Evaluating the New Perspective on Paul (1) Scripture, Confession, and Historical Reconstruction

Any evaluation of the new perspective on Paul faces a number of daunting challenges. Since a considerable part of the argument for a new approach to the teaching of the apostle Paul rests upon E. P. Sanders’ historical reconstruction of the pattern of religion known as “second temple Judaism,” some evaluation of this reconstruction is required. One of the oft-repeated claims of advocates of the new perspective is that the older view failed to read Paul’s epistles in their historical context, whether in terms of their Old Testament background or the Judaism prevalent at the time of their writing. A particular historical understanding of Judaism, consequently, has become a major linchpin in the argument for a new view of the apostle Paul’s teaching. This means that any evaluation of the new perspective that fails to reckon with the historical studies of E. P. Sanders and others on the nature of second temple Judaism is not likely to be regarded as adequate to the task.

Many authors who are sympathetic to the new perspective also insist that we need a new or fresh look at the Pauline epistles, one that is freed from the constraints of the older Reformation reading. To seek to defend the understanding of the gospel that is reflected in the confessions of the Reformation is to risk the scorn of those who view their project as a long-overdue liberation of exegesis from dogmatic strictures. Those who defend the Reformation’s understanding of the doctrine of justification are regarded as would-be “guardians of orthodoxy,” whose captivity to an older doctrinal system and paradigm makes their work outdated and outof-step.1 If a revolution has occurred in Pauline studies, the older Reformation paradigm being displaced by a new paradigm, then those who are found on the prerevolutionary side of this paradigm shift risk being dismissed as the theological equivalent of “flat earthers.” It is a fearful thing, indeed, to swim against the stream of what is now acknowledged as the reigning paradigm in Pauline studies.2 In the view of many proponents of the new perspective, the older commentaries and treatments of the Pauline epistles are seriously handicapped by their Reformation assumptions regarding Judaism in the first century. A critical evaluation of the new perspective requires, therefore, not only a consideration of the new understanding of Judaism associated with the work of E. P. Sanders but also a re-reading of the Pauline epistles against the background of the new understanding of Judaism.

Though these challenges may seem daunting enough, there is the further complication of the fluid nature of the so-called new perspective. As we have previously noted, many authors who write in sympathy with the new perspective, object when this perspective is treated as though it were uniformly understood by its adherents. Some authors specifically object to the language of “the” new perspective. Attention is called to the diversity of viewpoint among its proponents. Due to the tentativeness of many of the historical studies of Judaism in the first century of the Christian era, it is frequently acknowledged that a great deal of further study is needed. All of this contributes to a situation that is much like that confronting a marksman in a shooting gallery at the arcade. How is it possible to hit a target that is in constant motion and that, so soon as you get a bead on it, has bobbed up or down, or disappeared altogether?

As I embark upon my critical evaluation of the new perspective, accordingly, I am well aware of the modest and limited character of what will be presented. What I will offer is an evaluation that raises a number of key questions that the new perspective fails to answer adequately. In addition to raising these questions, I shall offer a defense of several of the key aspects of the Reformation’s understanding of the apostle Paul, particularly its understanding of the doctrine of justification. My evaluation, however, will remain, in the nature of the case, something of a preliminary assessment of the new perspective. A more fulsome and adequate evaluation of the new perspective would require a far more lengthy and extended treatment of many issues that I will only briefly consider.3

The priority of Scripture

Because so much of the new perspective’s understanding of the apostle Paul is shaped by E. P. Sanders’ study of Second Temple Judaism, we will begin our evaluation of the new perspective by raising several questions regarding his conclusions. However, before doing so, we need to consider the relative importance of Scripture, confession, and historical studies for our determination of the apostle Paul’s understanding of the gospel.



In order to assess the new perspective’s claims regarding Paul’s understanding of the gospel and justification by faith, we must ultimately appeal to the teaching of the Scriptures, especially the epistles of the apostle Paul. The debate regarding the correctness of the Reformation’s understanding of the doctrine of justification can only be settled in a way that conforms to the Reformation’s insistence that “Scripture alone” (sola Scriptura) is the supreme standard for determining the nature of the gospel. Whatever the usefulness and need for historical studies that place the Scriptures in their historical context, we have to take care that the tentative results of such studies not inappropriately influence our interpretation of the biblical texts. Even though historical studies may play an important role in the interpretation of Paul’s epistles, which were written on particular occasions and in a special historical setting, they must always be subordinated to the arguments and specific claims of the epistles themselves.

What I have in mind by this observation is not a defense of a biblicism that ignores history. Rather, I have in mind to warn against a kind of historical scholarship that inappropriately predetermines the exegesis of biblical texts. For example, someone might argue on the basis of historical studies that the kind of Judaizing tendency the apostle Paul opposes in Galatians is not represented in the literature of second temple Judaism. Consequently, the apostle Paul is guilty in Galatians of creating a kind of “straw man,” a profile of a Judaizing tendency that simply did not exist in the first century, in order to make his case for a certain understanding of the gospel. The point of this illustration at this point is not to say that writers of the new perspective are necessarily guilty of such an approach. The point is simply to warn against the real temptation to employ historical studies as a kind of matrix or grid for the reading of Paul’s epistles, so that the actual teaching and arguments of the epistle are not the principal basis for determining Paul’s view of things. When we seek to determine Paul’s view of the gospel, we must allow Paul’s writings to have the first and last word.

