In the most recent edition of Christianity Today, Simon Gathercole (now) of Cambridge University, has a lengthy and fine study of the good and bad of the New Perspective on Paul. [I don’t know if the piece is online yet; I’ve not found it.] What is the New Perspective on Paul? The most significant development, outside of historical Jesus studies, in biblical studies in the last 50 years.Today I want to begin at the beginning and see if I can explain it. I will continue this throughout the week as we take a readable look at the New Perspective and hope to stand next to Simon’s piece in CT.
The NPP begins, oddly enough, with a public lecture on 4 November of 1982 by my then-mentor in PhD studies, Jimmy Dunn. I didn’t hear it; but I heard plenty about it. It was published the next year and it changed NT studies by giving a handle to what was going on. But it took awhile for what was going on to take on the name “The New Perspective.”
What was that Jimmy said? In 1977, five years earlier, E.P. Sanders published Paul and Palestinian Judaism and Jimmy basically captured the shift in perspective that Sanders unleashed in his expression “new perspective on Paul.” At the time, nearly everyone was captivated by Sanders but there were voices like this: “Let’s not get too excited” or “He’s basically right but that’s not the whole story” or “This is so innovative we have to think about this some more” or “There are some problems here but I’ll have to do some careful work in Judaism to show it.” Some said, with Dunn, “The tide has changed. We have entered a new world.”
1. Judaism was not a religion of works where if you built up enough credits you’d find final approval with God. Paul can’t be understood saying that about Judaism.
2. Turning Judaism into a “works” religion flies in the face of all of Jewish scholarship, emerges from Luther’s problem with the Catholic Church and gets imported onto Paul, and is out of touch with the vast bulk of ancient Jewish sources. (Sanders allowed some, but not much, works-type religion in Judaism.)
3. Judaism’s understanding of salvation (which is a Christian way of capturing the reality) is rooted in two themes: God’s election and the covenant. God chose Israel and this gave Israel salvation; Jews were not worried about final redemption and were not striving to gain eternal life by accumulating merit. The Covenant is the foundation of all of Jewish religion. To suggest that Jews were accumulating merit because this is human nature is not true according to Sanders.
5. Righteousness describes behavior that conforms to that Torah.
Thus, Sanders put all this together in what he called “covenantal nomism” — a covenant that creates a community called to obey the Law (nomos); any offense of the Torah requires appropriate sacrifice and atonement. Those who live this way — within the bounds of the Torah — are righteous.
This basic set of factors is at the heart of the New Perspective on Paul. Sanders himself proposed that Paul believed the Church had entered into the eschatological day — he called Paul’s theology participationist eschatology. But Sanders’ proposal on Paul wasn’t his major contribution.
Note to CT: I see resemblance in the caricatures of Beza, Luther, Calvin, Wright and Sanders, but that picture of Jimmy Dunn looks more like Bruce Chilton than Jimmy. Anyone else observe this?