Thursday, August 20, 2009

Halvor Moxnes: The Cultural Identity of the Christ-movement

The formation of early Christ-movement identity emerged within the nexus of Judaism and the broader Roman world. How this occurred is one of the chief research interests in the work of Halvor Moxnes who focuses primarily on ‘the cultural stuff’ of the earliest Christ-movement (2005: 266-67). Moxnes understands ‘ethnicity and the formation of boundaries’ as ‘integral’ to ‘the cultural assumptions’ of ‘early Christian writers’, as well as ‘family and kinship relations’ (267-68). This implies that passages traditionally understood as containing significant abstract doctrinal content are to be reinterpreted as focusing on the concrete dimensions of ‘identity formation’ (268). Moxnes may be over-reaching here. There is a tendency to ‘downplay’ the theological content of the New Testament writings in favour of other preferred readings; however, the concept of theologizing provides a better corrective than the almost complete dismissal of theological content. Campbell notes concerning the theologizing of Paul: it ‘is an activity rather than simply an acquired mode of thought…and ongoing and dynamic process’ (2006: 159). Paul is empowering his audience to live together in community; his theologizing is his primary means to form the identity of his communities. Moxnes’ otherwise fine approach may be too bold on this point.

Moxnes argues that one can ‘read Paul’s letters as attempts to create and maintain an identity for the new and emerging groups that were established through his and others’ missions’ (2005: 271). This reading, according to Moxnes, foregrounds the presence of boundary marking language and ‘descent and consent language in the construction of [that] identity’ (270). Moxnes’ work emphasizes the importance of ritual in forming identity and understands baptism as a boundary crossing event within the Pauline communities that is informed by consent and descent language (Gal 3:27-29). Though Moxnes’ work recognizes that previous identity is not obliterated, his approach subsumes it too much under the new identity which resulted from ‘putting on Christ’ (273). Moxnes argument is weakened if one considers 1 Cor 12:13 in which the gender binary is missing. His argument for Abraham as the focus of identity, while evident in Romans, is understood differently in Galatians and is missing from 1 Cor. It does not follow, however, that Paul is not inventing a field of descent for his communities that is directly related to Judaism. He clearly does this.

Moxnes understands Paul’s identity forming strategy in 1 Cor as the establishment of a social identity ‘within the daily life and social contacts of a Greco-Roman city’ (2005: 276; Moxnes 2003: 3-29). Paul’s boundary marking in 1 Cor, according to Moxnes, is pre-eminently applied to the body (2008: 168-71; see 1 Cor 5; 6:12-20; 10:20-22; 12). The body becomes the focal point for identity formation both individually and corporately, Moxnes’ concludes ‘his [males in Corinth] body tells him that his identity is always determined by his relationships’ (2008: 171). Moxnes’ research in 1 Cor 6 is a stark reminder of the cultural distance between contemporary interpreters and first century Christ-followers and he provides an important corrective concerning the processual nature of ‘the construction and maintenance of boundaries’ in identity formation (2005: 279; 2008: 168). He also doubts the general usefulness of Paul’s letters in developing an ethical framework for contemporary society, except within ‘the form of a dialogue with Paul, rather than a normative application of his specific views’ (2005: 281). While I am in agreement with Moxnes that Paul was writing in order to form the social identity of his communities, it does not follow that one cannot hope to apply Paul’s teaching in contemporary society. Moxnes conception of New Testament Theology may be too stark on this point and my research seeks to combine the identity and theological understanding of Paul into a coherent whole.

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

Holmberg, B., and Winninge, M. (eds.) 2008 Identity Formation in the New Testament (WUNT, 227; Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck).

Moxnes, H. 2003 ‘Asceticism and Christian Identity in Antiquity: A Dialogue with Foucault and Paul’, JSNT 26.1: 3-29.

2005 ‘From Theology to Identity: The Problem of Constructing Early Christianity’, in T. Penner and C. Vander Stichele (eds.) 2005: 264-281.

2008 ‘Body, Gender, and Social Space’, in B. Holmberg and M. Winninge (eds.) 2008: 163-81.

Penner, T. and C. Vander Stichele (eds.) 2005 Moving Beyond New Testament Theology?: Essays in Conversation with Heikki Räisänen (Helsinki: Finnish Exegetical Society).

No comments: