Sunday, February 14, 2010

Opening section of my SBL Midwest 2010 Paper

Did Paul’s letters create a distinct ‘Christian’ identity? Furthermore, was early ‘Christian’ identity created or construed? These questions address important issues that separate two key approaches to the study of identity within New Testament scholarship. Those focusing on construal (Bengt Holmberg and Ben Meyer) argue that Paul simply interpreted an already-existing Christian identity and thus focused on self-definition or self-understanding not identity. A second group (Judith Lieu and Hans Leander) argues that Paul created Christian identity through his discursive agency and that there was no prior essential Christian social identity. This paper offers an assessment of Holmberg’s critique of Philip Esler and William S. Campbell and contends that a prior event began the process of identity formation; however, its ongoing concrete expression or creation was accomplished through Paul’s discursive agency (i.e. primarily his letter writing). Thus, this approach cuts a middle path between the construed or created binary formulations and concludes that Holmberg’s assessment of Campbell and Esler is unconvincing and that aspects of his argument are better suited for a critique of Lieu and Leander.

Before I look at Paul’s role in the creation of identity, I should briefly address a recent issue raised by David Horrell and restated by many of the contributors in the recent After the First Urban Christians (Horrell (2009: 9); Adams (2009: 77n.24); Still (2009: 79n.1)) that questions the usefulness and ‘validity’ of phrases like: ‘Pauline community’, ‘Pauline church’, and ‘paulinische Gemeinde’. The issue is further broadened to include doubts about whether the recipients of Paul’s letters ‘can in any sense be meaningfully labelled “Pauline”’ (Horrell 2008: 188). Horrell rightly recognizes the influence of other leaders in Corinth (e.g. Apollos and Cephas) without positing a ‘separate Petrine community down the road’. Also, he is correct in claiming that the communal life that had developed in Corinth did ‘not correspond’ to ‘Paul’s ideal’ for this assembly and that ‘competing and conflicting perspectives’ were evident (Horrell 2008: 193-95). Thus, Horrell concludes that ‘there is no clear justification for speaking of “Pauline churches”, or at least, not without heavily qualifying what that might mean’(Horrell 2008: 203).

By way of assessment, first, Horrell overstates the accepted view of the sectarian nature of the Christ-movement (Campbell 2008: 46-48). Very few scholars would contend that the Pauline communities were monolithic in their cultural expressions of the Christ-movement. Furthermore, Paul’s rule in 1 Cor 7.17-24, that in all the assemblies, Christ-followers are to remain in the situation in which they were called, if applied, would result in the kind of diversity that Horrell points out (Horrell 2008: 193). Horrell’s expectation of ideological and theological unanimity in the Pauline community does not cohere with Paul’s teaching, e.g. in Romans 14.5, that ‘each one should be fully convinced in his own mind’ and Romans 15:7, ‘Therefore welcome one another as Christ has welcomed you, for the glory of God’. Horrell’s reduction of a contextualized, discernible, Pauline ethos, if accepted, reinforces his view of the early emergence of a predominant ‘Christian’ identity (Horrell 2008: 203). Here Horrell’s universalistic approach to Christian identity comes to the fore. Evidence of diversity within Paul’s letters should not be seen as prima facie evidence that Paul’s letters were not foundational in the formation of unique, local expressions of Christ-movement social identity.

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

Horrell, D.
2009 ‘Whither Social-Scientific Approaches to New Testament Interpretation? Reflections on Contested Methodologies and the Future’, in Still and Horrell (eds.) 2009: 6-20.

2008 ‘Pauline Churches or Early Christian Churches? Unity, Disagreement, and the Eucharist’, in A. Alexeev et al., (eds.) Einheit der Kirche im Neuen Testament (WUNT, 218; Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck).

Still, T. and D. Horrell (eds.)
2009 After the First Urban Christians: The Social Scientific Study of Pauline Christianity Twenty-Five Years Later (New York and London: T&T Clark).

Saturday, February 13, 2010

SBL Midwest Morning One: Matthew, James, Hebrews

The morning started with Brian Dennert, a first year PhD student at Loyola University Chicago, who argued that the Son of David in Matthew was a leader of national spiritual restoration rather than a political deliverer. He drew from Psalms of Solomon 17 and was quite persuasive, though I wonder what Warren Carter would have said?

