Extra Resources: B 26 The New Perspective on Paul

Book reviews by Michael B Thompson:

Where is Boasting? Early Jewish Soteriology and Paul's Response in Romans 1-5. Simon J. Gathercole. Eerdmans, 2002. Pp. 311 + xii. $32.00/£22.99. Pbk.

Review first published in Theology Vol 107 No 835 (Feb 2004) pp 52-53.

This revision of a Durham doctoral dissertation investigates the ground for Jewish boasting in Romans 1-5 with the further aim of sifting claims by proponents of the 'New Perspective on Paul' (especially E. P. Sanders, J. D. G. Dunn, and N. T. Wright). Gathercole knows the New Perspective (NP) well; his thesis was supervised by Dunn. His central question is essentially this: was the boasting Paul opposed based in the gifts of election or Torah (as claimed by some NP writers), or was it primarily a boasting of confidence in self-achievement or merit?

Gathercole observes that Sanders' model of covenantal nomism in its concern for 'getting in' and 'staying in' neglects Jewish eschatology and the question of how to extend one's life, even after the grave. Did first-century Jews believe that they would gain entrance to the world to come simply on the grounds of divine election (grace) or because of their obedience to Torah? To answer this question, he embarks on a survey of relevant Jewish texts from the Apocrypha and Pseudepigrapha, Qumran, the NT, and post-70 C.E. writings, before focusing in the shorter, second part of his book on an exegesis of Romans 1-5.

He finds that despite their diversity with regard to the exact nature of any future personal existence, the Jewish texts (particularly 4 Ezra and 2 Baruch) clearly indicate belief that confidence in a final vindication by God rested not only in his electing grace but also in human obedience. Eschatological salvation was seen as a matter of both election and reward; in many texts explicit reference to grace is hard to find, whereas a number of passages emphasize obedience, perfection and being worthy. This convinces Gathercole that the boasting Paul opposes in Romans is a Jewish claim to blamelessness at the great assize.

At this point two fundamental questions arise which Gathercole does not sufficiently address. First, if he can adduce only one passage where the term 'boasting' is used with reference to Jewish obedience (Sirach 31 [34]), can we be confident of his interpretation, since that same text later explicitly speaks of the Jews boasting in the law of God's covenant (Sirach 39.8; a passage Gathercole omits)? In order for the weight of the evidence presented to be felt fairly, it should be balanced by a corresponding comparison of the number and significance of texts that reflect Jewish boasting in the gifts of election and Torah. Gathercole observes that a final conclusion requires more than word studies and statistics (pp 21-23), but that does not make the latter irrelevant.

Second, how are the New Testament texts about final judgement qualitatively different from what we find in Judaism? Kent Yinger's Paul, Judaism and Judgment According to Deeds (CUP, 1999) has already explored this from an NP point of view (finding essential similarity between Jewish and NT views), but Gathercole does not interact much with that thesis. To be sure, he surveys most of the NT material on final judgement (including Matt 10.42; 16.24-27; 25.31-46; Mark 10.17-22; Luke 10.25-37; John 5.28f; 6.26-29; Rom 2; 6.21f; 14.10-12; Gal 6.8; Col 3.23-25; James 2; Rev 20.11-15), rightly concluding that the importance of works has been minimized in some (particularly Lutheran) Protestant theology. Nevertheless he does not discuss NT texts reflecting the importance of 'perfection' and being 'worthy' (e.g. Matt 5.48; 19.21; Phil 3.12; Heb 6.1; James 1.4; 1Thess 2.12; Rev 3.4), where, often despite the absence of grace language in the immediate context, there can be no idea of boasting in one's own accomplishment. How then can we be so sure that the Torah-faithful Jews of Paul's day would not also acknowledge God's enablement of their obedience?

Despite these caveats, there is much to offer in this book that challenges both the NP and some traditional readings of Paul. Paul's Spirit/flesh distinction emerges as a critical difference between the apostle's Christianity and earlier Jewish faith. Gathercole has made a valuable contribution to the ongoing debate.

Michael B. Thompson
Ridley Hall, Cambridge

KIM, Seyoon, Paul and the New Perspective: Second Thoughts on the Origins of Paul's Gospel. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2002. Pp. xv + 336. Pbk $25.00 or £17.99. ISBN 0-8028-4974-1.

