Tom Schreiner’s 40 Questions About Christians and Biblical Law releases later this month. As I’ve said before, I think it’s now the go-to book for an accessible introduction to all the major issues related to gospel and law, the role of law in redemptive history, application of the law today, etc. I could not recommend it more highly.

Kregel has kindly given me permission to reprint a number of the entries this week. (You’ll end up being able to read about 12% of the book for free!) I’ll skip the footnotes and the discussion questions at the end of each chapter.

Today you can read Question 4: What Is the New Perspective on Paul, and How Should It Be Assessed?

I’ve added some links for readers who might want to explore some of this a bit more (most are Wikipedia links, so caveat emptor!).


The New Perspective on Paul finds its genesis in the landmark 1977 book Paul and Palestinian Judaism: A Comparison of Patterns of Religion by E. P. Sanders, who retired from teaching at Duke University in 2005. His book exploded on the scene of New Testament scholarship, and we are still feeling the reverberations today. This is not to say that Sanders was the first to advocate his thesis. Looking back we find similar arguments in two scholars of Judaism, Claude Montefiore (1858–1938) and George Foote Moore (1851–1931). When Sanders wrote, however, the time was ripe for scholars to listen. He wrote about thirty years after the Holocaust, and scholars were still reeling over the murder of six million Jews in “Christian” Germany. Anti-Semitism was not confined to politics; it had been supported in Christian scholarship, which was therefore partially responsible for the slaughter of millions of Jews. Most important, Sanders carefully presented his case from the rabbinic literature, the Apocrypha, the Pseudepigrapha, and the Qumran writings. His book was a tour de force that made the case with a careful exegesis of the relevant Jewish literature. Anyone who doubted Sanders’s thesis would need to show that his exegesis was faulty. He could not be refuted by mere assertion. Sanders argued that the alleged legalism of Judaism was a scholarly myth imposed on the evidence by Christian scholars who read Judaism through jaundiced eyes. Protestants in particular tended to read the polemic against Judaism in the New Testament through the glasses of their conflict with Roman Catholicism in the sixteenth century. They projected the defective view of grace in Roman Catholicism onto Jewish sources. An objective reading of the Second Temple Jewish sources, however, demonstrated that Judaism had a robust doctrine of God’s grace.

Sanders argues for a common pattern of religion in Second Temple Judaism, which he labels “covenantal nomism.” God entered into covenant with his people by his grace. Israel’s observance of the law did not bring them into a covenantal relationship with God. They were inducted into a relationship with him by virtue of the Lord’s mercy. The command to keep the law was a response to God’s grace. Hence, nomism cannot be equated with legalism. Israel did not believe that God weighed one’s merits to determine whether they would receive a final reward. Nor did they teach that one earned or merited God’s favor in salvation. Israel stayed in a gracious relationship with the Lord by observing the law, but they entered into an initial relationship with him by his grace.
If Sanders’s portrait of Judaism is accurate, how do we account for Paul’s critique of the law? Sanders’s own solution was that Paul rejected the law for dogmatic reasons. Paul had come to the conviction that Christ was the answer to the human problem; salvation was only through him. But if salvation is only through Christ, how should the law be explained? Paul did not actually see any inherent problem with the law, according to Sanders. The law’s inferiority could not be assigned to human inability to keep it or to a legalistic mind-set toward the law. Instead Paul argued from solution to plight. Since Christ represents the answer to the human dilemma (the solution), then the law must be a problem (plight). Still, Paul did not actually perceive any intrinsic defect in the law. Sanders maintains that at times Paul’s reasoning on the law is tortuous and verges on the incoherent, but that is explained by his theological presupposition that Christ is the solution to the human plight. So, why doesn’t the law save according to Paul? Sanders’s answer is that the law cannot save since only Christ saves. So, what is the problem with the law? The law is deficient because it isn’t Christ.

Another scholar who concurred with Sanders’s reading of Judaism was Heikki Räisänen, who retired from the University of Helsinki in 2006. Räisänen adopted a more radical solution than Sanders. If Sanders’s portrait of Second Temple Judaism is correct, then how do we explain Paul? Räisänen argued that the idea that Paul is a coherent and logical thinker is flawed. In other words, Paul’s theology of law is shot through with contradictions and is fundamentally incoherent. Scholars have labored to articulate Paul’s theology of the law as if it represented a consistent system of thought. They have generally failed to realize, according to Räisänen, that Paul operated with two fundamentally contradictory presuppositions. On the one hand, he posited that the Old Testament law was God’s authoritative word. On the other hand, he insisted that Gentiles were not required to observe the Old Testament law. Naturally, says Räisänen, Paul could not reconcile these two ideas since they are mutually exclusive.

