I should point out that in taking up John Barclay’s interpretation of Galatians and Romans, I am beginning near the end of what he treats in his book, Paul and the Gift. He has laid the foundation for his interpretation by treating the whole idea of gifts and gift-giving in antiquity. He particularly explored what gifts meant for Hellenistic Jews. And this built on his earlier book which studied the thinking of Jews scattered throughout the Roman Empire: Jews in the Mediterranean Diaspora.
He understands that most Jews and others would have had a variety of understandings of charis, grace or gift. This takes some of the force away from E. P. Sanders and others who have pointed out that Jews believed in grace too. For Barclay the question is what kind of grace did they believe in. For him, Paul’s understanding of misfit or incongruent grace would have cut against the grain of both pagan and Jewish ideas
In his lecture at the Pontifical Biblical Institute, he treated Romans as having two sections bridged by the passage in Romans 5:1-11.
In Romans he sees grace as manifesting as life out of death. This is true especially in Romans 6-8. The words about baptism in chapter 6 say that his converts had been baptized into both the death and resurrection of Christ.
Romans 8:10 says that the person in union with Christ is, in one sense, walking around in a dead body and ,in another sense, has the life of Christ within. So Barclay, though he does not buy Martin Luther’s idea that Christians are simultaneously sinful and righteous, borrows Luther’s phrasing to say that Christians are simultaneously dead and alive.
Grace gives life. But, because it is not based on human worth, causes us to die to old systems of value.
Beginning in Romans 9 Paul comes back around to the idea of how both Jews and Gentiles can be kin in Christ apart from ethnicity. He expresses great sorrow that many of his fellow Jews do not recognize Christ. But he expresses hope as well by once again speaking of the patriarchs. So in 9:8 he affirms
it is not the children of the flesh who are the children of God; rather, the children of promise are counted as descendants (NET Bible).
God is in control. It is God who gives the gift to whom he chooses.
So then, God has mercy on whom he chooses to have mercy, and he hardens whom he chooses to harden (9:18 NET Bible).
This statement is mitigated by the shape or pattern of incongruous or misfit grace as God gave a son to barren Sarah and gave the promise to Jacob when he and Esau were too young to have done anything good or bad (9:11). So Paul continues to believe that God will follow this pattern of incongruous grace and save all Israel regardless of worth or value. The pattern is life out of death.
Since Israel’s original election was not based on merit or worth, it’s future salvation will come from the same place. It will be an act of God’s incongruous grace.
Barclay says that the olive tree allegory in Romans 11 is Paul’s most successful metaphor. Barclay does not accept N. T. Wright’s suggestion that the future Israel that will be saved is the church. Gentiles will not replace Israel. But, in a way that we cannot now specify, Israel will once again have its roots in the radical gift of God.
I want to follow up on Barclay’s proposal with a post soon about how it relates to the New Perspective on Paul and the Paul within Judaism schools of thought and another about how it might relate to the book on The Love of God by Jon Levenson that I just read.
But for now let me just offer a few thoughts on Romans. Paul’s other letters were to churches that he founded. But he wrote to Rome without even having been there yet. He was about to go to Jerusalem with his collection. He wanted to make peace between his Gentile and mixed churches (and probably others, like Rome, that he had not founded) and the church of origin for Christians in Jerusalem. So I still think my old teacher, Jack Suggs, was on to something when he argued that in some sense Romans was really addressed to Jerusalem. At least, Paul used the letter to get his thoughts in order before he made his case there.
Probably, as the rhetoric and provocations that soon led to the Jewish War became harsher, there was an ideology in Jerusalem that condemned the whole Gentile world.
I recently went to the Pompeii exhibit which has been visiting Kansas City. The life of a Roman city was captured and sealed in time by a volcanic disaster just a few years after Paul. One of the things captured was a surprising amount of erotic art or–to some minds–pornography. See here and here. Some of the milder pieces were displayed in the brothel section of the Pompeii exhibit.
Think of the disgust this kind of thing must have engendered among anti-Roman preachers in Jerusalem. This, I think, explains why Paul speaks early in Romans as he does about the threat of the wrath of God and gives graphic descriptions of Roman vice. (It is the element of truth behind Douglas Campbell’s idea that Paul was not speaking in his own voice in parts of Romans 1 and 2.) Paul’s Jerusalem audience would have agreed with his description of Gentile wickedness.
But Paul’s argument in Jerusalem seems to have failed. Is it any wonder? If Romans is the clue, he tried to say that Jews also were without excuse and under the wrath of God. Only the gift of God that disregards worth could save anybody; and Jews and Gentiles were kin due to both depending on this radical gift of God.
However, this structure of Romans makes people think that the Christian gospel is mostly about being rescued from the wrath of God, even about being saved from shame and punishment regarding expressions of sexuality. It seems to me that this impression is unfortunate. It is partly the result of the occasional nature of the Roman letter.
The larger truth of the gospel comes out, I think, in Romans 8 where Paul sees the human predicament in being tied to a world caught up in futility and decay. The message that the gift of God is life from death has informed my Christianity more than the idea of a rescue from hellfire–although that emphasis is in Paul too.
In any case, Barclay’s incongruous, misfit grace captures something that is essential in Paul.