New Perspective on Paul

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Book Review: “Voices and Views on Paul” by Ben Witherington III and Jason A. Myers

The so-called “New Perspective on Paul” broke like a storm across some segments of Christian scholarship. With Voices and Views on Paul, Ben Witherington III and Jason A. Myers step back and offer an analysis and summary of some contemporary perspectives on Paul.

The first chapter offers a broad view of the New Perspective on Paul, giving definitions as well as showing the primary thrust of those studying in that field. Then, individual scholars’ works are covered in detail, including entire chapters devoted to E. P. Sanders, N. T. Wright, and James D. G. Dunn, respectively. After those weighty chapters, two more chapters cover additional modern perspectives of Paul. The final chapter looks at what we can conclude from this study as well as explores some avenues for additional Pauline research.

So what is the “new perspective on Paul”? As the authors point out in the retrospective at the beginning, it’s no longer a new perspective, having first been coined as a phrase in 1983 and also not being a perspective so much as several different perspectives with some often sharp divisions and disagreements (1). So the authors offer a broad background for how this divergent stream of thought got started, and note that it tends to focus on the relationship between Jews and Gentiles (3). This question–that of how Paul viewed the relationship between Jew and Gentile and how his own theology grew out from Judaism–is central to scholars working within the so-called “New Perspective.”

The chapters on individual scholars offer lengthy outlines of their own perspectives, along with some points of possible contact and division between them. E. P. Sanders, for example, shows a remarkable and necessary focus upon Judaism in the New Testament, which included both the need to show how scholars had constructed a negative portrait and the need for a portrait of Judaism in the New Testament that shows how Second Temple Judaism was perceived and interacted with New Testament works, particularly Paul’s (19). Sanders offered a “Copernican revolution” in NT scholarship by using his concept of “covenantal nomism” which balanced both the legalism that some perceived in the notion of law/covenant with Judaism and the notion of God’s mercy and atonement with those who have broken the law (25). Sanders’s work is monumental and well-argued, but also doesn’t fully account for the origins of Paul’s notion of sin, nor its importance within Paul’s own works (35ff).

The chapter on N. T. Wright (whom, admittedly, this reader has some bias towards) is equally fascinating. It notes the massive swathe of Wright’s writings upon Paul and how they almost all tie together to make the point at the center of Wright’s thesis: that Paul pushes back against the Imperial cult in his works and centers the Kingdom as covenant as his focus. Wright also focuses upon Israel and the story of the coming Messiah–which leads to significant questions about how the law fits into this (73ff). Wright’s vulnerability lies in perhaps over-reading texts to make them fit into this notion of the imperial cult and hyperbole against it. Even so, Wright’s massive project offers needed correctives to understanding how Paul’s writings worked and, crucially, Wright offers a more global perspective, pulling in scholarship that others did not to support his point.

Dunn’s focus upon the law offers much rich insight for readers to delve into, while also offering a stronger look at Paul’s own conversion and his ethics than some of the other authors. The Apocalyptic Paul is a perspective offered by several scholars, focusing upon the genre of apocalyptic texts (itself a somewhat nebulous concept–see p. 139-141). One problem with apocalyptic readings of Paul is that when they focus so heavily upon the apocalyptic, they tend to have a break between Paul and contemporary Judaism which is much stronger than Paul’s writings themselves seem to suggest (149). Other apocalyptic readings of Paul have tended towards demytholigizing of Paul which doesn’t seem to be fully present in Paul’s own works (157ff). What these works on an apocalyptic Paul do do, however, is provide us with reason to take more seriously Paul’s own apocalyptic imagery and some language related to the apocalyptic which is sometimes missed. Several works on Paul also have focused upon correctives to Reformation readings of Paul, which were sometimes focused primarily on separation from Catholicism rather than upon providing a strong reading of Paul himself (see, for example, 209-211 regarding Calvin and rewards in heaven/God’s love of humanity).

Voices and Views on Paul is an absolutely invaluable work for those interested in any way in Pauline scholarship. It provides significant introductions to some of the most recent thinkers as well as some of the most influential works in the field. It also provides no small amount of critique and potential avenues for further exploration. It’s a great read that is recommended highly.

Disclaimer: I was provided with a copy of the book for review by the publisher. I was not required to give any specific kind of feedback whatsoever.

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