Ethnic Fluidity in Ephesians*
Published online by Cambridge University Press: 06 June 2014
This essay examines Ephesians in light of current research in ethnic studies. The methodological advance of such an approach is twofold: first, it moves the exegesis of the domestic codes to the wider frame of the letter; and, second, it goes beyond the limited hermeneutical framework of the ‘origins’ of the reconciliation language to the more productive examination of its function in the text. The concept of ‘one new humanity’ provides evidence for the author's ethnic reasoning, which participated in ancient cultural affirmations of the essential fluidity and changeability of all ethnicity. The author of Ephesians domesticates the mythical language of baptism by making it fit the conventional morality of a household economy, thus presenting the letter's most important ecclesiological concept, that of ‘the body of Christ’, as a unity that is more moral than mythic.
- New Testament Studies , Volume 60 , Issue 3 , July 2014 , pp. 379 - 402
- Copyright © Cambridge University Press 2014
A revised version of a seminar paper from the 68th SNTS General Meeting held at Murdoch University in Perth, Australia, in July 2013. My thanks go to the participants of the SNTS Seminar on Social History and the New Testament, as well as to David Brakke, Denise Kimber Buell, Erich S. Gruen, Paula Fredriksen, Andrew T. Lincoln, Timothy McNiven and Peter Müller for helpful comments and criticism. None of them should be held responsible for my conclusions.
1 von Harnack, A., The Mission and Expansion of Christianity in the First Three Centuries (2 vols.; trans. Moffatt, James; New York: G. P. Putnam's Sons, 1908)Google Scholari.266–78; see Rader, W., The Church and Racial Hostility: A History of Interpretation of Ephesians 2:11–22 (BGBE 20; Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, 1978) 228–34Google Scholar. Quoting the formulation from anti-Christian polemics, Tertullian acknowledged its normally ethnic/racial connotations precisely in order to deny by reductio ad absurdum any such connotations in the case of Christians: ‘because there is indeed no nation (gens) that is not Christian … it is due to our (so-called) superstitio (excess of religion), not to our natio, that we are counted as the third race’ (the series being Romans, Jews and Christians) (Tert. Ad nat. 1.8.9–11 (CCSL i.22)); see also Tert. Scorp. 10.10 (CCSL ii.1089). Importantly, Tertullian had to argue against the ethnic reasoning that the sobriquet normally encouraged in ancient Roman audiences.
2 Barth, M., Ephesians (2 vols.; AB 34 and 34A; Garden City, NY: Doubleday and Company, 1974)Google Scholari.310–11.
3 Most unpersuasive has been Barth's overarching thesis about the epistle as genuine (ca. 62 ce), not pseudonymous (ca. 80–95 ce); see Sellin, G., Der Brief an die Epheser (KEK 8; Göttingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 2008) 57–8Google Scholar; MacDonald, M. Y., Colossians and Ephesians (SP 17; Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 2000) 16Google Scholar; Perkins, P., Ephesians (ANTC; Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press, 1997) 15Google Scholar; Dahl, N. A., ‘Einleitungsfragen zum Epheserbrief’, in id., Studies in Ephesians (ed. Hellholm, D., Blomkvist, V. and Fornberg, T.; WUNT 131; Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, 2000) 48Google Scholar; and Schnackenburg, R., Ephesians: A Commentary (trans. Heron, H.; Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1991) 24Google Scholar. On the pseudepigraphy of Ephesians, see now Ehrman, B. D., Forgery and Counterforgery: The Use of Literary Deceit in Early Christian Polemics (New York: Oxford University Press, 2013) 182–90Google Scholar.
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13 Chandra, K., ‘Introduction’, and ‘How Ethnic Identities Change’, Constructivist Theories of Ethnic Politics (New York: Oxford University Press, 2012) 19CrossRefGoogle Scholar, 132–78. A number of theorists seek to synthesise primordialism and constructivism; see Hale, H. E., ‘Explaining Ethnicity’, Comparative Political Studies 37 (2004) 458–85CrossRefGoogle Scholar.
