Tuesday, November 18, 2014

Review of Trebilco's Self-Designations and Group Identity in the New Testament

Trebilco, Paul R. Self-Designations and Group Identity in the New Testament. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2012. xii + 375 pp. £60.00 (hardback), ISBN 978-1107012998.

            Paul Trebilco, Professor of New Testament at the University of Otago in New Zealand, explores the source, use, and purpose of seven self-designations found in the NT: brothers and sisters, believers, saints, the assembly, disciples, the Way, and Christians. This densely argued monograph brings together classical lexical methods and sociolinguistics in order to determine the way these terms were used to form group identity in their recipients. Trebilco allows each section of the NT to speak on its own terms and does not downplay the diversity of the authors; rather, distinct theological emphases are acknowledged. Furthermore, the asymmetrical influence of Israel’s scriptures and, in other cases, the Greek and/or Roman context, are drawn upon by Trebilco for their heuristic values. This results in a study that provides ample textual evidence for addressing the way naming and labelling in the NT contributed to the formation of group identity among the earliest Christ-followers.
The introduction situates Trebilco’s study by noting his interest in two questions: What would Christians have called each other? And how did the various NT authors refer to these individuals in their writings? Thus, throughout the study, Trebilco focuses on both self-designations and labels as a way to distinguish answers to these two questions. He notes that, surprisingly, no full-length monograph has been written on the topic of self-designations in the NT; thus, his work commendably fills this gap. From a methodological standpoint, Trebilco draws on social-scientific insights about the way naming forms identity and about the role that social dialects play in the maintenance of this identity. Here he recognizes the performative nature of identity and the particular significance of insider and outsider discourse in its construction. Trebilco’s contribution to the study of labelling and identity formation is his helpful three-fold distinction between: (1) ‘insider language for self-designation’, (2) ‘outward-facing self-designations’, and (3) ‘outsider-used designations’ (10). These categorizations provide much needed precision in the discussion of group labels in early Christian origins, though the way one determines which category is being used remains an open question. Challenges to Trebilco’s approach that might have been addressed in the introduction include the following two: (1) several scholars doubt that language can form identity to the extent that Trebilco contends (e.g. Holmberg 2008); and (2) a number of scholars doubt if one could claim extensive use of any label by the Christ-movement(s) at this early stage (e.g. Campbell 2008).
Chapter 2 provides a study of ‘brothers and sisters’ (adelphoi). Trebilco begins by surveying the use of this term in the Hebrew Bible and other Jewish literature and concludes that it referred to fellow Israelites. In these contexts as well as in the ‘Greco-Roman’ context, when members of a voluntary association referred to each other, this term could be used metaphorically to cover all ingroup members. Paul, in close continuity with its use in Israel’s scriptures, uses this term as insider language, central to his construction of group boundaries. Trebilco finds no evidence that this term was used for outsiders, though he does conclude that it ‘goes back to the earliest periods’ of the movement and was ‘the most common…designation for Christians in the NT’ (45, 65). Two further comments are in order. First, Trebilco correctly recognizes, I think, that this term cannot be used to support the idea of a radically egalitarian community. Second, because of the use of kinship discourse in Roman imperial contexts, a discussion of cultural translation might have provided further insights into Paul’s use of this group label (see Ehrensperger 2013).
Chapter 3 outlines the use and significance of the ingroup label ‘the believers’ (hoi pistoi and hoi pisteuontes) and contends that it was a term of self-reference that emphasizes faith as a key marker of early ‘Christian’ identity. Especially in Romans, Trebilco sees this label creating, for gentiles, a new boundary between insiders and outsiders, replacing circumcision (81-82). This last nuance is rather helpful since this label does not distinguish these early Christ-followers from non-Christ-believing Jews. In fact, Trebilco contends that this term originated as one of self-designation among Jewish Christ-followers under the influence of the stone discourse found in Isa 28.16. Two further observations should be noted. First, Trebilco is undoubtedly correct in his argument that believing is both something that occurs at conversion and is a component of new life in Christ. Second, it may be too stark to claim that Acts 22.19 supports the idea that believing functions as a cipher for distinguishing Christ-followers from synagogue attendees (105).
Chapter 4 highlights the fascinating phrase ‘the saints’ or ‘the holy ones’ (hoi hagioi) and contends that this self-designation likely began among Jewish Christ-followers in Jerusalem as they sought to maintain their group identity within two communities. Building on Daniel 7, they aligned themselves with the eschatological covenant people Israel as well as with a more narrowly defined subgroup within Israel following the Jerusalem apostles. Trebilco understands Paul to be doing something similar with regard to this first use, but then he expands the referent to include both Jewish and gentile Christ-followers, a significant development (129, 141). This group label brings to the fore a contentious issue among scholars with regard to the way group descriptors originally applied to Israel are used in the NT to describe both in Christ Jews and gentiles (146). The use of this term with an expanded referent may still be understood as intra-muros discourse and need not imply supersessionism.    