Well known for his The Origin of Paul's Gospel (1981), and his view that the essence of the apostle's theology was revealed to him at the Damascus road Christophany, Kim seeks in this collection of essays to defend, expand and slightly modify his original thesis.

Those looking for a thorough study of the New Perspective should note that the subtitle is a more accurate indication of the contents of this book than the title. Three of the eight essays (on Paul's conversion/call, justification in 1 Thessalonians, Spirit and Law in Paul) respond directly to some views held by a few proponents of the New Perspective. Two more new essays explore Paul's call in light of Is 42, and Christ as God's image and last Adam. The last three essays are reprints of previous articles on various matters (2 Cor 5.11-21 and reconciliation, the 'mystery' of Rom 11.25f, and Jesus tradition in Paul) and will not be commented on here.

The 84-page first chapter is the book's major salvo. Although he occasionally interacts with Tom Wright, Kim's prime target is James Dunn. Kim wants to respond point by point to Dunn's more developmental view and criticism of Kim's thesis. In particular, Kim wants to refute Dunn's claim that, assuming the Antioch incident of Gal 2 raised an issue which had not been foreseen or resolved, it (and not Paul's conversion) occasioned the apostle's formulation of the antithesis between faith and works in the terms of Gal 2.16.

One problem quickly emerging here is how polemic can distort perspective. For example, Kim repeatedly insists that Dunn thinks Paul received only the call to the Gentiles at his conversion (pp. 7,13,22), a misrepresentation that appears again in the conclusion of the chapter (p. 81). Dunn actually believes that on the Damascus road Paul received more of his gospel than Kim allows, a fact that leads Kim to call Dunn self-contradictory (because Dunn's views do not fit the straight-jacket Kim has constructed for him, p. 7). Kim implies that Dunn does not believe the death of Christ as an atonement for sin to be a fundamental part of the apostle's gospel (p. 49), because that element of the gospel does not feature prominently in Dunn's discussion of Paul's calling. Here again I am neither confident that Dunn would recognize his own view in Kim's presentation, nor that he would agree with the conclusions to which Kim thinks his views must lead. Dunn does not deny the importance of Christ's atoning sacrifice for Paul (as a glance at his Theology of Paul would reveal); he simply does not interpret that as the alternative to a supposed Jewish theology of 'good works done to earn God's favor' (p. 60).

Kim is right to assert that Paul's basic understanding of justification by grace had its origins much earlier than the Antioch event. As soon as Paul began to preach to Gentiles (a good case can be made that he did so early in his career), he would have had to begin to think through how they should relate to the scriptures and to their more conservative Jewish Christian brothers and sisters. Contra Dunn, I am also not persuaded that the circumstances of the Antioch incident were so unusual as to lead to a new formulation for Paul of faith versus 'works of the law' (however the latter phrase is construed). However, Dunn's position in this regard is not essential for a New Perspective reading, and Kim is mistaken in thinking that by tackling Dunn on this point he has contradicted the New Perspective 'School' [sic; p. 294].

Likewise, Kim correctly observes that not all of the Pauline 'works' passages are only about 'boundary markers' separating Jews from gentiles (such as circumcision, food laws, sabbaths), a point that Dunn has clarified since his earlier writings. But again this does not necessarily require an 'old perspective' interpretation as Kim implies, any more than it precludes a New Perspective interpretation. Kim here seems more concerned with defending his own traditional position than exploring new alternatives.

The second chapter is much shorter than the first, and again Kim's target is Dunn's claim that Paul's justification language originated because of the Antioch incident. Despite the fact that the language of justification and righteousness is absent in 1 Thessalonians, Kim concludes that 'It is particularly significant to find out that this specimen [Paul's gospel in 1 Thess] is clearly [sic] centered on the doctrine of justification by grace and through faith' (p. 99). Perhaps it is clear to those who bring Kim's theology to the text, but our confidence is not helped by the section entitled 'By Faith Alone' (p. 96), the discussion of which offered no support whatever for the addition of the word 'Alone'. Leaving aside the chronological problem (not a few would date Galatians and the Antioch incident before 1 Thessalonians), Kim's attempt to prove justification by faith in 1 Thessalonians is unnecessary. Most people would agree that the nature of Paul's gospel was not the subject of the letter anyway.

