Symposium Introduction

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:

  1. Superabundance. Grace or gift as “lavish and unceasing” (to borrow the language of Seneca, cited on p. 70).
  2. 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.
  3. Priority. This perfection involves chronology or timing. It emphasises the initiative of the giver as prior to any reciprocation.
  4. 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).
  5. Efficacy. This perfection emphasises the effect of the gift such that it “fully achieves what it was designed to do” (73).
  6. 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” [383]). 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.

  1. John M. Barclay, Paul and the Gift (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2015).

  2. E. P. Sanders, Paul and Palestinian Judaism: A Comparison of Patterns of Religion (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1977).

  3. 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).

  4. This is to over simplify matters, admittedly.

  5. That said, he is not always particularly clear exactly why a theological, as opposed to christological, focus readily facilitates this greater nuance.

  6. Paul’s language, in these opening chapters of Romans, also speaks against Paul’s perfecting of grace in terms of singularity and non-circularity.

  7. 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.

  8. Again, it is not obvious to me why Barclay resists speaking of the perfection of efficacy in this section.

  9. Here I think primarily of his engagement with Douglas Campbell. For some of my initial worries, see

  10. 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.

  11. 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.

Ward Blanton


Paul’s Gift

A Legacy of Sublimation, Surplus Value, and Social Antagonism

First, thanks to John Barclay for an important and timely book on Paul and gift exchange which is sure to spur important discussions in several fields. From where I stand, it is difficult to overestimate the issues addressed, touched upon, or implied by this book, and I will only scratch the surface here of what this book provokes in me.

These days we are all trying to stay afloat in an ocean of discursive histories—about gift, debt, debt forgiveness, and economic life as a form of promise which is hard to place and impossible to guarantee. These topics, so many genealogies we are inheriting, sketch the coordinates in which we must now find ourselves and from which we must project futures in which we actually believe. It’s not an easy task.

As always—and certainly more than most New Testament scholars are currently addressing (John is here exceptional and agenda setting)—Paul is a crucial historical and comparative barometer of what these complex inheritances are becoming in and through our ongoing work and investment of belief in economy. Inherited historical and theological disciplines or ecclesiastical identities do not begin to own the boundaries, limits, or potentials of these conversations, and I appreciate very much John’s efforts here to gesture beyond them.

For me, philosophical and political discussions are the best indication of this loss of a clearly defined “limit” (which is to say also of a dramatic expansion) of the Pauline legacy. For example, philosopher Giorgio Agamben’s great lifework, his homo sacer project, concludes with yet another of his calls for the creation of a new account of “economy” as a hidden theology, a new story of God (cf. Agamben, The Use of Bodies; The Kingdom and the Glory). (How else to account for economy’s sovereignty, the enabling pressure or enthusiasm of pistis in which our economies traffick, not to mention the obedience with which we seem to play our respective roles in this apparently sacralized economic leitourgia?). Agamben’s new story of a surprisingly theological history of economy, moreover, has—as a subversive loose end (and dramatic conclusion to The Use of Bodies), the image of a repressed and forgotten Paul as that classic Jewish messianist who became, instead, remembered by this tradition as the first Christian. Agamben’s implication in these books is therefore entirely clear, namely, that there is an economic story wrapped up in what we usually narrate as an anti-Jewish or supersessionist legacy. Recent work on Paul, the New Perspective, and philosophical readings of Paul have begun to articulate the ongoing legacies of Christian supersessionism (cf. Paul and the Philosophers)—but to date little has been done to show why there is evidently such a close link between a supersessionist Paul and, precisely, the Paul which seems useful to revolutionary or anti-capitalist readings of Paul. Any answer to that question will need, for a start, to wend its way through some of the genealogies John develops in Paul and the Gift.

