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If Sons, Then HeirsA Study of Kinship and Ethnicity in the Letters of Paul$

Caroline Johnson Hodge

Print publication date: 2007

Print ISBN-13: 9780195182163

Published to Oxford Scholarship Online: September 2007

DOI: 10.1093/acprof:oso/9780195182163.001.0001

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(p.149) Conclusion
If Sons, Then Heirs

Caroline Johnson Hodge (Contributor Webpage)

Oxford University Press

Abstract and Keywords

This concluding chapter begins with a discussion of whether the assemblies in Paul's letters would have been understood as ethnic groups or some other sort of community. While they did speak in terms of common ancestry, they were not concerned with future generations like other ethnic groups in the ancient world and much of Paul's language comes from the practice of psychagogy, as in schools of philosophy. Some final reflections consider the relevance of this study for Christians today, for feminist concerns, and for Jewish-Christian relations. Ethnic discourses thus serve as tools not only in Paul's mythmaking, but also in the mythmaking engaged in by interpreters.

Keywords:   Christians, psychagogy, mythmaking, ethnic discourses, Jewish-Christian relations

Additional Thoughts on Gentiles‐in‐Christ

As I have shown, being in‐Christ is not ethnically neutral; rather, it falls under the umbrella of Jewishness. Yet Paul does not imagine gentiles‐in‐Christ as Jews; in fact, he still calls them gentiles. Thinking in terms of multiple identities, we might imagine these gentiles as occupying a mixed or “hybrid” identity that is not completely “other” than what they were, but is certainly not identical to their previous status. Postcolonial theorists use the term “hybridity” to describe a complex process whereby the interaction of the colonized and colonizer inevitably influences the self‐definition of each. 1

Herodotus, who was obsessively interested in classifying peoples and tracing their origins and relationships to each other, seems to assume that a certain amount of hybridity is a normal part of ethnic development. He repeatedly comments on how particular groups develop their own identities precisely by borrowing and learning from other groups. 2 For example, he explains that the Greeks get their knowledge of the gods as well as their central religious practices—traits which, as we have seen, are often the basis for claiming Greekness—from the Egyptians (2.43–53)! We might draw an analogy between this story and Paul's narrative: gentiles‐in‐Christ have gained knowledge of God, religious practices, sacred writings, and ethical standards from the Ioudaioi.

Sze‐kar Wan finds the concept of hybridity useful in understanding Galatians 3:28, where he sees Paul fashioning a new “people” in Christ: “This new ‘people’ is reconfigured not by erasing (p.150) ethnic and cultural differences but by combining these differences into a hybrid existence.” 3 Hybridity offers a complementary twist to the model of multiple identities; it suggests that among the various identities one person might hold, one or all of them may be amalgams of other identities.

I appreciate Wan's insight, especially as it insists that identities are complex and differences are not erased, but I would apply it differently to Paul. Whereas Wan seems to imagine that being in‐Christ is a hybrid identity for both Jews and gentiles, I see it as hybrid only for gentiles. Being in‐Christ does not require Jews to appropriate Greek or gentile traits. Thus being in‐Christ does not involve shifting or mixing for Jews; it is already a Jewish identity. For Paul, it is not being in‐Christ that requires his own adjustments, but teaching gentiles. Although Jewish identities themselves may have been multiple and hybrid, as all identities are, being in‐Christ requires a more radical blending for gentiles.

Paul draws upon the discourses of kinship and ethnicity most explicitly when addressing the theological problem (gentile alienation from the God of Israel) and its solution (baptism into Israel's messiah). Yet when he discusses the maintenance of these established groups—how to live according to the new standards of being in‐Christ—he uses the language of psychagogy or moral instruction, similar to that of philosophical schools. 4 In addition to offering instruction on self‐mastery, a favorite theme of Paul's, he addresses the members of the assemblies as adelphoi (“brothers” or “brothers and sisters”) and pistoi (“faithful ones”), both of which are conventions in psychagogic contexts. 5 As I argued in chapter 2 , the discourses of kinship and ethnicity overlap with discourses of moral instruction, especially in Paul's formulation of gentiles as morally depraved.

