The New Perspective on Paul: Works of Righteousness

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!

Jewish PersonA 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.

Dictionary Series - Religion: JewElection 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 Jubilees1 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. 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 [1995], 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.

3 thoughts on “The New Perspective on Paul: Works of Righteousness

  1. Here, I’m stepping back a bit from the specifics of the argument to its larger setting (i.e., New vs. Old Perspective). My q. is this: “What is the relationship of the “camps” of NP and OP to “camps” of “orthodox” and “heterodox”? I’m not that familiar with Dunn and Sanders, but Dunn at least, I’d think is considered basically orthodox and “conservative” in biblical scholarship overall. I realize there are a few, maybe quite a few (and Sanders may be among them) that are difficult to categorize. And I guess the real divide to me would be accepting the basically “supernatural” view of biblical revelation and the purported supervision of the HS in creation of the canon, vs. a concept of early Xnty as arising like any religion tends to (with some uniqueness, of course), even if the scholar may mainly know and preference Xnty as somehow “best” or closest to the truth.

    I don’t tend to study Paul as much as Jesus in recent years, but do some specifically on him, and of course many works deal heavily with both of them. So forgive me if some of the names I’m going to ask about (whom I’ve read something by, at least, in most cases) have not specialized much in Paul… Some I know definitely have. But they are either clearly in the heterodox group or maybe not clearly in one OR the other (or they are and I am unaware). Basically, I’m wondering, since at least some of these are significant scholars and HAVE researched and written on the same or relevant issues, why they don’t seem to come up to be factored in much, or responded to (at least yet… and I realize you have to keep some amt. of simplicity).

    Some would be: James Tabor (2012 book, “Paul and Jesus”), Hyam Maccoby (Jewish, admittedly speculative but substantive), Bruce Chilton, L.M. White, B. Mack, P. Fredriksen, Barrie Wilson, Paul Gager, M. Hengel, Kloppenborg, Borg, Crossan, Schweitzer, etc.

    So I guess there are at least two aspects to my q.: Is the NP/OP discussion mainly among orthodox or “traditional” scholars of faith, based on their presuppositions and interpretive grid, or is it broader? If it is not broader, I guess my question is why not? (And I do understand that its harder to find credibility in or be influenced by arguments from people with whom you differ on foundational things, but I don’t feel that “excuse” is adequate among real scholars… and I do tend to place preaching pastors among that group, knowing scholarship is usually not able to be their main focus.)

  2. Good summary, Phillip.

    Your comment about the failure of Deuteronom(ist)ic theology got me thinking. I’d say that you’re quite right in identifying the move away from the Deuteronom(ist)ic conception of divine retribution in the late Persian period and early Hellenistic era. The composition of Job, for example, might be seen as a footnote to Deuteronomy-Kings, as it is indeed treated in at least one canon. And of course Job is keen to assert that God does not always act to reward or punish according to strict measures of (deuteronom[ist]ic) justice, but can also act “for no reason whatsoever”, that is, beyond our ability to fathom.

    But I wonder if, in light of the last couple of decades of Pentateuchal scholarship, whether we might press your statement that “the Jews re-emphasized their religious traditions as embodied in the Torah”. For I think that what we have in the final form of the Tetrateuch (and esp in Exodus-Numbers) is actually an alternative that was first developed after the failure of Deuteronom(ist)ic theology. There are precedents in Ezekiel, but its own (Zadokite?) theology is still not we see developed in Exodus-Numbers. The increased emphasis on distinctive Jewish religious traditions in Exodus-Numbers – on cultic law and proscriptions in particular – should then be viewed as a post-deuteronom(ist)ic development, which takes the failure of deuteronom(ist)ic theology as its primary point of departure. It is not properly an “emphasis” on an existing body of Torah, but the very composition of Torah after the failure of deuteronom(ist)ic Torah.

    That’s my current take on developments, anyway.

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