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

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.

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Amy-Jill Levine's "The Misunderstood Jew"

The following is a summary of The Misunderstood Jew by Amy-Jill Levine ---a self-described "Yankee Jewish feminist who teaches in a predominantly Protestant divinity school in the buckle of the Bible Belt"---which I wrote up for a friend recently.  If you haven't read the book, it's definitely worth getting.  (It makes a good holiday gift too!)

Introduction (available online via Google Books) - Levine introduces herself and her background and explains why the Jewish background of Jesus and the New Testament (NT) is important to everyone.

1) Jesus and Judaism - Discusses Jesus's positive relationship to Judaism and debunks a number of common misconceptions about Jesus's practice and about the Judaism of his time.

2) From Jewish Sect to Gentile Church - Discusses Jesus's followers and the development of the church

3) The New Testament and Anti-Judaism - Addresses (and for the most part refutes) the accusation that the New Testament is anti-Semitic or contains anti-Semitic passages.

4) Stereotyping Judaism - Addresses seven all-too-common misperceptions/stereotypes/slanders of first-century Judaism.  These are things which are still taught from pulpits and in Bible studies!  Here's the list:

  1. The view that Jewish Law was impossible to follow, a burden no one could bear.
  2. The thesis that all Jews wanted a warrior messiah who would defeat Rome.
  3. The proclamation that Jesus was a feminist in a women-hating Jewish culture.
  4. The conclusion that Jews were obsessed with keeping themselves pure from the contamination of outsiders, whereas Jesus, especially through his parable of the good Samaritan, broke through purity-based barriers.
  5. The insistence that first-century Judaism was marked by a Temple domination system that oppressed the poor and women and that promoted social division between insiders and outsiders.
  6. The assertion that Jews are narrow, clannish, particularistic, and xenophobic, whereas Jesus and the church are engaged in universal outreach.
  7. The increasingly popular argument that the New Testament is not talking about Jews at all, but about "Judeans."
 5) With Friends Like These . . . - Discusses anti-Jewish prejudices in the church and its educational systems; focuses specifically on Liberation Theology, the World Council of Churches, the phrase "The Rabbis," multiculturally-oriented biblical studies which uses first-century Judaism as foil by which to criticize practices of the dominant culture, references to "the God of Judaism," and claims about "Jesus the Palestinian."

6) Distinct Canons, Distinct Practices - Discusses the different canons of Judaism and Christianity, as well as key differing interpretations and practices; then criticizes certain types of Jewish/Christian interfaith ventures (Christian Passover seders) while commending others (interfaith dialogue?).

7) Quo Vadis? - 26 (letters A. through Z.) specific suggestions for ways for Christians and Jews to think, talk, and behave that can help bring correction to all that's been discussed prior in the book.

Epilogue - "If Isaac and Ishmael, and Jacob and Esau, can learn to live together in peace, there is hope not only for the responsible and the prodigal; there is hope for church and synagogue as well.  And if the church and synagogue both could recognize their connection to Jesus, a Jewish prophet who spoke to Jews, perhaps we'd be in a better place for understanding."