Basics of the New Perspective: Works of Righteousness

By the second century B.C., Jews were becoming increasingly Hellenistic.  Some even turned their back on the most basic of Jewish distinctives such as circumcision and food traditions.  The literature of this period are not evangelistic tracts, they are aimed at the Jewish considering further Hellenization.  A text like the Letter of Aristeas is aimed at keeping the young men from leaving their ancestral faith altogether!  It is for this reason that characters from the Hebrew Bible like Joshua, Phineas, Levi and Simeon become popular – they fought back against assimilation with violence!

A major factor in the development of Second Temple Period Judaism was the failure of Deuteronomic Theology.  The Law seems to promise that if one keeps the covenant, then blessings will follow.  The ultimate blessing is the hope for Jerusalem found in the Hebrew Bible, that it would truly become the center of the world and gentiles would flock to Mount Zion to worship the God of the Jews.  If the Jews are keeping the law properly, why is it that their role is shrinking on the world stage?  One reaction is to drop the cultural boundary markers, or downplay them considerably.  The opposite reaction is to increase the commitment to these markers, to really and truly do the Law as it was meant to be done, and the few who do will be “saved” (i.e., the Qumran community and the author of 4 Ezra.)

To survive the exile, the Jews re-emphasized their religious traditions as embodied in the Torah.  John Collins emphasized the following four key elements:  Monotheism, Revelation, Election, and Covenant.  Monotheism and Revelation are not good boundary markers (you have a God who reveals himself to you, so does everyone else!)  All of the Jewish literature of this period clearly accepts as foundational God is One and the Torah is his revelation.

Election and Covenant can be boundary markers.  You can adequately define who was elected to participate in the covenant, who is “in” and who is “out” of the covenant.  Most of the literature of this period asks this sort of question – in 1 Maccabees it is Sabbath, Circumcision and dietary Laws which are clear boundaries.  In Jubilees, 1 Enoch and Qumran literature proper calendar is included as a boundary marker.  In Sirach it is a life of wisdom that marks out the elect.  E. P. Sanders’ conception of Second Temple period Judaism under the rubric of “covenantal nomism” is an application of these last two emphases.  Election is what gets one into the Covenant, if you are Israel then you are “in.” What is it that maintains that relationship with God is the performance of the boundary markers: circumcision, Sabbath and food laws.

How does this impact Pauline theology?  When Paul says “works of righteous,” the New Perspective on Paul hears “boundary markers,” not Torah.  The traditional view would hear “The Whole Law.”  Dunn uses Galatians 3:10-14 as a “test case” (“‘Works of the Law’ and the ‘Curse of the Law,’” pages in 215-36, Jesus, Paul and the Law).  A traditional reading of this text would understand the statement “everyone under the Law is under a curse” in the light of the book of Deuteronomy and the curses and blessings.  Not so, says Dunn, the “works of the Law” here ought to be read in the context of Galatians, circumcision and food traditions.  These are the very things that make up the “boundary markers” of Second Temple Judaism.

Rather than a polemic against the whole Law, Paul is stating that Gentiles who are “in Christ” cannot take on the boundary markers of Judaism.  Does this mean that the New Perspective sees Paul as embracing the Law for Christians?  Not really, it would seem strange to say that Paul was rejecting the boundary markers as unnecessary and dangerous, but embracing keeping the Torah. These things are not Pharisaical traditions added to the Law (the types of things that Jesus reacted against, for example). They are at the heart of what it means to be a Jew in the Second Temple period.  New Perspective writers are emphasizing what Paul emphasized, that one’s status in Christ is what matters, not keeping traditional signs of separation.

One thought on “Basics of the New Perspective: Works of Righteousness

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.