Paul, the Law, and the New Perspective

Since the 1980s, a movement called the New Perspective on Paul has been a rising star in Biblical studies and Pauline scholarship. The movement primarily started through the writings of E.P. Sanders’ 1977 Paul and Palestinian Judaism as he explored the Second Temple Jewish texts and reexamined what they said regarding the Law of God, although the phrase was coined by James D.G. Dunn. It has been influential in Pauline studies, especially in the works of James D.G. Dunn and N.T. Wright, among others.

The basic thesis of Sanders was that first century Jewish did not think of themselves as obeying the Law to “earn their salvation” and “merit favor with God.” Rather, they saw themselves as responding to God’s covenant. They saw themselves as elect and in the covenant of God and therefore responding to His work. Sanders coined the term “covenantal nomism.” The primary issue was a new understanding of the Judaism of Paul’s day that caused interpreters to reevaluate how we understand Paul, particularly the role of the Law and the phrase “works of the Law.”

One of the key features of the New Perspective on Paul has been to speak of the Law as “boundary markers” for the first century Jew. They have pointed to the sociological function that the Law played. For example, Jews did not eat with Gentiles. They saw the Law as setting them apart. Anyone who has read Gal. 2 or Eph. 2:11ff can recognize this point. However, this leads some of the adherents of the New Perspective on Paul to deny that Paul confronted any sort of works righteousness.

The argument goes like this: Jews believed the Law was given by God because of his covenant grace. For them, obeying the Law was a response to God and they did not see themselves as “earning favor”. Thus, we must redefine what Paul means when he says “Law” and “Works of the Law.”

First, it is worth pointing out that not every adherent to the “New Perspective on Paul” interprets Paul in exactly the same way. There is debate amongst adherents. Some might say there is not one “New Perspective on Paul” but new perspectives. Nevertheless, there are common trends.

Second, in some ways, E.P. Sanders and others were responding to aspects of German scholarship, in part coming out of the tradition of Rudolph Bultmann and others, who in their works were hostile to Judaism and portrayed certain caricatures. There was in some circles a minimizing of categories of redemptive history which some adherents of the New Perspective have tried in their own way to return to pride of place.

Finally, Christians should not be afraid of reading First Century historical documents. We need to be honest and admit that the early Reformers did not have the resources and documents that we have today. Understanding of the context of the New Testament may sharpen our interpretation. We can also be honest and say that first century Judaism is not the same thing as medieval Roman Catholicism. This does not mean we have to reject the Reformation, or turn away from justification by faith alone. As Paul would say “May it never be!”

Let us offer a few brief responses.

First, Paul does not speak simply against works of the Law but he speaks also against “works” (Eph. 2:8-9; Titus 3:5-6). When he speaks of Abraham he contrasts the one who works with the one who trusts God who justifies the ungodly. Works of the Law in the broadest sense are acts done in response to and in obedience to God. The issue of doing works of the Law is not one of intent—the most legalistic person still often thinks they are honoring God and responding to the good things He has said. The issue is: from what do you derive your standing before a Holy God?

Second, Second Temple Judaism is not monolithic. Different documents have different emphases and points. We know from Josephus and even the gospels there are different sects within the Judaism of Paul’s day. While some documents speak of the faithful looking forward to God acting and even trusting that he would act, that does not mean there was not “legalism”. For example, while Paul sees Abraham as the prime example of the one who trusted God, 1 Maccabees 2:52 sees Abraham as the example of faithfulness: “Was not Abraham found faithful when tested, and it was reckoned to him as righteousness?” No! It was not faithfulness that God counted as righteousness.

Another example, in 2 Baruch describes the one who passes judgement as those who will “see the reward laid up for those who have trusted the covenants of the Most High” (4 Ezra 7:83). But he also describes them as those who “have a treasure of works laid up” (4 Ezra 7:77) and those who “laboriously served the Most High, and withstood danger every hour, that they might keep the Law of the Lawgiver perfectly…they have striven with great effort to overcome the evil thought which was formed with them, that it might not lead them astray” (4 Ezra 7:89). This may be in a “covenantal” context but it is safe to say it not using or understanding the covenant the way the Bible does. In other words, we can fairly say a Jewish person might have seen God as good and gracious, but that does not mean they did not wrongly conceive God’s grace.

The issue of the New Perspective on Paul is hardly settled even within the field of Pauline Studies. For example, Simon Gathercole has shown that Jews in Paul’s day did boast in the Law and their ability to use it. There was an anticipation that Torah/Law keeping would be vindicated in the last day (Gathercole 2002: 91-111). More recently, Preston Sprinkle as examined the issue of divine and human agency in Paul and Judaism. Just because we can find a concept of divinely empowered obedience in Judaism and divinely empowered obedience in the NT, does not mean they were referring to the same thing in the same way (Sprinkle 2013: 192-203). As Stephen Westerholm puts it “we do Judaism neither justice nor favor when we claim it preached ‘good’ Protestant doctrine on the subject of grace and works” (Westerholm 2004: 351).

What does this mean for the “person in the pew”? Most of us will not become Pauline scholars so is this irrelevant to us? Is it just a scholastic debate? No, it is not. We can acknowledge that First Century Judaism was complex and they did not just say “earn your salvation” but neither did all medieval Catholics. If we can use an analogy, even the Council of Trent rejects pure merit and holds a concept of “grace.” It does not mean its Biblical since for we cooperate with grace to bring it into us. But isn’t this precisely what Paul rejects? I can’t cooperate with grace. I do not bring grace nearer because of my response. I do not stand before God’s judgement and receive justification because I cooperated with God. Paul, like us, was overwhelmed by the grace of God as God had shown the light of Christ into his heart (2 Cor. 4:4, 6). Suddenly, we understand that even though the Law was a good gift, no amount of our responding to the gift of the Law will bring us into a right standing with God. The Law may mark out what faithfulness looks like, but the problem is none of us are sufficiently faithful to God.

At the end of the day, the Reformation and key doctrines like justification by faith alone, salvation in Christ alone by grace alone are not overturned. As Stephen Westerholm has said “students who want to understand Paul but feel they have nothing to learn from a Martin Luther should consider a career in metallurgy” (Westerholm 1988: 173).



Simon J. Gathercole, Where is Boasting? Early Jewish Soteriology and Paul’s Response in Romans 1-5. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2002.

Preston M. Sprinkle. Paul & Judaism Revisited: A Study of Divine and Human Agency in Salvation. Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2013.

Stephen Westerholm, Israel's Law and the Church's Faith: Paul and His Recent Interpreters, Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1988.

Stephen Westerholm, Perspectives Old and New on Paul: The "Lutheran" Paul and His Critics. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2004.

Tim Bertolet is a graduate of Lancaster Bible College and Westminster Theological Seminary. He is an ordained pastor in the Bible Fellowship Church, currently serving as pastor of Faith Bible Fellowship Church in York, Pa. He is a husband and father of four daughters. You can follow him on Twitter @tim_bertolet.


Tim Bertolet