The Christianized Paul, the New Perspective Paul, and Paul within Judaism

One of the most important questions driving current developments in our understanding of the New Testament—and therefore of what it means to be “Christian”—has to do with the relation between the early Jesus movement and Judaism. In practice this issue closely matches the hermeneutical question that I have tended to emphasise here: should our understanding of the New Testament be controlled by theology or by history? I have been reading Paul Within Judaism: Restoring the First Century Context to the Apostle, edited by Mark Nanos and Magnus Zetterholm. The book has prompted these reflections and will be used to plot and illustrate a trajectory that I think is of considerable importance for the narrative-historical argument.

The traditional “Christianizing” approach

The traditional view has been that at least with Paul, if not already with Jesus, we have moved decisively beyond Judaism. It is associated especially with Augustine and Luther and is summed up in the sharply polemical contrast between justification by works and justification by faith. Neil Elliott makes the point with respect to Paul in this way:

According to the older, Christianizing view, we must understand Paul fundamentally as someone whose thought and experience—however these may have been formed by his background in Judaism—had been decisively reshaped by his encounter with the risen Christ, which Paul described as a “revelation” or “apocalypse” of God’s son to him…. Thus, although most interpreters today acknowledge, in general terms, that various aspects of Paul’s thinking derived from Jewish traditions, many hasten to qualify that acknowledgment by insisting that those aspects came to mean something very different to Paul, something no longer compatible with Judaism, after this “revelation” of Christ. That “event” is often described as an interruption, a “breaking in,” implying that it defies explanation in terms of Paul’s Jewish heritage alone.1

The New Perspective on Paul

A dramatic change of perspective was initiated with E.P. Sanders’ Paul and Palestinian Judaism, published in 1977. Sanders argued that Jews in Paul’s time were not trying to earn righteousness by performing works of the Law, and therefore that the Lutheran antithesis between works and faith was wrongly conceived. Sanders was inclined to think that the error was Paul’s: in his enthusiasm for Christ he had misrepresented his own religious tradition. James D.G. Dunn, however, took a different view, arguing that Paul’s position was much closer to the “covenantal nomism” which Sanders believed characterised Judaism than Sanders himself appreciated. What Paul opposed was not “works of the Law” generally but those particular works that served as identity or boundary markers, such as circumcision and food regulations. This argument gave impulse to the development of a New Perspective on Paul.

In this respect the New Perspective consists of a surprisingly narrow set of arguments, leaving ample space for a more traditional appraisal of Paul in other areas. My crude and perhaps somewhat out-of-date critique of N.T. Wright’s narrative development of the New Perspective has been that while the story of Israel has been reinstated, it is allowed to run only as far as Jesus, who brings the story to its proper climax; then a universalising theology takes over. So while Jesus is interpreted within a Jewish frame, Paul is a borderline figure.

The “Paul within Judaism” view

The “Paul within Judaism” view, represented by the collection of essays Paul Within Judaism: Restoring the First Century Context to the Apostle, edited by Mark Nanos and Magnus Zetterholm, argues that the New Perspective doesn’t go far enough—indeed, that it never really escapes ‘the constraining categories of an older “Christianizing” view of the apostle’.2 What this group of scholars seeks to show is that Paul can be understood in fully Jewish categories—that such seemingly novel “Christian” developments as justification by faith, the exaltation of a crucified messiah, and the participation of Gentiles in the eschatological programme can be accounted for entirely in Jewish terms.

So, for example, developing an idea mooted by Alan Segal, Elliott suggests that Paul was already a Jewish apocalyptic mystic when he received an “apocalypse” or revelation of Christ on the way to Damascus. What was new to Paul was not the vision—this was not the first time that he had seen “in heaven a divine figure at the right hand of the Ancient of Days” (cf. Dan. 7:9-14); it was the identification of this figure with the crucified Jesus. Elliott concludes that ‘there is nothing “essentially” Christian about a Pharisee experiencing a visionary ascent to heaven and seeing the resurrected Jesus there” (222).

Where do we draw the line?

I haven’t been convinced by everything I’ve read in the book—I haven’t understood everything that I’ve read in the book—but it does seem to me that a consistent narrative-historical hermeneutic leads us in this general direction: Paul is thoroughly Jewish in the way that he conceives his mission, and the outcome of his mission should be construed in thoroughly Jewish terms. With the partial exception of Paula Fredriksen’s essay on “The Question of Worship: Gods. Pagans, and the Redemption of Israel”, it is the failure to take eschatological outcomes seriously that, in my view, is the main weakness of the “Paul within Judaism” view, insofar as it is represented by this collection of essays.

The question arises, finally: if not in the New Testament, where is the chronological boundary between the Jewish narrative and the Christian narrative to be drawn? In my view it is in the writings of the Apostolic Fathers that we see the story of Israel begin to disintegrate and fall away from the apocalyptic narrative that has been inherited from the New Testament; and then with Justin Martyr, say, a new narrative about the pagan journey towards knowledge of the true God takes over.

  • 1. N. Elliott, in M.D. Nanos and M. Zetterholm (eds.), Paul Within Judaism: Restoring the First Century Context to the Apostle, 204.
  • 2. N. Elliott, in Nanos and Zetterholm (eds.), Paul Within Judaism, 204.

One area where a narrative-historical way of looking at the NT has helped me is to see it as a consistent outworking of OT eschatology.  More typical Reformed views sort of portray the OT as being misunderstood by its first century readers until Jesus came along and clarified everything as pointing to spiritual abstractions.

But it turns out the NT is quite intelligble as a historical progression of the OT story, still with a share of surprise twists and unpleasant discontinuities that mystify and offend the audience.

In this particular case, Paul’s Damascus experience doesn’t correct his doctrine or his expectations; it corrects his identifications.  It’s not that he’s understood the Messiah and God’s redeeming work all wrong; it’s that he’s incorrectly identified (or failed to identify) how it is present in history.  -These- people aren’t faithful Israel, these -other- people are.  Etc.

If the more abstract, spiritual, uniquely Christian version of the story appears with the early church fathers (and I think that’s correct), that would pretty much make this coterminous with the Hellenization of the gospel, which would explain rather a lot.