Some Recent Shifts in Pauline Studies


1. The "New Perspective" on Paul

Perhaps the key to the so called "new perspective" on Paul is a re-evaluation of both Judaism and his thought in relation to Judaism.  We might first mention the two key insights of the most foundational work of the new perspective: E. P. Sanders' Paul and Palestinian Judaism.


Sanders' Point 1:  Judaism was a religion of grace. 

The Jews would have agreed with Paul that acceptance by God is a matter of His grace.  They differed more on what God counted as a basis for being on good terms with Him. 


Sanders' Point 2: For Jews, keeping the law was more about staying in than getting in. 

Jews did not believe keeping the law earned their way into God's favor.  As God's children they had God's favor to lose.


An even earlier player in the new perspective was Krister Stendahl's famous article, "Paul and the Introspective Conscience of the West."  Here are some key ideas from Stendahl's work (they are not in any order of his):


Stendahl Point: While we might speak of Paul's conversion from one Jewish sect to another (so James Dunn), Paul never stopped viewing himself as an Israelite.  He did not view Christianity as a new religion but as nothing other than the religion of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.  Paul is not Paul's Christian name but his Roman name.  The book of Acts calls Paul Saul over 10 years into his Christian life.


Stendahl Point: Paul probably did not struggle much with a guilty conscience before he came to Christ. 

Philippians 3 gives us Paul's pre-Christian estimation of himself: "as far as the righteousness according to the law, I was blameless."  Romans 7 is not Paul's present experience and may not even give us a good feel for his past experience. 


Stendahl Point: Paul's writings largely address the question of how Gentiles can be incorporated into the people of God. 

When he says "all have sinned," he is thinking "both Jew and Gentile--all have sinned."  Romans 9-11 is not a digression.  It is the heart of the issue: is God in fact righteous to allow Gentiles in without making them keep the Jewish law.


Stendahl Point: Paul's comments on the law are largely addressed to Gentile Christians. 

It is not likely that Paul taught Jews to stop keeping the Mosaic law.



2. The Righteousness of God

Another shift that has taken place in the last few years and partially independent of the new perspective is a shift in how the phrase "the righteousness of God" is taken, particularly in Romans 1:17.  Here are some steps along the way:


Old Roman Catholic View: The "righteousness of God" is the iustitia Dei, the "justice of God" that He distributes to all.


Luther's View: The "righteousness of God" refers to the righteous status we receive from God (cf. NIV) as a "legal fiction."  We are not actually righteous in any way, but God considers us righteous on the basis of our faith in Christ.


Rudolph Bultmann: Mid-twentieth century advocate of the Lutheran view, interpreting the phrase in the light of Philippians 3:9.


Ernst Käsemann: Argued on the basis of the Dead Sea Scrolls that the phrase "the righteousness of God" does indeed refer to God's righteousness.  The majority of interpreters agree this far.  In addition, Käsemann defined it as God's power in action to make the world right and to defeat the cosmic powers that stand in His way.


N. T. Wright: Emphasizes God's faithfulness to His covenant with Israel in His righteousness.  God's righteousness is his covenant faithfulness.  More recently, Wright has translated the phrase as God's covenant justice, broadening the concept out a little.


I might mention that parallels in Isaiah repeatedly pair God's righteousness with his salvation.



3. The Faith of Jesus Christ

We cannot really speak of a consensus on this issue, but a good number of American scholars, led by Richard Hays of Duke, have strongly argued that the phrase usually translated "faith in Jesus" in verses like Romans 3:22 and Galatians 2:16 should really be translated "the faithfulness of Jesus."  Hays and others argue that Paul's faith was more theocentric than Christocentric.  They make a strong case in the light of verses like Romans 5:19 and Philippians 2:8.