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.