In 1977, E. P. Sanders wrote his landmark Paul and Palestinian Judaism, which argued that second temple Jews did not believe in meriting salvation by works, but believed Jews were included in the covenant by grace and kept in by works. Thus, Judaism, like Christianity, was a religion of grace.

Since Sanders’ work, Pauline studies has not been the same. Some followed Sanders’ view of Judaism, including James Dunn who applied these results to a re-reading of Paul, dubbed the “New Perspective on Paul.” Paul did not rail against Jews trying to merit salvation, but against those who tried to use boundary markers or separation from Gentiles to prove (or vindicate?) their right inclusion in the covenant. New Testament scholars are now split, some holding to this New Perspective (or one of its many variations, as categorized by Westerholm), some holding to some form of the Old Perspective (e.g., Westerholm, Schreiner, Carson et al.).

While the debate has seemed at an impasse for some time now, John Barclay has exploded on the scene with a major correction to the New Perspective position. Sanders’ conclusion was that Judaism was a religion of grace, but Barclay asks the question, what is “grace?” Is all grace the same, and is grace understood the same by all?

In his Paul and the Gift, Barclay looks at the idea of “grace” or “gift,” both appropriate translations of χάρις, in its ancient context from an anthropological perspective. One of his main contentions is that the Western world has a concept of a non-reciprocal gift, but the ancient world did not. Gifts told something about the sender and the recipient and their status relative to one another.

Barclay spent ten years researching this book and four years writing it. The depth of research is evident. Chapter three surveys the concept of grace in Paul’s writings as understood by Marcion, Augustine, Luther, Calvin, and scholars in the modern period.

Part 2 examines grace or gift in five different writings or corpora in second temple Judaism: Wisdom of Solomon, Philo, the Hodayot (1QH), Pseudo-Philo, and 4 Ezra. He argues that these documents display various understandings of God’s grace, which should lead us beyond Sanders’ covenantal nomism paradigm with which scholars have worked for the past forty years.

Part 3 examines “gift” in Galatians, by which Barclay tries to locate Paul within this Jewish stream of discourse on divine grace. In contrast to Paul’s ancient context, he focuses on Christ as God’s free, unmerited gift, regardless of ethic of social worth. His lens of “grace/gift” allows Barclay to find a new scheme of coherence to the letter and to emphasize thoughts previously not highlighted with as much emphasis.

While he agrees with the New Perspective that Paul is not polemicizing against works righteousness, he disagrees with the New Perspective and concludes that Paul is guarding against social value systems, which in his Jewish context would find value in the Christ-gift only by its inclusion in the value system of Torah (444).

His final part of the book examines “gift” in Romans. As with those of the New Perspective and many recent Pauline scholars, his reading emphasizes the role of Romans 9-11 within the epistle as a whole. It is not a Pauline detour or a detached parentheses, but a climactic expression of God’s “gift” of Christ. He finds both similarities and differences between the construal of grace in Galatians and Romans.

This work is a significant corrective to E. P. Sanders’ paradigm of covenantal nomism. Several scholars had challenged his construal of second temple Jewish religion, but Barclay’s may be the most formidable to date. Grace is everywhere grace, but grace is not to everyone the same.

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Paul’s understanding of God’s gift is quite different from his contemporaries, especially in its unconditional nature. God himself has perfected the concept of gift through his gift of Christ to us. If Barclay’s analysis is on target, both new and old perspective advocates will need to modify their understanding of Paul’s polemic, especially in Galatians and Romans.

Based on the attention this book has received since its publication, on the depth of its research, and on the significance of its conclusions if correct, I conjecture this book will be one of the most frequently cited books in the ongoing Pauline-perspective debate. Although it is a bit pricey, this book should be required reading for anyone studying the new and old perspective on Paul.

Preview or buy it here on Amazon.



Listen to Barclay talk about his book.