Paul, Judaism, and the Gentiles: Beyond the New Perspective

Imagine a fiercely anti-Lutheran book on Paul, revised years after its author came to believe the New Perspective was equally misguided, yet ending up essentially unaltered, its thesis intact. Is that even possible? Amazingly, yes. The book is Paul, Judaism, and the Gentiles — now subtitled Beyond the New Perspective — by Francis Watson, who gives us the same sectarian apostle as before, a Paul who believed the law had had its day and sought to theologically legitimate his church communities independent of the synagogue.

Although Watson says he’s retained only “the empty shell of what he once argued” (p xii), I think that’s an overstatement. True, he has repented of his enthusiasm for the New Perspective, but that hasn’t effected the heart of his argument. It just happens to move us beyond the New Perspective in a way Watson didn’t originally anticipate. As he says in a four-point summary:

“First, (1) the concept of ‘covenantal nomism’ is used to highlight the irreducible particularity of Paul’s polemic against ‘works of the law’, rather than to promote a view of Judaism as a religion of grace. Second, (2) it is argued that divine agency plays a more direct and immediate role in Pauline ‘pattern of religion’ than in the Judaism Paul opposes. Third, (3) the phrase ‘works of the law’ is here understood to refer to the distinctive way of life of the Jewish community, but without any special orientation towards ‘boundary markers’ such as circumcision, food laws, or sabbath. Fourth, (4) Paul is said to advocate a ‘sectarian’ separation between the Christian community and Judaism, rather than an inclusive understanding of the one people of God as encompassing uncircumcised Gentiles. These emphases were all central to the first edition of this book, and I now propose that they point us beyond the New Perspective.” (p 25)

How so? By underscoring the fallacies of the New as much as the Old. The New Perspective paints Paul as Jewish-friendly — speaking against only parts of the law so as to make things easy on Gentiles — when in fact, the apostle had no more use for the law than Luther did (if for different reasons). It paints Paul’s emphasis on divine grace as readily compatible with Judaic soteriology, when in fact Judaism didn’t have the one-sided emphasis on grace that Sanders claims.

In some ways the book reminds of Philip Esler’s work. But where Esler uses different social identity theories to account for different situations (separation in Galatians; recategorization in Romans), Watson uses a single sociological model for both letters (sectarian), which results in problems for understanding Romans. Esler has already criticized him for this, acknowledging that the sectarian model works fine for Galatians (and is compatible with the social-psychological separation model he uses). Esler’s critique:

“I have used the part of social identity theory which describes how groups maintain a sense of identity for their members by strengthening the boundaries separating them from outgroups to explain the situation in Galatia and Paul’s response to it. While this is an approach to the letter derived from one area of social psychology, it would also make sense to analyze the situation using the sociology of sectarianism [as Watson does]. This theory can be usefully focused on the manner in which a group that starts as a reform movement within a dominant religious group can foster such antagonism that it eventually secedes or is expelled, thereafter having a sectarian status in relation to another group, meaning that membership of both organizations is no longer possible. This process can be observed with some clarity in both Luke-Acts and John’s gospel [in addition to Galatia].

“Yet Rome is different. There is no sign in the framing passages of the letter that the Gentile Christ-followers are being pressured into accepting circumcision and the law. Nor is there any such indication in the body of the letter. Thus the particular resolution of the ethnic problem in the Christ-movement favored by the Jerusalem church (‘Let these foreigners become Judeans’) is not being proposed.

