A friend of mine, an acquisitions editor at a prominent publishing house, recently polled his acquaintances on Facebook asking “What are the best books in Pauline studies written in the last five years?” It was no surprise to me that the most popular answer given was Barclay’s Paul and the Gift.1 In the short time since its publication this important monograph has widely been recognised as one of the most important works on the Apostle Paul since E. P. Sanders’ Paul and Palestinian Judaism.2 I am particularly delighted, therefore, to introduce this symposium in which a variety of leading scholars reflect on Barclay’s work, many of whom are critically engaged in the various related subject areas.
To locate Barclay’s proposal in terms of current discussion is no easy matter given the complexity of the issues involved. Indeed, part of Barclay’s project aims to resolve some of those complexities by presenting future scholarly work with a number of crucial taxonomies and distinctions. These are elucidated in the first part, to which we now turn.
Part 1 (“The Multiple Meanings of Gift and Grace”) contains three sections. The first examines the notion of “the gift,” building on Marcel Mauss’s famous Essai sur le Don.3 One of the most important upshots of this section is the call for renewed sensitivity to appreciating the development of notions of “the gift.” In particular, Barclay wants to make clear that contemporary notions of an “absolutely free gift,” that is to say, a gift with no strings attached, is a relatively modern development and should not be projected across all times and cultures. Rather, up until the modern period, gifts were given in order to create social bonds, such that certain rules of reciprocity implied the expectation of a return.
The second section of part 1 offers a taxonomy for understanding the way gift/grace can be conceptualised. Drawing on Kenneth Burke’s notion of “perfection” (drawing out a concept to its logical and extreme conclusion), Barclay proposes six potential “perfections” of grace. They are, crucially, not to be understood as a “package deal,” nor is Barclay suggesting that the addition of more perfections make grace more complete or superior. To speak of one perfection of grace is not necessarily to imply another. These six perfections are as follows:
- Superabundance. Grace or gift as “lavish and unceasing” (to borrow the language of Seneca, cited on p. 70).
- Singularity. This involves “the spirit in which the gift is given,” such that the perfection of singularity emphasises benevolence as the “sole and exclusive mode of operation” (71). Where notions of justice and punishment play a part in the textual data, this is taken to undercut the presence of the perfection of singularity.
- Priority. This perfection involves chronology or timing. It emphasises the initiative of the giver as prior to any reciprocation.
- Incongruity. This, as we shall see, will be the perfection Barclay finds most prominently in Paul. A gift perfected in terms of incongruity is a gift given “without regard to the worth of the recipient” (73; this phrase is found in multiple other places).
- Efficacy. This perfection emphasises the effect of the gift such that it “fully achieves what it was designed to do” (73).
- Non-circularity. Does a gift imply rules of return, come with certain expectations of reciprocity? The perfection of non-circularity, which came to prominence in the modern era, identified gift in terms of altruism or disinterest, such that the gift came with no strings attached, and with no expectations of return.
The first and second sections of part 1 facilitate an examination of the deployment of the language of gift/grace throughout church history, a task Barclay undertakes in the third and final section. Without focusing on all relevant figures (some will be disappointed that there is no engagement with Aquinas, for example), Barclay expertly engages the theologies of Marcion, Augustine, Luther, Calvin, then fast forwards to the modern period, examining Barth, Bultmann, Käsemann, Lou Martyn, then E. P. Sanders and the “New Perspective.” He finishes by analysing various proposals that have developed after the New Perspective, as well as the philosophical reading proffered by Badiou. This list of names highlights both the ambition and importance of Barclay’s work, and it is here that his sixfold taxonomy relating to the perfections of grace come into their own. Barclay’s claim is that different theologians are all theologians of grace, but that they all perfect grace in different ways.