Robert Kinney, a PhD researcher at the University of Bristol, UK, argued for a Hellenistic context for understanding Jesus and his approach to teaching in Matthew. Since I think that Jewish teaching and learning discourse is the proper background for understanding Jesus' approach to formation, I was highly interested in his argument. Kinney ultimately argued that characteristics of the philosophical schools is the proper framework for understanding Jesus' educational approach (e.g. the way Euthydemus became a disciple of Socrates). He rightly noted the lack of discipleship language in the Hebrew tradition, however, since the family was the primary focus of education, domestic/kinship language would provide a way forward in this regard.

Russell Sisson of Union College presented a paper that looked at possible sayings of Jesus in James. I found it interesting that the first clear allusion to James is in Origen. He noted that scholars see as little as 8 or up to 65 allusions to Jesus' teaching in James. The crux of the issue is the lack of exact wording. To solve this problem, Sisson relies on the concept of oral performance in which exact wording is not required, the text is ancillary. He suggests that the allusions are located in the so-called Q source (insert a question from Mark Goodacre here, if he were present). In addressing the question as to why James was not referenced clearly until Origen? Sisson concludes that if the early Church Fathers were looking for Jesus material they would not have looked to James, but they continue to be aware of the document.

Jeffrey Gibson from Harry S Truman College argued, quite persuasively, that the Sitz im Leben of Hebrews was the Jewish War. The writer of the letter was addressing issues of non-violence in the context of the threat of the Romans and Jewish desire for violent revolt by the zealots. I really enjoyed his discussion of Heb. 13.13 and the departure from the camp. I think Jeffrey is on to something here and hope others will consider this interpretive framework, originally put forward by Alexander Nairne.

This was a great morning of stimulating papers and good discussions with old and new friends. Afternoon sessions to follow soon but I should probably read over my paper, on identity formation and Paul, imagine that!

Friday, February 12, 2010

SBL Midwest Night One - Texts and Jewish Identity

I Attended the Plenary Session tonight on Social Identity based on Texts and Archaeology: The Jews. Gary Knoppers, from Penn State University, presented a paper entitled 'Social Identity Based on Texts and Archaeology: The Jews of the Neo-Babylonian and Persian Periods'. Since I am writing a commentary on Ezra, I was most interested in this paper. He looked at recent archaeological evidence dealing with the 'town of Judah' and discussed the implications of vertical alliances and Artaxerxes' juridical charge to Ezra (Ez. 7.25-26). The Priestly linage of Ezra was discussed, his argument here is based an essay in his book, Community Identity in Judean Historiography (Eisenbrauns, 2009). He concluded with the role of the Temple in Jerusalem in the development of Judean identity (Ez. 7. 13-24). Overall it was a good paper, though, I am hesitant to use archaeology to determine specific nodes of social identity. However, he is right to note that there is a discernible diasporic Jewish identity during this period.

David Rudolph's paper was entitled 'Jesus-Believing Jews and Kol Yisrael: Rethinking Long-Held Assumptions'. David's paper felt like a summary of recent post-supersession reading of the NT. Furthermore, it was a nice summary of key arguments from his dissertation, which will be out next year, its entitled A Jew to the Jews: Jewish Contours of Pauline Flexibility in 1 Corinthians 9:19-23 (Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck). David is interested in understanding how Jewish Christ-followers understood themselves in relation to others. He focused on the parting of the ways, which he explains should be dated to the 4th century CE. Next he looked at how Jesus-believing Jews understood themselves, he built on Paul Foster's work on Matthew. Finally, he discussed halakhic interpretations within the early Christ-movement. David concludes that Paul understood the Christ-movement as two segments (Jews and gentiles) united by faith in Christ.

Carol Bakhos of UCLA presented a paper entitled 'The World of the Rabbis: Fact and/or Fiction'. She started out by saying that she would not be discussing Jewish social identity during the Rabbinic period because she is not convinced that we can discern this from the extant texts. Her approach reminded of Judith Lieu's but she is right in noting that there is a need for an awareness of narrative discourse, attention to the way others discuss the same communities, and that there needs to be a rubric of categories in which these texts can be organized into meaning artifacts for the analysis of identity (a taxonomy of identity? someone should write one, maybe I will?). She looked at how Arabs are depicted in the Talmud as a case study for her approach. She also mentioned that the Iranian context of the Talmud is an area of emerging research. I found her presentation quite interesting and thought provoking.