The “New Perspective on Paul” Misconstrues Paul: Richard N. Longenecker’s New Greek Commentary on Romans
NPP Reading No.2
Richard N. Longenecker’s just published The Epistle to the Romans: A Commentary on the Greek Text in the New International Greek Testament Commentary Series (NIGTC) is the crowning achievement of the lifelong scholarship of an expert in Paul and Early Judaism. It is presently THE new standard Greek Commentary on Romans. Longenecker’s evaluation of the controversial New Perspective on Paul (NPP) demands careful consideration.
Summary. We must, therefore, conclude that “the new perspective on Paul” – despite its laudatory motivations, some very significant observations, and a fairly wide acceptance of that view today – actually misconstrues Paul’s use of the phrase “works of the law” and somewhat distorts his attitudes toward compatriot Jews and first-century Palestinian Judaism. For in its endeavors to highlight certain positive features within the “nomism” of ancient Judaism, it is somewhat blind to the “legalism” that was also present (as it is, sadly, in every religion, both ancient and modern). And in its attempt to restrict the definition of “works of the law” only to matters regarding prideful nationalism and cultural prejudice and thereby to minimize any connotation of “legalism,” it has run a bit roughshod over Paul’s argument in Rom 2:17-3:20.
To begin, we note that Paul speaks pejoratively about “the law” and “works of the law” in Galatians and Romans. The question is whether Paul’s use of the word νόμος refers to the whole Mosaic law, both ceremonial and moral or whether it refers only to the ceremonial law which came to an end with Christ. The Reformers like Luther and John Calvin, and the consensus of traditional scholarship agree that Paul refers to the whole law. Likewise, Paul is condemning legalism found in early Judaism when he asserts that “no one can obtain righteousness by keeping the law.” However, The New Perspective on Paul challenges the traditional scholarship consensus.
Given below is Longenecker’s extended critical analysis of the New Perspective on Paul:
[E.P.] Sanders argued that (1) Palestinian Judaism was not a legalistic religion; that is, it did not require Jews to observe the Mosaic law in order to “get in” or be accepted by God into his covenant, and so become God’s people – for Jews always considered themselves to be, by God’s grace and mercy, already in god’s covenant, and so in a right relationship with God; yet (2) Palestinian Judaism also taught that, having been received into God’s covenant by God’s grace and mercy, the Jews relationship with God within his covenant was to be maintained and expressed by obedience to the Mosaic law, that is, the Jews must obey the precepts of the Mosaic law in order to “stay in” or remain within that covenantal relationship with God, and so be, in truth, God’s people. Sanders called this type of religious orientation “covenantal nomism,” distinguishing it from any form of “‘work-righteousness’ concern, as commonly conceived.” And he delineated the “pattern” or “structure” of Jewish “covenantal nomism,” as depicted by earliest portions of the Talmud and other early rabbinic writings, as follow:
The “pattern” or “structure” of covenantal nomism is this: (1) God has chosen Israel and (2) given the law. The law implies both (3) God’s promise to maintain the election and (4) the requirement to obey. (5) God rewards obedience and punishes transgression. (6) The law provides for means of atonement, and atonement results in (7) maintenance or re-establishment of the covenantal relationship. (8) All those who are maintained in the covenant by obedience, atonement and God’s mercy belong to the group which will be saved. An important interpretation of the first and last points is that election and ultimately salvation are considered to be by God’s mercy rather than human achievement. [Pg. 363]
Sanders argued, therefore, that Paul must not be seen as faulting Judaism as a “legalistic, self-righteousing, self- aggrandizing” religion of works, rather, Paul faults Judaism simply because, as Sanders put it, “it is not Christianity.” Traditional interpreters, Sanders insisted, have misunderstood Paul. And because of their failure to understand Paul, they have failed also to understand Palestinian Judaism. Thus with respect to Paul’s use of the phrase “works of the law,” interpreters today must understand that Paul was “not against a supposed Jewish position that enough good works earn righteousness”; rather, he was simply expressing his own view, which had been drawn from his own convictions about Jesus Christ and his own type of participationist-eschatological soteriology, that one need not be Jewish to be ‘righteous.’ [pg. 364]
[NKW: What does E.P Sanders mean by participationist-eschatology? For Sanders a Jew is born into a covenant and remains in the covenant if he keeps the laws and rules of Judaism. However, a Christian enters the new covenant by conversion and is transferred from one domain into another. In Christ he participates in the eschatological kingdom. Both the Jew and the Christian rely on God’s grace to enter the covenant community and both must maintain the covenant membership by an obedient faith.]
Suffice it only to say by way of criticism of Sanders and Dunn that I believe their respective views on the expression “works of the law” in Rom 3:20, as well as in its appearances elsewhere in Galatians and Romans, is faulty. For to argue (1) that Paul’s use of “works of the law” has been misunderstood by past interpreters, or that he may have been under some type of foreign (perhaps Hellenistic) influence when he wrote those words (as does Sanders), or (2) that Paul was using “works of the law” with reference only to Jewish legislation on circumcision, Sabbath, and certain dietary matters, which some Jews of that day were using in a nationalistic fashion as their “identity markers” and “boundary markers,” and not to any form of Jewish “legalism” as usually understood (as does Dunn), is to twist the evidence in support of an alien thesis.
