Romans and the New Perspective on Paul

John Polhill has a brief discussion of the New Perspective on Paul which packs a lot of the developments in Pauline theology into just about a page of text (Paul and his Letters, 296-97). Since Romans is such an important book for understanding Paul’s theology, this is a good place to pause in our survey of Paul’s letters and think about what effect the New Perspective has had on our perceptions of Faith and Works, justification and other classic Pauline topics.

martin-lutherThe so-called New Perspective on Paul offered a critique of the traditional view of Paul’s doctrine of justification and generated a fierce debate on both sides of the issue. Most of the writers who have challenged the established view of Pauline reconciliation have emphasized reconciliation as only one of many metaphors which Paul uses in order to describe salvation. E. P. Sanders, for example, does not want to privilege any one metaphor as the main or controlling idea for Paul’s soteriology, whether that metaphor is justification or not.

The core of Sanders’ argument is that Jews of the Second Temple period believed that they were a part of the covenant because of God’s election, and they remained part of the covenant on the basis of their good works. But even here it is not complete and totally adherence to every part of the Law, since no one could keep everything perfectly. Sanders therefore suggests that there was a sub-set of the Law which functioned as “boundary markers,” things which could function as defining who was “in” the covenant and who was “not in.” 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”; but what is it that maintains that relationship with God? Can someone find themselves outside of the covenant?

Most of the literature of this period asks this sort of question: What is it that defines “in the covenant.” In Maccabees it is Sabbath, circumcision and dietary Laws which are clear boundaries; in Jubilees and Enoch, the Qumran literature proper Calendar is included as a boundary marker, in Sirach it is a life of wisdom that marks out the elect.

With this in mind, one could argue that Romans or Galatians does not say that Jesus ended the Law, i.e., no one has to keep the Law anymore at all. Rather, Jesus ended the “boundary markers” which defined who was in or out of the covenant. Circumcision no longer was the sign of the covenant; the day of worship was not longer an issue; food taboos were no longer clear signs of right-standing with God. I am inclined to think that the calendar issues found in much of Second Temple period literature are behind some of Paul’s statements in Col 2:16, for example. The old boundary markers are done away; the people are God are to be defined as those who are “in Christ.”

What then does this do to the classic reformation formulation of Justification by Faith? Perhaps nothing, the doctrine may still be a correct inference from scripture. But if justification is simply one metaphor for salvation among many, perhaps the emphasis placed on justification as the central theme of Paul’s theology is over-played. I am not convinced it is, but the door is now open to other ideas from Paul which have been under-played for the last 400 years.

12 thoughts on “Romans and the New Perspective on Paul

  1. One of the most interesting things to me that I read in this post was the fact that it was stated that “Jesus ended the “boundary markers” (Long). I thought that this was a really interesting concept, because I have never thought of “new boundaries” of the Law being put up. I have always looked at it that the Lord took away the Law, and it was gone, but looking at this new concept, it is interesting to see that the Lord never says that He has taken away the Law, but rather there was no need to follow the Law any longer. Pohill even states “These were those Jewish nationalistic elements of the law which served as “boundary markers” and separated Jews from Gentiles” (Pohill 296). When Paul introduced the gospel, he never said that the Law was gone, but rather that there was no need to follow the Law any longer.

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  2. As a struggle for the Jewish community with this new form of religion the way, even Jewish converts were unsure what this fully meant at times. Some saw it as reform and others something new, but those who had been placed under these markers now found them not there. Much like a college student for the first time getting away from home with a new freedom, they were not sure what they could or couldnt do. when Pohill states “These were those Jewish nationalistic elements of the law which served as “boundary markers” and separated Jews from Gentiles” (Pohill 296) to lose those things, or to remove these barriers must have been a scary and challenging time for a new convert to the way if they were a Jew.

