Tag Archives: ethnicity

Review: If Sons, Then Heirs, by Caroline Johnson Hodge.

9780195182163 (1)Hodge’s book, If Sons, Then Heirs: A Study of Kinship and Ethnicity in the Letters of Paul, argues that Paul’s letters do not merely theologically navigate the complexities of Gentile belonging in Christ, but actively create a new ethnic identity for those Gentile believers by employing metaphors of ethnicity and kinship to describe these believers as adopted sons of Abraham.

Her introduction spells out some of the particular methods and ideas her book draws on. After a brief introduction to recent scholarship on Paul, she identifies herself with the most “radical” (her phrase) thinkers in the New Perspective, particularly Lloyd Gaston, John Gager, and Stanley Stovers. These thinkers see Paul as writing mainly to Gentiles, and his works as creating a new myth of identity for those Gentiles who believe in Christ separate from a Mosaic covenant, rather than a Paul who is writing to Jewish Christians that the Torah is hereafter invalid. These thinkers see Paul as in greater continuity with Jewish tradition than the NPP thinkers Sanders and Dunn. Like them, Hodge seeks to move beyond a stale binary between ethnic, particular Judaism and non-ethnic, universal Christianity, arguing instead that Christianity is itself ethnic and particular. Lastly, Hodge spells out her theoretical position that ethnicity and kinship are socially constructed and malleable, even if those who employ those concepts hold them in an essentialist manner.

The first chapter of the book explains the “ideology of patrilineal descent,” a broadly shared Jewish and Greco-Roman worldview in which individuals, groups, families, and even nations construct their identity in terms of descent from a common father, a father who passes on certain traits to all his descendants. This ideology, Hodge argues, was used to construct identity, to gain power, and to define group boundaries. Paradoxically, this ideology holds ethnicity and kinship as both natural/fixed and malleable/constructed; even the same thinker can employ both conceptions of ethnicity at different times to suit his argument. Hodge reviews various discourses of kinship in the Greco-Roman world and the rituals used to maintain and legitimate them: adoption, genealogy of noble families, Kleisthenes’ re-mapping of Athens, Dionysus of Halicarnassus’ argument that Romans descend from Greeks, Josephus’ argument for the Jews’ antiquity, and the kinship of the philosophical schools of Greece and Rome. This last example proves that social domains not related to family could still use rhetoric and metaphor drawn from that domain of life—making it less outlandish that Paul would do so too.

The second chapter examines some of the binaries Paul uses to describe ethnic identity: Jew/Gentile, Jew/Greek, and circumcised/uncircumcised. Hodge delineates these in the context of two types of ethnic construction Paul engages in: opposition (constructing ethnic difference) and aggregative (constructing combining ethnic identities). For Paul, the ethnicity of Judaism is defined by ancestry, worship, and the Torah, while “gentile” (of which “Greek” is a subset) is defined by sinfulness and idolatry and by being not-Jewish (51). Mainly Hodge emphasizes that Paul does not see these identities as subsumed completely in Christ (as many readers of Gal 3:28 would have it) or as spiritualized/allegorized (as the TDNT has it).

Chapters 3­–6 examine specific kinship- and ethnicity-based metaphors Paul employs. In chapter 3, she examines the language of adoption in Gal 4:1–7 and Rom 8:14–17, and how Paul employs household hierarchies (e.g. the position of slaves) and the “spirit” to make Gentiles in relationship with God. Chapter 4 re-reads the phrase “from faith” (Rom 4:16) and “those from faith” (Gal 3:6–9) as language of descent: so Gentiles are of faith in being actually descended from Abraham by adoption, not simply by having faith. Chapter five examines the phrases “in Christ,” “in Abraham,” and “in Isaac” (highly debated phrases in Pauline studies) and argues that these refer to embryological assumptions embedded in the ideology of patrilineal descent, the idea that characteristics are passed from father to children through semen (e.g. Gen 15:3–6 and Gal 3:8). Chapter six continues chapter 4’s metaphor by addressing the way in which Christ becomes a brother to all those in faith (Rom 8:29)—again also the embryological assumption plays a role here. Note the way in which Paul uses both metaphors of adoption and of biological descent when rhetorically and mythologically grafting the Gentiles onto the tree of Abraham.

After examining these specific passages, Hodge returns to broader issues in chapter seven, in which she examines how Paul negotiated his multiple identities. Rather than seeing Paul as Jewish or Christian, Jew or Greek, she sees him as navigating multiple identities: a Jew first, but a Jew who subjugates that part of his identity to his “in-Christ” identity, and a teacher who adapts himself to his students by living as a Gentile. The idea employed here is that ethnicity is situational and hierarchically arranged, rather than fixed, and Paul engages in multiple discourses to suit his particular purposes and constructions. So Gal 3:28 is not seen as erasing individual identities, but subjugating them to Christ. Paul’s denial of circumcision for the Gentiles is not seen as a denial of circumcision per se; everyone will still follow circumcision, bit Gentiles need only practice the internal circumcision of the heart.

Chapter 8 ends the book with an examination of oppositional identities: how does Paul separate Jew and Greek? He clearly sees Jews as coming first, as he mentions in Romans 4 and 9–11. But he lays out a salvific plan in which the Greek is included as well. God prefers the Jews, but judges both groups impartially. Romans 9–11, then, is not merely a passage about Gentiles coming to the God of Israel, but a family tree metaphor describing inheritance by adoption. Paul is creating an ethnic genealogy for the Gentiles much as Greek and Roman authors create ethnic genealogies for noble families or entire peoples.

I really like how Hodge’s book brings together both Jewish and Greco-Roman discourses on ethnicity and teases out how Paul uses language of ethnicity. However, in this model of Paul, some of the metaphors he employs are inconsistent. For example, is Christ supposed to be a father or a brother in this metaphorical patrilineal family (103-106)? Other times she seems to mix up metaphors of biological descent and adoption. Maybe Paul himself is being inconsistent. I would grant him that, given that he is not a systematic theologian, but a missionary using rhetoric (not always a logically consistent tool) to persuade believers of his points. But some might find this alleged inconsistency a mark that Hodge’s theory needs work.

For me Hodge’s theory is intriguing because it implies that Paul’s letters can be used to support inculturated Christianity. So just as Paul has Jewish Christianity and Gentile Christianity, today we might have Nigerian Christianity, Chinese Christianity, etc. The idea is that one does not erase their culture, but always brings it to bear on the religion one has converted to. This is of course a historical fact in all religions, but not one theologians have always accepted.