Barclay-the gift in context of other schools of thought

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.

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Barclay–life from death

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.

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Barclay-incongruent grace in Romans

John Barclay in a lecture before the Pontifical Biblical Institute in Rome gave the essence of his treatment of Galatians and Romans, which also appears in the book, Paul and the Gift.

We come to his discussion of Romans.

He says that Romans 5:1-11 is a bridge passage that gives us the core proclamation of Romans that Christ died not for the good, but for people he calls “ungodly”, “sinners” and “enemies of God”.  This is the basis for Paul’s mission to non-Jews as well as Jews. God does not discriminate but acts to reach all people without regard to their worth or any special merit.

For while we were still helpless, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly. (For rarely will anyone die for a righteous person, though for a good person perhaps someone might possibly dare to die.) 8 But God demonstrates his own love for us, in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us (Romans 5:6-7 NET Bible).

The parenthesis in the above passage relates to the ancient world’s view of gift giving. Possibly you might even give a gift that cost your life if the recipient was worthy.  But Christ has acted in a wholly incongruent way, ignoring all our definitions of value.

Then Barclay goes back to treat the first chapters of Romans.  Of particular interest is his discussion of the passage about Abraham in Romans 4.  Why did God call Abraham?  Barclay says that most Jewish interpreters of Genesis answered that there was something special about Abraham that caused God to call him.  Some speculated that Abraham turned against idolatry and that God rewarded him.  The motive for these interpretations was to keep God from seeming to act arbitrarily.

But Paul goes entirely against this interpretation.  Perhaps, because he had personally experienced a call that came when he was totally unworthy of God’s call, Paul also sees no worth in Abraham that caused God to grant him the grace of a call and the promise of  descendants.  There was no “criteria of correspondence” that brought about Abraham’s call.

This means that God’s gift is not contained within limits.  For instance, the call of Abraham came before Genesis tells about the institution of circumcision.  Therefore, that rite could not be a credential for receiving God’s promises.

Barclay’s understanding lies within the New Perspective on Paul.  When Romans 4:5 speaks of the one who does not work but believes in the one who justifies the ungodly, the passage is not about a doctrine of imputed righteousness.  It means that people need to trust in God’s gift rather than their own possession of markers like circumcision, knowledge of the Torah, or even their moral status.

Just so we know what is at stake, here is part of Theopedia’s discussion of imputed righteousness:

A primary line of argumentation for this doctrine maintains that perfect righteousness or holiness is necessary to be with God. All mankind “fall short of the glory of God” (Rom 3:23) because all their ‘righteousness’ is like filthy rags (Is 64:6) before the throne of God, and so all are “dead in their trespasses and sins” (Eph 2:1), and as a result “will not come into [God’s] light for fear that their evil deeds will be revealed” (John 3:20). All mankind is in this predicament because all are the offspring of Adam and Eve (Rom 5) who originally sinned against God. As a result of Adam’s fall, the world was cursed and sin entered the world. But upon confession of one’s own sin and faith in Christ’s death and resurrection, the sinner is justified and counted as having the righteousness of Christ.

Many of us who have been around Protestant evangelicalism have heard, or even made, this argument.  One of the problems with it is that it sets up Paul as engaged in a polemic against a Jewish view of vindication by works, meaning moral and religious perfection.

But Judaism emphasized the mercy of God.  Barclay makes clear that those who sought a rationale for Abraham receiving the promises of God did so to avoid making God seem arbitrary. This is a more nuanced point than the belief that people have to be perfect or earn God’s grace.

I will need another post to finish up Barclay’s discussion of Romans.

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Barclay-the gift and worth in Galatians

John Barclay, in his lecture on Grace and Salvation in Galatians and Romans, first gives us his view of Galatians.

He is speaking largely to Italian priests and scholars, so he uses an analogy about the change in currency.  Not so long ago the lira was the official currency; but now it is the euro.

