J.D.D. Dunn coined the term “New Perspective” on Paul, but the idea goes back to E. P. Sanders’ book on Paul and Palestinian Judaism. The old perspective would be the idea that Judaism represented a legalistic system of salvation by works, whereas Paul proclaimed a Protestant-like salvation by grace.
Sanders concluded 1) Palestinian Judaism was covenental nomism (nomism means something like law-based) and was not about salvation, but about staying in the covenant. You kept the law because God had graciously included you in the covenant and you wanted to behave as the covenant implied. Keeping the Torah was a way of staying in, not a way of getting in. 2) Paul’s theology was about how, through Christ, people could get included in the covenant. It was a “transfer theology” according to Sanders.
Colin G. Kruse in the introduction to his commentary, Paul’s Letter to the Romans, appreciates the new perspective correcting distorted views of Palestinian Judaism, but points to criticism of covenental nomism as not really representing all of the viewpoints found in the sources on Palestinian Judaism. So, although it would be wrong to characterize all Jewish thought in the background of the New Testament as works righteousness, some examples of works righteousness do exist in the literature.
We need to move beyond Sanders’ work, but still credit him with dispelling several misconceptions. Here is how Kruse summarizes Sanders:
“The overall effect of Sanders’ work has been to call into question both the way first-century Judaism has been depicted as a religion of works righteousness and the way the letters of Paul have been interpreted. Those who embrace Sanders’ conclusions tend to be critical of traditional Protestant exegesis heavily influenced by the Reformation emphasis upon the doctrine of justification by faith.”
This sets up Kruse to argue that we can revitalize the old perspective.