John M.G. Barclay of Durham University (UK) recently wrote a book entitled Paul and the Gift (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2015), where he presents a study of the concept of grace through the lens of ancient gift-giving conventions. While I was excited to be able to read it, as it has been highly praised in many places, I found the book to have some foundational flaws with it. I found four problems that I want to note. My full book review was recently posted at the Journal of Greco-Roman Christianity and Judaism.
First is what James Barr calls illegitimate identity transfer, providing the following description: “An object may be signified by word a or by word b. This does not mean that a means b … The identity of the object to which different designations are given does not imply that these designations have the same semantic value. The mistake of supposing that it does we may for convenience call ‘illegitimate identity transfer’” (The Semantics of Biblical Language [Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1961], 217-18). Barclay often interchangeably refers to gift and grace as if they were the same word. I admit there may be some semantic overlap between these two words (in both English and Greek), but they definitely do not share the same semantic value. The fact that many reviewers of the book have missed this crucial point—a point which is the basis of this whole study—is surprising. This is my main objection to this study, but I have a few more that are less critical.
Related to Barclay’s illegitimate identity transfer is the lack of criteria on how to determine what words would constitute “language of gift” or “gift-language.” In other words, what words or word groups fall into this category, and what words don’t? Given that a gift could potentially constitute a variety of things, what factor(s) lead him to focus specifically on “grace” as gift?
The third problem relates to the “pure gift” idea being only a modern one, a point that Barclay tries to argue. The New Testament itself is filled with this “pure gift” idea, teaching to give without expecting anything in return, especially in the teachings of Jesus and Paul. Didn’t they have a significant impact in their respective societies? I seriously doubt that the idea of giving without ulterior motives was only something that came about recently.
Finally, the idea of grace that is taught in the New Testament does not fit the expectant reciprocity that supposedly characterized ancient gift-giving practices. Does God really give grace with expectant reciprocity? Doesn’t the meaning of grace mean “undeserved favor?” Isn’t it a more plausible view to say that God subverts the cultural norms (if this is indeed a cultural norm, which I question) and gives grace in a way that was radical?
While the value of the book might be in its survey of ancient culture, its deficiency of equating gift and grace in an illegitimate way makes it an ill-founded study.
— David I. Yoon