Paul and the Gift: Why Old and New Perspectives Are Both Wrong image

Paul and the Gift: Why Old and New Perspectives Are Both Wrong

Part II of John Barclay's magisterial Paul and the Gift examines the various understandings of grace that present themselves in the literature of Second Temple Judaism. Through detailed analysis of the Wisdom of Solomon, the Qumran Hodayot, Philo, Pseudo-Philo's Liber Antiquitatum Biblicarum and 4 Ezra, Barclay argues that grace was taught and "perfected" in a number of different ways, such that it is meaningful neither to assert nor to deny that "Judaism was a religion of grace." It is only through the influence of an Augustinian reading of Paul that Western interpreters have become convinced that "grace" necessarily means "a gift given without any regard to the worth of the recipient" - this, as Barclay has already shown with respect to antiquity at large, is only one way of understanding "grace" - and thereby assessed the levels of grace in Jewish texts (or Judaism as a whole) on the basis of conformity to this norm. When we think historically, Barclay argues, we should rather be asking how grace was perfected in Second Temple Judaism, and how Paul's view collides with, explicates or extrapolates from the other texts we have available.

In many ways it is a shame to summarise such an extensive and careful treatment in a few hundred words, because Barclay’s reading of these five comparative texts on the question of grace (or mercy), especially 4 Ezra, is remarkably lucid and very compelling. Nevertheless, summarise it we must, and summarise it he does:

Using the sixfold schema of perfections described in chapter 2, we have found that our texts agree at some points, and differ widely at others. All of them perfect the superabundance of divine “grace”, stressing the excess of gifts poured into the world, or the “abundance” of divine mercy and goodness, extended in manifold ways. On the other hand, in another point of agreement, none of them perfect the non-circularity of grace, the notion that God gives without expectation of return ...

Beyond these two points of agreement, however, the forms of perfection vary greatly. Some (e.g. Philo) tend toward the singularity of God’s benevolence (God as the casue of good alone); others (e.g. the Hodayot) let God’s mercy shine against the backdrop of his wrath and punishing judgment. Some (e.g. Philo and the Hodayot) suggest the efficacy of grace, attributing to God the human response that God’s grace elicits; others (e.g. Wisdom of Solomon) show no interest in qualifying human agency in any such way. Some stress the priority of God’s benevolence, whether in a pre-creational determination of human destiny (the Hodayot) or in God’s prior causation of all human acts (Philo). Most strikingly, and most importantly for our study, some (e.g. the Hodayot and LAB; Ezra in 4 Ezra) stress the incongruity of divine mercy, while others (e.g. Philo, Wisdom of Solomon, Uriel in 4 Ezra) do not.

That sounds entangled to those not familiar with the sources, so I have attempted to tabulate it here. The upshot of this for contemporary scholarship, unless we assume (without warrant) that grace is necessarily what Augustine thought Paul thought it meant, is that both the New Perspective and many of its critics have been labouring under a misapprehension concerning the extent to which Judaism was “a religion of grace”:

Those who criticise Sanders’s work tend to assume that if salvation is contingent on human works or worth, either in initial election or in final salvation, one cannot speak of “grace” in its proper form as “free”, “sheer” or “pure”, on the assumption that one perfection of grace, its incongruity, is its defining characteristic ... We can now see why these debates misfire. Taking one perfection of grace (its priority) as its defining characteristic, Sanders found it everywhere, but assumed, sometimes against the evidence, that another perfection (incongruity) was wrapped up in the definition of the term. Taking this other perfection (incongruity) as its very essence, his critics highlighted Jewish texts that spoke of a congruous grace, and concluded that such texts were not speaking consistently of grace at all. Neither side scrutinised carefully enough what they meant by “grace” and why they defined it as they did.

Or, put more simply: both E. P. Sanders and D. A. Carson are wrong. Barclay concludes the section by comparing all five of his chosen texts to Romans 9-11, finding similarities and differences in all five cases, and summarises:

It would make little sense to say that [Paul] emphasises grace more than other Jews of his time, but it is also clear that his views are not identical to those of the others surveyed, just as they disagree among themselves. If Paul’s voice is consistently distinctive, that difference concerns the Christ-event and the Gentile mission, and the relation of both to the incongruous mercy of God.

And so to the subject of the second half of the book: Paul.

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