More on the New Perspective on Paul

There has been some interest in this topic on the LDS blogs recently. I think that as we enter into the debate, it is important that we not get sucked into a faith vs. works understanding of the NPP. I offer the following short piece which was written for another context which is why it lacks specific LDS reflections, but which in my view comments on a more up to date status questiones of the NPP.

Coined by James Dunn in 1982, the term “New Perspective” (NP) has come to refer to a question about Paul more than any particular conclusion or answer to that question. The guiding question is how to conceive of Paul’s relationship to Judaism, given that he thinks of himself as a Jew (2 Cor 10, Phil 3). The problem has manifested itself in two separate, yet related ways. The first, typified by E. P. Sanders looks at what Paul can possibly mean when he speaks of the Law, given that his characterization of the Law and Judaism doesn’t match up to any known form of Judaism in antiquity. The second approach, typified by John Gager, looks at the problem of Paul’s contradictory sayings about Israel (e.g., Gal 3:10-11; Rom 3:1). These first two scholars within the NP have concluded that Paul is not really speaking about Israel and Judaism at all. Instead, he is concerned with something new. Another view in the New Perspective, typified by Daniel Boyarin, sees Paul as engaged in a critique of Judaism, but this doesn’t locate him outside of its boundaries. An important test case for these various approaches is the complicated scene that Paul describes in Gal 2 of his conflict with Peter over table fellowship. This passage reveals the weaknesses of Sanders and Gager, while showing the strengths of Boyarin.

Sanders is considered by many to have caused a Kuhnian paradigm shift in Pauline studies. Though Stendahl and Davies had set the stage, Sanders’ work caused scholars to seriously reevaluate the traditional, Lutheran inflected, interpretation of Paul and ancient Judaism. Sanders’ most important contribution to this day has been to force an evaluation of Judaism on its own terms, rather than on an interpretation of Paul. The result of his study was the Judaism was not at all legalistic, nor was salvation achieved through works-righteousness. He showed how these views had more to do with Lutherans and Catholics than early Christians and Jews. Sanders developed a method of “comparative religion” in which he tried to find “patterns” that were at the core of diverse religious orientations. In doing so, he argued that ancient Judaisms all shared in common “covenantal nomism.” He then argued that Paul himself did not fit into this pattern, but actually developed a new pattern of religion that Sanders called “participationist eschatology”. The result was that rather than bridging the gap between Paul and Judaism, Sanders showed how Paul was unique with respect to Judaism. Sanders concluded that Paul wasn’t really criticizing Jews and Judaism at all, since these accusations simply wouldn’t have made any sense. The problem, as he famously argued, with Judaism was simply that it was not Christianity. It didn’t have any deficit, only that Christ was the only way to salvation. Exegetically, this also exposed its weakness, because it basically made Paul incoherent. The episode in Gal 2 demonstrates that Paul is worried about the Law and its problems with creating a new eschatological community. Though Sanders would argue that the Law itself isn’t the problem, Paul here points precisely to the problem of the Law in creating divisions and he asks Jews (Peter) to not follow the Law anymore.

Gager takes a much different perspective on Paul than Sanders. In fact, he accuses Sanders of sneaking in Lutheranism and supercessionism through the back door by essentially making Paul not “Jewish.” He agrees with Sanders that Paul is not critiquing Judaism, but he argues that Paul never leaves Judaism at all. Gager sees Paul as preaching “two ways” to salvation, one for Jews and another for Gentiles. This allows him to make sense of the pro-Israel statements that Paul makes (e.g., Rom 3:1; 11:1) while at the same time admitting that Paul makes arguments against the Law (Gal 3:10-11). Gager insists that Paul is not preaching against Jews, but Judaizers, those who want to force Gentiles to observe the Law. Paul himself is a practicing Jew and he doesn’t want Jews to stop observing the Law (here what is meant by the Law is only food, circumcision, and perhaps holidays), only Gentiles. Jews should and must continue to observe the covenant of the Law, but Gentiles now have a new one. In this view, Paul is Jewish, though his message is completely irrelevant to them. He is really preaching only to Gentiles. Though Gager develops a detailed exegesis of Gal and Rom in order to demonstrate his thesis, his treatment of Gal 2 is unconvincing. The fact that Paul transgresses the Law and urges Peter to do so as well makes it impossible to accept that Paul believed that the “two ways” to salvation were completely compatible. Instead, it appears that where there were conflicts, such as table fellowship, Paul urged Jews to abandon their distinctive identity and covenant in favor of a new universal covenant that applied to both Jews and Gentiles.