This realisation, Barclay aims to show, clarifies some of the complex debates surrounding Old and New Perspectives on Paul. In a particularly illuminating move, Barclay shows that Sanders deploys an understanding of grace that emphasises the perfection of priority (and further that Sanders understood this perfection to necessarily entail another, namely incongruity). On this basis, a slew of scholars would claim that Paul did not have a problem with Jewish covenantal nomism, hence the multiplication of new perspectives on Paul following Sanders’s important publication, which sought to understand Paul in light of the collapse of the Judaism = legalism construct.4
Part 2 offers an analysis of divine gift in Second Temple Jewish texts, namely the Wisdom of Solomon, Philo, 1QHa, Pseudo-Philo and 4 Ezra. In these chapters Barclay decisively moves beyond Sanders’s “covenantal nomism.” One must bear in mind that Sanders’s “covenantal nomism” has functioned as the key analytical frame for “the last 40 years of scholarship on the soteriology of Second Temple Judaism” (39), which should give some sense for the importance of Barclay’s proposals. While all of these texts discuss grace, it would be decidedly unhelpful to describe them as all representing an undifferentiated “religion of grace.” Nor do these texts simply represent different degrees of emphasis on the topic of grace. Rather, and again referring to his sixfold taxonomy, these different textual traditions understand the divine gift to mean different things, which is to say that the concept is perfected in different ways. While all of these texts perfect the superabundance of divine grace and none of them perfect the non-circularity of grace, they differ on other matters, namely and importantly on the perfection of incongruity, which will be of central importance in Barclay’s exegesis of Galatians and Romans.
What this all shows is that the notion of grace was debated in Second Temple Judaism. To foist “covenantal nomism” over all of these texts by means of an undifferentiated notion of grace is to force the textual data into a hermeneutically unhelpful straitjacket. Barclay instead insists that texts that do not define grace in terms of the perfection of incongruity do not thereby cease to be about grace. By focusing on the perfections of grace, Barclay can also resist the claim that one perfection must lead to another (as Sanders does in claiming that priority necessarily entails incongruity). Hence Barclay writes:
When we disaggregate the possible perfections of grace, we can comprehend the diversity in Second Temple Judaism on this topic, a diversity that “covenantal nomism” not only masks but is conceptually incapable of grasping. (319)
Furthermore, and leading into part 3, these realisations allow us to understand Paul as an instance of Second Temple Judaism, not apart from it, and thus to understand the apostle’s own theological movements in this light.
Part 3 presents an exegetical overview of the “Christ-gift” in Galatians. After outlining some of the key issues in interpreting Galatians (such as clarifying the nature of Paul’s opponents, the various polarities throughout the text and so on), Barclay summarises four different readings of Galatians in these terms (namely, those penned by Luther, Dunn, Martyn and Kahl). This overview suggests to Barclay that Galatians can only be understood by properly organising the various Pauline polarities, which have been alternatively construed and prioritised in the history of research.
Although the following chapters (12–14) do not provide a comprehensive commentary on the whole of Galatians, they do attempt to penetrate the logic of the letter as a whole, and so proceed systematically through the text (Gal 1–2 is tackled in chapter 12; Gal 3:1—5:12 [with 6:11–18] is tackled in chapter 13; and Gal 5:13—6:10 is tackled in chapter 14).
The upshot is that grace, in Galatians, is understood in terms of its christological focus, which means that it is primarily grasped in terms of the perfection of incongruity, hence as functioning without regard to the worth of its recipients (see particularly his analysis of Gal 1:1–12). This is not to be understood as an abstract theological claim, but rather represents the manner of Paul’s missionary activity amongst the Gentiles. It means that no symbolic capital can be claimed as relevant in light of the unconditioned gift of God in Christ.
In order to negotiate the exegetically choppy waters of 2:11–21, Barclay outlines his key interpretive decisions that tend to guide these discussion, namely the meaning of “justification” (which he understands to mean “considered righteous” by God), the phrase “the works of the law” (which he understands to refer to the practice of the Jewish law) and the meaning of πίστεως Χριστοῦ (which he understands to refer to “faith in Christ,” and this precisely as rejection of all prior symbolic capital and as a “declaration of bankruptcy” ). This is certainly a rather traditional set of assertions that look behind the New Perspective and “apocalyptic” readings to Lutheran and Reformed exegesis. But it would be a mistake to think that Barclay therefore represents Reformed theology together with its (mis)understanding of Judaism as a religion of works righteousness. His analysis of grace in Second Temple Jewish texts is clear that grace is everywhere, simply not everywhere the same. Rather, Barclay understands Paul, throughout the letter, to emphasise the incongruity of grace, such that all claims to symbolic capital measured in human terms are to be rejected. After all, this is precisely how God encountered the Galatians by the Spirit (so Gal 3:1–5). Furthermore, this is the rationale behind Paul’s rejection of “works of the law.” It is not that Jewish works of law represent a legalistic attitude. The problem, rather, is the attempt to condition the Christ-gift by the values of Jewish ethnicity and Torah, which would be to refute the incongruity of grace (so Gal 2:21). For this reason, Barclay would see no ground for Paul objecting to the continued practice of Torah amongst Jewish-Christ followers. The problem revolves around the role of Torah observance in terms of its symbolic capital in view of the Christ grace-event.
