Sundoulos - Spring 2011

What is “The New Perspective on Paul”?

by Matt Williams

The “New Perspective on Paul” (hereafter NP) is a hot topic in New Testament studies today. While scholars have been talking about it for many years, a recent book by the well-known pastor and New Testament scholar John Piper put it on the map for many pastors as well as the general public.1 Unfortunately, though many have heard of the topic and have formed an opinion one way or the other, few outside scholarly circles understand the historical context of what the NP really is saying. People have read the websites or heard through the grapevine that it is either the best thing since sliced bread, or the most heretical idea to hit the church this century. My modest goal in this article is briefly to trace the history of the NP, offer a cautious assessment, and point to certain positive applications.

Overview of the New Perspective

Scholars associated with the NP have said that we have misread Paul—an important charge! Until the NP, it was generally understood that the Judaism of Jesus’ day was legalistic, meaning that the Jews thought that by their obedience they could earn their salvation.2

The NP disagrees with this viewpoint. The NP tries to ask if we have been influenced by our culture as 21st century westerners and have missed what Paul really meant when he wrote about justification and salvation. The NP asks, “What did Paul mean when he wrote?”

Martin Luther

Martin Luther wrote his commentaries on Romans and Galatians in the early 1500s. His emphasis on “faith alone” meant that humans are not justified by actions or works, but solely on the basis of their faith in Jesus Christ. Luther made a fundamental distinction between law and gospel. The law required one to work, while the gospel required that one freely receive the gift of salvation, through faith. When Luther read Paul, he took Paul to be fighting against legalistic Jews who were trying to earn their salvation through works, whereas Paul taught that salvation came through faith: “We who are Jews by birth and not sinful Gentiles know that a person is not justified by the works of the law, but by faith in Jesus Christ. So we, too, have put our faith in Christ Jesus that we may be justified by faith in Christ and not by the works of the law, because by the works of the law no one will be justified” (Gal 2:15-16).

But we must stop and reflect on Luther’s context. Against whom was Luther disputing in the Reformation? Generally, he was arguing against a Roman Catholic theology that taught salvation through works: pilgrimages to Rome, buying pieces of the cross, giving money to the church, observing the sacraments, etc. Luther said “NO!” to these legalistic practices. Salvation does not come through works, but solely by faith in Jesus. The NP proposes that Luther’s interpretation of Paul was highly influenced by his own struggle against a legalistic Roman Catholic Church. As a result, when Luther read Paul, he projected his own context onto Paul’s, and assumed that Paul was also fighting against legalism. Many scholars today, however, believe there is a problem with Luther’s understanding of Paul’s background; they propose that the Judaism of the first century was not legalistic. Let’s examine the key players in order to set the context for where the debate on the NP is today, especially the meaning of the term “justification” (see the following article in Sundoulos).

Krister Stendahl

In a brief article, “Paul and the Introspective Conscience of the West,”3 Stendahl argued that Paul’s problem was not a problem of conscience, or how to overcome sin and legalism; such a reading was based on a faulty interpretation of Paul. In fact, Philippians 3:6, “as to righteousness which comes from the law,” seems to indicate that Paul did not seem to struggle with guilt feelings when he thought about the law. His standing before God was, in his own words, “faultless” or “blameless.” Then what was the problem against which Paul fought? According to Stendahl, the problem was the relationship between Jewish and Gentile Christians. How should the Gentiles be included in this new covenant, which, until Jesus’ time, had been exclusively Jewish? When we read the book of Acts, we do not see much discussion about legalism, but we see a lot of discussion about what to do with the Gentiles.

E.P. Sanders

E.P. Sanders’s Paul and Palestinian Judaism was deemed one of the most influential books in New Testament studies in the 20th century.4 He succeeded in forcing scholars to rethink the nature of Second Temple Judaism. Until this study, it was widely accepted that according to 1st century Judaism, individual Israelites could only gain acceptance before God by accumulating good deeds, which outweighed their sins. In other words, the Jewish religion was one of legalism: attempting to earn one’s salvation. In the end, though, one could never be absolutely sure that his good deeds would outweigh his bad deeds, thus resulting in a despairing uncertainty about salvation.

