Bird's own contribution is an article entitled "Salvation in Paul's Judaism." This is a subject of foundational significance for understanding Paul, providing as it does the backdrop for his signature "doctrine" of justification by faith, discussed at length in the Epistles to the Galatians and to the Romans. I was raised as a good Protestant boy. Consequently, I was taught that the "Judaism" of the first century CE was a "legalistic" system in which people were "saved" by virtue of the "merit" they amassed in their performance of "good works" based on the Mosaic Law — i.e., I was taught that Judaism was a precursor to the Roman Catholicism against which Martin Luther and John Calvin fought to restore the purity of the Gospel. I remain a Protestant. I believe the Reformers were correct in their assessment of medieval Catholicism. Yet I also believe the description of that Catholicism I was taught was, in some respects, improperly nuanced. More importantly, I have come to believe that the traditional portrait of Second Temple Judaism as a crassly legalistic system is also seriously flawed, and that the resulting caricature has had regretful consequences for Jewish-Christian relations.
As every New Testament teacher will tell you, the watershed moment came in 1977 with the publication of E. P. Sanders's Paul and Palestinian Judaism. What Sanders said was not so much new as it was massively documented and fortuitously timed. In short, Sanders claimed that Paul had traditionally been misunderstood by Christian scholars because the Judaism against which he argued had been (mis)understood anachronistically through the grid of the medieval Catholicism that served as Luther's foil. The result, as is now commonly known, was the development of what Dunn dubbed "The New Perspective on Paul," which shifted the focus away from presumed Jewish "legalism" to its putative "nationalism" or cultural/covenantal exclusivity. We now live in a "post-New Perspective" era in New Testament scholarship, but, in my opinion, there can be no going back to the naive, simplistic perspective I was taught as a burgeoning Bible student — and that despite the fact that "sympathy" with elements of the New Perspective can be professional suicide for scholars working in traditionalist, especially Reformed, environments.
The issue is a basic one: What did Paul find wrong with Judaism? Bird's conclusion is as follows:
Finally, it was formerly and famously said by E.P. Sanders: ‘In short, this is what Paul finds wrong in Judaism: it is not Christianity’. Similarly, Lloyd Gaston said: ‘This is what Paul finds wrong with other Jews: that they do not share his revelation in Damascus’. More recently, Mark Nanos has wryly written: ‘this is what Paul would find wrong in Paulinism: it is not Judaism’. But I say unto you: This is what Paul finds wrong with Judaism, what the Torah could not do due its exacerbation of the sin-flesh nexus and its limited role in salvation-history, God did by sending his son in the likeness of a human being and by bestowing his Spirit as a foretaste of the new creation by making Jews and Gentile co-heirs of Abraham through Christ. Consequently, for Paul, salvation is of Judaism only in so far as Judaism is of Jesus Christ.Bird is, in my view, exactly correct. The issue, at its most fundamental level, is salvation-history. It is not — and in hindsight I wonder how it ever could have been imagined to be so — a matter of "legalism" per se. For "covenantal nomism" (Sanders's somewhat inelegant description of Judaism's "pattern of religion") was writ large over the Torah itself, not least in texts such as Leviticus 18:5 and the entire book of Deuteronomy. The Christ event, for Paul, marked both the fulfillment of God's promises to Abraham and the apocalyptic inbreaking of the promised new creation. Hence admission to the eschatological people of God had to come via one entry point, viz., through Christ alone by virtue of his atoning death and resurrection-exaltation. Persistence in trying to relate to God based on the old covenant terms not only denied the apocalyptic significance of the Christ event; it also failed to reckon with the consequences of covenant failure as promised in Deuteronomy 30 — and hence rendered "works of the law" performed with an eye on maintaining covenant status to be "legalistic," though not in the crassly unnuanced sense imagined by much of traditional Protestantism.