“This is the main reason why Francis Watson’s significant attempt at a social explanation of Romans may be ultimately unsuccessful… He utilizes the model of transition from reform movement to sect (which works well on Galatians) with respect to Romans, a text to which it is not well suited… The major problem with Watson’s view is whether his insistence that Paul is seeking to persuade his Judean readers to drop their Judean identity can be correlated with the data in Romans where Paul seeks to establish an overarching common identity that embraces Judean and Greek subgroup identities without extinguishing either.” (Conflict and Identity in Romans, pp 131-132)

And that’s really the key to Romans. It’s an exceptional letter targeting Jews and Greeks in equal and alternating measure, as Paul goes through great pains to put both groups on the same playing field in different ways. Gentiles are under the domain of sin without the Torah (1:18-2:5), and Jews are under its power with the Torah (2:17-3:20). Gentile believers have been liberated from the power of sin which ruled them as immoral pagans (6:15-23), just as Jewish believers have been liberated from sin which ruled them through the law (7:1-25). Jews need to recognize that Gentiles are God’s newly elect and heirs to the promises of Abraham (9:1-11:12), but Gentiles need (even more) to understand that these benefits are a means to an end — to provoke Jews to reacquire what’s really theirs (11:13-32). Paul’s success depends on careful attention to both ethnic groups in the Roman church, taking them down in different ways, but without erasing their ethnic identities in the process. That’s why the last thing he wants to say is, “In Christ there is neither Jew nor Greek” — as he did in Galatians, when he was trying to erase Jewish identity in a sectarian/separatist fashion. Watson’s insistence that Romans is addressed primarily to Jews — that they should accept the legitimacy of the Gentiles’ law-free gospel and separate from the synagogue — while a refreshing and more plausible alternative to the New Perspective’s focus on Gentile addressees, fails to make sense of the alternating strategy spotted by Esler, not to mention the exceptionally positive estimation of ethnic Israel (Watson’s gloss of Rom 11 as a “comparatively irenic passage” is still the Achilles’ heel of his thesis), and even more so the injunction upon Gentiles to abide by minimal Torah standards when in the company of Jews with ties to the synagogue (14:1-15:13).

It’s nice to see Watson accepting Esler’s theory that Antioch was about circumcision rather than dietary laws (p 85), though he can’t seem to follow the logical conclusion: that this amounted to the pillars breaking their agreement. He suggests the issue of circumcision never came up in Jerusalem, that the meeting focused only on the legitimacy of missionary activity among Gentiles in general (p 102). For when circumcision became an issue at Antioch, Paul didn’t accuse Peter of breaking any prior agreement, only of inconsistency with his own practice and conviction (p 103). But as I’ve said before, Paul couldn’t accuse Peter of breaking his promise: he would have made a complete fool of himself in the context of an agonistic culture (as Esler has explained). The best he could do was charge him with “hypocrisy”, even if “treachery” was the more appropriate charge.

Michael Bird, on the other hand, accepts that circumcision was addressed in Jerusalem (see pp 3-4 of his critique of Watson), but even he resists the logical conclusion (that the pillars broke their agreement at Antioch), claiming that the Jerusalem meeting “led to problems because the leaders did not foresee the problem of what happens when uncircumcised and circumcised believers engage in table fellowship”. But that’s incredibly unrealistic. Bird uses the example of Titus to refute Watson, and we can use the same example to refute Bird: the presence of Titus would have made the entire issue loud and obvious — circumcision, and mixed fellowship, which were inextricably intertwined. The question of fellowship between circumcised and uncircumcised would have been on everyone’s mind (eucharist fellowship was one of the most important practices in the Christian movement, for crying out loud); it couldn’t possibly have been avoided.

Watson’s detailed catalog of the correspondences between Gen 2-3 and Rom 7 remains the best proof that Paul was not himself in Romans 7 (pp 282-285). On the other hand, his emphasis on Rom 9-10 over Rom 11, while necessary to make his sectarian thesis work, undercuts the fact that the latter is clearly the punchline. Chapters 9-10 present a temporary scenario, while chapter 11 commands Gentiles to respect unbelieving Jews whose temporary hardening is soon to be undone. Unbelieving Israel is Paul’s primary concern in Romans (as Mark Nanos has seen), completely unlike in Galatians or any other letter. The apostle’s aim is to stifle Greek freedom in the hope that more unbelieving Judeans will convert to Christianity and worship as one voice (Rom 14:1-15:6; cf. 11:11-32).

