The New Perspective “From” Paul -- By: Mark A. Seifrid

Journal: Southern Baptist Journal of Theology
Volume: SBJT 14:3 (Fall 2010)
Article: The New Perspective “From” Paul
Author: Mark A. Seifrid

The New Perspective “From” Paul1

Mark A. Seifrid

1. The New Perspective On Paul

It is a real question as to whether it is proper to speak of a “new perspective on Paul.” For at least thirty years New Testament scholarship—especially in the English-speaking world—has been occupied with it in one way or another.2 The literature on the topic shows no sign of abating. Whether one likes it or not, engagement is necessary. The implications of “the new perspective” for the reading of Paul (and, in fact, of the entire New Testament) are so fundamental that unless a new paradigm emerges it is likely to remain controversial for a long time to come. Its continuing attractions lie not merely in the questions it raises concerning the way in which Christians have read Paul, but also in the way in which it speaks to contemporary concerns about Christian life in the post-modern world. The proponents of the “new perspective on Paul” point to the inclusivity of the gospel, the centrality of Christian community, and the need for Christian ethical engagement in a way that we must take seriously.

Although it had significant precedents, the “new perspective on Paul” can be said to have had its birth in E. P. Sanders’s study Paul and Palestinian Judaism.3 This comparison of Paul with early Jewish understandings of salvation gave Sanders’s work a measure of influence that none of his predecessors enjoyed and called for a fundamental revision of most contemporary Protestant interpretations of Paul. In some measure, therefore, it also challenged the reformational reading of Paul which informed them.4 We should by all means welcome this impetus to reexamine the apostle’s relationship to the Judaism of his day and to “the traditions of his fathers” (cf. Gal 1:14). The Protestant portraits of Paul against which Sanders reacted (and which often still predominate among Christian laity) were in need of revision. Even if one remains skeptical of the tendency of proponents of the “new perspective” to single out Luther as a myopic introvert, a reexamination of the reformational reading of Paul can be a healthy exercise.

What made this “new perspective on Paul” so revolutionary? In the first place, Sanders offered

a new paradigm for understanding early Jewish soteriology, which he described as “covenantal nomism.” According to Sanders, with only minor exceptions, the early Jewish sources suppose th...

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