John Barclay’s— Paul and the Gift– Part One

John Barclay’s— Paul and the Gift– Part One October 18, 2015


(published August 2015, Eerdmans, 656 pages).

There are only a few landmark or seminal books in one scholar’s lifetime, that are written in his field. When it comes to Paul and my scholarly career, one can easily mention E.P. Sanders Paul and Palestinian Judaism (1977), and Wayne Meeks, The First Urban Christians (2 editions, 2nd edition 2003). It is too early to assess the impact of John Barclay’s Paul and the Gift, for various reasons, not the least is that it is the first of a two volume study, but what can be said is that if one can judge from this first volume, it is must reading for all interested in Paul, and in particular in his concept of grace. What follows here is a dialogue with my friend John Barclay, who came to Asbury last month and shared some of his recent research.


Ben: What were the motivating factors that prompted you to write a book like this? Were you just frustrated with mis-readings of Paul or misunderstandings of the ancient Jewish and Greco-Roman concepts of gifts and exchange, or were there other concerns in play?

John: Ever since grappling with the work of E.P. Sanders and writing my thesis on Galatians (Obeying the Truth, 1988) I have felt that there was something about grace in Paul that the ‘new perspective’ had not got right, but I could not put my finger on what that was for a long time. The ‘new perspective’ has a good social explanation of how Paul’s theology relates to his Gentile mission, but by lifting up values like ‘openness’, ‘inclusivity’ or ‘equality’ (e.g., ‘equal rights for Gentiles’; Stendahl; Dunn; Wright) I felt that there was something about Paul’s theology that was not being grasped. Paul is not just a covenantal theologian with an eschatological or a radical social twist. He has a radical, even dangerous, view of God’s grace, but I was struggling to see how to articulate that. I realized that to understand what Paul means by ‘grace’ I had to understand how gifts worked in the ancient world, and the deeper I got into that (which is a fascinating subject in itself) the more I began to see that there are different kinds of ‘grace’ in the ancient world, including the ancient Jewish world. And then I was away!

Ben: In this first detailed chapter you lay out the evidence at some length that gift giving, more often than not, in antiquity was not ‘with no thought of return’ Put another way, gift giving, while free in the sense of unprovoked by the ‘other’ was not ‘free’ in that it was meant to set in motion a reciprocity cycle. Yes? So it was not anonymous or disinterested or purely altruistic giving in the modern sense. The epigram from Martial, gifts are like fish hooks is apt.

John: Yes, I realized both from the anthropological literature and from reading more and more about gifts in antiquity that gifts were designed to create social ties – of family, friendship, patronage, etc. And those ties were everywhere understood as the obligation to receive and to return a gift, at least with gratitude, and often in some kind of counter-gift, whether material or social (e.g. honoring the giver). The obligation was not legal (one could not take a beneficiary to court for not returning a gift) but was social and moral – and everywhere felt, without great embarrassment. So anonymous gifts were rare (they did not fulfill one of the main purposes of gifts) and modern notions of altruism and disinterest are not helpful in understanding the generosity of the pre-modern world. I have tried to trace in that chapter how we have acquired the modern notion of a ‘pure gift’ with ‘no strings attached’, but I think it is increasingly recognized now that this is a very modern (indeed, modern Western) notion and not one that is shared in antiquity (or in most non-Western cultures).

Ben: One of the more interesting dimensions of this first chapter was the refutation of the notion that early Judaism, in sources like Tobit, reflected a notion of pure grace, in the sense that was often given without strings attached. You of course rightly say that the notion of grace is found in numerous places in early Jewish literature, but it is not ‘gift with no thought of return’ rather it is grace that sets up a relationship or nourishes one. I’m sure you will say more about this in subsequent chapters, but as a preview, how then would you see Paul’s notion of gift or grace fitting into this early Jewish context. Is his thought somewhat distinctive in this regard?