The problem in Galatia, says Barclay, is that the understanding of human worth in both Jewish and Greco-Roman society no longer works.  That understanding of human worth was the old currency.  It involved Torah-keeping people as having higher worth than gentile sinners.  It involved the free-born having higher worth than freedmen or slaves.  It involved men having higher worth than women.  It involved a system of shame and honor.

But that old currency, according to Paul, has changed drastically in Christ.  People who still bank on the old currency are like people depositing lira instead of euros in the bank.  They fail to recognize that the old system of worth no longer applies.

This is what lies behind Galatians 1:6

I am astonished that you are so quickly deserting the one who called you by the grace of Christ and are following a different gospel (NET Bible).

Some Galatians do not see that the “grace of Christ” is the new currency.  Human worth is now based only on the gift of God.

This is because Paul believes that the gift of God has been given prior to and without regard to this understanding of worth.

His own life experience confirms this.  He persecuted the church with violence.  Yet before this– in fact, before he was even born–God had set him apart in grace (1:15). This grace, this gift of God was entirely apart from any standard of human worth, including his former “zeal for the Torah”.  This transposition of value changed Paul. He now banks on a different currency.  He now trusts in “the Son of God who loved me and gave himself for me” (2:20).  Because of this he is unwilling to “nullify the grace of God” (2:21).

In the ancient world, Barclay says, gifts were  given to those worthy of receiving them based on some system of value.  Paul’s idea of the gift or grace of God radically breaks from this.  The gift of God is incongruous.  It is a misfit gift.

For this reason Paul confronted Peter at Antioch  (2:11 ff.).    Peter, by withdrawing from sharing a table with gentiles, was importing a system of worth that did not fit with God’s radical gift in Christ.

The same was true of the fact that Paul no longer required circumcision for his converts.  Neither circumcision nor uncircumcision (which Barclay relates to the Greek system of worth in valuing and admiring the unblemished male body) had anything to do with the incongruous grace of God in Christ.

Barclay interprets the phrase “faith in Christ” as trust in the gift of Christ.  Many in the New Perspective on Paul movement want to interpret it as the faithfulness of Christ. So this makes a difference.

One of the striking things I notice about the Galatian letter is that those churches must have been mostly non-Jewish, and yet Paul assumes that they live and think from the Hebrew Scriptures.

They must have been immersed in Roman society.  Barclay points out that near the end of the letter, Paul speaks to them more as citizens of the Roman Empire. Beginning in 5:22 he talks about the fruit of the Spirit and how those who are in union with Christ (Barclay’s understanding of what Paul thinks salvation means) live in the Roman world with a new set of values based on the cross and its devaluation of former systems of worth.

Finally, a very important thing to note is that for Barclay this is not a discussion about works and works righteousness.  What Paul is rejecting is not works of the law so much as all former systems of human worth.  It is about worth, not works.

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Barclay-introduction on grace

John Barclay gave this lecture at the Pontifical Biblical Institute in Rome.

Don’t be put off by the short introduction being in Italian.  Barclay’s lecture is in English.  Of course, if you are Italian, you may be put off by the Barclay speaking English in Rome.

Before getting into Galatians and Romans, he introduces Paul’s thought and the theme of grace.  Paul’s thinking is about salvation.  Barclay makes four points about this Pauline notion of salvation.

First, the content of Paul’s doctrine of salvation is union with Christ.  Although salvation is over against things like sin, death, and slavery to the powers of this age; its content for Paul is participation in the death and resurrection of Jesus.  Barclay sees development in this theme from 1 Thessalonians, where Paul just talks about being “with Christ” to much more developed discussions of sharing the cross and resurrection fate of Christ in the later letters.

Second, Paul develops the theme of salvation with a variety of metaphors.  These include metaphors drawn from economics, family and law.  Among these metaphors is that of justification.  Justification is a social and legal metaphor for being in a right relationship with God.  However, justification is just one of several metaphors whose content is union with Christ.  In other word, justification is subordinate to the larger concept of union or participation in Christ’s life.

