Reading Apostle Paul 6
New Perspectives on Paul

Reading Apostle Paul 6

New Perspectives on Paul

Today we are going to have a  review of a recent approach to understanding how to read Paul that has the generic title: “New Perspectives on Paul”.

I want to be sure that you know I am not presenting this as a new paradigm or new doctrine that is now well accepted by all New Testament scholars. Far from that.

As you will see as we begin to explore NPP, it is not a clearly defined idea. In fact the scholars involved in this work seldom agree with each other regarding the best way to understand it. About the only thing they agree on is that our traditional assumptions about first century Judaism and about where Paul fits into that are probably incorrect and so further study is needed.

Disclaimer and Warning

This entire subject is deep, dense, and difficult. My intent is not to convince you that it changes everything or anything. It is still a minority opinion, but I am going to try to summarize as well as I can, considering that I am not a biblical scholar by any means, what these new perspectives entail.


There has been a shift in New Testament Scholarship in the 20th century and beyond to a higher percentage of scholarship occurring in University departments of religion and a lower percentage in traditional religious seminaries focused on the training of future pastors.

Accompanying that has been more focus on understanding the historical context and cultural matrix that first century Judaism (and the Jesus movement) lived in.

A very large increase in available sources to study due to significant archeological and literary discoveries in the 20th century. (Dead Sea scrolls, etc.).

Increasing questions regarding the writings and interpretations of Paul’s letters.

The Result

All of this has led biblical scholars, primarily Protestant scholars, but more recently some Jewish and Catholic scholars to develop what they think are new and better ways of looking at Paul and his letters.

They have tried to take much more seriously 1st century Judaism as the proper context for understanding Paul‘s life and work, and to place Paul‘s preaching about the saving significance of Jesus‘ death and resurrection in its wider biblical framework.

Who Are These Scholars?

The most prominent proponents of this - new perspective on Paul include a Lutheran bishop (the late Krister Stendahl), a  Protestant Professor of Religion (E. P. Sanders), a Scotch Methodist (James D. G. Dunn), and an Anglican bishop (N. T. Wright).

American Catholic scholars such as Frank Matera and Luke Timothy Johnson have made important contributions to the movement.

Likewise, Jewish scholars such as Daniel Boyarin, Mark Nanos, and Alan Segal have eagerly participated in the conversation.

Because all of these scholars have provided slightly different perspectives to this conversation, we will today review some of these new perspectives and talk about them in terms of which ones are broadly shared and which ones are possible outliers.

First Perspective

NPP begins with the principle that Paul should be interpreted in the context of 1st Century Judaism.

According to the New Testament, Paul was a person of several worlds: a Diaspora Jew raised in Tarsus, a writer trained in the conventions of Greek rhetoric, and a citizen of the Roman empire. The new perspective on Paul emphasizes his identity as a Jew shortly before the destruction of the Second Temple in Jerusalem.

Let’s start with what Paul tells us about Paul in Philippians 3:5-6

 circumcised on the eighth day, a member of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew born of Hebrews; as to the law, a Pharisee; as to zeal, a persecutor of the church; as to righteousness under the law, blameless.

Then in Galatians 1:14 he claims that:

14 I advanced in Judaism beyond many among my people of the same age, for I was far more zealous for the traditions of my ancestors.”

Paul‘s Bible was the Greek version of the Jewish Scriptures (the Septuagint), what Christians call the Old Testament. His own letters, of course, are the earliest complete compositions in the New Testament, from the 50s of the first century C.E. Like many other late Second Temple Jews, Paul adopted the language and style of the Jewish Bible, and applied the various interpretive techniques commonly used in reading its texts. Besides the hundreds of allusions and echoes, his letters contain almost one hundred explicit quotations of the Jewish Bible, roughly one-third of all the Old Testament quotations in the New Testament. The bulk of them are taken from the Pentateuch, Isaiah, and the Psalms. They appear mainly in what are regarded as Paul‘s most important letters: Romans, 1 and 2 Corinthians, and Galatians. Paul‘s abundant use of the Jewish Scriptures in his most substantial letters indicates that for him and his first readers (mainly gentiles) these texts continued to possess great authority.

