Paul, the Law, and the New Perspective

Is it just a scholastic debate? No, it is not.

The issue of the New Perspective on Paul is hardly settled even within the field of Pauline Studies. For example, Simon Gathercole has shown that Jews in Paul’s day did boast in the Law and their ability to use it. There was an anticipation that Torah/Law keeping would be vindicated in the last day (Gathercole 2002: 91-111). More recently, Preston Sprinkle as examined the issue of divine and human agency in Paul and Judaism. Just because we can find a concept of divinely empowered obedience in Judaism and divinely empowered obedience in the NT, does not mean they were referring to the same thing in the same way (Sprinkle 2013: 192-203). As Stephen Westerholm puts it “we do Judaism neither justice nor favor when we claim it preached ‘good’ Protestant doctrine on the subject of grace and works” (Westerholm 2004: 351).


Since the 1980s, a movement called the New Perspective on Paul has been a rising star in Biblical studies and Pauline scholarship. The movement primarily started through the writings of E.P. Sanders’ 1977 Paul and Palestinian Judaism as he explored the Second Temple Jewish texts and reexamined what they said regarding the Law of God, although the phrase was coined by James D.G. Dunn. It has been influential in Pauline studies, especially in the works of James D.G. Dunn and N.T. Wright, among others.

The basic thesis of Sanders was that first century Jewish did not think of themselves as obeying the Law to “earn their salvation” and “merit favor with God.” Rather, they saw themselves as responding to God’s covenant. They saw themselves as elect and in the covenant of God and therefore responding to His work. Sanders coined the term “covenantal nomism.” The primary issue was a new understanding of the Judaism of Paul’s day that caused interpreters to reevaluate how we understand Paul, particularly the role of the Law and the phrase “works of the Law.”

One of the key features of the New Perspective on Paul has been to speak of the Law as “boundary markers” for the first century Jew. They have pointed to the sociological function that the Law played. For example, Jews did not eat with Gentiles. They saw the Law as setting them apart. Anyone who has read Gal. 2 or Eph. 2:11ff can recognize this point. However, this leads some of the adherents of the New Perspective on Paul to deny that Paul confronted any sort of works righteousness.

The argument goes like this: Jews believed the Law was given by God because of his covenant grace. For them, obeying the Law was a response to God and they did not see themselves as “earning favor”. Thus, we must redefine what Paul means when he says “Law” and “Works of the Law.”

First, it is worth pointing out that not every adherent to the “New Perspective on Paul” interprets Paul in exactly the same way. There is debate amongst adherents. Some might say there is not one “New Perspective on Paul” but new perspectives. Nevertheless, there are common trends.

Second, in some ways, E.P. Sanders and others were responding to aspects of German scholarship, in part coming out of the tradition of Rudolph Bultmann and others, who in their works were hostile to Judaism and portrayed certain caricatures. There was in some circles a minimizing of categories of redemptive history which some adherents of the New Perspective have tried in their own way to return to pride of place.

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