Is a new perspective on Paul actually NPP if it denies Sanders’s assertion that first century Judaism was a religion of grace, not works, but it accepts the other main points? I am convinced that Paul was, in fact, opposing the legalism of the Jews, that they were true legalists attempting to be justified by the Law of Moses, not by trust in God’s grace and mercy.
At the same time I assert that Tom Wright is right to say that Romans and the Letter to the Galatians are not primarily about justification by faith alone, but the status of the Gentile in the new reality created by the cross and the resurrection of Jesus.
After reading Sanders and the Jewish literature of the time of Jesus, I found his argument totally unconvincing. If the Jews had a religion of grace, it is the kind of grace recognized by Pelagians and legalists of all sorts, namely, a grace that rewards human effort and status. It is not the free and arbitrary grace revealed in the cross of Christ. Thus Sanders definition of grace is the kind of grace that legalists insist upon, a definition that is entirely at odds with the Reformation and the Bible.
Dunn says that his NPP:
“… builds on Sanders’ new perspective on Second Temple Judaism, and Sanders’ reeassertion of the basic graciousness expressed in Judaism’s understanding and practice of covenantal nomism”.
Bishop Tom agrees, and takes it as a settled fact that Sanders is right.
While I greatly admire his exegesis of Romans, I have to disagree with him on this. It seems to me that Paul’s argument is an extended exegesis of the Old Testament, in which he is saying,
“Look, you Jews have misread the Bible, and misread it catastrophically. You think that being Jewish and following the Mosaic Covenant means that you will be alright, but you are very wrong. Salvation has always depended upon God’s grace, even if you are Jewish. Don’t drag Moses into this, because your acceptance by God depends upon whether you are Abraham’s seed or not, and just being Jewish and circumcised is no guarantee of that. It is either by free grace or pure works, not a mixture of the two.”
Dunn also says:
It (NPP) suggest that “works of the law” became a key slogan in Paul’s exposition of his justification gospel because so many of Paul’s fellow Jewish believers were insisting on certain works as indispensable to their own (and others’) standing within the covenant, and therefore as indispensable to salvation”.
Are we think then that the unbelieving Jews had a religion of grace, but that the Jewish Christians had become legalists? Really? Isn’t it more realistic to think that they brought their legalism with them from their tradition?