I have long puzzled over how to understand the gentiles in Paul, both from his perspective and their own perspective. I operate under the assumption that he is writing primarily to them and his goal is to articulate and manage just how they are connected to Israel through Christ. In the process, as I have discussed elsewhere, both he and they undergo various transformations in identity, changes that, I maintain, never separate him from Judaism and that affiliate gentiles with Israel but not as full members. They are not Jews and, in my view, they are not Christians…
-Caroline Johnson Hodge
Mark D. Nanos and Magnus Zetterholm, Editors
“The Question of Identity: Gentiles as Gentiles–but also Not–in Pauline Communities”
Paul within Judaism: Restoring the First-Century Context to the Apostle (Kindle Edition)
More than the previous essays I’ve reviewed from this volume, this one speaks in detail not only to the identity issues involved in being a “Gentile in Christ” in the time of the Apostle Paul, but also to those of us who call ourselves “Messianic Gentiles” today.
For the vast majority of mainstream Christians in churches, this identity conundrum does not exist. Being “Christians” is self-defining and self-explanatory and perhaps anachronistically, they believe they have direct one-to-one connectedness of identity with Paul’s own Gentiles. According to Hodge, nothing could be further from the truth, or at least further from the facts.
Many scholars use the term “Christian” for these gentile believers, even though there is fairly widespread agreement that it is anachronistic. There are good reasons not to use it: Paul does not use it himself…
At the scholarly level, it may well be agreed that Paul did not consider the Gentile disciples “Christians” nor that there is much, if any, comparison between the ancient ekklesia and the modern Church. Nevertheless, at the level of the local church and the local Pastor, I have heard it preached, specifically to Acts 20, that there are close comparisons that can be made between ancient believers and today’s Christian in the pew.
This is another case of the lag between academic discourse and what most Christians hear preached from the pulpit. It’s not so much because these Pastors are unaware of new research, but that such information does not make a good fit, either with the Pastors’ theology and doctrine or what would be accepted by their parishioners.
According to Hodge, Paul calls his Gentile disciples “beloved, holy ones, faithful ones, brothers and sisters, and a new creation,” but if they weren’t “Christians,” who were they?
She argues that defining their identity remains somewhat elusive and that these “gentiles occupy an in-between space, hovering around the borders of identities that they are not quite.”
That’s not particularly satisfying but I know exactly how that “hovering” feels in my personal and congregational experience in various Messianic communities, or at least those few I’ve had the opportunity to visit.
Hodge’s line of pursuit in attempting to examine this “identity problem” is to trace how Paul “draws upon Jewish conceptions of gentiles, especially where they approach the boundaries of Jewish identity.”
Is it possible that there’s more than one kind of Gentile? According to Hodge, in the late Second Temple period when Paul was operating, there were two broad categories.
There’s the Jewish concept of the “generic” Gentile, that is, anyone who isn’t Jewish is a Gentile, regardless of how differentiated people from one culture or nation may be from another.
Then there are Gentiles in Christ, the disciples made by Paul and others.
And in Paul’s usage, this term has a doubleness to it in that there are two kinds of gentiles. First, there are the audiences of his letters, whom he addresses explicitly as gentiles in a number of places (Rom. 1:5-6, 13; 11:13; 15:6). Second, there are all the other gentiles who are not in Christ, the sort of gentiles that believers used to be.
That narrows things down but only a little. This believing group of Gentiles used to be, but no longer are, like the generic not-in-Christ Gentiles that populate the world. They used to be them but now they’re something else, occupying “a kind of liminal space between being those kinds of gentiles and now these kind of gentiles.”
Some of the characteristics of “these kinds of gentiles” in Christ include rejecting “idolatry and sexual immorality and [to] practice self mastery in holiness and honor.'”
Elsewhere Paul describes this as the life of the spirit, which they receive at baptism, so that, Paul says, “the just requirement of the Law might be fulfilled in us” (Rom. 8:4). But he is adamant that they not keep Jewish Law, especially with respect to circumcision for male gentiles. Indeed, gentiles-in-Christ are not quite gentiles and not quite Jews.
This level of ambiguity may have ultimately been unsustainable and resulted in the eventual schism between the Christ-believing Gentiles and the Messiah-believing Jews, although Hodge doesn’t address this point in her essay.
She does say that while remaining gentiles, these non-Jewish believers did participate in Jewish community and Jewish practices, behaving “Jewishly” but not being Jewish, as Mark Nanos has previously stated.
In fact, there may have been “a sliding scale of gentile participation in Judaism” such that there was no one fixed standard for the behavior of non-Jews in Jewish community and worship space.
