The New Perspective on Paul, Ethnocentrism, and Judaism

Categories: Biblical Studies, New Testament

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I know I’m a bit late to the party here (teaching a summer course and doing home renovations have had me busy), but Timothy Gombis’ “The Paul We Think We Know” in Christianity Today is worth the read. Gombis does an excellent job highlighting the differences between the popular Evangelical/Protestant images of Paul and the figure who actually graces the pages of the New Testament, starting with an excellent (and brief) explanation of how the traditional narrative of Paul having left behind a legalistic Judaism in converting to a non-legalistic salvation-by-grace Christianity. This is a good primer to the so-called “New Perspective on Paul” that is certainly no longer new among scholars but is still largely unknown in the pews (and many pulpits). Gombis rightly flags moderns for making Paul in our own image, noting,

If we encountered Paul today, we might be disappointed to find someone quite unlike the strong and decisive leader we often imagine. In fact, many of our contemporary churches would hardly consider him a viable pastoral candidate. In this regard, as in so many others, the New Testament evidence resists efforts to re-create Paul in our own image.

horse bright lightAlthough some may have concerns about whether Gombis’ summary of Paul’s proclamation as centering on the “the Kingdom of God” is historically accurate, I entirely agree with Gombis on this; Paul uses the term enough in the limited material we have and the term “gospel” (εὐαγγέλιον) is itself connected to the concept of the Kingdom. (This is something that always throws my NT students, who are always startled that they actually have no real idea what “gospel” means in the New Testament.)

That said, I do have one significant point of contention with Gombis’ portrayal of “the problem with Judaism”:

“First-century Judaism didn’t have a legalism problem; it had an ethnocentrism problem. The first followers of Jesus were all Jewish, and had difficulty imagining that the God of Israel who sent Jesus Christ as their Savior could possibly save non-Jews without requiring them to convert to Judaism.” (See also Scot McKnight’s affirmation on this point.)

David Miller has already expressed his concerns about this line of thinking in an excellent and lucid post, pointing out,

 It is curious that new perspective scholars in the Dunn / Wright tradition still create a negative picture of Judaism as a foil for early Christianity. …

But of course, we can try not to stereotype ancient Judaism–which leads me to my next point: What was wrong with Jewish ethnocentrism? What is wrong about the people of God thinking they are the people of God? Isn’t that what the Old Testament encourages? Was it even conceivable to think that Israel would be a light to the nations without being distinctive as a people? Would anyone have imagined that God would save all the nations of the earth without their joining the covenant of the people of God? And does Paul ever criticize non-believing Jews for being ethnocentric? (What am I missing?)

Finally, was early Christianity any different? Sure Gentiles were not required to become Jews, but they were required to join ‘the people of God’. I submit that first century Judaism was not any more “ethnocentric” than normative Christianity is.

Miller has summed up one of my main points of frustration with the New Perspective: it quite simply doesn’t go far enough in its reconsideration of Judaism. Having begun by giving Judaism the benefit of the doubt with respect to legalism, will it now be completed by returning to the same nationalist/particular vs. universal paradigm from Protestantism of old? In one sense, I think at least part of this problem stems from the attempt to retain at least some of the trappings of historical Protestant readings in the face of greater awareness of (and sensitivity to) first century Judaism. I think Dunn is especially transparent in his attempts to apply the insights of a New Perspective on Judaism while still trying to hold to traditional Protestant theology (Wright, on the other hand, has been more willing to move away from “justification by faith” as the central element of the gospel, for example). As a result,  as I stated on one my Ph.D. exams (it’s not often one can quote one’s own exams, so I might as well do so here, right?):

Dunn has tried to have his cake and eat it too by accepting Sanders’ depiction of Judaism as non-legalistic but instead depicting Paul’s Jewish opponents as those trying to retain their ethnic distinction through “the works of the Law,” which he interprets as specific sociological “boundary markers.” Thus, instead of Paul opposing Jewish legalists, Dunn has pushed forward Jewish racists/nationalists, against whom Paul asserts his “justification by faith” message, moving towards universal access to God over and against Jewish exclusivism and nationalism.

As Miller rightly shows, this particular/universal dichotomy goes at least as far back as F.C. Baur; there’s not a whole lot “new” about it. And he’s also right that Christianity is no less “particular” or “ethnocentric” than Judaism—the only real differences concerned what actually properly functioned as (to use Dunn’s term) the “boundary markers” separating insiders from outsiders. (See the work of Caroline Johnson Hodge, Paula Fredriksen (PDF), and Denise Kimber Buell, among others.) In my own work, I’ve concluded that Paul was in no way opposed to the special claims of Israel or advocating some sort of universalism over and against Israelite “nationalism.” On the contrary, Paul’s own gospel centered on God’s promises to Israel, with the mission to the Gentiles a necessary component if “all Israel” were to be restored. If I’m right (and I obviously think I am), this invalidates the idea that Paul’s quarrel with Judaizers was over an “ethnocentrism” problem.

Racial and cultural concerns  just so happen to have been a hot issue the last thirty years, with openness and multiculturalism the chief goods of our time, making this an especially convenient reading of Paul today. Gombis is right in his critique, but I submit that his alternative is itself vulnerable to the same critique. The Paul who campaigns against ethnocentrism looks conveniently like just the apostle many would like to see today. This multicultural Paul has been crafted into the image of his modern academic interpreters every bit as much as the Evangelical Paul has been conformed to the image of his Evangelical interpreters.