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    • I think you are really hitting on a crucial topic of the boundary markers. The removal of them, especially a lot of them at once, would be scary. It makes me ponder what would happen if all the rules I have placed on me were suddenly taken away. Would I immediately act outside of my normal self? I challenge that I wouldn’t. Most likely, I would stay the same and follow those rules, even though they were no longer in place. I feel the same would go for these Jewish converts. It would be unnatural for them to immediately give up these boundary markers and live in a different way. So even though they were justified through faith, they were still acting in a such a way that did not rid their lives of the boundary markers, which to Paul wasn’t a pressing topic (at least for Jews, that is). It does strike me that even though the Jews and Gentiles were so different, they still were part of the Body of Christ (if they had place their faith in Jesus Christ) and were working toward a common goal, even if it was approached differently.

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  3. The fact that the law seems irrelevant or no longer really needed after Jesus comes along only makes the idea of justification through faith more relevant and real. Justification through faith deals with the whole “not by works” idea – that we do not have to DO anything to be saved, but to simply believe. However, once you do have salvation, you are supposed to do the work of the Lord. So I think the law nowadays could be looked at as something to guide us and keep us in the way that God would have us; however, our salvation or closeness with God does not necessarily depend on it. Also, the law, I guess you could say, is different for us today – we do not need to worry about food laws or circumcision, but more on what Jesus calls us to do and even the 10 commandments. Because our salvation is not dependent upon whether or not we follow the law, but rather on our faith/believing, we cannot find ourselves “outside of the covenant”. Jesus forgives us for our wrongdoings, therefore we can be brought into a new life with Him, even if we mess up. That is part of the beauty of Christianity and the amazing work of the Cross.

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  4. “The Law” today is in no way necessary when it comes to our salvation. Obviously we do not have food laws or circumcision laws, but God does have commands for us from within His word. The Jews thought that by doing good works and abiding by the law, that they would stay within God’s covenant. Just like the Jews, Christians sometimes feel the need to “do more” in order to feel “more saved”. As humans, it is utterly impossible to not sin. When Christ sent His Son to pay our debt, He sent Him to pay ALL OF IT. If God’s expectations for His children were to be perfect and never ever stray away from the law, then there would be no reason for justification through faith. Because there is nothing that we can do physically that will help” pay off our debt”, we can only be saved through our faith in Christ.

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  5. Jesus! Jesus! Jesus! Nothing we talk about matters unless we mention the relation it has to Jesus. Nothing we do, say, or have done matters unless it was for Jesus. Nothing we do will ever measure up to the Cross and the Resurrection of Jesus. It is no rocket science, to be explained by large words, complicated explanations, or theories. It is very simple where you like it or not. Its all about Jesus. Jesus abolished the old boundary markers making it indistinguishable tell if someone was ‘in’ or ‘out’ of the covenant. Unless they were “In Christ”, the were just following a set of life guideline, that no longer made you right with God.

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  6. The idea that Jesus’ death on the cross was not an end to the law, but rather a change in the “boundary markers” is an interesting idea. Many times people look at Jesus’ death as an end to the law and the beginning of Grace. Although this is true, it is not a complete whipping away of the law. The law is no longer needed for justification, because justification comes through faith in Jesus. This is Paul’s point when he discusses justification through faith, people see this as his main theology, whether it is or not, this was a pressing issue for Jewish converts. They were used to living their lives according to the law, so it would have been a struggle to see that they were not required to follow the law for justification and that all they needed was faith. This is why Paul made a clear point to address this in Romans. Polhill says about Romans, “The opening section of the epistle establishes that there is only one means of acceptance with a righteous God—through faith in God’s own provision of Christ’s atoning death (3:21-21)” (Polhill, 285).

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  7. Agreeing with courtneyadler I always figured that God said that the Law is no longer needed and now you don’t have to follow it. Like she said, God never said it. Even though that the Jews kept the Law because they want to be set apart. They wanted to be shown as kind of the teacher’s pet and follow everything that God has told them to follow; even though time changed and that they didn’t need to follow it. They wanted to be the special one in the world, and be higher up than the Gentiles who didn’t follow the law. Polhill says, “Instead they held to a “covenantal nomism,” which saw the law as a part of God’s covenant with Israel, a covenant based in grace and not demand” (Polhill 296).

