Book Review:Approaches to Paul: A Student’s Guide to Recent Scholarship, by Magnus Zetterholm

Approaches to Paul: A Student’s Guide to Recent Scholarship, Magnus Zetterholm, Fortress Press, 2009,  288 pp. 978-0800663377

There is no doubt that within Biblical scholarship, Paul is one of the most debated figures within Biblical scholarship. Though this book was written back in 2009, the publisher was gracious enough to send me a review copy. At this point, I have built quite a library on Pauline studies. However, in relation to Paul, I was looking for a book that highlights the history of Pauline thought. This book doesn’t disappoint. Zetterholm spends the first portion of the book discussing Paul’s background as well as an analysis of key Pauline texts.

In relation to Philippians 3:4b-6 which is an autobiographical note that may confirm Luke’s account. Paul writes: If anyone else has reason to be confident in the flesh, I have more: circumcised on the eighth day, a member of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew born of Hebrews; as to the law, a Pharisee; as to zeal, a persecutor of the church; as to righteousness under the law, blameless. Zetterholmn says:

“Besides referring to his Jewish identity in several ways, Paul here describes himself as a Pharisee. This agrees well with the statement given in Acts that he had studied under Gamaliel, who was a leading Pharisee. The Pharisees were a religious, and to a certain extent, political, party that emphasized the importance of continuous interpretation of the Torah. One problem that occupied the Pharisees was how to apply the Torah to new situations. Unlike the Sadducees, the Pharisees accepted the oral Torah, that is, all interpretations and adaptations of the biblical text, which were considered divinely inspired and just as binding as the original precepts. In the Gospels, especially Matthew, the Pharisees are portrayed as the main opponents of Jesus, but the evangelist’s presentation of them as hypocrites and exponents of a rigid, petrified religion must be viewed as a caricature. The Pharisees represented a pious movement. They enjoyed wide popular support and were dedicated to an interpretation of the biblical texts that was anything but rigid and literal.”- Kindle Location, 255-259.

As the book progresses, Zetterholm summarizes the contributions of Bultmann, F.C Baur, and the  Tubigen school and how these contributions shaped Pauline studies.

Zetterman then discusses one of the most heated debates in Pauline studies-The New Perspective on Paul. But before jumping into the NPP issue, he spends considerable time discussing the Reformation/Lutheran view of Paul. Having taught some classes on the Jewish Roots of Christianity in local churches, there is no doubt that the majority of Christians hold to what Zetterholm says here:

“Regardless of the individuals behind the demands, Paul reacts most vehemently, and Galatians, as well as Romans, contains many Torah-critical statements. In Galatians 2:16a, Paul writes, “we know that a person is justified not by the works of the law but through faith in Jesus Christ.” In Galatians 3:13a, he maintains, “Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law,” and in Galatians 5:4 he thunders: “You who want to be justified by the law have cut yourselves off from Christ; you have fallen away from grace.” Here the matter seer- clear-cut: Paul has dissociated himself from one of the most central tenets of Judaism. the Torah, and replaced it with Christ. Those who seek their righteousness in the Torah are foredoomed to failure and barred from grace. Paul really deem., to have abandoned Judaism and instead created a new religion. This is exactly the way scholars have traditionally assessed it, and there is a good deal of truth in Brad Young’s description of the situation:
“The consensus of scholarship has come to view [Paul] as a Hellenistic Jew who departed radically from his Judaism. Scholars view him as being influenced by his upbringing in the Stoic environs of Tarsus and various streams of thought flowing forth from paganism, Greco-Roman culture, popular Hellenistic philosophy, mystery religious cults, and Gnostic systems. Seldom is the origin of Paul’s faith seen as rooted in Pharisaism.” Paul is commonly thought to have left Judaism because he had realized that the Torah represents a person’s ambition to become righteous by means of his or her own efforts. Such an endeavor is not only impossible, as no one can keep the entire Torah all the time, but it also represents the cardinal sin-self-righteousness. On this view, when Jesus appears to Paul on the road to Damascus (Acts 9:3-9), Paul is struck by the insight of the basic fault of Judaism and converts to Christianity. “The one who is righteous will live by faith,” has often been regarded as the all-embracing conflict between Jewish self-righteousness obtained by keeping the precepts of the Torah, and Christian faith in Jesus as a basis for an attributive, undeserved righteousness, on the other. Strangely enough, Paul quotes a Jewish text, in fact from the prophet Habakkuk, who wrote: “Look at the proud! Their spirit is not right in them, but the righteous live by their faith” (Hab 2:4). When Paul formulates what would later become the cornerstone of the Protestant churches-righteousness by faith alone-he accordingly refers to the very Jewish tradition with which he is presumed to have broken. Righteousness, forgiveness, and atonement are, of course, all central Jewish concepts, and when Paul attempts to explain how this righteousness by faith alone functions (Romans 4), he selects one of the prominent figures of Judaism, Abraham, as an example.- Kindle Location, 148-164.