Another indication of the dramatic contemporary moment of Paulinism in which we are living might be summarized in this similar question. What are the intensive struggles between philosophers like Peter Sloterdijk, Slavoj Zizek, and Alain Badiou but an explicit variation of questions of gift exchange and universal, global, or post-nationalist solidarity which have—for all of these thinkers—been crystallized around the question of what is to be done with the Pauline legacy? Note the way Sloterdijk’s consistent tweaking the nose of post-Frankfurt School Critical Theory so often situates itself as a critique of the Paulinism of figures like Alain Badiou (cf. Sloterdijk, Nietzsche, Apostle; Was geschah im 20. Jahrhundert?). If there were in recent generations a useful moment for biblical scholarship to grasp from its comparative resources the articulation of our time in its openness to transformation, this is certainly it.

Toward that end, I want to focus my attention on John’s engagement with a “philosophical Paul” and a theological one around the question of a so-called “pure gift.” Just to begin, it is, I think, a testimony of the important and still emerging processing of biblical studies’ encounter with the work of Jacques Derrida (instigated in no small part by Yvonne Sherwood and others at the 2002 SBL/AAR) that there seems to be emerging now almost a kind of cottage industry criticizing Derrida (particularly the Derrida of Given Time) for failing to understand ancient, non-modern economies of gift. In addition to John’s thoughtful criticisms here, see also Thomas R. Blanton, A Spiritual Economy (cf. 1–9), or David E. Briones, Paul’s Financial Policy (cf. 53–57).

Derrida (the criticisms run) is obsessed with a purity of gift exchange which exceeds the horizon of ancient gift exchange or, indeed, gift exchange as such. Derrida is therefore, it is argued, insensitive to a more everyday ancient sense of solidarity and reciprocity in gift exchange, a series of obligations which Derrida denigrates as mere transactions or calculations rather than the free or self-grounding economy of a pure gift. At a hermeneutical level, though John doesn’t say so in his articulation of this type of argument, one could expand this criticism of historical sensitivities into a more wholistic philosophical critique. After all, what is at stake here is Derrida’s late career making gesture proclaiming that everything is deconstructable except the undeconstructable demand of and for justice itself, a justice which is therefore always futural or to-come rather than something which might be actualized or made simply present. Read this way, John’s criticism of Derrida’s “perfecting” of the Pauline legacy is very similar to the Marxist criticisms of Derrida’s “perfecting” of justice in such a way that (some of the Marxists argued) it always eludes the horizon of an actual transformative politics (cf. Matthew Sprinker, ed., Ghostly Demarcations: A Symposium on Derrida’s Spectres of Marx).

Will the return to a de-perfected, de-sublimated Pauline gift afford another path toward a more robust contemporary critique of capitalism like the one for which the Marxists seem to be searching? The structural sharing in these criticisms of Derrida (John’s historical one, the Marxists’ political one) eventually deserves further reflection, and here I note only John’s very interesting initial comments about how it was wonder at money, about solidarity, and about new experiments in economic solidarity within a Christian church which provoked some of his early reflections on the Pauline texts about gift. Perhaps we could add, too, that the book is dedicated to John Riches, another Paulinist possessed by his experiments in a fair trade internationalism. No doubt any and all zones of such experimentation are precious experiences today, and no doubt we should rather share than sequester what we feel we are discovering in them. I mention this in light of the Marxist critique only to point at the shared hope in experimentation and to indicate potentially fruitful comparisons around John’s book.

For his part, John expands his criticism of Derrida into the theological and especially modern reception of Paul more generally, attempting to show how interpreters from, say, Luther and Calvin to Käsemann and Badiou, have lost the vision of Pauline reciprocity or gift exchange in their very desire to discern a kind of pure gift beyond the determined space of gift repayment. Read this way, the genealogical issues here are, potentially, both striking and massive: the Pauline legacy, mirrored in the history of theology and philosophy alike, is losing sight of a kind of everyday solidarity of gift obligation precisely in its valorization of a gift beyond calculation or exchange.

