Monday, January 9, 2012

Initial Thoughts on Sergio Nebreda's Christ Identity

Sergio Rosell Nebreda, Christ Identity: A Social-Scientific Reading of Philippians 2.5-11. Göttingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 2011. ISBN 9783525532546 $138.

Sergio Rosell Nebreda, Professor of Sacred Scripture, Seminario Evangélico Unido de Teología, claims that Paul desires to form the social identity of the Christ-followers in Philippi on the basis of the Christ-hymn in Philippians 2:5-11. He suggests a new approach to Philippians 2:6-11, one that focuses “on its function as a vehicle for social communication, part and parcel of its social milieu, but aiming at transforming the Christ-following community, in search for an identity which ultimately derives from Jesus the Christ as described in the hymn” (Nebreda 2011: 27). Nebreda’s goal for his study “is to assess the apostle’s implicit strategies as well as to recognise his aims of creating a social identity based on Christ-orientation as displayed in Phil 2.6-11, which Paul himself affirms he follows (3.12-13)” (Nebreda 2011: 28). He sees “self-giving and self-humiliation as a paradigm of Christ-like identity” and this serves as a competing social identification to one that “was based on privilege and the search for honour” (Nebreda 2011: 28).

Nebreda begins by providing a thorough description of Tajfel and Turner’s social identity theory, which lays the foundation for his approach to identity formation. Next he provides an anthropological and sociological analysis of the Mediterranean basin in the first century. Here the influence of the Context Group is evident. Following this analysis, he provides a low-level abstraction of Philippi as a Roman colony and delineates a model of romanisation. Chapter 5 uncovers Paul’s identity with regard to suffering and slavery. In doing this, he brings to the fore ancient viewpoints concerning suffering and slavery. What emerges from this discussion is the centrality of suffering to Paul’s mission and identity. This reinforces the alternative nature of the Christ-like identity. The next chapter addresses key scholarly issues related to Philippians and specifically the hymn itself. The final chapter provides a thorough analysis of Philippians 2:5-11 and the way it functions in the formation of a distinct social identity in contrast to first century Mediterranean society. For Nebreda, the central point of contention is the differing social conceptions of “humility” (tapeinophrosunē) (Phil. 2:3). While, this final chapter is the primary one that focuses on the text in question, this is appropriate in that Nebreda’s primary concern is with the way “the community that received the letter would have understood the apostle’s words” (Nebreda 2011: 33).

Nebreda’s approach to identity formation emphasizes an element of discontinuity. The Christ-like identity is formed in contrast to existing cultural identities (but not completely so, see (Nebreda 2011: 345) and his recognition of a discourse of comparison). For example, he concludes that “this Christ-identity Paul proposes is based on the Christ-event, the narrative that gives birth to a new people no longer defined in ethnic origin or social merit terms” (Nebreda 2011: 344). I would suggest rather no new people are being birthed and that the Christ-movement is described in the context of their existing ethnic and social identities (Tucker 2011: 62-88). Nebreda’s stance is based on his reading of Philippians 3:5-8 and the way it seems to call into question any meaningful continuation of Paul’s Jewish identity. What I find interesting is his use of William S. Campbell’s approach. Nebreda, while recognizing Campbell’s view of the “relativization of all things in Christ” (Campbell 2008: 89), seems to not fully integrate an equally important point from Campbell, that Paul cannot serve as a model for gentile identity in Christ. Nebreda (2011: 345) quotes Campbell in order to support the view that in Philippians 3:5-8, Paul’s past in Judaism is negated and that Paul serves as a model for both Jews and gentiles in Christ. Campbell’s specific claims move in the opposite direction: (1) Paul continues to be Torah-observant and within the boundaries of Judaism; and (2) Paul does not serve as a good model for gentiles in Christ. Campbell concludes, “Paul is the paradigm for Jewish Christ-identity but not for gentile” (Campbell 2008: 156). As an intercultural mediator, Paul’s approach to identity formation builds on existing identity nodes, rather than subverting these, this is one area where I would like to see Nebreda’s work developed further. This small difference aside, Nebreda’s monograph is an important and useful work that advances the way social identity theory may be applied to Paul’s letters and his emphasis on the centrality of suffering in the formation of Christ-movement social identity echoes the fine work of Kar Yong Lim, Lecturer in New Testament Studies, Director of Postgraduate Studies, Seminari Theoloji Malaysia, Seremban, Malaysia and deserves further attention by New Testament scholars.


Campbell, William S. Paul and the Creation of Christian Identity. London: T & T Clark, 2008.

Lim, Kar Yong. "The Sufferings of Christ Are Abundant in Us" (2 Corinthians 1:5) A Narrative-Dynamics Investigation of Paul's Sufferings in 2 Corinthians. London: T & T Clark, 2009.

Tucker, J. Brian. Remain in Your Calling: Paul and the Continuation of Social Identities in 1 Corinthians. Eugene: Pickwick Publications, 2011.

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