Thomas R. Blanton, IV. A Spiritual Economy: Gift Exchange in the Letters of Paul of Tarsus. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2017
Several monographs have recently emerged on the language of gifts and gift exchange in the letters of Paul. John Barclay, David Briones, and now Thomas R. Blanton IV have written on this topic in the last few years. All these scholars acknowledge in the letters of Paul the prevalence of financial language and the applicability of a gift exchange framework for approaching popular questions in Pauline studies. Furthermore, they understand that Paul worked within a context in which both human and divine participated in gift exchange.
Blanton’s contribution offers a strong theoretical grounding in multidisciplinary work in gift exchange, engaging with Jacques Derrida, Marcel Mauss, Pierre Bourdieu, James Carrier, Gretchen Herrmann, Carole Crumley, and others, as well as a broad engagement with language of gift exchange throughout the letters of Paul. Blanton’s self-stated aims are “(1) to delineate the characteristics of the “economy” of gift exchange evident in the letters of the first-century Jewish evangelist Paul of Tarsus; and (2) to make use of Paul’s letters as a heuristic device through which to clarify and elaborate issues not yet raised in previous studies of gift exchange.” (p. 5) Blanton compares language of gift exchange in Paul with contemporaneous texts from Seneca the Younger, Pliny the Elder, and others.
The book is divided into six main body chapters. After an introduction, chapter two, “Symbolic Goods as Media of Exchange in Paul’s Gift Economy,” uses Bourdieu’s notion of the economy of symbolic goods alongside Seneca the Younger’s De beneficiis to explore conventions of divine-human gift exchange in the letters of Paul. In a series of test cases, Blanton describes an “economy of symbolic goods operative within early Christian assemblies.” (p. 18) Examining Paul’s financial solicitation for Christ assemblies in Romans 15 and 2 Corinthians 9, Paul’s acknowledgment of financial support in Philippians, and discussions of Onesimus’s labor in Philemon, Blanton notes that Paul uses language of reciprocal exchange to value not only material goods and labor but also symbolic goods.
Chapter three, “The Benefactor’s Account Book; The Rhetoric of Gift Reciprocation According to Seneca and Paul,” surveys disjunctions between Seneca and Paul on expectations and reminders of repayment. While Seneca describes a “good man” as one who, unlike a banker, gives without keeping a tally, Paul, in the letter to Philemon, does the opposite, drawing attention to gifts given using language of obligation (Philemon 17-19). Blanton ascribes these differences to differing economic locations: Seneca’s wealthy equestrian status versus Paul’s lower status on the economic scale. “Paul literally could not afford to engage in such [lavish gift-giving] practices.” (p. 35)
In chapter four, “Gift or Commodity? On the Classification of Paul’s Unremunerated Labor,” Blanton considers the distinctions between gift and commodity in Mauss, Carrier, and Herrmann to consider apostolic labor in the letters of Paul. The apparent contradictions over whether Paul receives, or is entitled to receive, remuneration for his work promulgating the gospel, have long fascinated scholars. Blanton offers a reading of 1 Corinthians 9 in which Paul “cannily leaves it to his audience to classify his apostolic labor: whether as a market transaction to which Paul had the ‘right’ to remuneration, or as a gift, which, according to prevailing social norms, required that a countergift be offered in return.” (p. 55)
Blanton explores the role that gift-giving plays in both forming and dividing social ties in chapter five, “Classification and Social Relations: The Dark Side of the Gift.” Blanton continues his reading of the Corinthian correspondence, describing the ways in which the ambiguities of gift exchange require classification to strengthen rather than destabilize social relations. Some of the conflicts that arose between Paul and the Corinthian assemblies, Blanton argues, are legible as gift exchange gone awry.
Chapter six, “The Gift of Status,” explores the relationship between gift exchange and social status. Reading the letters of Paul alongside the letters of Pliny the elder, Blanton considers the ways in which Paul hierarchizes social space using language of gifts, especially in 1 Corinthians 12. 1 Corinthians 12, in which Paul addresses the topic of gifts distributed by the spirit and corresponding roles within the assembly, is a key text for understanding divine involvement in gift exchange. While scholars in other fields have observed the ways in which increased status comes about as an effect of the gift, Blanton notes that in the letters of Paul, sometimes status is itself the gift. Here, Blanton contributes to broader multidisciplinary conversations about gift exchange.
In chapter seven, “Spiritual Gifts and Status Inversion,” Blanton critiques and refines Wayne Meek’s arguments about status inconsistency by enlisting Carole Crumley’s notion of “heterarchy,” an expansive term which encompasses patterns of ranking social relationships that can be, but are not necessarily, hierarchical. Blanton concludes that “Paul crafts discourses that seek to invert systems of rank that tended to disadvantage him in relation to other influential agents within the assembly.” (p. 107) This opens up possibilities for scholars to consider the presence and influence markers of social status, such as wealth, alongside markers of theological status, such as divine gifts, in the early Christ-following communities.
A Spiritual Economy richly contributes to recent scholarly conversations about gift exchange in the letters of Paul. This conversation is especially important because the language of gifts in the letters of Paul has a long afterlife. Christian and especially protestant theology has emphasized the importance of the term charis, or gift, frequently translated as “grace,” as central to human salvation through divine charis. This is due in no small part to the frequent use of the term in Romans, and the importance of that letter in Protestant exegesis, especially Martin Luther’s commentary on the letter. Blanton, by situating this language from Paul’s letters in broader studies of gift exchange, reminds us that “free gifts” are never actually free but rather a part of complex social systems which involve reciprocity and response.
Blanton also helpfully acknowledges the difficulty of using elite sources such as Seneca to try to understand gift exchange in the letters of Paul, whose senders and recipients were members of the 99%. However Blanton’s claim that “Paul cannot afford” the type of profligate generosity without thought for reciprocity that we find in Seneca runs the risk of cutting off the possibility of generosity and vibrant participation in gift exchange systems within non-elite communities. The poor, too, participated in complex systems of gift-giving as we learn in 2 Corinthians 8. In this passage, Paul writes about assemblies of Christ-followers in Macedonia who found ways to give even when the giving hurt. In Philippi, for example, we find gifts as small as a few denarii recorded on rock-cut reliefs, given to support a sanctuary to Silvanus at the beginning of the second century CE. Elite sources such as Seneca elucidate elite conventions of gift exchange and benefaction, but only bear witness to one part of a larger system.
A Spiritual Economy is a helpful addition to recent studies in gifts in the letters of Paul, and its multidisciplinary engagement contributes to the study of religion in antiquity and to broader conversations in history, sociology, and anthropology about gift exchange.
 Blanton cites Bourdieu’s Practical Reason, 92-123 and 124-126.
Jennifer Quigley has a ThD in New Testament and early Christianity from Harvard Divinity School. Beginning fall 2018, she will be Assistant Professor of New Testament and early Christian Studies and Louisville Postdoctoral Fellow at Drew University Theological School. Contact her at email@example.com.