At the heart of Paul‘s thoroughly biblical theology was God‘s promise to Abraham in Genesis 17:1-7

1 When Abram was ninety-nine years old, the Lord appeared to Abram, and said to him, “I am God Almighty; walk before me, and be blameless. And I will make my covenant between me and you, and will make you exceedingly numerous.” …. “As for me, this is my covenant with you: You shall be the ancestor of a multitude of nations. No longer shall your name be Abram, but your name shall be Abraham; for I have made you the ancestor of a multitude of nations. I will make you exceedingly fruitful; and I will make nations of you, and kings shall come from you. I will establish my covenant between me and you, and your offspring after you throughout their generations, for an everlasting covenant, to be God to you and to your offspring after you. 

Paul regarded the death and resurrection of Jesus as the pivotal event in the history of salvation whereby God‘s covenant relationship with Israel might be extended to all nations and God‘s promise to Abraham might be fulfilled as we all await the full coming of God‘s kingdom.

In effect he then saw Jesus as the fulfillment of God’s promise and God is always faithful.

And in the eyes of some this understanding by Paul came to him as a “call”. His call was to bring the “nations” into this new and expanded covenant relationship.

But as we will see later, Paul’s views of the covenant relationships between Jews and Gentiles were somewhat different.

Second Perspective

Judaism Was Not Legalistic.

Most Jews observed and attempted to keep the Mosaic Law in the context of their covenant relationship with God (covenantal nomism). The oppositions between Judaism (works righteousness, legalism) and Christianity (righteousness by faith alone, love) are not well founded.

One of the important new perspectives on Paul has been the effort at recovering the biblical framework of covenant and recognizing that the laws set down in the Torah are placed in the context of God‘s love expressed in creation, in his promises to the patriarchs, and in his liberation of Israel from slavery in Egypt. In this framework the 613 precepts in the Torah represent the proper response of God‘s people to the covenant fidelity that God has so abundantly shown in its early history. This covenant framework is at least ideally what Jews through the centuries have embraced and acted upon. Their approach is what E. P. Sanders has described as  covenantal nomism, that   is, observing the Jewish Law (Torah in Hebrew, nomos in Greek) in the context of Israel‘s covenant relationship with God.

Covenantal Nomism

Nomism - Ethical or religious basing of conduct on the observance of moral law.

Covenantal Nomism, in opposition to merit theology, is the understanding that 1st century Jews in the land of Israel did not believe in works righteousness. Essentially, it is an understanding that one is brought into the Abrahamic covenant through birth and attempts to stay in the covenant through works. It suggests that the Jewish view of relationship with God is that keeping the law is based only on a prior understanding of relationship with God, and that relationship is based on God's grace.

Structure of Covenatal Nomism

1. God has elected Israel and given the law.

2. The law implies God’s promise to maintain the election and the requirement to obey.

3. God rewards obedience and punishes transgression.

4. The law provides for means of atonement and atonement results in maintenance or re-establishment of the covenantal relationship.

5. All those who are maintained in the covenant by obedience, atonement and God’s mercy belong to the group that will be saved.

An important interpretation of points 1 and 5 is that election and, ultimately, salvation are considered to be by God’s mercy rather than human achievement.


Leviticus 16:29-34

29 "This shall be a statute to you forever: In the seventh month, on the tenth day of the month, you shall deny yourselves, and shall do no work, neither the citizen nor the alien who resides among you. 30 For on this day atonement shall be made for you, to cleanse you; from all your sins you shall be clean before the Lord31 It is a sabbath of complete rest to you, and you shall deny yourselves; it is a statute forever. 32 The priest who is anointed and consecrated as priest in his father’s place shall make atonement, wearing the linen vestments, the holy vestments. 33 He shall make atonement for the sanctuary, and he shall make atonement for the tent of meeting and for the altar, and he shall make atonement for the priests and for all the people of the assembly. 34 This shall be an everlasting statute for you, to make atonement for the people of Israel once in the year for all their sins. And Moses did as the Lord had commanded him."

Works of the Law

Another area of focus by the NPP scholars is an ongoing debate over language and translations that in their view has been misunderstood. We will look at a few of them.

Paul's letters contain a substantial amount of criticism of "works of the law". The radical difference in these two interpretations of what Paul meant by "works of the law" is the most consistent distinguishing feature between the two perspectives. The historic Lutheran and Reformed perspectives interpret this phrase as referring to human effort to do good works in order to meet God's standards (Works Righteousness). In this view, Paul is arguing against the idea that humans can merit salvation from God by their good works alone (note that the "new" perspective agrees that we cannot merit salvation; the issue is what exactly Paul is addressing).