14 Hall, J. M., Ethnic Identity in Greek Antiquity (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1997) 2CrossRefGoogle Scholar; cf. the review in Konstan, D., ‘Defining Ancient Greek Ethnicity’, Diaspora 6 (1997) 97–110CrossRefGoogle Scholar, who calls for even greater attention to the discursive construction of ethnicity. The new genetic research into ancient populations is, to be sure, problematising this claim somewhat; cf. M. D. Costa et al., ‘A Substantial Prehistoric European Ancestry amongst Ashkenazi Maternal Lineages’, Nature Communications 4 (2013) online article no. 2543 (available at: http://dx.doi.org/10.1038/ncomms3543); and Behar, D. M. et al. , ‘The Genome-wide Structure of the Jewish People’, Nature 466 (2010) 238–42CrossRefGoogle ScholarPubMed. Nonetheless, ethnicity as a social construct differs from genetics as a scientific discipline; the overlap between the two lies not in criteria of meaningfulness so much as in ‘group identity’, whether configured socially or genetically.
15 Smith, Anthony D., ‘Culture, Community and Territory: The Politics of Ethnicity and Nationalism’, International Affairs 72 (1996) 446CrossRefGoogle Scholar.
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17 A question that biblical scholars have raised before (e.g. Cosgrove, C. H., ‘Did Paul Value Ethnicity?’, CBQ 68 (2006) 268–90Google Scholar), and multiple scholars on ancient ethnicity have anticipated from historians in general (e.g. Malkin, I., ‘Introduction’, Ancient Perceptions of Greek Ethnicity (Washington, DC: Harvard University Center for Hellenic Studies, 2001) 3–4Google Scholar).
18 Hall, Ethnic Identity, 34–5 with the ancient references.
19 Aletti, J.-N., ‘The Ecclesiological Difficulties in the Letter to the Ephesians: Some Suggestions’, New Approaches for Interpreting the Letters of Saint Paul: Collected Essays (trans. Meyer, P. Manning; Subsidia biblica 43; Rome: Gregorian and Biblical Press, 2012) 357–78Google Scholar, at nn. 9 and 30, who conjectures that the term λαός must have been ‘too historical and worldly’ for the author of Ephesians. Aletti's main point is that ethnic reconciliation in Ephesians means union not with the πολιτεία of Israel but with that of ‘the saints’, the eschatologically realised church. Of course, λαός is the Septuagint's term of choice for Israel, even where in the Hebrew the word for the ‘people’ (of Israel) is goy.
20 Campany, R. F., ‘On the Very Idea of Religions (in the Modern West and in Early Medieval China)’, HR 42 (2003) 289Google Scholar, citing Smith, J. Z., Drudgery Divine: On the Comparison of Early Christianities and the Religions of Late Antiquity (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1990) 52Google Scholar. Cf. Mason, S., ‘Jews, Judaeans, Judaizing, Judaism: Problems of Categorization in Ancient History’, JSJ 38 (2007) 457–512Google Scholar, at 480–8, who disagrees with this axiom.
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22 Fredriksen, P., ‘Judaizing the Nations: The Ritual Demands of Paul's Gospel’, NTS 56 (2010) 232–52CrossRefGoogle Scholar, at 234–5; eadem, ‘Mandatory Retirement: Ideas in the Study of Christian Origins Whose Time Has Come to Go’, SR 35 (2006) 231–46Google Scholar.
23 Fredriksen, P., Augustine and the Jews: A Christian Defense of Jews and Judaism (New York: Doubleday, 2008) 6–7Google Scholar; eadem, ‘Paul, Practical Pluralism, and the Invention of Religious Persecution in Roman Antiquity’ (plenary address, conference on ‘Understanding Religious Pluralism’, Georgetown University, Washington, DC, May 2012).
24 Fredriksen, ‘Judaizing the Nations’, 234; for evidence of ancients saying essentially the same thing, see Celsus (‘every people [sc. ἔθνος] honours the traditions of its fathers’, apud Origen, Contra Celsum 5.25); and Julian, Ep. 20.454a (Jews ‘reserving their deepest devotion to their own god’, thinking that other gods ‘have been allotted to us Gentiles (τοῖς ἔθνεσιν) only’; trans. Wright, W. C., The Works of the Emperor Julian, vol. III (LCL; Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1923) 61Google Scholar).
25 D. K. Buell, Why This New Race; eadem, ‘Rethinking the Relevance of Race for Early Christian Self-Definition’, HTR (2001) 449–76Google Scholar; eadem, ‘God's Own People: Specters of Race, Ethnicity, and Gender in Early Christian Studies’, Prejudice and Christian Beginnings: Investigating Race, Gender, and Ethnicity in Early Christianity (ed. Nasrallah, L. and Schüssler, E.Fiorenza; Fortress Press, 2010) 159–90Google Scholar; Buell, D. K. and Hodge, C. J., ‘The Politics of Interpretation: The Rhetoric of Race and Ethnicity in Paul’, JBL 123 (2004) 235–51Google Scholar. I would place on this side of the debate also Isaac, B., The Invention of Racism in Classical Antiquity (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2004)Google Scholar.
