Covenantal Nomism in the New Perspective on Paul: Part 2

This is the second post in this series. To read the introduction to “Covenantal Nomism in the New Perspective on Paul,” click here.

The New Perspective on Second Temple Judaism

The new perspective sees the dominant Reformation and post-Reformation tradition of Pauline interpretation as wrong. Advocates of the new perspective assert that a false understanding of Second Temple Judaism has led to a misreading of Paul. The traditional view of Paul has its roots in a Western mindset brought about by the theology and piety of the Reformers, most notably Martin Luther.[1] N.T. Wright puts it succinctly when he writes, “The tradition of Pauline interpretation has manufactured a false Paul by manufacturing a false Judaism for him to oppose.”[2] 

Based on historical studies of original Jewish sources, C.G. Montefiore contends that the Judaism of Paul’s was not a works-based religion. In his view, if Paul opposed a Judaism of salvation by works, that Judaism was a fringe or syncretized version of the main stream Rabbinic Judaism of the day.[3] Likewise, the New Perspective avows the Judaism of Paul’s day was not a form of legalistic works-righteousness. Rather it is what E.P. Sanders called “covenantal nomism.”

Sanders defines covenantal nomism as

“… the view that one’s place in God’s plan is established on the basis of the covenant and that the covenant requires as the proper response of man his obedience to its commandments, while providing a means of atonement for transgression.”[4]

Judaism of this type was a matter of getting in by grace and staying in by obedience to the law.[5] According to Sanders, much of the scholarship that views Paul as opposing a theology of salvation by works misrepresents Second Temple Judaism because its knowledge of the Rabbinic literature was completely derivative.[6] So Sanders spends significant efforts examining the Tannaitic literature to show the classical Protestant view of Judaism that taught salvation by works misrepresented Judaism.[7]

It was through Yahweh’s election of Israel through the covenant that established their relationship with Him. For instance, in Exodus 20:2 the LORD says, “I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery.” This was spoken before the Torah was given. Therefore, election into the covenant was an act of grace and mercy.[8] Leviticus 26:3 states, “If you walk in my statutes and observe my commandments and do them.” According to the Rabbinic sources, the emphasis in verses like this focus most frequently on the necessity of intending to obey, not on perfect obedience to every letter of the law.[9]

Krister Stendahl argues

“… for the Jew the Law did not require a static or pedantic perfectionism but supposed a covenant relationship in which there was room for forgiveness and repentance and where God applied the Measure of Grace.”[10]

Stendhal points to Philippians 3:6 where Paul speaks of his former life as a Pharisee wherein Paul viewed himself “as to righteousness under the law, blameless.”

Stendhal’s point is that Paul really did not see himself as keeping the law perfectly. Rather, Paul was relying on the grace of the covenantal relationship with Yahweh to make him righteous before God.

Stendahl asserts that it was Martin Luther and his troubled conscience that served as the lens through which the Reformation read Paul, and thus wrongly understood justification. Unlike Martin Luther, Paul’s conscience was not troubled at all by his inability to perfectly keep the law because he was relying on God’s grace to save him even as a Pharisee.[11]

James D.G. Dunn also supports Stendhal and Sanders in this position. Dunn argues Israel’s relation with God began with the divine initiative of covenant and fulfilled promise. Israel’s part within the covenant was to maintain the covenant by obeying the law. No document better expresses the double character of “covenantal nomism” than the book of Deuteronomy.

In Deuteronomy there is a continual emphasis both on God’s faithfulness to his covenant promises and on the necessity for Israel to keep the commandments given at Sinai. The Israelites’ system of worship with its various atoning sacrifices proves the Jews were not expected to perfectly keep the law in order to atone for their sins. The covenant made a way for the wiping away of sins. However, this atoning work was not merely superficial; repentance was also required.[12]

Psalm 51 was an excellent example of this. Dunn also cites the Dead Sea Scrolls including the hymn at the end of the Community Rule of Qumran (IQS 11.11-15) as proof of his assertion. The hymn speaks of God who “will draw me near by his grace, and by his mercy will he bring my justification.” This text from an intensely nomistic Jewish sect, spoke of God’s grace, mercy and righteousness as the only ground of hope for the forgiveness of sins. This text seemed to resonate with the character and nature of Paul’s gospel of grace. This doesn’t appear to be a Judaism that opposes Paul’s gospel, rather it seems to agree with Paul regarding how one is made right with a holy God.

Dunn maintains that the traditional Christian antipathy to Judaism has skewed and distorted its portrayal of the Second Temple Judaism against which Paul reacted.[13]

Of course, this view greatly influences how a number of key New Testament books are interpreted. Most relevant to the discussion of covenantal nomism are Romans and Galatians.

