The New Perspective on Paul: A Discussion for Unbelievers?

Ever since Luther and the Reformation in the 16th century, it has been generally assumed that Paul’s letters were a polemic against legalistic Judaism. In 1977, however, E. P. Sanders wrote a book entitled Paul and Palestinian Judaism, and the traditional Lutheran perspective was formidably challenged.

 Rather than characterizing first-century Judaism as legalistic, Sanders argued that the essence of ancient Judaism was ‘covenantal nomism.’ He defines covenantal nomism as “the view that one’s place in God’s plan is established on the basis of the covenant and that the covenant requires as the proper response of man his obedience to its commandments, while providing means of atonement for transgression.”[1] Sanders proposes three evidences for this conclusion: 1) God established the covenant by his grace in election; 2) the Jews needed to only have the intention of obedience, not actual obedience; and 3) God provided the means of atonement when they failed to obey.

Kostenberger addresses Sanders’ claims in light of the early Jewish literature, and emphasizes that 1) such a stress on the requirement of human merit in ‘remaining’ in the covenant “still makes human effort the determining factor.”[2] 2) Sanders dismissed important texts in the Jewish literature that weighed against his view.[3] Lastly, 3) “a detailed examination of Second Temple Jewish literature demonstrates that many Jews viewed legalistic works-righteousness as the means of atonement for sin.”[4] This critique exposes some of the problems in Sanders’ ‘New Perspective.’ Other scholars such as a J. D. G. Dunn and N. T. Wright have taken up Sanders where he was weak, corrected him where he was wrong, and added elements where he was lacking, presenting modified versions of the New Perspective that may not be susceptible to Kostenberger’s critique. Nevertheless, there is no harm in seeking to clarify one’s understanding of Paul’s context and opponents at the time of his writing. The New Perspective has rightly encouraged all readers of the Bible to be cautious in hastily caricaturing Judaism, and correctly shown that not all or most Jews were legalistic in regards to salvation, though many were. However, Paul opposed a mixed bag – e.g. Jewish exclusivists, Jewish legalists, etc. – and it is misleading to simply summarize the opposition into one general group. Moreover, Paul’s letters were not essentially an argument against his opposition; rather, they were primarily composed for the purpose of edifying affirmations – e.g. theological clarity, exhortative gratitude, communal instruction, etc. One should not fall into the unfortunate error of defining the Pauline perspective by what he opposed rather than what he adamantly affirmed.

For example, if one were inquire as to what Paul’s basic gospel message was, it would be absolutely imperative to begin with his affirmations rather than his negations. The gospel consists in Jesus, the person of promise (Rom 1:2), the Son of God (Rom 1:4) and Son of Man (Rom 1:3), coming in the likeness of man (Phil 2:7), being crucified for the sins of His Father’s children (Rom 5:6; 1 Cor 15:3; Phil 2:8), being buried then resurrected from the dead (Rom 4:25; 1 Cor 15:4), and thus given all authority (Phil 2:9-11).

It is one thing to attempt and explain the multifaceted history and progression of the New Perspective on Paul to a Bible student, and perhaps a different thing (not entirely) to attempt and explain the discussion to an unbeliever. For one, it may be in the best interest of the unbeliever that the discussion be avoided altogether; yet, if he persists (for some reason or another), it would be wise for the believer to speak briefly and simply, taking every opportunity to proceed to the gospel. One might claim that the discussion centers on establishing the Jewish context out of which the apostle Paul wrote his letters in order to more properly determine the nature of salvation, redemptive history, and one’s current place in it. From this concise description, it should be a seamless transfer to the gospel, as the New Perspective is intricately tied up in the existential implications of the gospel of Jesus Christ.

[1] E. P. Sanders, Paul and Palestinian Judaism: A Comparison of Patterns of Religion (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1977), 75.

[2] Andreas J. Köstenberger, L Scott Kellum, and Charles L. Quarles, The Cradle, the Cross, and the Crown: An Introduction to the New Testament(Nashville, TN: B & H Academic, 2009), 383.

[3] See m. Avot 3:16 in the Mishnah, m. Qiddushin 1:10 and m. Avot 4:22 in the Tannaim; C. L. Quarles, “The Soteriology of Rabbi Akiba and E. P. Sanders’ Paul and Palestinian Judaism,” NTS 42 (1996): 185-95.

[4] Kostenberger, The Cradle, the Cross, and the Crown, 385. Also see C. L. Quarles, “The New Perspective and Means of Atonement in Jewish Literature of the Second Temple Period,” CTR 2 (2005): 39-56.

