Thus far, we have discussed the perspective change that has occurred over the last fifty years within Pauline scholarship. We have talked about E. P. Sanders’s work that challenged the Lutheran view of first-century Judaism. We have gone over the reconstructions of Paul that grew from this challenge. And we have talked about the weaknesses in these reconstructions. Now, we can finally talk about their strengths.
The New Perspective, for all its lows, is not without its highs. Most of these highs concern details within Paul’s argument that puzzled classical Lutheran readers of Paul. Dealing with these individual texts would be too tedious of a task for this post, but two main contributions can be dealt with at the macro level without bogging us down too much—the focus on Jew/Gentile relations and the use of Jewish backgrounds.
Let’s start with the first. In Galatians and Romans, it becomes clear that Paul is not merely talking about justification by faith. He also deals with the composition of the people of God. Who is in the covenant, and who isn’t?
For example, in the middle of Galatians 3, Paul says that “it is those of faith who are sons of Abraham” (Gal 3:7). If Paul’s gospel merely consisted of justification, then statements like this one don’t make a lot of sense. One would expect Paul to say something like “it is those of faith who are justified,” but he doesn’t, at least not here.
Similarly, Paul concludes Romans 2 with the following: “For no one is a Jew who is merely one outwardly, nor is circumcision outward and physical. But a Jew is one inwardly, and circumcision is a matter of the heart” (Rom. 2:28–29b). Like Galatians 3, a gospel that doesn’t ask the “who” question has a difficult time figuring this statement out. Who cares who is a Jew and who isn’t if justification by faith exhausts the essence of the gospel?
It is here that Dunn’s and Wright’s insights concerning the gospel’s horizontal nature are important. Yes, Dunn, in particular, made the mistake of reducing the gospel down to Jew/Gentile relations, but his issue was in the reduction, not in the insight itself. The gospel is not merely horizontal, as Dunn thought, but it is not solely vertical either. The good news that both Jesus and his apostles preached consisted of justification by faith and the inclusion of all, the Jews first and then also the Gentile. Thus, when Paul says things like a true Jew is a Jew on the inside, or those of faith are sons of Abraham, we can understand what he means if we bear in mind this horizontal component of the gospel. The gospel is God’s story of redemption and how he saves the world through his Messiah. Luther helped draw our attention to the faith by which this salvation occurs. Sanders and company helped us see whom this salvation was for, and we should not reject this observation s simply because they overcorrected Luther’s view. God does not merely save. He saves the world—the Jew and Gentile world.
Now to the second significant contribution of the New Perspective. Although plagued with similar excesses as the focus on Jew/Gentile relations, Sanders and others’ use of Jewish backgrounds is a good thing.
Suppose for a moment that you somehow discovered a letter dated to the mid 19th century. The author of the note (let’s call her Susie) writes that she and her family went to Chicago to see the elephant. Such a statement might seem odd at first—why did she say “the” elephant instead of “an” elephant— but you would probably move on, assuming that she took her family to the zoo to see some certifiable Dumbo that attracted families far and wide. But this is not what Susie meant at all. In the 19th century, “to see the elephant” meant “to see the sights of a town.” Susie’s mention of a beloved zoo animal was simply meant to describe her tour of the Windy City. For her, seeing the elephant meant she saw the sights she wished to see. Had you been familiar with the jargon of the 19th century, you would have recognized Susie’s statement for what it was.
Reading Paul is similar. He does not fill his letters with slang or jargon, but his words and arguments often contain nuance that can be missed by his modern readers if they are not familiar with his first-century context. Remember that this was Wright’s main critique of the Reformers. He claimed that Luther asked medieval questions of first-century texts. In other words, Luther, according to Wright, thought the elephant was an elephant. Barring whether or not Wright was correct about Luther, becoming familiar with first-century Judaism seems like a wise thing to do lest we also take the elephant to be an elephant. Paul is reacting to his theological environment, so having a working knowledge of said environment can only help things.
For example, consider Paul’s polemic in Romans 1 and 2. There, Paul talks about the degradation of the nations, who exchanged the glory of the immortal God to worship mortal things (Rom. 1:23–25). After he has his way with these Gentiles, he turns toward his fellow Jews to critique them for their judgment of these idolaters (Rom. 2:1–3). On its own, the flow of thought is perfectly understandable. Still, if Paul set his rhetoric against the backdrop of Wisdom of Solomon, a first-century Jewish text, a certain amount of the Apostle’s unnoticed skill bubbles up to the surface.
Wisdom of Solomon is a proverbial text written probably in the middle of the first century (not by Solomon) that deals with a whole host of issues. Toward the middle of the book, Wisdom issues a polemic against Gentile idolatry, much like that of Paul’s. “But wretched are those who hope are in dead things, who call ‘gods’ the work of human hands. Gold and silver, products made with skill, and images of animals, or a useless stone, the work of an ancient hand” (Wis. 13:10). The sage’s abbreviated language might be difficult to parse out, but his primary point is clear. The Gentiles place their hope in man-made idols. Sounds like Paul, doesn’t it?
When Wisdom turns toward his fellow Jew, however, his resemblances with Paul begin to fade. “But you, our God, are kind and true, longsuffering and ordering all things with mercy. For even if we sin, we are yours, knowing your might, but knowing we are yours, we will not sin; . . . For neither has the artful inventiveness of human beings led us astray, nor the fruitless toil of painters, a figure stained with various colors, whose appearance arouses yearning in fools so that they long for the unbreathing form of a dead image” (Wis. 15:1–5 [NET]). The first part of this prayer claims righteousness for the Jews. They know they are his and, therefore, will not sin. In the second part, we see that this claim does not stand on its own. It is put at odds with Wisdom’s earlier descriptions of the Gentiles. Unlike these moronic idolaters, Wisdom and his Jewish brethren could never be duped into worshipping a dead image. They worship the living God, not images of silver and gold.
Paul’s rhetoric against Gentile idolatry in chapter 1 baits this sort of Jew into an agreement only to lampoon his self-righteousness in chapter 2. “Yes! Yes, Paul! The Gentiles are idolaters. You are absolutely right,” this Jew might say only to be blasted as Paul calls him out for his hypocrisy. “Who are you Wisdom to say that you have not been duped? By judging these Gentiles, do you not judge yourself? You are not better off than they.” With his guard down, this Jewish opponent runs into Paul’s accusation here with considerably more force. Could Paul’s argument have been understood without this comparison? Of course. But putting Paul in conversation with Wisdom gives his polemic that much more bite, and so it often is when Paul is placed against his other contemporaries.
These are the benefits of Sanders’s New Perspective. As I’ve said multiple times, the New Perspective has often obscured what Paul was actually saying and twisted the gospel in the process. However, to say that the movement has been nothing but bad would be a bathwater-and-baby sort of mistake. The gospel does have horizontal implications, and Paul was a first-century Jew. Modern readers would do well to note both as they make their way through Romans and Galatians, arguably the most important letters penned by the famous apostle to the Gentiles.
Jarrett Ford is a Ph.D. student at the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary and an Adjunct Professor at Boyce College. He and his wife Julia have four kids and live in Louisville, KY.