Thursday, December 15, 2011

What about Gentile identity?

Adapted from a recent comment I made on Derek Leman's blog:

For a long time, Messianic Jews have been affirming that Jewish identity is not nullified in Messiah.  Many Gentile believers have heartily affirmed this truth as well.  However, when it comes to "Gentile identity," some are left with questions.  After all, Jewish identity seems (at least to some) to be easily identified as a rich heritage that is documented in the Scriptures and interwoven and extended through history and tradition.  "But what does 'Gentile identity' even refer to?" some ask.

I think that this is a very good question and would like to see more efforts to explore possible, Biblical answers. I do think that Paul explicitly affirms “paternity” (in a very Roman fashion, btw), when he writes in Ephesians 3.14-15:
“For this reason I bow my knees before the Father, from whom every family (Greek patria literally “ancestry” or “family,” from the word pater, father) in heaven and on earth is named…”
Roman societies organized themselves around family structures which had the father at the head. Here Paul seems to be building on that understanding with his claim that every “ancestry”is derived  from the Father by virtue of the fact that it is literally named after Him.*

There is a group of scholars within what is known as the Radical Perspective on Paul (i.e. Paul as a Torah-observant Jewish apostle to the Gentiles) who are asking similar questions specifically in the context of the Pauline corpus. William S. Campbell, Kathy Ehrensberger, and J. Brian Tucker are all exploring ways in which Gentile identity is both continued, transformed, and reinvented in Paul’s ministry as evidenced in his letters.

Campbell’s book Paul and the Creation of Christian Identity (pictured above) is a significant contribution to this effort and worth reading.**  Also, J. Brian Tucker has a book on the continuation of social identities in 1 Corinthians called "Remain in Your Calling" (pictured at right).

There are also a number of papers by J. Brian Tucker available for free on mjstudies.com:

While both Campbell and Tucker perhaps raise as many questions as they answer, they show that there may be much more to learn about Gentile identity in Messiah from the first-century apostle to the Gentiles.

* Paul goes on to address the Ephesians using a form known as a household code (see Eph. 5.21-6.9), a Roman religio-cultural value system which is structured around the father.  Some interpreters think Paul transforms the household code away from its normal patriarchalism in the way he gives specific instructions not only to wives, children, and slaves, but also to husbands, fathers, and masters.  To the degree that household codes are a particularly Greco-Roman way of addressing issues of order in families and households, this is relevant to the discussion at hand. 
** Don't trip up over Campbell's use of the term "Christian."  He is part of a cadre of Pauline scholars who are well aware of the anachronism.  Of course, you can if you want.  I'm just saying I think it would be counter-productive.

15 comments:

mymorningmeditations.com said...

This isn't really fair. You keep reviewing books that I want to buy but I don't have all the money (or bookshelf space, according to my wife) in the world. Good grief. ;-)

Joking aside, one of the things I confronted once I shifted my perspective on all things "Messianic" was the perception that Jewish identity is reasonably well defined as is "pagan" identity, but what about Gentiles who have come to faith in Jesus? From a traditional church point of view, it's no big deal, but once you refactor your faith back into a more Jewish context, it becomes kind of a big deal.

I tried looking at the role of the Ger Toshav, but that wasn't an answer. I'm reminded of what how Abraham described himself to God in Genesis 18:27, "I am but dust and ashes."

-James

Jon said...

"Gentile identity".

Yahnatan and I have had an ongoing conversation about this very issue for the last few years.

First, I think that people do a disservice when not fully weighing the meaning of the word "gentile". It comes from the latin word "gentilis" which means "clan or tribe".

Of course, the most used context nowadays is using the word to describe those who are not Jewish.
HOWEVER- those who are not Jewish still belong to a "clan" or a "tribe" of some sort. Whether it is family, or a nation.
The question of "gentile identity" could then be changed to "clan, tribe, family, or national idendity". For some that would be Irish, or British...perhaps Syrian, or Kenyan. You have to first know where you come from. That is "gentile identity".

once we inject Messiah into the picture, I don't think the picture really changes that much. G-d has revealed aspects of himself through all of creation. Certainly, this applies to the many nations and their cultures. Are there perhaps things that must be informed and reformed by a belief in Yeshua? Of course. That is true of every culture. But I just don't buy the idea of a great homogenization precipitated by that belief.
In other words, I also espouse the continuation of Gentile identity.

Carl Kinbar said...

You hit the nail on the head, Jon.

Netzer Chosid said...

