Paul and the Gift: Prologue image

Paul and the Gift: Prologue

John Barclay's new book, Paul and the Gift, is making waves. That shouldn't be too surprising: Barclay holds the most prestigious chair (Lightfoot Professor of Divinity) in the leading theological faculty (Durham) in the country - some would say the world - and he has been working, lecturing and writing on the subject for ten years. He is also, to make a more nebulous point, the person whom you feel most obligated to persuade when it comes to Pauline scholarship; when he offers his opinion in a Pauline seminar, everybody listens. Nevertheless, when my supervisor told me that, as a result of this book, the New Perspective was in big trouble, I was surprised, partly because that's not the sort of thing that New Testament scholars very often say, and partly because I thought Barclay's take on grace in Paul was common knowledge by now. So I bought it, started reading it, and decided to blog a bit about it.

For the uninitiated, this is Barclay’s excellent summary of where scholarship currently stands on grace in Paul (first paragraph), and the questions he will raise and address in this book (second paragraph). It’s taken from the prologue, and it’s an impressively brief explanation of a massive subject:

In the Christian tradition, Paul’s theology of grace has often been interpreted as the antithesis of Judaism, as if by Paul’s day Judaism had corrupted its biblical theology of grace with a soteriology of “works-righteousness” and reward. Paul’s language, laden with nuances derived from internal Christian disputes, has been conscripted to differentiate Christianity from Judaism on these terms, and to diminish the latter. On this reading, Paul was the premier theologian of grace who resisted the “legalism” of “late” Judaism, a works-based religion that amounted to auto-salvation. In recent decades this negative image of Judaism has been challenged with a counter-image, presenting Judaism as a “religion of grace.” Students of Judaism have traced grace everywhere in Second Temple literature, as the foundation of Israel’s covenant relationship with God and the frame within which the Torah was observed. Thus, for many, Paul says nothing remarkable about grace, and if his theology departs in any respect from his Jewish tradition, this has little if anything to do with grace.

The first of these readings corresponds to the “Old Perspective”, although of course none of its proponents actually called it that (“Dark Ages”, anyone?), and the second to the “New Perspective.” What, then, is Barclay going to do about it?

But if “grace” is everywhere in Second Temple Judaism - in the celebration of divine beneficence, goodness, and mercy - is it everywhere the same? Are Jewish configurations of this topic uniform, or is the map of Jewish theology over-simplified if labelled “a religion of grace”? Might there be various construals of divine mercy and goodness, and of their relationship to justice? Is there evidence for diversity, even debate, regarding the generosity of God, its expressions, its beneficiaries, and its patterns of distribution? If so, where should Paul be placed within this Jewish diversity?

My guess, based on having heard Barclay (not to mention rhetorical questions) before, is that the answers to these will be No, Yes, Yes, Yes and Somewhere New. In a footnote, he describes his intention as “similar to that of Stephen Westerholm, Perspectives Old and New on Paul, though my focus is primarily on the topic of grace,” which means it should be fun. He concludes his prologue with a summary of where he is heading:

1. “Grace” is a multi-faceted concept best approached through the category of gift. Part One will explore six ways in which the concept can be “perfected” or “conceptually extended.”
2. Grace is everywhere in Second Temple Judaism, but not everywhere the same. This will be the subject of Part Two. Paul, it should be said in advance, stands in the midst of this diversity.
3. Paul’s theology of grace hinges on his emphasis on the incongruity of grace: the fact that it is given without regard to worth. (For those who are rolling their eyes and muttering, yes, but we already knew that, note that Barclay is clear that this is not the same as unconditionality.)

His final line is worth pondering in various other contexts, not just this one. “By a strange paradox, Paul may be most significant today when he is most carefully re-situated in his own original context.” Indeed.

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