New Perspectives on Paul and Why They Matter – (1) Krister Stendahl

Perhaps you have heard about “The New Perspective on Paul.”  Actually, one of the prime figures in this field of study, James Dunn, suggests we should instead speak of “New Perspectives” plural, because there are a variety of new perspectives on Paul, and here we mean the Apostle, and not the Beatle.

This is a subject of greatest importance for those of us fighting against anti-semitism and anti-Judaism, and should also matter to anyone who wants to understand Paul as he was, and not as the church imagines him to be.  And that brings us to a lovely man named Krister Stendahl.

Stendahl about the age he was when he wrote our featured essay.

Wikipedia will tell you that Stendahl lived from 1921 to 1988, that he was a Swedish theologian and New Testament scholar, and also the Church of Sweden Bishop of Stockholm. He also served as professor,  professor emeritus, and Dean at Harvard Divinity School. In addition to all of these things, he was keenly interested in Jewish-Christian relations.  In this connection he served as the second director of the Center for Religious Pluralism at the Shalom Hartman Institute in Jerusalem, and besides teaching at Harvard, also taught at the very Jewish Brandeis University. A most interesting man, a friend of the Jews.

In September, 1961 he gave a lecture to the American PsychologicaL Association, subsequently published (1963) in the Harvard Theological Review, and republished many times since. It is “The Apostle Paul and the Introspective Conscience of the West,” You can read it here.  This is one of those essays for which you ask yourself, “Why didn’t anyone ever see this before?”  His brilliant thinking helped set off the whole world of “The New Perspectives on Paul.”

The key insight of this essay is that the West has habitually interpreted Paul and his letters through the lens of Martin Luther’s psyche, with a strong nod to St Augustine of Hippo.  That is, the church has assumed that Paul, like Augustine and Luther, had a troubled hyperactive conscience, that Paul was therefore tormented by guilt and inner conflict over not being able to meet the inflexible demands of Judaism. That is, until he was converted on the Damascus Road, delivered from bondage to Judaism, and discovered a new religion of grace and salvation by faith centered in Jesus of Nazareth.

Stendahl saw a variety of problems with this approach, chief among them being that Paul was NOT Augustine or Luther, and far from having an overactive and troubled conscience, Paul had a robust conscience.  Paul was able to say that as to righteousness under the Law, he was blameless. If this doesn’t sound like a troubled conscience to you, then you are right: Paul was NOT Augustine, nor was he Luther. Of the latter, Stendahl says this:

Luther’s inner struggles presuppose the developed system of Penance and Indulgence, and it is significant that his famous 95 theses take their point of departure from the problem of forgiveness of sins as seen within the framework of Penance: “When our Lord and Master Jesus Christ said: ‘Repent (penitentiam agite) . .. ,’ he wanted the whole life of the faithful to be a repentance (or: penance).”

After the Black Death in Medieval Europe, penetrating self-examination reached a hitherto unknown intensity. For those who took this practice seriously—and they were more numerous than many Protestants are accustomed to think—the pressure was great. It is as one of those—and for them—that Luther carries out his mission as a great pioneer. It is in response to their question, “How can I find a gracious God?” that Paul’s words about a justification in Christ by faith, and without the works of the Law, appears as the liberating and saving answer. . . .

In these matters Luther was a truly Augustinian monk, since Augustine may well have been one of the first to express the dilemma of the introspective conscience

Paul was not Augustine, and he was not Luther. Neither did he regard himself as being under bondage to Judaism, he didn’t change religions either and it is more appropriate to see his experience on the Road to Damascus as a call rather than a conversion.  (Some of you are reeling out there, I can tell!)

Stendahl helped us to begin seeing Paul and Judaism in a new way.  And to find out how that plays out, come back next time and we’ll learn a bit about E. P.  Sanders, another pioneer of the New Perspectives on Paul and how he further revolutionized our perspective on Judaism.

About Stuart Dauermann

The blog of Rabbi Dr. Stuart Dauermann, teacher, mentor, radio talk show host, denizen of Los Angeles, and a visionary with a long career in Messianic Jewish activism. You can hear Rabbi Dauermann as he hosts Shalom Talk, a weekly radio show, and even listen online at Rabbi Dauermann spends time traveling nationally and internationally, and throughout the year is in Israel as a Scholar in Residence at the MJTI Jerusalem Center. He has plenty to say about Jewish-Christian relations, the need for shalom in the world, and the agenda of Messiah, the Son of David.
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12 Responses to New Perspectives on Paul and Why They Matter – (1) Krister Stendahl

  1. Tov Rose says:

    Stuart, Thank you so much for writing this and introducing your audience to the refreshing and important work of Krister Stendahl.

  2. Geoff says:

    I don’t get the assumption that the Reformers in particular assumed Paul’s conversion was like Luther. They get their view from interpreting the text.

