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Spring 2018 · Vol. 47 No. 1 · pp. 113–116 

Book Review

Paul and the Gift

John M. G. Barclay. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2015. 656 pages.

Reviewed by Zacharie Klassen

The long and diverse history of interpreting Paul is a testament to the complexity of his thought. John Barclay’s Paul and the Gift highlights this complexity by focusing on the rich significance of a single Greek word used often by Paul: carij. Frequently translated as “grace,” this term also can refer to “favor” or “gift,” and while the meaning of such basic terms may seem self-evident, Barclay demonstrates that this is not so and that a robust understanding of the way that Paul appeals to {114} the grace or “the gift” of God will determine much of one’s interpretation of Paul.

The first part of this lengthy exposition focuses on demonstrating the development of the modern Western notion of the “pure gift” as “ideally ‘free’ from obligation” (52) and then making a case for why this notion is problematic for interpreting Paul on the gift. Barclay foregrounds his argument against the “pure” gift by demonstrating the conceptual complexity of this term through appeal to the work of the anthropologist Marcel Mauss, whose work shows how forms of gift giving are culturally determined and so cannot be applied uncritically to diverse cultures or texts across time. Barclay then draws in sources from the first-century Greco-Roman world to demonstrate this, noting especially that while the notion of a gift was understood in diverse ways, nonetheless most first-century writers speak of gifts as entailing “the expectation and obligation of return” (63).

This analysis helps Barclay demonstrate the way different writers often attempt to “perfect” one or more aspects of the gift. Barclay thus introduces a “taxonomy” of six common perfections of the gift that he will use as an “analytic tool” for discerning how, in each text by a given author, the form of the gift is presented (77). These six perfections are: superabundance (scale), singularity (the giver is only gracious, and not also judgmental), priority (timing), incongruity (irrespective of the worth of the receiver), efficacy (the ability of the gift to effect change in the one receiving), and noncircularity (the gift does not entail reciprocation) (69). The usefulness of this taxonomy will come into play later when Barclay attempts a novel exegesis of Galatians and Romans, but first he must “disentangle the varied ways in which ‘grace’ has been perfected in the history of interpretation” (186).

In the third chapter Barclay treats key early (Marcion and Augustine), Reformation (Luther and Calvin), and modern (Barth, Bultmann, Käsemann, and Martyn) interpreters of Paul, before turning to the work of E. P. Sanders and the “new perspective.” In each case he asks which “perfection” a given author tends to see in Paul. According to Barclay, Augustine perfects the “incongruity” of the gift, but will also emphasize its “priority” and “efficacy” (96). Luther, following Augustine, emphasizes “incongruity” but also “superabundance,” “singularity,” and even the “non-circularity” of grace (113). By contrast, while Calvin will also emphasize “incongruity,” he will nonetheless not perfect grace as “singular, that is, as exclusive of judgment” (129). Not surprisingly, Barclay points out how many of the figures following Luther understood the incongruity of grace to define its antithesis, namely Jewish “works righteousness,” which Paul was supposedly battling. This view was {115} fundamentally challenged by Sanders’s monumental Paul and Palestinian Judaism. While appreciative of Sanders’s basic claim that Paul was not unique among Second Temple Jews in preaching a God of grace/gift, Barclay is wary of how, when it comes to grace, Sanders (and the “new perspective” after him) appears to paint Second Temple Jewish authors with the same brush. Effectively, Barclay argues that Sanders sees Second Temple Jews as preaching the “priority” of grace, “as ‘unmerited election,’ ” but without recognizing that this was not the only way of construing grace in that period (158). One basic conclusion Barclay reaches is that interpreters of Paul need not be left with the binary option that “either Paul advocated grace against a grace-less and ‘legalistic’ Judaism, or Paul was in full agreement with all his fellow Jews on the character of grace” (187).

In the second part, Barclay seeks to move past this binary by looking at five authors/texts from the Second Temple era to show how each author perfects the theme of grace in diverse ways. These authors/texts are Wisdom of Solomon, assorted texts from Philo, the Qumran Hodayot (1QHa), Pseudo-Philo, and 4 Ezra. The upshot of Barclay’s close reading of these texts is that it is unhelpful to talk about Second Temple Judaism as a “religion of grace” (à la Sanders) since each of these authors/texts “perfects” grace differently, often in ways that are opposed (320). With the ground cleared, Barclay can now situate Paul in “his historical place, neither against Judaism nor in undifferentiated agreement with all his fellow Jews” (321).

The third and final part of Paul and the Gift consists of a close reading of Galatians and Romans to show how Paul’s conceptualization of the gift is distinct among other Second Temple Jews. According to Barclay, in Galatians Paul’s theology centers on the “Christ-gift” as the incongruous gift of God that “recalibrates” all previous cultural norms, including Torah, which might determine the form of the gift (360). Paul’s polemic was not aimed at “works-righteousness” (Luther) and neither was it a “protest against ‘nationalism’ ” (the new perspective) (361). Rather, in this letter Paul sees the Christ-gift as creating a new reality in light of which history and sociality must be rethought (446). This gift, while incongruous, is nonetheless neither singular nor noncircular as God is still portrayed as able to judge and believers are expected to do good (441). Moving to Romans, Barclay argues that here Paul is most clearly situated in a Second Temple Jewish debate about “the operation of divine mercy and gift,” and that he is distinct only in the way he frames the incongruity of the gift of God in terms of the Christ-event, its implications for the Gentile mission, and Israel’s identity (491). A novel reading of Romans 9–11 which seeks to show how Paul is “consistent” {116} throughout helps him buttress this claim. Notably, Barclay proposes that the “root of fatness” in 11:17, often identified with the patriarchs, is “the calling or election of God” (550), and that finally it is this logic which allows Paul to have hope in a “singular mercy upon all,” including Israel (556).

Paul and the Gift is no doubt an important addition to a diverse and complex field, especially in seeking to bring conceptual clarity to a topic broadly treated and heavily debated. Nonetheless, one might ask, What have we learned about Paul’s understanding of gift that we didn’t already know from the Augustinian tradition? Throughout the book one gets the sense that Barclay’s distinctive presentation of Paul as perfecting the “incongruity” of grace without implying its “singularity” or “non-circularity,” proves that Augustine and Calvin were mostly on the mark about Paul after all. But then again, perhaps this was part of Barclay’s goal: to offer his reading of Paul as an exercise in clarification that stands a chance at forging a path through the impasse between the “Augustinian-Lutheran tradition” and the “new perspective” (573). Only time will tell if his offer is widely accepted.

Zacharie Klassen
Graduate student in Religious Studies
McMaster University, Hamilton, Ontario

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