This overlap reflects the flexibility in notions of peoplehood in ancient texts. Carter Bentley's practice‐oriented formulation of ethnic identity allows for this flexibility:

According to the practice theory of ethnicity, sensations of ethnic affinity are founded on common life experiences that generate similar habitual dispositions. … It is commonality of experience and of the preconscious habitus it generates that gives members of an ethnic cohort their sense of being both familiar and familial to each other. 6

By “habitus,” Bentley means shared experiences, practical skills, and ways of viewing the world. We might understand Paul as fostering a common habitus for the assemblies. 7 In Paul's language, this might be described as living “in the spirit” instead of “in the flesh” (Rom 8 and Gal 5). Thus in addition to a common heritage as “adopted sons of God” and “brothers in Christ,” these Christ‐followers share the spirit and common practices, especially religious (p.151) practices. As we saw in chapter 1 , each of these claims serves to define ethnic identities and boundaries in ancient texts.

Yet Paul does not develop a language of peoplehood for the established communities of Christ followers. This becomes especially clear when compared to later Christians who explicitly use ethnic language, specifically Jewish ethnic language, to define themselves. 8 Several generations after Paul, the author of 1 Peter calls his readers “a chosen people (γένος), a royal priesthood, a holy nation (ἔθνος ἃγιον), God's own people (λαὸς)” (2:9). The Preaching of Peter, a text quoted by Clement of Alexandria, exhorts its readers to worship neither as the Greeks, nor as the Ioudaioi, but as the Christians who worship “as a third genos (τρίτω γένει)” (Stromateis,– 9 As Christians begin to understand themselves as separate from Ioudaioi, some of them argue that they represent the “true Israel,” or God's legitimate people, exclusive of others, especially Ioudaioi themselves. 10 But these claims are not found in Paul. The social and historical context which makes these arguments possible does not exist when Paul is writing. The concept of replacing Israel with a new people would never have occurred to him. 11

Paul is also unconcerned with intergenerational continuity among the assemblies; he even encourages them not to marry (1 Cor 7). This issue, too, is approached differently by later Christians, even those who write in his name, who adopt traditional Greek and Roman values of marriage and procreation (e.g., the Deutero‐Pauline and Pastoral epistles).

Perhaps both of these characteristics make sense given Paul's own apocalyptic expectation. Paul constructs kinship ties to give gentiles a new heritage, but he is not interested in their descendants. Indeed, intergenerational continuity is irrelevant for those awaiting the imminent end of the world and an age to come in which immortality eliminates the need for marriage and children. But according to Paul, to prepare the world for these events, and perhaps even as an initiation of these events, the God of Israel sent the messiah as a means of gathering the nations. The kinship created through baptism into Christ establishes a tie to Israel and its God, a tie that will survive into the new age. For Paul, the logic of ethnicity and kinship offers a solution to the problem of how Jews and the non‐Jewish peoples can be reconciled on Jewish terms at the end of the age.

Continual Mythmaking

When Paul crafts a new ancestry for gentiles, he employs strategies and skills that we find in many other ancient writers. Constructing kinship and ethnic ties was (and still is) 12 an effective means of arguing for a new arrangement and a new status for a people. Paul develops several discourses of kinship for (p.152) gentiles which seek to explain how Israel is to incorporate the ethnic and religious “other” according to an ancient promise from God. This new language of kinship creates a myth of collective identity for the gentiles, an identity that relates to, but does not become one with, a Jewish identity.

Russell T. McCutcheon describes mythmaking as “an activity that unites into a totalized system of representation what Mack refers to as the ‘epic past, historical past, historical present, anticipated historical future, hoped for epic future.’ ” 13 For Paul, this “totalized system” is the history of Israel: the stories of the foundation of the people through Abraham and the promises from God; the line of chosen heirs to pass those blessings on to future generations; the life and death of Jesus, through whom the God of Israel mercifully offers the opportunity for non‐Jews to be made right with him; and the future salvation of both Jews and Christ‐following gentiles, which will be brought about in part by the tension between these two peoples.

My analysis of kinship and ethnicity helps us to see that Paul's thinking is immersed in and shaped by the story of a specific people and their God. He speaks not as a Christian theologian, but as a first‐century Jewish teacher of gentiles responding to concrete situations in the communities he founded. 14 He writes not to all humans but to those particular peoples who remain alienated from the God of Israel. I do not deny that Paul had universal aspirations: he devoted his life to reaching as many non‐Jews as possible. But these aspirations came from the point of view of a first‐century Jew who understood Israel as a “light to the nations.” Ethnicity is not removed from this universal goal; it lies at the core of his mission.

