Saturday, December 17, 2005

Dunn on the New Perspective on Paul: Part 1

Jimmy DunnTrying to be a more responsible, less self absorbed blogger I am going to try and do a series of posts giving an overview of some writing. I’m going to try and do this without being too long-winded, and actually come through on one of my blogging promises for once. The 'discussion' on the American blogs of the New Perspective on Paul (NPP) has continued with no sign of it slackening. If I ever comment it is usually to back the under-dog of the NPP against the might of the evangelical majority. However this makes me unhappy as I feel I am being a bit imbalanced. In an attempt to heal my conscience and to promote a little more actual real understanding I am going to summarise and comment on the essay that gave the viewpoint it’s name. Originally delivered as the Manson Lecture in 1982 the essay ‘The New Perspective on Paul’ by James D. G. Dunn can now be found in his book Jesus, Paul and the Law (from which I quote).


Looking back on the past few decades Dunn concludes that while there has been some interesting books published, Pauline scholarship seemed to have run out of steam and that it was only with E. P. Sanders Paul and Palestinian Judaism (1977) that a genuinely ‘new perspective’ has been introduced to the discussion. Sanders, Dunn describes, has demonstrated from the primary sources that generally Christian scholars have totally misunderstood the Jewish religion of the first century. ‘What is usually taken to be the Jewish alternative to Paul’s gospel would have been hardly recognized as an expression of Judaism by Paul’s kinsmen according to the flesh’ (p.184). The problem is that ‘Paul seems to depict Judaism as coldly and calculatingly legalistic, a system of “works” righteousness, where salvation is earned by the merit of good works’ (his italics, p. 185) however, Sanders’ study of the Jewish literature of the period gives a very different picture. Sanders’ describes first century Judaism as ‘covenantal nomism’ (from nomos = law), a religion in which God’s gracious establishment of a covenant with his people is basic. So in this context according to Sanders’ ‘Obedience maintains one’s position in the covenant, but it does not earn God’s grace as such' (his italics, p. 186)


My next post will look at how this perpective on Judaism affects Sanders' understanding of Paul’s theology, and Dunn’s unhappiness with how Sanders' does this. The above description of Sanders' position is what the New Perspective on Paul really is. It is first of all a new perspective on 1st cent Judaism, which then secondarily affects our understanding of Paul. Indeed when people talk about multiple new perspectives on Paul that is only because the focus has moved from Paul’s context (on which there is broad agreement in proponents of the NPP) to Paul himself (in which there is much disagreement).

Although this post is already too long, I may venture a few (too) brief comments:

  1. There has been many attempts to show that first century Judaism was quite diverse, and in fact there were are legalistic strands in the primary sources which Sander’s glosses over (e.g. Carson et al). I suspect these are attempts are successful, but I am not really in a position to judge).
  2. Just because the Jews thought that there religion had God’s grace as it’s foundation, does not mean that they lived that truth.
  3. Is there really that much difference between obedience to stay in the covenant, and obedience to get into the covenant?
  4. Note the shift by Sanders to talk about being found in or out of the covenant people, from the common talk of how individual Jews/Christians 'get saved'.
  5. As Christians this should get us thinking about whether in the OT provided a religion of works-righteousness, and if he didn't the probablity of 1st cent Judaism being simply a religion of works.


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