26 Gruen, E. S., ‘Did Ancient Identity Depend on Ethnicity? A Preliminary Probe’, Phoenix 67 (2013) 1–22CrossRefGoogle Scholar; id., Rethinking the Other in Antiquity (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2011) 3–5Google Scholar and passim. Gruen does not share Shaye Cohen's idea of a change from ‘ethnic’ to ‘religious’ identity in ancient Judaism, let alone agreeing that such a change occurred at a particular point in time; for Gruen, such a dichotomy is dubious.
27 Cohen, S. J. D., The Beginnings of Jewishness: Boundaries, Varieties, Uncertainties (Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1999) 125–9Google Scholar; and id., ‘ἸΟϒΔΑΙΟΣ ΤΟ ΓΕΝΟΣ and Related Expressions in Josephus’, Josephus and the History of the Greco-Roman Period: Essays in Honor of Morton Smith (ed. Parente, F. and Sievers, J.; StPB 41; Leiden: Brill, 1994) 27Google Scholar, continues to perpetuate primordialist presuppositions that a person cannot change his or her ἔθνος (‘race’).
28 Buell, ‘Rethinking the Relevance of Race’, 468–9. See also the criticism of Cohen in Janowitz, N., ‘Rethinking Jewish Identity in Late Antiquity’, Ethnicity and Culture in Late Antiquity (ed. Mitchell, S. and Greatrex, G.; London: Duckworth, 2000) 207–9Google Scholar; Mason, ‘Jews, Judaeans’, 494–510; and Esler, P. F., Conflict and Identity in Romans: The Social Setting of Paul's Letter (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2003) 68–74Google Scholar.
29 P. Fredriksen, ‘Paul, Practical Pluralism’, 4 (in manuscript), emphasis original.
30 N. A. Dahl, ‘Ephesians and Qumran’, Studies in Ephesians, 107–44; Perkins, Ephesians, 115–19, 147; MacDonald, M. Y., ‘The Politics of Identity in Ephesians’, JSNT 26 (2004) 422–7Google Scholar. Ephesians thus removes the advice in Colossians about conduct towards outsiders; see Hultin, J. F., The Ethics of Obscene Speech in Early Christianity and Its Environment (NovTSupp 128; Leiden: Brill, 2008) 155–213CrossRefGoogle Scholar, at 206, who convincingly argues that Ephesians and Colossians come from different authors. The only other text in the Pauline corpus that matches the intensity of Ephesians’ call to separate from outsiders is 2 Cor 6.14–17, a fragment not just contradicting but directly opposing Paul's language of Gentile mission (see Betz, H. D., ‘2 Cor 6:14–7:1: An Anti-Pauline Fragment?’, Paulinische Studien: Gesammelte Aufsätze iii (Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, 1994) 20–45Google Scholar).
31 Eph 2.2–3, which effectively constructs ‘Paul’ (‘we’) as having once shared the same sinfully ‘Gentile’ past ethnicity that the invited readers also had discarded at baptism (cf. 1 Tim 1.12–17); Pervo, R. I., The Making of Paul: Constructions of the Apostle in Early Christianity (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2010) 15Google Scholar, 87, 288 n. 76.
32 I use the term invited audience (invited reader) purposefully, to describe not the actual audiences (whatever those might have been for a circular letter) but a reading community and its culture that the writer of Ephesians seeks to construct and wants to imagine as using the letter; see Johnson, W. A., Readers and Reading Culture in the High Roman Empire: A Study in Elite Communities (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2010) 81–4CrossRefGoogle Scholar.
33 Dunning, B. H., ‘Strangers and Aliens No Longer: Negotiating Identity and Difference in Ephesians 2’, HTR 99 (2006) 1–16CrossRefGoogle Scholar.
34 On baptismal motifs present throughout Ephesians, see N. A. Dahl, ‘The Concept of Baptism in Ephesians’, Studies in Ephesians, 413–39.