Daniel Boyarin’s depiction of Paul definitely sees Paul as a figure within Judaism, yet he admits that he is also criticizing the Law. For Boyarin, Paul was influenced by an “eclectic middle Platonism” and he sees his closest corollary in Philo. Boyarin depicts Paul as tortured by questions of universalism and particularism. How can a universal God have only one favored people? Paul finds a solution to this in the movement around Christ, which inaugurates a new era and a new covenant. The hermeneutical key to this new view of the world is the allegorical method and its ideological and ontological assumptions. The world is divided into both an apparent and a true manifestation. Paul sees external symbols like circumcision as indicators of an inner reality. Like Philo, circumcision itself was less important than how one developed the soul. However, though Philo continued to accept the necessity of the outward sign in addition to the inner reality, Paul argued that the outward sign was no longer important at all in this new universalism. Paradoxically, Philo’s version of Platonism deprecated the body much more than Paul, who allowed for the importance of the body in other ways (e.g., 1 Cor 6 on prostitutes). In Boyarin’s view, Paul critiqued Judaism for its particularity, for failing to see the signified through the signifier. Such a critique comes out of Paul’s experience with the Law. The Law is not impossible to maintain, nor is salvation works oriented. Rather, Paul’s critique had to do with its ethnic exclusivity. The case of Gal 2 is then perfectly illustrative of Boyarin’s approach. Paul sees the Law as setting up barriers between Jews and Gentiles that don’t make sense any more. The Law was a temporary covenant, but has been replaced by a new, universal covenant in which Jews and Gentiles together form the people of God. Boyarin notes that the problem with this new universal is that the Jews cease to exist as Jews. The side-effect of universalism is that it erases difference all together as important, which is precisely what traditional Judaism has tried to maintaing (and what Gager’s interpretation attempts to mitigate).

The various approaches in the NP have universally dealt with Paul’s relationship to Judaism. Sanders tries to show that Paul is simultaneously not Jewish and not critiquing Judaism. Gager tries to show that Paul is Jewish, but that his is only attacking Jews who want to force Gentiles to observe the Law, not Jews themselves. Both of these approaches are difficult to square with Gal 2, where Paul is critiquing other Jews for practicing the Law. Boyarin’s approach tries to deal with the difficulty by seeing Paul as dealing with an internal Jewish problem concerning universalism and particularism. This approach allows one to see Paul as Jewish, but still critiquing the Law, precisely as he does in Gal 2, on the grounds that it divides people from one another. Paradoxically, the result of Paul’s “Jewish” problem is that Judaism then ceases to exist. The task that remains theologically is thinking about how difference and universalism can be maintained simultaneously.

Post script: I should note a second-strain of the NPP, that of NT Wright and Richard Hayes. I am not really a fan of this approach. Both authors attempt to situate Paul within the “narratives” of Judaism, noting that Paul draws upon Jewish scripture in constructing his world view. For my taste, both authors commit the same sin as Sanders by assuming that Paul is still outside of Judaism, even though he uses Jewish scripts.

I should also add that since I wrote this, I have been more convinced by Stanley Stowers’s reading of Romans as well.

12 Replies to “More on the New Perspective on Paul”

  1. TT,

    Thanks for popping over to my blog, you’re the first to link to one of my posts! And thanks for the information I requested.

