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Paul and Judaism – the New Perspective

I have now started the MA course in Kingdom Theology, and this was my first essay which, as predicted dropped by 10% – it seems that a 10% reduction in mark is about normal going from a post grad to an MA!

In the church I think we struggle to understand Paul (now there’s an understatement). We have ideas about Paul, Jesus and Judaism, and for the most part, if you are like me, they are filed under ‘Don’t really get it.’

I did this essay because it gave me a chance to look at how Paul really viewed the religion of his Fathers, to question where we get our stereotypes of Judaism from, and to ask if we right in our some of our perceived wisdom concerning the religion of Jesus and Paul.

Paul, Judaism, and Justification by Faith: Perspectives Old, New and Beyond

Luther and Paul – two misunderstood men?



The traditional understanding of how Paul related to Judaism, and especially his teaching on justification by faith have recently come under scrutiny from scholars as they have begun to question what has become known as the ‘Old Perspective on Paul.’ In order to understand the ‘New Perspective’ we will begin with a brief discussion of the traditional understanding, sometimes referred to as the ‘Lutheran Paul’.

How did Luther understand Paul, Judaism and Justification?

In Luther’s day notions of reward and merit infused the church. His study of Occamist theology led him to great inner turmoil as he wrestled with the idea of God rewarding good works, and his seeming inability to meet God’s demands. Ultimately this had its cessation when Luther ‘discovered’ Romans 1:17 – ‘the just shall live by faith.’[1]  Paul writes in Gal 2:16 ‘that a man is not justified by works of the law but by faith in Jesus Christ’ and in Rom 11:6 ‘if by grace, then it is no longer of works’. Luther developed these ideas to arrive at the doctrine of justification by faith, ‘we are pronounced righteous … solely by faith in Christ, and without works.’[2]

Luther felt that Paul would say the role of Old Testament law was to drive people to seek mercy from their saviour as it illuminated their sinfulness,[3] and to ‘crush that brute which is called the presumption of righteousness.’[4]  Luther thought that with faith and the Holy Spirit, Christians can be said to fulfil the law,[5] but ‘no work that we can do will gain God’s favour’ and justification can only come from faith.[6] (Eph 2:8-10)

To Luther the law was only valid for the Jews, and only until Christ was revealed. This meant that Paul must be saying the law was now abrogated.[7] According to Zetterholm, ‘Luther created theology when he read Paul’, and ‘Luther’s doctrine … implied [Paul’s] complete rejection of Judaism.’[8] Westerholm says that Luther believed Judaism was essentially about appeasing a potentially wrathful God.[9] Since Judaism was works based, it must be rejected, and Zetterholm goes onto state that Luther certainly did this was, being very anti-Semitic.[10]

However, things are less clear with the Lutheran Paul. Whilst Luther’s anti-Semitic feelings are evident, Rom 3 and 9 appear to suggest Paul was anything but. This is good evidence that some of Luther’s interpretations were wrong.

Setting the Stage – A New Outlook on Judaism

At the start of the twentieth century Montefiore suggested that Judaism might be wrongly ‘cast as a foil’ for the doctrine of justification by faith.[11] Schoeps felt that Paul’s reduction of Judaism to a set of laws that cannot be kept was an unfair summary of the real position.[12] Stendahl goes further, claiming that Paul had been misinterpreted by the reformation and that Luther’s problem of finding a merciful God was not the same problem that Paul was wrestling with.[13] Now the stage was set for the really significant work of E P Sanders.

Sanders studied ‘Judaism on its own terms’, rather than through a Christian lens, and researched the ‘patterns of religion’ – the ‘how getting in and staying in are understood.’[14] His reading of the literature leads Sanders to conclude that the traditional understanding of the majority of New Testament scholars is based on misunderstandings, preconceptions and ideas handed down uncritically.[15] Thus it would appear that the Old Perspective is built on very shaky foundations.