In a section of the book I found to be crucial in this regard, Barclay draws from Kenneth Burke the notion of “perfecting” a concept. Burke describes, for Barclay, a drive to perfection, to purity, to the thing itself, to a kind of ultimate end-game version of a category, a dynamic of perfectionism which, once named, could of course be found in many cultural spheres. Barclay uses Burke to inflect the history of interpretation of Paul, attempting to show how this sublimating or exceptionalizing tendency of perfectionism consistently warps the field of vision around Pauline tropes of gift, effectively reducing its polyvalency by limiting it to a kind of pure “beyond” or perhaps to an overly “private” sphere. (Here we might highlight the similarity between Derrida’s interest in the pure gift as a subset of the singularizing “secret” and Luther’s inflation of salvation into a purely fiduciary/singularizing affair, a link Mark C. Taylor has consistently noted in relation to the genealogy of modern market economies—cf. Confidence Games; Speed Limits.)

For me, the key methodological question to ask of Barclay’s book concerns the status of “perfection,” as a drive, as an economic actor, or as a comparative topic of economic self-understanding. Put bluntly, John’s assertion is that “perfecting” is a kind of sublimating gesture which, while promising to resolve the antinomies from which it emerges, is also liable to lose the sense given by precisely those antinomies. Yes, in everyday life we recognize the difference between merely calculating or merely tactical exchange and a sphere which seems, by contrast, freer and more spontaneous. But there is a way we can press this distinction too far, as if we were escalating a conflict into a total war, and that is just what John finds in the reception history of the Pauline discourse on gift.

As these broad conversations progress, I hope more will be said by the critics of Derrida—and indeed of a massive genealogy of the “perfecting” of Paul’s gift-talk—about why this sublimating investment (or this escalation of category conflict) is a danger. I suspect we all need further development of what, precisely, agitates us about the dynamic in question. Here (again, all too briefly) it may be that the philosophers are ahead of the biblical scholars in such articulations about the (rising) stakes of precisely this element within the Pauline legacy. Notice how Simon Critchley, for example, suggests that it is such a logic of perfectionism which drives the Paulinism of Zizek and Badiou to a rhetoric of violence and revolutionary catastrophe (Faith of the Faithless). In other words, the revolutionary violence tolerated (at least rhetorically) by Zizek and Badiou is a function of the way they understand Paulinism—especially his wage-gift distinction—in relation to world history.

In response, Zizek has frequently enough responded to Critchley by claiming that Critchley must necessarily fail to contest capitalism as the contemporary imperial order. Without the “perfected” critique, escalated beyond all mere reformisms into a demand for which (as Zizek likes to say) we would “go to the end” we will never escape our subservience to the current order of things. To limit myself to one other example, the very interesting debate between Sloterdijk and Badiou about the nature of twentieth-century political violence is of precisely the same order, and it is no surprise that efforts are underway to stage this debate directly in terms of a question of the Pauline legacy (cf. Sloterdijk, Was geschah im 20. Jahrhundert; Badiou, The Century).

In a word, tell me what you think about the social function of sublimating or utopian “perfecting” and I will tell you what you think of contemporary anti-capitalism. Or, differently, tell me what you think of “Christian origins” and I will tell you what you think about contemporary revolutionary breaks in the historical continuity of capitalism. Such are the times in which we write, times in which the Pauline legacy is attaining unprecedented levels of expansion, escalation, significance. Importantly, however, to date one of the only books to tackle this issue directly is Concetta Principe’s excellent Secular Messiahs and the Return of Paul’s “Real. The comparative interests of this book jump directly to the fact that it is precisely as a subset of the (surplus, excessive, or sublimated) “real” (in a psychoanalytic sense) which has generated philosophical fascination in the Pauline legacy. Principe’s book deserves more attention than it has received, and alongside John’s study should provoke important new directions in comparative research about the function of utopian “surplus” in and around Pauline discourse.

