Skip to content

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”?

Radical?

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
Published inGeneralPaul

Publications by Lionel Windsor:

  • Lift Your Eyes: Reflections on Ephesians

Recent blog posts

  • Entering a tomb in PompeiiWe too: the offenders (Ephesians 2:3)
    Judgmentalism. It’s a bigger problem than we think. Judgmentalism is certainly a danger for God’s people. That’s because God’s people have God’s word. God’s word helps God’s people to see how wonderful God is, and how terrible humanity is in comparison. But Ephesians 2:3 contains two highly significant, emphatic words: “we too”. We too, says Paul, were the offenders. We, too, were the disobedient. These words aren’t talking about all those horrible people “out there”. They’re talking about God’s people. And it’s something we, too, need to hear. These words tell us something incredibly important—something that we ignore at our peril.
  • Photo by Daniel Lienert on UnsplashThe root of the problem (Ephesians 2:1–2)
    I hadn’t visited the dentist for years. Then I felt a tiny amount of pain in one of my teeth. But I ignored it. I didn’t want to bother with a dentist. Anyway, I had my own solution: I’d always brushed my teeth quite thoroughly, and was proud of it. So I just kept brushing. But after a while, the pain came back. This time, it was worse. So I finally visited the dentist. That was painful, too. The root had become so infected that I needed root canal surgery. That was a while ago. But last year, it flared up again, as these things apparently do. And yet I chose to visit the dentist again, even though I knew it might be painful. Why? Because I’d learnt something. I’ve learnt that if I have a problem that goes to the root, and if I know someone who has the solution to the problem, I shouldn’t ignore it or try to fix it myself. I should face up to the root problem, and get help. So I got help. Now, I don’t have a tooth in that spot at all. In Ephesians 2:1–2, Paul seeks to go deep, to the root of the problem. The problem Paul talks about here is incredibly serious. It can be very painful to admit. But Paul can and does admit it—because he also knows the person with the solution. According to Paul, this isn’t a problem to ignore or try to fix ourselves. It’s not something we can educate ourselves out of. This is a problem to face up to, and get help.
  • Captivated by ScriptureCaptivated by Scripture: A personal reflection on D. W. B. Robinson’s legacy for biblical studies
    What made Donald W. B. Robinson such an inspiring and influential teacher for generations of students? His commitment to being captivated by Scripture. This is a paper given by Lionel Windsor at the legacy day and launch of Donald Robinson Selected Works Volume 3: Biblical and Liturgical Studies & Volume 4: Historical Studies and Series Index. Moore Theological College, Sydney, 16 March 2019.
  • The first thing to say about church (Ephesians 1:22–23)
    Here in Ephesians 1:22–23, for the first time in his letter, the apostle Paul uses the word “church”. He’s taken quite some time to get to this point. That might make you think that the church isn’t very important to Paul. But actually, the reverse is true. This is a climactic statement. So far in Ephesians, Paul has poured out his praise to God for his blessings and plans and purposes. He has told his readers how he is praying for knowledge and hope and strength in God. Now, finally, at the highest peak of this amazing prayer, Paul names “the church”. So what is the first thing Paul has to say about the church? What is the word he associates most closely with the church? What matters most to Paul when it comes to the church? The answer is, in fact, obvious. It’s so obvious that you might think it doesn’t need to be said. You might even wonder why Paul bothers saying it, when there are so many other more practical things he could say about the church. But while it might seem obvious, it needs to be said first. Why? Because it’s so easy to assume it. Yet without it, nothing else about the church makes sense.
  • Grave of John BunyanStrength to live (Ephesians 1:19–21)
    What do we do when we feel weak in the face of the powers that be? One response might be just to shut down, close ranks and find a bitter satisfaction in our identity as victims. Another response might be to try to fight as hard as we can to exert our power and dominance over others, seeking to turn the tables so that we become the conquerors instead of the oppressors. Both of these responses involve seeking strength and power in ourselves. They are often the way that oppressed individuals and groups in our world respond to the powers that are oppressing them. But is that the way God wants his people to respond to our weakness in the face of power? In Ephesians 1:19–21, the apostle Paul gives us a far better way to respond. Paul’s response involves looking for strength. But it’s not a strength that comes from within ourselves. It’s a strength that comes from God himself.
  • Christ, the Cross and Creation Care ConferenceConference: Christ, the Cross and Creation Care
    I'll be speaking at the "Christ, the Cross and Creation Care Conference", Sydney. 8.30am to 3.30pm, Saturday 22 June 2019. A conference run by A Rocha Australia
  • Palatine Hill from Roman Forum with contrails – Black and WhiteWhat’s the point of theology? (Ephesians 1:17–18)
    The full name of the college I teach at is “Moore Theological College”. That word “Theological” says something important about who we are. It reminds us about what we're on about. Yes, the Bible is at the centre of everything we do. Yes, we seek to train people for ministry. Yes, we're driven by the worldwide mission of Jesus Christ. Yes, we're committed to learning together, and having our characters formed in loving Christian community. But our careful study of the Bible, and our pastorally-motivated ministry and mission training, and our encouragement of one another in our community, all matter because of something more basic: theology. Unfortunately, the word "theology" can be misunderstood. It sometimes gets used to mean something like “technical details about spiritual things that experts argue about and isn’t much practical use to regular people”. But that's just a caricature. It's not what theology is. Theology is something far more profound, far more life-changing, and far more fundamental—not just for people at a college, but for everyone. In Ephesians 1:17–18, Paul prays for his readers—people who have come to believe in and live for Jesus Christ. It's a prayer for more theology.
  • Youth praying, Finchale PrioryPrayer: What are we actually doing? (Ephesians 1:15–16)
    “A Muslim, a Jew and an Anglican Minister walk into a classroom”. This was the advertising blurb for a local Community College seminar I participated in a few years ago. I joined a Muslim educator and a Jewish academic (who is also a friend of mine) to give a series of presentations on different aspects of our three religions to interested people from the community. When we came to the topic of ‘prayer’, I was fascinated to hear what my co-presenters had to say. Even though we were all using the same word, ‘prayer’, the word meant very different things in the different religions. As a believer in Jesus Christ, what did I have to say about what prayer is? What would you have said? Christians, too, can often be a bit confused or unclear about what prayer actually is. That’s where the Apostle Paul really helps us. In these verses in Ephesians, Paul starts telling his readers about his own prayers for them.
  • Photo by Danielle Macinnes on UnsplashThe Holy Spirit: Our security (Ephesians 1:14)
    The Stanford Marshmallow Experiments are a favourite illustration of motivational speakers. The lesson is this: If you can learn how to delay gratification early in life, you’ll do better in later life. Sounds reasonable, doesn’t it? But unfortunately, like many popular conclusions drawn from famous psychological experiments, it doesn’t stand up to closer scrutiny. The more up-to-date study demonstrates something far more mundane: if you grow up in a secure home where you know there will always be food on the table, you’re more likely to be able to put off eating a marshmallow. This isn’t a particularly useful lesson for motivational speakers. But it’s a great illustration of what it means to be a child of God.
  • Mission. Photo by Ben White on UnsplashThe message is the mission (Ephesians 1:13)
    What is God’s mission? What means is God using to bring about his purposes in Christ? What does that mean for our own mission as Christians and churches?

On this site

All content copyright Lionel Windsor