Sanders vs. Wright: Whose New Perspective?

In his live office hours, Mark Goodacre answered a question about Pauline justification by endorsing the New Perspective, but more in line with Ed Sanders than Tom Wright. Readers of this blog know I feel much the same way, that Dunn and Wright have tried improving on Sanders in the wrong way by reducing the totality of Paul’s justification doctrine to ethnic issues. While the message of Gentile inclusion was crucial for Paul, it was subordinate to a radical Christology which encapsulated a Lutheran-like paradigm even if only by way of consequence or corollary.

N.T. Wrong isn’t far from the truth when he charges Wright with turning Paul into an apartheid protestor obsessed with “boundary markers”.

“If there is anything that is a testimony to the failure of the New Perspective, it’s the unbelievably contrived stretches which result when Wright tries to apply his ideas in a full commentary on Romans (in the New Interpreter’s Bible Commentary). It’s like watching a defender of the Ptolemaic view of the universe adding epicycle upon epicycle. His very defence of the New Perspective shows something must be wrong with it.”

The same could be said for Dunn and his Word Biblical Commentary (Vol 38 A&B), in which all of the textual data in Romans is strained through the sieve of ethnic privilege. That works fine for Rom 2-4 but not Rom 5-8, where Jewish “works” aren’t even mentioned, even if we were to grant that “boundary markers” were what Paul had in mind with the term (on which see further). Paul speaks about the law phenomenologically in Rom 7, even if only consequentially, and even if he never actually experienced the futility and anguish he goes out of his way to describe so graphically. He invokes the figures of Adam and Medea in an exercise of theological give-and-take, shifting the blame for sin onto devilish agents (Rom 7:7-13) and people themselves (Rom 7:14-25) so as to exonerate God and salvage something good out of an entirely useless law which can’t save at all. Paul was digging himself out of a major hole in Rom 7, not talking about how the law merely leads one astray by coveting privileged status!

But even in a context like Rom 2-4, Wright and Dunn run into problems. Yes, Paul characterized the law as effectively limiting God’s grace to Israel (Rom 3:28-30), but the term “works of the law” shouldn’t be formally understood as “boundary markers” or “badges of covenant membership”. Jews wouldn’t have defined themselves by overt signals at the expense of value orientations, and Gentile outsiders wouldn’t have obligingly characterized them by their own self-understanding on the assumption that were true (so Esler). (In an agonistic world, outsiders use hostile stereotypes, which Gentiles of course did.) True, Paul often had in mind special works like circumcision, food laws, and holy days, but to categorize ἔργων νόμου as “boundary markers” gives the impression that he was programatically concerned with breaking down racial boundaries as we are today, when his view was more apocalyptic — and even here only initially. As the kingdom didn’t come, Paul actually reasserted distinctions in Christ. (See “In Christ There Is Jew and Greek”.)

Readers may wonder why I don’t indict someone like Mark Nanos here. The reason is a bit complex. Although Nanos pushes the New Perspective by making Paul more Jewish-friendly than any other scholar under the sun, he steers clear of anachronistic categories. In fact, he’s been very critical of the way “boundary markers” have been used to caricaturize Judaism. In place of legalistic Jews, Dunn and Wright have given us racist Jews. Nanos reaches many of his conclusions via rhetorical analysis, which I view as important, even if I think he has the wrong rhetorical model for a letter like Galatians. He takes Paul to places few scholars dream of going, but his methods are ironically more sound than those of Wright and Dunn, and his results somewhat less apologetic.

That, for my money, is why a Sanders/Esler approach is to be preferred over a Wright/Dunn approach. And if we go with the former, we needn’t be driven to N.T. Wrong’s conclusion that “the New Perspective has failed”, though in some ways we clearly have to move beyond it. Mark Goodacre may have other reasons for preferring Sanders. In the office hours he was more concerned to emphasize the lasting contribution which I hope everyone agrees with: that foils have no place in the academy.

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