On that score, one of the things that I don’t like (there are several others which I won’t mention) about the contemporary cottage industry of denouncing “perfected” gift-talk as we have it in Derrida is that these criticisms often name “modernity” as the source of a misrecognition of the pre-modern exchange aspect of gift-giving. Once, the story goes, we knew that a gift was imbricated into a grand order of reciprocal solidarity. With modernity, the realm of exchange was so debased and calculating that the sphere of gift-giving had to flee to a remote, transcendent, otherworldly sphere of fantasized purity. That story may well be important, as far as it goes. Certainly it is a tried and tested topos of anti-capitalist discourse from Marx onward. I am concerned here more specifically with the way this epochal distinction between pre- and post-modern “gift” economy obscures something that is, increasingly, important to me, namely, that Pauline (and Senecan) discourses of the free gift were already utopian, already “perfecting”—which is to say sublimating, counter-factual, fantasized images which funded a cultural critique, or which fueled an antagonism, toward everyday life. I grant John’s fascinating use of Burke, but I don’t want to limit those insights about the role of “surplus value” or “perfecting” to a post-Pauline misrecognition of his gift-talk. For me, everyone in this genealogy is wrestling with excessive or counter-factual energies and promissory invitations. We cannot escape it and, indeed, one of the ways to take Marcel Mauss on the gift is as an exploration of the fact that these social energies, while differently managed at different times, are in fact inescapable.

To read Barclay, Briones, or Thomas Blanton one could be forgiven for thinking that Paul was some sort of hard-nosed everyday accountant of our social belonging compared to the otherworldliness or promise-oriented “purity” of the Derridean gift. But isn’t it clear, rather, that Paul and Seneca alike looked to tales of the free gift as, precisely, counter-factual and utopian critiques of an everyday life which they painted—by contrast to this utopian counter-factual—as rapacious, miserly, and debased? Were their writings about gift not also, in important respects, escalations of social antagonism, utopian provocations of the naturalized or habituated everyday? Historians like Barclay, Briones, and Thomas Blanton are frequently criticizing a philosophical Derrida for failing to recognize the historical aspects of Paul (with its gift exchange rather than a “perfected” or transcendental gift). What I find myself wishing for in all this discussion is, precisely, a comparativism which does not oppose a naturalized reciprocity in Paul to a “perfected” or extra-historical gift in the modern philosopher. Rather, I want to see more nuanced comparative tales of what is—in both cases—a tale of a sublimated, utopian, and counter-factual “gift.” Otherwise we fail to develop important new reflection on the topic which seems essential for the ancient or contemporary moment, namely, the question of surplus value as, paradoxically, the ground of these conversations rather than their simple disfiguration. We need a kind of Pauline rapprochement to the earlier arguments of a book like Zizek’s Sublime Object of Ideology.

Seneca, for example, is frequently clear that the distinction between a gift and a wage or “mere” transaction is a kind of polite forgetfulness of obligation in the former category of action. Yes, we owe the debts we owe, to our superiors, to our benefactors, to divinity—but the tacky thing, for Seneca, the socially destructive thing, would be to name this obligation, to say it out loud or directly or in too much specificity about what, precisely, is owed or accounted for in the act of gift-giving. In Seneca, life-giving and socially beneficial giving of gifts occurs as a kind of willful repression of social obligation. Or, differently put, in Seneca proper gift-giving is another name for the repression of social antagonism. To be too explicit about the drama around a gift is, already and from the very start, to express antagonism and aggressivity toward the social space one inhabits. No wonder that, for Seneca and Paul, the language of praise is so crucial around the topos of the gift, praise being so often that great “let it be” of acquiescence to a given state of affairs one cannot even calculate, much less change. Perhaps what interests me most in this respect is the way that the force of social antagonism emerges out of repressive forgetfulness easily to shift either into sublimating excess (as a counter-factual utopian critique of the—by-contrast—debased present) or into a de-sublimating specificity about the obligations that polite society does not say aloud.

