The New Perspective: A Duffer’s Guide
The New Perspective is a way of reading Paul, and his view of the Jewish law, that has become very widespread in academic circles over the last three decades. Though usually referred to as the New Perspective on Paul, its defining feature is primarily a new perspective on first century Judaism, which has resulted in a variety of new ways of reading Paul. (This is important, because many interpreters who embrace the new view of Judaism may not embrace the new view of Paul.) The key area of discussion has been the relationship between law-keeping and salvation in first century Judaism. Did first century Jews believe they could earn their salvation by keeping the law? Many Christians today will assume the answer is yes - surely that’s the whole point of Jesus’ disputes with the Pharisees, and Paul’s with the circumcision party? - but many modern scholars argue that the answer is no. This view, in a nutshell, is the New Perspective on Judaism.
There are, in broad outline, four main ways of understanding the relationship between law-keeping and salvation in first century Judaism:
1. First century Jews treated the law as a list of petty rules and regulations you had to keep to earn your relationship with God. The Pharisees, and the circumcision group who caused Paul so many problems, are classic examples. (This is the “old perspective” view critiqued by E. P. Sanders, and represented by Schurer, Bousset, Bultmann, Jeremias, etc.)
2. Devout Jews kept the law as a response to God’s election, covenant and grace (“covenantal nomism”), not as a list of petty rules and regulations you had to keep to earn a relationship with God. The early church portrayed them as legalists, either because they didn’t understand Judaism, or because they wilfully distorted it for polemical purposes. (G. F. Moore, E. P. Sanders, Heikki Raïsanen, etc.)
3. Nobody thought anybody could earn their relationship with God by keeping petty rules and regulations. Devout Jews kept the law as a response to God’s election, covenant and grace, and the early church knew that. Jesus’ debate with the Pharisees, and Paul’s with the circumcision group, were therefore about something else. (Most advocates of the “new perspective on Paul” fit here: James Dunn, Tom Wright, Don Garlington, etc.)
4. Nobody thought you could earn your relationship with God by keeping petty rules and regulations. But first century Judaism was diverse in its attitudes to law keeping (“variegated nomism”), and lots of Jews saw works of obedience, in response to God’s electing grace in the covenant, as contributing to final justification. (Simon Gathercole, Doug Moo, Tom Schreiner, etc.)
There are very few truly “old perspective” scholars around these days, in the sense of those who would defend the depiction of Judaism we find in #1. That said, it still exists a lot at a popular level; I recently heard a pastor describe the Mosaic law as the equivalent of a set of health and safety regulations which got in the way of one’s relationship with God, and you frequently hear people use the words “law” and “legalism” interchangeably, as if there is no real difference between them. Needless to say, this is not the view of the law found in the Torah itself, or in the Psalms, the prophets, the words of Jesus or the apostles.
The new perspective on Judaism, in a sense, characterises all of #2-#4 above. First century Jews did not believe that they could earn their relationship with God, or their status in his covenant people, by keeping the law; election was a gift of God’s grace. But the appropriate response to God’s electing grace was obedience, particularly expressed through circumcision and observing the law of Moses. Interpreters disagree over the extent to which obedience to the law, for first century Jews, contributed to final salvation, but almost all modern scholars would agree that the Jews in the New Testament period were not trying to earn their way into God’s people by following rules and regulations. Hardly any of Jesus’ listeners were, as Tom Wright puts it, trying to pull themselves up by their moral bootstraps. Pelagius was (hence Augustine); some medieval Catholics were (hence Luther); first century Jews weren’t. That idea is almost universally accepted in modern scholarship.
So what, then, was Paul doing when he insisted that justification was by faith and not by works of the law? The three remaining groups (#2-#4) would answer that question in rather different ways.
(2) Paul misrepresented Judaism, whether deliberately or unintentionally. For Paul, the problem with Judaism was basically that it wasn’t Christianity, so Paul created a contrast - faith vs works, grace vs law - that wasn’t actually there. Jews regarded obedience to the law as an expression of faith in response to grace, but this didn’t suit Paul’s argument, so he either distorted it on purpose, or more subtly allowed himself to caricature it.
(3) Paul’s main problem with “works of the law” was racism, not legalism. “Works of the law”, for Paul, did not refer to “things humans in general do to please God”, but “things Jews in particular do to mark themselves off as God’s people.” So when Paul insisted that people were justified by faith and not works of the law, he was pushing against a narrow Jewish ethnocentrism that said people had to be circumcised, kosher and so on in order to qualify for entry into God’s people. He was making the point that Acts 15 and Galatians make: Gentiles don’t need to become ethnic Jews, but simply to have faith in Jesus. Legalism and merit-mongering had nothing to do with it.
(4) Yeah, but. Judaism was too varied to simply say, two thousand years on, “no first century Jews believed x”, particularly in the face of passages like Matthew 23, and there are indications that some strands of Judaism saw works as playing a key role in final justification. And the new perspective on Paul works much better with some passages than others. Galatians 1-3 is mainly about ethnocentrism; Romans 1-4 seems to be more concerned with the fundamental problem of sinfulness, and the inability of humans to boast before God; and some passages in Ephesians and the Pastorals are difficult to read in a “new perspective” way. Paul objected to Jewish exclusivism, for sure - but he also objected to boasting, self-justification and legalism.
Each of these positions could, obviously, be expanded, criticised and defended at more tedious length (and they often have been). But not here. That’s what research seminars are for.
Andrew Wilson’s new book, If God Then What? Wondering Aloud about Truth, Origins and Redemption, will be released on 16 March, published by IVP, and is now available to preorder - with a generous discount for readers of this blog.