I hope I’m not being anachronistic in applying this to those modern “Messianic Gentiles” who operate within Jewish spaces such as Beth Immanuel (although arguably, Beth Immanuel could be recognized as a Gentile space that behaves very “Jewishly”) and Tikvat Israel. From personal observation, I’ve seen a wide degree of variability in just how “Jewish” many non-Jews behave within these communities and elsewhere.
Perhaps this isn’t a matter of a lack of accepted standards for Gentiles, but a reflection of the necessity of process for non-Jews in community with Jews.
Hodge approaches her investigation from two avenues: one that uses the logic of lineage and the other one that uses the logic of purity.
Seed of Abraham
Hodge cites Ezra, particularly Ezra 9, and Jubilees chapter 30 to illustrate how purity of lineage was used to create a strong distinction between the Jewish people and the rest of the world, effectively excluding Gentiles from community with Israel. Not just the priests, but each individual Jew was defined as “holy unto the Lord,” set apart, unique, special, particularly from the goyim.
Furthermore, Jubilees uses the holy seed idea to distinguish between gentiles and Jews. Although gentiles number among Abraham’s seed…
…they are not part of the holy seed that belongs with God…
And that holy seed that belongs with God” began with the progeny of Abraham’s son Isaac. It is of this holy lineage which Jubilees refers to as a “kingdom of priests.”
Paul uses the same argument, only leveraging it for Gentile inclusion rather than exclusion. His rather unique interpretation states that in the promise that Abraham will be the father to many nations, and that this promise was made before the giving of the Torah, the Gentiles-in-Christ inherit the role of “Abraham’s seed” due to the faithfulness of Messiah.
As I have discussed at length elsewhere, baptism in Paul is a ritual adoption, creating a kinship relationship between gentiles and Abraham (Gal. 3; Rom. 4)…
Indeed, one of these promises, foretold by Scripture to Abraham long ago, is that, “All the gentiles (ethnê) will be blessed in you” (Gal. 3:8; Gen. 12:3; 18:18).
Paul’s own creative interpretation of Scripture allows him to claim that these ethnê mentioned in Genesis are those gentiles who have been baptized into Christ. We should not be surprised at their inclusion in God’s plan; they were present in Abraham’s body at the time of the blessing.
So, according to how I’m reading Hodge, Paul was employing not so much a literal interpretation of scripture, but using widely sweeping metaphors, his own personal midrash, to make linkages between Abraham and the Christ-believing Gentiles. Once having undergone baptism as a symbolic rite of adoption, a new kinship was formed between the faithful Gentiles and the Jews in Messiah.
However, the term “adoption” should not be assumed to be the same as the legal process in modern American courts whereby a child who is not biologically produced by two married people becomes legally indistinguishable from any children born to the marital couple.
Although the “Messianic Gentiles” who are “adopted” through the rite of baptism are equally “in Christ” with their Jewish counterparts, equally apprehending the blessings of the New Covenant, such as the Holy Spirit and promise of the resurrection, Hodge emphasized repeatedly that this “adoption” did not make the gentiles Jewish nor did it in any sense obligate them to observe the Torah mitzvot in the manner of the Jews.
Paul’s rather complex metaphorical language in his epistles was necessary to articulate a concept that even today is not well understood. Just how are Gentiles included in any of the blessings of a covenant God made exclusively with Israel? The “Abraham connection” is the key, but even then, as we continue to discover through Hodge’s article, exactly who and what we Gentiles are in Christ remains a puzzle, at least in the details.
The second tact Hodges employes is the sense of the Gentiles being set apart in Christ, being holy and in need of protection.
Paul does not develop a concept of a holy seed, but he does develop the idea of holy bodies for gentile believers. In 1 Corinthians 6, Paul offers a “before and after” assessment of the Corinthians…
Earlier in this review, I mentioned two types of gentiles in Paul’s day, believing vs. non-believing gentiles:
Here Paul seems to refer to their baptism with the term “washed,” implying that he understands it as a purifying rite that brings the gentiles into right relationship with God. In this passage and in others that similarly mark the baptized gentiles as now holy…
As priestly bodies are “holy to the Lord,” Corinthian bodies “belong to the Lord” and not to porneia (1 Cor. 6:13, 19-20).
…so Corinthians are “members of Christ” (6:15) and must protect this holy body.
From Hodge’s perspective, the believing Gentiles in Corinth underwent “a material transformation that makes them into the Jewish body of Israel’s messiah.” Citing Benny Liew, she further states, “…on this multiethnic mixture, ‘Paul is engineering here nothing less than an inter-racial/ethnic bodily substitution….The Corinthian body…is, in other words, built on and through a racial/ethic other…'”
That’s a little difficult for me to get my brain around and it doesn’t seem to clear up who we “Messianic Gentiles” are supposed to be except that we are neither fish nor fowl, so to speak. The bottom line of this section of Hodge’s essay is that Gentiles in Messiah have a “holy, mixed identity.”
