Friday, August 28, 2009

Edward Adams: Construction of Worlds and Group Boundaries

Edward Adams employs sociological, anthropological, and linguistic methods combined with traditional historical critical methods to focus on the way Paul’s discourse constructs the social world of its recipients. He notes that Paul’s letters ‘shape every aspect of their members’ social experience: the social identity, social relations, attitudes and modes of behaviour’ and that ‘language in various modes of discourse’ may ‘create, maintain, and change social identity’ (2000: 24-25). With regard to these two methodological commitments, I follow Adams’ approach. The social situation in Corinth is addressed, building on the work of Mary Douglas, in the context of weak group boundaries; he notes ‘strong group boundaries go hand in hand with strong group identity and group solidarity’ and ‘the lack of cohesion in the Corinthian church suggest porous boundaries’ (98). For Adams, Paul is seeking ‘to build up the boundaries…to engender in the congregation a clearer sense of its distinctive religious, moral, and social identity’ (102-3). While I am in significant agreement with Adams, especially with regard to the apocalyptic approach of Paul (169), it appears that the Corinthian Christ-followers actually had a strong sense of social identity with regard to the broader culture and thus the boundary marking that needed to occur was internal more than external, though it does not exclude the other option (211).

With regard to the emergence of Christ-movement identity in general, Adams builds on Barclay arguing that gentile converts ‘would have suffered a considerable loss of social identity’ (2000: 222). This understanding of the social situation in Galatia leads Adams to helpfully incorporate the research of Tajfel to understand the situation (223); my work seeks to apply the social identity framework to the situation in Corinth in order to understand how the social implications of the gospel were experienced in a setting quite different from Galatia or Rome. Tajfel and Turner’s work have been applied to Romans and Galatians by Esler (1998, 2003) because of the presence of ethnic issues in those letters; however, Tajfel and Turner may be used more broadly to address issues of social identity, of which ethnicity is but one component. Marohl has applied this to Hebrews because of the presence of ‘intergroup comparison’ in that letter (2008: 80).


Adams, E. 2000 Constructing the World A Study in Paul’s Cosmological Language. (SNTW; Edinburgh: T&T Clark).

Esler, P.F. 1998 Galatians (New Testament Readings; London: Routledge).

Esler, P.F. 2003 Conflict and Identity in Romans: The Social Setting of Paul’s Letter (Minneapolis: Fortress Press).

Marohl, M.J. 2007 Faithfulness and the Purpose of Hebrews: A Social Identity Approach (PrTMS, Eugene, OR: Pickwick Publications).

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