Curiously, Watson isn’t able to distance himself from Dunn and Wright as much as he wants to. For all his insistence that the law was obsolete — that Paul did not retain an ethical kernel of the Torah minus its ethnic works — he turns around and claims that Paul did pretty much exactly that in the context of Christian community. “There is according to Paul a reduced law — a law without circumcision, dietary restrictions, cultus, or sacred days — that remains operative in the Christian community (Rom 13:8-10). Thus it can be said that ‘circumcision is nothing and uncircumcision is nothing — all that matters is keeping the commandments of God’.” (I Cor 7:19) (p 214) In other words, Paul believed in a new law fulfilled by Christians. While this is a plausible expression of Paul’s view at the time of writing I Corinthians (in which Paul presents commandments and moral imperatives as having force), it finds no place in his writings after the Galatian crisis. Unfortunately, Watson dates Galatians before I Corinthians instead of after. His arguments for doing so (pp 111-112) are unconvincing, not least because I Cor 7:19 is seen to be revised by Gal 5:6: “the only thing that counts is faith expressing itself through love” — again in the exact same context of circumcision, but this time with nothing said about the necessity of keeping commandments. By the time of Galatians Paul was completely through with the law: The best it ever had to offer (love of one’s neighbor) was now available through an entirely different route — the spirit. “To say that the law is fulfilled by love does not affect this conclusion… Fulfillment means that the moral demands of the law no longer have any role for Christians.” (Esler, Conflict and Identity, p 334). Paul now believed in the complete replacement of the law by the spirit, rather than a continued ethical aspect of it.

While Esler’s books offer (by far) the best readings of Galatians and Romans, Watson’s remains the most devastating critique of the Lutheran Perspective, and now of the New as well. But what exactly does it mean to move “beyond the New Perspective”? Commenter Rick Sumner wonders if Watson’s endorsement of Sanders really takes us “beyond” anything. Isn’t it a step backwards? Aren’t we just acknowledging that Sanders had it right before Dunn and Wright came along and tried improving on Sanders in the wrong way?

Sort of. Watson calls us to move backwards to Sanders’ view of Paul (which he has always approved) but forwards beyond Sanders’ view of Judaism (which he now only half-approves as a corrective to Lutheran caricatures). Of course, to move forward beyond the latter carries implications that will take us — at least in some ways — beyond the former. Watson ominously concludes that

“The Lutheran insistence on the centrality and radicality of divine grace is not wholly in error… The claim that Judaism is a religion of grace will prove to be at least as misleading as the older language of legalism or works-righteousness. While there should be no reversion to the Lutheran Paul of the old perspective, one does not read Paul aright merely by criticizing Luther and emphasizing Gentile inclusion.” (p 346)

The Gentile issue was obviously crucial, but subordinate to a radical Christology. If we subordinate Christology to ethnicity, we kill the former and misrepresent Paul’s gospel as a variant of Jewish messianism. The New Perspective has done exactly that. Watson forces us to face our eisegetical delusions: that the specter of nationalism can be as intrusive as that of legalism, and if we allow ourselves to light on a more alien Paul, perhaps, just perhaps, we’ll finally be doing the apostle justice.

The TULIP of the New Perspective

In preparation for the new edition of Paul, Judaism, and the Gentiles: A Sociological Approach — now Paul, Judaism, and the Gentiles: Beyond the New Perspective, in which Francis Watson repents of his earlier enthusaism for the New Perspective — I’m revisiting the author’s essay which foreshadows this revision, explaining why we should move beyond the New Perspective. Granting many different points of view within the NP, there seem to be five common denominators, which Watson calls the TULIP of the NP:

(1) TOTAL TRAVESTY. The NP teaches that the Lutheran perspective on Paul has got him completely wrong — that the faith/works, grace/law contrast has nothing to do with an attack on any attempt to earn salvation by human effort.

(2) UNCONDITIONAL ELECTION. The NP teaches that in ancient Judaism salvation was already understood to be by grace alone. The divine election of Israel was absolute and unconditional, and preceded the law. Law observance didn’t attain salvation; it maintained it. Only by throwing off the yoke of the covenant altogether (becoming an unrepentant apostate) would a Jew be condemned.