Sanders set out to destroy the view that Judaism of the 1st century was a legalistic religion in comparison with Christianity, a religion based on faith (p. xii). In order to do this, he examined the various forms of Judaism seen in documents that existed in the first century.5

Sanders concluded that although there were many “Judaisms” in the first century, the main pattern was non-legalistic. Sanders called it “covenantal nomism,” the view “that one’s place in God’s plan is established on the basis of the covenant, and that the covenant requires as the proper response of man his obedience to its commandments, while providing means of atonement for transgression” (p. 75). God elected Israel (covenant) and gave her the law. Those within the covenant had to obey the law not to gain salvation, but to maintain their relationship with God which was already theirs through grace. One gains salvation through the covenant; and one maintains that relationship through obedience to the law. Thus, for Sanders, there was no system of balance in which good deeds had to outweigh the bad deeds.

According to Sanders, when a Jewish person sinned, nothing happened with respect to salvation, since Judaism was not a religion based on merit or good deeds. The law itself provided means of forgiveness through repentance or the system of sacrifice would atone for sin. If Sanders is correct in his analysis of first century Judaism, it would dramatically change our interpretation of Paul, especially Romans and Galatians.

J.D.G. Dunn

New Testament professor J.D.G. “Jimmy” Dunn (as he is widely known) is the scholar responsible for coining the phrase “the new perspective on Paul.” In his 1983 article, “The New Perspective on Paul,” he argued that the phrase “justification by faith” does not speak about an individual’s relationship with God, but about the inclusion of Gentiles in the Church. For Dunn, Paul was not fighting against Jewish legalism, but against Jewish exclusivity and pride.6

The phrase “works of law,” ergōn nomou (Rom 3:20, 28; Gal 2:16; etc.), according to Dunn, does not speak of good works that one does in an attempt to gain salvation, but the works which Jews did to show themselves to be Jews, separate and different from Gentiles. These “works of law” would especially include circumcision, Sabbath, and food laws, as these laws especially marked a Jew as a Jew.7 Dunn calls these works “identity badges” or “boundary markers,” in that they serve both to identify the Jew as a Jew (identity badges) and also to separate the clean/holy Jew from the unclean/sinner Gentile (boundary markers).

On Dunn’s view, many 1st century Jews believed that only those who “wear” these badges of the “works of law” receive God’s grace. Therefore, Paul was not fighting against works in legalistic terms, but rather against works that were performed in an effort to distinguish the Jew from the Gentile, perhaps in the hopes that the “sinful Gentiles” (Gal 2:15) would not be included in the covenant which, until Jesus, had been exclusively of the Jews (“the holy ones, the elect ones”). Such a perspective is drastically different than what was, until Sanders, the scholarly consensus; thus the name “the new perspective.”

“The Jewish Christians evidently believed (as the Antioch incident demonstrated [Gal 2:11-14]) that ‘works of law’ continued to be the appropriate if not essential expression of that faith in Jesus Christ, for Jewish Christians, at least.”8 Paul reasons, however, that such an attitude, although potentially correct theologically, actually leads to Jewish exclusivity and Gentile alienation. Why? Because a Jewish Christian who attempts to do these works of law actually rejects Gentile brothers and sisters because these very works of law serve to alienate these Gentiles. This cannot be, Paul says in Galatians 2:16: “So we [Jews], too, have put our faith in Christ Jesus that we may be justified by faith in Christ and not by the works of the law, because by the works of the law no one will be justified.” In other words, in Paul’s mind, one must come to the theological and practical conclusion that salvation comes solely through faith in Jesus and not through being a Jew, as evidenced by “works of law.” This new understanding eliminates Jewish exclusivity and the resulting rejection of the Gentiles.

A brief example will make this clear. Imagine if a Pharisee who came to faith in Jesus would meet the Samaritan woman of John 4. Would it not be difficult for a Pharisee to understand that in the new covenant, they are now brother and sister in Christ, with no separation between them? The new covenant was very different from the old, where the Jews were the chosen ones. This certainly was difficult for Peter to understand, and it actually took a vision for him to finally grasp it (Acts 10:9-20). “Then Peter began to speak: ‘I now realize how true it is that God does not show favoritism but accepts from every nation the one who fears him and does what is right’” (Acts 10:34-35).

The ministry of Jesus results in one new, unified community where “there is neither Jew nor Gentile” (Gal 3:28). Thus, for Paul, “works of law” are no longer necessary in Christianity because they result in a rejection of God’s plan: the unification of both Jew and Gentile in a new people of God.

N.T. Wright

N.T. “Tom” Wright, a well-known British New Testament scholar, accepts most of the conclusions of Sanders and Dunn, but in order to understand Wright, one must always keep a key theme in the forefront. Wright believes that Israel was still under the curse of Deuteronomy 29 in the first century.9 The exile did not end when the Jews returned from Babylon, but rather continued on even into the days of Jesus, as seen in Rome’s control of Israel. Jesus came to end both the curse and the exile, and initiate the new covenant and its blessings.

