chapter  3
12 Pages

Contemporary Historical Approaches to the New Testament: Identity and Difference

The discussion of gender and Christian origins also brings us neatly to an area where modern assumptions and ideology are brought to the forefront of interpretation. A great deal of discussion of the more overtly ideological scholarship involves identity and difference. By ‘identity and difference’ I mean, generally speaking, the ways in which people view themselves, relate to others, and negotiate perceived similarities and differences with others in the world. Think, for example, of the ways in which the terms ‘American’, ‘British’, ‘European’, ‘African’, ‘Gentile’, or ‘Jewish’ are used. Identity is often established by the negative – who we are not – and so we might find identity formulated in familiar polarisations such as black and white, straight and gay, man and woman, and so on. But if we return to the examples of ‘American’, ‘British’ or ‘European’ then it is not too difficult to think of identities not being made explicit and being ignored. When talking of national identities, does this obscure class or racial divisions? What might the term ‘European’ mean for former colonies of European powers or immigrants from former colonies? Why did I choose the examples I chose? Does it say something about the location of this author and his audience? Why not choose ‘Chinese’, ‘Asian’, ‘Latin American’, ‘Brazilian’ and so on? Why choose nations or geographical terms? These sorts of questions have led to further questioning of biblical texts (among many others) and the search for what is not being mentioned in the text. Does the text assume an ethnic, gender or religious bias? Are other groups or other identities being excluded? We could go on endlessly with questioning but for present purposes the

ways in which identity is constructed by groups is important. Important terminology related to such questions involves ‘essentialist’ and ‘non-essentialist’ models of identity. An ‘essentialist’ model of identity would emphasise a fixed and unchanging set of features which defines a group. When we hear discussions of ‘Englishness’ or ‘Jewishness’, or what it means to be a ‘true American’ or a ‘true Christian’, or what ‘true Islam’ is, this would presumably mean such terms can be used by people with the assumption that there are certain

characteristics that define the given group. Or in gender terms, some people might argue that ‘real men’ are so because they eat meat, drink beer and watch football and/or that women are ‘real women’ because they are caring, like babies, worry about their presentation and so on. In this context, we might also think of the role of ethnic, gender, religious, etc. stereotypes, and indeed the ways in which these different roles intersect with one another. A related example from New Testament studies where the issue of essenti-

alist identity arises is over ‘Jewishness’. William Arnal criticises a significant trend in contemporary New Testament scholarship whereby Judaism is constructed as having a fixed identity and anything which comes outside of the scholarly definition of ‘Jewishness’ is deemed not Jewish, even though no known contemporary scholar denies Jesus was Jewish.1 It is indeed very common in New Testament scholarship, as we will see in important discussions of Paul in Chapter 7, that symbols such as circumcision, Sabbath, food laws, profound interest in Israel’s history and so on are deemed some of the ways that ‘Jewishness’ ought to be defined. Yet is Arnal’s criticism of such fixed identity markers not significant? What if someone identified as Jewish but did not really care about Sabbath or Israel’s history? Are they no longer to be deemed ‘Jewish’ by modern interpreters? Compare the following comments from N.T. Wright:

Have … the advocates of the Cynic Jesus, come to terms with the problematic analogy between themselves and those German scholars who, in the 1920s and 1930s, reduced almost to nil the specific Jewishness of Jesus and his message?2