(3) LOYALTY TO THE LAW. The NP teaches that loyalty to the law — especially practices like circumcision, food laws, and sabbath — wasn’t a matter of crass legalism, but rather a matter of preserving ethnic identity as the elect people of God.

(4) INCLUSIVE SALVATION. The NP teaches that Paul objected to the law because it limited the grace of God to Israel (not because it constituted impossible merit-earning demands). For Paul, God was the God of Gentiles as much as Jews, and for this reason alone was Christ “the end of the law”.

(5) PRESUPPOSITIONLESS EXEGESIS. The NP teaches that the Lutheran view of Paul caters to western Protestant individualism, so much that the subject of “Paul and the law” has been the most difficult area of biblical studies to liberate from eisegetical biases.

While the TULIP of the NP serves as a healthy antidote to dated and hostile caricatures of early Judaism, Watson thinks it can be deflowered on all five points:

(1) TOTAL TRAVESTY. While we should indeed consign Luther to the dustbin, we should abandon question-begging talk of a monolithic “Lutheran view” of Paul just because one entertains the idea that Paul was speaking about something other (or more) than ethnic identity markers in critiquing the law. General human effort to obey the law doesn’t necessarily equate with legalism.

(2) UNCONDITIONAL ELECTION. While the NP has successfully shown that Judaism wasn’t a legalistic religion (that salvation didn’t have to be earned in such a way that people were left feeling insecure), it has not successfully shown that election wasn’t conditional on faithful obedience to the law. Contra the NP, Israel’s divine election did not precede or relativize the Torah. The law was a gift and demand at the same time — both the expression of Israel’s election and the divine demand for righteous obedience — and Abraham was understood to be the recipient of God’s promises precisely because he kept the law. The law wasn’t given so that those who were already in the covenant could stay inside it; Abraham himself got into the covenant by observing the law.

(3) LOYALTY TO THE LAW. While the NP has (again) rightly shown that loyalty to the law wasn’t about crass legalism, it wasn’t simply about preserving ethnic identity either. Distinctively Jewish practices didn’t serve only as boundary markers (though they did that too). Jewish identity wasn’t understood only in negative terms or how it differentiated itself against pagans (though that was obviously part of the picture). Jewish identity was as much about inner values as overt signals.

(4) INCLUSIVE SALVATION. It’s worth quoting Watson directly here: “It’s true and important that Paul was concerned with the question of the scope of God’s saving action in Jesus. God is not the God of Jews alone, but of Gentiles also… Yet Paul’s statements about the scope of divine saving action do not by any means exhaust what he has to say about its content. Paul does not confine himself to the point that through Christ God has brought Gentiles within the scope of his covenant people… One the one hand, God commits himself unconditionally to future saving action on behalf of Abraham and the world. On the other hand, the law sets the divine-human relationship on another basis, in which divine saving action is conditional on prior human obedience to the commandments [see (2)]… How may Genesis and Deuteronomy be reconciled? The answer, for Paul, is that the law itself declares that it’s own project is a dead-end. It teaches that the one who does these things will find life thereby, but it also teaches that this quest is doomed to failure.” The Gentile issue may have helped dethrone the law, but Paul’s sectarian Christology demolished it completely. His idea was that salvation is on another basis entirely. It’s not simply that Jewish works like circumcision, food laws, and sabbath have become optional for Gentiles, with a kernel of the Torah remaining in force. The entire law is finished as an avenue for salvation.

(5) PRESUPPOSITIONLESS EXEGESIS. This is the most pretentious of the five petals, for the NP has shown itself to be as much driven by modern biases (breaking down racial barriers; respecting those of different nationalities) as the old perspective (dislike for legalism; western needs for a more direct and personal relationship with God). Perhaps when we light on a truly alien Paul, we’ll finally be doing justice to him as an historical figure.

