E. P. Sanders’s revolutionary study Paul and Palestinian Judaism (London: SCM, 1977) began a transformation in the characterization of second-temple Judaism and the interpretation of the letters of Paul. Sanders argued that Jewish soteriology was not a theology of legalistic obedience to the Mosaic Law. Rather it was a theology of “divine election” and “covenantal nomism.” The “New Perspective” on Paul that arose after Sanders’s study reinterpreted Pauline theology according to his viewpoint. However, several scholars have recently reexamined Sanders’s work and the exegesis of the New Perspective (e.g., D. A. Carson, P. T. O’Brien, and M. A. Seifrid, The Complexities of Second Temple Judaism, vol. 1 of Justification and Variegated Nomism [Grand Rapids: Baker, 2001]). Gathercole, lecturer in New Testament at the University of Aberdeen, contributes his own criticisms of the New Perspective in his book Where Is Boasting?
In this revision of his doctoral dissertation at the University of Durham under the supervision of James Dunn, Gathercole examines the relationship between “boasting” and justification in the literature of second-temple Judaism and in Romans 1–5. He suggests that the New Perspective overlooks connections between obedience and soteriology in Jewish literature. He argues that some literature of second-temple Judaism associated obedience to the Torah with eschatological justification. He also notes examples of Jewish “boasting” before God because of obedience. He proposes that Paul took exception to this attitude in Romans 1–5, proclaiming that justification is apart from obedience to the Law.
The first part of Gathercole’s book analyzes “boasting” in Jewish literature while the second part looks at “boasting” in Romans 1–5. In chapters 1–4 Gathercole examines Jewish sources for connections between “works” and final vindication. The literature includes material before and after A.D. 70 as well as the New Testament. While examining the sources, Gathercole acknowledges some New Perspective corrective characterizations of Judaism, such as God’s gracious election of Israel. However, he also shows examples of God rewarding Torah obedience with final justification (e.g., Ps. Sol. 9:4–5; 4QMMT c 26–32). Furthermore chapter 5 gives examples of individuals as well as corporate Israel boasting in their obedience (e.g., Wisd. of Sol. 15:1–4; Sir. 31:5–11; Jub. 35:2–3). Thus he concludes that at least certain aspects of second-temple Judaism viewed “works” as a means of final vindication before God.
In chapters 6–8 Gathercole exegetes Romans 1–5 in light of his conclusions regarding second-temple Judaism. He asserts that Paul was arguing for human inability to obey the Law (e.g., 3:20). However, the author also suggests that Paul viewed final justification of the believer as a result of obedience enabled by the Spirit (e.g., 2:13–14, 25–29; 8:3–4). Then chapter 8 contrasts Paul’s positive portrayal of “boasting” in Romans 5 with the apostle’s polemic against “boasting” in Romans 1–4.
Gathercole’s book is helpful for three reasons. First, the work avoids the reduction of Jewish soteriology to either “legalism” or “divine grace.” Instead it recognizes a cooperation of obedience and grace in Judaism which post-Sanders scholars have tended to overlook. Second, the work carefully examines a wealth of primary sources, especially material that predates A.D. 70. While some scholars have examined this material in detail, Gathercole’s analysis of obedience and final vindication provides new alternatives for research and debate. Third, the exposition of “boasting” in Judaism and Romans 1–5 fills a gap in New Testament studies. Overall the work is lucid, evenhanded, and helpful for any student of Jewish and Pauline soteriology.