It is not only Paul, of course, who engages in mythmaking. His interpreters participate in the same practices. The longtime myth constructed by Pauline scholars has been that Paul rejects a particularistic Judaism for a ethnicity‐free and transcendent Christianity. Through an analysis of kinship and ethnicity, I hope I have offered a countermyth which recognizes Paul as a voice within first‐century Judaism, who interpreted but also shaped the story of Israel to accommodate the ethnic and religious “other.” According to Paul, the salvation of Israel depends upon this accommodation, which is prophesied in scripture and made possible through Christ. In Paul's strategic telling, the spirit creates a divinely sanctioned kinship which links the gentile peoples to Christ, and through him to the lineage to which God has committed himself through promises and covenants.

For those who look to Paul to find liberative models, my reading may not bring such good news. Although the central theme of Paul's gospel is the inclusion of those who are most excluded, his arguments about baptism into Christ are patrilineal and patriarchal through and through, and they capitalize on the status differences between men and women and slaves and free. 15 This is so even as Paul acknowledges women apostles, deacons, coworkers, and so on in the communities he addresses. As feminist scholars have long pointed (p.153) out, these women leaders may have presented a gospel message different from Paul's in a variety of ways. 16

For those concerned with relations between Jews and Christians, this reading offers at least some material for dialogue. Like others in the “radical” new perspective, my reading of Paul insists on viewing him as a first‐century Jew and thus opens the possibility that he had no critique of Judaism but remained fully faithful to the God of Israel and this God's plan for the salvation of all peoples. Daniel Boyarin has characterized the Gaston/Gager approach, which my interpretation largely supports, as a “moving effort to rescue Paul from charges of anti‐Semitism and thus save him for modern Christians.” 17 Indeed, this might be one way to characterize the “myth” being written by the radical wing of the new perspective, which arose in the wake of the Holocaust. Though I cannot speak for others, I can say that such a rescue is certainly not my intention, nor has it been the result, as far as I can tell. Perhaps a better way to describe my efforts is as an attempt to extricate Paul from Augustinian and Lutheran readings: rescuing him from Christians, rather than for Christians. Indeed, my reading does not deliver to twenty‐first‐century Christians an approachable, easy‐to‐relate‐to Paul. It complicates many familiar notions, including faith, spirit, Jew, Christian, and universality. Many Christians today may find a traditional Lutheran reading of Paul more palatable.

Thus, although my interpretation illuminates how Paul uses ethnic discourses to construct his gospel for first‐century gentiles, it also poses new questions for modern Christian interpretation: How do contemporary Christians relate to Paul's position? How can Christians rethink the origins of Christianity in ways that on the one hand allow for the complex identities of the first communities of Christ‐followers, and that on the other hand find some continuity with those communities? Perhaps this process—a new mythmaking of sorts—may benefit from some of the insights developed in this study. Understanding identity as fluid, multifaceted, complex, mixed, and also as authentic and meaningful may open possibilities for crafting new understandings of Christian beginnings as well as of current Christian identities. Consideration of such issues may encourage those both in the academy and in faith communities to move beyond the anti‐Jewish legacy of Pauline interpretive traditions. (p.154)


(1.)  Homi Bhabha describes this as occurring in a “Third Space of Enunciation,” an ambivalent, in‐between space where both the colonizer and the colonized mutually construct each other. See Bhabha, The Location of Culture, 37.

(2.)  Thomas, “Ethnicity, Genealogy and Hellenism,” 213–33. One of Thomas's points is to show that despite the famous quote in Herodotus defining Greek ethnicity (8.144.2), the historian does not maintain one stable definition of ethnē, but discusses a variety of factors, including language, religion, education, ancestry, and homeland.

(3.)  Wan, “Diaspora Identity,” 126 (emphasis in original).

(4.)  Stanley K. Stowers argues that in this way the assemblies are like philosophical schools (Stowers, “Pauline Christianity,” 85–86). See also Glad, Paul and Philodemus.

(5.)  This language is also found in friendship contexts. Unlike many philosophers in discussions of friendship, however, Paul does not appeal to philia. See Konstan, Friendship in the Classical World, especially 108–21. Konstan discusses how some later Christians explicitly reject friendship language for “brotherly love” language (156–58).