Third,  we can’t treat union with Christ or redemption or justification as abstract theological concepts. They are part of a narrative framework that goes from creation through the election of Israel and on to the story of Jesus and the church.  They are part of a dynamic movement from the creation of the world to its consummation.

Finally, leading into the main subject of this lecture, the shape of salvation is grace. Grace is how it works.  Grace is not the content or one of the metaphors for salvation. It is the “distinctive pattern” of how God brings about salvation “without regard for worth”.

So the next thing will be to deal with the two letters, Galatians and Romans.

I do not really disagree with anything in Barclay’s introduction, although I wander if salvation could be replaced by consummation as the heart of Paul’s thinking. Salvation is often based on the idea of the Fall and how we can remedy the resulting situation. This puts Romans 5, with its Adam typology, at the center.  The subjection of creation to decay and the hope for a cosmological rebirth in Romans 8:19 ff. may be more central for Paul.  Union with Christ seems to me to fit better with a goal of universal consummation than simply setting right something that went wrong during the prehistory of the world.

We will see how, or if, Barclay deals with this.

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Bronze Age epidemic

A terrible epidemic, probably the Bubonic Plague, in the 14th century before Christ prompted one of the exodus-like events–or so I have speculated on the basis of Manetho’s claim that lepers or diseased quarry workers were quarenteened.  Here is the quotation from Josephus’s commentary on Manetho in Against Apion.  A certain oracle told the Pharaoh

 he would be able to see the gods if he cleansed the whole land of lepers and other polluted persons.  The king was delighted, and assembled all those in Egypt whose bodies were wasted by disease: they numbered 80,000 persons. (source here)

I just ran across an article, which puts together the original Egyptian and Hittite texts that refer to the plague.  The site is by Edward Pegler and is called Armchair Prehistory.

He covers several plagues over several centuries.  You have to scroll down to the 14th century.

From the Hittite records, Pegler concludes:

This is clearly an extensive fatal epidemic. The evidence suggests that epidemic is recurring, no longer spreading uniformly but attacking individual towns at different times. The first wave of the epidemic is suggested to be around 1322 BC (short chronology) but could be earlier, perhaps dating to before 1344 BC.

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Levenson, Barclay and the New Perspective

I am in a quandary about my next project.

The Jon Levenson book,  The Love of God, is the first part of an idea for looking at the love of God or the grace of God from both a Jewish and Christian point of view.

The next likely project is John Barclay’s Paul and the Gift. By all accounts it is a ground-breaking book.  But it is a very expensive book even in Kindle format.  In addition, there are long sections of it I am not sure I need to read.  According to Tim Foster’s review here,

It is not necessary to read every one of the 656 pages of Paul and the Gift. The one hundred page analysis of Second Temple texts can be missed, and the excellent summary chapter read instead. The same could be said for the historical survey – except that he offers such a helpful refresher of historical theology that it is a worthwhile read.

So while I am making up my mind how to approach this, here is an enlightening interview with Barclay.

Note that he says near the end that Paul and the Gift is only the first book.  He plans a sequel on human love as a part of the reciprocal relation between God’s gift and our response.  So getting into this at all seems to involve a lot of commitment.

My desire is to talk about the New Perspective on Paul (NPP) in the light of Levenson’s view of the divine-human love relationship as a treaty or covenant concept.

I guess you could say that Levenson’s view is covenantal nomism as E.P. Sanders and other NPP proponents have called it.  Yet “nomism” implies a more legalistic and less reciprocal view than I see in Levenson.  It is the reciprocity of gift and response which might be a bridge between a view like that of Levenson and a view like that of Barclay.

Also I am not as much into theology and doctrine as many of the people discussing Barclay’s work.  I do not have a stake in the standard evangelical dogma of salvation with its original sin, penal atonement, and imputed righteousness.  So I am interested in Barclay’s biblical interpretation but not so much in how it relates to Augustine, Luther, Calvin, or John Piper.  I don’t want to get into the weeds about historical theology.

I have found a few lectures on line by Barclay.  I may just go ahead and blog about some of those lectures after I watch them.

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