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paul

The “New Perspective On Paul” and Why It Matters

The so-called “new perspective on Paul” is hardly new, being a product of the twentieth century, but it is still proving deeply influential in some circles and intensely divisive in others. In this post I want to briefly explain the “new perspective” and why I think it’s an important debate with some deep stakes.

The perspective has evolved over time, to be sure. Its original conceptions by authors like Krister Stendahl and E.P. Sanders have been largely left behind but its fundamental idea has endured. Today the most famous proponent of what he calls a “fresh perspective on Paul” is former Anglican Bishop N.T. Wright, who has written more pages on Paul in the last few decades than most theologians do in a lifetime. Those pages have been the gateway to the new perspective for many American students of Bible and theology. (Wright himself has become a divisive figure because of this. A Calvinist seminary professor saw me with one of Wright’s books on Paul and warned me to “be careful with that guy.”)

What is the “New Perspective”?

The fundamental question addressed by the new perspective is how to read the writings of Paul. As in, what was that guy even talking about? The “old” or traditional perspective is informed by the theological interpretation of the Protestant Reformers, themselves heavily influenced by the Augustinian grace-vs.-law tradition. According to the old perspective, Paul’s letters are primarily concerned with the pursuit of “salvation by grace not works,” whereby Christians are declared righteous and worthy of heavenly reward because of their faith in Jesus rather than their own good deeds and virtue. Indeed, for millions of Christians this isn’t a “perspective” at all, it’s the plain truth. It’s “the gospel.”

The new perspective rereads Paul with a renewed emphasis on his personal and cultural context. That is, his Jewish context. It recognizes that Paul was not a proto-Protestant writing textbooks for future Protestants, that he was a Jewish Christian apostle in the first century writing letters to Jewish and Gentile Christians in a network of first century church communities. As such, he is not chiefly concerned with abstract philosophical matters like the legalities of sin guilt or soul salvation, but with the practical experiences and crises of his congregations. And perhaps the most pressing issue facing Paul and his churches, according to his own writing, was the day-to-day challenges of Jewish and Greek Christians attempting to live together in the same community (the “covenant community” in Wright’s language).

According to the new perspective, “justification by faith” is not about legalism, judgment day, and how one might enter the gates of heaven. It’s about who might call themselves members of the covenant family and on what basis. Is it by “works of law,” by obeying Torah or being circumcised or keeping kosher? This would (and did) put the Jewish Christians at a steep advantage over the Gentiles in their midst. Paul emphatically says no, everyone who comes to church belongs there because of what Jesus has done, not because of anything they have done or not done. Paul is not against “good works” in general as if they disqualified one from God’s salvation, indeed he teaches ethics and love (radical, egalitarian love!). It’s just that no one in this community ought to think themselves a more authentic child of God than anyone else based on their observance of customs.

This shines a new light onto all of Paul’s authentic writings and how we read and interact with them. Not that they become meaningless or irrelevant to modern Protestants and other Christians, but that their true meaning is far more grounded in Paul’s ancient Jewishness than our traditions have been interested to acknowledge.

So What? This is Boring. You’re Boring.

I understand that this is a potentially boring and narrow debate. Something for the theology nerds. An internal matter for Protestants. But here’s why I think this matters so much: This is ultimately a debate about history, about how much we are willing to allow history and culture to inform and correct our reading of religious texts. The public squabble between John Piper and N.T. Wright over the issue of justification exposed this subtext in a major way.

In 2007 Piper wrote an entire book in response to N.T. Wright’s “fresh perspective” called The Future of Justification. In it he vehemently repudiated Wright’s understanding of Paul, based not on an alternate interpretation of the historical background, but on his own pastoral intuition, specifically his own distaste for historical backgrounds. Piper goes so far as to suggest that teaching history in church will only “confuse” and muddle people who need to believe in the old perspective for their own good.