Nothing less than this is required, if we are to settle the question of what Paul meant by the gospel or the doctrine of justification.

One of the unavoidable issues that arises in connection with this observation is the authenticity of all the canonical epistles that are ascribed to the apostle Paul. Readers of the New Testament are well aware that there are thirteen epistles explicitly assigned to Paul. However, most of the more prominent authors who are associated with the new perspective follow the standard, critical consensus of New Testament scholarship that only seven of the canonical epistles are genuinely Pauline.4 In this consensus, Colossians, Ephesians, II Thessalonians, and the Pastoral Epistles, are regarded as deutero-Pauline and therefore not wholly reliable sources for determining Paul’s teaching. Though I do not concur with this critical view of the Pauline corpus, I will nonetheless restrict most of my appeal in what follows to passages in the generally acknowledged epistles. Since most everyone acknowledges the authenticity of Romans, 1 and II Corinthians, Galatians, Phillipians, I Thessalonians and Philemon, references to these epistles will be treated as sufficient to determine Paul’s teaching regarding the gospel and justification by faith. Rather than becoming sidetracked by the important question of the authenticity of the canonical epistles of Paul, I will restrict my argument to references from the generally acknowledged epistles.

The place of the confessions

A somewhat more controversial subject is that of the role and place of the historic Reformation confessions in our understanding of the gospel. If the claims of the new perspective are granted, then it is not only necessary to take a fresh look at Paul’s epistles. But it also becomes necessary to view the confessions’ summary of the gospel, particularly the doctrine of justification, with considerable suspicion. Key elements of these confessions—that justification is a, if not the, central theme of Paul’s understanding of the gospel; that justification answers the question how ungodly sinners can find acceptance with God; that justification is by faith alone, now and in the future—must be rejected in the light of the new understanding of Judaism and the apostle Paul that is integral to the new perspective. N. T. Wright, as the title of his book What Saint Paul Really Said makes clear, argues that the Western tradition since Augustine has largely misunderstood the apostle Paul. Expressing an opinion that is common among writers of the new perspective, Wright insists that “[t]he discussions of justification in much of the history of the church, certainly since Augustine, got off on the wrong foot—and they have stayed there ever since.”5 Even if you factor in the possibility that Wright is being deliberately provocative, his words, and the sentiment they express, can hardly lend encouragement to those who might view the Reformation confessions as a helpful summary of the teaching of the gospel.

At one level, of course, these sentiments respecting the correctness of the Reformation’s reading of the gospel cannot be rejected out of hand. The confessions themselves acknowledge that they are subordinate to the teaching of Scripture and liable to correction if necessary. Even the most ardent subscriber to the Reformation confessions must be open to the possibility that they are in error. This is really only another way of saying that Scripture is the supreme test of what to believe, and the confessions are true only by virtue of their agreement with Scripture. However, at another level, these sentiments seem to betray a kind of historical pride, even recklessness, regarding our present understanding of Scripture in relation to the understanding of the past. At the very least, they betray a kind of disrespect for the doctrinal consensus of the church in her history, or an unwillingness to grant a kind of presumption of “innocent-unless-proven-guilty” respecting these confessions. The point is not that the confessions of the Reformation are beyond criticism. Rather, the modest point we wish to make is that a great burden of proof falls to those who reject wholesale the inheritances of the past. Whether advocates of the new perspective have acknowledged or met this burden remains to be seen.

The subordinate role of historical reconstruction

The last observation concerns the role and place of historical studies in the interpretation of the Pauline epistles. Such studies are an important component of any responsible approach to the interpretation of Scripture. For this reason, the study of the literature of Second Temple Judaism provides an important context within which to read the epistles of the apostle Paul. Knowledge of the historical setting of biblical texts is critical to their interpretation. Thus, there can be no objection in principle to the interest of the new perspective in studying the literature of Second Temple Judaism with a view to its implications for an understanding of the apostle Paul.

However, though historical studies can significantly illumine the meaning of biblical texts, great caution has to be exercised so as not to allow the tentative conclusions of historical studies to “trump” the apparent meaning of the text in its canonical context. To argue, for example, that the apostle Paul “could not be opposing any kind of legalism” because we know from historical studies that no such legalism existed at the time is a dubious procedure. If the text seems to say something that does not fit with our historical reconstruction, it may be that our historical conclusions are incorrect or perhaps not directly relevant. When reading the Pauline epistles, great care must be exercised that our historical reconstruction of their historical context not become the governing key to their interpretation.

