I first discovered Todd Still while working on a Thessalonians paper. I found his book Conflict at Thessalonica a model of biblical scholarship. He is rigorously historical, careful in his judgment and pays close attention to the text. Thus I was delighted to stumble upon a volume of essays he edited focusing on the old question of the relationship between Jesus and Paul, Jesus and Paul Reconnected: Fresh Pathways to an Old Debate. The list of contributors includes some of the best NT scholars alive: John M. G. Barclay, Stephen Westerholm, Bruce W. Longenecker, Markus Bockmuehl, Francis Watson and Beverly Roberts Gaventa.
John Barclay’s article, “‘Offensive and Uncanny’: Jesus and Paul on the Caustic Grace of God” draws from Bultmann and Sanders to ask why Jesus and Paul were offensive to their contemporaries. Barclay still considers this question largely unanswered. His suggestion, surprising in a post-Sanders world, but argued brilliantly is that the scandal of both Jesus and Paul was “the enactment of the deeply subversive and sharply caustic grace of God” (5). Indeed, “both enact and express a paradigm of God’s grace that is simultaneously welcoming to the lost outsider and deeply challenging to the insider” (17).
Barclay points out that though Sanders refers to the availability of forgiveness in Jewish literature (Jesus and Judaism, 202-3), Sanders fails to take note of how Jesus’ enactment of that grace is actually portrayed in the gospels themselves. “As the parable indicates, Jesus is dealing with people who can never expect to find social acceptance, the irretrievably wicked, who are permanently subject to hostility or suspicion” (9). Though ideally these sinner-folks had the availability of forgiveness, it was practically speaking socially problematic. It is not that Jesus introduced a new idea of “grace,” but rather he enacted the grace latent in Israel’s traditions. “This dramatic act of generosity emerges out of the ethos of Israel’s traditions and scriptures, but simultaneously threatens to destabilize the categories and norms by which righteousness is defined and covenant maintained” (11). So, the father who loves the hard-working elder son is not celebrating the wickedness of the younger son. Rather, he is attempting to uphold that standard of just activity while simultaneously welcoming the younger son. This, in turn, forces the elder son to submit to the scandal of welcoming back his wicked brother. Here is the subversive grace of God on display.
The revelation of the gospel is equally destabilizing for Paul, who prior to Damascus is the quintessential “elder brother” – righteous according to the law (Phil 3.6). Yet, it was precisely this righteousness that prevented Paul from seeing the grace of God at work in the Messiah. In Barclay’s brief reading of Rom 9-11 he observes the way in which it is God’s prerogative to act with unsettling grace (Rom 9.6-29) which has become a “stone of stumbling” for Israel (Rom 9.30-10.21). In the end, Paul argues that no-one can rest on their elective laurels but only the divine grace (Rom 11.1-32). Thus, “Romans 9-11 is about the bonfire of the vanities, when every social, legal, ethnic, and political support is stripped away by the acerbic, but ultimately redemptive, grace of God” (16). This revelation of grace forces Paul to rethink social identity for the people of God. He can no longer operate under Torah but a new kind of social status quo that operates with caustic grace, a grace that is everywhere imprinted in Torah but easily missed by righteous eyes. Barclay as usual is cautious, not suggesting that Paul got the idea from Jesus but simply noting the striking “congruity between Jesus and Paul on this issue” (17). As Barclay sees it, the enactment of grace is the scandal of Jesus and Paul.