Gerd Theissen’s Critique of the New Perspective on Paul

The topic of “Paul and the Law” and the long-standing debate around the strengths and weaknesses of the many different versions of the “New Perspective on Paul” have continued to be of interest to many scholars of Early Christianity. Within the blogosphere, for example, many posts at Near Emmaus and various Patheos Blogs have been devoted to the admittedly Now-Not-So-New Perspective on Paul, and a recent post by Shawn Wilhite has helpfully drawn attention to James Dunn’s latest attempt to clarify his position in Early Christianity 4 (2013).

This post will attempt to contribute to the discussion by highlighting a key quotation from Gerd Theissen’s 2007 book Erleben und Verhalten der Ersten Christen: Eine Psychologie des Urchristentum (Experience and Behavior of the first Christians: a Psychology of Primitive Christianity), and by pointing readers to one of Theissen’s English publications on the topic in my analysis section.

Translation (wmc): “It is correct that Judaism was proud of the Torah. But precisely for this reason critical voices were massively pushed back and suppressed, which can be documented.  Paul is only one example of these voices. It is also correct that Paul was not conscious of any sin in his pre-Christian period; he persecuted the Christians out of conviction. But this does not rule out [the view / thesis / possibility / likelihood / fact] that he repressed a critical voice in himself that first broke through with the Damascus vision. It is finally correct that intra-Christian, Judaistic opponents first impelled Paul to grapple with the problem of the law. But this does not rule out [the view / thesis / possibility / likelihood / fact] that he fought against a part of his own life in these opponents. In my view, he grappled once more with the Jewish fundamentalist that he himself once was. He fought in them a part of himself – and it was precisely for this reason that the controversy with them was so heated. But in everything Paul is a representative of Judaism, both in his zeal for the law and in his criticism of the law.”

Erleben und Verhalten der ersten Christen (p. 468-9): “Es ist richtig, dass das Judentum auf die Thora stolz war. Aber eben deswegen wurden kritische Stimmen massiv zurückgewiesen und verdrängt, die sich belegen lassen. Paulus ist nur ein Beispiel für diese Stimmen. Es ist ferner richtig, dass sich Paulus in seiner vorchristlichen Zeit keiner Sünde bewusst war; er verfolgte aus Überzeugung die Christen. Aber das schließt nicht aus, dass er eine kritische Stimme in sich unterdrückte, die erst mit der Damaskusvision durchbrach. Es ist schließlich richtig, dass erst innerchristliche, judaistische Gegner Paulus genötigt haben, sich mit der Gesetzesproblematik auseinander zu setzen. Aber das schließt nicht aus, dass er in diesen Gegnern ein Stück seines eigenen Lebens bekämft hat. Er setzt sich m. E. noch einmal mit dem jüdischen Fundamentalisten auseinander, der er einmal selbst war. Er bekämpft in ihnen ein Stück von sich selbst – und eben deshalb war die Auseinandersetzung mit ihnen so heftig. In allem aber ist Paulus ein Repräsentant des Judentum, in seinem Gesetzeseifer wie in seiner Gesetzeskritik.”

Selective grammatical analysis: The second sentence reads awkwardly. One could perhaps repeat the word voices for clarification (“But precisely for this reason critical voices were massively pushed back and suppressed, voices which can be documented) or move the relative clause forward (“put precisely for this reason critical voices, which can be documented, were massively pushed back and suppressed). I am also uncertain whether it is preferable to translate “verdrängt” as “suppressed” or “repressed”, and the same question applies to the translation of “in sich unterdrückt “ in sentence 5. [In response to the facebook link to this post, Ben Wiebe noted that “‘verdrängt’ might literally be translated to press or crowd out; ‘unterdrückte’ to press or push under”.] The translation of “das schileßt nicht aus, dass” is difficult, since in English one would probably need to supply something before “that”, e.g., “the view that”, “the thesis that”, “the possibility that”, “the likelihood that”, or “the fact that”. ” I also have questions about the translation of “judaistische” in sentence 6. I have chosen the non-word “judaistic” since it is unclear to me whether the intended sense is “judaizing”, for which reason I have avoided this term. It is always difficult to translate auseinandersetzen – I have used “grapple with” for the verb here (“confront” would also have been possible) and controversy for the noun.

But here just two of them: “verdrängt” might be literally translated to press or crowd out; “unterdrückte” to press or push under

Substantive analysis: For better or for worse, my own relationship to the wide-ranging discussion surrounding the “New Perspective on Paul” is complex. Being strongly influenced by the diversity of approaches represented by my teachers, especially Peter Stuhlmacher, James Dunn, and Markus Bockmuehl, I have come to appreciate both the insights/arguments of its protagonists and the objections/concerns of its detractors, which is not to say that I have been able to attain to a clear or balanced position in the process! Against this background, I have included this “key quotation” from Gerd Theissen both because I regard it as a significant line of argumentation and because I think that it arguably merits more substantive engagement than it has received thus far. For further explication of this “key quotation”, I recommend beginning with the additional page references that I provide at the end of my RBL Review of Erleben und Verhalten, as well as Theissen’s 2007 article “The New Perspective on Paul and Its Limits: Some Psychological Considerations”, which appeared in the Princeton Seminary Bulletin. For a work that positively takes up Theissen’s line of thought, see Daniel Marguerat, Paul in Acts and Paul in his Letters. Tübingen: Mohr, 2013, p. 207-208.

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5 thoughts on “Gerd Theissen’s Critique of the New Perspective on Paul

  1. Thank you for sharing this work! Would you please explain the abbreviation “m. E.” in the third to last sentence? Thanks.

  2. I wonder if for “das schileßt nicht aus, dass…” one might translate with a gerund: “But this does not rule out his repressing a critical voice..” or a verbal noun: “But this does not rule out his repression of a critical voice” or maybe with a subjunctive: “But this does not rule out that he might have repressed a critical voice…”

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