Friday, July 17, 2009

John M. G. Barclay and the Irrelevance of Ethnic Identity

John M. G. Barclay understands Paul’s mission to be ‘the creation of communities in which “there is neither Jew nor Greek” (Gal 3:28)’. Social identity is no longer central; ‘in the context of their new community’, Barclay remarks, ‘the ethnic identity of Paul’s converts was simply irrelevant’ (1996: 385). Paul is understood as an anomalous Jew who does not seek to assimilate into the broader Hellenistic culture as did Aristeas or Philo, who possessed a ‘strongly antagonistic cultural stance’ (388) while at the same time being ‘highly assimilated Jews’ (387; see Gruen 2002: 105). Paul’s mission emerges from an apocalyptic framework, one in which Paul does not care ‘if his churches are vindicated in the historical and political realm’ (Barclay 1996: 393). Thus, two vital aspects of Barclay’s work should be acknowledged: while arguing that Paul is still committed to a Jewish ethos with regard to the broader culture the same does not apply to life within the Christ-movement (388). One wonders if it is possible for both of these scenarios to be accurate. Second, if the political realm is not a concern for Paul, then obviously, the Roman empire is quite insignificant for Paul, as well. Barclay provides a theological reading of Paul, who defines ‘Christian’ identity against Judaism. Thus, he concludes that those within the Christ-movement ‘both Jews and Gentiles’ are ‘defined not by the law but by their shared allegiance to Christ’ (393). The difficulty is not with this aspect of Barclay’s construction; it is just not clear why Barclay, on the one hand, understands Paul to be defending ‘the right of law-observant Christians to attend synagogue’ (385) but then seeks ‘a radical redefinition of traditional categories’ (388). Though Barclay understands Paul to be anomalous, he actually turns out to be incoherent and confused in Barclay’s reconstruction. Barclay’s strength is in his reflection on the role of Jewish Diaspora identity in general (2007: 112) although he does not provide a coherent picture of Paul’s identity within the context of his mission (Campbell 2006: 88).
So, is Barclay on to something? Is ethinc identity irrelevant within the Christ-movement?

Barclay, J.M.G., and S.J. Gathercole (eds.). Divine and Human Agency in Paul and His Cultural Environment (London: T&T Clark, 2006).
Barclay, J.M.G. Jews in the Mediterranean Diaspora: From Alexander to Trajan (323 BCE - 117 CE) (Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1996).
Barclay, J.M.G. ‘Constructing Judean Identity after 70 CE: A Study of Josephus’s Against Apion’, in Crook and Harland (eds.) 2007: 99-112.
Campbell, W.S. Paul and the Creation of Christian Identity (LNTS, 322; London; T&T Clark, 2006).
Crook, Z.A., and P.A. Harland (eds.). Identity and Interaction in the Ancient Mediterranean: Jews, Christians and Others (New Testament monographs, 18; Sheffield: Sheffield Phoenix Press, 2007).
Gruen, E.S. Diaspora Jews Amidst Greeks and Romans (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2002).

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