Perhaps a simple illustration of this point will help to make it clear. When E. P. Sanders summarizes his conclusions regarding Judaism in the time of Jesus and Paul, he offers the following remark: “The possibility cannot be completely excluded that there were Jews accurately hit by the polemic of Matt. 23 [woes against the scribes and Pharisees], who attended only to trivia and neglected the weightier matters. Human nature being what it is, one supposes that there were some such. One must say, however, that the surviving literature [of Second Temple Judaism] does not reveal them.”6 The remarkable feature of this observation by Sanders is that it only grudgingly admits the remote possibility that Matthew 23, which contains a series of woes pronounced by Jesus against the scribes and Pharisees, may have hit a real, and not imaginary, target. Whether Sanders representation of Second Temple Judaism is correct or not, it is striking that, upon the basis of the assured results of his study, he is reluctant to admit that the account of Matthew 23 might accurately represent at least one strand of the Judaism in the first century of the Christian era. It is not my purpose in citing this relatively small point in the larger context of Sanders’ work to imply that this is characteristic of his work or that of other writers of the new perspective. Rather, it only illustrates how it is possible to put historical studies and their tentative hypotheses on a pedestal above that of the Scriptural texts.7 This we may not do.

In our evaluation of the new perspective in subsequent articles, we will need to keep these points in mind throughout. When it comes to Paul’s understanding of the gospel and the doctrine of justification, the principal source and standard must remain the Pauline epistles. Neither the Reformation confessions nor the tentative conclusions of historical studies may stand alongside or parallel the Scriptures in determining Paul’s teaching. Moreover, though the Reformation confessions are subordinate to the Scriptures, they must be granted considerable weight. Due to the tentativeness of the conclusions of historical studies—however useful and important they may be—they do not have the authority of Scripture or even of the confessions as the church’s historical summary of Scriptural teaching.


1. Cf. N. T. Wright, What Saint Paul Really Said (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1997), pp. 19–20.

2. Cf. D. A. Carson, “Summaries and Conclusions,” in Justification and Variegated Nomism, vol. 1: The Complexities of Second Temple Judaism, ed. D.A. Carson (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2001), p. 505: “At least in the Anglo-Saxon world, it is not going beyond the evidence to say that the new perspective is the reigning paradigm.”

3. There are already a number of excellent studies that are more or less critical of the new perspective and that offer a defense of the essential correctness of the Reformation’s understanding of Paul. See, for example: Seyoon Kim, Paul and the New Perspective: Second Thoughts on the Origin of Paul’s Gospel (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2001); Simon J. Gathercole, Where is Boasting? Early Jewish Soteriology and Paul’s Response in Romans 1-5 (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2002); Colin G. Kruse, Paul, The Law, and Justification (Peabody, MS: Hendrickson, 1996); Thomas R. Schreiner, The Law and Its Fulfillment: A Pauline Theology of Law (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1993); Frank Theilman, Paul & the Law: A Contextual Approach (Downers Grove, IL: Intervarsity, 1994); Mark A. Seifrid, Christ, our Righteousness: Paul’s Theology of Justification (Downers Grove, IL: Intervarsity, 2000); and Stephen Westerholm, Israel’s Law and the Church’s Faith (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1998).

4. E. P. Sanders, Paul and Palestinian Judaism (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1997), p. 431, expresses the consensus: “I take the sources for studying Paul to be the seven letters whose authenticity is unquestioned: Romans, I and II Corinthians, Galatians, Philippians, I Thessalonians and Philemon.”

5. What Saint Paul Really Said, p. 115.

6. Paul and Palestinian Judaism, p. 426. One significant weakness in Sanders’ approach is evident from this comment. The literature of Second Temple Judaism is no doubt a principal source for ascertaining its religious practice and teaching. However, what is represented in the literature may differ from what was the case in practice. The proverbial “man in the pew” often subscribes to a pattern of religion rather different from that formally expressed in the literature of his tradition. For our purpose this means that, even were the literature of Second Temple Judaism devoid of any “legalism” or legalistic teaching, legalism may well still characterize the actual practice of segments of the Jewish community.

7. It is interesting that this comment of Sanders relates to the subject of the profile of the Pharisees in the New Testament. Though there is virtually no significant literary evidence that would help to identify Pharisaism in the first century (Josephus is the best source, though he writes as a defender of a party within Pharisaism), there is rather ample New Testament literary evidence regarding them. It is difficult to suppress the impression that the New Testament evidence, because it paints a rather unflattering picture of the Pharisees, constitutes something of an obstacle to Sanders’ claims regarding the nature of Second Temple Judaism. For an excellent discussion of the subject of historical reconstruction in New Testament studies, see Moisés Silva, “The Place of Historical Reconstruction in New Testament Criticism” (in Hermeneutics, Authority, and Canon, D. A. Carson and John D. Woodbridge, eds. [Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1986], pp. 109–33. Silva offers a helpful discussion of the Pharisees and rightly notes that their “relaxation” of the requirements of God’s law could encourage a kind of legalism in which one’s standing with God is partly based upon moral achievement.

Dr. Cornel Venema is the President of Mid-America Reformed Seminary where he also teaches Doctrinal Studies. Dr. Venema is a contributing editor to The Outlook.