By the second century B.C., Jews were becoming increasingly Hellenistic. Some even turned away from 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!
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.
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. Michael Cranford has argued that the “works of the Law” as ethnocentric boundary markers ought to be applied to Romans 4 as well (“Abraham in Romans 4: The Father of All Who Believe,” NTS, 41 , 71-88).
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.
Dunn’s view of “works” in Romans 4 as nationalistic boundary markers has not gone unchallenged. In a recent monograph (Paul and Judaism Revisited, IVP 2013), Preston Sprinkle summarized the problems with reading ethnocentric boundary markers in Rom 4, although he interacts mostly with Cranford’s 1995 article. Sprinkle argues that Paul’s use of “works” in Rom 4 refers to obedience in general, rather than the boundary markers (p. 153). For Sprinkle, the metaphor of wages/reward does not really work if the “works” are limited to the ethnic boundary markers. Sprinkle may be correct, but it may be possible that the ethnic boundary markers are in view in Galatians but not in Romans.
In summary, the New Perspective has suggested that a reading of the “works of the Law” in Paul that is consistent with Second Temple Judaism limits those works to the ethnic boundary markers. These are the practices that separate Jews from Gentiles. Gentiles are not converting to Judaism, therefore they ought not be required to keep those boundary markers.