Thus, for Wright, Pauline theology and justification by faith have less to do with the individual and their problem with sin (though of course humans do indeed have a sin problem10) than with the plight of the Jewish nation as a whole. “Because the Messiah represents Israel, he is able to take on himself Israel’s curse and exhaust it.”11 Through the death of Jesus, the covenant promises made to Abraham may be grasped by both Jew and Gentile, through faith, as promised in Genesis 15.

A Brief Critique of the New Perspective

Given that entire books have critiqued the NP, I’ll limit myself to just a few comments.12

First, the name “the new perspective” is not the best name for this movement. Wright had it right when he entitled his book “What St. Paul Really Said.” One must understand that if the NP is correct, its interpretation of Paul is not a “new” perspective, but rather an “old ” perspective, that which Paul himself had. The NP would be removing the layers of traditions that have been placed upon our interpretation of Paul, thereby recovering what he really meant.13 At times, the new perspective is critiqued simply because it is “new.” The reasoning of the critics is that any thing new and innovative must be wrong and therefore should be dismissed.14 Of course, it should not be a question of new or old, but rather which view best captures the original meaning of Paul.

Second, it seems that Judaism of the first century contained both Jewish exclusivity (NP) and legalism (Luther).15 While the Mosaic Law was given as a way to “maintain” one’s covenantal relationship of grace, the desire to be ritually clean and pure led the Jews to keep their distance from the Gentiles. This separation sometimes led to Jewish pride and feelings of exclusivity, thinking that they were the only ones that God had chosen, forgetting the Abrahamic call to be a blessing to all nations (Genesis 12).

In addition, even if Sanders and the NP are right in concluding that Judaism’s literature was not legalistic, there were certainly Jewish people who were legalistic. We only need to think of the parallels between Judaism and Christianity to see this point. Even though the New Testament’s teachings are certainly not legalistic, we all know legalistic Christians. Thus, Sanders might be right in his analysis of the literature, but that still does not exclude legalism from Judaism as a religion as practiced by its followers.

Thus, even if the NP is correct to find elements of Jewish exclusivity and pride in some Pauline texts, such as Romans 3, it only makes sense that one can also find features of “doing” or legalism as a problem in other Pauline texts, such as Ephesians 2:8-9 or Romans 4:1-6. In other words, while the New Perspective emphasizes the ideas of Jewish exclusivity and pride as the key concerns of Paul, we do not need to disregard the view that Paul was also concerned with legalism. Such a bifurcation does not seem to follow from a close reading of all of Paul’s letters.


The New Perspective on Paul’s emphases on Jewish exclusivity and pride give us certain rich applications that may well be needed correctives in our churches.

First, we Christians sometimes spend all of our time fellowshipping with one another and totally forget that our mission is to reach the “sinners” outside of our churches. Yes, we can become “contaminated” by spending time with them and ministering to them, but we are called to be salt and light and bring them the gospel message. Sometimes our churches are a bit closed to outsiders coming in and breaking their warm cozy feeling of family. They look at people who visit the church as “intruders” and not as people who desperately need the Lord. Our churches sometimes put all of their energy into fellowship groups, but little into evangelism and missions. Just as the Jewish people of Paul’s day, we are called to “go” to those “sinners” with the message of life-changing freedom.

Second, the NP emphasizes Jewish pride that led them not only to alienate Gentile sinners, but also to boasting. Pride continues to rear its ugly head in the Christian church. We need to continually expose it, and remind ourselves that we are called to be as humble as children (Matt 18:1-4).

Third, when I lived in Spain (1996-2002), I was sometimes told by the Spanish Christians that there was a huge immigration “problem.” I recall one conversation when two friends were complaining to me about the high percentages of Latin American immigrants in “their” churches. They said, “We need to make new rules in the church so that Spaniards continue to rule, because soon they will outnumber us and be able to take over our churches with their theology and their ways of doing things.” Is this not a direct application of Paul and the problem of Jewish exclusivity? The church is the church, and it consists of Jews and Gentiles, Spaniards and Latinos, men and women, free and slaves—or as the children’s song says, “Red and yellow, black and white, they are precious in His sight/ Jesus loves the little children of the world.” Here in ethnically diverse Southern California, and in many places throughout the world, Sunday morning is often the most segregated time of the week! Paul has something to say about this, and the NP makes that application clear.