(6.)  Bentley, “Ethnicity and Practice,”32–33. Bentley builds on the work of Pierre Bourdieu in Outline of a Theory of Practice. Central to Bourdieu's practice theory is the idea of “habitus”: “a set of generative schemes that produce practices and representations that are regular without reference to overt rules and that are goal directed without requiring conscious selection of goals or mastery of method of achieving them” (Bentley, “Ethnicity and Practice,” 28; citing Bourdieu, Outline of a Theory of Practice, 72). Bentley is arguing that ethnicity is not solely an identity that is manipulated or appropriated to achieve a certain end (as instrumentalists tend to understand it), but that it is a conglomeration of assumptions, practical skills, and ways of viewing the world that are learned but still beyond consciousness. This conglomeration is “habitus.”

(7.)  But perhaps does not always succeed, as the Corinthian correspondence evinces. See Antoinette Clark Wire, Corinthian Women Prophets. Thanks to Laura Nasrallah for this observation.

(8.)  Denise Kimber Buell addresses this theme in second‐ and third‐century texts. See “Rethinking the Relevance of Race,” 449–76; “Race and Universalism,” 429–68; and “Why This New Race?”

(9.)  It may be best to translate this phrase “in a third way” (Clement of Alexandria, Stromateis– Regardless, Clement is categorizing “Christians” with other ethnic peoples.

(10.)  Daniel Boyarin argues that the boundary between Christians and Jews is quite porous and that these two groups engage in mutual self‐definition that is intertwined with each group's articulations of orthodoxy and heresy. See Boyarin, Border Lines: The Partition of Judaeo‐Christianity.

(11.)  Some would argue that Galatians 6:16 calls the church “Israel”: “And for those who will follow this rule, peace and mercy be upon them, and [peace and mercy] be upon the Israel of God.” I see no reason to think this, especially since nowhere else does Paul hint that his gentile assemblies constitute a new Israel. When he does mention Israel, he is referring to the Jewish people (perhaps with faithful gentiles attached), as I think he is in Galatians 6:16. Some scholars translate the last half of this verse: “and [peace and mercy] upon God's [people] Israel.” See Gaston, Paul and Torah, 90; and Richardson, Israel in the Apostolic Church, 74–84.

(12.)  In May of 1999, the New York Times published an article titled “DNA Backs a Tribe's Tradition of Early Descent from the Jews” by Nicholas Wade (my thanks to Judith Kalb for calling this article to my attention). The Lemba people (who live in Botswana and South Africa and have black skin) trace their origins to a northern city called “Senna,” and recount that long ago they left Judea and migrated to Africa. Recent genetic tests which trace the Y chromosome have offered scientific support to these claims of Jewish ancestry. This research is based on the patrilineal tradition that priestly lineages within Judaism all descend from one ancestor, Aaron. Studying the Y chromosome of the Jewish men who claim this ancestry, geneticists have identified a particular “cohen genetic signature” that is present in roughly half of these priestly descendants (a genetic marker that is less common among lay Jews and is rare in non‐Jewish populations). The results of these tests on the Lemba men corresponded with the results from tests on other Jewish populations: half of the Lemba men who claimed priestly descent had the cohen genetic signature. For those scientists and other scholars involved with this study, the scientific evidence of a genetic link to other Jews confirms the Lemba claim of Jewish ancestry. Patrilineal logic permeates the explanation of the science: “Y chromosomes are bequeathed from father to son, more or less unchanged apart from the occasional mutation” (Wade, 20). Patrilineal ideology, through the work of modern genetics, traces descendants back to Aaron and therefore constructs a Jewish past for these African people. Of course the Lemba had already constructed this past; they knew they had descended from Jews.

(13.)  McCutcheon, Critics Not Caretakers, 32. McCutcheon gives no citation for the quote from Burton Mack.

(14.)  Lloyd Gaston makes this point in Paul and the Torah, 6.

(15.)  Although Kathy Ehrensperger finds some “good news” in Paul, especially in the potential insights of the intersection of feminist readings and the “Beyond the New Perspective” school; Ehrensperger, That We May Be Mutually Encouraged: Feminism and the New Perspective in Pauline Studies (New York: T. and T. Clark, 2004), esp. 177–94.

(16.)  Elisabeth Schüssler Fiorenza, In Memory of Her and Rhetoric and Ethic; Antoinette Clark Wire, Corinthian Women Prophets; and Cynthia Briggs Kittredge, Community and Authority.

(17.)  Boyarin, Radical Jew, 42. Boyarin, however, finds this interpretation unconvincing (see esp. n. 9).