I'd originally intended to present a few posts outlining covenantal nomism, however, further reflection has led me to suspect that not only is it not necessary to my topic question--What is the New Perspective on Paul--it might even serve to draw attention away from it. So further discussion on covenantal nomism might be the topic of a later series, while for now, I'll instead move directly into the final post in the series, and a look at the New Perspective on Paul
The New Perspective on Paul
We have seen thus far that there was a long tradition of viewing Judaism as legalistic, and viewing Paul in that light. More specifically, Paul was traditionally read as opposing that legalism. With Sanders' seminal work, Paul and Palestinian Judaism calling into question that perception of Judaism, suggesting instead that it should be viewed as a religion of covenantal nomism. This new understanding of Judaism demanded a new understanding of Paul, which Sanders turned his attention to in the second half of Paul and Palestinian Judaism as well as in his follow-up essays, collected in Paul, the Law and the Jewish People.
Perhaps the most important aspect of Sanders' understanding of Paul is the emphasis he places on who Paul's audience was: They were Gentiles. Paul preached to Gentiles, on behalf of Gentiles. The thrust of his message on justification concerns Gentiles over and against the Judaizers, who would have it that Paul's converts accept the Mosaic Law, including (and most emphasized by Paul) circumcision.
Sanders chooses to break this question of justification into two parts: "Getting in" and "staying in." Paul's criticism of the Law is thus based upon the question of "how to enter the body of those who would be saved."(1) It is a question of getting in, not one of staying in. Equally importantly, Sanders does not see Paul's opponents on the matter as "Jews," per se, rather they are "Jewish Christians." With this in mind, the suggestion that Paul's issue is one of "faith in Christ" versus "works of the Law," as either are traditionally understood, has little cogency. Paul is not here criticizing Judaism or Jews, he is offering a scathing criticism of Christian missionaries. The argument with these missionaries addresses how one "gets in," or more specifically, how one enters into the people of God to take advantage of the covenantal promises. Thus Sanders suggests that
when Paul opposed "faith" to "law" the question was what is required to be a member of the group that would be saved(3)
Sanders suggests that, as in traditional Judaism, Paul believed one would be saved (entered into the covenant) by virtue of faith, as in traditional Judaism, one's works would determine reward and punishment. As to the question of "staying in," Paul saw no opposition between faith and works, and indeed saw the latter as the natural expression of the former, and it is appropriate for a functional congregation that one preform some form of the Law (though Paul does not seem to espouse the more traditional Jewish acts of Torah).
To Sanders, the most important point in reading Paul is to understand the context--not only what he was saying, but why he was saying it and to whom. This seems almost a truism, but is one that had been frequently overlooked in Pauline studies.
[Paul]'s answers to questions of behavior have a logic of their own. There is no systematic explanation of how those who have died to the law obey it. Yet he regarded Scripture as expressing the will of God. We should recall that even the statements that righteousness is not by the law are supported in part by Scripture. Thus it was natural that, when questions of behavior arose, he would answer by waying that, among other things, that Christians should fulfill the Law. (4)
Yet while Sanders does not find in Paul the traditional rejection of Judaism for the traditional reasons, he still finds that Paul did reject Judaism (or at least Judaism as it is tradionally understood).
Paul in fact explicitly denies that the Jewish covenant can be effective for salvation, thus consciously denying the basis of Judaism.(5)
To Sanders, Paul has arrived at this by working backwards. He begins with the conviction that faith in Christ is God's ultimate plan for salvation. Faith in Christ is not the Law. Thus the Law does not lead one to salvation. Instead there exists a new plan, one entered into equally by Jew and Gentile alike--the previous boundaries, the markers for those engaged in the covenantal promises, the "tuition" from the previous analogy are no longer valid. Mosaic Law is excluded as a means of entry into the covenant, it is a covenant for all mankind. Paul's fundamental problem with Judaism, suggests Sanders, is that it has no Christ. In perhaps the most oft cited passage in the New Perspective on Paul, Sanders suggests that "“In short, this is what Paul finds wrong in Judaism: it is not Christianity.”(5)
While Sanders has had many critics both within(6) and outside(7) the NPP, the general paradigm of the New Perspective is nonetheless to be found in his works. Put in simplest terms, the NPP can be summarized like this: Paul did not oppose legalistic Judaism, and he wrote to Gentiles.
(1) E P Sanders, Paul the Law and the Jewish People, Fortress Press, p.45, hereafter PLJP
(2) PLJP 107-110
(3) PLJP 114
(4) PLJP 114
(5) PPJ, 551
(5) PPJ, 552
(6) See esp. the various works of James D G Dunn, though NPP critics of Sanders are plentiful--eg Wright, Gager etc.
(7) Eg Schreiner, Carson, Kim
The books mentioned here are uniformly positive on the NPP. The aim of the series has been to introduce one to it, not to debate its validity, so this seems the appropriate route to take.
E P Sanders, Paul and Palestinian Judaism
E P Sanders, Paul, the Law and the Jewish People
James Dunn The Theology of Paul the Apostle
James Dunn Romans 2 Vols. (Word Biblical Commentary Series)
James Dunn Paul and the Mosaic Law
John Gager Reinventing Paul (see my comments here and here. Gager's construction of Paul is wrong, but as an introduction to the NPP, it's not too shabby, concise and easily understood by the novice)
N T Wright What St. Paul Really Said
Gerald F. Hawthorne et al. Dictionary of Paul and His Letters