Though certainly the NP has different concerns than the traditional understanding of Paul, perhaps some of the conclusions of the NP are indeed helpful in guiding us to Paul’s full meaning and intent as he wrote to various communities about multiple concerns. Sometimes he wrote against Jewish exclusivity and pride. Sometimes he spoke out against legalism. Our modern Christian churches need to tackle these same problems!

One of the key concerns about the NP today is the meaning of the term “justification.” The next article in this magazine will address that issue. But even if the NP is incomplete or even incorrect in its understanding of the term, that does not necessarily mean that we have to throw out all of the conclusions of the NP—nor the rich applications that can be derived from their viewpoint.


1 John Piper, The Future of Justification: A Response to N.T. Wright (Crossway, 2007).

2 A very useful bibliography can be found online: Michael F. Bird, “The New Perspective on Paul: A Bibliographical Essay”. Other helpful summaries can be found at Simon Gathercole, “What did Paul Really Mean?”; and Mark M. Mattison, “A Summary of the New Perspective on Paul”.

3 This article was first published in 1960 in Swedish, but was not published in English until 1976 in Paul Among Jews and Gentiles (Fortress Press, 1976).

4 Paul and Palestinian Judaism: A Comparison of Patterns of Religion (Fortress Press, 1977).

5 It is important to note that he investigated all of the Jewish documents, and not just some, since different genres of literature often have different emphases.

6 James D.G. Dunn, The New Perspective on Paul, rev. ed. (Eerdmans, 2008).

7 Dunn understands the phrase “works of law” based on the context of Galatians 2:16: the reference to the circumcision of Titus in 2:1-10, and the problem of food laws in 2:11-14.

8 Dunn, Jesus, Paul and the Law (WJKP, 1990), 212.

9 Although Wright is presently writing his Pauline theology, various writings help us to understand his view, including The Climax of the Covenant (Fortress Press, 1992/T & T Clark, 1991); What Saint Paul Really Said: Was Paul of Tarsus the Real Founder of Christianity? (Eerdmans/Lion Publishing, 1997); Paul: In Fresh Perspective (Fortress Press, 2009); and Justification: God’s Plan & Paul’s Vision (InterVarsity Press, 2009).

10 “Dealing with sin, saving humans from it, giving them grace, forgiveness, justification, glorification—all this was the purpose of the single covenant from the beginning, now fulfilled in Jesus Christ.” Wright, Justification, 95 (italics his).

11 Ibid, 151.

12 In addition to the book by Piper cited in note 1, other critiques of the NP include P. Stuhlmacher, Revisiting Paul’s Doctrine of Justification: A Challenge to the New Perspective (InterVarsity Press, 2001); D.A. Carson, Peter T. O’Brien, and Mark A. Seifrid, Justification and Variegated Nomism, 2 vols., (Baker, 2001, 2004); Stephen Westerholm, Perspectives Old and New on Paul: The “Lutheran” Paul and His Critics (Eerdmans, 2004); M.A. Seifrid, “The New Perspective on Paul and Its Problems,” Themelios 25 (2000): 4-18; Thomas R. Schreiner, The Law and Its Fulfillment: A Pauline Theology of Law (Baker, 1998).

13 This was Stendahl’s argument over 50 years ago. His contention was that legalism was introduced into the interpretation of Paul once the early Church had resolved Paul’s orginal intention of helping his congregation know how to include the Gentiles into the formerly exclusive Jewish religion.

14 It is interesting, however, that one seldom hears Martin Luther being critiqued for introducing new ideas when he pounded the nails into the Wittenburg doors.

15 More and more scholars are seeing that parts of both the NP and the traditional Lutheran view might be correct, due to the fact that Judaism was more variegated than scholars originally imagined. See Michael F. Bird, “When the Dust Finally Settles: Coming to a PostNew Perspective Perspective,” Criswell Theological Review 2.2 (2005).

(For more information on Matt’s excellent “Deeper Connections” DVD Series, go to and search for Deeper Connections.)

Matt Williams (Ph.D., Trinity Evangelical Divinity School) is Professor in Talbot’s Undergraduate Department of Biblical and Theological Studies. He is interested in helping pastors in their teaching role through his “Deeper Connections” DVD Bible studies on the Life of Jesus (Zondervan). He is a former missionary to Spain, and provides Spanish academic/pastoral resources through editing two series of Spanish books: Colección Teológica Contemporánea and Biblioteca Teológica Vida. Matt and his wife Willa have two sons, Joshua and Jordan.

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