The New Perspective on Paul on Trial in Durham

For those of you like me who are working on a doctorate, you probably dreamed in seminary/undergrad what it would be like to be at a top-notch institution and eavesdrop on great conversations and soak in every bit of wisdom and knowledge that drips from the glory of today’s best scholars (OK, now it is quite obvious I had no life in seminary…).  Well, my dream was colored by New Testament studies and especially the Apostle Paul.  Yesterday I got a chance to see one of those dreams played out in real life (Ben Blackwell can also share on his blog the surrealism of this experience).

If you wanted to concoct an academic recipe for a really riveting discussion on the state of the ‘New Perspective on Paul’, what ingredients might you want?  You certainly must have Jimmy Dunn.  But, it can’t all be pro-NPP, so how about an ex-NPP – Francis Watson, perhaps.  What about a historian’s view – John Barclay?  That is too lop-sided.  Dunn needs an advocate.  N T Wright?  What about Richard Hays (who must bring up ‘pistis christou’).  Well, we had all these and more at our first Durham (UK)-Duke symposium (on the theme of identity).  Francis Watson gave a paper claiming that we can only carry forward a few small insights from the NPP and we must now go ‘beyond the New Perspective’.  He criticized every area of the NPP.

He found the rather exclusive focus on ethnocentric imperialism in Dunn’s evaluation of Paul’s critique of Judaism to be too narrowly focused on sociology and not enough on Christology (this coming from a Watson who’s published monograph on this topic was originally subtitled ‘a sociological approach!).  Watson also contests the NPP idea that Paul would have understood Judaism to be a religion with grace as the primary element and nomism as secondary and/or subsequent (is this something that Watson and Gathercole have in common…strange…).  Watson draws attention to the idea that an essential difference between the pre-Christ Jewish pattern of religion and Paul’s expression of CHristianity has much to do the engagement between divine and human agency.

There is much more to say, but you can read it in Watson’s revision of his monograph on this topic (Eerdmans) and I recommend you do.  Watson is provocative, but very engaging.  Frankly, neither Dunn nor Wright had much to say in rebuttal.  It truly seems that we are at the dawn of a new age of interpreting Paul and we seem to be progressing ‘beyond’ the NPP, but not forgetting some of the key contributions Dunn et al have made.