Continuing with this series of posts on Paul, here's what N. T. Wright (in What Saint Paul Really Said) says about E. P. Sanders:
It is a measure of Sanders' achievement that Pauline scholars around the world now refer casually to "the Sanders revolution." ... [T]here is no denying that he has towered over the last quarter of the century much as Schweitzer and Bultmann did over the first half.
I don't have Sanders' major work Paul and Palestinian Judaism, but I do have Sanders' short book Paul: A Very Short Introduction (OUP, 2001) which summarizes his views on Paul. What did Sanders say that now makes earlier views of Paul seem so dated?
As the title of his major work suggests, Sanders placed Paul squarely within first-century Judaism, and also revamped our understanding of the beliefs and practices of first-century Jews, particularly the influential Pharisees. Paul retained two key Jewish beliefs, monotheism and providence: "[T]here is one god; God controls the world" (p. 41). The first is no surprise, but Paul's monotheism did not rule out other supernatural powers or forces at work in the world, whether they be termed "demons" (1 Cor. 10:20) or more gently "powers" (Rom. 8:38). At various points in his letters, Paul also seems to attribute autonomous negative power or force to Sin and Death. As for providence, Paul saw God acting in the world, but God's control of earthly events was not so overbearing as to undermine human choice or agency. Sanders notes at page 50:
No form of ancient Judaism directly known to us ... considered "predestination" and "free will" to be incompatible.
Sanders devotes two full chapters to correcting misunderstandings about Paul's doctrine of justification by faith. There are linguistic problems: the verbs "justified" and "made righteous" as well as the noun "righteousness" all derive from variations of the Greek dikaistyne, and the Greek word pistis is sometimes translated as faith and sometimes as belief, which have different connotations in English. There are historical problems, namely the habit of misreading Paul through the lens of Martin Luther, who was obsessed with personal guilt in a way that is simply foreign to Paul. In a paragraph that is a good example of how prior scholarship is lacking, Sanders writes on page 58 (emphasis added):
Luther's emphasis on fictional, imputed righteousness, though it has often been shown to be an incorrect interpretation of Paul, has been influential because it corresponds to the sense of sinfulness which many people feel, and which is part and parcel of Western concepts of personhood, with their emphasis on individualism and introspection. Luther sought and found relief from guilt. But Luther's problems were not Paul's, and we misunderstand him if we see him through Luther's eyes.
Sanders see the problem that Paul wrestled with not as "how can the individual be righteous in God's sight?" but rather as "on what grounds can Gentiles participate in the people of God in the last days?" In that context, Paul used not only the term "justified by faith," but also what were for him equivalent terms such as "being baptized," "putting on Christ," and "being Christ's."
One last topic to touch on is Paul's rather complicated view of the law and Sanders' rather complicated clarifications. Paul did not reject the Jewish law he had received, but said "the law is holy, and the commandment is holy, righteous and good" (Rom. 7:12 NIV). But Paul did reject parts of the Jewish law as applied to his Gentile converts, in particular those "which, in the Diaspora, separated Jew from Gentile: circumcision, rules governing eating, and observance of the sabbath ('days')" (p. 106). In a sense, Paul wanted to have it both ways, retaining respect and admiration for the Jewish law — he couldn't just say God made a mistake with what was revealed to Moses — while, at the same time, preaching the good news of the new dispensation of God's grace through Jesus Christ, which both Jew and Gentile should accept and embrace. This tension is evident, for example, at 2 Corinthians 3:7-11, where the old revelation through Moses is deemed "glorious," while the new revelation through Christ and the Spirit is termed "more glorious." This summary paragraph can obviously only give a taste of Sanders' 20-page discussion of Paul's view of the law.
The bottom line is that you and I, 21st-century Christians, can't just start reading Paul's epistles and expect to easily understand what he was trying to say. Paul struggled to develop new doctrines and positions from his inherited stock of Jewish doctrines and scripture; we can't really grasp what Paul came up with unless we struggle a bit ourselves to understand the Jewish beliefs that were, in a sense, the foundation from which Paul was working. At least that is how Sanders would seem to describe the challenge that faces a modern reader of Paul.
I will give the last word to Sanders, as he summarizes Paul's work as a theologian confronting difficult theological problems.
Paul was not systematic, however, since he did not reconcile his responses to these multifaceted problems with one another. We clearly see the deep-seated principles which governed his various answers: God is good and merciful and holds history in his hands; he called Israel and gave the law; he sent Christ to save the world. These underlying assumptions, and the passion with which he applied them, coupled with his bursts of ingenuity and the cut and thrust of his argument, make him a serious and compelling religious thinker. (p. 149.)