John: Yes, I argue that divine grace is everywhere in early Judaism, but not everywhere the same, and I try to distinguish between different understandings of grace. And even where gifts are given to the poor, with no expectation of return from them, they are given (and encouraged) with the expectation of a different kind of return – a return from God. I will argue in the Paul chapters that Paul radicalizes the incongruity of grace (grace given without regard to worth), and his understanding of the Christ-gift as an incongruous gift lies at the heart of his Gentile mission (and his own self-understanding). But this does not mean that God gives expecting nothing in return (what I call non-circular or unilateral grace): in fact Romans 6-8 expressly refutes that notion (of ‘cheap grace’) by saying that believers are ‘under grace’ (Rom 6.14). And on a human level, Paul does not think that gifts carry no obligations: see Romans 15.27 (on the Jerusalem collection as an obliged return gift), for example!

Ben: One of the things that strikes me as an implication of your chapter is that the notion of anonymous giving or giving with no thought of return or disinterested giving, reflects the rise of radical individualism in the West, where as for ancients social or group identity was primary, and thus giving was meant to foster community. NOW, what one sees is no personal connection between the giver and the receiver when it is done through foundations and the like, or purely anonymously. Indeed often, millionaires not only don’t want any return, they don’t even want any contact with the recipient! This it seems to me reflects precisely the situation which prompts Derrida to say what he does about the impossibility of a gift being a true gift, unless it meets all these criteria of ‘disinterestedness’ etc.

John: Yes, Derrida’s is a kind of hyper-modern philosophy of gift, turning the modern desire for a gift without any return whatsoever (even the possibility of return) into a post-modern conundrum (in his reading, how gifts work is also what makes them cancel themselves!). There are many modern trends that have led in this direction, but the desire for individual autonomy (not being under any social obligations) and the reduction of social ties makes people think of gifts now as one-way transactions, and makes them feel uncomfortable with receiving gifts, even gifts-in-return. That is a long way from Paul’s image of the body of Christ, where everyone gives to, and receives from, everyone else …

Ben: One final question about this first lengthy chapter. You seem to be, in my judgment, quite rightly concerned, about anachronistic reading of modern concepts of gift and grace back into first century texts. Would you say that the Protestant Reformation got Paul’s theology of grace and gift largely wrong, and that ever since then, we’ve been misreading Paul as a result of the towering influence of figures like Luther and Calvin?

John: Well no, I am not as cavalier as that! In the third chapter, I discuss Luther and Calvin at some length (after discussion of Augustine, on whom they both draw). I think Luther and Calvin were both absolutely right in emphasizing the incongruity of divine grace (given without regard for our merit or worth), but they also radicalized other aspects of Paul’s theology of gift (in Luther’s case, a clear move towards the gift as a unilateral, one-way movement) that go significantly beyond Paul. I also think that their (in their context necessary) emphasis on grace as the cure for sin, guilt and anxiety, left out another and very important social dimension of Paul’s theology of grace. Since God’s grace has no regard for human criteria of worth, it enables the construction of innovative, counter-cultural communities that sit loose to dominant cultural values, since these new churches no longer judge or rank people by the normal hierarchies of value (e.g., by age, class, ethnicity, education, gender etc.). That will become clear especially in the chapters on Galatians later in this book.

Ben: Just to help our readers understand, this volume is dealing with ‘the divine gift giving’ in particular of Christ, and the second volume will deal with the horizontal dimensions of grace and gift— right?

Yes, you are right, most of the horizontal elements of gift-giving (and reciprocity) are to be dealt with in a follow-up volume (this one just got too big on its own!), but a) the first chapter of Paul and the Gift lays the foundations for both, with its anthropoligical and historical study of gift, and b) the divine gift will of course turn out to be foundational for, and integral to, all human gift-giving. In terms of texts, yes, this volume covers only Gal and Rom; other Pauline texts in the next volume.

Ben: As a sort of preview of coming attractions, it appears you would disagree with Wright’s belief that Paul is referring to the church when he refers to Israel in Romans 11.


On Romans 11, yes, I read Paul as meaning his people Israel when he says ‘all Israel will be saved’; he is not clear about exactly how and when this will happen, but as I put it (p.555): ‘Israel’s Abrahamic identity will be regrounded and restored in Christ’ (who I take to be the Redeemer), since when God has mercy on Israel, this will be exactly how Israel was created in the first place. As the olive tree allegory shows, Israel is not superseded by Gentiles or absorbed into a non-Jewish realm. By believing in Christ, Israel will draw again, in consummate fashion, on grace, thereby becoming not less but more like itself (553).

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