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A Question of Categories

Over on the Huffington Post, filmmaker Robert Orlando has posted his most recent comments related to his film A Polite Bribe: An Apostle’s Final Bid. I posted my reflections of the documentary after the 2012 showing in Chicago here.

In his post, Orlando writes about both the traditional Lutheran interpretation of Paul and the “necessary” and “overdue correction” of the new perspective on Paul, but goes on to provide his own critique of the new perspective. Unfortunately, his description of the new perspective is a little too broad, mixing together elements of the new perspective on Paul with the more recently defined perspective of Paul Within Judaism. He describes the new perspective with three broad brush strokes, writing that the new perspective proposed that:

a) Paul remained a practicing Jew, and was not a convert to a new religion,

b) that his mission was not to Jews, but to Gentiles only, and

c) that his fiercest statements against Jewish practices were not for the Jewish religion, but for fellow Jewish Apostles, who would impose their religion on Gentiles.

However, only the third point can consistently be said of the new perspective on Paul; the first two statements can more accurately be said of Paul Within Judaism, since proponents of the new perspective on Paul, though often preferring to describe Paul’s experience in terms of “calling” rather than “conversion,” typically do not argue that Paul remained a practicing Jew whose mission was to Gentiles only.

This category mistake is entirely understandable, given that until recently the Jewish and Christian scholars working from the perspective of Paul Within Judaism have tended to be grouped together under the rubric of the new perspective on Paul. One early attempt to articulate the demarcation can be seen in Pamela Eisenbaum’s book Paul Was Not a Christian: The Original Message of a Misunderstood Apostle, in which she used the term “a radical new perspective.” However, in the more recent anthology from Fortress Press, the scholars working from this perspective have decisively articulated their position as Paul Within Judaism.

In the remainder of Orlando’s essay, he argues that “it is reality, simply put, that Paul’s conversion was indeed a move away from Judaism.” In this, Orlando’s approach aligns rather cogently with that of James D. Tabor; its sharp distinction between Paul and Judaism is in some ways more reflective of the old perspective. And whereas I largely agree with Orlando’s and Tabor’s dramatic, compelling description of the rift between Paul and the Jerusalem apostles (a somewhat embarrassing historical fact for the church), that doesn’t mean that Paul’s positions must be understood as over against those of Judaism per se. Clearly Paul’s letters were increasingly interpreted in that way as Christianity developed and defined itself over against Judaism, but the key question is when that parting of the ways actually happened.

Mark M. Mattison

Latest Update

Added a link to John M.G. Barclay’s review of Paul and the Faithfulness of God by N.T. Wright in the Scottish Journal of Theology to the Book Reviews section under The New Perspective on Paul: Around the Web and updated the link to Douglas Moo’s review as well.

Paul Within Judaism: Restoring the First-Century Context to the Apostle

Book Review

Mark D. Nanos and Magnus Zetterholm, eds., Fortress, 2015, 360 pp.

James D.G. Dunn’s 1982 Manson Memorial lecture, “The New Perspective on Paul,” was originally intended to describe a paradigm shift in Pauline studies triggered by E.P. Sanders’ 1979 book Paul and Palestinian Judaism. In his lecture, Dunn embraced Sanders’ recognition that the traditional Christian caricature of Judaism as a religion of legalism is a gross distortion (a recognition now shared broadly by Pauline scholars, with the exception of some committed to preserving older Christian interpretations). The title of Dunn’s lecture quickly became the catchphrase for a generation of biblical scholars’ attempts to reconstruct a more historically plausible Paul whose doctrine of justification by faith must have been something other than a polemic against a presumably legalistic Judaism.

More recent developments in Pauline studies have included increased consideration of his rhetoric in the light of Roman imperialism (often described more simply as “Paul and Empire”) and the increasingly better defined interpretative approach to Paul completely within the context of second-Temple Judaism. Once considered more broadly under the rubric of “the new perspective,” these scholars have struggled to delineate their unique perspective in a variety of ways. Pamela Eisenbaum early on suggested “a radical new perspective,”1 which tried to convey the idea of moving even further toward interpreting Paul in continuity with Judaism but which nevertheless was not much more descriptive than “the new perspective.” In 2010 these scholars presented at a Society of Biblical Literature session entitled “Paul and Judaism,” and shortly thereafter began to describe their perspective more helpfully as that of “Paul Within Judaism.” Most of these essays have now been published by Fortress Press under the title Paul Within Judaism: Restoring the First-Century Context to the Apostle, edited by Mark D. Nanos and Magnus Zetterholm.

And this new book is well-positioned to convey their unique approach to those who are less familiar with it.

