Review of Paul and the Gift by John M. G. Barclay

July 15, 2019

Barclay, John M. G. Paul and the Gift. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2015, xvi + 656 pp., $70, hardback.

 paul-and-the-giftIn one sense, Paul and the Gift is a book about many things. It includes anthropology and the history of interpretation. It is a comparison of Paul and Second Temple Jewish authors. It is part Pauline theology, part commentary on Galatians and Romans. In another sense, though, Barclay’s monograph is a book about one thing: grace. While its methodology traverses a wide array of disciplines relevant to biblical studies, its content never strays far from the concept of beneficence.

Barclay, who a decade and a half ago succeeded James D. G. Dunn as Lightfoot Professor of Divinity at Durham University, has proved himself a fitting heir to that professorship. Prior to Paul and the Gift, Barclay was perhaps best known for Jews in the Mediterranean Diaspora (1996), an overview of Jewish reactions to the wider culture, as well as many well regarded articles, chapters, and edited volumes on Paul and Hellenistic Jews. But it is Paul and the Gift that secures his legacy. With it, he presents Paul’s theology of grace from a genuinely new perspective — no small feat! — and also reframes aspects of the debate over the New Perspective on Paul.

Part I, “The Multiple Meanings of Gift and Grace” (pp. 9–188), sets out the foundational categories for the rest of the volume. Following a vein of research in anthropology (beginning with Marcel Mauss, “Essai sur le Don” [1925]), Barclay locates the concept of grace within a wider framework of gift-giving (ch. 1, pp. 11–65). In particular, he differentiates ancient benefaction, which encouraged and expected reciprocity, from the modern idea of “pure” gift, one that brooks no return whatsoever. Barclay then develops “perfections” of grace (ch. 2, pp. 66–78). This short chapter is the most significant, because it gives Barclay the taxonomy with which he will compare Paul and his contemporaries. Barclay uses “perfection” to designate “a concept [drawn out] to its endpoint or extreme” (67), and he finds six ways grace has been perfected over the past two millennia. It can indicate (1) superabundance (that the gift is of great scale), (2) singularity (that grace cannot coexist with the possibility of judgment), (3) priority (that it precedes any action on the part of the recipient), (4) incongruity (that it does not match the worth of the recipient), (5) efficacy (that it causes a change in the recipient), and (6) non-circularity (that a “pure gift” breaks the cycle of reciprocity). These are important categories, for as Barclay argues, “Rival claims to maintain or defend the principle of ‘grace’ may turn out to constitute not degrees of emphasis, but different kinds of perfection” (p. 70; here and elsewhere, emphasis original).

The payoff is evident even in the next chapter, when Barclay surveys the reception of Paul’s theology of grace from Marcion to Augustine, through the Reformers, all the way to the many-sided debate on the apostle today (ch. 3, pp. 79–182). Among other conclusions, Barclay finds incongruity to be the “bedrock” of Augustine’s theology of grace (p. 85); that Luther’s innovation is interjecting non-circularity into the concept of grace; and that the debates between the New Perspective, the “traditional” perspective, and the apocalyptic approaches to Paul are muddied by conceptual ambiguities. Most significantly, E. P. Sanders builds his framework for “grace” in Palestinian Judaism around priority (since, in his words, “getting in” is by grace), but Barclay faults Sanders for mistakenly assuming that priority implies incongruity or other perfections of grace: “at the heart of his project,” Barclay critiques, “is a lack of clarity concerning the very definition of grace” (p. 157). One upshot of these new categories, as the author notes in the conclusion to the section (ch. 4, pp. 183–88), is that it allows us to pursue a comparative investigation of Paul and other Jews on the topic of grace in a way that is “at once more complex and less loaded”; it is not a question of whether Judaism was a religion of grace but rather an analysis of “different Jewish perfections of grace” (p. 187).

