Origins of The New Perspective on Paul by James D. G. Dunn

“The New Perspective on Paul” was the title of James Dunn’s 1982 Manson Memorial Lecture at the University of Manchester, England. The title was provoked by the then recent work of E. P. Sanders, Paul and Palestinian Judaism, published in 1977. The lecture responded positively to Sanders’ vigorous protest against the view, then still dominant since the Reformation, that the Judaism of Paul’s time was a legalistic and even degenerate religion of self-achievement. Sanders made the case that a fundamental tenet of the religion of Israel and early Judaism was the covenant: the conviction that God had chosen Israel to be his own special people and had made a covenant (an agreement or contract) with them to be their only God and they his people. The law was given at Mount Sinai not to enable Israel to become God’s people but to dictate how those who were already God’s people should live. Sanders called this “covenantal nomism”: Israel’s place in God’s plan was established by the covenant, which in turn required Israel’s obedience to the law (nomos).

The Manson lecture also critiqued Sanders’ then-forthcoming book Paul, the Law and the Jewish People (published in 1983), arguing that Sanders had failed to bring out the coherence of Paul’s response to Judaism as he had redefined/rediscovered it. The lecture and its sequels went on to argue that there was another important and often-neglected aspect of the law: in order to mark Israel as set apart for God, the law required Israel to set itself apart from the (other) nations (as in Lev 20:24-26). The law was a boundary protecting Israel from the defilements of the surrounding nations (as in the Letter of Aristeas 139-142), in effect reinforcing the exclusiveness of Israel’s claim upon Yahweh. The lecture argued that in Gal 2:16, where Paul for the first time affirmed that “a person is justified not by the works of the law but only through faith in Jesus Christ,” by ‘works of the law’ Paul had primarily in view the most prominent boundary markers still crucial for most Jewish believers in Jesus—circumcision (Gal 2:2-9) and Jewish dietary requirements (Gal 2:11-14)—which, Paul charges, Jewish believers in Jerusalem and Antioch had tried to ‘compel’ the Gentile believers to observe, “to judaize/live like Jews” (Gal 2:3, Gal 2:14). These were ‘the works of the law’ which in effect Paul accused Peter of trying to enforce upon Gentile believers (Gal 2:15-16).

Sanders and Dunn have both met with criticism; Sanders for overemphasizing the covenant aspect of “covenantal nomism” and Dunn both for an overly narrow understanding of “works of the law” and for replacing criticism of Jewish legalism with that of Jewish exclusivism. The important contribution of “the new perspective,” however, has been not to supplant or replace “the old perspective” but to emphasize a dimension of Paul’s teaching on justification hitherto mostly ignored: that central to Paul’s gospel was bringing Jew and Gentile together in common worship of God (Rom 15:8-12), breaking down “the dividing wall” between Jew and Gentile, making the two into one new humanity and reconciling both to God in one body through faith in Jesus Christ (Eph 2:14-3:6).

The resulting debate has largely focused on whether Paul’s gospel is in effect a different form of “covenantal nomism”:  given Paul’s insistence that obedience is essential (“the obedience of faith,” Rom 1:5), and that judgment will be (for Christians too) “according to works” (Rom 2:6-11; 2Cor 5:10), how different is his teaching from the Hebrew Bible’s and early Judaism’s similar insistence?

James D. G. Dunn, "Origins of The New Perspective on Paul", n.p. [cited 24 Sep 2022]. Online:


James D. G. Dunn

James D. G. Dunn
Emeritus Professor, Durham University

James D. G. Dunn, emeritus Lightfoot Professor of Divinity, Durham University (1982-2003), lives in Chichester, West Sussex, England. His books include The Epistle to the Galatians (Hendrickson, 1995), The Theology of Paul the Apostle (Eerdmans, 1997), and Christianity in the Making, Vol. 2: Beginning from Jerusalem (Eerdmans, 2009).

School of thought holding that the apostle Paul remained a Jew even as he became dedicated to Christ and that his writings should be interpreted through the lens of first-century Judaism, not later Christian Protestantism.

Common Era; a notation used in place of A.D. ("Anno Domini") for years in the current calendar era, about the last 2,000 years.

The application of critical models of scholarship to a text.

The historical era of Judaism spanning the periods of Persian and Roman rule, from the 6th century BCE to the 3rd century CE.

a person who is not Jewish

A gospel is an account that describes the life of Jesus of Nazareth.

A West Semitic language, in which most of the Hebrew Bible is written except for parts of Daniel and Ezra. Hebrew is regarded as the spoken language of ancient Israel but is largely replaced by Aramaic in the Persian period.

The religion and culture of Jews. It emerged as the descendant of ancient Israelite Religion, and is characterized by monotheism and an adherence to the laws present in the Written Torah (the Bible) and the Oral Torah (Talmudic/Rabbinic tradition).

An early (second-century B.C.E.) Jewish document considered part of the Pseudepigrapha and dealing mostly with the circumstances and rationale for the creation of the Septuagint, a Hellenistic Greek translation of the Hebrew Bible.

Morality or theology based on law (from the Greek word "nomos," for law).

A sixteenth-century movement in Europe that questioned the authority of the Roman Catholic Church.

Lev 20:24-26

24But I have said to you: You shall inherit their land, and I will give it to you to possess, a land flowing with milk and honey. I am the Lord your God; I have ... View more

Gal 2:16

16yet we know that a person is justified not by the works of the law but through faith in Jesus Christ. And we have come to believe in Christ Jesus, so that we ... View more

Gal 2:2-9

2I went up in response to a revelation. Then I laid before them (though only in a private meeting with the acknowledged leaders) the gospel that I proclaim amon ... View more

Gal 2:11-14

Paul Rebukes Peter at Antioch
11But when Cephas came to Antioch, I opposed him to his face, because he stood self-condemned;12for until certain people came from ... View more

Gal 2:3

3But even Titus, who was with me, was not compelled to be circumcised, though he was a Greek.

Gal 2:14

14But when I saw that they were not acting consistently with the truth of the gospel, I said to Cephas before them all, “If you, though a Jew, live like a Genti ... View more

Gal 2:15-16

Jews and Gentiles Are Saved by Faith
15We ourselves are Jews by birth and not Gentile sinners;16yet we know that a person is justified not by the works of the l ... View more

Rom 15:8-12

8For I tell you that Christ has become a servant of the circumcised on behalf of the truth of God in order that he might confirm the promises given to the patri ... View more

Eph 2:14-3:6

14For he is our peace; in his flesh he has made both groups into one and has broken down the dividing wall, that is, the hostility between us.15He has abolished ... View more

Rom 1:5

5through whom we have received grace and apostleship to bring about the obedience of faith among all the Gentiles for the sake of his name,

Rom 2:6-11

6For he will repay according to each one's deeds:7to those who by patiently doing good seek for glory and honor and immortality, he will give eternal life;8whil ... View more

2Cor 5:10

10For all of us must appear before the judgment seat of Christ, so that each may receive recompense for what has been done in the body, whether good or evil.

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