In the introduction, Mark Nanos provides some context and an overview which is helpful overall (including some of the details above), but which could perhaps have benefited even more from a perfunctory description of the new perspective at the outset. However, the first essay, “Paul Within Judaism: The State of the Questions” by Magnus Zetterholm, quickly remedies this in a superlative historical overview of the evolution of anti-Jewishness in Christianity. What began as a political move by early Gentile Jesus-followers to legitimize their movement by claiming the heritage of Judaism while simultaneously denigrating Jews, Zetterholm points out, soon became a theological problem (pp. 37,38) which deepened throughout the history of the church (pp. 38-42) prior to the paradigm shift signaled by the work of E.P. Sanders (pp. 42-44). Zetterholm’s cursory description of the new perspective is good overall, although it repeats some popular overgeneralizations. For example, Zetterholm’s one-sentence summary of Sanders’ view, “In short: the problem with Judaism is that it is not Christianity” (p. 44) is an (unannotated) reference to probably the most famous sentence in Paul and Palestinian Judaism, “In short, this is what Paul finds wrong in Judaism: It is not Christianity” (p. 552), one of those statements that takes on a life of its own and compels its author to provide more nuanced qualification.2 Similarly, Zetterholm’s description of Dunn’s definition of “the works of the law” as “Jewish identity markers” (p. 45) may not fully preserve the nuance that Dunn has repeatedly tried to make since 1982.3 But given the brevity of his outline, Zetterholm’s lack of nuance is perhaps understandable; in its broad brush strokes, the description seems close enough.

As one final aside with respect to “the new perspective on Paul,” in his response essay in the current volume Terence L. Donaldson draws attention to statements by both Dunn and Wright suggesting that “the new perspective” moniker predated Dunn’s Manson Memorial Lecture (p. 278 n. 2); but hopefully it’s not too pedantic of me to note that the previous references in both Wright (1978) and Stendahl (1963) were simply to “a new perspective,” not “the new perspective on Paul” per se.

More to the point on the topic of terminology, the essay following Zetterholm’s fine introduction is Anders Runesson’s helpful “The Question of Terminology: The Architecture of Contemporary Discussions on Paul.” Runesson’s exercise in questioning the terms “Christian/Christianity” and “church” in Pauline scholarship (since, after all, “Christianity” as such did not yet exist in Paul’s day) is particularly effective in clearing the way for consideration of the new paradigm. His observation that even the NRSV, contrary to its usual translation of synagōgē, nevertheless renders it as “assembly” instead of “synagogue” in James 2:2 is instructive. Runesson also introduces a suggested term which he and Nanos are proposing to describe the early Jesus movement in Paul’s day: “Apostolic Judaism” (p. 67; cf. 121 n. 27).

An entirely different but no less useful exercise is taken up by Karin Hedner Zetterholm in the next essay, “The Question of Assumptions: Torah Observance in the First Century,” which considers Paul’s halakik instructions for Jesus-oriented Gentiles in 1 Corinthians 8-10 after describing by way of analogy the depth and diversity of contemporary Jewish understandings of Torah observance.

The next essay, Mark D. Nanos’ lengthy but nevertheless engaging “The Question of Conceptualization: Qualifying Paul’s Position on Circumcision in Dialogue with Josephus’s Advisors to King Izates,” thoroughly explores Josephus’ highly relevant narrative about God’s preservation of Izates who accepted circumcision as “the fruit of piety” toward God by monō pepisteukosin, “faith alone” (p. 123), though Nanos consistently uses the phrase “faith(fulness)” instead of “faith” throughout to emphasize that “faith” for Paul entailed more than simply “‘belief’ in contrast to action or deeds or works or effort” (p. 118, n. 23). “The work” or “the rite” (ton ergon) of circumcision for Izates was a matter of debate between Ananias, a Jewish merchant who advised against circumcision in the particular case of this foreign ruler (whereby he would “definitively” become “a Jew,” p. 110) and the Galilean Eleazar who urged circumcision precisely as an act of faith(fulness). Nanos’ essay effectively highlights the degree to which conflicting positions on circumcision for non-Jews has nothing whatever to do with the bifurcation of faith and deeds (cf. pp. 125ff). His essay goes on to provide helpful critiques of both the new perspective (including E.P. Sanders) and traditionalists in their essential conceptualization of Jewish texts in universalizing terms reflective of Christian theology (pp. 144-152). “In short,” Nanos writes, “it is a category error of significance to universalize Paul’s position against the circumcision of Christ-following non-Jews without distinguishing that special topic from the issue of the circumcision of sons born to Jews, Christ-followers or not, and then to compare that conclusion to other Jewish groups’ positions on the circumcision of Jews” (p. 151).

