Friday, January 6, 2012

Barclay on Offensive Grace

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.


Nathan said...

Paul's conception of grace also seems to be very advantageous to his own rise to power, since the Jews don't really like him and the gentiles are about the only audience he has.

I suppose that's also why he would call himself 'a light to the gentiles'. I don't see the sacrifice that he himself makes in all of it though because in the end he gets a much more prestigious and prophetic voice for saying it.

Paul seems to say whatever it is he needs to say to get some rise in his own position. From his own conversion story, to his retelling of the rebuke of Peter, to his own theology of inclusion, it seems that he finds ways to make a name for himself through it all.

Unknown said...


Thanks for commenting. It is good to hear from you. I think I understand what you're saying, but I think your interpretation is clouded by postmodern assumptions about power.

Paul does not in fact gain prestige by following his calling. He went from being a prominent Pharisee to an outsider among his own people. He endured numerous sufferings (note especially 2 Cor 11.22-29). Certainly later tradition elevated him to a saintly position of power, but that should not be read back into his original situation.

Paul certainly did think he was correct about God and that others should listen. I don't think it is fair to say, however, that he was a shameless self-promoter. As a comparable example, I don't think it would be fair to criticize Martin Luther King Jr. as a power monger for drawing attention to the civil rights movement. Both men believed that they were right about a vision of God's justice and acted accordingly.

Not only did Paul suffer terribly for his obedience to Jesus, but he called others to do the same. What do you think of the fact that he called the Romans to get over their own cultural boundaries for others (Rom 14-15)?

Also, you're willing to critique Paul on this but not Jesus? What do you think the difference was? Was Jesus just hungry for power?

Perhaps you think that they were offensive for different reasons? If so, what was the difference?

Nathan said...

a little preface here... yea, long time no talk. And also, I'm not trying to hate on the Bible or anyone within it either, but merely discussing some other viewpoints that I've gathered as of late...

First off, I don't believe that the road to damascus ever happened or at least that Paul saw Jesus and was blinded and such. He might have actually believed that it happened, but I don't believe that stuff happens so, I don't believe it happened to Paul either. I would throw it in the realm of the millions of people today and in history that have had such 'supernatural experiences'.

So, I ask myself, "why would Paul tell that story?" And then I see how Acts builds him up as this 'key' Pharisee that holds jackets while people stone Stephen, and he (as you quoted in 2 Corinthians) talks about how much he had and who he was... but people talk like that all of the time, within history and today and it is very often not true at all. So, I have no reason to really believe (unless I'm following Tradition) that Paul actually was this convert due to some great act of God.

And while I don't think Paul was seeking Power as a Caesar or King might seek out power, it is no question that people love to have influence within other people's lives. They talk themselves into experiences and illusions that lead them to leading many many people despite the suffering that they go into regardless.

And the suffering is also something that seems quite a bit exaggerated. Number one, Paul always brings it up (of course he says he brings it up not for himself, but for God... but really? why keep bringing it up then?)

And if someone was 'almost' beaten to death or stoned to death' today... it would end up leaving that person in an Intensive Care Unit where internal bleeding, abrasions, broken bones would all be taken care of, blood anti coagulants would be administered along with antibody medicine and intense physical therapy would ensue because the body will acquire infections otherwise, and often does even with all of the above.

So, in a time in history when the expected age of men's death was 50 and they had no medical knowledge outside of their own traditional herbs and ointments (not even valuing hygienic practice which didn't have value in the medical world until the late 1800s)... it would seem to me that something doesn't add up. It leads me to assume that those accounts are quite a bit exaggerated.

Regardless, sure Paul suffered, why not. But like I said previously, why not? Especially if he was making a name for himself and found a place of value among a group of people. People gladly accept persecution for such a role, even today.

So, that is why I am skeptical to Paul and his conversion experience and his ensuing theology and stories of interaction within history. I'm not saying he was out to lie and cheat people. But to me it seems very viable that he was out to be 'the light to the gentiles' no matter how hard that message was to others because it gave him value. Not necessarily a bad thing.

You have a good point about tradition elevating him to the way I see him today, and I will readily admit that it is hard to not anachronistically view Paul in that way. It is hard to place myself in a community that is receiving his letters. And maybe they didn't even care what he said really? I'm not sure how to better historically analyze that at the present moment. You'd probably have a much better idea of that.

But the comparison to MLKing Jr... I don't think there's much difference between the two. I love MLKing Jr. (mostly). But at the same time, I don't for a second think he shied away from the spot light and didn't take advantage of the power that it gave him. And he's another example of a man that took that power despite the suffering and death it brought him.

Nathan said...

