Did Paul’s letters create a distinct ‘Christian’ identity? Furthermore, was early ‘Christian’ identity created or construed? These questions address important issues that separate two key approaches to the study of identity within New Testament scholarship. Those focusing on construal (Bengt Holmberg and Ben Meyer) argue that Paul simply interpreted an already-existing Christian identity and thus focused on self-definition or self-understanding not identity. A second group (Judith Lieu and Hans Leander) argues that Paul created Christian identity through his discursive agency and that there was no prior essential Christian social identity. This paper offers an assessment of Holmberg’s critique of Philip Esler and William S. Campbell and contends that a prior event began the process of identity formation; however, its ongoing concrete expression or creation was accomplished through Paul’s discursive agency (i.e. primarily his letter writing). Thus, this approach cuts a middle path between the construed or created binary formulations and concludes that Holmberg’s assessment of Campbell and Esler is unconvincing and that aspects of his argument are better suited for a critique of Lieu and Leander.
Before I look at Paul’s role in the creation of identity, I should briefly address a recent issue raised by David Horrell and restated by many of the contributors in the recent After the First Urban Christians (Horrell (2009: 9); Adams (2009: 77n.24); Still (2009: 79n.1)) that questions the usefulness and ‘validity’ of phrases like: ‘Pauline community’, ‘Pauline church’, and ‘paulinische Gemeinde’. The issue is further broadened to include doubts about whether the recipients of Paul’s letters ‘can in any sense be meaningfully labelled “Pauline”’ (Horrell 2008: 188). Horrell rightly recognizes the influence of other leaders in Corinth (e.g. Apollos and Cephas) without positing a ‘separate Petrine community down the road’. Also, he is correct in claiming that the communal life that had developed in Corinth did ‘not correspond’ to ‘Paul’s ideal’ for this assembly and that ‘competing and conflicting perspectives’ were evident (Horrell 2008: 193-95). Thus, Horrell concludes that ‘there is no clear justification for speaking of “Pauline churches”, or at least, not without heavily qualifying what that might mean’(Horrell 2008: 203).
By way of assessment, first, Horrell overstates the accepted view of the sectarian nature of the Christ-movement (Campbell 2008: 46-48). Very few scholars would contend that the Pauline communities were monolithic in their cultural expressions of the Christ-movement. Furthermore, Paul’s rule in 1 Cor 7.17-24, that in all the assemblies, Christ-followers are to remain in the situation in which they were called, if applied, would result in the kind of diversity that Horrell points out (Horrell 2008: 193). Horrell’s expectation of ideological and theological unanimity in the Pauline community does not cohere with Paul’s teaching, e.g. in Romans 14.5, that ‘each one should be fully convinced in his own mind’ and Romans 15:7, ‘Therefore welcome one another as Christ has welcomed you, for the glory of God’. Horrell’s reduction of a contextualized, discernible, Pauline ethos, if accepted, reinforces his view of the early emergence of a predominant ‘Christian’ identity (Horrell 2008: 203). Here Horrell’s universalistic approach to Christian identity comes to the fore. Evidence of diversity within Paul’s letters should not be seen as prima facie evidence that Paul’s letters were not foundational in the formation of unique, local expressions of Christ-movement social identity.
2008 Paul and the Creation of Christian Identity (London: T&T Clark).
2009 ‘Whither Social-Scientific Approaches to New Testament Interpretation? Reflections on Contested Methodologies and the Future’, in Still and Horrell (eds.) 2009: 6-20.
2008 ‘Pauline Churches or Early Christian Churches? Unity, Disagreement, and the Eucharist’, in A. Alexeev et al., (eds.) Einheit der Kirche im Neuen Testament (WUNT, 218; Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck).
Still, T. and D. Horrell (eds.)
2009 After the First Urban Christians: The Social Scientific Study of Pauline Christianity Twenty-Five Years Later (New York and London: T&T Clark).