The historical Protestant position is that Paul wrote Galatians to oppose Judaizers who were teaching that in order to be saved, one must become Jewish by observing all of the rules and regulations of Judaism, most notably circumcision. Paul was arguing for salvation by faith alone and, in contrast, the Judaizers were teaching salvation by faith plus works. Dunn sees things differently. He views Galatians as Paul’s first sustained attempt to deal with covenantal nomism.[14]

Fundamental to Judaism’s sense of identity was the conviction that God had made a special covenant with the patriarchs. This covenant set forth Israel as God’s peculiar people (Deuteronomy 4:31). Further, there was no type of legalism in this covenant. Rather, the law was given to show Israel how to live within the covenant (Deuteronomy 4:1, 10, 40; 5:29-33; 6:1-2, 18, 24) and to make it possible for them to do so through the establishment of the system of atonement. This position as God’s chosen, covenant people created a strong sense of pride and privilege over against other people.[15]

Further, as a minority group among a dominant Hellenistic culture, the Jewish community was concerned above all else to preserve its cultural identity. Hence the significance of things like circumcision, ceremonial food laws, etc. So Dunn, and the advocates of the New Perspective see Paul opposed to the Galatian Judaizers not because they were teaching salvation by works, but because they were creating external boundary markers excluding Gentiles from God’s covenant people. In Galatia, Paul was most concerned with how covenantal nomism was affecting his converts. How is their new found faith to be expressed in relation to the law? Since the Gentile converts claimed a share in Israel’s covenant with God through faith in the Jewish Messiah, do the Gentiles have to live in accordance with the law of Israel (following Jewish customs or becoming proselytes) in order to sustain that membership and its benefits?[16]

Reading Romans and Galatians through the lens of covenantal nomism rather than legalism has a profound effect on the meaning of those letters. Most significant is the understanding of the doctrine of justification. As N.T. Wright has written,

“Justification’ in the first century was not about how someone might establish a relationship with God. It was about God’s eschatological definition, both future and present of who was, in fact, a member of his people. In Sanders’ terms, it was not so much about ‘getting in’, or indeed about ‘staying in’, as about ‘how you could tell who was in.’ In standard Christian theological language, it wasn’t so much about soteriology as about ecclesiology not so much about salvation as about the church.”[17]

So, according to the New Perspective on Paul, justification is not a matter of how a sinner is made right with God. Instead, justification deals with authenticating membership in the covenant people of God. Wright views the Pauline doctrine of justification by faith as opposing Jewish nationalism, not religious legalism. Are the people of God defined by the badges of Jewish race?[18]

Wright asserts that while Paul does speak of how individual sinners are made right with a holy God, he does not do it using the language of justification, and that is not the issue Paul is dealing with in Romans and Galatians. Thus reading Galatians or Romans as if Paul is talking about being made right with God is to do violence to the text.[19] For example, how is one to understand Paul’s rebuke of Peter for not eating with Gentile believers in Galatians 11-14? Advocates of the New Perspective would point to this as a confirmation of covenantal nomism. The issue here is not, are these Gentiles saved, but should the Jewish believers eat a meal with them?

In summary, the New Perspective on Paul sees Second Temple Judaism as a religion that relied on salvation by grace, not on salvation by works. The law was intended to keep people in the covenant, not get them in. Therefore, Paul was not dealing with legalism in his letters to Rome or Galatia. He was dealing with a church membership issue, not a salvation issue. Paul’s critique of the Judaizers in Galatia, for example, was not that they were teaching one must be circumcised to be saved. Instead, he was opposing the nationalistic pride and bigotry of the Judaizers that sought to exclude Gentile believers from fellowship. This view profoundly redefines the doctrine of justification from being a soteriological issue to being an ecclesiological issue.

By Justin Nash

(Justin Nash serves as Director of Church Health & Communications for the Advent Christian General Conference)


[1] Krister Stendahl, “The Apostle Paul and the Introspective Conscience of the West,” Harvard Theological Review 56:3 (1961): 200.

[2] N.T. Wright, “The Paul of History and the Apostle of Faith,” Tyndale Bulletin 29 (1978): 78.

[3] C.G. Montefiore, Judaism and St. Paul, (New York: E.P. Dutton and Company, 1915) 21.

[4] E.P. Sanders, Paul and Palestinian Judaism: A Comparison of Patterns of Religion. (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press. 2017), 75.

[5] Ibid, 447-521.

[6] Ibid, 2.

[7] Ibid, 76-106.

[8] Ibid, 86.

[9] Sanders, 75.

[10] Stendahl, 200.

[11] Ibid, 202.

[12] James D.G. Dunn, The New Perspective on Paul: Revised Edition, (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2005), 162-163.

[13] Ibid, 163-164

[14] Dunn, 174.

[15] Ibid, 175.

[16] Ibid, 176-177.

[17] N.T. Wright, What Saint Paul Really Said: Was Paul of Tarsus the Real Founder of Christianity?, (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1997), 119.

[18] Ibid, 118-120.

[19] Ibid, 132.


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