Sanders chief concern was that scholars had overlooked the importance of covenantal theology in rabbinic Judaism. God elected Israel and entered into covenant with them at the birth of the nation.  Israel responded and accepted this status, and the ‘special conditions’ that went along with the covenant.[16]

According to Sanders every individual is ‘expected to keep [the Torah] to the best of his or her ability’, a different emphasis to the ‘required’ that Luther might have said.[17] The real distinction is that for Sanders the ‘intention and effort to be obedient …constitute the condition for remaining in the covenant.’[18] Sanders summarises this with the phrase ‘covenantal nomism’ which is the view that you are elected into God’s people via covenant, and that this covenant calls for your responses of obedience and provides a way of atonement for transgressions.[19] Thus there is no earning, and Judaism is not a religion of works whereby you merit your salvation.

Covenantal nomism calls into question many things we might have taken for granted, as noted by Zetterholm.[20] However, it helps to explain how characters such as David could have been declared righteous despite their sins. Their obedience to the Torah demonstrates their desire to stay ‘within the covenant’ and their faith in their election. This of course, is coherent with ‘the just shall live by faith.’ (Rom1:17) Thus the difference between Judaism and Christianity is played down (but not eradicated), since grace and faith appear to operate in both.

The traditional view of Paul is that he has a problem in that he can’t fulfil the law and obtain righteousness, and that he obtains a way out in Christ. This is described as being ‘plight to solution.’ However, Sanders argues that Paul in fact began with Christ as the solution, and then went onto explain what the plight was. This is partly because before the Damascus Road Paul hardly expresses any difficulty with the Torah and there is no indication of any crisis such as Luther underwent.  Interestingly Sanders feels that the inconsistencies that he detects in Paul are down to the secondary nature of the subjects and implies that Paul hasn’t finished working them out yet.[21]

The Lutheran Paul rejects Judaism because it is a salvation by works religion. However, if Sanders is correct that in fact it was not a works/righteousness religion then we need to get a new understanding on Paul since we have clearly misrepresented him.

The New Perspective

James Dunn, who first coined the phrase the ‘New Perspective’ writes that Judaism is ‘firstly and foremost a religion of grace’ and that ‘covenantal nomism is remarkably like classic Reformation theology.’ Our good works are a response to that grace and not the way in which that grace is first obtained.[22] Dunn appears to be minimising differences here, but he does break with traditional perspective.

In Galatians we read that Paul found himself in a situation where Jewish Christians were insisting that Gentile Christians must follow the ‘boundary marker’ works of the law, such as circumcision and food regulations that act to distinguish the Jews from the Gentiles. Paul describes this as ‘justification by works of the law’ and responds that justification is by faith and not by works. (Gal 2:16) Dunn, in opposition to Sanders, believes these ‘works of the law’ refer to the boundary marker laws.[23] Paul’s response, Dunn thinks, is not so much concerned with the need for people to find forgiveness, but rather with how to become a member of the covenant people, and whether such boundary markers still need to be observed by all God’s people now that Messiah had come.[24] So in the New Perspective justification is concerned with entering into Israel; it’s a ‘transfer term’ as Sanders put it.[25]

Dunn believes that Paul was ultimately reacting to ‘Jewish Particularism’, the belief that the covenant could be defined in purely ethnic terms as expressed by these boundary markers. Paul objected to ‘an overly narrow interpretation of the covenant in Jewish tradition that excluded everyone else but Jews.’[26] If your righteousness before God comes down to fulfilling a number of such identity markers, then what is the role of faith?

