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John Barclay’s “Paul and the Gift”, Pt. 1

There has been a buzz among New Testament scholars about John Barclay’s recent book, ‘Paul and the Gift’. Barclay is the Lightfoot Professor of Divinity in the department of Religion and Theology at Durham University, where I am in the process of completing research for a doctorate in theology and ministry. Naturally, I had to see what the fuss was about, and being on sabbatical gave me the time to engage in the kind of long, sustained reading required.


During my week of residency at Durham last Fall– ‘summer school’– Prof. Barclay gave a lecture. Since he didn’t use his name tag,  I ‘nicked’  it from the registration table.

Barclay’s work is stunning, a gift in itself to Pauline studies. Barclay approaches grace as ‘gift’, and develops a frame of six possible ‘perfections’—aspects taking to an extreme emphasis. He then applies his taxonomy of the various ‘perfections’ of the ‘gift’ concept to historically significant Pauline scholars such as Augustine, Luther, and Calvin. Rather than providing us another ‘perspective’ on Paul, Barclay gives us a framework for analyzing all other perspectives—and a compelling and clear way for making sense of Paul in his own context as well.

The book is outlined as follows:

Part I: The Multiple Meanings of Gift and Grace

Chapter 1: The Anthropology and History of the Gift [65 pages]

Chapter 2: The Perfections of Gift/Grace [13 pages]

Chapter 3: Interpreting Paul on Grace: Shifting Patterns of Perfection [115 pages]

Chapter 4: Summary and Conclusions to Part 1 [10 pages]

Part II: Divine Gift in Second Temple Judaism

Chapter 5: The Wisdom of Solomon [17 pages]

Chapter 6:Philo of Alexandria [26 pages]

Chapter 7: The Qumran Hodayot [26 pages]

Chapter 8: Pseudo-Philo, Liber Antiquitatum Biblicarum [13 pages]

Chapter 9: Ezra [28 pages]

Chapter 10: The Diverse Dynamics of Grace in Second Temple Judaism [21 pages]

Part III: Galatians: The Christ-Gift and the Recalibration of Worth

Chapter 11: Configuring Galatians [19 pages]

Chapter 12: The Christ-Gift and the Recalibration of Norms (Galatians 1-2) [36 pages]

Chapter 13: The Christi-Gift, the Law, and the Promise (Galatians 3:1-5:12, with 6:11-18) [34 pages]

Chapter 14: The New Community as the Expression of the Gift (Galatians 5:13-6:10) [25 pages]

Part IV: Romans: Israel, the Gentiles, and God’s Creative Gift

Chapter 15: The Creative Gift and Its Fitting Result (Romans 1:1-5:11) [43 pages]

Chapter 16: New Life in Dying Bodies: Grace and the Construction of a Christian Habitus (Romans 5:12-8:39; 12:1-15:13) [16 pages]

Chapter 17: Israel, Christ, and the Creative Mercy of God (Romans 9-11) [41 pages]

Chapter 18: Conclusions [16 pages]

Even those casually interested in Paul’s teaching on ‘grace’ will find Barclay’s ‘gift’ framework immensely insightful and illuminating. But at nearly 600 pages, it can be a challenging read. Not every section will benefit the preacher. One of the helpful features of the book is how clearly focused Barclay is in articulating his thesis and in outlining the flow of his argument. The conclusion sections at the end of each chapter and major sections are also tremendously helpful for readers who—like me—may want to read more deeply in some sections than others but don’t want to miss key developments of the argument.

I read the book the way I suspect most students would—selectively and strategically. I read all of chapters 1 and 2, most of Chapter 3, all of Chapter 4, the summary and conclusions to chapters 13, 14, 15, 16, and 17, and all of Chapter 18. I skipped the section on Second Temple Judaism, relying on Barclay’s own summaries of the sections, and treated his lengthy readings of Galatians and Romans like a compact commentary—catching the central thread and distinctive features, and making notes to return to sections in depth in the future.

This reading strategy notwithstanding, the commitment to work through Barclay’s frame can require more time than a pastor may have in the course of a given week. My hope is that by leveraging my time while on sabbatical, I can create a succinct summary of the essential features of Barclay’s book without having done violence to his careful and methodical work. The final chapter in the book is Barclay’s own summary of the book’s ‘distinctive contributions’ under five headings. I will use his same headings, adding my own commentary and including significant excerpts from relevant sections of the book.

1. Grace as Gift

Barclay’s premise is that Paul (and his contemporaries) spoke of ‘grace’ not as a new or esoteric theological concept, but rather in the ‘normal vocabulary of gift, favor, and benefaction’ (p. 562). Thus Barclay employs an anthropological frame to note the key features of ‘gift’, such as reciprocity, power, and obligation, stopping short of arriving at single definition. He then surveys ‘gift-giving’ in the Greco-Roman world and in ancient Judaism.

In his conclusion to Part 1, Barclays offers two lists summarizing his observations (pp. 183-4). Here are some notable points, the last from his list of observations from gift-giving between the gods in the Greco-Roman world (bold type are my additions for emphasis):

  1. ‘gifts are generally given in order to create or reproduce social bonds; they foster mutuality’, and thus were not typically given ‘unilaterally’, ‘anonymously’, or as a ‘-one-way’ donation;

  2. ‘the rules of reciprocity raise the expectation of return, even in unequal social relations and even if the return is generally different from the gift in quantity and kind’;

  3. ‘the recipient of the gift is under a strong though non-legal obligation to reciprocate’;

  4. the gift is often associated with the person of the giver, and is therefore, to some degree, “inalienable”;

  5. ‘…gifts are usually construed as voluntary and expressive of goodwill, even if they arise from pre-existing bonds of obligation’;

  6. ‘because gifts created ties and expected returns, donors generally ensured that gifts were distributed discriminately, to fitting or worthy recipients’ (that ‘worth’ can be defined in various ways on the basis of various systems becomes a key point later on as Barclay unpacks the ‘works of the law’ as a Torah-based system for defining worth).

The most notable conclusion from Chapter 1 of the book is that the modern (Western) notion of altruism—the ideal of the “pure gift” with allegedly no strings attached—is strikingly absent from the ancient world. (This may be one reason why Derrida called the notion of a pure gift a necessary collective fiction which a society embraces!)

Furthermore, Barclay lays the groundwork for demonstrating that a gift can be unconditioned—‘free of prior conditions regarding the recipient’—without also being unconditional—‘free of expectations that the recipient will offer some “return”’ (p. 562).

Read Part 2 HERE.

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