2014 Social World of the New Testament

Session 1

David M. Shaw (Exeter University)

Called to Bless: Considering an Underappreciated Aspect of ‘Doing Good’ in 1 Peter

One of the debates in modern 1 Peter scholarship has focussed on the nature of the church’s stance towards the world that the letter’s author proposes. This was most starkly presented in the now infamous Balch-Elliott debate during the 1980’s. Balch suggested that the Haustafel presented in 1 Peter was a move towards assimilation with the greater culture which in turn assisted the church in its wider witness. Elliott, focussing on the language of paroikoi and parepidemoi, argued almost the exact opposite; that such language was designed to develop a sense of corporate identity in order to resist any social pressure to assimilate. More recently, the debate within Petrine scholarship has questioned the polarising choices of assimilation versus isolation presented by Balch and Elliott respectively, e.g, Volf’s “Soft Difference,” Green’s notion of “holy engagement,” and Tárrech’s “attractive community” ideal, to name but a few. And whilst it is unsurprising that many of the aforementioned articles interact with 1 Peter’s theme of “doing good” (see 2:12-15, 20; 3:11-13; 4:19, etc.), one significant omission in the discussion has been any talk of blessing, i.e., “bless, for to this you were called, that you may obtain a blessing” (3:9 ESV). It is towards this gap in the discussion that this paper seeks to make a contribution. Underlying the importance of 3:9 is its placement within the conclusion of the Haustafel that is addressed to the whole church (3:8ff). By utilizing insights from Social Identity Theory and the current missional theology conversation, I suggest that more than simply “doing good”, Peter is calling on the Anatolian churches to actively seek the blessing and prosperity of their unbelieving neighbours—even as they face opposition from them—regardless of whether or not they convert to the faith.

David Horrell (Exeter University)

A Chosen (White) Race? The Intersections of Religion, Ethnicity, Racism, and Empire in Early Christian Texts and Modern New Testament Scholarship

What kind of identity is “Christian” identity, as it emerges in the period of Christian origins, and how is it different, if at all, from “Jewish” identity – and indeed other kinds of group-identity – in the same period? How does biblical scholarship construe these different identities, and what kinds of religious and racial ideologies are implicit in those scholarly construals? Drawing on social-scientific discussions of ethnicity and race, this paper will address these questions, examining examples of the construction of Jewish and Christian identity from texts of the period and considering how these are depicted in contemporary scholarship. The argument I propose is essentially in three steps: first, that, given the contemporary realisation that ethnic and racial identities are constructed through discourse and practice rather than being in any sense objectively existent, there is no clear or necessary category distinction between the kind of “ethnic” identity constructed by Jewish texts and the “religious” non-ethnic identity constructed (using ethnoracial terminology) by early Christian texts. Second, that the tendency to depict Jewish identity as ethnic and Christian identity as non- or supra-ethnic implicitly serves to convey the idea that Judaism could not serve as an incorporative community within which diverse (ethnic) groups could be united while Christianity could – and that this distinction (unintentionally) reflects a stance of Christian superiority. Third, and most speculatively, that this perspective often serves simultaneously to valorize both early Christianity and Western democratic liberalism, and is thus a point at which “whiteness” and “Christianness” coalesce: in both cases the category is implicitly assumed to be the default, inclusive, all-incorporating framework within which – and ‘beneath’ which – others can and should (co)exist.

Session 2

Beyond the Branches; Between the Shoots: Deconstructing Oleiculture in Romans 11:16-24

The olive-tree allegory in Romans 11:16-24 has been propelled in two main directions throughout the history of its scholarship: In the first it has been explained to be a deliberate inversion of Theosphrastus of Eresus's instructions on grafting branches of cultivated olive trees onto wild ones, to portray the gentile believers to be inferior (W.D Davies, Philip Esler et al.). In the second, the reverse interpretation is made that presents the gentiles as morally rejuvenating Israel (Christopher Bryan, James Dunn et al.). Within this second direction, others (Baxter and Ziesler, William Ramsay) see the allegory modelled on texts by Roman writers Columella and Palladius, in which shoots from wild-olive trees are indeed grafted onto cultivated ones, thus moving this argument for rejuvenation further. Using the work of Jacques Derrida (Margins of Philosophy; Of Grammatology), it is possible to draw on these Greek and Roman sources to look beyond the affirmation or condemnation of ethnicity in Rom 11:16-24, to the jouissance, or play, inherent in difference and sameness. Through this it becomes apparent that the “body of Christ” can only exist as a concept by the withdrawal of metaphysical identities and the friction of difference.  

Alan Le Grys (University of Kent)

Sexuality and Purity in the NT World

Christianity has a reputation as one of the most ‘sex-negative’ religions in the world. This understanding of sex is found already in some of the earliest post NT theologians such as Tertullian and Origen, yet analysis of this early Christian tradition suggests it was driven as much by Greek philosophical ideals as first century Jewish belief. This evolving synthesis of Greek and Jewish ideas fuelled an emerging understanding of Christian askesis that led eventually to the formal linking of sexuality and sin found in Augustine’s notion of original sin, which was then read back into the NT. William Loader, amongst others, has done much to explore the pre-Christian Jewish framework which helped to shape and inform the thinking of Jesus and Paul on human sexuality. The Jesus tradition, in fact, has remarkably little to say about sex, and later Christian interest seems way out of proportion to the concern shown in the gospels. Loader argues, therefore, that the primary factor shaping NT attitudes was simply the Jewish notion of purity: Jesus and Paul shared with John the Baptist, (some of) the Essenes, and others, the belief that sexuality is a divine gift for this world but has no place in the world to come. The ‘new world’ is to be an extended temple, a ‘new Jerusalem’ in which the profane plays no part; sex, in this context, is not so much wrong as ‘out of place’ in the worship of heaven.

This paper seeks to explore these purity issues in greater depth and place them in a wider first century social matrix. It will attempt to identify and examine the underlying social assumptions behind the tradition to ask whether sex negativity is an inescapable part of continuing Christianity or a culturally limited determinant in need of reappraisal in contemporary practice.

Session 3

Rafael Rodríguez (Johnson University)

Oral Tradition and the New Testament: Reconfiguring the Question

The analysis of oral tradition and its impact for the historical and literary appraisal of the texts of the New Testament has advanced considerably since the height of Formgeschichte's influence in the mid-twentieth century. Over the last twenty-five years, the discussion has steadily developed into an increasingly complicated search for shards of "orality" encased in the foreign soil of [hand-]written texts. I argue that this search, which I call the "morphological approach to oral tradition and the NT," misunderstands both what oral tradition is and how it affects the interpretation of ancient written texts. In place of this morphological approach, I build on the pioneering work of John Miles Foley to offer what I call the "contextual approach to oral tradition and the NT." Rather than looking for the shape (= morphology) of oral tradition in written texts, the contextual approach situates written traditions in relation to larger traditional dynamics, both oral and written. This approach goes beyond the recent and vibrant work on "intertextuality" because the scope of its vision is broader: Not the relation of one text to another but the relation of a written text as well as its author(s) and audience(s) to their circumambient tradition. This paper will focus on the theoretical discussion of oral tradition/performance and the interpretation of written texts; however, some attention will be given to suggestive concrete examples.