Let me state right up front that I do not completely espouse to all of the conclusions purported by the New Perspective on Paul (hereafter NPP), however, I recognize the essential direction it is attempting to go as a valuable contribution to the field of Pauline studies, namely, to uncover the most accurate understanding of Paul that we can. That being said, however, the alternative thesis usually referred to as Luther’s Paul, or Reformation Paul has its pros and cons as well. No view of Paul is perfect. But to the degree that a view seeks to utilize all available, trustable, resources for the purpose of uncovering a more historically and theologically accurate view of Paul, I applaud such an endeavor (Acts 17:11).
Christian theologian and author Mark Nanos suggests that in spite of the ambition to deconstruct and criticize influences from normative theology, NT scholarship during the nineteenth century and onwards was ironically heavily influenced by one of the most influential master narratives within Western culture—the theological dichotomy between Judaism and Christianity. This theme has determined the outcome of several important subfields within NT Studies, such as the historical Yeshua (Jesus), the historical Paul, the rise of Christianity, and the separation between Judaism and Christianity. On scientific grounds, the impact on normative Christian theology obviously should not guide historiography, including historical-critical treatments of the biblical and related literary and material remains. Christian theological interests require cross-cultural constraints.
Only during the last decades has the theological enterprise’s determination of what is historical been profoundly challenged from new, avowedly scientifically based perspectives. The so-called Third Quest of the historical Jesus is one example where the opposition between Jesus and Judaism has been replaced by a historically more likely view where Yeshua is placed within Judaism and understood as representing Judaism. The same is now happening with Paul, but in his case the resistance from normative theology seems stronger.
It is not hard to understand why. The binary ideas that Christianity has superseded Judaism and that Christian grace has replaced Jewish legalism, for example, appear to be essential aspects of most Christian theologies. Nevertheless, as in the case with Yeshua, proponents of the so-called Radical Perspective on Paul (NPP)—what Nanos prefers to call “Paul within Judaism” perspectives—believe and share the assumption that the traditional perspectives on the relation between Judaism and Christianity are incorrect and need to be replaced by a historically more accurate view. It is Christian theology that must adjust, or at least learn to read its own origins cross-culturally when demonstrated to be necessary on independent scientific grounds. I am quite confident that Christianity will survive a completely Jewish Paul, just as it evidently survived a completely Jewish Jesus. Religions tend to adapt.
So which view presents the more accurate view of Paul, Luther’s Paul, or Paul within Judaism? I am of the belief that both views offer valuable insights into the historically accurate Paul, but the careful student of scripture must always, always return to scripture for his final authoritative answers. However, since the Bible is not only inspired text, but also a part of human history, we would do well to not so easily dismiss the latest earnest research into the field of Pauline studies simply because it is “new.”
In the end, if our goal is to get Paul right, it is important to apply historiographical rigor, including self-awareness of our own interpretive interests, which we ought to be willing to subordinate to outcomes that we might not actually prefer. Theological interest in Paul’s voice should be conducted with respect for the cross-cultural nature of the historical discipline required for his later interpreters.
View All Answers