The New Perspective on Paul The Contribution of E. P. Sanders (Part One)

In order to find our way through the thicket of literature on the new perspective on Paul, we must give special attention to the figure of E. P. Sanders. Even though Sanders was not the first to question the older, more traditional understanding of the teaching of the apostle Paul, his writings have become a kind of benchmark for the development of the new view. Figures like J. D. G. Dunn and T. F. Wright, whom we will consider in subsequent articles, have built significantly upon Sanders’ work. To the extent that we may properly speak of a new perspective, Sanders is the figure whose arguments dominate the debate and whose writings form a point of reference for the ongoing discussion. Though Dunn and Wright do not fully agree with Sanders on a number of points, as we shall see, their work is certainly dependent upon the pioneering labor of Sanders. Were it not for Sanders and his arguments for a new view of the apostle Paul’s understanding of the gospel, we would not be able to speak of something like a consensus or new perspective on Paul.



Important Forerunners to the New Perspective

Before considering Sanders position, however, it should be noted that Sanders work also stands in a longer line of revisionist treatment of the writings of the apostle Paul. In the orbit of New Testament studies in general and Pauline studies in particular, there has been a long history of debate regarding the accuracy of the Reformation’s understanding of the apostle Paul. Therefore, in order to appreciate Sanders’ contribution to the development of a new perspective, we need to consider briefly several more recent and important forerunners of his view.

Claude G. Montifiore

The first figure of note is the Jewish theologian Claude G. Montefiore. In a highly influential study written early in the twentieth century, Judaism and St. Paul: Two Essays,

Montefiore argued that the religion of Palestinian Judaism differed greatly from the picture of Judaism that emerges from the apostle Paul’s writings.1 Whereas Paul portrays the Judaizers as proponents of a joyless, legalistic religion, rabbinic Judaism of the first century “was a better, happier, and more noble religion than one might infer from the writings of the Apostle.”2 Based upon his study of rabbinic Judaism, Montefiore claimed that it was a religion that emphasized God’s mercy and love as much as His holiness. Rabbinic Judaism taught that God gave the law to His peculiar people, Israel, not that it might be a burden or means of salvation by works, but that it might be a means of life and blessing. Rather than a religion that encouraged pride and self-righteousness, rabbinic Judaism emphasized that Israel would inherit the blessings of the covenant through God’s grace and mercy. Furthermore, the religion of rabbinic Judaism made provision for God’s gracious atonement of the sins of His people, and emphasized the mercy of God in finally vindicating their cause. As a result of this new evaluation of the teaching of Palestinian Judaism, Montefiore concluded that the only feature of Judaism that conflicted with this generally positive outlook was its particularism or tendency to exclude non-Jews from the reach of God’s grace.

Though some aspects of Montefiore’s interpretation of rabbinic Judaism are not embraced by proponents of the new perspective, the general portrait of Judaism that he painted has become a significant element of the new approach to Paul. Few New Testament students today agree with Montefiore’s explanation of Paul’s assessment of Judaism, namely, that Paul was not a rabbinic Jew before his conversion but a member of diaspora Judaism, whose religion was of a distinctly more legalistic or graceless cast. However, many believe that Montefiore successfully refuted the traditional view of Judaism, and demonstrated the importance of a proper understanding of first-century Judaism to a new interpretation of the New Testament.

George Foot Moore

A second figure whose studies of Judaism have played an important role in the emergence of the new perspective on Paul, is George Foot Moore, an American rabbinics scholar. Moore, in a substantial and oft-quoted article in the Harvard Theological Review, argued that the traditional Christian interpretation of Judaism was largely distorted by polemical interests.3 Rather than providing an accurate and fair assessment of Judaism, most traditional views were improperly shaped by the desire to enhance some feature of Christian teaching on the one hand, and to refute Judaism on the other. As a result, Moore maintained, Judaism was largely misunderstood by the Christian theological tradition.

Moore’s study of Judaism served two purposes, both of which are evident in the new perspective. One purpose was to view Judaism in its own right, and not in terms of the distinctive themes of Christian theology. The other purpose was to refute the distortion of Judaism in traditional Protestant theology. Rather than viewing Judaism through the lens of the New Testament letters of the apostle Paul, Moore insisted that Judaism deserved to be an independent subject of study. Such an independent study of Judaism sheds as much light upon the New Testament as the New Testament sheds upon Judaism. Instead of taking the New Testament’s account of Judaism as our standard, we must view Judaism from a historical perspective, seeking to discover its character without the bias or influence of Christian interests. Since the time of the Protestant Reformation, the theological bias of interpreters has often distorted their view of Judaism.

Much of the study, for example, of Paul’s writings, has served to support the Protestant, and especially Lutheran, polemic against Roman Catholicism’s legalism. In this study, Roman Catholicism is regarded as little more than a later expression of the same legalistic religion that characterized Judaism at the time of the writing of the New Testament. Judaism is not viewed from the standpoint of its own witnesses. Rather, Judaism serves as a kind of “whipping boy” for the typical Protestant criticism of any religion that views obedience to the law as the means of finding favor with God. In Moore’s study, as in Montefiore’s before him, this approach is strongly rejected.

