What is the "New Perspective on Paul"? A Basic Explanation (Part 1)

Reprinted with permission.


The influence of this movement is increasing within evangelicalism, and I believe many people are in the dark about it. The subject is important also because we tend to view Scripture through the lens of the Reformation instead of the other way round. Although the Reformers got the gospel right, their successors have sometimes appealed to them and not the Bible. At least the New Perspective on Paul (NPP), whatever its merits or demerits, has directed us back to the Bible again.

The so-called “New Perspective on Paul” would be better called “New Perspectives on Paul.” But in whatever variation, and whatever its problems, the New Perspective offers an important and robust challenge to traditional Reformation views of justification and Pauline theology. I should say that I do not dismiss everything the New Perspective has to say. While I am completely in agreement with the Reformers on justification by grace through faith, I am not ready to “throw the baby out with the bath water.”

The main protagonists of the so-called New Perspective on Paul begin with E.P. Sanders and his book Paul and Palestinian Judaism in 1977. This was the one that really drove the wedge between the modern understanding of Second Temple Judaism and the Judaism exemplified by Luther and the Reformation. According to the New Perspective scholars, Luther and Calvin and others got Second Temple Judaism wrong. They thought the Jews of Jesus’ and Paul’s era believed in a ‘works’ righteousness and therefore in justification by works. Whereas, going back to the sources, Sanders brought forward evidence to show that such was not in fact the belief held by scribes and Pharisees of the first part of the First Century A.D.

It is important that we understand that over the last 40-50 years, in fact the last 10-20 years, there has been a tremendous increase in our knowledge of the Judaism of Jesus’ and Paul’s day, and so there is a great deal more information to sift through arising a great deal earlier than the information people like Edersheim and Rosenmuller used when they were teaching about Judaism. (Of course, this has implications also for Messianic Judaism, which very often does not take this new information into account when it seeks an inside track into understanding Jesus and the apostles).

As far as this issue of justification is at stake, what E.P. Sanders taught was that Second Temple Jews believed, not in a “works-based” salvation but in a “grace-based” salvation. Now certainly this “grace-based” salvation was not the same as the “salvation by grace through faith” which the Reformation teachers spoke of. It was “grace-based” in that they understood that collective Israel was chosen, or elected, purely on the basis of God’s grace and not on the basis of the people within Israel being special. Being part of the community of Israel, having the Scriptures and the covenants (particularly the Mosaic Law), and having the “badges” of that covenant (such as circumcision), led to the idea of identifying Jewish righteousness with these outward things. The Jews were seeing themselves as people of the covenant just because they had these tokens from God. We can see some of this indeed in Romans 2:17-3:8.

What was happening here is that the Jews were looking at their Jewishness and saying, “Well, because I’m a Jew, because I’m in the covenant, and because I have circumcision, and because I have these things by grace from God, that justifies me!” That is certainly part of what Paul is addressing in the passage.

The problem defined

The problem comes into focus when people like Sanders, and those who, to differing degrees follow him—James D.G. Dunn, N.T. Wright, and Scot McKnight—allege that these “badges,” the exclusive claims which they say are the root of the problem Paul is dealing with in Romans and Galatians, are equated with the phrase “the works of the law.” For example, in the following verses:

Yet we know that a person is not justified by works of the law [e.g. circumcision, dietary laws, Sabbath observance, etc.] but through faith in Jesus Christ, so we also have believed in Christ Jesus, in order to be justified by faith in Christ and not by works of the law, because by works of the law no one will be justified. (Gal. 2:16)

For all who rely on works of the law are under a curse; for it is written, “Cursed be everyone who does not abide by all things written in the Book of the Law, and do them.” (Gal. 3:10)

So then, these badges—circumcision, having the law of the covenant, and so on—become “ethnic” or “nationalistic” barriers which symbolize “inclusion in a grace covenant” and keep out the Gentiles.

Basically what was happening, according to writers of the New Perspective, is that the Jews were saying, “We have these covenant tokens; they are given to us by grace. We haven’t done anything to deserve them, but we have them and they are ours! They are not the property of the Gentiles! So you have to be in this covenant community in Israel in order to be saved; you have to have these badges.”