James,

Jews have also grappled with this question, albeit from the other side of the table. The above asks "What about the Gentile in Israel?" Rav Kook sat at the other end of the table to that question and asked, "What about the Jew in Exhile," an issue that I feel could be redressed by scholars of the Early Church.

BTW, this makes a great Chanukkah maamar!

A Gutn Shabbes, a freilichen Chanukah!

Netzer Chosid said...

oopsie, Rav Kook...

http://ravkook.net/jew-gentile.html

mymorningmeditations.com said...

"Any [gentile] who accepts the seven Noahide commandments and is careful in their performance is one of the righteous of the nations (chasidei umot ha'olam), and he has a portion in the world-to-come. That is if he accepts them and performs them because the Holy One, blessed be He, commanded them in the Torah and proclaimed through Moses that Noahides had previously been commanded in these. But if they perform them because it makes sense [to them], such a person is ... not one of the 'righteous of the nations' nor one of their wise men" (Hilchot Melachim 8:11).

[This statement of the Rambam requires emendation.] The correct reading is: "he is not [merely] one of 'the righteous of the gentiles,' but one of their wise men."


Thanks for the link, but Rav Kook wouldn't consider a Gentile such as me to be righteous because I am a disciple of oto ha'ish. I discovered this not terribly long ago when dialoging with a Rabbi on this topic.

While each member of the nations retains their own national and cultural heritage, if we are not changed by our devotion to the Jesus (Yeshua) and if that does not in some sense separate us from the non-believing members of our culture, then have we a unique identity in Christ? If not; if we are only "a culture", then we are no different than before we came to faith.

-James

Yahnatan said...

Netzer Chosid--great to hear from you!

James, you asked: "but what about Gentiles who have come to faith in Jesus?" That is exactly the question Campbell et al are attempting to answer...or in actuality, they're probing Paul's letters to get an idea of what Paul's answers to this question were.

While each member of the nations retains their own national and cultural heritage, if we are not changed by our devotion to the Jesus (Yeshua) and if that does not in some sense separate us from the non-believing members of our culture, then have we a unique identity in Christ? If not; if we are only "a culture", then we are no different than before we came to faith.

I'm not convinced that cultural identities are to be set against identity in Messiah in this way. The "separation" is halakhic (i.e. separation from sin and idolatry) and eschatalogical (inheritance of eternal life through Yeshua the Messiah), but not ethnocultural.

Yahnatan said...

The issue is complicated for many Gentile believers because, due to patterns of Christian community, their ethno-cultural heritage was subsumed into the melting pot identity of their church's tradition. The American melting pot only furthers this.

What would happen if people afforded to Christian Tradition (with a capital T) the same charitable hearing that they give to Judaism? It may alter whether one's heart belongs to Christian or Jewish tradition, but at least it would help to quell the sort of defamation and caricaturing of Christian practice that goes on in Messianic circles.

mymorningmeditations.com said...

I'm not convinced that cultural identities are to be set against identity in Messiah in this way. The "separation" is halakhic (i.e. separation from sin and idolatry) and eschatalogical (inheritance of eternal life through Yeshua the Messiah), but not ethnocultural.

Point taken, but I still feel like the spiritual equivalent of a Big Mac, a large order of fries, and a vanilla shake. ;-)

-James

Yahnatan said...

Point taken, but I still feel like the spiritual equivalent of a Big Mac, a large order of fries, and a vanilla shake. ;-)

Weren't those feelings of inadequacy (if I can call it that) what Paul had in his crosshairs in his letter to the Galatians, which he condemned his opponents for taking advantage of by pressuring the Galatians to Judaize?

On the other hand, there's no need to disparage one's own culture in order to admire and benefit from somebody else's. That's my experience, at least.

Yahnatan said...

Weren't those feelings of inadequacy (if I can call it that) what Paul had in his crosshairs in his letter to the Galatians...

And what God was addressing in the vision revealed to Peter in Acts 10: "You must not call unclean what I have made clean."

You're a clean Big Mac, my friend.

mymorningmeditations.com said...

You're a clean Big Mac, my friend.

LOL. Thanks, I think. You just called me "junk food". ;-P

-James

Yahnatan said...

James,

Haha, you know I wouldn't have gone there if you hadn't applied the image to yourself first. As I recall, Peter's vision included animals, reptiles, and birds of the air...but no big macs. So it's a stretch...

-Yahnatan

Jon said...

As a fan of burgers, I've gotta be honest, James...it's not a bad thing! Hahaha

mymorningmeditations.com said...

At least make me a good burger Jon, not that repulsive junk they dish out at McDonald's (I know, I know...I brought it up first). ;-)

No worries guys. It's all good.

-James