Gentiles as a Part of Israel’s Story
According to Hodge, the “seed of Abraham” argument and the “purity” discourse serve two separate rhetorical purposes. The Galatians “seed” commentary was focused primarily on explaining why Gentiles are not required to observe the Torah mitzvot as do the Jews. This is because their/our identity as “gentiles-in-Christ” and how we become part of Israel’s story is through Abraham and before Moses and the Sinai event. We are recipients of the promise to be Abraham’s children from the nations who can only fulfill that promise by remaining Gentiles.
While the Jews have a very specific set of responsibilities defining their identity, it’s not so clear what the obligations of the believing Gentiles are except:
In 1 Corinthians, Paul responds to competing ideas about how to live this new life in Christ. Throughout his letter he tries to control gentile bodies, urging harmony, cooperation, and self control. These persuasive aims are responsible at least in part for the ways Paul portrays gentile identity in each.
That’s bound to be a little disappointing to modern Messianic Gentiles who are hoping for something a little more codified. Nevertheless, we do have the general guidepost of separating ourselves from other, non-believing Gentiles and from our former lives, in order to live a life in Messiah that is pure, decent, and sanctified, being inhabited by the “pneuma” of Christ. We are called to worship the God of Israel as Gentiles and not as Israel. This was non-negotiable for Paul.
…when Christ returns to establish God’s kingdom, it is necessary for Israel and the gentiles to worship God not as one people, but as separate peoples–now worshipping together, as expected in the awaited age. Paul is clear in Romans 9-11, where he lays out this larger plan, that Jews and gentiles remain separate.
Rethinking the Question
If my analysis has shown that Paul’s portrayal of gentiles as mixed or ambiguous makes some sense in Jewish context of eschatological expectation, it simultaneously raises some important cautions about the concepts of identity. My initial question–who are the gentiles?–itself assumes that there is an answer…
But what if there isn’t an answer? What does that mean for Yeshua-believing Gentiles in Jewish communities today?
Hodge raises two problems. The first is that any assumption about the answer presumes an identity that is overly simplistic. While a nice, neatly wrapped gift of well-defined Gentile identity might be satisfying, it could also sell who we are in Messiah short, denying the complexity of our role and function in the Messianic ekklesia.
The other problem is that such an assumption confuses the strategies of the speaker, that is Paul, with a description of reality.
Remember, I called Paul’s letters an exercise in metaphorical or midrashic writing. Such commentaries are not meant to be taken in an overly literal manner, and yet much of Christian exegetical tradition does just that. If we’re attempting to build a literal model out of metaphorical material, no wonder we have chronically misunderstood Paul in the Church.
…his [Paul’s] rhetoric is prescriptive, not descriptive, and his goal is to coax the gentiles to think and behave in certain ways.
Citing Brubaker, Hodge writes:
…that ethnic identity should be viewed as a process, a perspective on the world, rather than a thing that exists independent of human arguments.
I read that as Messianic Gentiles not having a fixed, static identity in Jewish space but rather, we are in the process of becoming, not just being. Also, that identity likely flexes depending on our specific circumstances and our relationship to Jewish community.
In the ancient world, there were “myriad social formations” that contributed to identity and I don’t think anything has changed relative to Gentile identity in Jewish space. While Galatians 3:28 defines both Jew and Gentile as “one in Christ,” that “oneness” does not imply identical identity in any manner. It does define a place where Jew and Gentile meet and whereby we take on a shift in identity from who we Gentiles were without God to who we are now with God.
But God is a God of Israel as well as the world and when a Jew comes to faith in Messiah, he/she changes less than does the Gentile.
The Jew already has an identity with God as defined through the covenants. Faith in Messiah is the next step in the revelation of God to Israel, a continuation along the same, straight line. For the Gentile, the change in identity is radical to the extreme. Everything we were before as individuals and as people groups undergoes transformation. In ancient days, a lot of that transformation borrowed from Jewish praxis simply because no other model was available.
But now, as it existed then, Gentiles in Jewish community remain Gentiles and behave “Jewishly” on a sliding scale of behavior depending on role and circumstances, but still only vaguely defined. Being a Messianic Gentile is a continual journey of discovery, not a destination where we can hope to arrive, at least anytime soon.
I’ve found Hodge’s article thoroughly enjoyable and hopefully you will find it equally illuminating. Being Gentiles-in-Messiah isn’t about who we are but who we are becoming. Each day is new and we are new with the coming dawn.
Judaism is not all or nothing; it is a journey where every step counts, to be pursued according to one’s own pace and interest.
-from the Ask the Rabbi column