Recently read: Barclay’s ‘Paul and the Gift’

John M.G. Barclay, Paul and the Gift (Eerdmans, 2015).

John M.G. Barclay’s tome, Paul and the Gift, on Paul’s understanding of charis or a ‘gift’ is itself a gift to Pauline scholarship. If you’ve read literature from the ‘new perspective on Paul’, and the ‘old’ or Reformation perspective on Paul, and felt that both path get key things about Paul right, both paths get key things wrong about Paul, and yet the chasm between the perspectives seems too wide, Barclay’s work might build you the bridge you need.

It begins in Chapter 1, ‘The Multiple Meanings of Gift and Grace’ by examining the anthropological category of ‘gift’. One of the key takeaways is that the idea of a gift as a one-sided and altruistic is not only just one of many ways human cultures have understood the role of gifts but seemingly one of the more recent ways of understanding gifts. Since Paul was alive two millennia ago, we need to be careful when retrojecting modern standards back on Paul and his letters.

Chapter 2, ‘The Perfection of Gift/Grace’ is short but essential. In this chapter we find what is Barclay’s greatest contribution to understanding Paul. He lists six ‘perfections’ of gift/grace: superabundance, singularity, priority, incongruity, efficacy, non-circularity. Barclay shows that often when people interpret pure or perfected gift/grace they have one or more of these in mind. The danger is that our perfection(s) of gift/grace may not be Paul’s.

It’s with this in mind that Barclay engages reception history in Chapter 3, ‘Interpreting Paul on Grace: Shifting Patterns of Perfection’ where he summarizes the interpretations of Marcion, Augustine/Pelagius, Luther, Calvin, Barth, Bultmann, Käsemann, Martin, Sanders, as well as other ‘new perspective’ scholars and some philosophers (e.g., Alain Badiou). Barclay’s grid, the six perfections, help the reader see what aspect of gift/grace is being emphasized by their interpretation.

In Section II, ‘Divine Gift in Second Temple Judaism’, Barclay applies his grid to key Second Temple Jewish writings that show how variegated Jewish ideas about election, grace, and salvation could be. His focus is on The Wisdom of Solomon, the writings of Philo of Alexandria, the Qurman Hodayot (1QHa), Pseudo-Philo’s Liber Antiquitatum Biblicarum, and 4 Ezra.

It’s with the diversity of these texts in mind that Barclay engages Galatians in Galatians in Section III, ‘Galatians: The Christ-Gift and the Recalibration of Worth’ and Romans in Section IV, ‘Romans: Israel, the Gentiles, and God’s Creative Gift’. He not only juxtaposes Romans and Galatians with the aforementioned Jewish writings but also with each other showing that Paul’s thinking on the topic wasn’t static.

I highly recommend this book if you’re interested in Paul, his interpreters, his place within Second Temple Judaism, and his own unique theology of charis. It covers a lot of ground but the whole journey is worth it.


3 Replies to “Recently read: Barclay’s ‘Paul and the Gift’”

  1. Thanks. Good to get a summary and know about this book! I’ve taken a big plunge (ha!) and gotten Audible, with free book of “The Forgotten Creed” (in Gal.), by Stephen j Patterson.

    Pretty intriguing (and plausible to me) so far. Not sure how it would be placed on New vs. Reformation perspective. But exploring one of several “missing link” aspects of Christian origins info I think critical: how radical/egalitarian/liberating was very early Jesus-following and how briefly that lasted.


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