Chapter 5 covers ‘the assembly’ (hē ekklēsia), oftentimes anachronistically translated with the English gloss ‘the church’ (164). Trebilco thinks this term goes back to the Hellenistic Jewish Christ-followers in Jerusalem and was chosen because ‘synagogue’ (synagōgē) was already widely used to describe non-Christ-believing synagogues (185, 190). In this way, ekklēsia functions as a social dialect within the movement and suggests a broad relational network, one beyond the local level (181). Two comments are particularly relevant here. First, Trebilco insightfully notes that the earliest members of the Christ-movement saw themselves simultaneously as members of an ekklēsia and a synagōgē (193). Those who argue that the use of ekklēsia indicates an early parting of the ways have overstated their case. Second, though Trebilco does sense the tension (207), a slight corrective may be in order regarding the lack of widespread dispersion of this term since it has recently been persuasively argued that Paul may use hē ekklēsia to refer specifically to the Pauline Christ-movement and not to Christ-followers in general (see Korner 2013).
Chapter 6 discusses the use of ‘disciples’ (mathētai) as a group identifier, one that is prevalent in the Gospels and then all but disappears in the rest of the NT. Building on the criteria for authenticity from historical Jesus studies, Trebilco contends that Jesus did use this term (i.e. the underlying Aramaic talmîdayyā), thus accounting for its presence in the Gospels. However, he also recognizes that this term was not used as a self-designator (226) because it was too closely associated with the historical Jesus and his itinerant ministry and did not translate into the diverse contexts of the emerging Christ-movement (230). However, the use of the term disciple does re-emerge at the time of Ignatius, who provides a model for the way a label from a previous era may be re-contextualized and re-used (mis-used?) by Christians of a later time.
Chapter 7 overviews the use of the phrase ‘the Way’ (hē hodos) as a self-designation that emerged in a Jewish context through reflection on Isa 40.3. It was an early way for members of the movement to describe themselves and other members. This term had broader use and is actually one of the few that covers all three of Trebilco’s categories (Acts 18.25-26; 24.14; 22.4). It was too imprecise, however, and thus quickly fell out of use as a continuing identifier of group identity (268).
Chapter 8 discusses the group label ‘Christian’ (christianos), one that Trebilco considers to have been an outsider-developed term imposed on the Christ-followers in Antioch (Acts 11.25-26). His case for this is based on a passive reading of ‘to be called’ (chrēmatisai). Thus the verse would be rendered, ‘the “disciples” were called “Christians” by others’ (276). The use of this term is often seen as an early indication that believers in Christ could be identified as distinct from other forms of Judaism, but Trebilco, rightly I think, rejects this assertion. There is nothing in the use of the term ‘Christian’ to indicate a correlative and not Jewish (279). First Peter 4.16 may be an indication of a development with regard to this term and may suggest that some were starting to socially identify with this originally derisive term. However, Trebilco appears on target when he points out that Christ-followers ‘would have been reluctant to use it internally’ because it did not sufficiently describe (or say enough about) their transformed identity (more on this below) (292).
The concluding chapter discusses the implications of Trebilco’s argument and provides several keen insights with regard to the social implications for the discoveries of the previous chapters. For example, he suggests that there never was simply one overarching self-designator within the Christ-movement; rather, a variety of these emerged for different contextual reasons. Thus, Trebilco and Campbell are not that far apart in their rejection of the presence of a dominant label among the earliest adherents (302). Second, the pervasive presence of social dialects was crucial to the formation of early Christ-movement identity. However, this also raises the issue of the transformation of identity in Christ, and here I would like to have seen Trebilco go a bit further. In this work, identity seemed to be a textual creation almost to the exclusion of ethnicity and social context. Jew and gentile discourse is ubiquitous and used by the NT writers in ways that cohere with all three of Trebilco’s categories. Thus, it would seem that one area of self-designation and group identity that should have received further attention is the way these writers negotiated broader ethnic and social discourses in the use of these theological indices. Hence Campbell’s reminder to NT scholars: ‘identity precedes theology and … in fact theological constructions emerge to solve the problem of identity rather than create it’ (2008: 52).
Trebilco has written an insightful and helpful monograph on one aspect of the development of Christ-movement identity, i.e. the way naming forms identity. This book deserves wide readership and engagement from NT and early Christian origins scholars. While his attention to lexicography will undoubtedly be seen as methodologically dated by some, he does provide substantial evidence upon which subsequent scholarship can build. This work is highly recommended and provides several insights into the diverse ways Christ-movement identity was formed throughout the Mediterranean basin. 


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

Ehrensperger, K. 2013. Paul at the Crossroads of Cultures: Theologizing in the Space-Between. London: T & T Clark.

Holmberg, B. 2008. ‘Understanding the First Hundred Years of Christian Identity’. In Exploring Early Christian Identity, edited by B. Holmberg, 1-32. WUNT 226. Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck.

Korner, R. J. 2013. ‘Before ‘Church’: Political, Ethno-Religious, and Theological Implications of the Collective Designation of Pauline Christ-Followers as Ekklēsiai’. PhD diss., McMaster University.

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