I don’t mean to imply that Seneca and Paul are situating their cultural criticism or their respective invitations to the philosophical life in the same way—far from it. But I do mean to say that we understand their protreptic invitations to the renewed mind as of the same order as a contemporary utopian discourse that we get in someone like Derrida. Both are trafficking in the delicious possibility of an impossibility, both provoking the everyday with a sense of what it is not. Or, to put it more provocatively, both are inviting others to find the solidarity which is a singularizing “secret,” that buzzy energy of the unexpected and even unnameable. That the infrastructural demands or financial obligations of these respective movements (Paul’s or Derrida’s) would—soon and quite obviously enough—become routinized and readily recognizable, goes without saying. But, against Derrida’s historical-critical detractors, I think it is clear that we miss something very important in both authors if we imagine the logic of “perfecting” to be only a modern failure to recognize a naturalized wholism in Pauline gift-exchange.

To put it more provocatively in order to highlight the social function of “perfecting,” neither Derrida nor Paul—not to mention ourselves—get very far without the gesture toward that which escapes the everyday, a kind of sacrality, or even a kind of promissory or entrepreneurial bullshit, that figure which is structurally never clearly distinguishable from the “pure gift” as a kind of secret or unjustified hope.

Finally, the reason I want to challenge what seems to me an inappropriate epochal distinction (between Pauline gift and Derridean “pure gift”) is because I think we need to keep our comparative wits about us precisely when the question touches upon how we should live at a moment when it seems that a brutal capitalist economy of exchange so seamlessly integrates the excesses or an-economic zones of the “promise.” Here, too, my sense is that our experience is much closer to a Pauline theology of work (for free, without contract, beyond usual exchange values) than we dare to admit to ourselves. How many people reading this blog are out of work or permanently underemployed scholars who are, in every respect, funding their own careers? How many of us wonder at our own investments (again, in every sense) in a game which seems increasingly almost entirely about an extra-historical “promise” which cannot be reduced to work-and-wage, to contract, to actual exchange? Do our very souls, our very world-mediating enthusiasms, not indicate an almost monstrous—a properly divine—pistis in an economy which seems to elude us, to evade our challenges? Are we not all Paulinists now, not because we have a blueprint to change the world but, precisely, because we do not, because we are trying—heart and soul, our “souls at work” as Bifo Berardi likes to say—to bear up at a moment when “economy” is the divinity whose machinations are unreadable and in fact apparently unsustainable, whose imposed austerities are unquestionable, and whose demands for sacrifice are almost impossible to resist?

John Barclay puts before us a very important intervention about the Pauline legacy which is, quite clearly, not simply reducible to the past or to a couple of contemporary academic disciplines. In solidarity and sympathy with the project, I conclude with the question therefore: what is to be done with the Pauline legacy? More specifically, how are we to situate the historically Pauline ambiguous and ambivalent reliance on sublimation, on perfecting, on the post-contractual promise, in a world in which such dynamics indicate at once our greatest hopes and our most profound destitutions? To read Paul today is perhaps one of the most exhilarating and disconcerting of entrees into fundamental struggles of our time.

  • John Barclay

    John Barclay


    Response to Ward Blanton

    Ward Blanton’s comments on Paul and the Gift are both welcome and challenging. His concern to read Paul afresh in the midst of our economic dysfunctions and injustices (indeed, as a hidden voice in our economic history and theory) is an inspiration to me and to many others. As in his A Materialism for the Masses: Saint Paul and the Philosophy of Undying Life (New York: Columbia University Press, 2014), Blanton’s voice in this discussion is properly both provocative and demanding. It is extremely valuable to be reminded of the subtle dependence of economics and economic theory on certain configurations of theology, and the engagement of some contemporary theologians in the economic sphere (Kathryn Tanner; John Milbank; even Justin Welby) is surely to be hailed as a welcome development. I am only at the beginning of my reflections on this topic, as I explore early Christian economics in the next phase of my project on gift, but I hope what follows will serve to further our discussion.