35 Buell, Why This New Race, 6–9, 37–41, drawing on the comparative analysis of Stoler, A. L., ‘Racial Histories and Their Regimes of Truth’, Political Power and Social Theory 11 (1997) 183–206Google Scholar, and Baumann, Gerd, The Multicultural Riddle: Rethinking National, Ethnic, and Religious Identities (New York: Routledge, 1999) 57–68Google Scholar, 90.
36 Buell, Why This New Race, 6–7. In this regard, my approach to ethnicity as a discourse differs from the appeal to putative laws of social behaviour found in, e.g. Esler, Conflict and Identity, 10–76, whose deductive use of six diagnostic indicia (esp. ancestry and territory) to ‘model’ the ‘nature’ of ethnicity treats the phenomenon too much as a fixed ‘thing’ (even in cases of dual or mixed ethnicity).
37 Sellin, Epheser, 92; Lincoln, Ephesians, 24. Cf. McEleney, N. J., ‘Conversion, Circumcision and the Law’, NTS 20 (1974) 339CrossRefGoogle Scholar, who claims that ‘blood’ here refers also to Christ's circumcision; the problem is that McEleney uses Col 2.11–14 to interpret Eph 1.7, a methodologically inappropriate harmonisation. Even if this hypothesis were correct, however, my point about ‘blood’ still holds: cult authorises paternity, which changes the Gentiles’ genealogy (ethnic fluidity). On the exegetical issues specific to Col 2.11–14, see Jacobs, A. S., Christ Circumcised: A Study in Early Christian History and Difference (Divinations; Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2012) 25–8Google Scholar.
38 The phrase διὰ τοῦ αἵματος (Eph 1.7) does not occur in the Colossian parallel passage of the hymn (Col 1.14), which suggests the phrase to be an intentional redaction of his source on the part of the author of Ephesians (likely a transposition from Col 1.20); see MacDonald, Colossians and Ephesians, 64, 200; Lincoln, Ephesians, 27; and Mitton, C. L., The Epistle to the Ephesians: Its Authorship, Origin and Purpose (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1951), 62Google Scholar.
39 This motif includes the idea of ‘compulsory mutability’ (if one can change, one must); see Buell, D. K., ‘Early Christian Universalism and Modern Forms of Racism’, The Origins of Racism in the West (ed. Eliav-Feldon, M., Isaac, B. and Ziegler, J.; Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2009) 109–31Google Scholar.
40 On sons both begotten and ‘made’ (by adoption) in Roman culture, see now Peppard, M., The Son of God in the Roman World: Divine Sonship in Its Social and Political Context (New York: Oxford University Press, 2011) 50–85CrossRefGoogle Scholar.
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42 Jay, Throughout Your Generations, xxiii.
43 Stowers, ‘Greeks Who Sacrifice’, 300–6.
44 Hall, Ethnic Identity, 44–7; id., Hellenicity, 189–99; R. Thomas, ‘Ethnicity, Genealogy, and Hellenism in Herodotus’, Ancient Perceptions, 215–18. See also Mason, ‘Jews, Judaeans’, 462–8; Lieu, J., ‘“Impregnable Ramparts and Walls of Iron”: Boundary and Identity in Early “Judaism” and “Christianity”’, NTS 48 (2002) 302–3CrossRefGoogle Scholar; and Kok, M., ‘The True Covenant: Ethnic Reasoning in the Epistle of Barnabas’, SR 40 (2011) 85Google Scholar.
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49 Williams, J., ‘Religion and Roman Coins’, A Companion to Roman Religion (ed. Rüpke, J.; Blackwell Companions to the Ancient World; Malden, MA: Blackwell, 2007) 144–5Google Scholar (Fig. 11.4).
50 On the scene, see Hahn, F. H., ‘Performing the Sacred: Prayers and Hymns’, A Companion to Roman Religion 240–1Google Scholar; Graf, F., ‘The Power of the Word in the Graeco-Roman World’, La Potenza della parola: destinatari, funzioni, bersagli. Atti del Convegno di studi, Siena, 7–8 maggio 2002 (ed. Beta, S.; Fiesole (Florence): Cadmo, 2004) 97Google Scholar; and Harrill, J. A., ‘Divine Judgment against Ananias and Sapphira (Acts 5:1–11): A Stock Scene of Perjury and Death’, JBL 130 (2011) 351–69Google Scholar. Breytenbach, ‘Salvation of the Reconciled’, insists that such reconciliation language is ‘non-religious’ (i.e. not made towards deities), a logic separating the religious and the political in antiquity that escapes me, especially in light of the sacrifices that sealed such pacts; see Fitzgerald, ‘Paul and Paradigm Shifts’, 252–5, 322–3.