Having constructed his conceptual boxes, Barclay begins the sorting. Part II, “Divine Gift in Second Temple Judaism” (pp. 189–328), considers five important Jewish works. Although Barclay does not claim that they are necessarily “representative of the whole gamut of Second Temple viewpoints” (p. 192), they are apt choices, presenting both diaspora and Palestinian voices, as well as varied perspectives on grace. The Wisdom of Solomon (ch. 5, pp. 194–211) perfects the superabundance of grace in particular, rejects singularity, and limits incongruity since that would violate the “system of moral and rational symmetries” that God has set up in the world (p. 211). Philo of Alexandria (ch. 6, pp. 212–38), likewise, speaks of divine beneficence especially in terms of its superabundance, but also its priority, since God is the source of all in his philosophy. Philo is further concerned to show, in keeping with the expectations of the Roman world, that the gift is given to a fitting recipient, and thus for him grace is specifically congruous. By contrast, in the Hodayot of Qumran (1QHa) (ch. 7, pp. 239–65) grace is celebrated as incongruous, given to those who do not deserve it. It is also superabundant, prior, and efficacious, but not singular nor non-circular. In Liber Antiquitatum Biblicarum (ch. 8, pp. 266–79), God’s mercy is incongruous, but not as an essential characteristic of grace, but instead in service of his “irrevocable promises and indefeasible plans” for Israel (p. 279). Fourth Ezra (ch. 9, 280–308) resolves a dialectic: the character of Ezra articulates divine grace as incongruous, since humanity’s sinfulness precludes the possibility of meriting salvation, but by the dénouement of the work the heavenly voice (first Uriel’s, then God’s) insists on “a cosmic order of justice” (p. 307), that there are righteous ones who deserve God’s gifts. Thus, it “displays most openly the theological problems associated with divine mercy or gift if they are perfected as incongruous benefits to the unworthy” (p. 308). Barclay ends the section with a summary of the “diverse dynamics of grace in Second Temple Judaism” (ch. 10, pp. 309–28).

A little over two fifths of Paul and the Gift is a close study of two of Paul’s capital letters. Part III is on “Galatians: The Christ-Gift and the Recalibration of Worth” (pp. 329–446). Barclay has a chapter introducing the letter to Galatia, the conflict behind it, and major interpretations (ch. 11, pp. 331–50). He then writes something of a commentary on the letter: Galatians 1–2 (ch. 12, pp. 351–87), 3:1–5:12 with 6:11–18 (ch. 13, pp. 388–422), and 5:13–6:10 (ch. 14, pp. 423–46), the last of which includes a summary of the section (pp. 442–46). In Galatians, Paul’s major concern in terms of grace is incongruity. He assumes priority and at least hints at efficacy, but there is no real focus on divine mercy as superabundant, singular, or non-circular here. Barclay throughout mentions the social concern of Paul, that he is forming “innovative communities,” in which “communal practice is integral to the expression of the good news” (pp. 443–44). He stresses that, in Christ, grace reconstitutes social “value systems” and “other forms of cultural or symbolic capital,” altering hierarchies, including “the value-system of the Torah” that differentiates Jew and gentile (p. 444). Here he attempts to beat a fresh path between the “Lutheran” Paul (opposing “works-righteousness” as a means to salvation) and the New Perspective (opposing “works of the Law” as a form of cultural superiority). He also emphasizes that his interpretation “requires no denigration of Judaism” on the apostle’s part (p. 445).

Part IV, “Romans: Israel, the Gentiles, and God’s Creative Gift” (pp. 447–574), follows the same commentary-like format, dividing Paul’s epistle thus: Romans 1:1–5:11 (ch. 15, pp. 449–92), 5:12–8:39 with 12:1–15:13 (ch. 16, pp. 493–519), and chapters 9–11 (ch. 17, pp. 520–61). If Galatians so recalibrates worth as to (seemingly) endanger the normative status of Torah and the special place of Jews, Romans “displays a notable development beyond Galatians, expanding, adding, modifying, and even apparently reversing aspects of the earlier letter” (p. 453). Paul adds “dialectical counterpoints” to his views of the Law and Israel, seeing the Christ-gift as corresponding to the essence of the former and retaining the ethnic priority of the latter (p. 545). Incongruity remains Paul’s dominant perfection of grace, and in this letter the apostle integrates it into new matters. (For example, in ch. 17, Barclay argues that Romans 9–11, rather than veering from dark premonitions of divine condemnation to bright hopes for universal reconciliation, has a consistent theme: the incongruity of divine election, that God’s people is ever a people created ex nihilo by God’s grace.) Romans adds statements that indicate the superabundance of the Christ-gift and its priority. The other perfections of grace are absent (non-circularity), not developed (efficacy), or have an ambivalent status (singularity). Barclay’s chapter on conclusions (ch. 18, pp. 562–74) rehearses the major concepts of the study and its primary implications. The book ends with a helpful appendix on Greek, Hebrew, Latin, and English words revolving around gift-giving (pp. 575–82), before a bibliography and indices of authors, subjects, and sources. (The index of subjects is short, only two pages, but otherwise the end matter is well constructed.)

