The New Perspective on Paul

Over the last three decades, a revolutionary breakthrough in New Testament scholarship has been rocking the academic Christian world. The scholars at the forefront of the revolution — E.P. Sanders, James D.G. Dunn, N.T. Wright, and others — have been pioneering a new approach to the letters of the first-century apostle to the Gentiles, Paul of Tarsus.

These Protestants are engaging first-century Judaism on its own terms, not in the context of the Protestant-Catholic debates of the sixteenth century. The result: A new historical perspective on the meaning of Paul’s polemic against the Judaizers which occupies so much of his recorded correspondence.

What is this new perspective? At its core is the recognition that Judaism is not a religion of self-righteousness whereby humankind seeks to merit salvation before God. Paul’s argument with the Judaizers was not about Christian grace versus Jewish legalism. His argument was rather about the status of Gentiles in the church. Paul’s doctrine of justification, therefore, had far more to do with Jewish-Gentile issues than with questions of the individual’s status before God.

This new perspective on Paul promises to help us:

  • Better understand Paul and the early church;
  • Reconcile contemporary biblical scholarship with theology;
  • Build common ground between Catholics and Protestants;
  • Improve dialogue between Christians and Jews; and
  • Flesh out a theological foundation for social justice.

To explore this issue further, we recommend especially the following articles.
The New Perspective on Paul by James D.G. Dunn is the 1982 Manson Memorial Lecture in which Dunn coined the phrase “the new perspective on Paul.” (Added 12/17/07) Now available for the first time in Portuguese as A Nova Perspective Sobre Paulo, translated by Edson Luis. Available in PDF format.

The Shape of Justification by N.T. Wright. This eloquent response to Paul Barnett also addresses the most serious criticisms of a variety of authors. (Updated 2/7/02) Also available as El estado de la justificación, traducido por Eva Navarro Estrada, revisado por Jonathan Navarro Estrada (added 5/26/05) and in HTML format here. (Link added 2/22/06)

For more, see the articles and book reviews From The Paul Page.