Barclay, John M. G. Pauline Churches and Diaspora Jews. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 2016. 454 pp. Pb; $48.   Link to Eerdmans

This collection of essays published between 1992 and 2011 was originally published by Mohr Siebeck. Chapter 1 was written as an introduction to that volume and chapters 18 and 19 appeared for the first time. The remaining sixteen essays appeared in various journals and Festschrifts. The Eerdmans edition is essentially the same, only a few typographical errors have been corrected. The volume concludes with a bibliography, Indices of Sources, Authors and Selected Topics.

In his introductory essay “Pauline Churches, Jewish Communities and the Roman Empire. Introducing the Issues” Barclay begins with a survey of contemporary social-historical research into the early Christ-movement. Beginning in the 1970s with the work of Malherbe, Thiessen and Meeks, biblical scholarship has benefited greatly from new research into the social world of the Roman Empire as well as a flood of new research into Diaspora Judaism. Barclay points out the evidence is occasionally rich, too often scattered and ambiguous (11).

First, how did Pauline churches compare to Diaspora Jewish communities in the Mediterranean world? Are Gentile Pauline converts in some sense “Jewish”? Are Jewish converts in some way renouncing their ethnicity? In the first collection of essays in this volume (ch. 2-8), Barclay observes the “relative fragility of the Pauling Churches in comparison with Diaspora synagogues”(12). Gentiles in Pauline churches were resocialized “in Christ” rather than in the Jewish communities. Barclay discusses the role of the Law in his second chapter (“Do We Undermine the Law?’: A Study of Romans 14.1—15.6”). This text offers a valuable insight into the “practical effects of Paul’s stance on the law” (37) even if the word does not appear in the section. The issue is sharing food (open commensality) between Jew and Gentile converts. For Paul, mutual toleration is the basic principle but the “stronger” ought to refrain in order not to offend the “weaker” with respect to food or Sabbath traditions. The “strong” are free to eat whatever they want and to not observe Sabbath. A result of this is a protection of Law-observing Jewish Christians but also an allowance for Gentile Christians to neglect the Law (54-55). Although Barclay does not address the other side of the issue, based on Galatians, Paul would not have permitted Gentile Christians to begin keeping the Law, and perhaps he did not recommend Jewish Christians to stop keeping the Law. He does think the long-term effect of Paul’s view of the Law in Romans 14-15 undermined the social and cultural integrity of Law-observant Christians in Rome (56).

The other major boundary marker in the early Christian movement was circumcision. Barclay compares Paul and Philo on circumcision (“Romans 2.25—29 in Social and Cultural Context,” ch. 3). The article interacts with Daniel Boyarin who argued in his A Radical Jew that Pauline religion was a “relgio-cultural formation contiguous with other Hellenistic Judaisms.” Barclay argues Boyarin has made an important observation but “subtly mistaken” (61-62). Paul’s redefinition of circumcision as a “hidden phenomenon ‘in the Spirit’ in Rom 2:25-29” is not an intellectual drive for a Hellenistic “universal human essence,” but rather  a radical commitment to live out  biblical categories in a new, multi-ethnic community. This cannot be fitted into a form of contemporary Judaism (79).

Chapters 6-7 both concern deviance and apostasy in early Christianity and Judaism. Beginning with Howard Becker’s Outsiders (1963), Barclay defines deviancy and compares the case of Philo’s nephew, Tiberius Julius Alexander. Alexander was a high ranking member of the Roman administration in Egypt and was Titus’s second-in-command during the siege of Jerusalem. Neither Philo nor Josephus consider him to be an apostate. He then compares Alexander to Paul, who was denounced and expelled from synagogues and was opposed by Christian Jews. Paul was therefore viewed by some Jews as an apostate. There are some situations in Paul’s churches in which a person is judged to be a deviant (1 Cor 5, or example). For Paul, the Corinthian believers are “too comfortable in their social integration” (137), perhaps they are (in Paul’s view), not deviant enough. Barclay also examines charges of apostasy in 3 Maccabees, Wisdom of Solomon, Philo, Josephus, and 4 Maccabees.