    Furthermore, the New Perspective is pretty notorious for not having a good historical knowledge of the Reformation. They think that the Reformers thought (lots of thinking) that Rome was Pelagian. They didn’t.

    Trusting the New Perspective for any insight on Reformation thinking would be a dangerous foundation. Not to mention that they assume mixing works with faith isn’t works righteousness as a basic assumption.

    • Pardon me for saying so, Geoff, but on the basis of form alone, your sweeping comments lack credibility for this reason: many of those involved in the New Perspective are among the best educated and most-published theologians and textual scholars of our generation. To sweepingly discount them as being “pretty notorious for not having a good historical knowledge of the Reformation” sounds more like propaganda than analysis. Among my examples, N.T. Wright and James Dunn! But we might throw Krister Stendahl in too, and recall that as a Lutheran Bishop, he might be trusted to have a grasp on Reformation history! And of course, that’s just starters! Their level of education, expertise, and quality of output suggest that you may have been drinking the Kool Aid of propaganda rather than the latté of reasoned analysis! I will leave it to those reading over our shoulders to judge!

      • Geoff says:

        Would you like me to point you to the audio where Michael Horton recounts the story where he mentions how he talked to NT Wright about his misunderstanding of the Reformers and Wright says “I’m a Paul scholar, not a Reformation scholar”?

        I know what you’re thinking. How can these smart people make such a basic error. Good question. I have no idea. I mean I hear comments like Paul is dealing with ecclesiology, not soteriology and then I go and read Acts 15:1. “And certain men came down from Judea and taught the brethren, ‘Unless you are circumcised according to the custom of Moses, you cannot be saved.'”

        I’m not saying they are stupid men. I am saying they are pretty well known for not understanding the Reformation.

        You think it is pretty believable that Luther, Calvin, etc. misunderstood Paul for centuries even though they were educated and thought about the texts a lot. Is it really that hard to believe that these guys are making really basic errors? What’s good for the goose, no?

        • Your point on Horton’s conversation with Wright is well taken, your generalizing that this means that as a class, New Perspective people are “pretty notorious for not having a good historical knowledge of the Reformation” is simply not credible. And no, you don’t know what I’m thinking unless you are Karnac! As for Paul thinking of ecclesiology not soteriology, that’s a broad brush too: he was thinking of both, but in a way that we are not good at. For people of Paul’s day, and in much of the two thirds world today, the question of salvation was a communitarian concern. One did not personally get saved as a solitary individual: one became part of the people of God. Even if not stated, the question was “How do I become part of the people of God?” And Paul’s heresy was saying that pork eating, blood drinking, idol worshiping pagans were now all of a sudden part of the people of God without going through the door of conversion to Judaism, the only door that formerly stood open for such people to do such. As for Luther and Calvin, etc, they, like the rest of us, were influenced by the temper of their times and their life experience. Their conflict with Medieval Catholicism, and attempt to reform it influenced how they interpreted Paul. To say otherwise is to remove them from their historical context and to ignore their polemical use of Pauline texts. Nothing is to be gained by doing so.

          • Geoff says:

            “Their conflict with Medieval Catholicism, and attempt to reform it influenced how they interpreted Paul. To say otherwise is to remove them from their historical context and to ignore their polemical use of Pauline texts. Nothing is to be gained by doing so.”

            But the point is that the New Perspective folks say something like this: 1st century Jews weren’t as bad as Rome, they believed in faith+works.

            But the Reformers didn’t think Rome was crass Pelagians. So they undercut their position by describing a 1st century Judaism that is very close to 16th century Rome.

            It also ignores the fact that they wanted to reform Rome’s view of justification because of what they were reading, not the other way around. Otherwise, they would have been fine with moral reform, not doctrinal reform.

            But of course their conflict with Rome influenced them. But I would argue that the New Perspective is being driven by ecumenical concerns and is influencing how they are reading the texts.

            I would agree that people get saved as part of a community. That is still true. But that is also why the New Perspective’s view on boundary markers is flawed. Soteriology and ecclesiology are tied. Talking about one is talking about the other. They aren’t mutually exclusive conversations. And that’s why I bring up Acts 15:1. At the end of the day, saying boundary markers are necessary for church membership is saying you need to add works to faith for salvation. The traditional understanding stands, maybe with deeper understanding. But that line of critique doesn’t change anything with the traditional view. Only when “justify”, etc. is redefined.

