BMCR 2005.02.30

Christian Identity in the Jewish and Graeco-Roman World

, Christian identity in the Jewish and Graeco-Roman world. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004. x, 370 pages ; 23 cm. ISBN 0199262896 $99.00.

Judith Lieu is one of the leading scholars in the field of Jewish and Christian identity in the Greco-Roman period, and this book is her latest contribution to the discussion. Those familiar with her work have come to expect a cautious, thorough and balanced analysis of the ancient literature and a firm grasp of the varied modern discussions of identity. That quality of scholarship marks the present work too. Although the primary focus is on Christian identity in the first two centuries, as suggested by the title, considerable attention is given to Jewish, as well as Greek and Roman perceptions of identity. The book will, without a doubt, become a key one in the discussion of early Christian identity, but its rich exploration into Jewish identity makes it a serious contribution to that field as well.

The book consists of ten chapters. The first and last tie the chapters together. Otherwise, the chapters stand well by themselves as coherent explorations into various dimensions of the problem of Jewish and Christian identity in the first two centuries of the common era, and I shall treat each chapter as such in the review below.

The older approach to literature was to read texts as descriptions of reality. In chapter 2, “Text and Identity,” Lieu reflects the new caution of reading texts as rhetorical presentations of an ideal world rather than accurate descriptions of the reality on the ground, though she recognizes the powerful way in which texts do function to construct real worlds. In particular, Lieu examines the importance of texts (both old and new) in shaping Jewish and Christian identity, with special attention to the various ways that Christians employed Jewish texts and translations (the Septuagint) in shaping an identity of their own. Lieu reflects modern sensibility when she describes the creation and use of texts in defining identity as acts of power (though I wonder why participants in the debate are not satisfied with the simple, more neutral word “tool” to describe a text used in this regard). That texts play a significant role in the construction of identity becomes particularly clear when we discover that all the chapters that follow are really about texts and the shaping of identity.

In chapter 3, “History, Memory, and the Invention of Tradition,” Lieu looks at how texts construct a necessary past with which the present identity can be associated and have continuity. Such reconstruction involves selection, remembering some things and, as Lieu pointedly reminds us, of purposefully forgetting others (64). The role of Scripture in inventing or constructing a past is examined, and Lieu shows how contemporary concerns were worked into the constructed past, as is demonstrated well in the literature of Jewish authors, such as the writers of the Maccabean material, Jubilees, the Damascus Document, and Josephus’s works. The Christian side is then examined, where Christians construct their past by imprinting Jewish texts with an occasional Christological reference. Indeed, Lieu thinks that Christians read everything through this Christological perspective, so much so that Jewish literature, even untouched by any Christological interpolation, might still be used by Christians. Whether this creates a problem when speaking of a “Christian” identity or when using the label “Christian” for this literature and community, as Lieu thinks it does (77, 79), is another matter. Lieu notes that Christian writers also used other approaches in appropriating Jewish history and literature, in some cases explicitly denying Jews any right to the past that Christians have expropriated from them. Lieu then considers the use (or lack of use) of the Jesus material in constructing a past for the Christian communities, where Luke’s Gospel is perhaps the exception in emphasizing such continuity.

Chapter 5, “Boundaries,” is the longest and most significant part of Lieu’s book. Here Lieu confronts immediately the false perception of boundaries and identity as “fixed and stable.” Lieu examines how groups respond to boundaries (the response is not uniform), and she argues that the social reality reveals that the boundaries often are more permeable than the rhetoric of texts would suggest. Some boundaries are then discussed, in particular the Greek and barbarian and Hebraism and Hellenism divisions. Special attention is given to boundary markers for Jewish identity in the inter-testamental period (descent from Abraham, male circumcision, Sabbath, calendar, food and marriage regulations). These marks are then shown not always to have shaped Jewish identity in texts from the Hellenistic period, which suggests a situation of negotiable or flexible boundaries in Jewish identity. Lieu admits that Greco-Roman writers who referred to Jews often did so in terms of these markers, but she mutes the force of this evidence by noting that these authors may have been referring more specifically to Jews of Palestine. Jewish identity was not as fixed as commonly assumed, Lieu reminds us. Paul is then considered, with some suspicion that he may have been the culprit who made circumcision the focal point in Jewish identity. A detailed examination of Paul leads Lieu to the conclusion that there is “considerable ambiguity and instability in Paul’s construction of the boundaries” (130). Other early texts and communities that commonly have been labeled “Christian” are examined, where, on the one hand, the boundaries between Christian and Jewish seem less important (e.g., Clement of Rome) and, on the other hand, the boundaries are sharp and unequivocal (e.g., Ignatius, who probably coined the term “Christianity” or is, at least, the first to use the term in the surviving literature). The boundaries that mark off heresy are also considered, and pagan and Jewish perceptions of Christians are briefly noted.