(part 2)

Paul's own words to the Romans themselves in chps. 14 and 15 don't surprise me either. Paul seemed to have a flare about him that he wasn't going to care who he had to talk to or what he had to talk about to get his message across.
To me though, that screams as someone that probably likes being in a position of influence and teaching and once again, keeps going back to the whole, I hated who I was until this miracle happened. And if you believe that miracle, then it takes everything I say out from under me I guess. But I think it should be a valid point to not believe that Paul had the conversion experience, but rather either made that up for whatever reason, or talked his own self subconsciously into some type of vision.

My point is that, I see Paul's theology stemming from this ability to have his place and his niche as the 'light to the gentiles' and the ensuing gentile inclusion theology that he puts forth.

Nathan said...

(part 3)

And good point about Jesus. But also, I see them as two very different characters in history. Whatever we can historically know about Jesus through other people's accounts of him. Then you have Acts and the epistles of Paul that we try and historically place Paul.

Jesus was a mediterranean poor peasant that without being anachronistic, of course in my opinion from study of that time anthropologically, had to be illiterate. Jesus leads a group of people as a very charismatic and mystical Jew and people follow him. He definitely seemed to have some differing views and probably did see himself as much more than just a mere human. I don't know if I'd go so far as to say that Jesus thought he was God, but definitely had to think he was pretty important or else just grossly misquoted.

So, yea, I think Jesus had some pretty odd issues with finding his place and his value as a human being. He seemed to do it in a pretty great and peaceful way. (As Paul did too). But once again, its odd now today. But in that world where people didn't read and write as a norm and the world was a small place where family and tribal traditions reigned, it really isn't that odd of a role for people to take as many others did it in different ways at the same time as these guys did.

But Just as I don't see Paul as some apostle of a cosmic creator I don't see Jesus as an incarnation of one either. But a human that was grasping for life in the best way he knew how. The Temple Cleansing (or whatever we want to call it), makes me think that personally Jesus was even more mystical than Paul because he had to know that would lead to his death. In any case, I don't find Jesus or Paul as 'offensive', but rather as two people with ideas. Jesus obviously influencing Paul and leading to Paul's own twist on how a tradition might commence. If they even saw themselves that far into the future.

There is so much here, and I'm skipping over so many things that should be more properly defined and stated. So I apologize, I'm trying to give a very various overview. In summary I would say this:

Jesus and Paul both are not offensive in their views of Grace. It seems that they are consistent in viewing that Grace with how they view their own message which shaped their places in the groups picture (for Jesus the Jews... and for Paul the Jews and Gentiles). Their messages give them the part they play in the group that was forming and practicing a new type of worship to YHWH.

Sure it offended some. But there's always someone that gets offended.

Unknown said...


Paul himself claims to be a Pharisee (Phil 3.6) and based on how he uses the OT, it would be difficult to explain his level of education apart from formal study under another Pharisee. So, as with the vast majority of NT scholars I think Paul was indeed a Pharisee. He also claimed to have persecuted a the early Christians (1 Cor 15.9; Gal 1.13; Phil 3.6) a tradition that is supported by Acts (8.3; 9.1, 13, 21; 22.4, 19; 26.10-11 cf. 1 Tim 1.13). There is no reason why Paul would make that up. So, something had to have changed him. Paul thought of it as a prophetic calling that radically altered the course of his life. It is your prerogative to believe his story or not.

However, nothing suggests that Paul held significant power in the ancient world. He did start very small churches and wrote to them, but was not until generations later that churches elevated his writings to "scripture." So, I find it incredibly hard to believe that Paul told these stories for his own personal gain.

As far as his persecutions being exaggerated, I suppose it is possible. Still, the way Paul talks about his suffering seems to indicate that it is problematic for the people he's writing to. They find his suffering a sign of his weakness. Paul has to defend himself while recognizing his suffering. Perhaps Paul was an extraordinary person. Certainly his subsequent influence on history makes him one of the most interesting people to ever live.

You suggest that Paul thought of himself as the "light to the Gentiles." I wonder, however, where did he get this idea? What changed him from a persecutor to apostle of the church? I don't think Paul hated himself before his calling, in fact he indicates otherwise (Phil 3.4-8). Paul seems to be very content and confident before becoming an apostle. So the idea that he made up or talked himself into a "conversion experience" is just not based on any evidence but your own assumptions about how he must have acted.

As far as not finding either Jesus or Paul offensive because of their ideas, that is a very humanist perspective. You may not be offended by them, but there is no doubt that they were offensive to both Jews and Gentiles. They were offensive enough to merit capital punishment. So we have to explain that in some historical way. Barclay's suggestion is that there offense was in the way they practiced grace not how they thought of it. You may well disagree with Barclay, though I find his suggestion a very good explanation.

Thanks for your willingness to comment. Clearly we disagree about a great many thing, but I'm glad to have you stop by. I do hope things are going well for you.