Wednesday, July 15, 2009
Richard Hays and Identity Formation in 1 Corinthians
This review only looks at Hays' work in his commentary. I will address Conversion of the Imagination in a later posting.
Richard Hays understands Paul’s letters to be forming identity within their recipients (1997: 17). He approaches Paul within the framework that emphasizes universal Christian identity (123-24, 133). Hays, however, sources Christian identity in the legacy of Israel, for example regarding 1 Cor 1:19 and 1:31, the Corinthians should ‘understand themselves within the larger story of God’s dealing with Israel’ (38-39). Thus Hays rightly affirms the preeminence afforded Israel while at the same time emphasizing ‘Paul’s break with his past understanding of Judaism’, especially in relation to ‘identity-marking features of the Law’ (176). Here he overstates the evidence of Paul’s break with his past understanding of Judaism and if Jewish identity is no longer relevant for Christian identity, then Christian identity is eviscerated of its core – Jewish identity expressed through the Jewish Scriptures.
The universalizing tendency of Hays work is evident in his emphasis on baptism and the transcendence of ethnic and gender distinctions (99-100, 123). He understands Paul to be envisioning ‘the church as a community that transcended ethnic boundaries in order to unite Jew and Gentile as one new people serving one God’ (124). He refers to these distinctions as ‘adiaphora: matters that fundamentally make no difference’; however, later he argues ‘our identity is bound up inextricably with our bodily existence’ (123, 133, 278). One is hard pressed to see how Hays can argue that this new identity is not interested in bodily categories such as ethnicity and gender and then later argue that identity is a bodily phenomenon. These critiques aside, Hays’ work provides a compelling argument for the usefulness of identity as an interpretive tool for understanding Paul. His emphasis on the communal aspects, while not downplaying the individual components of identity provides a needed balance within Pauline studies (20, 45, 91). Also, his insistence on hearing Paul’s argument within the story of Israel is central to my general approach to identity formation in Paul, though the application and inferences drawn from that story will differ in some cases. Finally, Hays has correctly discerned the function of 1 Cor 1-4 in relation to the identity formation that is to occur in the rest of the letter: ‘In the chapters that follow, he will seek to build on the foundation of these opening chapters in a way that will decisively reshape the community’s understanding of its identity in Christ – and, therefore, its behavior’ (76).
Hays, Richard B. First Corinthians. Interpretation, a Bible commentary for teaching and preaching. Louisville, Ky: John Knox Press, 1997.