Saturday, August 7, 2010

Reading Ephesians, Part 1

Reading Ephesians: exploring social entrepreneurship in the text

by Minna Shkul, London/New York, Clark, Library of New Testament Studies 408, 2009, xiv + 279 pp., pound65.00 (hardback), ISBN 0-567-28777-7

This monograph is a slightly revised version of a 2007 PhD thesis from the University of Sheffield. Minna Shkul, currently a Research Fellow in the Explaining Early Jewish and Christian Movements: Ritual, Memory and Identity Project, based at the Helsinki Collegium for Advanced Studies in Finland, provides a sustained social-scientific reading of the Deutero-Pauline Ephesians, exploring its ideological manoeuvres, and the way it discursively constructs a distinctive Christianness for this non-Israelite Christ-following community in the post-apostolic era.

Chapter 1 orients the reader to Shkul's authorial position; she contends existing Ephesians scholarship has overlooked the level of identity negotiation and group-oriented processes evident in the text, in favour of historical reconstructions that have little if any basis in it. The way to make the negotiation of identity evident is through the heuristic device of social entrepreneurship, which deals with the way the discourse positions its readers, and the social values and processes it uses to accomplish its ideological and rhetorical ends (12). This rhetorical negotiation of identity will occur, not by seeking the 'world behind the text', but by identifying the various ways the text seeks to form identity by developing a legitimating discourse that provides the necessary ideological justification for the continued existence of this non-Israelite Christ-following community within the last part of the first century. The introduction argues that key aspects of Tajfel and Turner's social identity theory, as expanded through the work of Richard Jenkins, are evident in Eph 1 and thus provide warrant in continuing a social-scientific analysis of the Ephesians discourse. Being 'in Christ', as seen in Eph 1:3-14, provides the affective element (e.g. self-enhancement) necessary for the formation of social identity. Shkul sees the community positioned within the Jewish symbolic universe in a manner that transforms it to include room for Jesus the messiah and those who have been chosen to follow him. Thus, the community now has discursive models by which they may live separately from the broader Roman world, and an ideological justification for their existence as an identifiable sub-group, with its own cultural-discourse. The identity of God's people is now defined by being 'in Christ', and this new social identification questions the uniqueness of ethnic Israel's election and calling.

Chapter 2 provides Shkul's theoretical framework for reading the way Jesus in Eph 2:1-11, and Paul in 3:1-13, are remembered - readings that occur in chapters 3 and 4. Chapter 2 begins by continuing to critique Yee's work, especially in regard to his ideological construction of Judaism, and Gombis' binary construction of the law as God's enemy. She highlights Zetterholm's insightful work with regard to the emergence of the Christ-movement from Judaism, while Esler and Nanos provide further orientation with regard to the continuation of sub-group identities. Shkul's framework focuses primarily on communal legitimation and social memory. The discursive justification of the non-Israelite Christ-following sub-group's existence is a central ideological concern for Ephesians. Halbwachs' collective memory approach and the social context in which memory is recalled provide further complexity to Shkul's social entrepreneurship reading framework. This is also supported by a consideration of the way invented traditions and reputational discourse exert social influence in a text. Finally, the social constructionist and social memory framework is supported by insights from cultural theory and literary criticism. The focus in the former is that key material may have been left out, while the latter brings to the fore the work of Wolfgang Iser and the potential positions from which a text is interpreted, a perspective known as the 'wandering viewpoint' (78). Shkul provides a complex theoretical framework from which to discern discourses of communal legitimation, behavioural models, and identity negotiation nodes evident in a text.

This is the first part of my review of this book, you can read the entire review at: Review of Minna Shkul, Reading Ephesians: Exploring Social Entrepreneurship in the Text. (London: T & T Clark, 2009). Journal of Beliefs and Values, 31.2 (August 2010): 238-41.

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