John M.G. Barclay on St. Paul and Multiculturalism

I recently read John M.G. Barclay’s excellent essay, “Neither Jew Nor Greek:  Multiculturalism and the New Perspective on Paul.”  In the first major section,  Barclay provides a clear concise overview of the main players of the New Perspective on Paul (henceforth, NPP). His sketch begins with Krister Stendal’s groundbreaking essay, “The Apostle Paul and the Introspective Conscience of the West,” moves to E.P. Sanders’ notion of “covenantal nomism” as presented in his book, Paul and Palestinian Judaism, and then turns to James D.G. Dunn’s contributions via his commentaries on St. Paul, viz., “his explorations of the social aspects of Paul’s critical engagement with Judaism” (202).  Particularly important given our post-Holocaust existence is the fact that the NPP scholars are sensitive to the unfortunately marred history of Christian scholarship and its participation in anti-Semitism.One in Christ

The second section of Barclay’s essay is devoted to a discussion of the social and ideological background of the NPP.  Here the major subdivisions include the following, all of which characterize the NPP’s methodological stance: (1) a self-conscious theological respect for Judaism, (2) a turning “from an individualistic to a communal reading of Pauline theology” (i.e. Bultmann’s existentialist Heideggerian-inspired readings are out), (3) a concern for multiculturalism and difference.

The third section focuses on Daniel Boyarin’s reading of St. Paul as expressed in his book, A Radical Jew:  Paul and the Politics of Identity.  Barclay finds Boyarin’s engaging, insightful, sympathetic and attentive to St. Paul’s unique role in the Christianity; yet, he finds Boyarin’s reading at times to miss the ways in which St. Paul’s works might be applied fruitfully to our current concerns with multiculturalism and difference.

The fourth and final section of the essay involves a more sustained discussion of St. Paul and multiculturalism.  It is here in the first part of this final section that I want to linger.  Barclay opens by drawing our attention to the fact that “[a]ll Jews in the Graeco-Roman world were affected to some degree by the dominant Hellenistic culture” (209).  Given that Hellenization had a variety of inflections, Barclay offers a helpful distinction between “acculturation” and “assimilation.”  The former speaks of the “adoption of Hellenistic speech, literary forms, values and philosophies); the latter refers to “social integration into Hellenistic society” (209).  A Jew fluent in high Greek might be acculturated but not assimilated.  What bound Jews together most intimately were social and religious practices such as

aniconic monotheism (the refusal to participate in non-Jewish religion), the male mark of circumcision (which among other things, limited marriage relations), the dietary laws (which restricted social intercourse) and the observance of the Sabbath (which affected employment relations).  Such customs defined Jewish difference:  they created social boundaries between Jew and Greek, even where the two might otherwise speak the same language and employ the same though-forms.  Greeks who wished to become Jews (as some did), needed to adopt precisely these social practices to achieve full integration into the Jewish community (209).

Part of what made the apostle Paul so controversial was his proclamation that Gentiles need not embrace these social practices to be full members of the Abrahamic covenant.  Rather, through faith in Christ, they too could enter into intimate life with YHWH and receive the indwelling of the Holy Spirit.  Gentiles, of course, must manifest this new life in their actions, and St. Paul did exhort them to live free of idols—in line with Jewish custom and a requirement so to speak of monotheism.  However, St. Paul “did not allow the other three ‘social markers’ [i.e. dietary laws, circumcision and required observance of feast days] to characterize the common life of believers] (210).  On this point, Barclay states,

[i]n this sense Paul preached to Gentiles a partially ‘dejudaized Judaism’ and attempted to create church communities which were multiethnic and multicultural:  in Christ ‘there is neither Jew nor Greek’ (Gal. 3:28)” (210).  Contra Boyarin, Barclay claims that St. Paul was not engaging in a spiritual or allegorical interpretative move—he was “not reaching behind Jewish particulars to some abstract ‘essence’ or disembodies ‘ideal’:  he was placing alongside the Jewish community another which was equally physical and embodied in social reality.  To be sure, he can relativize circumcision by claiming that what counts is ‘faith working through love’ (Gal. 5:6), but that faith and love are designed to take extremely practical shape in the life of a community (Gal. 5:13-6:10).  Similarly, he will not allow the Roman churches to define themselves by distinction in food or drink, but the ‘righteousness, peace and joy in the Holy Spirit’ which he puts in their place (Rom. 14:17) are meant to have immediate impact on their common life, not least in their common meals (Rom. 14:1-15:6) (210).

Consequently, Barclay believes that Boyarin is wrong to conclude that St. Paul engages in an allegorical hermeneutic on these points in order to locate a common human essence.  Instead, according to Barclay, St. Paul seeks “to enable an alternative form of community which could bridge ethnic and cultural divisions by creating new patterns of common life” (210).  In sum, St. Paul’s aim is not to “eradicate” or “erase” cultural differences, but to “relativize” them (211).  He continues to respect Jewish customs (circumcision) and to hold the Jews in high regard, especially given their function in salvation history (recipients of the covenant and the Torah).  Christ was after all a  Jew, and we must neither forget nor attempt to downplay his Jewishness;  yet, He is “now the Lord of both Jews and Gentiles, who call on him in faith on the same terms, whatever their cultural identity” (211).  St. Paul is free to draw from both the Jewish and Greek traditions in order to translate the Gospel more effectively into various contexts to people of diverse ethnic, religious, and socio-cultural backgrounds.  “No one’s culture is despised or demonized, but by the same token none is absolutized or allowed to gain hegemony” (211).

3 thoughts on “John M.G. Barclay on St. Paul and Multiculturalism”

  1. John Barclay is great! We had him in Dunedin for a while… he may still be around writing on Paul and gift – that ‘unconditioned singularity’ that relativises cultures.

  2. Hello again Cynthia – can you give details, please, of where barclay’s essay was published. I’d very much like to read it. Thanks for the continuing excellence of your blog.

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