In chapter 6, “The Grammar of Practice,” Lieu considers how a shared language of practice and symbol can create a common unity, while at the same time accommodating a variety of individual interpretations of these commonly held markers of identity. Lieu first analyzes Judaism and reviews the “orthodoxy” versus “orthopraxy” debate there. Lieu confronts those who create multiple “Judaisms” out of multiple interpretations of Judaism found in the ancient literature, arguing for a shared identity among the varying interpretations. Interestingly, Lieu could — but does not — argue for the same situation in the Christian context, where diversity may be held within a common unity (a judgment not particularly trendy at the moment, but one worthy of consideration in light of Lieu’s observation about Judaism). So, too, regarding Lieu’s conclusion that “contradiction, conflict, and ambivalence are fundamental characteristics of normative systems and of the social practices in which they are instantiated” (164). She makes this comment about Judaism; surely it applies with equal force to Christianity. Lieu then offers brief comments on the sense of shared values and mutual support in the Christian world, which leads to a discussion of how Christian behavior compared to Jewish and pagan. There is much more in the common behavior of these groups than one might anticipate from the rhetorical literature, as Lieu points out. Where Lieu’s work often differs from much of the contemporary debate is the consistent clarity with which she sees the other side of the evidence. For example, as Lieu concludes chapter six, she reminds us that the threads of continuity linking the behaviors of Christians, Jews and pagans in the ancient world should not “blind us to the emergence of a new map of that world” (177).

In the first half of chapter 7, “Embodiment and Gender,” Lieu discusses how women are portrayed (and contrasted to the male) in the ancient Mediterranean , examining Greek, Roman, and Jewish presentations. About half the chapter deals with the Christian literature, and there the subject turns more broadly to the body, covering issues of Paul’s treatment of the flesh, of the suffering body (Jesus and the martyrs), and of the ascetic ideal (perhaps one of the most distinctive features of early Christian practice), with a brief reference to the debate over the degree to which female asceticism reflected a liberation of women. Lieu shows sensitivity to the ambiguities in this debate.

In chapter 7, “Space and Place,” Lieu focuses on, not symbolic, but “real” space in constructing identity. The city of Rome offers a clear example of concrete space and group identity, a particularism that, at times, stands in tension with the concept of the universalism implied by empire. Jewish sense of space is similarly in tension between the particularism of Palestine (with concepts of land and Temple) and universalistic tendencies found in some Jewish literature. Lieu discusses the diaspora realities in light of the particularism that Judaism sometimes implied. She points out that Christians appropriated some of Judaism’s sense of sacred space, particularly in its eschatological reflection (e.g., the New Jerusalem), though a more negative view of Jewish space can be found in the Christian literature too, where a heavenly Jerusalem is contrasted to the Jerusalem below (the Jerusalem of Jewish reality). In the final part of this chapter, Lieu contrasts Christians’ view of themselves as sojourners with the contention often found in early Christian literature of Christians being not foreigners but much like anyone else in the empire. But surely these are not irreconcilable visions: a Christian community could see itself as sojourning in the world (a reality that only they see) while recognizing the common life that they share with the larger society about them (which Tertullian, for example, is happy to point out to non-Christians who treat Christians as strange or foreign). Further, Lieu certainly makes too much of the details of language when she treats the common phrase “the church in such-and-such a town” as indicative that Christians do not view themselves as foreigners in the world. Surely that phrasing cannot bear such weight.

Chapter 8, “The Christian Race,” addresses how the labels “Jew” and “Christian” were used in the ancient world (by both insider and outsider), and whether they were mutually exclusive and largely terms of parity, as they are today. For those whom we might call Jews, the words “Hebrew” and “Israel” were also used and may have been the terms of preference for the insider. Further, there is some debate whether the term “Jew” was primarily ethnic or religious. But the majority of the chapter focuses on the Christian labels, and Lieu’s contribution to this discussion (nineteen pages) will probably, and certainly should, become the starting point for all further discussion on the matter.

In chapter 9, “The Other,” Lieu deals with the other side of boundary drawing: the creation of “the other,” and considers whether “the other” must always be viewed as oppositional. Lieu points out “how powerful a weapon of otherness” is. Granted, the language describing “the other” is sometimes quite nasty, but the debate often fails, as Lieu too fails, to appreciate that often the language of otherness (no matter how vile) has no audience outside the group defining the boundaries, and thus such negative depiction has little impact other than for reinforcing the group’s own boundaries. This is primarily true, granted, for small groups in the process of defining themselves, but that is the context for any consideration of the early Christian or Jewish definition of otherness.

Lieu’s good judgment shines through on a number of issues, and the final chapter is filled with reflections of good sense. This positive work will help focus much of the future debate, and though the occasional fault can be found with Lieu’s reading of the evidence, it has a certain consistency of good judgment, balance and fairness that sets it well above much of the scholarship in this field — scholarship which frequently is marked by hyperbole and one-sidedness.

The problems that I have with Lieu’s work are the problems I have generally with the debate about Jewish and Christian identity in the early period — a debate in which Lieu’s writings are generally among the least problematic. That is, there is a tendency to narrow the gap between Jew and Christian, sometimes causing us to overlook the simple fact that were we to put a Clement and an Ignatius together, each would have preferred the company of the other to that of the local synagogue, and each would have sensed that he shared a common identity with the other that neither shared with the local Jewish community.

One final note: Lieu’s last brief comments, with which she attempts to garner support for contemporary concerns about identity and difference by appeal to the past, seem too hopeful — and, perhaps, out of place.