As I’ve said before, I still consider myself a (loose) New Perspective advocate in the sense that I think the Gentile mission caused Paul his initial grief over the law. The idea of insecure salvation has no place in historical inquiry, and to that extent “racism” trumps “legalism”. But the Gentile issue quickly became subsumed within a more over-arching scheme of Christology which portrayed the law as obsolete — not simply redefined around wider parameters for Gentile benefit. The New Perspective has failed to come to terms with this, and I think Watson (like Philip Esler) is moving us in the right direction.

My review of Watson’s book will follow later. It’s due to arrive in the mail today.

Watson’s New Perspective

Thanks to Michael Bird for mentioning the revised edition of Francis Watson’s Paul, Judaism, and the Gentiles: A Sociological Approach. The early monograph was one of the first NPP books I cut my teeth on in the early ’90s, and I still consider it a pretty good book. It made my list of Top 4 Books on Galatians and Romans, and I hope I’ll be able to say the same for the revised version.

From Bird’s review of the book:

“Watson concedes in his preface that ‘I have retained only the empty shell of what I once argued’ and he suggests moving ‘beyond the New Perspective’. Furthermore, the insistence on Judaism as ‘a religion of grace’ has had its day and the creativity and diversity of Judaism cannot be reduced to any one scheme… Watson proposes a more nuanced account of what is and is not wrong with the traditional Lutheran reading and endeavors to move beyond polarity on the New Perspective and Paul.”

I already have some idea of where Watson is going based on his essay, “Not the New Perspective”. I too have moved “beyond the New Perspective” in some ways, though I don’t think anything will ever persuade me that Paul was critiquing any attempt to earn salvation by one’s efforts, or that any group of first-century Judeans were legalistic enough to be open to critique in this way. At the same time, the New perspective idea that Paul was concerned only with the scope of God’s saving power does’t hold water. The Gentile issue was half the picture; Paul’s sectarian Christology left no room for the law at all: it was obsolete, and the best it ever had to offer was now available by an entirely different route (the spirit). But more on this later, after I’ve read the book.

The Top 10 Most Critical Topics in Pauline Reseach

This is Michael Bird’s list:

Why Did Saul of Tarsus Persecute the Church?
The Origin of Paul’s Gospel?
Paul and the Beginnings of the Gentile Mission
Paul and the Antioch Episode
Paul’s Problem with the Law
Paul and His Opponents
The Pauline Hermeneutic: Paul and Israel’s Sacred Traditions
The Purpose of Romans
Paul and the Parting of the Ways
The Quest for the Centrum Paulinium

Here’s my own list, like Michael’s rated in no particular order.

Paul’s Reasons for Persecuting the Church
Paul’s View of the Resurrection
The Origins of the Gentile Mission
The Antioch Incident
Paul’s Relationship to Jerusalem
Paul’s Relationship to the Synagogue
Paul’s Critique of the Law
Paul’s Meaning of “Righteousness” (and how central was the idea)
Paul’s View of Salvation History (or lack thereof)
Paul’s Inconsistencies and/or Evolution of Thought (reasons for)

A Broken Metaphor (Paul and the Olive Tree)

Fans of Paul would agree that his olive tree metaphor is a brilliant creation. I love the way it so subtly and effectively undermines Gentile superiority. As Philip Esler explains it, normal grafting practice involved transplanting a wild olive tree and making it fruitful by grafting on cultivated branches. By portraying the inverse — a cultivated olive tree with wild branches (which normally didn’t bear edible fruit) — Paul was painting an image completely insulting to Greeks, implying they were dependent on the root of Abraham (Rom 11:18), and that arrogance toward unbelieving Israelites could result in being damned forever (Rom 11:21). That’s pretty clever all right.

But clever inventions have a way of trapping their creators in ways unforeseen. Consider: the argument of Rom 11:11-32 is that Israel’s state of unbelief — outlined in Rom 9:6-11:10 — is only temporary, that most Israelites will soon get back on track and convert to Christ out of jealousy for Paul’s success with Gentiles (Rom 11:11-16), and can perhaps even rely on a little help from God directly at the apocalypse (11:25-27). These unbelieving Israelites have stumbled but not fallen (Rom 11:11) — “Have they stumbled so as to fall?” asks the apostle. “By no means!” — and will surely be saved in the end (Rom 11:26).

