Years ago, I was talking with a friend on the phone when he began telling me about finishing E.P. Sanders Paul and Palestinian Judaism and another work by Jimmy Dunn. The issues that he brought up from those books seemed so foreign and out of reach that he might have well been reading to me the Nag Hammadi manuscripts in the original Coptic (which I’m sure he would have liked to do also). At the time of that conversation, I had studied a couple of the classic studies on the historical Jesus, but long scholarly tomes on the apostle Paul were another matter. Talking about the impact that the 4QMMT Dead Sea Scroll had on the way we read Paul seemed an exercise for an old librarian in Cairo somewhere, not for a 20-something campus pastor. And yet, while I knew that those ideas mattered, and mattered a great deal, I wondered where to begin. I wish that Garwood Anderson’s book had been on my shelf back then, because it is the place to start. One Amazon reviewer said all you need to know: “If you like John Piper and N.T. Wright, buy this book!”
For those of us who care deeply about the New Testament, especially Paul, Professor Anderson’s book on Paul published last year is like pulling away the curtains to let the light in. “Friendly to all but friends to none” was the phrase that kept coming to mind as Anderson finds something to like in both the new, old, and post-new perspectives on Paul but yet is not content to take any approach wholesale. He cites a particular kinship with Michael Bird’s approach, “especially in his care to make rapprochement between divided factions, showing that the differences are less severe than frequently supposed” (108).
Anderson’s study is incredibly learned and yet is lively reading. (To read or not read all of the footnotes the first time through was my continual dilemma.) As the well-respected Pauline scholar Michael Gorman blurbs on the back, “Anderson has mastered the literature produced by the traditional, new and post-new perspectives on Paul.” And yet the reader takes comfort in Anderson’s honest confession on the first page of the book that “If I were granted but one desideratum of Pauline scholarship it would be that they all take a decade of Jubilee, cease publication, and let me catch up.”
All of the big names are here and introduced: Sanders, Hays, Wright, Dunn, Gorman, Barclay, Campbell, Martyn, Bird, and Watson; and all of the debates are summarily dissected: pistis christou, justification, impartation and imputation, solution and plight, a “center” of Pauline scholarship, works and law, Paul’s “conversion” as well as fair-length treatments of contentious passages like Romans 3:21-4:28 and Philippians 3:1-11 that contain material seized by both perspectives. Admittedly, those who have done no to little reading in Pauline studies (maybe you are scratching your head at the above list) will have to work hard to find their way around Anderson’s book, but for my money, there is no better work out that is both a generous and accessible introduction to serious Pauline scholarship— as well as a contribution to the scholarship itself—than Paul’s New Perspective.
In large part, Anderson is in lock step with the new perspective (and he admits there really is no such monolith as “the” new perspective) but believes that some of their positions become “reductive overcorrections.” The provocative thesis that drives Anderson’s book past the first 150 pages of fantastic summary of the Pauline debates is that contradictory schools of Pauline interpretation are “both right just not at the same time” (379). That is because neither perspective pays adequate attention to the fact that Paul was only human and that, inevitably, his theology would have changed and shifted over time. And so Anderson proposes rapproachment between the either/or debates in Pauline scholarship by looking at how Paul’s thought developed over time. He says, “The shortcomings of both the TPP (traditional perspective on Paul) and the NPP (new perspective on Paul) are accounted for in the same way: both schools of interpretation are insufficiently attentive to the manner in which Paul’s soteriology has developed from his earliest to later writings” (ibid). In other words, the new perspective is right to stress that phrases like “works of the law” in Galatians is written as shorthand for Jewish ethnic descent (which includes “boundary markers” like circumcision table fellowship) and should not be read as generic good deeds done in order to merit favor with God. And yet, those who transfer that reading to “works” as mere shorthand for “works of the law” fail to adequately see how Paul’s thought has undergone development from specific Jewish and Gentile concerns to more basic anthropological considerations.
Though Anderson’s developmental thesis does not depend on enlargement of the accepted seven-letter Pauline corpus, a chunk of the book is devoted to making a case for the disputed letters. Anderson makes a case for the inclusion of Colossians, Ephesians, and the Pastoral Epistles, along with the undisputed Galatians, Romans, 1 Thessalonians, 1 & 2 Corinthians, Philippians and Philemon. The extension of the Pauline corpus from the undisputed seven letters to a contested 13 letter corpus is important, Anderson believes, because it allows us to fill out Paul’s theology and development: “I’m persuaded that excessive trepidation on this matter has precluded New Testament scholars from seeing a possibly larger picture” (166). In arguing for their authenticity, Anderson summarizes his case by saying that “far from a misunderstanding of or derivation from Paul’s soteriology, these letters corroborate a trajectory already evident in the undisputed letters, so much so that one would be justified in thinking that Paul himself wrote them” (381).
Let me end by quoting a juicy bit at the conclusion of Anderson’s book that will give you a feel for where Anderson is going and hopefully will entice you to pick this one up:
The rapprochement offered here succeeds only under two conditions, to be sketched now briefly: 1) that justification cease to be the center and preoccupation of Pauline theology such that it is made to bear weight for which it was not intended and 2) that union with Christ once and for all take [sic] its place as the central and integrative fulcrum of Pauline soteriology in all of its juridical, relational, transformational, and ecclesial dimensions (384).
For those looking for a way to better understand New Testament and Pauline scholarship and the points in the key debates, there is no better place to begin than Paul’s New Perspective. But I must warn you, once you begin reading in Pauline studies, it’s hard to stop. But it will make you read your New Testament like you never have before. As Wesley Hill says, in Anderson’s book “one is reminded yet again why wrestling with Paul is so invigorating.”