In chapter three, Kim makes a good case that Is 42 helped Paul to interpret his Damascus experience. So, for example, lexical evidence from Is 42.11 supports the view that Paul set off for Arabia (Gal 1.15-17) in order to preach to the gentiles there. This is a fruitful study, full of interesting points and relatively free from polemic.

Chapter four takes us back to the debate with the New Perspective, focusing on the Spirit and the Law in Gal 3.10-14. Kim critiques Wright's theory of a perceived continuing exile of the Jewish nation, and explores the Judaism of Paul's day. In the process he makes some good points, rightly noting that the evidence of the Pauline letters must be heard in drawing a conclusion about the beliefs of first century Jews. However, what Kim does not demonstrate, either here or in chapter one, is that the Jewish opponents of Paul believed that they had to 'earn' God's acceptance. Paul does not say that, nor does Kim adduce substantial texts to that effect. This is a crucial issue for those like Kim who maintain an 'old perspective'.

The first ten pages of the fifth chapter on Christ, the image of God and the Last Adam summarize the argument of Kim's Origin, in preparation for eight more pages of argument with Dunn. In contrast to Dunn, Kim sees Paul's eikon-, Adam- and Wisdom-theology originating from the apostle's conversion experience. I would agree with Kim that the kernel of Paul's gospel came to him through his Damascus experience. Proving exactly how much of his message did so is far more problematic. Kim then takes on Alan Segal as representative of those who think the chariot-throne theophany of Ezekiel 1 helped Paul to develop his theology. Much more persuasive for Kim is the possibility that Paul was influenced by 'Son of Man' and wisdom sayings of Jesus, in conjunction with Gen 1 and 3, Pss 8 and 110, and Daniel 7. Kim sees many interesting links and allusions in Pauline texts, but his critical readers will want more evidence of the connections Kim claims are there.

In a word, Kim's 'second thoughts' are that (1) his first thesis was correct, (2) endowment with the Holy Spirit was also part of Paul's initial experience, and (3) Paul's theology was influenced not only by his conversion experience but also by the teachings of Jesus that he eventually received through Christian tradition.

This book should be read as part II of Kim's original project on the origins of Paul's gospel. It is a dense, closely argued work for specialists; even so, the tit-for-tat discussion of who thought what when and how in the polemical chapters will strike many readers as tedious and parochial. Those looking for an introduction to the promise and limitations of the New Perspective would be better served by starting with Mark W. Mattison's fine website (http://www.angelfire.com/mi2/paulpage).

Michael B. Thompson
Ridley Hall

Kent L. Yinger: Paul, Judaism and Judgment According to Deeds (SNTSMS 105, CUP, 1999, £40.00/$64.95, pp. xiv+314. ISBN 0521 63243 9.

First published in Expository Times vol 111 No 10 (July 2000) pp 348-49.

Based on Yinger's doctoral research for Sheffield University under Andrew Lincoln , this study looks at the form, function and content of recompense texts directed toward those within the early Christian community. It presuppos es a knowledge of Greek and Hebrew .

After an introduction which provides a brief survey of attempts to resolve the perceived contradiction between judgment according to works and justification by grace through faith, the first half of the book surveys judgment texts in the OT, Pseudepigrapha, and Qumran literature. Yinger then focuses on Paul, particularly passages in Romans, 1 & 2 Corinthians, and Colossians in which the judgment motif appears. He finds that its function is fourfold: (1) to motivate righteous people to obedience via threat and promise; (2) to comfort faithful sufferers; (3) to declare sentence upon those who are disobedient and summon the errant to repentance; and (4) to praise God, justifying his actions toward humanity.

For Yinger, there is no tension in Paul between justification by faith and judgment according to works because there never was one in the Judaism from which Paul came. Influenced by E. P. Sanders' understanding of covenantal nomism, he finds Paul to be thoroughly in line with the apostle's Jewish heritage. Obedience is a condition for the maintenance and final enjoyment of salvation, although final judgment not so much determines as reveals one's character and status. Any tension between grace and ethical behaviour is not theological but existential.

This is a straightforward, sensible reading of Paul that attempts to avoid forcing texts to fit a preconceived theological system. Although he recognizes that some Pauline judgment passages reflect belief in the possibility of differing rewards for Christians, Yinger sees no fundamental difference in the nature of the judgment for insiders or outsiders. Many questions remain unaddressed, but his conclusions are compelling.

Author: Michael Thompson

View all books by Michael Thompson