In the words of one critic of the New Perspective:

In addition to his agreement with Sanders general description of Judaism as a non-legalistic religion, Wright also makes sympathetic use of Dunn’s interpretation of Paul’s dispute with the Judaizers and their understanding of the works of the law. The problem with the Judaizers appeal to the works of the law was not its legalism, Wright insists, but it’s perverted nationalism; the Pauline expression “the works of the law” does not refer to a legalistic claim regarding how sinners can find favor with God by obeying the law but to the nationalistic Jewish claim that God’s covenant promise extends only to the Jews. The “works of the law” are what Dunn calls “boundary markers”; those acts of conformity to the law that serve to distinguish the Jewish community from the Gentiles. (Cornelis Venema. By Faith Alone. Edited by Gary LW Johnson and Guy P Waters, 41)

Dunn, Wright, and others believe that the “Lutheran perspective on Paul” and what Paul was dealing with when he was dealing with Jews, is all wrong because it interpreted Paul’s Jewish opponents as believing in “works righteousness” when in fact, according to Wright, Dunn, and Sanders, they didn’t believe that at all; they believed in national “grace righteousness.” The Jews saw themselves as being “by grace” under the covenant as a people; this is what E.P. Sanders dubbed “covenant nomism.”

In probably the best work on the subject, Westerholm writes,

Israel sinned as all people sinned. But the “Adam” in Israel made Israel’s singular vocation the basis for Israel’s characteristic sin, the “meta sin,” [as Wright calls it in his book, The Climax of the Covenant] of boasting of the nation’s special place in God’s plan and treating the symbols of its distinctiveness (Sabbath, circumcision, the dietary laws) as “badges of superiority” (243). Paul did not charge Jews with supposing that they could merit God’s favor by keeping Torah’s demands. Rather, he criticized Israel’s “relentless pursuit of national, ethnic, and territorial identity” (Founder, 84). By emphasizing its distinctiveness along national lines, Israel was, paradoxically, becoming like the other nations rather than serving as their light. Possessing God’s law, ethnic Israel believed itself inalienably God’s people and confined the bounds of God’s covenant to those who displayed the external “badges” of Jewishness.” (Stephen Westerholm. Perspectives Old and New on Paul, 180)

Now in interpreting the phrase “works of the law” as being these external “badges/emblems” of Jewishness, this means that when you come to passages like Galatians 3:10 the phrase no longer means what the Reformers took it to mean: that you cannot earn your salvation by “works” or “good deeds”; it just means the Apostle is saying “these outward emblems don’t mean anything.” In other words, Galatians 3:10 becomes quite like Romans 2:17ff., which declares any reliance on the Law a forlorn hope, whether it be “covenant nomism,” or works righteousness.

How does this affect exegesis? We’ll look at that question next time.

[node:bio/paul-henebury body]

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There are 5 Comments

Ed Vasicek's picture

Thanks, Paul, for starting us off on this crucial subject. This is very important.  Several years ago, I waded through the 2 Volume set that answers the New Perspective, edited by D.A. Carson, "Justification and Variegated Nomism."

My first book, The Midrash Key, deals with a few of these issues in passing.  I am in the midst of my second book, which is tentatively titled, The Amazing Doctrines of Paul As Midrash.  In this book, I will argue that Paul's teachings are derived from the Old Testament, and that a proper understanding of Jewish backgrounds will lead one toward the viewpoint of the reformers when it comes to justification, not AWAY from it, as The New Perspective asserts.

To see how this approach can be useful, let me link you to another Sharper Iron article of mine,  Justification by Faith Midrash.


From a bigger picture perspective, there are many forces working to bring evangelicals and catholics together, and the New Perspective is one of them, IMO.  

Paul, it is with great interest that I await your next article.





"The Midrash Detective"

josh p's picture

To anyone interested in hearing an excellent critique of the N.P.P. I highly recommend Jonathan Pratt's 3 part series on  Central Seminary's website. It is an excellent summary of it's history and those areas where it fails to square with Biblical truth.

TylerR's picture


If you're interested in a quick discussion (I guess 90 mins is kind of quick) on the NPP, check out this discussion between N.T. Wright and James White, taking obviously opposite positions on this issue. The matter is explained clearly by both sides.


Tyler is a pastor in Olympia, WA and works in State government.

Aaron Blumer's picture


Thanks for the links. ... Josh, I can't seem to find that Pratt series. Can you post a link?

Paul's series is helping me alot. Most of what I've read on NPP so far has left me unsure if I've understood what they're actually saying.... and it seems wise to understand before rejecting. Looking fwd to part two... which is in the bull pen.

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