Paul and the Gift, by John Barclay

Grace is everywhere in Second Temple Judaism but not everywhere the same (p. 6).

Since 1977 and the publication of Paul and Palestinian Judaism by E. P. Sanders, there has been a long-running debate about grace. Did the Jews in Jesus’ time believe in grace or works? Does God accept us because we are good enough, or does God accept us because of his grace? Many had previously assumed that Judaism at the time of Jesus and Paul was a religion of works-righteousness. But Sanders examined various Jewish texts from that period, and found everywhere he looked: grace, grace, and more grace!

So which is it? Grace or works?

Part 2 of John Barclay’s seminal book, Paul and the Gift (2015), examines a handful of significant texts from this period – so-called ‘Second Temple Judaism’. Barclay’s main finding is as stated above: yes, there is plenty of grace in these texts, but when you look more closely, you find very different understandings of what this actually means. Barclay argues that Sanders has imposed a modern definition of grace onto those texts, and assumed that whenever they speak of grace, they mean that the recipients didn’t deserve it (pp. 191-192). (Otherwise it wouldn’t be grace, right?) But Barclay makes it clear that the default understanding of grace in that culture (and in most cultures, in fact) assumes that grace ought to be fitting or congruent. In other words, there is something bizarre about the indiscriminate giving of gifts:

The rationale for the congruent gift is obvious. Benefactors display their values by their distribution of gifts, and one cannot expect God to identify himself through gifts to the wicked: moral discrimination is what makes God’s gifts good (p. 316).

So it’s not simply a matter of ‘grace or works’. When we approach texts from Second Temple Judaism, we shouldn’t assume we know in advance what they mean when they speak of God’s grace. But when we look carefully at what they mean by God’s grace, we find an extraordinary diversity, even though the language of grace is everywhere.

Using the different characteristics of grace identified in Part 1, here are some of the ways in which grace was understood in Second Temple Judaism:

  1. The Wisdom of Solomon, part of the Apocrypha, was likely written towards the end of the first century BC in Egypt. According to Barclay, ‘Wisdom is designed to reassure its readers of God’s just governance of history’ (p. 195). Despite appearances to the contrary, the world is truly ordered by God’s wisdom, and those whose lives are shaped by the gift of God’s wisdom (i.e., the people of Israel) will ultimately be rewarded with eternal life. At the present time, however, ‘God’s love for all humanity tempers and delays his justice to an extraordinary degree’, while ‘God’s righteous children’ experience ‘some “discipline” along the way’ (p. 310). God’s ‘grace’ is ‘superabundant in scale and scope but not finally incongruous’, while ‘the priority of grace … is not especially perfected’, and the other ‘perfections’ of grace are not discussed (p. 310, emphasis added).
  2. For Philo of Alexandria, writing in a similar context, God has given an ‘abundance’ of good things (superabundance, p. 216), and ‘God is the cause only of what is good, not of evil’ (singularity, p. 219). Explaining the existence of evil is ‘clearly awkward for Philo’, and its source most likely ‘lies in the mortality of the created world and the related moral corruption of the human race’ (p. 220). In distributing his gifts, God acts first (priority), but he does so in a fitting manner, knowing in advance which people would prove worthy as recipients (no incongruity). Sometimes God give limited gifts to the unworthy, but only for the sake of the worthy, and ‘the gifts that matter most in Philo’s scheme of values, gifts of wisdom and virtue, are given discriminately to people of worth’ (p. 229). There are also hints of efficacy, in that ‘God creates the virtue by which humans themselves act’ (p. 311).
  3. The Thanksgiving Hymns (Hodayot) of the Qumran community were probably compiled in the first century BC. God’s cosmic design includes his (inexplicable and mysterious) preference, according to which he predestines some members of worthless humanity to be righteous, and others to be wicked (priority). Upon the righteous, God then (fittingly) pours his mercy and kindness. We find incongruity and superabundance, in that ‘a “corpse-infesting maggot” is elevated from the dust to stand before God’ (p. 244). There is also efficacy, in that God’s grace makes the worthless worthwhile (p. 262).
  4. The Liber Antiquitatum Biblicarum (LAB), by Pseudo-Philo (i.e., ‘once wrongly attributed to Philo’, p. 266) is likely to have originated in Palestine in the first century AD. According to this text, Israel has (perhaps arbitrarily, p. 272) been given a central role in the very fabric of the cosmos, so when Israel sins, God must have mercy (incongruity). ‘This mercy is also perfected as prior to Israel’s history (part of the purpose of creation), and superabundant in scale, but not in any other of our perfections’ (p. 312, emphasis added).
  5. Finally, 4 Ezra, part of the Apocrypha and dating from the end of the first century AD, ‘reflects the crisis of faith precipitated by the destruction of Jerusalem’ (p. 280). In the present age, God extends his mercy to the sinful (inconguity), but at the final judgment, God’s (superabundant) mercy will be given only to the righteous (no incongruity). The present incongruity is necessary since ‘it is only because God is merciful on sinners that anyone survives at all’ (p. 307).

None of the texts perfect ‘the non-circularity of grace, the notion that God gives without expectation of return’ (p. 314), and all perfect the superabundance of grace, but the other perfections may be summarised as follows:

Wisdom   (Priority?)  (Incongruity, for now)   
Philo Singularity  Priority   Efficacy 
Hodayot    Priority Incongruity Efficacy
LAB   Priority Incongruity  
4 Ezra     (Incongruity, for now)   

The key thing to notice is the diversity of views concerning the incongruity of God’s grace. For Philo, God’s gifts are always given to fitting recipients, so there is no incongruity. For Wisdom and 4 Ezra, God shows mercy to the wicked in the present age, but only because it is necessary to do so in order for his purposes for the righteous to be fulfilled. Only Hodayot and LAB perfect the incongruity of God’s grace, on the basis of the way God has ordered the cosmos, with the some people (mysteriously) predestined to be made righteous (Hodayot), or with Israel (mysteriously) woven into the fabric of the cosmos (LAB).

It is tempting (with Sanders) to assume, by definition, ‘that divine gifts of grace must be unmerited and unconditioned’. But there is no reason to make this assumption. ‘If we resist these (modern dictionary) definitions of grace, we are free to observe where texts differ on this point, some perfecting the inconguity of grace, but most for good reason declining to do so’ (p. 192).

The task for Parts 3 and 4 of the book is to examine Paul’s understanding of God’s grace in Galatians and Romans, respectively. Specifically, if Paul perfects the incongruity of grace (and – spoiler alert – he does), then how does he make sense of that? How does he avoid the accusation that God is unjust in giving his gifts to unworthy recipients? Again, don’t hold your breath; I haven’t read those bits yet…