Like the discussion of Paul’s conversion, the New Perspective on Paul has had quite a bit to say here. Typically Paul has been viewed as struggling to keep the Law, perhaps in despair over his inability to do “the whole of the Law.” Romans 7:25 is a key part of the classic account of Paul’s conversion: Paul himself is the “wretched man” who must be delivered from his body of death. Acts 26:14 describes Paul as “kicking against the goads” prior to his conversion, as if he knew the truth about Jesus but he refused to believe.
This reconstruction of Paul’s pre-Christian spiritual state is popular and makes for good preaching. It has, however, been challenged by the New Perspective on Paul, especially by Krister Stendahl and E. P. Sanders. Sanders challenged what he saw as the Lutheran domination of Pauline studies on justification. In the twentieth century (primarily Lutheran) scholars made justification by faith the “center” Pauline theology leading to the unfortunate result of anti-Judaism. For many students of Paul, Jews were proto-Pelagians akin to Catholicism in the early sixteenth century. Paul sounds more like Luther bashing his Catholic opponents than a Jewish rabbi hoping to bring the Gospel to both Jews and Gentiles with the culture of the first century.
In the traditional view of Paul and his letters, Judaism was the antithesis of Paul’s Christianity. Paul’s theology develops out of a struggle against Judaism, freeing Christians from the restrictions of the Jewish Law. Sanders challenged this as a mischaracterization by arguing the questions posed by the Protestantism in the Reformation have nothing at all to do with Judaism of the Second Temple period. For Sanders, the Protestant version of Paul obscures what was actually happening in the first century and misses how Christianity developed out of Judaism. In addition, Sanders points out that the traditional Protestant Paul was never recognized by Jewish scholars (Samuel Sandmel, for example). The traditional Paul was either incoherent or inconsistent for them because they understood Second Temple Judaism better than Post-Reformation scholarship.
According to Sanders, Paul was not a guilt-ridden sinner trying to justify himself through the good works of the Law. In fact, that was Luther. He was the guilt-ridden sinner trying to justify himself, and he read all that angst back into Paul. Paul was therefore not converted on the road to Damascus. Obviously this has huge implications, since the theological edifice of the reformation is guilt on Luther’s understanding of Paul, and there have been some fairly strenuous arguments against Sanders and the other more recent New Perspective writers.
What difference will it make in our reading of Paul if we think of him as a “reform movement” within Judaism? I am not saying this is the case, but if Paul has more roots in the Hebrew Bible than are usually recognized, what is “radical” about Paul?