Caroline Johnson Hodge’s essay, “The Question of Identity: Gentiles as Gentiles – but also Not – in Pauline Communities,” also eschews the term “Christian” as anachronistic in Paul’s letters, but goes on to explore the perplexing ambiguity of the “kind of liminal space” that gentiles-in-Christ occupy in Paul’s thinking (p. 157). Exploring relevant texts in Josephus, Ezra, and Jubilees, she shows how Paul argues for the inclusion of these gentiles as “the seed of Abraham” without becoming Jews.

Paula Fredriksen’s essay, “The Question of Worship: Gods, Pagans, and the Redemption of Israel” presents a delightfully colorful depiction of just how deeply ingrained paganism was in Paul’s world: “It was impossible to live in a Greco-Roman city without living with its gods,” she writes; “This god-congested environment, civic and cosmic, was the matrix of Paul’s mission” (p. 177). Living in Diaspora cities required Jews to “negotiate between their own god’s demand for exclusive worship and the regular requirements of ancient Mediterranean friendship, loyalty, patronage/clientage, and citizenship wherever they lived” (p. 181). By discouraging pagans in the Jesus movement from becoming Jews, Paul radically challenged the stable social arrangements whereby only Jews were exempt from the obligations to honor the local gods (pp. 185-189). As in her recent JBL article,4 she argues that for Paul, the phrase dikaiōthentes ek pisteōs, commonly translated “justified by faith,” should more accurately be understood as the spiritual empowering of pagans to observe nine of the ten commandments; she points out that dikaoisynē, “justice,” was a way of denoting the Second Table of the Law (eusebeai, “piety,” denoting the First Table). Paul’s apocalyptic perspective, as seen in Romans 9-11, is what provides the context (pp. 194-201).

In his essay “The Question of Politics: Paul as a Diaspora Jew under Roman Rule,” Neil Elliott articulates with his usual clarity Paul’s imperial context without essentializing categories, critiquing in turn the work of Bruce J. Malina and John J. Pilch, Jörg Frey, and John M. G. Barclay. One critique that stands out in this essay is the following observation about the attraction of the new perspective on Paul:

This approach nevertheless has gained in its appeal to many contemporary interpreters, in part, I suspect, because it has the apparent advantage of absolving Paul of having misunderstood Judaism. To the contrary, on this view, Paul appears as something of a champion of modern multiculturalism and as an opponent of ethnic chauvinism or ethnocentrism (which was exemplified by his Jewish opponents). It is not surprising that this approach has proven popular in the United States and the United Kingdom, that is, in ethnically diverse, democratic societies where more liberal interpreters see a happy integration of different peoples as a paramount value.

This interpretation (and cultural appropriation) of Paul comes at a cost, however, as a number of critics have pointed out. It routinely portrays as characteristically Jewish a collective insistence on ethnic distinctiveness, sometimes in negative terms formerly used to describe the boastful, arrogant, self-justifying Jewish individual. As Thomas Deidun put it years ago, New Perspective efforts to rehabilitate Paul as an opponent of Jewish ethnocentrism allow “practically all the old Lutheran demons” of Jewish caricature “to return unabashed to the Judaism which Sanders had by all accounts meticulously swept and put in order.” Similar criticisms have been raised by Mark D. Nanos and Daniel Boyarin, among others (pp. 206,207).

The same point is just as effectively made in the next essay, Kathy Ehrensperger’s “The Question(s) of Gender: Relocating Paul in Relation to Judaism,” an outstanding critique from a feminist perspective. She writes about:

New Perspective on Paul approaches, which consider an ethnocentric version of Judaism to be the problem that Paul overcomes in Christ …. an evaluation of a “good” or “bad” Judaism is the basis for acknowledging some positive value to the Jewishness of Paul. The Christ-event is that which liberates either gentiles or women from the constraints of the “bad,” narrow Judaism” (pp. 247,248).

Ehrensperger’s essay focuses on the significance of Paul’s instructions with respect to women in worship in 1 Corinthians 11:2-16 and 14:33-36, locating a plausible context within Paul’s Jewish tradition. She writes that “Paul’s explicit references to women neither indicate his reactionary attitude nor his liberating stance; they cannot be attributed to some narrow or conservative Judaism or a liberating ‘in Christ’ stance respectively. They are merely practical guidance and understanding from within Jewish tradition and practice now applied to non-Jews who join with Israel to worship God as theirs also” (p. 259). Most importantly, she goes on to also address the problem of universalization (pp. 259-261) which problematizes the value of “differentiation within diversity” (p. 262), a point that she elaborates helpfully with insights from gender studies (pp. 267ff).

