I’ve recently begun working through John Barclay’s highly anticipated new book Paul and the Gift. And at 582 pages (not counting bibliography and indices), it is quite a tome. Barclay is Lightfoot Professor of Divinity at Durham University in the UK. He has given a decade to researching and writing this book, and the quality of his research and argumentation is evident from the first page. Rather than waiting till I’ve finished to review it here, I thought I’d offer impressions and reflections along the way. After all, a full review would likely be somewhat lengthy for a single blog post. Instead, think of the series as a travelogue for a long journey. That said, let’s be off.
First, the book is a study on the concept of grace in the letters of Paul. It is titled Paul and the Gift because the Greek word for “grace” is charis, which was the typical way to speak of a gift in the Greco-Roman world. Barclay argues that any Pauline theology of grace should be understood in light of the ancient context of gift-giving. That argument is rather straightforward and not all that surprising; that is, until we dig deeply into context of gift-giving in the ancient Mediterranean world, which takes us to the next reflection.
Second, the giving of gifts in the Greco-Roman period was radically different than the giving of gifts in the modern period. This is the argument that Barclay makes in chapter 1. We tend to think of gift-giving as something that is done out of sheer gratuity with no (or at least very few) strings attached. We often think in terms of “pure gift” or “free gift.” Giving a gift to another person places no obligation on that person to reciprocate the gift. And when we come to the language of gift/grace in the New Testament, we read that language in light of our present day understanding of gifts – freely given, freely received. The problem, Barclay argues, is that our contemporary attitude toward gifts is substantially different than the attitudes toward gift-giving in the world of Paul and his contemporaries. In Paul’s day, gifts were part of a culture-wide system of reciprocity and came with many a string attached. To give a gift was to place the recipient under obligation. This, of course, has implications for choosing the recipient of a gift, because you would want to make a gift to someone who could fulfill the obligation placed upon them. Typically, then, gifts were given to people in relatively similar social situations. To receive a gift was to receive the message that the giver considered you a person able to reciprocate the gift. Such a gift creates a social bond, because it is a way of recognizing the value or worth of the recipient.
Some implications of this should be clear even before getting to the exegetical portions of the book. What would it do to our theology of grace if the gift of God in Christ comes with strings attached? What if receiving the gift of grace puts us under obligation both to honor God and to obey him? There are implications for pastoral ministry, too. How many sermons have we heard that declare grace to be a “free gift” or a “pure gift” that depends on nothing in us and requires nothing from us? Working out the particulars of these questions will have to wait, but you see the importance of reading Paul’s language of grace/gift within the context of Greco-Roman gift-giving.
Third, the scope of this book is remarkable. It is not merely a study of Paul in his context; it is also a reception history of Paul’s theology of grace beginning with Marcion and proceeding through Augustine and the Reformers before moving to modern interpreters including Barth, Bultmann, Kasemann, Martyn, and those associated with the New Perspective on Paul, E.P. Sanders not least. This reception history is followed by an extended section on “Divine Gift in Second Temple Judaism,” in which the diversity of Jewish views on grace are considered. At this point, you are 300 pages into the book, and you are just getting the New Testament exegetical portions which focus primarily on Galatians and Romans. Here’s the point: Barclay has produced a methodologically robust study that deals with Paul in his context, through history, and in our contemporary context. And he is only focusing in depth on two letters. Imagine the possibilities of digging into the other Pauline epistles. Might there be a follow-up volume in the works?
Fourth, the New Perspective on Paul (NPP). I’ll be brief here because I’ve only thus far read the introductory and concluding statements on Barclay’s interaction with the NPP. Here’s what he says to expect: E.P. Sanders and other advocates of the NPP argue that Judaism in Paul’s day was a religion of grace. Barclay responds by arguing that “Grace is everywhere in Second Temple Judaism but not everywhere the same” (6). His point is that the NPP has given us a picture of Judaism that is insufficiently diverse. Paul was one voice in the middle of a debate on the nature of grace. Sanders made the mistake of reading different attitudes toward grace onto the Pauline texts without considering the extent to which Paul and his contemporaries might agree that God acts graciously toward his covenant people even though they disagree on the particulars of that grace. If this argument turns out to be successful, it will be a big problem for the NPP. I’m eager to dig into the details of that one, and I’ll be interested to hear responses from NPP advocates.
I’ll finish by saying it is very tempting to skip ahead to certain parts of this book that relate directly to my current research. And I may very well do that in order to keep my work moving at a good pace. Nevertheless, the quality of this volume makes me what to read it carefully cover to cover. So, even if I skip ahead, I’ll be certain to go back and catch up anything I may have skipped over. There is much to be learned here.