Reinventing Paul by John Gager of Princeton University (187 pgs).

To give a little background, one of the phrases you hear in Paul circles is the “new perspective on Paul.” It rumbles up in some minority pieces of the mid-twentieth century, makes a powerful surface in an article by Krister Stendahl in the early sixties, and then emerges without repentance in the 1977 work of E. P. Sanders, Paul and Palestinian Judaism. As usual, Dunn gives it a name ("new perspective"), locates it in relation to what has come before, and we're off (he's a genius).

The main up-shoot of the new perspective is two fold. First, Judaism did not see itself as earning salvation and was not a religion that saw "works" as the path to getting right with God. Jews saw their relationship with God as a matter of a covenant the gracious God had made with them, and salvation was about “staying in” rather than “getting in.” No one could earn right standing before God, but faithfulness to the covenant was certainly required to stay in good standing with Him (sounds rather Wesleyan, actually).

The second aspect of the new perspective relates to Paul and Judaism. Paul did not see himself in some way leaving Israel or the Jewish Scriptures when he accepted Jesus as Messiah--he did not think he was changing religions. He saw himself as following that which was none other than the fulfillment of God's entire relationship with Israel. Paul is not his Christian name, in contrast to Saul as a pre-Christian name. Acts calls Paul Saul for over ten years after he became a Christian. Paul probably had both names his whole life.

I mention the above as background. The above conclusions are by now the dominant paradigm and very well established in the guild. You are at a significant disadvantage with regard to publishing or hiring if you espouse the earlier "Lutheran" paradigm.

Gager then represents what I might call the “hyper-new perspective” on Paul. These are individuals who see more continuity between Paul and Judaism than even Sanders, Dunn, or many of the original "new perspective" players. The key members of this “hyper-new” perspective are people like Stanley Stowers, Lloyd Gaston, and Neil Elliot.

In many respects, they are the children of Krister Stendahl, but, in my opinion, the children of his most questionable position. Stendahl suggests that Romans 2 gives us the key to Paul in the sense that he thought a Gentile might actually keep the law adequately enough to be accepted in God's eyes. Similarly, when Paul says "all have sinned," he does not mean all individuals but all groups in the sense of both Jew and Gentile (I agree with the emphasis, but not with where Stendahl takes it). In short, Stendahl rescues Paul from an odd position for a Jew--setting up a standard of expectation on God's part that no Jewish writing outside of Paul ever espouses.

The move of the hyper-new group is ingenious, although, in my opinion, finally unconvincing. They suppose not only that Paul’s audiences are mostly Gentile; they suppose they are entirely Gentile and that Paul’s rhetoric in Romans and Galatians is not addressing Jews at all. When Paul says all have sinned and lack the glory of God, he is speaking only about Gentiles. When Paul says no one will be justified by works of law, he means no Gentile will be justified by works of law.

Jews on the other hand, are a different story. They are required to circumcise and keep the law to stay right with God. They are justified by their faithfulness to the covenant.

After that summary, here is my critique of Gager.

First of all, this is a pretty well written book and very helpful at understanding the perspective of this group of scholars. Indeed, Gager quotes Stowers and Gaston so much that it is not always easy to see exactly what his contribution is to the basic position. He also builds a little off the “faith of Jesus Christ” wing of Pauline scholarship as well, Sir Richard Hays in particular.

However, I find that the strongest impetus for his position seems to be 1) to keep Paul from misrepresenting Judaism and 2) to find Paul’s own thought coherent. Here is his operating principle: “when Paul appears to say something (e.g., about the law and Jews) that is unthinkable from a Jewish perspective, it is probably true that he is not talking about Jews at all. Instead we may assume that the apostle to the Gentiles is talking about the law and Gentiles” (58).

The problem with this principle is that, in theory, it would not let Paul be Paul if in fact Paul did think “the unthinkable.” Gager is not even motivated by faith in his perspective (17, 157 n.3), but he is very much like the conservative harmonists who insist on shoving texts together rather than letting them say what they say. I have problems with a method that does not allow an author to be inconsistent or self-contradictory. I don’t mean that I want to find inconsistency or contradiction. What I want to find is what an author actually means, and I refuse to encumber that process by artificial boundaries.

[By the way, I do allow my faith commitments to steer in certain directions for the final conclusion--but I personally insist this be the next step after I have concluded what the most likely conclusion is given the evidence.]

It seems to me that Paul simply does change the playing field in terms of his Jewish background. He does not intentionally misrepresent it or misunderstand it, as some have suggested. He just differs from it. Sure, Judaism held that all had sin. But God was merciful, had set up a system of atonement, and He highly valued and recognized repentance.

Paul's modification is to see Christ's death and resurrection as the ultimate mechanisms by which God chose to process forgiveness. Would this have made sense to most Jews of Paul's day? Probably not, except in the sense that a person might die to assuage God's wrath. It seems to me that a Jew might easily accept that the corporate sin of Israel might be atoned for by the death of a righteous individual. The problem for me to work out is that it is not immediately obvious that Paul primarily thought of Christ in this way.

With regard to the phrase "works of law," I suspect Dunn is most correct to see the phrase as a reference to inter-Jewish debates over the specifics of law-keeping. In that sense the phrase may refer to the more debated aspects of Jewish law-keeping (although it is hard to see how circumcision would fit into this category).

Nevertheless, I agree with Gager and Gaston that Romans and Galatians overwhelmingly address Gentile audiences and that their primary concern is the inclusion of the Gentiles. I agree mostly with them that Paul did not advocate that Jews stop observing the law. I would only take exception with them when law-keeping resulted in the violation of the higher principle of Christian unity. I think I need to stew a little more on the significance of the likelihood that Paul might mostly be writing "God-fearers" who were associated with synagogues prior to accepting Christ.

But on the whole I remain most convinced by Sanders on these subjects. When Paul came to Christ, he was forced to conclude that the approach to "righteousness" he had followed was simply not the right approach. He had been blameless by its standards, so why wasn't he okay? Realizing that he had the answer, he was forced to contemplate the theory behind it. While he may not have recognized it himself--indeed may have vigorously denied it--his theory ultimately signified a massive break at least with Palestinian Judaism.

Whether or not I can revive and justify some now "outdated" precedents in Hellenistic Judaism for this basic position (via Philo), will have to wait another day. I don't feel that I have arrived on all these things, although I make my home in the now old, new perspective.