Piper’s mindset is shockingly myopic and anti-intellectual. Dismissal of historical perspective as an unwelcome and even dangerous distraction from doctrinal correctness reveals an obtuse and possibly nefarious desire to keep church laypeople in the dark. It is one thing to disagree on the analysis of history, it is quite another to bury one’s head in the sand and hope it just goes away. Also, in eschewing the good and important work done by historians in recreating the world of second temple Judaism, and by actively choosing to remove Paul from that milieu, figures like Piper risk perpetuating the anti-semitic undertones of the classical grace vs. law doctrines.

It’s OK to Learn Something New

I understand that it is scary to even consider rethinking such fundamental assumptions and beliefs. But it can also be liberating and good. I am not especially interested in the “new perspective” as a movement or a label, but I welcome any opportunity for a refreshed and enlarged perspective on history and the Bible. After all, if we’re so afraid that a glimpse of history might confuse or ruin the ideas we’ve got, maybe they’re not quite as good as we think?

Combined with a refreshed vision of the context and message of Jesus in the gospels, a renewed perspective on Paul offers us an invaluable opportunity to rediscover aspects of ancient Christianity which have perhaps been obscured by our traditions. The insights of the Reformers are valuable, of course, but it would be a shame to permanently tether our understanding of Jesus, Paul, and Bible in what is ultimately an arbitrary point in fairly recent western history. Maybe we are due for our own reformation, one which takes us back to the future of Christianity, so to speak.

Because what is true in politics, war, and culture is also true in religion: we can’t afford to shut our ears to what history has to tell us.

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When Scholarship Reveals Jesus

fall of jerusalemPopular Christianity taught me to be dubious and careful in regard to scholarship. Liberals and atheists are crouching everywhere, I was told, waiting to undermine my faith with science and reason. Some evangelicals welcome a modicum of safe, authorized scholarship to provide “background” for Bible reading, but as a rule modern scientific criticism is to be avoided and even combatted when necessary. And by far the greatest scholarly boogeymen are the “Jesus scholars,” those professors and researchers who have made their careers exploring the historical imprint left by Jesus of Nazareth. They present the greatest danger, we are told, because they want to deny Jesus’ miracles and divinity, and convince us that he was “just a man,” a guru not a savior.

For my part I’ve learned that scholarship – balanced, diverse, and collaborative – can actually help to correct and deepen faith. When we push past the false dichotomy of “faith vs. scholarship,” we enter into an ongoing and fruitful conversation between smart and helpful people across all kinds of disciplines and perspectives. If we filter out the voices of scholars because we’re afraid of what they might say, it says more about us than it does about the scholars. And when it comes to Jesus scholarship, I think Christians put themselves at a serious disadvantage by shutting it out. In the context of their discipline, most Jesus scholars are not on a mission to deny or debunk anything about Jesus, they are simply committed to exploring the historically explorable aspects of Jesus and his life. I want to briefly demonstrate how their work can add startling dimension to our understanding of who Jesus was and is.

What Scholarship Says About Jesus

For the purposes of this post I want to focus on one aspect of Jesus scholarship, namely what it has to say about Jesus’ teaching. Even more precisely, what it says about the “Olivet Discourse,” the apocalyptic prophecy delivered by Jesus to his followers shortly before his death (recorded with variations in Matthew 24, Mark 13, and Luke 21). Dense and cryptic compared with his ethical sayings, Jesus’ words in the Olivet have been a source of debate, distraction, and confusion for Christians of many stripes. Given its intensity and the eschatological fervor it has inspired, conservative believers might expect scholars to downplay Jesus’ “little apocalypse” in favor of his more palatable teachings about peace and brotherly love.

However, this is not the case. In fact, scholarly consensus identifies the apocalyptic sayings of Jesus as the authentic kernel of his public ministry. And while Christians may not need scholars to tell them what Jesus did or didn’t really say, consider what this tells us about the scholars and their willingness to draw conclusions apart from bias or agenda. Far from reducing Jesus to a mere teacher of moral self-help, they affirm that Jesus really did declare himself to be the Son of Man, and his self-identity and message were truly and primarily prophetic.