Second and third, to what degree was the social identity practiced in Pauline assemblies compatible with social expressions in Diaspora Jewish communities in the Mediterranean world? How did Pauline churches invent and maintain durable identity? What are distinct Christian practices?  The essays in the second major section of the collection address these issues (ch. 9-13). For example, Christian non-practice of idolatry had significant social impact for Gentile converts. Breaking with family gods would cause deep social offense and the early Christian movement would look like a dangerous superstition to outsiders. In addition, Christianity lacked the trappings of normal religion in the Roman world: there were no altars, sacrifices, or priesthood.

In his “Thessalonica and Corinth. Social Contrasts in Pauline Christianity” (ch. 9), Barclay suggests these dealt with social identity and interaction with outsiders differently because one church faced conflict and the other did not. At Thessalonica, the church has an apocalyptic outlook which encouraged them to embrace social alienation as normal” (186). At Corinth, on the other hand, the members of the church were integrated in Corinthian culture and never faced social ostracism experienced by the Thessalonians (199).

The following two essays in the collection examine elements of this thesis. The emphasis on speech in the early Christian communities is the subject of “πνευματικός in the Social Dialect of Pauline Christianity” (ch. 10). The term πνευματικός had “a degree of semantic indeterminacy” which allowed the early Christians to develop insider/outsider categories. In “‘That You May Not Grieve, Like the Rest Who Have No Hope’ (1 Thess 4.13): Death and Early Christian Identity” (ch. 11), Barclay argues Paul makes the first moves towards “Christianizing death.” Compared to Roman mourning rituals, the Christian sense of hope was so remarkable that Christians were distinct even in their death (235).

Fourth, how did Diaspora Jewish and Christian communities negotiate their relationship with Roman power and Roman Religion? The third major section of the book addresses Paul Josephus, and Rome (ch. 14-19). The issue of Paul’s attitude toward Rome has been a particularly controversial issue in recent years. Barclay’s approach is to read Josephus through the lens of postcolonial theory (30). Josephus is a good candidate for postcolonial reading since he wrote under Roman patronage while attempting to tell the story of Israel.

The first four essays in this section (ch. 14-17) are close readings of Josephus’s careful navigation of Roman power. Turning to Paul, Barclay sees different themes. Paul wrote under Roman rule, but he occasionally touches on the Roman Empire, and usually only in passing. Barclay argues Paul was neither apolitical nor covertly anti-imperial (“Paul, Roman Religion and the Emperor: Mapping the Point of Conflict,” ch. 18). His critique of Rome is not based on Roman ideology but rather the focus of worship. Any worship not directed at the “living God” through Christ is not acceptable. Rome is simply “this evil age” and stands condemned “on the apocalyptic stage newly configured in the Christ-event” (33).

Barclay therefore argues the Roman Empire was more or less insignificant to Paul (ch. 19). In the final essay of the collection, Barclay interacts with N. T. Wright’s view that Paul’s theology was directly opposed to the Roman Empire. After a short review of the state of the question in scholarship, Barclay summarizes Wright’s major points (scattered throughout several publications). Wright emphasizes the pervasiveness of the imperial cult and he many echoes of imperial language in the Pauline letters (savior, Lord, salvation, gospel, etc.) From this, Wright concludes Paul’s message “could not but be construe as deeply counter imperial, as subversive to the whole edifice of the Roman Empire” (369). Barclay responds by “reframing the issues.” For example, with respect to vocabulary, Barclay wonders if Paul’s use of terms like salvation create an antithetical relationship between Christian salvation and imperial salvation. Certainly they might have been heard as anti-imperial, but for Barclay, this is different than Wright’s “must have been heard” (378). For Barclay Paul does not recognize any empire as an autonomous political system, all are doomed to destruction by the God who establishes kingdoms (385). If Paul’s Gospel is subversive, it is because he does not oppose the empire on their own terms. He does not attack Augustus as the savior because Rome “nevr was and never would be a significant actor in the drama of history;” Rome is reduced to “bit-part players in a drama scripted by the cross and resurrection of Jesus” (386-7).

Conclusion. Volumes of collected essays are always welcome since the draw together articles from often obscure journals or expensive volumes. By making this collection available in a less expensive volume, Eerdmans has provided scholars with a rich collection of stimulating essays on how early Christianity interacted with the Roman world.


NB: Thanks to Eerdmans for kindly providing me with a review copy of this book. This did not influence my thoughts regarding the work.