Thursday, December 22, 2005

Dunn on the New Perspective on Paul: Part 2

Paul looking rightPaul looking leftIn my previous post I explained how Dunn (in his landmark essay ‘The New Perspective on Paul’) described Sanders’ new understanding of first century Judaism as one much more of grace than Reformational characterisations of it as a religion of merit-legalism. In this post I will, following Dunn, describe Sanders’ idiosyncratic view of how this effects our understanding of Paul, and how Dunn (and many others NPP advocates) found Sanders’ implications unsatisfactory.

Sanders’ in his 1977 book challenged the traditional understanding of first century Judaism and replaced it with a much more ‘Christian’ looking picture. Dunn then finds it strange then that Sanders’ then, emphasises the differences between Paul’s theology and the Judaism he came from, instead of emphasising the continuity. Sanders’, Dunn describes, can only rationalise this massive switch from an appealing Judaism to Christianity, by the personal impact of his conversion experience. Sanders’ Paul rejects Judaism because the religion cannot explain Jesus (not because it is a religion of works); this appears to Dunn to make Paul very arbitrary, and his view of the relationship between the NT and OT is very black and white which makes no sense of many passages. Other scholars, Dunn describes, have taken on board Sanders’ description of first century Judaism, but have also been unable to use it to provide a satisfactory picture of Paul, with Räisänen even seeing Paul as mischaracterizing Judaism as a religion of works whenever it suited him, even though he knew better.

Dunn, having described the New Perspective on Paul, and some scholars’ use of it, now sets out to describe how he thinks it can be harnessed to provide a convincing picture of Paul. Dunn’s Paul sees Jesus as the natural fulfilment of Judaism, not as a new pattern of religion opposed to the old. This (for Dunn) is the natural result of Sanders’ re-characterisation of first century Judaism, and would be much harder without it. My next post will describe how Dunn’s Paul looks like in this light.

It is worth noting that though Sanders’ 1977 work was the watershed book, Dunn’s use of his research (not Sanders’ own) has one the day and most NPP proponents see great continuity between the relationship between Judaism and Paul’s theology. NT Wright certainly thinks this, seeing Christ as the Climax of the Covenant (as his title to his book on Paul’s theology attests). It has often been noted that Dunn and Wright here have much more in common with Reformed theology than Lutheran in emphasising continuity over discontinuity between the covenants. Indeed Wright especially, has quite a following in some Reformed circles.

It has also been often noted that the impact of the West’s collective guilt about the Holocaust has fed much of the desire of Biblical scholars to be more charitable to the Jewish religion, and avoid the incredibly derogatory statements made by Pauline scholars of the past. Luther and Bultmann are the oft-quoted main culprits here. Dunn especially makes comments explicitly stating the relationship between his work and the anti-Semitism of the past. Clearly both Old and New Perspectives on Paul have been affected by the culture’s view of Jews, and you do not have to be a postmodernist to beware of vested-interests on both sides.


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