Monday, January 10, 2011

Sinners: Jesus and His Earliest Followers

Sinners: Jesus and His Earliest Followers. By Greg Carey. Waco, Tex: Baylor University Press, 2009, Pp. xiii + 221 pp., $29.95 paper.

Greg Carey, Professor of New Testament at Lancaster Theological Seminary, in Sinners: Jesus and his Earliest Followers, focuses on the way in which being perceived as people who are described as transgressing “conventional social norms,”, i.e., sinners—formed the identity of the earliest Christ-movement. Carey concerns himself with the way texts reflect and are complicit in the formation of identity. Furthermore, he concentrates on Christ-followers’ sub-group identity in contrast to other local expressions of social identity within the Roman Empire.

Chapter 1 reads Luke 7:36-50 in order to uncover what it means to be a sinner. Though recognizing the theological nature of the concept, Carey’s focus is on sin in the sociological sense. Thus, the sinful woman in Luke 7 may be described as one who does not conform “to some expectations of her particular cultural environment” (p. 14). This social-scientific understanding of sin draws on the concepts of deviance and labeling for its ideological legitimation. This conceptual framework allows Carey to introduce the idea of a “sinful identity” (p. 9). This identity, he argues, becomes a salient node in the identity hierarchy of the emerging Christ-movement.

Social memory plays a key part in the formation of Christ-movement identity. In chapter 2, Carey contends that Jesus is remembered as a friend of sinners, one who engages in table fellowship with those culturally identified as deviant. Moreover, Jesus’ acceptance of these individuals is complete, and Carey points out several times (e.g. pp. 27-29) that there is no evidence of Jesus calling individual sinners to repentance in those commensal settings.
In chapter 3, Carey rightly presents Jesus as one who did not violate Jewish purity laws; rather, he overcame impurity by God’s power. Furthermore, Carey correctly notes that “if Jesus actually violated the Torah, then most of his Jewish contemporaries would have seen him as a sinner” (p. 38). Jesus’ own purity concerns centered on the Pharisees. Their appeals to the “traditions of the elders” reveal an interpretive framework that Jesus did not share. However, Carey rightly notes that this disagreement with the Pharisees did not contribute to Jesus’ crucifixion (p. 52). Jesus’ earliest followers remembered him keeping Torah, and this contributed to the formation of early Christ-movement social identity.

Gender roles contribute significantly in the formation of social identity. In chapter 4, Carey uncovers, drawing from the resources of the emerging discipline of masculine studies, the way Jesus and Paul conformed to and transgressed accepted gender discourse. Both Jesus and Paul were rhetorically effective and thus demonstrated a key characteristic of masculinity during the Imperial period. However, both failed to establish a household, and neither contributed to public life or set out on a cursus honorum. Both endured suffering and engaged in manual labor; however, neither leveraged their power over others in a culturally expected manner. The way that the early Christ-movement remembered Jesus and Paul with regard to masculinity resulted in the development of a discursive tradition that critiqued Roman expectations of masculinity, though often in an asymmetrical manner.

Chapters 5 and 6 discuss the way the death of Jesus formed the identity of the Christ-movement. First, Carey argues that Jesus did not die on the cross as an innocent victim; rather he was crucified by the Romans because of sedition (p. 81). Jesus created a disturbance in Jerusalem during Passover week, and this led to an inevitable conflict with the ruling authorities, resulting in his death on the cross. The cross is central in the formation of Christ-movement social identity, but it was an event that required reinterpretation, since a crucified messiah would be understood as scandalous. Carey focuses on the social significance of the cross and argues that “the cross posed a major obstacle for early Christian self-definition” (p. 122). Between chapters 5 and 6, Carey provides theological reflections concerning the sinlessness of Jesus. His purpose is not “to refute the doctrine of Jesus’ sinlessness”; rather he suggests that scholars refer to Jesus’ “righteousness and faithfulness instead” (p. 98). He is not alone in his contention; he draws from and extends both Pannenberg and Bonhoeffer to buttress his case. The two primary areas where Carey has concerns with regard to speaking of Jesus’ sinlessness include: structural sin and moral growth (p. 100).

Chapters 7 and 8 focus on the way interaction with those outside the Christ-movement contributed to the formation of Christ-movement identity. First, Carey provides a survey of four canonical works that show various levels of social integration. The concern for respectability and deviance, both identity-forming factors, are central to understanding the way the earliest Christ-followers interacted with their environment, especially when there was a perception of imminent persecution. Second, Carey outlines the way pagan writers described the Christ-movement. He relies on the works of Suetonius (Claudius 25), Tacitus (Annales 15.44), and Pliny (Letters 10.96 and 10.97). After surveying these sources, Carey concludes that socially identifying with Christ was sufficient grounds for persecution. Thus, the fear of suffering and the potential for persecution contributed significantly to the formation of Christ-movement identity, even into the second century.

By way of assessment and in a review this size there is only room for a few critiques. First, with regard to the way identity is formed—it is not clear how these disparate remembrances coalesce into an identity for the Christ-movement. For example, the texts cited were written to various communities that may not have had any influence beyond their local settings during the first century. So, it may be better to describe these texts as complicit in the formation of local expressions of early Christ-movement identity. Second, Carey’s suggestion that a crucified messiah was a major obstacle for the formation of identity overlooks the fact that Paul never had to address the importance of Jesus’ death for Christ-followers’ identity, and there is a lack of evidence, in the first century, for any groups bifurcating the teachings of Jesus and the social significance of the cross. Jesus’ death could at least be interpreted outside the Christ-movement as vicarious or within the noble death tradition (cf. Epictetus Disc. 4.1.168-69; Seneca Ep. 24.6). For more on this topic, see Jerry Sumney’s essay, “‘Christ died for us’: Interpretation of Jesus’ Death as a Central Element of the Identity of the Earliest Church,” in Kathy Ehrensperger and J. Brian Tucker (eds.), Reading Paul in Context: Explorations in Identity Formation (London: T&T Clark, 2010), pp. 147-72. Third, with regard to the sinlessness of Jesus, Carey lists the four scriptures (Heb. 4:15; 2 Cor. 5:21; 1 Pet. 2:22; 1 John 3:5) that have provided the exegetical substantiation for this teaching; however, though he does not wish to overturn the doctrine of Christ’s sinlessness, his suggested reinterpretation requires further interaction with these verses (e.g. he could provide a social identity approach reading to these verses, which would enhance his argument). Fourth, Carey is right to point out the way being a sinner contributes to the formation of Christ-movement social identity; however, it may equally be appropriate to suggest that there is more to the calculus than simply socially identifying oneself as a sinner. It may be, as in Luther’s description of those who follow Christ as simul justus et peccator (“at the same time justified and a sinner”), that the formation of Christ-movement social identity happens in the internal-external dialectic between the ways in which one’s previous identities continue in a transformed manner in Christ (1 Cor. 7:17-24).

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