The History of the Interpretation of the Apostle Paul


Dr. Peter M. Head [Web Page]


HIAP Home        Previous              Next



Responses to New Perspective on Paul


I. Introduction

a)     Immense variety and amount of material being produced.

b)    Plenty of important areas not covered in this lecture! E.g. (in no particular order):

i) Socio-historical explorations (e.g. G. Theissen; W. Meeks, First Urban Christians)

ii) Sociologically-informed approaches (e.g. P. Esler, Context Group etc.)

iii) SBL Pauline Theology Group

iv) Jewish approaches (e.g. Segal, Paul the Convert; Boyarin)

v) N.T. Wright, Climax of Covenant (NT Theology Project).

vi) Feminist and other ideological readings (e.g. Fiorenza, Searching the Scriptures)

vii) Rhetorical approaches (e.g. Betz on Galatians; cf. P. Kern)

viii) Narrative-critical approaches (e.g. N. Peterson, R. Hays)

c)     Lack of up-to-date interpretive surveys of scholarship.


II. Some Reactions to Sanders

These illustrate that while Sanders’ version of Judaism is largely accepted (at least to a degree); his own solutions in relation to Paul’s theology have not been so widely accepted. Note also the way in which the issues and vocabulary introduced by Sanders become the focal points for ongoing discussion.

a)     M.D. Hooker, ‘Paul and “Covenantal Nomism”’, Paul and Paulinism: Essays in honour of C. K. Barrett (ed. M.D. Hooker & S.G. Wilson; London: SPCK, 1982).

i. Why oppose cov. nom. with part. esch.?

ii. Is ‘covenantal nomism’ appropriate for Paul?

i.  Considering polemic against Law, Paul ‘clearly cannot be maintaining covenantal nomism’ (cf. Gal 3: ‘the Law cannot be the proper response of man to God’s gracious act in Christ’.

ii. Paul does assume there is an appropriate response to God’s salvation in Christ: response, imperatives, law of Christ (Gal 6.2), fulfilling the law (Rom 13.8-10), obedience of faith (Rom 1.5): ‘In many ways, the pattern which Sanders insists is the basis of Palestinian Judaism fits exactly the Pauline pattern of Christian experience: God’s saving grace evokes man’s answering obedience’.

iii.        Future reward / punishment dependent upon deeds (Rom 2.1-16; 14.10-12; 1 Cor 3.10-15; 4.1-5; 2 Cor 5.10): need holiness, Spirit

iv.        What about ‘covenantal’? Not frequently used by Paul; but is used in Gal 3 & 4 re Abrahamic promise. ‘covenantal promises’ very appropriate for Paul’s view of Abrahamic covenant (but language mostly controlled by contrast with Sinai)

iii.    ‘ It is not the “pattern of religion”, then, that separates Paul from Judaism, but the pieces which make up the pattern.’

iv. Need to work on links between various elements in Paul's thought


b) R.H. Gundry, 'Grace, Works, and Staying Saved in Paul' Biblica 66(1985), pp. 1-38.

i. Galatians is about 'staying in' (and that is 'by faith')

ii. good works as evidential, not instrumental


c) F. Thielman, From Plight to Solution: A Jewish Framework for Understanding Paul's View of the Law in Galatians and Romans (NTS LXI; Leiden: E.J. Brill, 1989).



III. J.D.G. Dunn and the New Perspective

Manson Memorial Lecture (4.11.1982): ‘The New Perspective on Paul’ BJRL 65(1983), 95-122.

Romans (Word Commentary; 2 vols; 1988)

Jesus, Paul and the Law: Studies in Mark and Galatians (London: SPCK, 1990).

Theology of Galatians (Cambridge, 1993).

Commentaries: Galatians (1993), Colossians and Philemon (1996), Acts

Theology of Paul the Apostle (1998)

i) "works of law" as boundary markers (nationalistism/confidence)

ii) importance of Antioch incident in historical development of Paul's theology

iii) curse of law and inclusion of Gentiles

iv) pistis christou as 'faith in Christ'

v) Adam (Romans; Phil 2; no pre-existence christology)

vi) Romans as template for Pauline theology


IV. No New Perspective

a)     Commentaries: e.g. J.A. Fitzmyer, Romans (1993); D.J. Moo, Romans (1996):

'Paul criticizes Jews for thinking that the Mosaic covenant is adequate without that perfection in "works" without which any system of law must fail to bring one into relationship with God.'