It’s worth noting that Nanos similarly problematizes the new persective’s purported contrast between Paul’s “universalizing” gospel and Judaism’s “particularizing” problem by what could be considered the self-evident differentiation that Paul makes between the ekklēsiai to which he is writing and other groups. He writes that:

What is attributed to Judaism as “wrong” in that approach is predicated on a logical necessity that is not only historically questionable but also based upon a premise that represents a double standard. That is, it makes no sense of Paul’s objection except if Paul is objecting to Jewishness per se. Why is that so? Because to be consistent, New Perspective proponents would have to admit that Paul found something inherently wrong with the essence of group identity itself. But how could that be maintained logically, since Paul was involved in creating a group that claimed to be set apart from all other groups? How could it be claimed that Paul was against ethnocentrism or badges of identity if Paul’s gospel is proclaimed to the nations in order to create groups gathering together (ekklēsiai) that consist of people from Israel and people from the other nations (ethnē) who are set apart by and to God by way of faith in/of Christ? But if Paul is only against group identity when Jewish measures of identity are valued positively, not to claims of group identity per se or when “Christian” measures of identity are valued positively, that only reinforces the traditional negative caricatures, mutatis mutandis, to which the New Perspective interpreters otherwise claim to object, and that they seem to believe that their approaches have overcome (pp. 7,8).

In light of the many overlapping points made by these various contributors, it is highly appropriate that an invitation was extended to Terence L. Donaldson to provide a thoughtful response in “Paul within Judaism: A Critical Evaluation from a ‘New Perspective’ Perspective.” In his response, Donaldson accurately pinpoints a common theme throughout the volume’s essays: the eschatological inclusion of the ethnē, an emphasis on Jewish restoration eschatology also indicated by Nanos’ proposed terminology of a “chronometrical” claim “to indicate that Paul’s position on what is appropriate within Judaism for Christ-followers is specifically related to his conviction that the awaited age has dawned already within the present age, this requiring some adjustments to prevailing halakah” (p. 109). Donaldson questions the chronology for Paul’s thinking vis-à-vis Romans 11, which Nanos nuances in his introductory essay (pp. 25,26).

For my part, my main constructive criticism involves what I would consider the volume’s biggest “blind spot,” specifically, the contributors’ lack of attention to what may arguably be one of the most fundamental obstacles for many of us who are seeking to provide them a fair hearing: A sustained argument that though Paul’s letters were addressed to mixed communities that included Jews, nevertheless his primary audience was comprised of non-Jewish followers of Jesus, underscoring the argument that Paul’s discouragement of circumcision was specifically directed to Gentiles, not to Torah-observant Jews who would normally circumcise their male children. The assumption is liberally alluded to throughout the volume (cf. pp. 17, 23, 48, 115 n. 17, 134, 136, 145, 148-149, 153, 234, 250 n.15), but rarely explored, although pp. 156 and 185 n. 24 do cite some pertinent texts to support the position. Nevertheless, additional attention to articulating this assumption, I think, would have considerably improved the overall presentation of “Paul Within Judaism.”

Mark M. Mattison


1Cf. Paul Was Not a Christian: The Original Message of a Misunderstood Apostle (HarperCollins), 2009,pp. 250,251.

2Cf. E.P. Sanders, Paul, the Law, and the Jewish People (Fortress Press), 1983, pp. 154ff; 165ff n. 38.

3Cf., among many other instances, James D.G. Dunn, The New Perspective on Paul: Revised Edition (Eerdmans), 2008, pp. 23ff.

4Paula Fredriksen, “Paul’s Letter to the Romans, the Ten Commandments, and Pagan ‘Justification by Faith,’” Journal of Biblical Literature, Vol. 133, No. 4 (Winter 2014), pp. 801-888.

Latest Updates

Added the Festschrift to Douglas J. Moo edited by Matthew Harmon and Jay E. Smith, Studies in the Pauline Epistles: Essays in Honor of Douglas J. Moo, to the Bibliography under The New Perspective on Paul and Robert Orlando’s book Apostle Paul: A Polite Bribe, the companion book to his film, to the Bibliography under Paul and Empire.

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Added a link to the Horizons in Biblical Theology article “Spheres of Influence” in the Epistle to the Galatians by A. Chadwick Thornhill under the category Around the Web: From the  New Perspective.

Latest Update

Added Paul Within Judaism: Restoring the First-Century Context to the Apostle, ed. by Mark D. Nanos and Magnus Zetterholm, to the Bibliography of Paul Within Judaism.

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