Well, let it be said first of all that ‘The New Perspective on Paul’ is no longer very new. It has been around for perhaps 30 years, and was first labelled as such by Prof J.D.G. Dunn in the early 1980s. Nor is it a single perspective, but several, although it has to be said that they have a certain amount in common.
The leading concepts are:-
1. Covenantal Nomism. This is the idea that 2nd Temple Judaism (i.e. the Judaism of the time of Paul) taught that you are in the covenant from birth/circumcision. Any subsequent failure to observe the law places you outside the covenant, but if you repent, God will be merciful and receive you back. 2nd Temple Judaism, it is said, was gracious, not legalistic, forgiving, not harsh.
2. Solution to Plight. The New Perspective proponents believe that Paul underwent his conversion experience apart from any supposed prior struggle. Covenantal nomism did not require any solution such as Christ, so therefore the appearance of Christ to Paul must have come as a solution before there was any plight. The old Christian assumption, that the movement is from the plight of failed law-keeping to the solution of God’s grace in Christ, does not accord with the experience of Paul.
3. Boundary Markers. If Pauline Christianity was not about law in any fundamental sense, it was concerned with certain aspects of the law as they affectected relationships between Jewish Christians and Gentile Christians. The boundary-markers separating these groups were: Sabbath observance, dietary rules, and circumcision: these were the aspects of the law, rather than the law as a whole, that bothered Paul.
4. Reformation Spectacles. Paul has been seriously misunderstood because he has been interpreted through Luther’s ‘reformation spectacles’. Luther, it is claimed, projected onto Paul’s view of Judaism Luther’s own conception of late medieval Roman Catholicism. In Luther’s view, it is argued, both Judaism and Catholicism were crippled by legalism. Therefore, of course, the solution was the same: the free grace of God in Christ. The New Perspective is critical of the supposed anti-Jewish flavour of reformed thought as well as of the Reformation itself.
Based on Paul Zahl, ‘Mistakes of the New Perspective on Paul. Themelios, Vol 27:1 (Autumn 2001) 5-11.