paths” to God. There is one. It is through Israel, and identification with Her Chosen Son, Her Messiah, who redeems, unifies and brings all of God’s people together under his banner of love, beneath the authority of the One True God.
“For I say to you that unless your righteousness surpasses that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will not enter the kingdom of heaven.” (Matt.5:20)
We are saved through righteousness, not through right belief of correct information.
“Many will say to me on that day (the day of judgment), ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophecy in your name, and in your name cast out demons, and in your name perform many miracles?’ And then I will declare to them, ‘I never knew you; depart from me, you who practice lawlessness (quoting Ps.6:8)” (Matt.7:22-23)
It is our righteousness, or lack thereof, that determines our final destiny. And there is only one way to accomplish this righteousness; through obedience to God’s commandments and through identification and loyalty with His appointed servants through time. In these “last days”, this is through His Son (Heb.1:2). However, there is room to argue, in a real sense, that a faithful Jew MUST REJECT the gospel presented by the normative Church, since most modern creedal confessions of Christianity contain dogmas that a faithful Jew considers heresy according to biblical faith. This must be taken into account, since God surely takes this into account in His view of His children.
God is not cruel. He doesn’t hold His people accountable for being misled by leaders. He protects the innocent. Most Jews are frankly innocent of guilt concerning their rejection of Christianity, due to the false manner in which it has traditionally been presented to them. We have the responsibility of fixing that problem, in our generation. It’s our task.
Consider what the Talmud says on the subject: