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.


2 thoughts on “Watson’s New Perspective

  1. While I realize you didn’t coin the term, and I do appreciate the use of scare quotes, I’m not sure that I think “beyond the New Perspective” is the right term for a christology without the Law. I’m a Sanders kinda guy at the end of the day, with the oft quoted “. . .it was not Christianity” passage in mind. Like you, I don’t think the Law fit in Paul’s soteriology. But does this really take me “beyond” anything? It seems to me that such a phrasing robs Sanders of his due. I moved “beyond” Sanders with previous endorsing of the bog-standard examples of Wright and Dunn. My current rejection of them seems more a step backwards than a step beyond. Which brings me to my question: How do you see yourself as “beyond” the new perspective in this regard? Or is it here just a term of convenience?As an addendum, I’m inclined to agree with the sentiment that viewing “Judaism as a religion of grace” universally is oversimplified. Contrary to statements I’ve made before regarding N T Wright’s treatment of the passage, I was wrong and so is he: 4QMMT <>is<> addressing precisely the sort of legalism Sanders suggested never existed. Though I’m not sure that that negates Sanders over-arching point, and am still not convinced that Paul was writing against anything of the sort.

  2. Hi Rick,I”m a Sanders kind of guy too in this regard, as is Watson himself. See p 126 of his new edition: “It is therefore correct to say, as E.P. Sanders does, that Paul opposes Judaism not because of any inherent errors, but simply because it is not Christianity”.But Sanders’ claim that Judaism was a religion of unconditional grace is seriously flawed. It may not have been legalistic (salvation didn’t have to be earned in such a way that people were left feeling insecure), but election was certainly conditional on faithful obedience to the law. Israel’s divine election didn’t precede or relativize the Torah in the way Sanders claims. Abraham was understood to be saved 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. And Paul does attack this soteriology by way of corollary.Basically, Sanders doesn’t acknowledge the way covenant and law were indistinguishable from each other. He tries to keep election and law-observance as distant as he can, and insist that the former (grace) is what really mattered, with the latter (works) no more than a grateful Jewish response to maintaining one’s previously established salvation. That understanding of first-century Judaism has kept the New Perspective in a rut, and we need to move beyond it.Another snippet from Watson’s revised edition: “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)And actually, Watson anticipates your objection at one point:“It is ironic that Sanders and Dunn are both commonly seen as representatives of a single ‘New Perspective on Paul’. The reality is that a <>repudiation<> of Sanders’ reading of Paul is integral to the New Perspective as Dunn conceived it.” (p 9)So in effect, I suppose Watson is calling for us to move “backwards” (as you say) to Sanders’ view of Paul (which he largely approves) but forwards beyond Sanders’ view of Judaism (which he half-approves, as a corrective to hostile caricatures, but not much beyond that). On the other hand, to move forward beyond the latter carries implications that will take us — at least in some ways –forward beyond the former.I’ll be reviewing Watson’s book in more detail this week-end.

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