Paul and the Vocation of Israel: Paul within Judaism?

The “radical [new] perspective”?

Paul and the Vocation of IsraelIt’s not often that the term “radical” is applied to my writing. And I’m seldom called a child of the New Perspective on Paul. But in a few places recently, my book Paul and the Vocation of Israel has been described using these terms. This is because my book has been aligned with a perspective on Paul called “Paul within Judaism”, which is sometimes also known as the “Radical [New] Perspective on Paul”. To clear up any confusion, I thought I’d better give my own take on the “Paul within Judaism” perspective, describe where my own book fits (and doesn’t fit) into it, and discuss how radical what I’ve written really is.

The “Paul within Judaism” perspective

The “Paul within Judaism” perspective is mentioned at the start of a recent, careful review of my book by Dr Felix John in Theologische Literaturzeitung (my translation):

Windsor’s interpretation of Paul can be classified – at least from an outsider’s point of view – as belonging to the “Paul within Judaism Perspective” (also: “The New View of Paul” or “Radical New Perspective on Paul”). Both developing and critiquing the New Perspective on Paul, Windsor argues that the Apostle here should be understood as entirely Jewish – even and especially in his role as missionary to the Gentiles.

As John rightly implies, although the terms “Radical” and “New Perspective” are labels used on occasion, the more accurate name is the “Paul within Judaism” perspective. It’s a broad perspective, which includes evangelicals among others. So Joel Willitts, responding to a post by Mike Bird in which Bird labelled the “Paul Within Judaism” perspective as the “Radical Perspective”, writes:

I’m an evangelical to my core and the label “radical” in this context is just a step away from heretical. […] In my reading of the Bible a more thoroughly Jewish Paul is a more biblical Paul. The view is also theologically coherent. And while there is need for a fundamental reconsideration of the tenets of Pauline theology in light of this way of thinking, the essence of the traditional perspectives fight for “salvation by faith alone in Christ alone” remains a central element in Paul’s theology.

Paul within JudaismOf course, the “Paul Within Judaism” perspective is extremely diverse, and many of its representatives are neither conservative nor evangelical (nor would they want to be labelled as such). Scholars with this perspective include Kathy Ehrensberger, Neil Elliott, Paula Fredriksen, Karin Zetterholm, Caroline Johnson Hodge, Mark Nanos, Anders Runesson, and Magnus Zetterholm. Mark Nanos writes about the common features of “Paul within Judaism” in the introduction to the recent book of the same name:

While these scholars stand at the forefront of this new development, their views on particular details still represent considerable diversity. The conviction they share is that Paul should be interpreted within Judaism. The diverse expressions of their research have been variously described in recent years collectively as the “Radical New Perspective,” “Beyond the New Perspective,” and “Post-New Perspective.”  Yet these monikers do not fully communicate the major emphases of this research paradigm,  since it is not primarily a new development either within the New Perspective  paradigm or in reaction against it, as important as interaction with the New Perspective has been and continues to be. Instead, this research represents a radically different approach to conceptualizing both Judaism and Paul. The challenge these scholars have undertaken is to interpret Paul within his most probably first-century context, Judaism, before putting him into conversation with their own contexts or any of the discourses that have formed around the interpretation of Paul over subsequent centuries.1

So does my Paul and the Vocation of Israel fit into this rather broad “Paul within Judaism” perspective? If so, how?

Donald Robinson’s Biblical Theology

In many ways, I’m simply following up on some of the ideas of Donald Robinson, New Testament lecturer at Moore College in the mid-twentieth century and later Archbishop of Sydney. Robinson has had a significant influence on many of his students, and through them, on me. One of Robinson’s most enduring impacts has been his key role in the setting a vision for biblical theology, a vision that has been especially developed and promoted through the works of Graeme Goldsworthy.2

In developing his vision for biblical theology, Robinson was highly dissatisfied with the notion of the “covenant” as the unifying element of the biblical narrative, but also explicitly rejected dispensationalism. His biblical theological vision was both Christ-centred, and also took Israel’s Scriptures seriously. He saw as very significant the biblical description of Israel as a special people through whom God brings blessing to all the world. One of the corollaries of Robinson’s biblical theology was a key role for the distinction of Jew and Gentile, even in the New Testament:

The significance of early Jewish Christianity is that it fulfilled the Old Testament promise of God to restore the tabernacle of David that had fallen and then to use the restored remnant of Israel as an instrument to save the Gentiles. The popular view that God rejected the Jews and that the gospel became a wholly Gentile matter is so far at variance with the New Testament as well as with the expectation of the Old Testament that a complete reappraisal of the New Testament is called for.3

Robinson placed great importance on the promises to Abraham in Genesis 12:1-3, including the key and climactic promise to Abraham that “in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed” (Gen 12:3). Robinson saw this promise being developed in the prophetic expectation that the Gentiles will flock to the new temple on the Day of the Lord and thus experience great blessing from God. However, Robinson insisted, while the Gentiles are blessed through Israel, the Gentiles are not represented as becoming Israelites, or a new Israel. Rather, Israel acts as a priestly nation, a channel of blessing to Gentiles. In the New Testament, this is fulfilled through the coming of Christ, the preaching of the gospel and the constitution of Jews and Gentiles together believing in Christ.

