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Current Issues in New Testament: Pauline Studies

In this series of blogs, I’ve been surveying four important current issues in the field of NT studies: (1) Biblical Theology (BT), (2) gender studies and biblical manhood and womanhood, (3) Pauline studies, and (4) NT Greek. The purpose of this survey is to keep students and faculty outside of the NT area (and those in biblical studies as well) abreast of new developments. In the first post, I covered biblical theology and in the second post, gender studies and biblical manhood and womanhood. For this post, I’ll be focusing on Pauline studies.

The “New Perspective on Paul”

For some time now, the field of Pauline studies has been dominated by the so-called “New Perspective on Paul” (NPP). A term first coined by James Dunn, the NPP was pioneered by E. P. Sanders in his groundbreaking work Paul and Palestinian Judaism (1979). Sanders, building on the work on his teacher W. D. Davies, argued that, contrary to the traditional Reformed understanding, first-century Palestinian Judaism was not steeped in legalism but rather espoused the need for obedience in response to grace, a model he called “covenantal nomism.”

James Dunn developed Sanders’ view along the lines of Jewish “badges of covenant membership,” namely Sabbath keeping, circumcision, and observance of OT food laws, which set the Jews apart from their Gentile neighbors.

N. T. Wright, for his part, developed Sanders’ views in yet another direction. He explains this at some length in his brilliant book Paul and His Recent Interpreters, which I have reviewed at some length for Books at a Glance. In this book, Wright distances himself rather sharply from both Sanders and Dunn, for whom he reserves some of his most pointed critique. Wright helpfully organizes the book around three identifiable subfields that have developed in Pauline studies of late, the NPP, social-scientific approaches, and apocalyptic. In his massive volume Paul and the Faithfulness of God, for which Paul and His Recent Interpreters was originally designed as a prolegomenon, Wright follows Albert Schweitzer, J. Louis Martyn, J. Christiaan Beker, Richard Hays, and others who emphasize Paul’s apocalyptic view of Jesus.

Wright has recently been critiqued by Tom Holland in his work, Tom Wright and the Search for Truth (2017), as being unduly dependent on Second Temple literature in comparison to the biblical material. Holland has also written Paul and His Colleagues (forthcoming), a revised version of his work Contours of Pauline Theology (2004).

Paul and the Gift

A fresh tack has recently been taken by John Barclay in his magisterial volume Paul and the Gift (ably reviewed by my student Mark Baker at Books at a Glance here). In this volume, Barclay discusses the biblical teaching on grace in its ancient context as encompassing as many as six different dimensions:

  1. “Superabundance” – the extravagant nature of the gift
  2. “Priority” – the fact that the gift was granted prior to any initiative on the part of the recipient
  3. “Singularity” – the fact that giving the gift is the only way in which the giver interacts with the recipient
  4. “Incongruity” – the fact that a gift is given regardless of the worthiness of the recipient
  5. “Efficacy” – the intent that the gift engenders the desired response in the recipient
  6. “Non-circularity” – the fact that the gift is granted without regard as to the recipient’s response

Those of us who thought we understood what the biblical definition of grace is (summed up in the acronym “God’s Riches at Christ’s Expense”) were given additional food for thought by Barclay’s historical research as to how grace was conceived within a first-century Jewish and Greco-Roman cultural context.

Also, Michael Bird has sought to steer a via media (though generally sympathetic to Wright) in several of his works, including An Anomalous Jew (2016; see also the 2017 multi-author volume edited by Bird and Christoph Heilig, God and the Faithfulness of Paul).

Personally, I feel that the NPP has given a healthy impetus to Pauline studies, though I agree with Tom Holland that scholars with a low view of Scripture have often unduly used the Second Temple literature to sideline the biblical material. For a helpful scrutiny of the NPP, see the 2-volume compilation edited by D. A. Carson and others, Paul and Variegated Nomism, which is still helpful despite being published a decade and a half ago.

Also, as can be seen in Wright’s Paul and His Recent Interpreters, it is no longer possible (if it ever was) to speak of the “NPP” because there is a considerable range of views within that perspective, often to the point of sharp contradiction. For this reason, it is better to speak of “James Dunn’s NPP” or of “Tom Wright’s NPP,” and so on.

Along similar lines, Craig Blomberg remarks in personal correspondence, “The New Perspective continues to be an important issue to talk about, but we are quickly moving beyond it and students need to be prepared to interact with the range of newer perspectives that Magnus Zetterholm’s primer mentioned a decade or so ago. Mark Nanos continues to be a significant player in making Paul too Jewish (see also Pamela Eisenbaum’s Paul was not a Christian) and the whole debate about apocalyptic that Douglas Campbell and others have again brought to the fore is a significant issue. Ben Blackwell and John Goodrich’s edited volume, Paul and the Apocalyptic Imagination, is an excellent entrée to that whole arena. Then there is the emphasis on participationism, in-Christ language, and even theosis in writers like Michael Gorman, Grant Macaskill, and in Con Campbell’s CT NT book of the year a few years ago on Union with Christ.

One area that is often neglected in Pauline studies, including debates on the NPP, is the so-called “Pastoral Epistles,” though in my recent BTCP I argue that “Letters to Timothy and Titus” (LTT) is a better label. I don’t have time here to explain, but please see the introduction to my BTCP volume, with an abundance of footnotes interacting with English and German-speaking scholarship. On matters of canon and related issues, see also the writings and blog (Canon Fodder) by my good friend Michael J. Kruger, with whom I have co-authored The Heresy of Orthodoxy, which continues to resonate with those interested in the so-called “Bauer Thesis” that early Christianity was doctrinally diverse. This material is now also available as a course package on the TGC website. Michael Kruger also recently published a significant volume on second-century Christianity, Christianity at the Crossroads (2018).

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