Paul and the Gift

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John M.G. Barclay
  • Grand Rapids, MI: 
    Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co.
    , September
     672 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


In Paul and the Gift, John Barclay offers a thought-provoking reappraisal of the concept of divine grace. Although the book culminates in readings of Paul’s letters to the Galatians and Romans, Barclay displays wide reading in not only contemporary exegesis of those texts, but also their long history of interpretation; not only theological perspectives, but also those from anthropology; not only Paul’s letters in the Christian isolation of the New Testament canon, but also a wide variety of related literature from the wondrous breadth of Second Temple Judaism. What results is a work that challenges the very definition of grace, which many Christian traditions take for granted. Whereas sermon, systematics, and dictionary alike might be content to label grace as, by definition, an “unmerited favor,” Barclay’s remarkable achievement is to show, in his oft-repeated formulation, that “grace is not everywhere the same,” nor is it everywhere (or even often) the pure, unmerited gift with which we have become familiar.

Barclay’s book proceeds in four parts. The first half of the book (parts 1-2) begins by offering a theoretical analysis of the concept of grace (part 1) and then traces different permutations of grace in a wide variety of texts from the period of Second Temple Judaism (part 2). The second half of the book consists of detailed interpretations of two of Paul’s letters, Galatians (part 3) and Romans (part 4). 

In part 1, Barclay begins by introducing the concept of the gift in anthropology—following the work of Marcel Mauss—and a variety of classical Greek and Latin authors, contrasting their emphasis on the complex social dynamics of gift-giving with the more modern assumption that a true gift is one given with “no strings attached.” This leads Barclay to outline the book’s central theoretical contribution, arguing that the concept of gift, or grace, can be “perfected” in six different ways: Superabundance, Singularity, Priority, Incongruity, Efficacy, and Non-Circularity. Given that these different perfections of the concept of grace do not logically imply one another (one can perfect incongruity without perfecting efficacy), different authors often operate from quite different ideas of grace. Barclay amply illustrates the idea that “grace is not everywhere the same” with a survey of major authors within the history of Christian theology and New Testament scholarship.

Part 2 brings this powerful theoretical lens to bear on the concepts of grace found in the literature of Second Temple Judaism. Barclay surveys texts as disparate as Philo of Alexandria, the Qumran Hodayot, and 4 Ezra. Cataloguing how each author perfects the concept of grace, Barclay also traces how concerns about God’s grace accompany different accounts of Israel’s history. In addition to offering the reader an illustration of the potency in Barclay’s theoretical lens of the “perfections” of grace and a context for his subsequent reading of Paul, this section also offers a corrective to established scholarly narratives about the presence or absence of “grace” in Second Temple Judaism by showing the diversity of different formulations. 

Parts 3 and 4 bring us to the book’s principal subject in what is almost a brief commentary on Paul’s letters to the Galatians and Romans. In these chapters, rich with engagement in the many and detailed exegetical debates of Pauline scholarship, Barclay argues that Paul emphasizes, above all else, the incongruity of God’s grace. For Paul, this incongruous grace is inextricably linked to the gift of Christ himself, and thus breaks down any claims to merit or righteousness from sources other than him, most particularly, the Law or Torah. Furthermore, this grace, although it is incongruous, works with those who believe, both Jew and Gentile, in order to transform them into people who are in fact congruous with the righteousness of God.

If the book has major flaws, they stem principally from its clear location within the field of New Testament studies. For example, the lengthy history of scholarship in part 1 is framed as a survey of major figures in Christian tradition, but is effectively a survey of influential New Testament scholars from the early 20th century, and those earlier figures who they themselves assumed as paradigmatic representatives of Christian tradition—including Augustine, Martin Luther, John Calvin. Unlike the wide-ranging survey of Second Temple literature, this survey confines itself to a very particular subset of authors important for (largely Protestant) New Testament scholarship. 

There is, likewise, a tendency in the chapters on Paul to propose far more grandiose claims than those offered in the readings of Second Temple texts. For example, Barclay’s careful reading of Galatians shows how, for Paul, the divine grace in Christ disrupts the authority of both Jewish Torah and pagan class stratification, but this more limited claim quickly, and sometimes imperceptibly, becomes an undemonstrated declaration that Christ radically reconstitutes all norms whatsoever. Whenever Barclay begins to expand his interpretation in these theological directions, he betrays the same Protestant location which was revealed in his history of scholarship. At points, this Protestant sensibility causes Barclay to not pursue readings which his earlier sharp and challenging theorization of the concept of grace might have prompted him to investigate. Had he extended his contextualization of Paul to his earliest interpreters—including Origen, who finds in Paul a rich account of merited grace—or broadened his history of scholarship to embrace non-Protestant traditions, we might have found Barclay contemplating a rereading of Paul as fresh and challenging as his broader theorization of the concept of grace. 

In the end, however, Barclay’s book combines a clear theorization of concepts with careful and nuanced reading of texts. It is no exaggeration to say that after reading this book the traditional definition of grace as “unmerited favor” appears woefully insufficient, if not completely untenable. The careful parsing of the different “perfections” of grace which the reader encounters, especially in parts 1 and 2, yields an exemplary marriage of theorization and close reading. As a challenge to imagine new conceptualizations of grace and gift within the vast universe of Christian (and Jewish) reflection, this study is invaluable.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Charles "Austin" Rivera is a doctoral candidate in Religious Studies at Yale University.

Date of Review: 
June 30, 2019
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

John M. G. Barclay is Lightfoot Professor of Divinity at Durham University, England. His other books include Obeying the Truth: Paul's Ethics in Galatians and Paul and the Gift.


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