Lest I take the easy way out and stop short of providing an alternative proposal of my own, I am convinced that Paul did not oppose his Jewish contemporaries because of legalism, self-righteousness, particularity, or ethnocentrism but over the question of how one becomes a righteous person (or rather, a part of a righteous people) who will justly be judged as righteous in the final judgment. He argues that no external law, facts of birth, or ritual practice can reliably be said to truly make a person (or people) righteous. Against this, he points to the power of the Spirit to transform a person from the inside out as the only means of true righteousness, asserting that the death and resurrection of the Messiah have provided for an outpouring of this Spirit for the transformation of his people (and ultimately the world itself). Paul’s thinking was thoroughly apocalyptic—emphasizing God’s righteous judgment—and thoroughly centered on God’s restoration of his people through this transformation by the Spirit. This may not scratch modern itches to the degree that the Evangelical or academic multicultural Pauls do, but I am convinced that it is a more faithful reconstruction of what was truly at root in Paul’s proclamation.

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9 Comments. Leave new

  • Nice post. I really don’t like the “first century weren’t legalists–they were ethnocentricists!” approach to the New Perspective, and you articulate the problems with that well.

    (By the way, I noticed a “thinko”–you well meant εὐαγγέλιον, you actually wrote ὲκκλησία.)

  • I disagree both with the New Perspective and slightly with you, although I think your critique is valid. I think the issue is in some ways ethnocentrism, however, that ethnocentrism is not one-sided. Both on the Judean side and the non-Judean, there was ethnocentrism expressed in favoring the way one constructs the gospel of God toward’s one’s own ‘ethnos.’ Paul, especially in Romans, critiques. Of course, I am relying on Esler for much of my argument, but I’m mostly convinced by the semantic limitation of ‘Judaioi.’

    … and my own analysis is here:

    • Adam, I can live with most of where you’re going. That said, I think Esler, while on the right track, is just wide of the mark with his understanding of “Ioudaioi” as limited to “Judaeans” in a geographical sense. I think the real distinction is between “Ioudaioi” as those descended from the southern kingdom of Judah (hence “Judaeans” or “Jews”) vs. the larger term “Israel,” which has a wider reference point. Paul makes the case that “Israel” necessarily includes more than “Ioudaioi” while simultaneously making the case that it must include “Ioudaioi” for it to be “all Israel.” But that’s not so much a question of ethnocentrism as it is a question of where the boundaries fall for the people of God and what one must do to be “in.” For Paul, the answer to that question centers on ethics (faithfulness and obedience to the God of Israel) first and foremost, starting from the death and resurrection of the Messiah and looking towards the coming judgment.

  • Jason, thanks for this. And for your stand on Paul. I’m an amateur and over my head in these discussions. I’m recovering from post-grad work in judgment praxis of religious rules. I have a hostility to macro-interpretations of Paul. Or Jesus. So on. Talk about coming late to the party. For example, I just watched a DVD on the Gospel of John with a small group, Quaker-like. The DVD amounted to reading the text. With dramatic portrayals in the background. Fair enough. Interesting. Until one scene in particular: Jesus is arguing with religious leaders about why they don’t accept him. Then – Jesus leans in to just one ruler only. The crowd still exists. The crowd is in the background. Jesus whispers to just one religious authority – “why are – you – trying to kill me?” Okay, that “you” could be plural. You and your small group. A mere small group among a larger nation who is not hostile to Jesus. Or, “you” and your demographics. Or, “you” and the whole nation. Or, “you” and the whole nation and the Romans. Et al. Who is the – “you?” That whisper makes it look like a small sub-group inside the larger nation. But that dramatization (DVD dramatization) isn’t in the text. It’s a tone-of-voice plus a particularized audience added by gesture in the DVD! Fascinating. Jason, I’m not arguing here. Just sketching a feel. The feel of the DVD depiction is my vocational hazard (judgment in single cases – not macro-cultural pronouncements by Jesus) in reading the texts as isolating on individuals or sub-groups. Not macro-stuff. My bias. Okay, this is mere description. Not arguing.


    When you ask if/whether this academic discourse (all the authors you mentioned) will make it into pulpits – yes, I’m wondering too. No answers here. My huge problem with the question is simple. If I have post-grad work in religious rules (and theology) applies in praxis-judgments in concrete cases, and, if I still get confused by academic discourse, then how are clergy to take sides? Jason, please see an open question. I’m not arguing. It’s extremely tough for me to sort out the more-probable and less-probable among macro-interpretations (ethnicity, race, religious-bias, economic analyses, gender, so on) embedded as engrams inside these texts. Since I work collaboratively with dozens of clergy across various traditions who refer cases to me, I get some side-bar time to ask them for their perspectives on theology. Huge learning experience for me. I scarcely hear clergy take initiative to speak of academic discourse. I wish they would. But, they don’t. Maybe it’s just my sample pool. How will this stuff make it into the pulpit? – other than by impressionistically picking favorite authors? – make it into the pulpit after serious discourse reviews of most-least probable analyses? Alas.


  • […] take the new perspective on Paul and a more positive understanding of ancient Judaism far enough. Jason Staples then contributed his thoughts on the subject. Miller also discussed the notion of Paul as A Former Jew.Mike Bird blogged about church and state […]

  • I love your final paragraph. Well done!

  • I know this is an old post but I’m curious, what is your stand on the gospel? Do you believe that we are saved by faith alone, or do you believe that the Holy Spirit makes us righteous and this is how we attain eternal life? Forgive me if I missed something, I’m a big dummy.


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