Robinson did realise that his reading was in a sense “radical”, and that it raised quite a few questions–questions that he didn’t necessarily have answers to:

Allowing that what I have said is substantially a correct statement, there are many questions arising from it to which I do not give answers. What, for instance, is the bearing of the Jew-Gentile question on modern missionary work and on denominational relations today? I do not know. But I am sure that we cannot by-pass the biblical pattern of things.4

Where I fit

Part of what I’m doing in Paul and the Vocation of Israel  is following up on some of these elements in Robinson’s teaching and exploring them further in relation to Pauline theology. I’m hoping that this might provide some insights into otherwise neglected themes in Paul’s letters, especially themes relating to mission and ministry. I’m also hoping that it will help go some small way towards resolving some of the unresolved issues mentioned by Robinson above.

Where, then, does my book fit within the “Radical [new] Perspective” / “Paul within Judaism Perspective”?


Is my perspective “radical”?

Radical - rootsWell – if you want to be etymologically pedantic, then you could call it “radical”. Like many others in the world of New Testament studies, I’m trying to return to the “root” (Latin radix) and read Paul within his first century context.

My perspective is also “radical” in the sense of being slightly out of the ordinary. I’m following up some of Robinson’s more startling ideas, which haven’t been so well-known in the past. However, they are starting to gain a more serious hearing now, e.g. from Graeme Goldsworthy himself.5 So it isn’t that “radical”. It’s just using some interesting insights to read a text in a different way to gain further insights–something that is par for the course in New Testament scholarship.

Is my perspective “radical” in the sense that it’s not conservative or evangelical? That’s certainly not my intention, and that’s why I don’t think it’s a helpful description in this context.

New Perspective?

Is my reading of Paul a development of the “new perspective”? Not in any simple way. The ideas themselves have been around here in Sydney since at least the 1950s. The “New Perspective” didn’t really get going until the late 1970s and beyond. Nevertheless, since Robinson published very little during his time as a teacher, it can be said to be a perspective that is “new” to the wider scholarly conversation, a conversation that includes the “New Perspective”.

Paul within Judaism?

Does my perspective belong to “Paul within Judaism?” In the broad sense it does, since I want to understand the Jewish (and thus Scriptural) roots of Paul’s views on ministry and mission. However, there are some caveats. For example, I don’t like the term “Judaism” when it comes to understanding Paul. This is partly because when Paul himself uses the term “Judaism” he means something different, and partly because “Judaism” can too easily sound like a fixed body of beliefs and/or practices which form the key determining factor in Paul’s theology and practice. I argue that Paul and many early Jewish Christ-believers both considered themselves absolutely and distinctively Jewish and saw their Jewish identity as having been fundamentally transformed by their faith in Christ, putting them at odds with their fellow Jews. It is probably fair to say that my view is more Christological than the average “Paul within Judaism” interpretation. Nevertheless, the perspective is a broad one, so you could say I fit in “Paul within Judaism”, with these caveats.

Israel and the nations in Ephesians

I’m currently (slowly) writing a book on Ephesians (and Colossians). In the book, I’m particularly interested in how the Pauline mission is connected to the relationship between Israel and the nations. While I don’t agree with many of his individual conclusions, Robinson’s views are still stimulating for me. Here are Robinson’s words from the 1961 IVF Annual Lecture):

Each Gentile church had its nucleus of Jews, or at least it had its Jewish apostle and his colleagues through whom the word of God had been mediated to it. Such Jews did not become so absorbed into the local membership that they lost their distinctive character. They remained, especially the founding apostle, as representing the royal priesthood ministering salvation to the Gentiles. [. . .] The place of the Jews, though theologically significant and of great practical usefulness, must not in any wise depress the status and dignity of the Gentile believers themselves, for God had revealed to the apostles and prophets that the Gentiles were sharers on equal terms in the blessings of salvation. This mystery not previously revealed did not abolish the long-standing Old Testament picture of Israel’s role in the salvation of the Gentiles, but it showed that the purpose behind it all was to create such an ultimate unity of Israel and the Gentiles that the resultant body would be nothing less that a new creation of mankind. This unity was in its full sense eschatological, but it was meant to find expression also here and now where Jew and Gentile met together with Christ in the midst. Thus it was that the local church embodied two conceptions of God’s purposes: it was a place where ten Gentiles took hold of the skirt of a Jew and learnt from him the knowledge of the truth as it was in Christ; but it was at the same time a type of the great church of God’s final purpose in which at last all earthly distinctions will be no more.6

  1. Mark D. Nanos, “Introduction,” in Paul Within Judaism: Restoring the First-Century Context to the Apostle, ed. Mark D. Nanos and Magnus Zetterholm (Philadelphia: Fortress, 2015), 1–29; here 1–2.
  2.  For more on this, see Graeme Goldsworthy, Christ-Centred Biblical Theology: Hermeneutical Foundations and Principles (Nottingham: Apollos, 2012), 24-26, 190-214; Rory Shiner, “Reading the New Testament from the Outside,” in “All That the Prophets Have Declared”: The Appropriation of Scripture in the Emergence of Christianity (Milton Keynes: Paternoster, 2015), 185–97.
  3. Donald W. B. Robinson, Faith’s Framework: The Structure of New Testament Theology (Blackwood, South Australia: New Creation, 1996), 97.
  4. Donald W. B. Robinson, “Jew and Greek: Unity and Division in the Early Church,” in Donald Robinson Selected Works Vol. 1: Assembling God’s People, ed. Peter G. Bolt and Mark D. Thompson (Camperdown, Australia: Australian Church Record, 2008), 109; cf. Shiner, “Reading the New Testament from the Outside”, 192-93.
  5. see e.g. Goldsworthy, Christ-Centred Biblical Theology, 201-6.
  6. Robinson, “Jew and Greek”, 84-85