Today I will talk a little about John Barclay’s work on the gift of God within context of the current debates concerning the New Perspective on Paul (NPP) and Paul-within-Judaism.
The New Perspective today is associated with James Dunn and N. T. Wright. It derives from studies by E.P. Sanders and Krister Stendahl that showed the Protestant and Evangelical interpretations of Paul against a supposed Jewish legalism misread Paul. And so did the assumption that Paul cared about with the guilty consciences of individuals.
The key thing in the NPP is that “righteousness” and “justification” in Paul are not individualistic terms but refer to a state of union or solidarity with God and his people.
Barclay certainly stands with the NPP here.
However, he has some distinct points. Dunn, especially, thinks that “works of the law” refers to boundary markers like circumcision and dietary and calendar observances. Barclay sees “works of the law” in the whole value system of Torah keeping. This, like other value systems in the Roman world, has been devalued by the gift of God in Christ that does not take any kind of worth into account.
I have a question about this. Does Paul really completely devalue Torah observance? Does he not apply a kind of alternative law observance for Gentiles by agreeing to standards for the righteous Gentile at the Jerusalem Conference in Acts 15. And, even if Acts distorts Paul somewhat about this, isn’t he working on something like this in his ethical instructions in 1 Corinthians, for instance? There is evidence that Paul continued to observe the Jewish rites and the calendar himself. So, did he really count such observance as worthless like Italian lira or Confederate dollars.
This brings up the Paul-within-Judaism school. I am familiar with this mostly through the works of Mark Nanos. There is one very firm result of his that shows Paul’s more complicated relation to Judaism. That is that Paul maintained a relationship with the synagogues both for himself and his non-Jewish converts.
So Paul’s continued relationship to Judaism meant more than a simple switch to another currency. The analogy of the change in currency, it seems to me, works better with blood sacrifice, the Temple and the priesthood than with day-to-day Torah observance or synagogue participation.
But Barclay seems pretty far from Nanos and other proponents of the Paul-within-Judaism perspective.
On ethics, though, Barclay agrees with Judaism that God’s gift does not undercut the importance of our response. In fact, he affirms that Paul believes judgment will be based on obedience. Unless the radical gift of God elicits a response, it has been ineffective. The gift, although given to the unworthy, is not unconditional. It is given in expectation that we acknowledge that we are in God’s debt. He plans a sequel book on this reciprocity.
One insight that came to me while listening to Barclay is that Abraham was a Gentile before he was a Jew. This made it possible for Abraham to be kin to both Jews and Gentiles, because he similarly received the gift of God without merit. In like manner, Paul was a Jew before he was a Christian. People tend to read Judaism back into Abraham and Christianity back into Paul. But both stood on a boundary. Both received the extraordinary gift. And that is what connects us to them.