Going Deeper

But scholarship goes further than simply affirming the authenticity of Jesus’ apocalyptic sayings. It also places them in a corrective setting that illuminates them, challenges traditional assumptions, and (I believe) reveals something glorious about Jesus. Traditional churchly readings of the Olivet Discourse have interpreted Jesus’ words as a grim and cryptic warning about the end of the world in our own near-future. A careful reading, however, in dialogue with scholarship, takes Jesus’ words and their Jewish apocalyptic context seriously and sees instead an historically located prophecy which has already been fulfilled, thus punctuating his teaching and vindicating him as a true and prescient prophet, an unexpected and peaceable messiah. Scholarship cannot make these types of religious judgments, but it can equip us to interact with our ancient sources with intelligence and clarity.

Here is a quick overview of the Olivet Discourse from this perspective:

Jesus promised his followers that the Temple and Jerusalem itself would be destroyed, an inevitable judgment for the city’s addiction to violence and her political and spiritual rebellion. They asked him, “When will these things happen?,” and the Olivet was his answer. It is filled with specific predictions (“false messiahs will appear,“ “wars and rumors of war,” “one will be taken, the other left behind”) and bold apocalyptic images borrowed from the Hebrew Scriptures (“the moon will not give its light, the stars will fall from the sky,” “you will see the son of man coming on the clouds”). Each one of Jesus’ sayings, according to a scholarly reading, pertains to the destruction of Jerusalem by Rome in the Jewish War of 66-73 CE. False messiahs and failed revolutions? Check. Wars and rumors of war? Check. The Temple reduced to rubble? Check. Random murder and kidnapping by Roman forces? Check. The end of the Jewish world as they knew it? Check. Even the saying about the “son of man” in its original context in Daniel 7 is about the public vindication of God’s servant, not about rapture or second coming (the “coming” is upward, not downward, a possible analog to Jesus’ ascension?).

That is an all-too-brief breakdown of a very complex group of passages (explore more here  or here or here). There is much left to debate, to be sure. But there is one more crucial piece of evidence to consider. When Jesus finally gives an explicit answer to the disciples’ initial question (“When will these things happen?”) it is this: “I tell you the truth, this generation will not pass away before these things take place.” The scholarly view, in addition to taking the Jewish and first century contexts of Jesus’ words seriously, has the distinction of making sense of this promise. I can’t tell you how many awkward explanations I’ve heard over the years of what Jesus really means here. “This generation” refers to the church. He’s talking about apostolic lineage. It’s a metaphor for the twentieth century. On and on. But when the full picture of Jesus’ vision comes together, with invaluable assistance from scholarship, it seems downright obvious. Modern Christians may not consider the fall of Jerusalem to be an epic catastrophe with cosmic significance, but Jesus the Jewish prophet clearly did.

Why Scholarship Matters

Where traditional readings of the Olivet have led to endless speculation, politicizing, gloom, doom, and fear/warmongering, a reading informed by scholarship reveals Jesus as a true prophet whose message of repentance and judgment was vindicated by historical events. This in no way means that Jesus remains a mere artifact of history, his words bereft of meaning for the present or future. Nor does it mute the salient biblical hope for parousia, for the long-awaited ultimate fruition of God’s kingdom on earth. But how does a refreshed and vibrant new understanding of this troublesome passage inform how we read the rest of the New Testament? How does our posture toward world and neighbor change when Jesus’ lordship is not bound up with a promise of inevitable war that must be fulfilled before God’s kingdom can be realized? What does the fate of Second Temple Jerusalem say about the chance for repentance and peace in our own day?

Scholarship is a partner and companion that helps to illuminate questions like these. It cannot have the final word on matters of faith, but what human voice can? Where scholarship can offer correction and illumination, we would do well to give it a voice. If we think that we have nothing to learn from history, or that God would not allow us to err because we have a special religious arrangement with Him, then we need to hear Jesus’ call to repentance more than ever.