I doubt anyone will be interested in this but I’m writing a (long) book report on John Barclay’s Paul & the Gift because I just finished it and my head is swimming with thoughts. Ted recommended it to me years ago but it sat on my desk for a while, partly because I was imposed by it’s considerable heft (600+ pages). I’m glad I finally read it – it’s fantastic.

Thanks be to God for his indescribable gift! – 2 Corinthians 9:15

It’s possible to characterize this book as an extended examination of what this verse means, specifically the word “gift” – “charis” in Greek, which is the word commonly translated elsewhere as “grace”. What does Paul mean by grace? This book considers that in incredible depth.

Each section is encyclopedic in scope and immensely valuable on its own.

The first section looks at the anthropology of gift giving in the ancient world, making the point that in that world, there was a strong expectation and understanding of reciprocity. When you received a gift, it was important and expected that you would reciprocate with a gift in return, in some way, at some time. This colored everything about gift-giving. For one, it only made sense to give to people who could reciprocate – otherwise it was pointless and considered stupid. Even in the Jewish faith, where giving to the poor was valued, the commands to do so in Scripture promise that God will reward that, so there’s still an element of reciprocation, only coming from a different source. This idea of reciprocation was so strong that city leaders were sometimes criticized for accepting gifts from the wrong sources, and thereby becoming beholden to them. Our modern sense of gift assumes that there can be no expectation of something in return, else it wouldn’t be a gift, but that’s not how gift was understood when Paul was writing.

The next section is arguably the most important part of the book, an analysis of how theologians have interpreted gift/grace throughout history, and offers the insight that when people think about perfect grace, they actually consider combinations of 6 different dimensions, whether they recognize it or not:
– superabundance – the scale or permanence of the gift
– singularity – of the giver’s benevolence, that goodness is their sole mode of operation
– priority – that the gift is given first, with no initiative from the recipient, signaling its freedom and generosity
– incongruity – that it bears no relation to the worthiness of its recipient and is unconditional
– efficacy – that it perfectly achieves its ends
– non-circularity – it does not require recompense or reciprocation

Barclay’s compelling argument is that when people disagree about grace, it’s not that they disagree about the emphasis of grace (although they frequently accuse their opponents of not valuing grace); rather their disagreement is about different kinds of perfection. Really valuable in helping understand theological arguments. He then goes through a bunch of theologians (Marcion, Augustine, Luther, Calvin, Barth, Bultmann, K√§semann, Martyn, Sanders (and the New Perspective on Paul)).

The next section looks at different views of grace in Second Temple Judaism, examining several sources: the Wisdom of Solomon, Philo, the Qumran Hodayot, Pseudo-Philo, and 4 Ezra. As with Christian theologians, they all stress different aspects of grace and mercy (the list of 6 above). The main point here is that grace was a pervasive concept during that time, so one can’t characterize Paul’s views as saying Jews believed in law, Christians believe in grace. They didn’t simply believe in works-righteousness – grace was important, even foundational to Judaism in that time. So the contrast Paul is making is more complex than that.

The last sections are in-depth analyses of Galatians and Romans using the framework provided so far. Barclay’s argument (again compelling) is that Paul’s view of grace prioritizes incongruity above all else – God grants grace with nor regard for merit whatsoever. The law is meaningless in terms of granting standing. Paul’s objection to living under the “law” isn’t about works-righteousness but that it imputes value on something where there is none, because again, God’s grace is completely incongruous, with no regard for what we have done at all. Thus Paul can say neither circumcision nor uncircumcision have any value (5:6). It’s not that avoiding circumcision is superior either – they both mean nothing in regards to receiving God’s grace. And since grace is given with no regards to status, we should live in that same way. There is no Jew or Gentile, slave or free, male or female – God’s grace is status-shattering.

One thing the book sparked in me is imagining how Paul must have felt about his own life. The Spirit is always surprising people in the New Testament, which forces them to rethink what is true. The apostles were surprised when Gentiles received the Holy Spirit. In retrospect, it aligns with what Jesus (and Scripture) said, but it took a shocking event to figure it out. The book helps me imagine how informatively shocking Paul’s conversion was for him. He was an exemplary Jew, so if devotion to the law made people more receptive to Christ, Paul should have been first in line. But in fact, his learning set him on a path directly against following Jesus. In that sense he should have been the last to receive God’s grace. And then again that expectation was subverted and he was called by Christ. It must have been utterly bewildering for him to understand. The only explanation could be that God calls without any regard for human merit at all, which is the message of grace he propounds in Galatians and Romans.

The book also makes the interesting claim that this is the basis Paul has in Romans for the restoration of Israel. Since it was so incongruous and confusing that in his day Gentiles were coming to faith in Christ in greater numbers than Jews, that gave Paul confidence that in the last days, Jews will come to faith in a similarly incongruous manner. Interesting.

Uh, these reflections ended up not being as interesting as I thought they’d be, sorry. Anyway, it’s an excellent book, revolutionized my understanding of grace and arguments around it. Not sure how many people I know would read a 600+ page book on a single topic that’s filled with Greek, but for those interested, highly recommended.

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