The Bigger Story

Wright refutes the idea that Paul found Judaism guilty of ‘legalism’ or ‘works-righteousness’, preferring instead to agree with Dunn in seeing Paul’s concern as revolving around ‘national righteousness’[27] and the boundary marker ‘badges of superiority.’[28] Wright emphasises the underlying ‘big story’, which Westerholm brilliantly summarises, and reminds us that small allusions to stories and myths could evoke entire implicit narrative.[29] Thus he suggests that Paul saw Jesus as simply a ‘new chapter’ within the story.[30]

Wright emphasises that Paul saw justification in traditional Jewish terms; the ‘decisive vindication of God’s people’, but that unlike the Jews he saw God’s people as not being defined around the works of the law, but rather around faith in the gospel.[31] Paul is not abandoning his Jewish foundations, but simply redefining them.[32] To have a share in the ‘new life’ is no longer obtained by ethnicity, or by boundary markers, but is in ‘the Messiah’s own new life, a life in which all nations can share equally.’[33] Wright even suggests that Paul embraced a version of replacement theology, the creation of a ‘third race’ which is understood in terms of ‘being within the covenant.’[34] So, far from abandoning Judaism, Paul is taking it back to its initial purpose which was to bless all nations as it becomes all-inclusive again.

Scholars like Räisänen, and to a lesser extent Dunn, have found Paul inconsistent, a conclusion I have some sympathy with. Wright, however, finds an ‘all-embracing, wonderful harmony’ in which every aspect of Paul is rooted within Judaism. If Paul stays within Judaism, as Wright asserts, then the opposition between it and Christianity is further reduced. Rather than a break away, new religion, Christianity is a development, a ‘new chapter’ of Judaism and the Jesus movement appears to be a fusion of Jew and Christian. Perhaps this explains why Paul became so unpopular – it’s one thing to leave your religion, another to redefine it.

In an engaging summary of the ‘Lutheran Paul verses his contemporary critics’ Westerholm says that it comes down to what exactly did Paul mean by ‘justification by faith, not by works of the law’. For the Old Perspective this means that sinners find peace with God by grace, through faith alone. Now, in the New Perspective it is more akin to Gentiles are included in the covenant people without having to become Jews.[35] Naturally enough, as the debate has gone another school of thought has emerged, known as the “Beyond the New.”

Beyond the New

One of the big issues for the ‘Beyond’ debate centres around to what extent Paul actually embraced Judaism, and the Torah after his Damascus Road experience. According to Zetterholm, Tomson would be fairly typical in thinking that Paul saw no problem with believing in Jesus and observing the Torah. Paul tried to completely obey the Torah, and felt that non-Jewish believers when amongst Jews should respect their Jewish lifestyle. Jewish believers stayed within Judaism, but developed a different way of interacting with the new comers.[36]

Nanos believes that the Christians in Rome would meet as a sub-group of the local synagogue, thus disproving the traditional idea that Judaism and Christianity were opposed from the very beginning.[37] Tensions would naturally arise between these groups, and Paul addresses these. Nanos says Paul preferred that the non-Jew now joined the Jew in the worship of the one God rather than become Jewish. To do so would negate Paul’s belief that the ‘age to come’ in which all could be justified had arrived.[38] This is really very far indeed from Luther and his anti-Semitic outlook, and contrary to Wright (and the traditionalists) assertion of the creation of a new group.


Clearly this work is still developing, and opinions are strongly held as witnessed by Venema who is very much a traditionalist and argues his case strongly, but at times from a ‘this is what we have always believed’ standpoint.[39] This would most likely be a very common reaction to the New Perspective, let along the Beyond amongst the church. The history of this area of Pauline study shows us just how hard it can be to contend with preconceptions and this is likely to cause ‘lively debate’ within the church as the ideas disseminate and develop.

If covenantal nomism is correct, then Judaism becomes a religion of grace and love, which is more fitting with the Messiah’s portrayal of it. If the New Perspective is correct then Paul seems less double minded about his own people and their heritage, and Christianity seems to fit more coherently within the Jewish narrative. At the risk of over stating the case, moving towards a clearer understanding brings a sense of release, and even worship.

As already stated, relations between Jews and Christians throughout history have not always been healthy. This has, at least in part, been fed by the traditional understanding and its negativity towards Judaism. If nothing else, the New Perspective forces us to re-examine what we have believed and to see that the church has been seriously in error. Knowing this can only be good.



References removed – because they are boring. Will provide them if anybody wants them…

About maxelcat

Moderately into just about everything I live in North London where I am currently looking for a job.
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