So Israel is stumbling, not falling, according to Rom 11:11-32, but the problem is that Paul isn’t consistent about this matter elsewhere, nor even in the argument of 11:11-32 itself. In his new essay, “Broken Branches: A Pauline Metaphor Gone Awry? (Rom 11:11-24)”, Mark Nanos demonstrates how the olive tree metaphor of verses 17-24 undermines the stumbling metaphor of verses 11-12. Paul warns Gentiles that they will be “cut off” from the olive tree if they persist in ethnic pride, just as unbelieving Israelite branches have already “fallen” from the tree. Those Israelites may be grafted back in again, to be sure, but that’s not what “cut off” and “fallen” imply. Nanos writes:

“The implications from Paul’s portrayal of the olive tree to [warn Gentiles in harsh terms] leads to a theological development that I believe Paul did not anticipate when he created it. For it is used to describe the state of non-Christ believing Israelites as broken off, discarded, and dead branches on the ground below the tree, which clearly depicts them as having fallen. In terms of the stumbling metaphor, that is a condition Paul emphatically insisted did not apply… I believe Paul would deny that these Israelites were broken off as it has been presented in the interpretive tradition, and that he would extend this denial today if asked to describe the state of Jews and Judaism. He would instead insist in the same unmistakable terms that he communicated in the stumbling allegory…’May it never be!’ The tree allegory was created with the special concern to describe the present state of the Gentile believers in Christ, and the inferences about these Israelites are (il)logical byproducts of that explanation. What we have here is a Pauline metaphor gone awry.” (p 57)

That’s right, and it goes awry particularly in the context of Rom 11:11-32, which is meant to undermine the supersessionist/replacement theology which Paul advocated in other places (though I think Nanos disagrees with me that Paul ever was a supersessionist). We need look back only two verses to see the problem, where the psalmist is invoked: “Let their table become a snare and a trap, a stumbling block and a retribution for them; let their eyes be darkened so they cannot see, and keep their backs forever bent” (verses 9-10). Yet verse 11 goes on to insist that there’s nothing “forever” about this process. Judeans haven’t stumbled so as to fall; they’re going to be saved.

Also consider Rom 9:6, which comes dangerously close to repeating the supersessionist theology of Galatians (Gal 6:16): “Not all Israelites truly belong to Israel.” Really? The entire argument of Rom 11 insists otherwise (and as both Philip Esler and Mark Nanos point out, Paul does NOT refer to the olive tree as a new Israel; in Rom 11, Israel is Israel, all the way). What Paul really means to say in Rom 9:6 is simply that “not all Israelites are currently faithful” (so Thomas Tobin, Paul’s Rhetoric in its Contexts, p 327; cf. Philip Esler, Conflict and Identity in Romans, p 279; cf. Mark Nanos, p 10 footnote 16). But he goes beyond what he meant to say — natural perhaps, since he’s echoing an earlier supersessionist stance.

By the time of Romans, Paul was rethinking theological dilemmas, facing new church situations, and trying to undo a nasty reputation he’d acquired. Romans 11 is a fascinating result of all this. But in trying to salvage something for ethnic Israel, Paul becomes trapped by his own ingenuity and a victim of his past. He insists that unbelieving Judeans are only stumbling and haven’t fallen (Rom 11:11-16) — but then can’t help but imply the latter (Rom 11:17-24). (Tree branches can’t stumble very well, can they?) Nowhere in Rom 9-11 does he want to identify the Christian movement as Israel, but he slips in Rom 9:6 and implies it anyway (echoing his earlier and more explicit Gal 6:16). Paul does the best he can, but he creates as many problems as he solves. He shoots himself (and his kinsmen) in the foot as he railroads the Gentiles. Whoever said theologians had it easy?

Do read Nanos’ essay. It shows better than any other analysis how the olive tree is unable to communicate Paul’s idea effectively — that the metaphor “is itself broken” (p 50).