The New Perspective on Paul – Mirror Reading ‘the Works of the Law’

I remember reading Galatians as a teenager and thinking I understood what Paul was saying, and then reaching 5:21 and wondering what was going on. I had been reading Paul’s letter in the typical Protestant way, assuming that he was saying that ‘works in general don’t matter for salvation’, and then could make little sense of why he seemed to change his mind at the end of the letter, when he had seemed so adamant up until now. When I finally encountered Dunn’s commentary on Romans, and the “new perspective on Paul” more generally, not only was this mystery resolved, but so was Paul’s (to an uninitiated modern reader seemingly abrupt and inexplicable) ‘shifts’ from “works of the Law” to circumcision and the Gentiles.

Luther’s influence on the way we read Paul is considerable, and I have no intention of criticizing Luther’s application of Paul’s writings to his own time and experience: that is a separate issue. But it is certainly a priorilikely that the situation Paul confronted in the context of 1st century Judaism was not exactly the same as that which Luther addressed in 16th century Catholicism, a millenium and a half later.

Paul keeps coming back to one particular work of the Law: circumcision. But few seem to notice that this is probably the least appropriate ‘work of the Law’ for him to choose to represent or symbolize self-justification and self-righteousness. Circumcision was normally done when one was 8 days old (and I don’t recall being concerned to justify myself before God through my own accomplishment at that age, although my memory is admittedly spotty for that particular stage in my life), and it is done to the male infant by someone else. Hardly an obvious choice of works to represent human accomplishment and the attempt to ‘earn one’s way to heaven’.

So what did circumcision signify in this period? First and foremost, the distinction betwee Jews and Gentiles. Here are some typical Jewish views of the works of the Law and of Gentiles in the Judaism of this period:

Letter of Aristeas 139,142: In his wisdom the Lawgiver (i.e. Moses)…surrounded us with unbroken fences and with walls of iron, so that we might not be permitted to mix with any other people in any respect…Thus, in order to protect us from corruption through contact with others or through association with bad influences, he surrounded us on all sides with strict traditions relating to eating, drinking, hearing, touching and seeing, in the manner of the Law.

Jubilees 22:16: Separate yourselves from the Gentiles: Do not eat with them, and do not do the things that they do, and do not have fellowship with them. For all their deeds are defiled, and all their ways are corrupt, and depraved, and disgusting.

[Apologies to any Gentile readers who found the above quote offensive]

We should also ask whether the Law itself seems to have been opposed to grace, since Paul seems to be arguing not against mere self-righteousness as a misunderstanding of the Law, but about something universal and intrinsic to the Law itself. Read Deuteronomy 9:4-6. If anything, this sounds like the opposite of merit-based divine favor.

Was early Judaism completely legalistic, as some have assumed? There were surely legalists then, but there are legalistic Christians today; the question is about the overall character of the religion as a whole. Worth noting is the hymn from Qumran which says: “I know that righteousness does not belong to men nor perfection of path to the sons of men. To God Most High belong all righteous deeds.” At the very least, not all were legalists.

Tom Wright has been particularly vocal in pointing out that Paul’s target seems to be less a legalistic individualistic self-righteousness, and more a corporate, election-based nationalistic righteousness. This has sometimes met with a reaction that asks what the relevance of this inner-Jewish critique might be for Christians today (Richard Hays tells a story about a pastor who asked a question after a talk he gave, saying that while he was persuaded Hays was right to argue that this is what Paul meant, he was pastor of a church where there were no Jews anywhere in the vicinity, and he now wondered what if anything the text meant for his congregation today

There is an answer to that question, and a good one, since many Christians today have (ironically) developed a theology that more closely resembles that of Paul’s opponents than Paul’s own. In emphasizing the ‘works of Torah’, many Jews of Paul’s time were focusing on boundary markers rather than on fundamentals. The people of God are the circumcised, not those who love God and neighbor with all their heart. If we address the same challenge to ourselves as Christians, how do we identify a true Christian? Many would, in practice, revert to the proper dress, carrying a large leather Bible (KJV), not drinking, smoking, or swearing. Maybe voting Republican, too, although there are some signs that that is becoming less of a ‘work of the Church’ even as we speak. The Jews did not have too much emphasis on their own achievement; they had too much emphasis on their election and status as God’s chosen ones, marked out by symbolic exterior distinctives and customs.