b)    Martin Hengel & Roland Deines, ‘E.P. Sanders’ “Common Judaism”, Jesus, and the Pharisees’, Journal of Theological Studies 46(1995), pp. 1-70.

a.     Sanders’ quest for the basic pattern of Jewish religion is equivalent to ‘lowest-common-denominator’ Judaism (Sanders’ own term in his preface to the German translation of PPJ in 1985), or “common Judaism” as he later came to call it. But this, and the focus on getting in and staying in is hardly an adequate description of a religion:

‘No religion, certainly not its active and especially successful representatives (here the problem of the Pharisees comes up) can rest content with such a minimal goal, which indeed amounts to nothing more than the maintenance of the status quo. Rather, a pattern of religion must be described primarily according to what it wants, why it wants it, and with what means it seeks to achieve this. Therefore what Sanders relates is more a picture of Judaism as it appears to the outside observer, the non-Jew, whether ancient or modern.’

b.     Sanders’ fails to ascribe any positive will to this pattern of religion (prejudice against Pharisaism).

Cf. Riches: ‘there seems to be a strange reluctance on Sanders’ part to give full recognition to Jewish delight in doing the law. (p. 137f).

c)     M. Hengel (with R. Deines), The Pre-Christian Paul (London: SCM, 1991)

a.     Historical discussion and terminology, but ‘the aim of this investigation is nevertheless ultimately a theological one. My concern is for a better understanding of the apostle’s doctrine of justification, which nowadays is often misinterpreted and disputed, against the background of his own career and his encounter with the risen Christ which changed this radically.’

b.     ‘That Paul was able to teach to the Gentile Christian community that he founded the meaning of God’s radical grace – ‘But if it is by grace, then it does not rest on deeds done, or grace would cease to be grace’ (Rom. 11.6) – is connected with his special past.’

c.     ‘In this dispute within Christianity, which runs through the whole of church history down to the present day and in which all too often the law triumphed over the gospel and works over grace, if we are still concerned with the Christian truth we have to make a decision: in the end one cannot really mediate between Augustine and Pelagius, Luther and Erasmus, Jansen and Molina.’

d.     ‘For the most part Pauline theology rests on the radical reversal of former values and aims which came about through the encounter with the crucified and risen Jesus of Nazareth. The Jewish teacher becomes the missionary to the Gentiles; the “zeal for the law” is replaced by the proclamation of the gospel without the law; justification of the righteous on the basis of their “works of the law” is replaced by justification of the “godless” through faith alone; the free will is replaced by the faith which is given by grace alone as the creation of the word; and hatred of the crucified and accursed pseudo-messiah is replaced by a theology of the cross which grounds the salvation of all men and women in the representative accursed death of the messiah on the cross.

‘Although people nowadays are fond of asserting otherwise, no one understood the real essence of Pauline theology, the salvation given sola gratia, by faith alone, better than Augustine and Martin Luther. Despite this rigorous reversal of all previous values and ideals (Phil 3.7-11), Pauline theology – and therefore also Christian theology – remains very closely bound up with Jewish theology. Its individual elements and thought-structure derive almost exclusively from Judaism. This revolutionary change becomes visible precisely in the fact that its previous theological views remain present even in their critical reversal as a negative foil, and help to determine the location of the new position.’

d)    M. Hengel & A. M. Schwemer, Paul Between Damascus and Antioch (London: SCM, 1997).

a.     Essential thrust is that Paul’s theology was from a very early stage based on fixed principles, one of which was ‘the justification of the sinner by grace alone’ (e.g. p. 98f).

b.     Conclusion is a chronological comparison between Paul and Luther!

e) F. Avemarie, Tora und Leben: Untersuchungen zur Heilsbedeutung der Tora in der frühen rabbinischen Literatur (TSAJ 55; Tübingen: J.C.B. Mohr (Paul Siebeck), 1996). Also 'Erwählung und Vergeltung. Zur optionalen Struktur rabbinischer Soteriologie' NTS 45(1999), 108-126.

f) D.A. Carson, P.T. O’Brien & M.A. Seifrid, Justification and Variegated Nomism

Cambridge PhD Seminar: Justification and Variegated Nomism




The History of the Interpretation of the Apostle Paul


Dr. Peter M. Head [Web Page]


HIAP Home        Previous              Next