    I hope you didn’t get this feeling from reading my blog:

    “I think that as we enter into the debate, it is important that we not get sucked into a faith vs. works understanding of the NPP.”

    I think this is an important issue as we engage with other Christians, but I certainly don’t want to get stuck in one application either.

    What are your major concerns with Dunn and Wright?

  2. My major concern with Dunn is that I find him boring. I don’t really think he says anything all that innovative about Paul, and often reinscribes the same Old Perspective. With Wright, as I mentioned, I just don’t find him all that interesting either. I think he takes a pretty limited view for thinking of Paul’s relationship to Judaism. Additionally, he says explicitly that he sees “Christianity” as something distinctive from Judaism, which I also find problematic.

  3. TT, thanks for posting this. From what you’ve written, Boyarin’s view sounds very interesting and compelling. I’ve recently been studying Alain Badiou’s thought and in his St. Paul: The Foundation of Universalism, he takes a similar view. What I think is particularly exciting about Badiou’s thought is that he addresses this question of universalism and particularism in a very unique and interesting way, drawing heavily on mathematical set theory to navigate the key tensions, esp. Cohen’s notion of a generic set.

    (We’ve been discussing Badiou a fair bit this past year on the lds-herm listserv, though I think Peter Hallward’s introduction to Badiou is probably a better place to start. Badiou’s St. Paul book is reasonably approachable by itself, it just doesn’t address the particular vs. universal tension very directly. I haven’t looked at Infinite Thought: Truth and the Return to Philosophy much, but it seems to be a shorter intro to Badiou’s thought than Hallward’s book, and looking on Google books, which I just tried to link to, pp. 22-25 seems to offer a good discussion of how Badiou uses Cohen’s notion of a generic set.)

  4. Hi Robert,
    I know you guys have been reading Badiou, but I haven’t kept up on it much. I read Badiou a while ago, along with Agamben, so I don’t recall them all that well, but I remember thinking that I wish they had read Boyarin’s critique of universalism! IIRC, I thought that Badiou was simply doing a French nationalist reading of Pauline universalism. I think both try to erase the differences of minority groups, so I am not a fan. That said, I should perhaps read Badiou more closely and I’d be willing to hear what you guys have to say about it.

  5. Yeah, I don’t think Badiou’s St. Paul gives a very good sense of his philosophy. He’s interested in the philosophizing about the structure of marginalization itself, so this is why I think it sounds like he’s erasing the difference between minority groups. This is why Badiou takes up Paul, b/c Paul’s address is universal and hence a good example of an evental truth which can intervene in a given situation (or political order) allowing something genuinely new to take place—something that isn’t just a rearrangement of political power (e.g., one marginalized group coming to power and marginalizing other groups).

    I just read the Neil Elliott’s RBL review of Boyarin’s A Radical Jew. The last chapter looks esp. interesting. The book’s out of the library at the moment, but when I get a chance to read it I’ll try to post something on it.

  6. Thanks TT,
    I did submit another comment – just wanted to link the posts. Do it however it looks the best. Let me know if you need anything else.


  7. I’ve also been reading Elliot’s Liberating Paul. I’ll have to check out Cheryl’s posts, but so far I’m reasonably impressed.

    I haven’t checked out first hand much of the lit mentioned here (I read Sanders a few years back but for some reason I have a much clearer memory of his the Historical Figure of Jesus), but one question I found especially fascinating from my perspective as a student of anthropology is that of ethnic-nationalist exclusionism and the Law. Does Boyarin bracket Paul’s putative critique of the Law to focus on Paul’s critique of Jewish ethnic exclusiveness? Because it seems like the two go hand in hand — i.e. the Purity Code is designed to institute and then reify Jewish/non-Jewish difference and socially construct Israelite ethnicity. In other words, Paul can’t really attack particularism without going after at least the purity portion of the Law.

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