Albert Schweitzer

Unlike Montefiore and Foote, the next figure of note, Albert Schweitzer, represents a tendency in New Testament studies to question the centrality of the doctrine of justification in Paul’s understanding of the gospel. With the two previous writers we have considered, Montefiore and Moore, the primary emphasis is upon a new and revised understanding of Judaism. Schweitzer represents a different emphasis. Whatever our interpretation of Judaism, Schweitzer illustrates a trend in biblical studies that calls into question the Reformation’s insistence that justification was the center of Paul’s religious thought. Contrary to Luther and Calvin’s opinion that the gospel is principally a message about the sinner’s free acceptance with God on account of the righteousness of Christ (and not the righteousness of works performed in obedience to the law), Schweitzer and others argue that this is at best a secondary feature of the gospel.

In his book The Mysticism of Paul the Apostle, Schweitzer maintained that Paul’s primary emphasis was upon the believer’s union with Christ.4 With the coming of Christ, the law no longer remains in force as before. Though Paul argued for a kind of status quo position on the role of the law—it remains to be observed by Jews who become Christians, but it has no binding force for Gentiles—his real concern lies, not with observance or non-observance of the requirements of the law, but with the believer’s salvation through mystical union with the crucified and risen Christ. Within the context of Paul’s primary emphasis upon union with Christ, the problem of justification is really only a minor and subordinate one. Justification solves the issue of how Gentiles could be members of Christ without having to obey the requirements of the law. But it plays no other role. Consequently, Schweitzer concluded that “the doctrine of righteousness by faith is a therefore a subsidiary crater [in Paul’s thought], which has formed within the rim of the main crater—the mystical doctrine of redemption through the being-inChrist.”

Krister Stendahl

The last figure who deserves mention is Krister Stendahl. Though a theologian in the Lutheran tradition, Stendahl has played a significant role in questioning the traditional Reformation conviction that the apostle Paul’s thought was dominated by the doctrine of justification. In a highly influential article, “Paul and the Introspective Conscience of the West,” Stendahl challenged the entire western tradition’s reading of the apostle Paul.6 According to Stendahl, this tradition, beginning with Augustine through Luther and Calvin and including the work of many Protestant scholars to the present day, has misread Paul as though he developed his doctrine of justification to solve the problem of his troubled conscience. In this traditional reading of Paul, Luther’s struggle with a stricken conscience before God, which was born of his awareness that he could never keep the law perfectly enough to assure himself of God’s favor, justification answers the problem or predicament of human sin. No one can find justification or acceptance with God on the basis of works performed in obedience to the law. Paul’s doctrine of justification, in this traditional understanding, is the pivot or center of his teaching. Justification, which is the chief article of the Christian faith, reassures anxious and stricken consciences that there is acceptance with God, not on the basis of the works of the law, but on the basis of Christ’s perfect righteousness.

Stendahl argues that this is a basic misreading of Paul’s writings: “Where Paul was concerned about the possibility for Gentiles to be included in the messianic community, his statements are now read as answers to the quest for assurance about man’s salvation out of a common human predicament.”7 The Western tradition, and particularly its Protestant expression, has wrongly read the apostle Paul through the experience of those who are grappling with the problem of finding assurance of God’s favor in the face of the reality of human sin and brokenness. This tradition reads Paul’s account of the doctrine of justification, accordingly, not as Paul intended it, but as the experience of an introspective conscience requires. In Stendahl’s reading of Paul, however, the apostle exhibited little or no unease of conscience before God. As a matter of fact, Stendahl insists, Paul had a robust and confident conscience before God, and exhibits little or none of the anxiety about human salvation from sin that has characterized the western view of salvation. When Paul spoke of justification, therefore, he as not attempting to solve the problem of an uneasy conscience, but to account for how Gentiles are included with Jews among the people of God.


I have taken the trouble to consider briefly these forerunners of the new perspective, since they are characteristic of developments in New Testament and Pauline studies that form the background to the work of E. P. Sanders and other leading proponents of the new view. Though Sanders is undoubtedly the leading figure in the formation of a new perspective on Paul, he has acknowledged his indebtedness to the pioneering work of others. Sanders’ own argument against the older view of Judaism, together with its implications for an interpretation of Paul’s understanding of the gospel, builds upon what might be regarded as a significantly new tradition of Pauline studies.

When we consider Sanders’ contribution to the new perspective in our next article, it will be evident that he stands in the line of those who believe the traditional Protestant view of Paul’s gospel is mistaken. This view is mistaken in part because it is based upon a misreading or misunderstanding of the nature of Palestinian Judaism. Contrary to the claim of many Protestant interpreters, Judaism, at the time of the writing of the New Testament, was not a legalistic religion that taught salvation by works rather than faith. Judaism was a religion marked by clear emphasis upon God’s grace and electing initiative in the salvation of his people, Israel. But this view is also mistaken in its interpretation of the importance and meaning of Paul’s understanding of justification. Justification was neither the central point in Paul’s understanding of the gospel nor the answer to the problem of legalism. Justification, so far as it plays a role in Paul’s understanding of the gospel, was a subordinate theme. The theme of justification in Paul’s thought was only aimed at explaining how in the new covenant Gentiles are also now included among the number of God’s covenant people.


1 London: Max Goschen, 1914. 2 Judaism and St. Paul, p. 87. 3 “Christian Writers on Judaism,” Harvard Theological Review (1921), pp. 197–254. 4 London: A. and C. Black, 1931. 5 The Mysticism of Paul the Apostle, p. 225. 6 In Paul Among Jews and Gentiles and Other Essays (London: SCM, 1977), pp. 78–96. 7“Paul and the Introspective Conscience,” p. 86.

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.