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What is the New Perspective on Paul?

In a previous post I mentioned that Galatians 1:13-17 had implications for the debate surrounding the New Perspective on Paul (NPP). Some of you are probably wondering what the heck I’m talking about as I’ve made glancing reference to it several times during this series. Today’s post will examine what the NPP is and in a future post I will look at how Galatians 1:13-17 impacts our assessment of it. This explanation will be a bit simplistic, but please keep in mind that this is a blog post that’s meant to be accessible to lay people and not an academic paper.

Simply put the NPP is an attempt to understand Paul as fully as possible against his Jewish background. This means that to understand Paul, one must understand the Judaism of his day. This is attempted through analyzing Jewish writings contemporary to the New Testament, as well as those from previous generations that were still of great influence (of which the writings of the OT were some among many). The NPP is not only a new perspective on Paul, it’s a new perspective on Judaism. E.P. Sanders, in his massively influential work, Paul and Palestinian Judaism, overturned (in the opinion of many, not just those who hold to the NPP) the prevailing understanding of Judaism as a legalistic religion that was devoid of grace. He claimed that the Jewish ‘pattern of religion’ was ‘covenantal nomism,’ which basically means that you enter God’s covenant by grace and you stay in it by keeping the Torah. Thus grace does play a major role. Also, the works that you do which keep you in the covenant were seen as a response to grace not a legalistic attempt to maintain covenant status. Sanders additionally demonstrated that Jews saw God as merciful and more than ready to forgive when one took advantage of the means of atonement provided in the Torah. In the end, only the Jews who rejected the Torah and the means of atonement provided in it were seen as outside of the covenant. Gentiles could become God’s covenant people by following Torah.

Clearly this can impact the way we understand Paul and his letters. For example, it is no longer commonly held that Paul converted to Christianity because of a troubled conscience that saw no hope of salvation because he had fallen short of the perfection demanded by Judaism (because Judaism didn’t demand perfection). Where it gets more controversial is in the discussion of what Paul is opposing when he opposes justification by works of the law (Torah). Traditionally, Paul was thought to be opposing legalism as understood as being able to achieve right standing on the basis of your own works. Against this Paul is understood to proclaim that we are justified by faith in the work of Christ. Proponents of the NPP would argue that if Judaism wasn’t legalistic, then it doesn’t make sense for Paul to be opposing legalism. He must be opposing something different. They notice that Paul tends to pick out circumcision and kosher food laws as his points or critique. Those were boundary markers that separated Jews from others. Thus, what Paul is opposing is Jewish ethnocentrism. Paul’s point then is that you are part of God’s people, Abraham’s family, by faith, not by ethnic identity.

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