Many scholars, however, remain unsatisfied with the Paul explained by Räisänen and Sanders. Against Räisänen, they are persuaded that Paul was a coherent thinker. It seems to some that Räisänen read Paul unsympathetically, so that contradictions popped up virtually everywhere. Sanders’s interpretation of Paul was more congenial than Räisänen’s. Still, as James Dunn observed, the Paul explained by Sanders is rather idiosyncratic and arbitrary. The only problem with Judaism, according to Sanders, was that it was not Christianity. The law was rejected as the solution and identified as a problem since Christ is the only answer for humanity. Dunn rightly responded that the Pauline theology of law had more depth than this. Paul did not reflexively reject the law solely for dogmatic reasons; his rejection of the law had a deeper and more solid foundation.

If the Paul of Sanders and Räisänen should be rejected, how should he be assessed according to Dunn? After all, Dunn accepts that Sanders is right on a fundamental point. Second Temple Judaism was not legalistic, and therefore the standard Protestant reading in which the law does not save because of human inability to keep it or because of legalism must be waved aside. At this juncture, both Dunn and N. T. Wright propose a new reading of Paul (“a New Perspective”!) that has had an enormous influence. When we read Paul in his historical context, we see that Paul’s complaint with his Jewish opponents centered on their exclusivism, nationalism, and ethnocentrism. The Jews insisted that Gentiles had to become part of the Jewish people in order to be the people of God; so they emphasized Jewish distinctives and boundary markers, like circumcision, food laws, and the Sabbath. Hence, the Pauline polemic against the law does not bring to the forefront either legalism or human disobedience. Sanders’s claim that Second Temple Judaism was not legalistic is therefore vindicated as well in the Pauline writings! What provoked Paul was the insistence that Gentiles submit to circumcision and other badges of Judaism to be included in God’s people. Paul’s Jewish opponents were not willing to swing the door wide open for the Gentiles, for it was unthinkable to let them become part of God’s people without adopting the covenant sign required by the Old Testament. They argued that circumcision was required of Gentiles, and thereby they retained their nationalistic primacy as Jews. They did not want the church of Jesus Christ to be made up of a variety of ethnic groups and cultures. They wanted to retain their cultural and ethnic superiority as Jews.


What shall we make of the New Perspective on Paul? In a short compass we cannot do justice to all the issues, and here I point readers to longer works that examine the movement in more detail. [See especially, Stephen Westerholm, Perspectives Old and New on Paul: The “Lutheran” Paul and His Critics (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2004).] What must be said here is that Sanders’s interpretation of Second Temple Judaism has been examined in some detail since the publication of his book. Some of the evidence in Second Temple Jewish texts supports the pattern of covenantal nomism, which Sanders defended. Nevertheless, the evidence is not nearly as conclusive as Sanders claims.

Friedrich Avemarie has demonstrated that the two themes of election and works stand in an uneasy tension in rabbinic literature, so that one cannot merely say that works are always subordinate to election. Similarly, Mark Elliott maintains that Judaism during the Second Temple period did not typically envision the salvation of all of Israel but only those who kept the torah. Along the same lines, Andrew Das maintains that the weighing of merits is quite prominent in rabbinic literature. God’s mercy and grace are not forgotten, yet there is considerable emphasis upon human works. Simon Gathercole argues that Sanders’s conclusions must be severely qualified since there is significant evidence in Second Temple literature that works played a role in obtaining final salvation.

Furthermore, a careful study of literature during the Second Temple period yields a nuanced conclusion. In some instances Sanders’s judgment seems correct regarding covenantal nomism, but in other instances his reading of the evidence is flawed, and he forces his paradigm onto the literature. Sanders admits that 4 Ezra constitutes an exception to his pattern, but it is apparent that there are more exceptions than this. Consequently, Sanders’s claim that Second Temple Judaism did not emphasize the role of works in obtaining salvation is overstated. The Jewish sources do not so neatly support his contention that Second Temple Judaism was a religion of grace. At the very least some segments of Judaism focused on human obedience and had fallen prey to a kind of legalism. All this means, then, that we must not assume when we come to Paul that it has been established that there is no such thing as legalism or works-righteousness in Second Temple Judaism.


The foundation of the New Perspective on Paul, allegedly proved by Sanders, is not nearly as secure as some claim. We have significant evidence that Paul rejects the law because of human inability and that some of his opponents had fallen prey to legalism. Even if the New Perspective falls short of providing an adequate explanation of Paul’s view of the law, it rightly observes that the inclusion of the Gentiles was a major theme in Pauline theology. What the proponents fail to explain as convincingly is how the Gentile inclusion into the people of God should be integrated with Paul’s theology of law. Finally, I have indicated here that scholars have shown that Sanders’s reading of the Jewish sources is overly simplistic. A careful reading of the Jewish sources indicates that some Jews emphasized the role of obedience for obtaining eschatological salvation.