Sunday, August 16, 2009

Denise Kimber Buell: Ethnic Reasoning

Ethnic reasoning and the dynamic interaction between fixity and fluidity are central elements of the identity forming program of the early ‘church’. Denise Kimber Buell, while writing primarily about the later first through early third centuries, argues that early Christian texts used ethnic categories in forming their identity. It should be noted that most of the texts studied by Buell are from an era later than 1 Corinthians (my area of research). However, from a methodological standpoint much of her framework may be applied to the earliest Pauline communities throughout the Roman empire, as long as one does not read back into Paul’s writings the ethnic argumentation of later writers. Ethnic reasoning is a discursive strategy within early texts which defines ‘ethnicity through religious practices, viewing ethnicity as mutable even if “real”, universalizing ethnicity and religion, and using ethnic ideas as polemic’ (Buell 2005: 33). Buell understands these later authors to be arguing for a universalistic ‘Christian’ identity. In her earlier writing, she contends that ‘being in Christ’ does not ‘eliminate the other various measures of identity – Judean, Greek, slave, free, male, and female’ (Buell and Hodge 2004: 248). While this appears to argue for the existence of particularistic identity, later she concludes ‘that Paul does’ not ‘envision a new people, distinct from Israel’ (2004: 249). The tension resulting from the application of fixity and fluidity is central to Buell’s work.

Buell’s concept of identity formation occurring on the borders of fluidity and fixity is both a help and a hindrance. She argues that certain boundaries are fixed but that these boundaries may be ritually redrawn or discursively rendered culturally insignificant (2005: 7-10). In this way she has rightly considered the complex interrelationship between the essentialist and constructionist positions of identity formation. There are a few weaknesses with this approach. First, it is not clear what mechanisms trigger the border crossing between fixity and fluidity and what distinguishes identity from other culturally defined categories, such as religion (but see Buell 2005: 10). Second, this framework assumes a type of strategic essentialism while rejecting the possibility of hybrid identity as a viable option to the fluidity and fixity framework.

Buell’s approach seeks to problematize identity concepts based primarily on ethnicity; in this, her work diverges from that of Campbell in two ways. First, she questions readings in which ‘ethnicity is a given, biological category’ (2005: 12) whereas Campbell argues for ‘the continuing importance of primordial dimensions of ethnicity’ (2006: 4). Second, she argues ‘that interpretive frameworks that implicitly or explicitly make race or ethnicity a primary site of difference between Jewishness and Christianness in the ancient world will continue to produce a harmful paradox’ (2005: 12). One could, however, simply argue for a particularistic understanding of early Christ-movement identity in which ethnicity is not obliterated but transformed. Early Christ-movement identity does not need Judaism as a foil or as the object against which to define itself. Ehrensperger notes ‘the interpretation of Scriptures is a crucial issue that we must address in the process of reformulating Christian identity without anti-Judaism’ (2004: 18). This is exactly what Campbell seeks to accomplish; in other words, the recognition of an ethnic component in the formation of early Christ-movement identity does not necessarily have to lead to an ethnoracial universalism such as Buell reconstructs but simply implies that Jews relate to God as Jews while gentiles relate to God as gentiles (Campbell 2006: 127).


Buell, D.K. 2005 Why This New Race: Ethnic Reasoning in Early Christianity (Gender, Theory, and Religion; New York: Columbia University Press).

Buell, D.K. and C.J. Hodge 2004 ‘The Politics of Interpretation: The Rhetoric of Race and Ethnicity in Paul’, JBL 123: 235-251.

Campbell, W.S. 2006 Paul and the Creation of Christian Identity (LNTS, 322; London; T&T Clark).

Ehrensperger, K. 2007 Paul and the Dynamics of Power (LNTS, 325; New York: T&T Clark).

No comments: