Walking in Their Sandals: A Guide to First-Century Israelite Ethnic Identity. By Markus Cromhout. Eugene: Cascade Books, 2010. Pp. xvi +128. Paper, $18.00.
Chapter 1 sets out Markus Cromhout’s general model of ethnicity. He contends “that the ‘House of Israel’ as it existed in the first century must be understood and approached as an ethnic identity, not as a form of ‘religion’” (p. 1). Contemporary ethnicity theory informs this book, with Richard Jenkins, Dennis Duling, and Philip Esler serving as key guides in Cromhout’s proposed hybrid theological and social-scientific ethnicity model (pp. 7, 24, 35). He also, surprisingly, sees a distinctive primordial element to Israelite identity in the first century—an element that Paul opposed (pp. 28, 84). Cromhout’s model views ethnicity as (1) a form of social identity, (2) requiring processes of socialization, (3) communicating similarity and difference, (4) relying on cultural context, (5) fixed or fluid depending on setting, and (6) resulting from a dialectic between collectivistic and individualistic discourses.
Chapter 2 provides a description of Cromhout’s model applied to first century Israelite ethnic identity and filtered through the findings of the New Perspective on Paul (NPP). He begins by describing the Israelite symbolic universe, which includes ordering principles such as kinship, honor and shame, and patronage. Other components include the legitimation of epistemic concerns, a land-focused interpretation of history, and societal ordering structures such as purity and hierarchy, the latter reified by circumcision (p. 54). Protection for this symbolic universe was provided through the framework of “deviance, diagnosis, and cure” (p. 57). These discursive resources drew from Israel’s scriptural tradition, while relying on collective memory to address communal issues in the present. Cromhout then explains the way his socio-cultural model of Israelite ethnicity works as it interacts with Israel’s symbolic universe (p. 64). The results are an eco-system of ethnicity encircled by a sacred canopy and a habitus that approximate the debated knowledge and values of Israel’s ethnic identity.
Chapter 3 discusses ethnicity and Paul through the lens of the NPP. Cromhout follows Dunn with regard to covenantal nomism, the boundary function of the law, the creation of a new inclusive ethnos, and the social dimension of Paul’s argument. For both Dunn and Cromhout, emblematic Israelite performances embodied an ethnic identity, i.e., participation in the covenant community. However, Paul opposes the idea that God’s grace only extended to those who observed the works of the law. He offers, instead, an alternative sacred canopy and habitus. God is the divine patron, who distributes grace and expects obedience in return; this constructs an alternative symbolic universe that applies equally to Israelites and gentiles. Cromhout does not provide a univocal NPP reading; he parts ways with Dunn by rejecting the necessity of individual faith, opting for a robust understanding of the faithfulness of Jesus. Faith, for Cromhout, is “an alternative way of life and social conduct, and righteousness is something attained by an identity based on faith” (p. 93). His approach to identity is universalistic and follows closely Esler’s transcending view. Cromhout sees Paul as one who “no longer views his traditional ethnicity as ‘gain’ or ‘advantage.’” Interestingly he later qualifies this claim by noting that Paul eventually came to the conclusion that “he should not seek to erase the subgroup identities of Judeans and non-Judeans” (pp. 99, 101).
Cromhout provides a helpful introduction to Israelite ethnic identity that builds on the work of The Context Group and the NPP. Thus, this book would serve as a useful primer for those studying the social context of the NT. However, a few critical comments are in order. First, he overlooks the significance of 1 Cor 7:17-24 for the way Paul understands ethnicity in Christ. The continuation of the circumcision calling in Christ weakens his claim that Paul sought to form a new, more inclusive ethnos (p. 97). Second, he rightly recognizes the connected nature of ecclesiology and soteriology (p. 88); however, a variegated ecclesiology is slightly more probable. Third, by describing Christian identity as a new ethnicity, Cromhout confuses the categories with regard to Israel. Though Paul may draw on ethnic discourse to describe aspects of the transformation of identity in Christ, it does not follow that a new ethnic identity is formed thereby. These assessments aside, Cromhout’s work deserves further critical engagement and represents a step forward by integrating social-scientific and theological concerns in the study of identity formation of the earliest Christ-followers.