Barclay, in making this case, is well aware that Paul leaves unresolved numerous tricky issues relating to the distinctiveness and special place of Israel. After all, the history of Israel, in relationship to the Torah, is decidedly undercut in Galatians. In what seems to be language directed against Wright, Barclay claims that while “the characters are shared with some of the varied narratives current in Second Temple Judaism, the plot [in Paul) is new; it is doubtful if it makes sense to speak of Paul’s inhabiting the ‘same’ story” (415, italics his). Barclay understands Galatians to be christologically determined to such an extent that nuance was not possible at this point. Issues that will become clearer in Romans are only in Galatians in seed form in a couple of verses (for example, 6:16).
Barclay is keen to observe how all of this has immediate ramifications for the concrete communal life of these groups. Based on the incongruity of God’s grace in Christ, any form of symbolic capital that operates apart from and before Christ is deemed irrelevant. On this basis, these “in Christ” communities are inclusive, which is to say that these new communities express the incongruity of God’s grace in Christ in social relations. What is more, in this light the polarity between the Spirit and the flesh, and notions such as “freedom for slavery” are to be understood. Because the perfection of grace in terms of incongruity does not necessarily imply a perfection in terms of non-circularity, Paul can also be quite firm about the necessity to keep in step with the Spirit, to sow to the Spirit and so on. For to fail to do this would potentially be to “lose all the benefits of the Christ-gift” (440; Barclay refers to Gal 5:21; 6:8 in this regard).
Part 4 offers a similar exegetical treatment of Romans, although Barclay bounces around the text with a little more freedom than with Galatians. Instead of the christological focus of Galatians, Barclay suggests Romans is decidedly more theological, and as such allows Paul to understand the place of Israel in the purposes of God in a way that was impossible in his shorter letter.5 I do not have space here to outline his numerous constructive proposals, even by way of summary. Instead, I will draw out three aspects of his argumentation, which corresponds to the three chapters he devotes to Romans (chapters 15–17).
First, because Barclay sees the incongruity of grace foregrounded in Romans, he claims to solve exegetical conundrums relating to language in Romans 2. Only by (illegitimately) perfecting grace in additional ways, particularly the non-circularity of grace, is it difficult to understand 2:7 (“those who by patiently doing good seek for glory and honour and immortality, he will give eternal life”). But this verse, he insists, is entirely consistent with an emphasis on the incongruity of grace (cf. 466–69). What is more, the redefinition of “the Jews” as something given (and “internal”), not inherited, naturally follows from an emphasis on the incongruity of grace.6 Much of this is developed with (perhaps somewhat more convincing) exegetical work on Romans 4, which elucidates the relationship between Abraham, “faith” and the perfection of incongruity.
Second, in chapter 16 Barclay (with reference to Rom 5:12—8:39; 12:1—15:13) explains the way in which his account of incongruous grace overlaps neatly with Paul’s emphasis on the development of “a Christian habitus.” Particularly in Romans 5:12–21, the Christ-gift is “not morally vacuous, an unconditional gift that winks at human sin: it contains transformative power” (497). As such God’s grace is not to be understood as unconditional (by which he means carrying no subsequent demands—see 500), but as unconditioned (based on no prior conditions). Because this is so, the Christ-event liberates humans to participate in an eccentric existence, grounded in the life of Christ,7 all of which resonates well with his emphasis on the perfection of incongruity. Barclay also highlights the perfection of superabundance in his exegesis of Romans 5.
