Paul and the Gift: What is a “Gift”? image

Paul and the Gift: What is a “Gift”?

A gift, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, is something handed over "gratuitously, for nothing." Bunk, says John Barclay, at least if you have the slightest knowledge of antiquity. Gifts in the ancient world, it is universally acknowledged, were given "with strong expectations of return - indeed, precisely in order to elicit a return and thus to create or enhance social solidarity." This context, as you can imagine, is vital to understanding what Paul was doing when he spoke about grace, the subject of Barclay's book Paul and the Gift. The alternative is to assume that what gifts mean in our world is what they meant in Paul's world, and to misread virtually all the evidence as a result.

Starting with Marcel Mauss and Claude Levi-Strauss, and finishing with Pierre Bourdieu and Jacques Derrida, Barclay surveys the anthropology and history of the “gift”, and does so with his eye firmly on the ball (which, in this case, is the way gifts functioned in the ancient world). For those of us accustomed to thinking that gifts are essentially things given without expecting a return, his summary of the material here is hugely important. Perhaps the most striking way of making the point would be to cite a number of his examples, the (subversive) parallels between several of which and various New Testament texts should be obvious:

Invite your friend, but not your enemy,
to dine; especially be cordial to
your neighbour ... Love your friends,
visit those who visit you, and give
to him who gives, but not, if he does not.
We give to a generous person, but no-one gives
to someone who is stingy ...
(Hesiod, Works and Days, 342-359).

As Aristotle sees it, a generous person will give lavishly but certainly not indiscriminately, “so he can give to the right people at the right time, and where it is noble to do so” (Nicomachean Ethics 1120b3-4) ... Aristotle clearly spoke from a great height when he said that the person who wants to be “magnificent” will not waste money on objects of small importance, like Odysseus who claimed to give alms often to the homeless (Nicomachean Ethics 1122a26-27, citing Homer, Odyssey, 17.420).

In a revealing mix of categories, Theognis warns that it would be futile to do favours to the despicable poor since, unlike the good, they will never repay (Theognis, 105-112). Indeed, giving specifically or only to the poor would be a gift-without-return, since even their gratitude would be worth nothing.

Seneca describes the gift-exchange system as a ball-catching game, whose point is to keep the ball (the gift) continually circulating back and forth (De Beneficiis 2.17.3-5; 2.32.1; 7.18.1); although he will offer a particular Stoic definition of what constitutes a return, Seneca shares with all his contemporaries the assumption that gifts are meant to be reciprocal, not unilateral.

Modernity, then, is the exception rather than the rule, conceived historically: it is only in the last few centuries that gifts have been so sharply distinguished from trade (trading payment is immediate, certain and calculable, in contrast to gifts, which form an ongoing relationship, characterised by exchanges of uncertain value, which may or may not correspond to the gift). Owing to a wide range of factors, including urbanisation, migration, mass production, the rise in power of the state, local and national taxation, democracy and even policing, gifts in the modern West look very unlike the way they would have looked in most of human history; put bluntly, “it is only in modernity that there emerges the ideal of the unreciprocated gift.” (Even this, of course, can be exaggerated, since everyone knows there is no such thing as a free lunch.) But recognising this dissimilarity is actually very helpful at an historical level, since it prevents us from foisting our concepts of gift onto Seneca, Aristotle, Hesiod, Paul or whomever. “Once we understand the ‘pure’ gift as a cultural product, we can resist the modern tendency to take it as a natural or necessary configuration of the paradigmatic gift.”

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