Sorry to keep you in suspended animation on the Piper v. Wright thing. I promised 4 posts, ended up splitting post 3 into two, and never came back around to part 4. (Part 1, Part 2, Part 3a, Part 3b).
I promised that part 4 would be some sort of summary, like “Why nobody cares about this in NT scholarship.” Let’s see what I can do on that front.
Now, you might be saying to yourself, “What do you mean nobody cares? Isn’t a Piper vs. Wright debate the main event at the Evangelical Theological Society in November.” To which I would say, “Yes, and that’s just my point.” Maybe you’ll see what I mean by the end.
Several years ago, fall of 2007, I was part of planning a conference on Paul for Emergent-like people. As the New Testament scholars sat around chatting with more church and theology oriented people, we were talking through what we wanted to cover, how we wanted to approach Paul. Just batting around ideas, someone said, “What is the angle? New Perspective?” To this, one of the Paul scholars said, “No, I think we’re pretty much post-New Perspective now.”
Three years ago, New Testament scholarship had already moved on. And that doesn’t mean that 2007 was the year we decided to leave it behind. It means that Sanders had broached the issues in the late 70s, Jimmy Dunn had codified them in an early 80s lecture followed by his late 80s Romans commentary; Wright had written Climax of the Covenant that worked through some of the key texts, and so by the end of the 90s scholars had worked through the issues taken what they were going to take left what they were going to leave and moved on.
Enter the church (bless its heart) 15-30 years later, all excited and agitated over these new developments.
In some ways this makes sense. People outside the academy are often unaware of the programmatic nature of an argument being advanced in a 1,000+ page commentary, for example. But when Wright publishes a 120 page book on Paul in his accessible prose, and directly challenging many long-held ideas about justification, imputation, righteousness, and the like, then it is much easier for the ideas to spread broadly.
So what has the academy done with all this while the church was doing productive things like feeding the hungry and preaching the good news?
First, I think it is fair to say that in the academy in general Sanders’ view on Judaism is assumed. What I mean is this: people approach early Judaism assuming that it was not crassly legalistic, and therefore approach Paul as though he is trying to describe Christianity in contrast to what a modern religious scholar would call an accurate, Torah-centric Judaism, not in contrast to some degraded legalistic version that had lost its moorings.
I would also say, in general, that people see Judaism as an ethnic description; that is to say, it is a way to describe a people that includes their religious practices, but that also carries a host of other, at times equally important, connotations.
I’ve been talking with some folks recently about why religious studies scholars have started calling “Jews” “Judeans.” They’re telling me that the point is that Ioudaioi carries a host of “ethnic” connotations not limited to religious beliefs and practices. This ethnic move was the direction Dunn advocated when he started talking about “works of the Law” as ethnic boundary markers.
With respect to Paul himself, the New Perspective helped clear the ground of theological readings that were insufficiently attuned to the eschatological (or what Martyn calls “apocalyptic”) interpretations.
Once Judaism is not described as a gross degradation from pure OT biblical religion, one has to come up with another reason for Paul’s stark contrasts between “the Law” and “Christ”, between, “works of law” and “faith in Christ,” between “grace in Christ” and “works of Torah.” This has pushed New Testament scholars to see that Paul is only able to say what he says about the Old because of a new conviction about the New that was not possible before he met the resurrected Jesus.
So even though very few scholars want to get on board, wholesale, with Wright’s Paul program, the “New Perspective” debate as such is not a hot topic because some of the basic assumptions that separate the anti-NP people from Wright do not separate all that many people in the North American and British New Testament academy once you bracket out those conservative Evangelicals who seem to be arguing against the NP mostly to preserve traditional theological articulations.