Evaluating the New Perspective on Paul A Final Question Regarding Sanders’View of Second Temple Judaism

Is there a distinction between Old Testament and Second Temple Judaism?

A final question that needs to be addressed to the new perspective’s treatment of Second Temple Judaism relates to the distinction between Old Testament and Second Temple Judaism. Does the new perspective adequately take into account the difference between the teaching of the Old Testament and the kind of religious practice that characterized the Judaism of the first century AD?

One of the claims of writers of the new perspective is that the Reformational reading of the apostle Paul fails to recognize the important continuities between Paul’s understanding of the gospel and Judaism. According to the new perspective, Paul did not repudiate Judaism when he became an apostle of Christ. Rather, Paul’s teaching and understanding of the gospel are in significant continuity with his Jewish background. By drawing a sharp contrast between the “law” and the “gospel,” the Reformation (especially Luther) failed to appreciate the extent to which Paul viewed the gospel of Christ as the “end” or “fulfillment” of the law.1 The Reformation interpreted Paul’s doctrine of justification by faith apart from works as though it were a “new” teaching that was unknown to Judaism. However, the new perspective argues that Paul’s teaching was in more substantial continuity with Judaism than the Reformation perspective allows. By drawing a sharp contrast between law and gospel, the Reformation failed to recognize the important similarities between Judaism and Paul’s understanding of the gospel. Whereas the apostle Paul viewed the gospel of Christ as a fulfillment of the law and Judaism, the Reformational understanding of justification encourages a reading of Scripture that does not do justice to the Old Testament background of Paul’s writings.

Though this is a complicated subject that we will take up again in our consideration of Paul’s teaching on the doctrine of justification, one of the weaknesses of the new perspective at this point is its failure at times to bear in mind that there are at least two distinct ways in which we may speak of Judaism. When the apostle Paul’s relationship to Judaism is considered, it is important to remember that his opposition to a particular form of Judaism in the first century is not tantamount to an opposition to Judaism as such. Nor does it require the conclusion that Paul taught a conflict between the gospel of Christ and the teaching of the Old Testament (Judaism).2 The Reformational view that Paul opposed a form of Jewish-Christian legalism does not mean that his teaching was somehow at odds with the teaching of the Old Testament. In the Reformational understanding, the apostle Paul was combating a distortion of the Old Testament’s teaching, when he confronted those who insisted upon obedience to certain requirements of the law as a basis for acceptance with God. Paul’s opposition to the Judaizers, in other words, was an opposition against a contemporary distortion of the teaching of the Old Testament, not to Judaism as such.



If this distinction between Old Testament and Second Temple Judaism is borne in mind, the new perspective’s claim that the Reformation failed to consider fully the continuity between Paul’s gospel and the teaching of Judaism is placed in a different light. The problem with Judaism, so far as the Reformational view of justification is concerned, was not with Judaism itself (and certainly not with the Old Testament). Rather, the problem with the Judaizers whom the apostle Paul resisted was that they had perverted the grace of God into a means of self-justification. Or, to put the matter in the language of Paul’s epistle to the Galatians, the Judaizers had failed to reckon with the truth that the promise of the gospel predated the giving of the (Mosaic) law by some 430 years (compare Gal. 3:17–18).


By raising these questions regarding the new perspective’s understanding of Second Temple Judaism, I do not mean to suggest that we can adequately evaluate the new perspective without also considering the writings of the apostle Paul. The most important measure, as we have noted previously, of the new perspective is the teaching of the apostle Paul himself, as this is set forth in his New Testament epistles. Consequently, the remainder of our evaluation of the new perspective in subsequent articles will be occupied with a direct treatment of the apostle Paul’s writings and understanding of the doctrine of justification. However, these questions do raise serious doubts regarding the bold claims of writers of the new perspective. Whether we need a revolution in our understanding of the apostle Paul’s doctrine of justification remains to be seen. Nothing in the new perspective’s interpretation of Second Temple Judaism, however, seems in itself sufficient to establish this need. For that to be the case, the new perspective would not only have to show that Second Temple Judaism was devoid of any “legalistic” emphasis upon salvation by works. It would also have to show why its entanglements with contemporary cultural and social interests do not warrant the observation that the new perspective is as much a product of the present theological climate as was the Reformational perspective.


  1. Cf. Dunn, The Theology of Paul the Apostle, pp. 368–71.
  2. A key to understanding Paul’s contrast between the “law” and the “gospel,” as we shall see in a subsequent article, lies in the recognition that he sometimes uses the language of “law” to refer to the Old Testament Scriptures or the Mosaic administration of the covenant as whole, and sometimes to refer more narrowly to the commandments and obligations of the law.

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.