Third, and arguably the main exegetical success of Barclay’s engagement with Romans, he presents a reading of Romans 9–11 (in chapter 17). He powerfully weaves a way through the complexity and apparent contradictions of the text. Once again, by emphasising particularly the perfection of incongruity, Barclay aims to resolve exegetical conundrums. If Romans 9:6–29 is traditionally understood to highlight God’s selection within Israel, and thus the ever-narrower focus of inscrutable divine election, Barclay helpfully understands these chapters to clarify, rather, “the grounds on which Israel as a nation was created and selected,” namely by incongruous benevolence (528, italics mine). These verses are not primarily about whom God has chosen, nor simply that God has exercised choice. Rather, in Barclay’s reading, the chapter is very much about how God has chosen Israel, namely incongruently.
This relates rather well with the difficult section (9:30—10:21) in the centre of these three chapters. Rather than “swerving off track,” as some have thought Paul does at this point, Barclay’s reading once again foregrounds the centrality of the perfection of incongruity in Paul’s argumentation throughout. This is all finally taken, then, to ground both the metaphors (first fruits, and root and branches) of Romans 11 as well as Paul’s confidence for Israel’s future towards the end of Romans 11.8
The exegetical promise of Barclay’s taxonomy is thus established. Apart from the inevitable debates that will follow certain exegetical decisions (I hope particularly that cluster of decisions relating to the interpretation of Galatians 2:5–21 and his reading of Romans 1–3) I wonder if Barclay’s sixfold taxonomy is sufficiently alert to necessary conceptual nuance to carry the day (in particular, do they adequately clarify the relationship between different perfections and correlating topics, in Paul, such as time, and justice and familial metaphors?). One may also wonder, because of this, whether his taxonomy facilitates a fair engagement with some of his contemporary interlocutors.9 Others may also question the extent to which the spectre of some kind of supersessionism hangs over the project (with the portrayal of the practice of Torah as—not wrong but—ultimately irrelevant),10 while still others may worry about the (largely debilitating) ramifications of his proposals for certain forms of modern identity politics.11 Finally, I expect some will wish to press for further nuance and subtlety specifically when eschatological moral congruity is directly paired with the moral incongruity of the gift at the beginning of a believer’s life (see, e.g., 518). Other concerns and debates I now leave to our panel of respondents to take up with Barclay in the forthcoming discussion. But without a doubt this book represents a major publishing event such that it may be that students forty years from now will speak of the period between Sanders and Barclay.
Barclay, John M. Paul and the Gift. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2015.
Mauss, Marcel. The Gift: Forms and Functions of Exchange in Archaic Studies. Translated by Ian Cunnison, with an introduction by E. E. Evans-Pritchard. Norton Library. New York: Norton, 1967.
Sanders, E. P. Paul and Palestinian Judaism: A Comparison of Patterns of Religion. Philadelphia: Fortress, 1977.
John M. Barclay, Paul and the Gift (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2015).↩
E. P. Sanders, Paul and Palestinian Judaism: A Comparison of Patterns of Religion (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1977).↩
English translation: Marcel Mauss, The Gift: Forms and Functions of Exchange in Archaic Studies, trans. Ian Cunnison, introd. E. E. Evans-Pritchard (New York: Norton, 1967).↩
This is to over simplify matters, admittedly.↩
That said, he is not always particularly clear exactly why a theological, as opposed to christological, focus readily facilitates this greater nuance.↩
Paul’s language, in these opening chapters of Romans, also speaks against Paul’s perfecting of grace in terms of singularity and non-circularity.↩
For reasons I have not yet fathomed, which is to say they may be clear to others, Barclay seems anxious to downplay the efficacy of grace at these points. See, e.g., 503n17.↩
Again, it is not obvious to me why Barclay resists speaking of the perfection of efficacy in this section.↩
Here I think primarily of his engagement with Douglas Campbell. For some of my initial worries, see http://blog.christilling.de/2015/12/your-guide-for-reading-paul-aright-in.html.↩
He claims to offer “a reading that requires no denigration of Judaism, while clarifying how Paul’s allegiance to the truth of the good news necessarily questions the ultimate authority of the Torah” (445, italics his). Some may wonder if questioning the ultimate authority of the Torah is necessarily also the denigration of Judaism. See in this regard also his exegesis of Romans 2–3.↩
An emphasis on the incongruity of grace functions, in my view, as a timely and important corrective of aspects of the contemporary political landscape. Others, however, particularly those in the North American system and who are deeply invested in such identity-focused political discourse, may not always find Barclay’s proposals comfortable.↩