Messianic Judaism

James Dunn and the New Perspective on Paul


James Dunn and the New Perspective on Paul

The New Perspective on Paul was one of the most important theological developments of the twentieth century. This summer, one of its leading proponents, Dr. James Dunn, passed away.

In honor of Dr. Dunn, we thought that it would be a good time to discuss “the New Perspective” and its relationship to our viewpoint at First Fruits of Zion.

The “New Perspective on Paul” emerged in the 1960s as a major challenge to long-held ideas about Paul and his relationship to the Judaism of his day. “New Perspective” scholars such as E.P. Sanders, James Dunn, and Krister Stendahl put forward ideas that questioned the Christian characterization of Second Temple-era Judaism as a religion filled with self-righteousness and thinking that one could earn salvation through good works. New Perspective scholars found little evidence for these ideas in ancient Jewish sources. Rather, the New Perspective helped New Testament studies to recover an idea that Judaism always knew. Namely, Judaism is a religion based on grace.

Judaism, in ancient and modern times, is not monolithic, and you can surely find divergent opinions. The great value of Sanders’ and Dunn’s work was to show that a long line of Pauline interpreters misread Paul because they misread the Judaism(s) of Paul’s day as legalistic. In a sense, we could more aptly describe the New Perspective on Paul as a “New Perspective on Late Second Temple-era Judaism.” The new perspective on the Judaism in Paul’s day has helped us to understand Paul and his context better. E.P. Sanders, in his seminal book, Paul and Palestinian Judaism, said,

In discussing disobedience and obedience, punishment and reward, [the Rabbis] were not dealing with how man is saved, but with how man should act and how God will act within the framework of the covenant…they did not think that they earned their place in the covenant by the number of mitzvoth fulfilled.[1]

The New Perspective on Paul did much to demonstrate that the Judaism of Paul’s day stood on a foundation of grace. With this “new perspective” in place, it became clear to many that Paul was not responding to Jewish opponents who thought that you earned your salvation by keeping enough good deeds. Rather, Paul was responding to opponents who believed that you had to become nationally Jewish (via proselyte conversion) to be redeemed.

While the New Perspective represented a positive step in New Testament studies, some scholars determined it fell short of properly understanding Paul’s relationship to Judaism. Within the New Perspective, it is generally understood that Paul opposed the Judaism of his day because he thought it was excessively nationalistic or particularistic. According to this framework, because the gospel is universal and not particularistic, Torah observances such as keeping kosher are no longer relevant, operative, or required because Paul’s gospel necessarily removes such things that differentiate between Jews and Gentiles.

In Paul: A Biography, New Perspective scholar N.T. Wright writes,

The Messiah’s people … have left behind the old identities and have come into a new identity, the messianic identity … this must mean—this can only mean—that when Paul goes to dinner with Jewish friends…they will eat kosher food, and he will do the same. But it must mean—it can only mean—that when Paul goes to dinner with non-Jewish friends, he will eat whatever they put in front of him.[2]

N.T. Wright and those within the New Perspective camp still present us with a Paul who leaves his Jewish identity in favor of a “Messianic identity.” Thus he has the freedom to do Torah when it is beneficial to the mission, and he is free not to do Torah when it would be a detriment to his mission. The “New Perspective” Paul is a Paul who left Judaism after he became a follower of Yeshua, thus in this regard, it doesn’t differ much from how Paul was understood before the New Perspective.

Not long after the emergence of the New Perspective, scholars surfaced who held that the New Perspective represented progress in Pauline studies, but did not go far enough. Informed by the New Perspective on Paul but not emerging from within it arose what originally was called the “Radical New Perspective on Paul.” The “Radical” New Perspective was eventually assigned a new name—“Paul within Judaism.”

The big ideas of “Paul within Judaism” include:

  1. Paul was a consistently faithful adherent to Torah and the prevailing norms of Judaism as a follower of Yeshua.
  2. Paul assumed that other Messianic Jews would continue to be faithful adherents to Torah and the prevailing norms of Judaism.
  3. Paul’s letters were directed primarily, if not exclusively, to a Gentile audience.
  4. Paul expected Gentiles/non-Jews who came into the Yeshua movement through his efforts to conform to Jewish religious norms as non-Jews.

The “Paul within Judaism” camp, like the New Perspective, is not monolithic, nor is it systematized. However, the four ideas above are generally embraced by its advocates.

The work of Sanders, Wright, and Dunn represented an important step in New Testament studies. First Fruits of Zion respects the contribution of the New Perspective but is aligned more with the Paul within Judaism perspective. However, the work of Dr. James Dunn and others is appreciated for the positive work done in advancing our understanding of Paul and his world.

Endnotes:
  1. E.P. Sanders, Paul and Palestinian Judaism (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 1977), 181.
  2. N.T. Wright, Paul: A Biography (San Francisco, CA: Harper One, 2018), 254.


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