Professor John Barclay, currently residing in Dunedin, features in a one-page article today in Otago’s leading newspaper, The Otago Daily Times.
The article highlights some of John Barclay’s recent work on The Gift in the letters of Paul – a subject on which he presented earlier this week, in his fine De Carle Open Lecture series. Here’s an excerpt:
“”Paul has some radical notions about gift which arise out of the nature of the death and resurrection of Jesus, which make him break the mould of the ways in which people thought about and practised gift-giving in the ancient world,” he said. Gift-giving has become peripheral in modern Western society, and we consider the best gifts are unilateral, but for most other cultures past and present, a web of reciprocal gift-giving bound societies together. Over the past century, anthropologists and philosophers have studied how gift exchange operates in various societies, including Pacific and Maori societies, he said. “I’m trying to bring together that study and studies of Roman society and put Paul in that mix and ask what is Paul doing that is different; how does he think about the death and resurrection of Christ, and how does that challenge ancient notions of gift?” In societies where people tied themselves to others by giving and receiving gifts they had to be careful to whom they gave gifts. You gave to people according to their social status, who would enhance your reputation. There was no point in giving to insignificant people who were too poor or too worthless to tie oneself to in a gift relationship. The male, the free, the powerful and the rational were favoured over the female, slaves, the weak, poor or uneducated, he said. “So you have a set of interlocking hierarchies which determine how gifts are given. If this is so among humans, it’s all the more applicable to how God or the gods give.” Most religions had notions of sacrifice, which is giving to God or gods, and in doing so developing a gift relationship with them like that between a client and patron. People understood God or the gods maintained the proper order of the universe by giving gifts to fitting recipients with the right social, moral or intellectual qualities, he said. “Now one of the ways in which Paul’s thinking is very intriguing is that he interprets the life and death and resurrection of Jesus as a divine gift, but what is radical about it is that this is a gift given without preconditions, given in a way that flouts normal criteria of what is reasonable and sensible. “The sorts of values that are embedded in the way people give gifts in antiquity are deeply challenged by the way God’s gift is given to the unfitting, the undeserving, without regard to ethnicity, birth or lineage, without regard to moral status or achievement, without regard to gender, without regard to social status.””
Full article here: “The Unconditional Gift” (which should, rather, be entitled “The Unconditioned Gift”, to agree with JB’s understanding of Paul’s conception of the Christ-gift as a gift without precondition but with obligations).