In reaction to the traditional Lutheran paradigm, Zetterholm then spends a considerable amount of time summarizing the work of E.P. Sanders who was one of the main scholars behind what is called “The New Perspective of Paul.”  He says:

“Sanders proved with extraordinary clarity that the traditional picture had arisen through the use of a selection of Jewish texts confirming the Lutheran image of ancient Judaism established long ago. Sanders, however, found an entirely different picture of Judaism. Judaism was, according to Sanders, characterized not by legalism but by covenantal nomism God, by grace, having chosen the Jewish people. God indeed punishes transgressions and rewards faithfulness, Sanders argues, but the important point is that a broken relationship with God can be restored by the atonement system the Torah offers. Strictly speaking, Sanders’s picture of Judaism is not new. Practically the same view that he emphasizes was pointed out already at the beginning of the twentieth century. The difference was that Sanders’s book enjoyed a very widespread circulation. One of the reasons why his interpretation of Judaism became so generally accepted was that Sanders did not come to very far-reaching conclusions about Paul. Sanders is of the opinion that Paul did not adhere to the model of covenantal nomism, which in principle characterized all Jewish groups during the period from roughly 200 BCE to 200 CE. According to Sanders, Paul denied the importance of Jewish mainstays such as the covenant, the election, and the law. His main criticism against Judaism, Sanders says, was that God had chosen another, that is, a specific relationship between the Torah and the covenant that God has made with the Jewish people. Observing the Torah is thus not a means for the Jew to merit justification, but the consequence of way of saving humankind than by means of the Torah. The problem with Judaism was simply that it was not Christianity. Regarding Paul’s relationship to Judaism, Sanders thus came to the same conclusion as most scholars at that time-Paul left Judaism-but according to Sanders, he did it for reasons others than those generally given. The anti-Jewish component thus became considerably toned down, while Paul still could be seen to be in opposition to Judaism. New Perspectives on Paul Initially, it did not seem as if Sanders’s revision of Judaism would have any dramatic impact on Pauline scholarship.

Zetterholm even discusses what is called “a radical new perspective.” Thus, there are some scholars how have even moved beyond the New Perspective. He says:

During the 1980’s, however, scholars such as J. D. G. Dunn and N. T. Wright pointed out that Sanders had not fully understood the consequences of his own interpretation of Judaism with respect to Paul. Dunn, who coined the term “the new perspective on Paul,” suggested, as did Wright, that Paul only opposed those aspects of the “Torah that served as specific Jewish markers of identity, thus separating Jews from non-Jews. The problem, Dunn maintained, was not the Torah or covenantal nomism, but Jewish national righteousness. In the course of the ensuing decades, a large number of books and articles were published in which the authors made attempts to understand Paul from this new perspective. By redefining the problem of Paul’s relation to Judaism, new perspective scholars brought other aspects of Paul’s writings to the fore and the inherent anti-Judaism prevalent in the traditional opposition between Paul and Judaism was significantly downplayed-but not obliterated. Radicalism and Reactions Some scholars soon reached the conclusion that the new perspective had not gone far enough with regard to Paul’s Jewishness. They pointed out that the traditional dichotomy between Judaism and Christianity and between Judaism and Paul still constituted an important fundament even within the new perspective. Thus instead of assuming that Paul opposed Judaism, scholars like Lloyd Gaston, Stanley Stowers, and Caroline Johnson Hodge all assume that Paul should be even more closely related to first-century Judaism than scholars from within the new perspective usually imagine. This change of perspective has indeed led to new, challenging results, and scholars working from a radical new perspective have reached fundamentally different conclusions than scholars before them. Within the radical new perspective, many of the established truths about Paul have thus been challenged, for instance, the idea that Paul ceased observing the Torah or that he created a new religion based on universalism instead of Jewish particularism. The cornerstone in this perspective on Paul is the natural development of Sanders’s revision of Judaism and the new perspective on Paul. If the old caricature of Judaism can be proven false and it can be assumed that first-century Judaism was not characterized by legalism and works-righteousness, it seems quite unlikely that Paul found reason to  Judaism for Christianity – Kindle Location, 2872-2883.

When it comes to two of the most famous British scholars (N.T. Wright and James Dunn), he says:

“Both Dunn’s “new” and Wright’s “fresh” perspective of Paul offer challenging theological alternatives to the traditional Lutheran interpretations without entirely undermining many of the major aspects of Lutheran theology, Wright even aims at resolving the tension between the old and the new perspectives on Paul by emphasizing that Paul dealt both with the general inclusion of non-Jews and the issue of how individual sinners are put right with God. The same tendency is discernible also with Dunn.’ Thus even from the position of the new perspectives, a fairly traditional Christian theology seems possible, even though some of its critics sometimes tend to view things differently. While the new perspective most likely still represents a radical challenge to normative Christian theology, it is today probably justified to speak of it as representing an exegetical middle position. From the traditional standpoint, the new perspective indeed offers an alternative reading of Paul against a more nuanced view of ancient Judaism. Yet, some scholars have gone even further with regard to locating Paul within a Jewish context. Even though proponents of the new perspective emphasize Paul’s Jewishness, it is important to note that Dunn’s Paul has abandoned important aspects of the Torah. Wright’s Paul remains within a Judaism stripped of most of its hallmarks, so redefined that ethnicity no longer matters, and “Israel” becomes a designation for Jews and non-Jews fused together into a third entity, indeed no longer pagan, but not really Jewish either, at least not from the standpoint of most Jews in antiquity. The new perspective on Paul should at least partly be regarded as a Christian theological attempt to come to terms with the new view of Judaism while still establishing a well-defined distinction between Judaism and Christianity.- Kindle Locations, 1615-1625.