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4 thoughts on “The New Perspective on Paul: A Discussion for Unbelievers?

  1. Interesting question. I think the answer is an emphatic “Yes!” along the lines you have alluded to. Start with Ephesians 2:11-13, and then proceed to Galatians 2-4. I would be one who would claim that “the Jewish context” is key. Romans 11. “I do not desire, brethren, that you should be ignorant of this mystery…” I think this is tremendously fruitful in engaging an unbeliever. It gets past “Jesus died on the cross, I’ve heard that a thousand times already,” and into the depths of what that event signifies.

    Have you read any Wright? I confess, I made my judgments in advance, and only read him recently in order to be able to refute him to my uncautious and undiscerning friends. Instead, I have found him to be the most invigorating thinker I have come across in a long time. I’ve read the gospels 20+ times, and currently, thanks in large part to Wright, I am seeing more depths in them than I ever have before.

    I recommend The Challenge of Jesus, and also What St. Paul Really Said. You shouldn’t agree with everything you read, but your thinking will be stimulated immensely. Plus he is a delightful writer.

    One final note, what would you characterize as Paul’s “basic gospel message” quoting only from the book of Galatians? Is any reference to Abraham “basic” to the gospel message? A study of “Abraham” in the NT, and Galatians in particular, especially 3:14, recently produced almost a revolution in my thinking, before I read any of Wright. Reading Wright simply bolstered the conclusions I was coming to independently.

    • Thanks for your thoughtful reply.

      I also would affirm that the Jewish context is ‘key,’ but I would be quick to reaffirm that it is not the only ‘key.’ The hellenistic context, the culminating work of Christ – all of these items should account for Paul’s thought.

      Yes, I am halfway through Wright’s ‘Paul: In Fresh Perspective’ (at a pause now, given my seminary work and upcoming marriage). I agree; he has indeed accomplished what he set out to do and brought me a ‘fresh perspective.’ Nonetheless, I am still unconvinced in regards to the inadequacy of the Reformation’s view of Justification, and cannot throw out the foundational claim of Jesus’ substitutionary atonement. Not that Wright necessitates such an either/or, but I am still working through a lot of the implications. Like I mentioned, I love the return to a contextual emphasis, but I still hold fast to an ‘exchange’ noted by such verbiage in 2 Cor 5:21, and the strong theme of union in Christ in the Pauline corpus. Again, I am working through a balance now; and I’ll be honest with you: at this point, I have yet to conduct a thorough study of Galatians (unlike my work in Romans, 1 and 2 Corinthians, and Philippians).

      The major purpose of my post was to affirm that Paul should be seen in light of his affirmations rather than his opposition in light of Sanders’ research. I realize that the ‘New Perspective’ has now become a broad category, more so caricatured by Wright than Sanders, but my observations were more addressed to Sanders’ Pauline perspective. As I stated, “Other scholars such as a J. D. G. Dunn and N. T. Wright have taken up Sanders where he was weak, corrected him where he was wrong, and added elements where he was lacking, presenting modified versions of the New Perspective that may not be susceptible to Kostenberger’s critique.”

      I truly thank you for your insight and recommended reading as I work through this large and multifaceted subject!

  2. “be cautious in hastily caricaturing Judaism”
    I just reviewed Jesus Among Friends and Enemies by Chris Keith and Larry Hurtado. While their focus is on the canonical Gospels, and the literary nature of the characters surrounding Jesus, their section on Jewish Leaders in the Gospels offers a thoughtful conclusion:
    “According to these biblical portraits, there was a hostile rift between Jesus and the Jewish leaders. We are meant to see Jesus over and against the Pharisees, Sadducees and scribes. But it is quite telling that Jesus debates time and again with these schools and never with Greek or Roman philosophers. While we are meant to see Jesus in contrast to the Jewish leaders of his time, there is no better evidence than this very contrast that Jesus was himself a rabbi in close proximity to the Pharisaic tradition.”
    While this quote has little to say about the Gospels depiction of righteousness, the kingdom of God, or any of the other theological concerns of the New Perspective, I do believe the authors have given us something provocative to consider as we try to explain Second Temple Judaism, and especially Jesus’ relationship to the teachings of the religious leaders of his day. In other words Jesus, or Paul for that matter, cannot be excised from Second Temple Judaism as much as they could be excised from the writings of the church fathers.

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