Paul and the Gift: the Invention of “the Poor” image

Paul and the Gift: the Invention of “the Poor”

So far, the sketch of ancient gift-giving in John Barclay's Paul and the Gift has related to the ancient world in general, primarily through the lens of Greek and Roman writers. The obvious question for the study of Paul, then, is: were the Jews different? Was reciprocity also a feature of Jewish gift-giving, or did they develop a different trajectory, and if so, why?

Barclay responds fairly firmly to Seth Schwartz’s suggestion that the Jews had a “core religious ideology” that idealised the “pure, unreciprocated gift.” Neither the concrete examples we have in the Hebrew Bible (e.g. Gen 33:1-14; Ex 2:16-22; 1 Sam 22-24), nor the stories of heroes dying in battle (which is standard in antiquity, and always has glory and honour in death as the chief form of return for the gift offered), suggest they did. In fact, Barclay suggests, the very language of “pure” gift prompts us to ask “whether a specifically modern construction of gift is here being retrojected onto the past.”

He does, however, regard the Jews as different on gift-giving, albeit for slightly different reasons:

In the Greek and early Roman traditions, “the poor” were rarely identified as a distinct social category, since social categorisation depended more on political than on economic status ... By contrast, since the structure of Israelite/Jewish society was based on ethnicity, internal divisions were apt to be based not on political status (which was the same for all Jews) but on levels of wealth, such that “the poor” could be recognised as a distinguishable (if only loosely definable) social entity.

In that sense, the social category of “the poor” is tantamount to a Jewish invention. But it is not just that the Jews spoke about the poor; they also gave to the poor, even though they expected to receive nothing back from them, and indeed they embedded gratuitous almsgiving into the fabric of their religious praxis. Why? Well:

... within the Jewish tradition, the domains of law, ethics, and ritual practice were more closely integrated, such that giving to the poor was both (unusually) a matter of legislation and integral to a religious piety that pervaded all spheres of life ... Moreover, since such giving to the poor was closely connected to religious piety, both giver and recipient could figure benefaction as receiving its most important return not from the human recipient but from God.

So it is not that the Jews did not give in expectation of return (cf. Matthew 6!); it is that the return they expected was from God. In other words:

Jewish giving to the poor is fully enmeshed in the expectation of reciprocity, and its distinctive elements are justified not by an ‘anti-reciprocal’ ethos but by the modulation of the reciprocity-ethos into the expectation of reciprocity from God ... Jews were perhaps more likely than non-Jews to give to beggars, not because they did not care about a return, but because they had stronger ideological grounds for expecting one - not of course from the beggar, but from God.

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