    I realise that my critique of Derrida’s “pure gift” could sound like a neutering of Paul’s potential for radical rethinking of gift. But this is where the distinction between different kinds of perfection could come to our aid. Derrida perfected the non-circularity of gift, seeking to free it (even if only in a utopian state) from all systems of reciprocity and exchange. But this is not the only possible perfection of gift, and I have argued that Paul radically perfects not this but another dimension of gift, with striking social consequences, and that is the incongruity of the gift (more on that below). I am not seeking to denude Paul of his investment in surplus, excess, and counter-factual possibility; I am only (but still significantly) challenging the particular perfection that was so important to Derrida. And my critique is not just that Derrida draws from a peculiarly “modern” conceptualization of gift, but that the perfection of the “pure,” one-way gift results in a denial of solidarity and collective mutualism, and turns out to be complicit in the idealization of individualized autonomy which is so basic to late capitalism. The gift with no return not only reduces or denies the mutuality of friendship, but it all too frequently leads to toxic forms of patronage and dependence, and to expectations of “self-sacrifice” that have been so damaging to women down the centuries and (as Blanton points out) might contribute even now to the exploitation of the employed and under-employed on “adjunct” or zero-hours contracts. There are times when non-exchange equals injustice.

    Gift-exchange does not need to be calculating or contractual, as Derrida and others make out: indeed, because it is voluntary and non-contractual, it is open-ended and never guaranteed, leaving plenty of space for the development of creative forms of interdependence and co-interest. For that reason, Paul is far from the “hard-nosed everyday accountant” that Blanton fears he may become. Observing Paul’s expectations of reciprocity between the Corinthian assembly and the “saints” in Jerusalem (in 2 Cor 8–9) one senses his hopes for a long-distance friendship of mutual commitment, but nothing like a contractual exchange. “It is a question of a fair balance (or equality: isotēs) between your present abundance and their need, so that their abundance may be for your need, in order that there may be a fair balance” (2 Cor 8:13–14).

    Exchange is not the problem: the problem is a structural (and therefore psychological) commitment to property “rights,” a commitment Paul undercuts with a theology of (God-supplied) “abundance.” When Paul caps off this point by citing “the one who had much did not have too much, and the one who had little did not have too little” (8:15), one thinks immediately of the corporate bosses on salaries-with-benefits 145 times the size of the wages of their cleaners, who cannot afford to feed their children. Derrida’s perfection of the one-way gift is not the only, and in my opinion not the best, way to critique capitalism. But if we attend to what Paul does perfect in relation to gift, we may find a better way. Second Corinthians 8–9 is replete with what seems to us a fantastical, utopian assumption of superabundance: “God is able to provide you with every blessing in abundance, so that by always having enough of everything, you may share abundantly in every good work” (2 Cor 9:8). Paul does not mean necessarily material abundance (he knows about poverty, from his own experience), but he conjures an outlandish image of excess (in one kind of beneficial gift or another) which circulates around a community in fluctuating and flexible patterns of exchange. Talk about surplus! And combined with that “perfection” is another, of incongruity, whereby no limits of “worth” (social, ethnic, moral, or economic) are placed around the distribution of the gift. This is an economy where communal benefits are shared, non-selectively, for the good of all (cf. 2 Cor 9:13), not rationed or delimited according to one’s ability to pay or to articulate one’s rights. This is gift “for free” in the sense of imposing no prior conditions, but not in the sense that it carries no expectations of return, because the purpose of this universal distribution is that all should be active participants in the benefit-sharing dynamics of the community.

    That is surely a revolutionary vision which subverts our “natural” ownership rights, our increasing practice of discrimination in granting access to high-quality resources, and our revealing celebration of the adjective “exclusive” (since when did it become a virtue to exclude?). That provocative theological vision has, of course, been influential in marginalized social visions, from the co-operative movement through to modern forms of socialism. The question is whether it can be sustained in a non-theological form, that is, without reference to a God whose creator-ownership of all that we possess relativizes and destabilizes our claims to private ownership. Paul’s vision is, as Blanton rightly insists, thoroughly material, but only, I think, because the material is framed by a theological vision in which all things come from God. In this sense, our increasingly brutal and exploitative capitalism is not unrelated to the processes of secularization by which it is becoming harder and harder to give convincing grounds for any values beyond what is convenient to the powerful.

Michael Cover


October 17, 2018, 1:00 am

Susan Grove Eastman


October 24, 2018, 1:00 am