Q & R: On Paul

Here’s the Q:

My name is YZ and I am doing a study on the “New Perspective on Paul” and was wondering what an emergent like yourself thinks about this exegetical movement in our interpretation of the Pauline Epistles? I would love to hear your opinion and view point on this crucial movement away from the traditional approach.

[reply after the jump]

R: Great question.
First, I don’t think it’s best to think of a single “new perspective” – but rather a number of new perspectives. It’s common – and natural – to read Paul in the context of medieval, modern, or post-modern theological controversies, but that’s not the same as trying to place Paul back in his native first century context, and trying to understand him there first. And that to me is what the new perspectives contribute – a ongoing series of attempts to re-situate Paul in his first-century, Roman-occupied, second-temple, post-Pentecost Jewish context. It’s an ongoing project, and shouldn’t be frozen in time because it’s a relatively young endeavor.
The various “new perspective” scholars bother some people because for all their differences, they generally agree that Luther and Calvin grappled with Paul as if Paul was like them – a 16th Century Reformer whose primary antagonist was a religious institution very much like the medieval papacy. There certainly are parallel’s between the Reformers’ situation and Paul’s. But even though the Reformers opened up some important and wonderful new insights on Paul and thereby corrected serious flaws in late medieval Roman Catholic theology, the new perspective scholars agree that the 16th-century Reformers don’t have the last word on Paul – even for Lutherans or Calvinists. Some accept that, but others find it appalling. (Sorry for the pun.)
Personally, I have been deeply helped in my reading of Paul by N. T. Wright, Michael Gorman, Brian Walsh, Sylvia Keesmaat, Dominic Crossan, Richard Horsley, and others like them. As I continue to read Paul from fresh perspectives, I’m especially impressed by the anti-imperial themes in Paul. This summer on my reading list, for example, are

Warren Carter’s The Roman Empire and the New Testament
James Scott’s Domination and the Arts of Resistance
Richard Horsely’s In the Shadow of Empire

I’m eagerly awaiting Keesmaat and Walsh’s “Romans Disarmed” as well, since I thought that “Colossians Remixed” was such a groundbreaking book. (BTW – Sylvia Keesmaat’s excellent essay in The Justice Project gives you an indication of where “Romans Disarmed” may venture.)
I think we’re at a real renaissance period in biblical studies. Yes, some will fight new perspectives on old texts tooth and nail, just as they did in the 1st and 16th centuries … declaring that the old wine is good enough, thank you very much. But new wine keeps showing up in old vessels … and so this is a wonderful time to be alive and enjoy the flavor.