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  8. One of the questions that I would begin by asking would be, what is going to happen to the Law when Jesus returns? Although I don’t want to dismiss the Law as being irrelevant in nature, I do wonder of it will be rewarded or if it will serve some sort of comeuppance. Nevertheless, justification does play an integral role in our salvation; I don’t believe anyone will argue with that. Furthermore, although it is an essential part in the process of salvation, justification is merely but a constituent therefore it should not be the central emphasis. Faith, I believe, is the chief component in the model of salvation. Yes, God is not only the God to the Jews but he is also the God to the Gentiles and what ties them together? Faith. So, if any word or term word were to be exalted as the chief principle of salvation (for I do proclaim there are many different constituencies that Paul exemplifies as being part of the salvation process) it should be faith. Faith, if you look at, is the encapsulation of justification. As someone accepts the reality of God through faith, is when he or she becomes transformed (justified and sanctified).

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  9. Reading for a modern day perspective, it is sometimes hard for me to be able to emphasize with the Jews who held so tightly to circumcision and following dietary laws as mandatory for Gentile converts. My first thought is that they should have been excited that the Law was no longer a requirement, which is far from being sensitive to the cultural and historical context. To be told that the Law, things that defined them as a people, were not required for the Gentiles to also be God’s people, that would really be a difficult thing to grasp. Polhill reviews the work of EP Sanders, stating the majority of the Jews did not see the Law as a means of entering the covenant, but rather a means for maintaining the covenant (Polhill, 296). With this in mind, I feel that I am able to better understand why the idea of no longer having those “boundary markers” was so important. Jesus ending the “boundary markers” (Long) is a good way of viewing this issue. Jews were still able to keep the Law, but it no longer kept the Gentiles “out”.

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  10. According to Polhill, Sanders argues that the Jews did not see salvation in terms of working for their salvation but rather the law as keeping Israel’s covenant with God; this covenant was founded in grace and not the law (Polhill, 296). The law, therefore, was God’s “means of maintaining the covenant” (Polhill, 296). It is very interesting to consider this new means of interpreting Paul’s approach towards the law. It seems to me that no part of the law defined who was “in Christ” or not, but that when Jesus died for all man’s sin that He fulfilled the law because man never could (Long). Therefore while the Jews or others could still follow the law it was no longer required even as “boundary markers” but Christ had fulfilled the law (Long).

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  11. This is a fascinating concept. I have heard bits and pieces of information on this “New Perspective on Paul” since I have been a student here. It would be interesting to learn more about it. I think it’s good for us to try to look at Scripture at different angles in order to understand theology more completely. However, from what I understand, I am not sure I agree with what this “new perspective” proposes.
    First of all, if we say that faith and justification are just “boundary markers” in a similar way that following the Mosaic Law was for the Jews, doesn’t that mean we can lose our salvation? After all, the Old Testament speaks frequently about how an Israelite can be “cut off” from his people if he commits a serious crime against the Law (Lev 7:27; 17:4). Secondly, the “New Perspective” appears to be saying that, since all Christ did was abolish the “boundary markers”, there is now no longer any difference between how God deals with the Church and the Jews. Certainly, Paul makes it clear that within the Church there is no difference between Jew and Gentile (Col 3:11), but God has made promises to Israel as a people that have yet to be fulfilled (Deut 30, 2 Sam 7, Jer 31). This suggests that there is a distinction between Israel and the Church, and that God is not yet finished with Israel. Finally, if justification is just a metaphor for salvation, couldn’t someone claim that something else, tithing, for example, could also be considered a “metaphor for salvation,” and that tithing is just as important as justification for salvation?

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