Galatians 2:16

"Yet we know that a person is justified not by the works of the law but through faith in Jesus Christ. And we have come to believe in Christ Jesus, so that we might be justified by faith in Christ, and not by doing the works of the law, because no one will be justified by the works of the law."

Galatians 3:2

"The only thing I want to learn from you is this: Did you receive the Spirit by doing the works of the law or by believing what you heard?"

By contrast, new-perspective scholars see Paul as using “works of the law” as "badges of covenant membership" because he was arguing against the “Judaizers” who had visited his assemblies and told them they had to essentially become Jews by adopting male circumcision, dietary laws, and observance of all the special days recognized by Jews.

Paul is interpreted then as being critical of a common Jewish view that following traditional Israelite customs makes a person better off before God. He did that by pointing out that Abraham was righteous long before the Torah was given. Paul frequently identifies customs he is concerned about as circumcision, dietary laws, and observance of special days.

Human Effort and Good Works  

Due to their interpretation of the phrase "works of the law", theologians of the historic Lutheran and Reformed perspectives see Paul's rhetoric as being against human effort to earn righteousness. This is often cited by Lutheran and Reformed theologians as a central feature of the Christian religion, and the concepts of grace alone and faith alone are of great importance within the creeds of these denominations.

"New-perspective" interpretations of Paul tend to result in Paul having nothing negative to say about the idea of human effort or good works, and saying many positive things about both. New-perspective scholars point to the many statements in Paul's writings that specify the criteria of final judgment as being the works of the individual.

Faith or Faithfulness

An ongoing debate related to the "new" perspective has been over Paul's use of the Greek word pistis (πίστις, meaning "trust", "belief", or "faith”). Writers with a more historic Lutheran and Reformed perspective have typically interpreted this word as meaning a belief in God and Christ, and trust in Christ for salvation with faith that he will save you. This interpretation is based on several passages from the Christian Bible, notably Ephesians 2:9

"For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not as a result of works, so that no one may boast".

By contrast, many recent studies of the Greek word pistis have concluded that its primary and most common meaning was faithfulness.

Faithfulness is the concept of unfailingly remaining loyal to someone or something, and putting that loyalty into consistent practice regardless of extenuating circumstances.

As such, the word could be almost synonymous with "obedience" when the people in the relationship held different status levels (e.g. a slave being faithful to his master). Far from being equivalent to "lack of human effort", the word seems to imply and require human effort. The interpretation of Paul's writings that we need "faithfully" to obey God's commands is quite different from one which sees him saying that we need to have "faith" that God will do everything for us. This is also argued to explain why James was adamant that "faith without works is dead" and that "a man is justified by works, and not by faith alone" (James 2:24).

The “Pistis Christou” Debate

Another related issue is the pistis Christou ("faith of Christ") debate. Paul several times uses this phrase at key points in his writings and it is linguistically ambiguous as to whether it refers to our faith in Christ ("objective genitive"), or Christ's own faithfulness to God ("subjective genitive"). There is disagreement within the academic community over which of these is the best rendering.

And as you can imagine, when this is combined with the pistis controversy (pistis actually meaning faithfulness, not faith), many of these important verses can take on a rather different meaning.

Two Readings of Galatians 2:16

"yet we know that a person is justified not by the works of the law but through faith in Jesus Christ. And we have come to believe in Christ Jesus, so that we might be justified by faith in Christ, and not by doing the works of the law, because no one will be justified by the works of the law."

"yet we know that a person is justified not by the works of the law but through the faithfulness of Jesus Christ. And we have come to believe in Christ Jesus, so that we might be justified by the faithfulness of Christ, and not by doing the works of the law, because no one will be justified by the works of the law."


As this brief overview shows, the New Perspectives arguments are far from over, and in fact many of the scholars involved have opined that it may not have any major impact of New Testament theology. But many also have stated that the New Perspective views still have helped them much better understand passages from Paul that they formally felt were at least ambiguous, or worse, were sometimes conflicting.

And many have also suggested that new understandings regarding the Covenantal Nomism concept in Judaism has possible positive benefits in future understandings between Jews and Christians in possibly addressing some of the unfortunate historical misunderstandings of many Christians of Judaism as a legalistic religion of "works righteousness" that led to grievous anti-semitism.   

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