Colin G. Kruse, in the introduction to Paul’s Letter to the Romans, wants to critique the New Perspective on Paul, which says that Paul’s gospel has been misunderstood by many interpreters. The New Perspective has said that what Paul found wrong with Judaism was its ethnocenticism and its exclusivism and not a doctrine of salvation by works.
Kruse shows that even people like J.D.D. Dunn and N.T. Wright have modified their position to say that “works of the law” in Paul does not just mean identity markers like circumcision and Sabbath keeping, but that it also includes all that the law requires. They still think that Paul’s gospel is mostly about inclusion in the community. Kruse, however, still thinks Paul’s gospel is mostly about the acquittal or forgiveness of sinners. But he appreciates some of what the New Perspective has emphasized and feels that the two approaches are not mutually exclusive.
As to what “works of the law” means for Paul, he has a good argument. Of course, Paul himself would have been familiar with the fact that there were Jews who did not see keeping the law as primarily a means of salvation. Paul’s argument is not with Judaism. I think his argument may well be with his old self. That is, Paul had held an apocalyptic view of history before his call. Keeping the law was his answer to John the Baptist and others who called upon Jews to “flee the wrath to come”. So, while the keeping of the law was about faithfulness to God and tradition for calmer Jews, for apocalypticists it was about avoiding condemnation in the soon-to-come judgment.
When he became a Christian Paul only slowly changed his apocalyptic views, but he strongly claimed that the keeping of the law was not the main way to deal with impending judgment. Rather, his experience of the resurrection of Christ convinced him that identifying with the risen Jesus was the way to be judged righteous.
So I was a little disappointed with Kruse, whose main aim seems to be to just get back to a more traditional interpretation of Paul. I have heard Mark Nanos lecture and tried (his books are a tad difficult) to read him. He is a Jew and wants to go beyond the New Perspective. His idea is that Paul does not criticize Judaism for either exclusivism or legalism. Instead, Paul was a thorough-going Jew who wanted to incorporate the restoration of the nations–the non-Jewish world–into a Jewish understanding of history and Israel’s place. This would be a new New Perspective.
I am not sure I understand Nanos well enough to endorse his view. But I am not satisfied with either the Old Perspective or the New Perspective. Part of the problem may be the use of the idea of covenant. Jewish-Christian relations becomes a game of covenant-covenant-who-has-the-covenant. But what if, as I have occasionally suggested, the main category is not covenant, but presence? Judaism and Christianity then represent two ways of experiencing the presence of the one God.
Palestinian Judaism of the 1st century would have included Temple, priesthood, and animal sacrifice as means of experiencing the presence of God. But Christianity and modern Judaism both have a different approach.