Paul’s challenge was to put the emphasis on ‘faith’ – a word that meant ‘faithfulness’ rather than believing propositions without evidence. To hear Paul’s message as Christians the way Paul’s contemporaries would have heard it, we have to paraphrase Romans 2 and insert the contemporary Christian equivalents: “There will be trouble and distress for every human being who does evil: first for the Christian, then for the non-Christian; but glory, honor and peace for everyone who does good: first for the Christian, then for the non-Christian. For God does not show favoratism” (Romans 2:9-11 paraphrased).

Paul’s message, when rediscovered and heard afresh, has changed lives and even the course of history on more than one occasion. I believe the time has come for such a fresh encounter with Paul once again in our time.

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  • Matthew

    James,Great post! Keep up the good work!Something else made me think about applying Paul’s critique to today’s church, the fact that Sunday is the most segregated day of the week. I think Paul would be very critical of this!

  • paulf

    Uh, after reading this and the piece you linked to, I’m still not sure — what exactly is the new perspective on Paul?What I got is that historically Christians have gotten their ideas about the first-century Jews wrong, and then a bunch of names of old perspective theologians who said this or that.

  • Mystical Seeker

    Paul’s challenge was to put the emphasis on ‘faith’ – a word that meant ‘faithfulness’ rather than believing propositions without evidence. To hear Paul’s message as Christians the way Paul’s contemporaries would have heard it, we have to paraphrase Romans 2 and insert the contemporary Christian equivalentsI commented on this in my blog last October. There is a long exposition by John Cobb that I linked to where he provides a pretty interesting analysis of the passage in Romans 2.I think you are completely correct that much of modern Christianity has basically reverted to the same legalistic formulations that early Christianity ostensibly opposed.

  • James F. McGrath

    Paul F, thanks for the question. The new perspective on Paul, on the whole, argues that the traditional understanding of Judaism in Paul’s time as legalistic is inaccurate. This doesn’t mean there weren’t legalists, just that that wasn’t the character of the religion as a whole. Most scholars connected with the new perspective have reinterpreted Paul in light of this, arguing that when he talks about ‘works of the Law’, he doesn’t have in mind ‘good deeds’ but the works specific to the Jewish Law (circumcision, food laws, etc.) that separated Jews from Gentiles. Paul’s focus, then, was on the inclusion of the Gentiles in the people of God, rather than opposing people who were ‘trying to earn their way to heaven’.

  • paulf

    So how does this change the idea of Paul’s theology of salvation?I agree that fundamentalist Christians take on the character of the legalists decried in the epistles. Paul was very harsh on those who were legalistic. For example, in Titus, I think, he vehemently described how worthless they are. The funny thing about conservative Christians is that if you analyze the weak/strong believers as described by Paul when discussing things like food sacrificed to idols, it’s the “conservatives” (i.e., those who endorse rules on behavior) who are equated with the “weak” believers.

  • Andrew

    Great post James! I totally agree, and have linked to it and discussed it further here.

  • RichGriese

    Is there anything new here. I mean… the topics of Paul and the law are pretty standard traditional ideas. What about this post adds anything new to consider? It seems that so much of what is posted is just the same bland stuff over and over again. Cheers! RichGriese.NET

  • James F. McGrath

    Rich, is your point that the new perspective has been around long enough that it is old hat, or that you don't understand how the new perspective challenges what went before it and provides a more satisfactory treatment of what Paul wrote in his letters?You sound like you are complaining about something, but I am not sure what exactly.