          • Your discussion is too abstruse for most of our readers, so I won’t be locking horns with you on this in any depth. I will say that in part you are suffering from what is termed “the curse of knowledge” in the excellent book, “Made to Stick: Why Some Ideas Thrive and Others Die” by Chip and Dan Heath. One review of the book says, “Lots of research in economics and psychology shows that when we know something, it becomes hard for us to imagine not knowing it. As a result, we become lousy communicators. Think of a lawyer who can’t give you a straight, comprehensible answer to a legal question. His vast knowledge and experience renders him unable to fathom how little you know. So when he talks to you, he talks in abstractions that you can’t follow. And we’re all like the lawyer in our own domain of expertise.

            Here’s the great cruelty of the Curse of Knowledge: The better we get at generating great ideas—new insights and novel solutions—in our field of expertise, the more unnatural it becomes for us to communicate those ideas clearly. That’s why knowledge is a curse. But notice we said ‘unnatural,’ not ‘impossible.’ Experts just need to devote a little time to applying the basic principles of stickiness (that is, how to make an idea memorable, graspable, and indelible.” (Comment found on line at

            Let me just say this: Historical scrutiny reveals that the Reformers’ battle with Rome was not purely doctrinal; it was also political. It was as much about power as it was about truth. To imagine otherwise is either naive or self-deluding. Life experience demonstrates this to still be the case. Often, people who claim to be acting on matters of truth, are seen to also be acting in self-interest.

  3. Peter says:

    “And to find out how that plays out, come back next time and we’ll learn a bit about E. P. Sanders, another pioneer of the New Perspectives on Paul and how he further revolutionized our perspective on Judaism.”

    Looking forward to that. I’ve just recently finished reading “Paul and Palestinian Judaism” by Sanders. I’d be interested, as an advocate of Messianic Jewish Theology, where you (Stuart) see similarities and disparities between MJT and The New Perspective(s). If you’re able to work that into your future post, it would be appreciated.

    For example, I was reading about Sanders in a collection of essays recently. Here’s the quote:

    “Sanders describes…’covenantal nomism’: the notion that a Jew’s standing before God is secured by God’s election of Israel as his covenant people…and that obedience to the law is the appropriate response to God’s initial act of grace…” pg. 2 from the essay entitled “The ‘New Perspective’ at Twenty-Five” by Stephen Westerholm.

    And then in Paul and Palestinian Judaism we read the following:

    “Thus one can see already in Paul how it is that Christianity is going to become a new form of covenantal nomism, a covenantal religion which one enters by baptism, membership in which provides salvation, which has a specific set of commandments, obedience to which (or repentance for the transgression of which) keeps one in the covenantal relationship, while repeated or heinous transgression removes one from membership.” (I can’t remember the page number but it was around page 500).

    It’s difficult to see how this wouldn’t be ammunition for those calling for a New Covenantal Nomism that applies Torah obligations to ethnic gentile Believers. Because Sanders’ logic is saying that covenantal membership involves covenantal obligation to follow terms of said covenant. And I’m fairly certain a scholar such as Sanders has read Ezekiel 36:27 which says that the New Covenant will involve the HS writing both categories of Torah, chukim AND mishpatim, on the heart (which also seems to parallel with Paul’s words in Romans 2:26 “So then, if those who are not circumcised keep the law’s requirements, will they not be regarded as though they were circumcised?”). So if Covenantal Nomism applies to ethnic gentiles in the New Covenant then it would follow that they were obligated to follow Chukim and Mishpatim (i.e. Torah). Perhaps you have read him enough to explain how he would get around this?

    Anyway, interesting post Stuart. Thanks for the post.



    • Peter, it is a false assumption that Gentiles are obliged to keep the chukim and mishpatim as are Jews. You chose one of my favorite texts, by the way, Ezekiel 36:27 which indeed says that God will bring the Jews back to his chukkim and mishpatim, the nuts and bolts of Torah living, in the last days. The next chapter associates this return with the Messiah himself (37:24). I have written extensively on this in my monograph,”Son of David: Healing the Vision of the Messianic Jewish Movement.” To say that Gentiles are obligated to the same chukkim and mishpatim (statues and ordinances) is a kind of replacement theology, because if all are to walk in the same covenantal life, then the distinctness of the Jewish calling is obliterated,

      I will talk about covenantal nomism in my post on E.P. Sanders. I own at least two of his works, but the way.

  4. Glenn&Eun says:

    Thomas Aquinas interprets Galatians 3 as “Paul opposed those who trust in the works of the law and believe they are made just by them” and “to be of the works of the law is to trust in them and place one’s hope in them” (Commentary on Saint Paul’s Epistle to the Galatians). Did Aquinas also suffer from a troubled hyperactive conscience? 😉

    • I don’t know about Aquinas’ conscience, but I will return a couple of questions for you. Did Aquinas write in a vacuum or do you think he just MAY have been aquainted with the thought of Augustine of Hippo? And wasn’t Aquinas a Doctor of a Church which had already reached a party line on these matters? I think we all know the answers to both questions 🙂

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