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Origins of The New Perspective on Paul

Beginning of Paul’s letter to the Galatians in an illuminated Latin manuscript.
Title page of Paul speaking to Galatians in an illuminated epistle

“The New Perspective on Paul” was the title of James Dunn’s 1982 Manson Memorial Lecture at the University of Manchester, England. The title was provoked by the then recent work of E. P. Sanders, Paul and Palestinian Judaism, published in 1977. The lecture responded positively to Sanders’ vigorous protest against the view, then still dominant since the Reformation, that the Judaism of Paul’s time was a legalistic and even degenerate religion of self-achievement. Sanders made the case that a fundamental tenet of the religion of Israel and early Judaism was the covenant: the conviction that God had chosen Israel to be his own special people and had made a covenant (an agreement or contract) with them to be their only God and they his people. The law was given at Mount Sinai not to enable Israel to become God’s people but to dictate how those who were already God’s people should live. Sanders called this “covenantal nomism”: Israel’s place in God’s plan was established by the covenant, which in turn required Israel’s obedience to the law (nomos).

The Manson lecture also critiqued Sanders’ then-forthcoming book Paul, the Law and the Jewish People (published in 1983), arguing that Sanders had failed to bring out the coherence of Paul’s response to Judaism as he had redefined/rediscovered it. The lecture and its sequels went on to argue that there was another important and often-neglected aspect of the law: in order to mark Israel as set apart for God, the law required Israel to set itself apart from the (other) nations (as in Lev 20:24-26). The law was a boundary protecting Israel from the defilements of the surrounding nations (as in the Letter of Aristeas 139-142), in effect reinforcing the exclusiveness of Israel’s claim upon Yahweh. The lecture argued that in Gal 2:16, where Paul for the first time affirmed that “a person is justified not by the works of the law but only through faith in Jesus Christ,” by ‘works of the law’ Paul had primarily in view the most prominent boundary markers still crucial for most Jewish believers in Jesus—circumcision (Gal 2:2-9) and Jewish dietary requirements (Gal 2:11-14)—which, Paul charges, Jewish believers in Jerusalem and Antioch had tried to ‘compel’ the Gentile believers to observe, “to judaize/live like Jews” (Gal 2:3, Gal 2:14). These were ‘the works of the law’ which in effect Paul accused Peter of trying to enforce upon Gentile believers (Gal 2:15-16).

Sanders and Dunn have both met with criticism; Sanders for overemphasizing the covenant aspect of “covenantal nomism” and Dunn both for an overly narrow understanding of “works of the law” and for replacing criticism of Jewish legalism with that of Jewish exclusivism. The important contribution of “the new perspective,” however, has been not to supplant or replace “the old perspective” but to emphasize a dimension of Paul’s teaching on justification hitherto mostly ignored: that central to Paul’s gospel was bringing Jew and Gentile together in common worship of God (Rom 15:8-12), breaking down “the dividing wall” between Jew and Gentile, making the two into one new humanity and reconciling both to God in one body through faith in Jesus Christ (Eph 2:14-3:6).

The resulting debate has largely focused on whether Paul’s gospel is in effect a different form of “covenantal nomism”:  given Paul’s insistence that obedience is essential (“the obedience of faith,” Rom 1:5), and that judgment will be (for Christians too) “according to works” (Rom 2:6-11; 2Cor 5:10), how different is his teaching from the Hebrew Bible’s and early Judaism’s similar insistence?

  • James D. G. Dunn

    James D. G. Dunn, emeritus Lightfoot Professor of Divinity, Durham University (1982-2003), lives in Chichester, West Sussex, England. His books include The Epistle to the Galatians (Hendrickson, 1995), The Theology of Paul the Apostle (Eerdmans, 1997), and Christianity in the Making, Vol. 2: Beginning from Jerusalem (Eerdmans, 2009).