Sanders and Dunn seem to be attempting, each in his own way, to exonerate Paul from the charge of being anti-Jewish, anti-Judaistic, or anti-Semitic, and that is, to some extent, certainly laudatory. More importantly, Sanders and Dunn want to highlight the emphases in the teachings of mainline Judaism in Paul’s day on (1) God’s election of Israel, (2) divine grace and mercy, (3) human faith in response to God, and (4) a doctrine of forgiveness – which are features of great importance that need to be highlighted, particularly in response to the bleak picture of Jewish theology that was painted by many Christian interpreters during the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. But as important as their motivations and these emphases may be, it still must be said that the treatment of Sanders and Dunn of Paul’s phrase “works of the law” in Rom 3:20a (and elsewhere in Galatians and Romans) and of his pejorative statements about Jews and the Mosaic law in Rom 2:17 – 3:19 (and elsewhere in his letters), misconstrue Paul’s teaching – and so fail short of the understanding properly what he said about the Jews and what his attitude was regarding mainline Judaism in his day.
So scholars have had to base their understanding about what Paul meant by “works of the law” principally on contextual considerations and circumstantial historical data, with very little parallel linguistic evidence available – though, of late, that linguistic database has been somewhat improved by six reconstructed Qumran texts identified as 4QMMT and published as 4Q394-99, as will be discussed below.
[NKW: Scholars face the problem of paucity of linguistic parallels to Paul’s usage of “ἔργα νόμου”, “works of the law” in classical Greek and Hebrew sources. Longenecker therefore suggests an understanding of the word be based on contextual considerations and circumstantial historical data found in Josephus and six recently reconstructed Qumran texts from the Dead Sea Scrolls identified as 4QMMT].
Based, therefore, not only on textual considerations (which are always of great importance for an understanding of any author’s use if any particular word or phrase) and on circumstantial historical data (which may be considered supportive), but also now an expanded linguistic database (as drawn from the Dead Sea Scrolls, and principally from 4QMMT), it seems highly likely that the expression έργα νόμου (“works of the law”) was used by Paul to refer to “deeds done in obedience to the Mosaic law” that were viewed in a legalistic manner as gaining “righteousness” before God and so acceptance by him. Paul’s anarthrous use of νόμος in the phrase έργα νόμου, when compared with the generally articular use התורה in 4QMMTmay be thought to pose a problem. But the context of the use of νόμος or ό νόμος in each passage where the word appears is far more important than the presence or absence of an article. Further, the genitive form of νόμου may be interpreted as being either objective, that is, “works that fulfil the law,” or subjective, that is, “works that the law requires.” But while the subjective genitive is perhaps more likely, either reading suggests that Paul used the phrase in a pejorative manner.
Summation. We must, therefore, conclude that “the new perspective on Paul” – despite its laudatory motivations, some very significant observations, and a fairly wide acceptance of that view today – actually misconstrues Paul’s use of the phrase “works of the law” and somewhat distorts his attitudes toward compatriot Jews and first-century Palestinian Judaism. For in its endeavors to highlight certain positive features within the “nomism” of ancient Judaism, it is somewhat blind to the “legalism” that was also present (as it is, sadly, in every religion, both ancient and modern). And in its attempt to restrict the definition of “works of the law” only to matters regarding prideful nationalism and cultural prejudice and thereby to minimize any connotation of “legalism,” it has run a bit roughshod over Paul’s argument in Rom 2:17-3:20.
Rather, we argue, in agreement with the great majority of Christian commentators of the past, that here in 3:20 – as well as in the phrase’s other appearances in Galatians and Romans (see above) – Paul was using “works of the law” pejoratively in an effort to deny the legalism that the phrase connoted in certain Jewish and /or Jewish Christian circles. Further, we believe it likely (1) that Paul viewed “works of the law” as a religious aphorism, which came into the religious parlance of at least some Jews during the period of early Judaism (i.e., c. 200 B.C. to A.D. 200), (2) that he believed his Christian addressees at Rome also knew this aphorism and its use by others, but (3) that he was fairly confident that his addresses agreed with him in his usage, and not with those who used it in a legalistic fashion. Thus Paul uses the expression “works of the law” in his closing statement of Rom 3:20 to summarize his teaching in 1:18-3:19: while in principle “those who obey the law will be declared righteous” (2:13), in practice no one is able to obey the law well enough to gain righteousness and be accepted by God – with the result that both Jews and Gentiles are under the dominance of sin and under God’s condemnation. And therefore all endeavors to be “declared righteous in his [God’s] sight by works of the law” are futile.
SOURCE: Richard Longenecker, Excursus: “The law”, “Works of the law”, and “The New Perspective” in The Epistle to the Romans: A Commentary on the Greek Text. NIGTC (Eerdmans 2016), pp. 362-370.