The greatest strength of this important work is Barclay’s sixfold taxonomy of grace. It gives us a multidimensional rubric to compare views of grace, rather than a clumsy one-dimensional ruler. A particularly helpful corollary of this taxonomy is that we can speak more accurately about the ancients. For example, consider Philo’s insistence on the congruity of divine favor. Barclay rejects characterizations of his theology as having a “debased” form of grace, something that amounts to a “payment” or an “earned” reward (p. 237). That would be to make one perfection of grace, incongruity, the sole measuring stick. (And it is one that is actually counterintuitive: In the everyday world, we regularly deem recipients “worthy” of gifts without mistaking that for payment: an elementary school student brings home straight As, and her parents take her out for a special dinner; a long-serving, hard-working, honorable policeman receives a community service award with a financial windfall. It would be crass to speak of the celebratory dinner as mere “wages,” and we many would object if the community service award went to a scoundrel. The Christian affirmation of incongruous grace, stemming from Paul, is, in truth, shocking.) Therefore, Barclay can call Philo “a profound theologian of grace” (p. 238), even if his concept of divine beneficence differs markedly from Paul’s. A second corollary is that the taxonomy brings conceptual clarity to contemporary Pauline scholarship. The last forty years have seen various attempts to defend or impugn the “New Perspective on Paul,” but the meaning of “grace” has often imperceptivity shifted with each commentator, with the result that many of the disputants speak past each other. Barclay has brought these nuances to light, and future New Testament scholars need to make use of them. My only complaint with Barclay’s taxonomy is that the full taxonomy often seems to slip from view. To be sure, the ancient authors have their own priorities, and so we should not expect each category to receive equal mention in any work. But for Paul and 4 Ezra, far and away the main focus is on incongruity, and Barclay only engages the other perfections incidentally.

Despite this signal strength and a number of other smaller ones, I remain unconvinced about a couple of matters. First, Barclay sometimes speaks of his proposal as if it were an alternate to both the “old” and “new” perspectives on Paul. For example, about Gal 5:6 (“neither circumcision nor uncircumcision counts for anything”) he writes, “It seems that Paul’s target is neither ethnocentrism nor the false opinion that good works can gain benefit from God. He subverts any form of symbolic capital that operates independently of Christ” (p. 393). But this is a generalization and combination of the two views, not an alternative to both. Paul is still against ethnocentrism, but he undermines non-Jewishness, as well as Jewishness. He is still against “earning” salvation, but he is also against any other conceivable form of merit apart from Christ. Better, then, is Barclay’s final characterization of his own reading of Paul as “a re-contextualization of the Augustinian-Lutheran tradition” and “a reconfiguration of the ‘new perspective’ ” that “reshapes them both” (p. 573). Second, Barclay’s continual appeal to “worth” language threatens to bleed out other effects of God’s action in Christ. When Barclay paraphrases the apostle’s densely charged argument in Gal 2:15–21, for instance, almost every use of the dik- (“just,” “right”) root is glossed in terms of “value” (p. 371, defended over pp. 370–87). Yet the polarity that Paul develops in this passage is between rightness and sin, and “worth” is not the most natural antonym for “sin” — not to mention that Greek has words for “worth” that Paul employs elsewhere.

More generally, Paul and the Gift is valuable because it contains introductions to five important Jewish writings and abbreviated commentaries on two of Paul’s most important letters — all of which provide a handy point of reference. Locating the language of “grace” concretely within anthropological study of gift-giving in ancient cultures also brings a richer, fuller backdrop to classic Pauline words like charis, dōrean, and their cognates. Because of its wide scope, covering history of interpretation and Second Temple Jewish works, few undergraduate students would be able to make much use of this monograph. The writing is clear and most everything includes an English translation, so it might be suitable as early as master’s-level coursework. For the most part, though, this is work of a scholar written for other scholars, and as such it succeeds. Paul and the Gift will stand as the definitive work on Paul’s theology of grace for many years to come.

Timothy A. Gabrielson

Sterling College

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