A Spiritual Economy

Gift Exchange in the Letters of Paul of Tarsus

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Thomas R. Blanton
  • New Haven, CT: 
    Yale University Press
    , January
     240 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


Thomas R. Blanton, IV’s A Spiritual Economy: Gift Exchange in the Letters of Paul of Tarsus is an ambitious project in which Blanton attempts to synthesize Paul’s understanding of gift exchange through his letters in the New Testament. He makes it very clear in the beginning that his project is multidisciplinary by nature—involving not only the fields of anthropology and sociology, but also those of religion and classical studies—for the following two reasons: First, gift exchange is so universal a phenomenon that no single line of academic inquiry can possibly exhaust what is actually happening. For this reason, Blanton draws on the example of Marcel Mauss, the patriarch of the field, saying “his work traversed three academic disciplines: sociology, anthropology, and religion” (6). Alongside the inexhaustibility of the phenomenon, Blanton takes note that reciprocity takes place not just among humans, but is equally widespread among other primates. Second, Blanton highlights that human reciprocity, especially as portrayed in Paul’s letters, is different from that of other primates in that “[gifts in Paul] existed not in the form of material objects or services, but in the form of assurances of salvation from an apocalyptic judgment that he deemed imminent and the promise of eternal life in a heavenly existence” (7-8).  

What is so unique about human gift exchange? At this point Blanton draws upon Pierre Bourdieu’s notion of symbolic goods to explain Paul’s imparting the message of the gift of salvation in exchange for fulfilling Paul’s material needs. This is economically asymmetrical precisely because “the countergift need not be repaid with the same currency in which the original gift was made” (18). Even so, it is not always the case that Paul was operating on the basis of such an asymmetrical economy between symbolic and material goods. In fact, Paul refused to follow the patronage culture in which “Paul’s refusal to accept their hospitality was an egregious breach of the laws of friendship” (62), even while Blanton makes sure to show that Paul did attempt to mend the broken relationship between himself and the Corinthian church, using “the language of fictive kinship: Paul serves as ‘father’ to the assembly” (65).  

In all these keen analyses of what exactly is happening in the Pauline communities over the issue of gift exchange, what is strikingly fresh about Blanton’s analysis is that he adopts the methodology of comparison between Paul and his contemporaries as well as ours. As Blanton says, “It is my hope that this procedure will result not only in an interesting and informative redescription of Paul’s discourses and practices, but—more importantly—an elaboration and refinement of theories of gift exchange that will be of utility within a number of academic disciplines, including sociology, anthropology, classics, and religious studies” (6). Has Blanton pulled off his alleged goals in the project? Aside from any critical reflections on them, Blanton’s biggest contribution in the book would be to bring out fuller implications of what he calls “spiritual economies” (140), arguing that because “the ‘goods’ postulated to circulate within ‘spiritual economies’ are nonevident, and are to be apprehended (it is claimed) only on the basis of faith, ‘belief,’ or hope, participants have no obvious means of evaluating their worth” (141). This necessitates refining current theories of gift exchange, for “Paul’s letters thus serve as vehicles for the refinement and elaboration of theories of gift exchange contributing to discussions concerning the gift/sale dichotomy, the role of the ‘politics of classification’ entailed in agents’ labeling of transactions, and the functions of (purely) symbolic goods in ‘religious’ exchanges” (141).

While Blanton’s discussions strive to be multidisciplinary, the fact that he pays scant attention to Paul’s theological understanding of a gift as God’s grace is somewhat puzzling. To be fair, Blanton comes close to what might amount to a theological discussion when he explicates Paul’s understanding of the principle of spiritual economy to be “I give because you have given,” as opposed to “I give so that you might give” (137). The “you” in the former refers to God, and Blanton addresses this dimension of gift exchange in Paul as follows: “The faithful give because the heavenly Father and Son, both singly and collectively, ‘have given’” (137). Even with this, as a theologian I would have loved to hear more from Blanton about Paul’s theological understanding of gift exchange. In that regard, this book could work as a great companion to John M. G. Barclay’s recently published Paul and the Gift (Eerdmans, 2015)Overall, this book might serve as a great introductory guide for those new to the topic of Paul’s gift exchange as well as for those who are more familiar with recent discussions seeking greater depth.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Sang-il Kim is a doctoral candidate in Practical Theology at Boston University School of Theology.

Date of Review: 
October 9, 2018
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Thomas R. Blanton, IV, is auxiliary professor in New Testament studies at the Lutheran School of Theology at Chicago. He lives in Glendale, WI.


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