Paul and the Gift
John M. G. Barclay
672 pp., 89.98
Paul and the Gift: Two Views
Editor's Note: A number of theologically-minded people of my acquaintance—academics, pastors who keep up with scholarship, passionate amateurs—have been waiting a long time for John Barclay's massive study Paul and the Gift, published in 2015 by Eerdmans. Hence we are publishing two reviews of Barclay's book. These are not—emphatically not, as will be clear on inspection—pro and con. Rather, the two complement each other. In a forthcoming issue, we'll publish a pair of reviews of Oliver O'Donovan's Finding and Seeking. Let us know what you think.
Near the end of his letter to the Romans, Paul writes about the cluster of Jesus-believing Jews in the Roman church: "[I]f [their preservation] is by grace, it is no longer on the basis of works, otherwise grace would no longer be grace." To many readers, especially downwind of the Protestant Reformation, that statement reads like a truism—an affirmation that holds true across time and regardless of cultural variations. Grace and works are mutually exclusive: it's less a comment especially attuned to the peculiarities of 1st-century Roman or Jewish culture and more like a dictionary definition. Indeed, a modern dictionary defines "gift" (a term closely linked, and sometimes interchangeable, with "grace") as something delivered to a recipient "gratuitously, for nothing." Yet, according to John Barclay's new book Paul and the Gift, the fruit of more than a decade of scholarly labor, nothing could be less obvious. It is Paul—not intuition or common sense or objective, timeless instinct—who is almost single-handedly responsible for making it seem obvious to most of us in the modern West that God's grace excludes human working. In Paul's original context, that conclusion was entirely novel—and strangely, unsettlingly radical.
For many of Paul's fellow Jews, to say that grace was "unmerited" or "free" was far from clear, let alone desirable. In five long chapters of patient exegesis of prominent Jewish texts from the Second Temple period, Barclay demonstrates that many of Paul's contemporaries understood God's grace as superabundant, lavish, efficacious—but, importantly, not arbitrary or unfitting or "free." Like all good givers, God did not give indiscriminately and without cause. His blessings, in the words of Philo of Alexandria (c. 25 BCE-50 CE), "will be accompanied by the grace of the gift-loving God, who glorifies and rewards what is noble because of its likeness to himself." God maintains the order of the cosmos by giving in line with discoverable, rational norms. And, more relevant for many 1st-century readers, God upholds his fidelity to Israel precisely by distributing his grace to those who are worthy of it. This does not make his grace any less gracious. Grace is not a univocal concept in Second Temple Jewish texts. It could be drawn out or "perfected" (Barclay's preferred term, borrowed from the literary theorist Kenneth Burke) in multiple ways, and it may easily be spoken of in the same breath as "works" or moral "fit" or worth. To define grace otherwise—to say that God gives it in disregard for the worth of its beneficiaries—is to open the door to moral chaos and anarchy, to snip the thread that links human pursuit of virtue with the deep structures of creation and providence.
Why, then, does Paul define grace so differently? Barclay's answer is subtle but also forthrightly theological. First, Paul knew himself to be the recipient of an incongruous gift. At the moment when he had acquired the most cultural and moral capital of any Jew he knew (see, for instance, Phil. 3:4-6), Paul discovered a divine grace that operated in complete disregard of his achieved status. As he tells the story, he had "advanced in Judaism beyond many among my people of the same age, for I was far more zealous for the traditions of my ancestors." And yet what came next was not the reward for that advance. Rather, Paul received a calling determined long before his acquisition of cultural worth had even begun: "But … God, who had set me apart before I was born and called me through his grace, was pleased to reveal his Son to me, so that I might proclaim him among the Gentiles" (Gal.1:14-15). The gift of Christ, the revelation of God's Son, happened for Paul not as the response to his amassing of moral and social worth. It was a benefit that came to him in spite of his unpreparedness for it.
And this, in turn, was how Paul found divine grace to operate among his Gentile converts. In his letter to the Romans, for instance, Paul labors to explain his recipients' lack of moral worth: "for though they knew God, they did not honor him as God or give thanks to him, but they became futile in their thinking, and their senseless minds were darkened" (1:21). And yet, in spite of this, "they are now justified by his grace as a gift" (3:24). The "Christ-gift" (as Barclay repeatedly refers to it) came to pagans in a way that mirrored how it came to Jews in the Diaspora: irrespective of moral and social achievement, in flagrant indifference to their (lack of) fitness and qualification.