Grace in Early Judaism and Paul

I’ve been listening to Prof. John Barclay’s Galatians course offered a few years ago at Regent College. The audio of the course is available at Regent College audio. I strongly recommend the audio course!

There are number of interesting and insightful discussions as one would expect from Barclay. One thing in particular was thought provoking. He notes that conceptions of grace in the Early Judaism of Paul varied considerably. I am aware that this is for him a current research project. He critiques New Perspective readings (e.g. Sanders, Dunn and Wright) for taking for granted the definition of grace, although putting it as the significant element of the revision of the view of Judaism with what E.P. Sanders labeled  “Covenantal Nomism”. It’s one thing to claim that early Judaism was a “religion” of grace, but, according to Barclay, that is unhelpful if on doesn’t go a step further to understand the meaning “grace” for the variety of forms of “Judaism” at the time. I’m hesitant these days in light of the recent research to refer to Judaism as a “religion” as Sanders did. But that is another topic. To the point, Barclay argues that Paul’s definition of grace was opposed to that of the wider cultural conceptions both inside and outside Judaism. In contrast to other Jewish conceptions of grace, Paul believed grace was a gift given by God without any regard, in fact a utter disregard, for the worthiness of the recipient. Barclay thinks that for all others “forms” of Judaism, and this is just a reflection of the wider Greco-Roman culture generally, gift (grace) was given in view of some element of worthiness in the recipient. It was counter-cultural, even within Judaism, to think of grace in such a radical way – disconnect from something worthy of gift.Barclay says Paul taught that “in Christ” God gave the gift (grace) to unworthy objects. And this concept was unprecedented.

I am perhaps not representing Barclay’s views fully or as well as I could, but I think this is the gist of his argument. From this point of view, Paul is erasing the value of any “cultural capital” Jewish or otherwise, that one could contribute to worth. Paul draws a “diagonal line” through ethnicity, social class, gender and economics. In Christ, God is bypassed all social capital and has shown it to be useless. While he doesn’t erase these cultural aspects, he renders them meaningless.

There are a couple of key points here: (1) The observation that there were variations on the definition and nature of God’s grace in early Judaism – or at least one variation, namely Paul’s view of grace; this is fascinating and important. (2) The uselessness of social function and identity as the basis of worth; worth instead comes as a gift in Christ.

Barclay is reading Galatians, as best I can tell, in what has been labeled today an Apocalyptic perspective. Contemporary scholars such as J.L. Martyn and Martinus de Boer best represent this view in recent commentaries in the last decade. The apocalyptic reading essentially sees the work of God in Christ as a complete disruption and an intervention of God without regard for any earlier progressive or narratological development. What came before the advent of Christ is made irrelevant at the very least. But usually it is often a more radical delegitimization of the story of Israel altogether. This is where I begin to become unconvinced of this kind of reading however. I’m intrigued by the idea the nature of grace in early Judaism, but I find the near denial of the earlier story of Israel  hard to square with Paul’s theology. It seems quite clear to me that one would have to do a great deal of redefinition to read Paul’s story of God in Christ without regard for the story of Israel past, present and future.

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  • jeffpeterson64

    I’m not as familiar with Martyn and de Boers off the top of my head as I should be and haven’t listened to Barclay yet (though I will, so thanks for the notice), but couldn’t an “apocalyptic” reading of Christ’s appearance in Paul be construed as God’s epoch-making fulfillment of his promises of salvation for Israel and the nations, including those quoted in Gal 3:7 and 4:27? Seems to me that sort of approach would make room for the newness involved in salvation “from the present evil age” while not denying continuity in God’s saving purpose from the call of Abraham, or even from the creation of Adam (as I think you can find in 1 Cor 15:45–49 et al.).

  • Michael


    I’m wondering what you’re hearing that’s leading you to think Barclay’s reading is falls within the ‘apocalyptic’ paradigm.

    I was a student in this course, and Barclay frequently uses Martyn and de Boer as foils to make his points. There are, of course, some places where he finds the paradigm helpful, but after taking the course, I’d far more easily see Barclay working from a ‘post-NPP’ paradigm.

    Perhaps you’re noticing something I’m not, though!

    • jwillitts

      Michael, it would have been a real joy to have taken the course. I’m envious. I see this sympathy with Martyn in his radical discontinuity with the promises of God to Israel (cf Rom 15:8-9). What about the grace of God in the promises to the patriarchs? I don’t doubt that he is not 100% with Martyn, his view of the fundamental newness is certainly in line with Martyn. I am wrong?