If asked to describe John M. G. Barclay’s new book Paul & the Gift, only one word comes to mind—groundbreaking. So groundbreaking in fact, that one may hear the rallying of anti-fracking activists upon reading. All joking aside, this is the next pillar to the foundation of Pauline Scholarship. John M. G. Barclay holds, arguably, the most prestigious chair (Lightfoot Professor of Divinity) of the University of Durham. This hardcover book weighs in at 656 pages in length and is published by WM. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company (2015), as well as a paperback version scheduled to be released this September (available for pre-order here if that’s your preference).
I first heard about this book from my New Testament Exegesis professor during our Pauline literature course. He described it as the New New Perspective on Paul, it goes beyond the New Perspective. This description was surprising to say the least; it was the first time I had heard anyone endorse a Pauline perspective that wasn’t the New Perspective since learning about what it was two years ago. Now having read the book, I understand exactly what my professor meant by New New Perspective. For those who are unfamiliar with what I’m referring, below is a summary taken from the prologue describing where research regarding Paul and grace currently resides, as well as the starting point for readers to understand where there is harmony and discord with Barclay’s arguments. Though there are several aspects that cannot be seen from the following excerpt, it is assiduous nonetheless:
“In the Christian tradition, Paul’s theology of grace has often been interpreted as the antithesis of Judaism, as if by Paul’s day Judaism had corrupted its biblical theology of grace with a soteriology of “works-righteousness” and reward. Paul’s language, laden with nuances derived from internal Christian disputes, has been conscripted to differentiate Christianity from Judaism on these terms, and to diminish the latter. On this reading, Paul was the premier theologian of grace who resisted the “legalism” of “late” Judaism, a works-based religion that amounted to auto-salvation. In recent decades this negative image of Judaism has been challenged with a counter-image, presenting Judaism as a “religion of grace.” Students of Judaism have traced grace everywhere in Second Temple literature, as the foundation of Israel’s covenant relationship with God and the frame within which the Torah was observed. Thus, for many, Paul says nothing remarkable about grace, and if his theology departs in any respect from his Jewish tradition, this has little if anything to do with grace.” (p. 2)
Concluding the prologue Barclay gives a three point framework of grace from which the reader consistently encounters throughout the book (p. 6). The first being that “Grace” is a multi-faceted concept best approached through the category of gift. Though this is susceptible to “perfection” (conceptually extended) in a number of different ways, their validity is not contingent on being a unified package. The package Barclay is referring are the six most commonly understood perfections of grace, which he elaborates on in Part 1 of the book (p. 70-76). Secondly, grace is everywhere in Second Temple Judaism, but not everywhere the same. Paul’s theology of grace does not stand in antithesis to Judaism, but neither is there a common Jewish view with which it wholly coincides. Basically, grace is everywhere in Second Temple Judaism, but not everywhere the same. Lastly, Paul’s theology of grace hinges on his emphasis on the incongruity of the Christ-gift—it is given freely with no regard to a person’s worth. It should be noted that incongruity is very different unconditionality.
Paul & the Gift is a benchmark contribution to ongoing debates in Pauline theology, refocusing the conversation in important ways and offering critical needed analysis that goes beyond perspective, old and new. Barclay has truly provided any student of Paul with a timeless reference that is, dare I say—a remarkable gift; so remarkable, in fact, that this book review simply won’t do. My solution? Over the next few weeks I will post four Paul & the Gift installments, one for each component of the book. This book is loaded with a wealth of research worth pondering that it seemed appropriate, nay, necessary to expound on it further. I will post Part 1 sometime next week.
If you are a fan of making good decisions, than I suggest you click here and purchase a copy of this book.
Disclaimer: Thanks to Eerdmans for kindly providing me with a review copy of this book. This did not influence my thoughts and opinions regarding the book.