Karl Olav Sandnes about Paulus

What did Paul really think about the law?

The Apostle Paul's view of the Mosaic law is disputed among interpreters of Paul. Professor Karl Olav Sandnes' research is a contribution to this debate.

Karl Olav Sandnes is professor of New Testament at MF. He has recently published the book Paul Perceived: An Interactionist Perspective on Paul and the Law  (Wissenschaftliche Untersuchungen zum Neuen Testament 412; Tübingen: Mohr Siebck, 2018).

(translated by Andrew D. Wergeland)

Martin Luther's understanding of Paul's view of the Mosaic law has been dominant among Paul's interpreters. In Lutheran tradition, we have therefore often heard about «works of the law.»

– Here, Paul's problems with the law have become a symbol of man's attempts to please God, to make oneself deserving of salvation with the help of good works – just as the law mentions, Sandnes explains.

Paul - Jews and Gentiles
The professor says that from around 1980, a "new perspective" emerges which emphasizes that the law several times in Paul must be understood more specifically than what the tradition from Luther has said.

– The law and works of the law are the commandments that distinguish Jews from Gentiles, and that are visible, such as the circumcision of boys, purity regulations concerning food and the Sabbath.

From 1990, still another way of understanding Paul and what he says about the law emerges.

– A school that has been called «Paul within Judaism» argues that Paul's letters are written to Gentiles that have begun believing in Christ. What he writes about the law can therefore not apply to Jews. His critique of the law applies to Gentiles and them only. For Jews, Paul would, in other words, have had a different theology, but that is not something we find in his letters.

Participates in the Debate
Sandnes’ research participates in this debate. He asks how Paul's view of the law was understood more or less immediately.

– My point of departure is that the letters are dialogical. We hear several voices in them. Paul repeats rumours, criticism and even some quotes that show how other have understood what he says about the law. One such example is Rom 3:8: «And why not say (as some people slander us by saying that we say), "Let us do evil so that good may come"?».

In his new book, Paul Perceived: An Interactionist Perspective on Paul and the Law, professor Sandnes attempts to collect statements that are «foreign» in relation to Paul because they are comments or perceptions of what he believes.

– Such statements are the oldest interpretation we have of what Paul thinks about the law. Listening to them is important. Not because they can determine what Paul thought. Such statements can be both misunderstandings and exaggerations, just like the quote from Rom 3:8 shows. They are nonetheless a kind of test, since it must be possible to understand how these perceptions arose.

In his book, Sandnes enters into debate with both «the new perspective» and with «Paul within Judaism» on the basis of what he finds in these Paul-critical statements.

Complex Image
– Pretty much throughout the texts that I examine, Paul is accused of problematizing the law as a guide for the good life. It is, in other words, the ethical-practical side of the law that is in focus. That is different from «the new perspective.»

When it comes to «Paul within Judaism,» Sandnes says that a text like 2 Cor 11:24 is important. Here Paul tells that five times he has been whipped in different synagogues.

– A punishment like that is also an interpretation of what Paul thought about the law, and shows that many saw what he stood for as a problem. The fact that he was punished in synagogues situates him unquestionably within Judaism. The synagogue only punished «its own,» but he was, as I said, punished. The oldest interpretation of Paul's view of the law leads us, therefore, to an image that is more complex than the trends of Pauline research give the impression of, according to Karl Olav Sandnes.