In summarizing the current debate he says:

 “Pauline studies today exist in a tension between a traditional Reformation perspective, ultimately aiming at legitimizing a neoorthodox standpoint, and methodologically sophisticated, radical attempts to understand Paul from other assumptions than the traditional ones. The increasing amount of studies within and even outside the field of New Testament studies (as in the case of secular philosophy) clearly demonstrates that the apostle to the Gentiles has not ceased to fascinate diverse audiences. Thus, there are 1) scholars who basically work from a traditional, Reformation perspective; 2) scholars who would define themselves as adhering to the new perspective; and 3) scholars who have moved beyond the new perspective into what we may call a “radical new perspective.” These major traditions within Pauline scholarship are by no means homogenous. Scholars belonging to the same tradition may very well arrive at different interpretations of a given text or suggest even contradictory solutions to a certain problem. Accordingly, there is a significant diversity both within each of these schools and among the respective traditions. What defines these traditions is rather a general agreement on some basic shared perspectives.”

What was one of the most interesting parts of this book was at the very end, Zetterholm utlizes the work of Thomas Kuhn and how we can learn quite a bit about the challenge of overturning a paradigm. He says

“In 1962, Thomas S. Kuhn (1922-1996), then Professor of the History of Science at the University of California, Berkeley, published his work The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. In this, his most influential work, he suggests that scientific evolution does not develop continuously, but that different scientific paradigms succeed one another and drastically change a certain scientific field. A paradigm is made up of the sum of theories and methods used within a certain field and leads to the establishment of a kind of scientific, conceptual worldview, which Kuhn called normal science. Within the paradigm of normal science, where most research is carried out, scholars work without directly questioning the overall framework of interpretation. Rather there is a tendency to focus on con firming the predominant paradigm. A distinct norm for which solutions to a given problem are acceptable is established. In this way, certain expectations regarding the results of an investigation also arise. Notice Kuhn says “Rather there is a tendency to focus on con firming the predominant paradigm.”

Now what does a scientist such as Thomas Kuhn have to do with Pauline studies? From my own experience, what I like best about the NPP, and even some of the “radical new perspective” views is that it puts Paul back in his first century context. Obviously, the Reformation/Lutheran view of Paul is a ‘paradigm.’

Thousands of Christians assume there was one “Judaism” in the first century and then Jesus and Paul came along and got rid of it and started the religion called Christianity. This is sad and quite frankly a paradigm that has continued on to this day.

In other posts, I have mentioned the following comments by Craig Evans who says:

But we must ask if Paul has created a new institution, a new organization, something that stands over against Israel, something that Jesus himself never anticipated. From time to time learned tomes and popular books have asserted that the Christian church is largely Paul’s creation, that Jesus himself never intended for such a thing to emerge. Frankly, I think the hypothesis of Paul as creator of the church or inventor of Christianity is too simplistic. A solution that is fairer to the sources, both Christian and Jewish, is more complicated. -Evans, Craig A., From Jesus to the Church: The First Christian Generation .

Linguistically speaking, Christianity didn’t exist in the first century. Judaism in the first century was not seen as a single “way.”  There were many “Judaism’s”- the Sadducees, the Pharisees, Essenes, Zealots, etc.  The followers of Jesus are referred to as a “sect” (Acts 24:14;28:22); “the sect of the Nazarenes” (24:5).  Josephus refers to the “sects” of Essenes, Pharisees, the Sadducees, and the Zealots. The first followers of Jesus were considered to be a sect of Second Temple Judaism.  For all the different sects, they did have some core beliefs such as adherence to the Torah, belief in one God, and belief in Israel as God’s elect people and the Temple was part of the social glue that bound them together as a people group.From my own experience, most Christians and Jewish people like the current boundaries. In other words, we have two separate religions- Judaism and Christianity. Thus, we don’t care much about as to how we got to that place. One thing for sure: If we discuss the “imperial Christianity” that was legalized in the fourth century by Constantine  and whether Jesus or Paul is the founder of that, the answer is no. By then, the Christianity that existed was so far away from what Jesus and Paul had done, it had morphed into a new and separate religion.

What’s my point? The Reformation/Lutheran reading of Paul has been one of the main catalysts that has allowed Christians to assume Judaism is a dead, legalistic religion (go back and read the quote at the start of this post). It can’t be stressed enough that we need to read the Bible on its terms, and that includes reading it in its ANE setting. One thing for sure: Pauline studies is exciting. I look forward to what Pauline scholars will be saying twenty years from now. If you want an introductory book on Pauline thought, including both history and theology, this book is an excellent resource.