51 On the binary opposition being essentially ethnic – Jew vs non-Jew; not Christians (in the ethnically generic sense of ‘believers’) vs non-Christians (in the ethnically generic sense of ‘unbelievers’) – see Dunning, ‘Strangers and Aliens’, 10–11; and Lincoln, Ephesians, 135. On ἔθνη having a geographic meaning rather than a ‘religious’ one in Roman discourse, see Meeks, W. A., ‘From Jerusalem to Illyricum, Rome to Spain: The World of Paul's Missionary Imagination’, The Rise and Expansion of Christianity in the First Three Centuries of the Common Era (ed. Rothschild, C. K. and Schröter, J.; WUNT 301; Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, 2013) 171–2Google Scholar. Additionally, οἰκεῖος (Eph 2.19) is a technical term characterising the language of kinship diplomacy; on this term, see Jones, Kinship Diplomacy, 14, 101, 125.
52 I agree with a consensus of commentators who see no evidence in the letter for an actual occasion or specific social situation, except perhaps a perceived need in the late first century to make the Pauline tradition intelligible to circles of increasingly dominant Gentile congregations with little awareness of any Jewish heritage; see the excellent discussion in Pervo, The Making of Paul, 71–7.
53 In early scholarship, parallels were drawn only to Rabbinic literature; Abbott, T. K., A Critical and Exegetical Commentary on the Epistles to the Ephesians and to the Colossians (ICC; Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1897) 60Google Scholar. Additional examples have now been found in the Qumran writings and Hellenistic Jewish authors such as Philo (Virt. 102–3). Sellin, Epheser, 200, 203–4; Lincoln, Ephesians, 127, 138–9, 144, 146–7; D. C. Smith, ‘Jewish and Greek Traditions in Ephesians 2:11–22’ (PhD diss., Yale University, 1970) 44 and passim; cf. Best, E., A Critical and Exegetical Commentary on Ephesians (ICC; Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1998) 245Google Scholar, who downplays the proselyte theme in favour of biblical (‘OT’) parallels.
54 Dunning, ‘Strangers and Aliens’, 12–13; Butler, J., Excitable Speech: A Politics of the Performative (New York: Routledge, 1997) 31–4Google Scholar, 43–68.
55 Ephesians thus develops commonplaces in ancient Jewish polemic against ‘Gentile’ culture found in Paul's undisputed letters; on this perspective in Romans, see Stowers, S. K., A Rereading of Romans: Justice, Jews, and Gentiles (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1994), 107–9Google Scholar.
56 Meeks, ‘In One Body’, 215: ‘The Spirit is only the “down payment on the inheritance” (Eph 1:12)’.
57 Dunning, ‘Strangers and Aliens’, 15; Meeks, ‘In One Body’, 215; id., ‘Image of the Androgyne’, 24–5. For the baptismal imagery, see Eph 4.22–4. In this way, I agree with Nils Astrup Dahl's thesis that Ephesians was written to be a baptismal reminder (‘Anamnesis’, ST 1 (1947) 80–1Google Scholar; id., ‘Concept of Baptism’, 415–16).
58 Harrill, Slaves in the New Testament, 97–9, 115–16.
59 See Beard, M., North, J., Price, S., Religions of Rome, vol. i: A History (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998) 20–1Google Scholar; Gruen, E. S., Culture and Identity in Republican Rome (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1992) 6–51Google Scholar; and Erskine, A., Troy between Greece and Rome: Local Tradition and Imperial Power (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2001) 15–34Google Scholar, 254–8, and passim.
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61 Preston, R., ‘Roman Questions, Greek Answers: Plutarch and the Construction of Identity’, Being Greek under Rome: Cultural Identity, the Second Sophistic and the Development of Empire (ed. Goldhill, S.; Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2001) 87Google Scholar.
62 Aristides, Regarding Rome 26.63; The Complete Works / P. Aelius Aristides, vol. ii: Orations XVII–LIII (trans. Behr, C. A.; Leiden: E. J. Brill, 1981) 86Google Scholar; commentary in Oliver, J. H., The Ruling Power: A Study of the Roman Empire in the Second Century after Christ through the Roman Oration of Aelius Aristides (TAPhS n.s. 43.4; Philadelphia: American Philosophical Society, 1953) 884Google Scholar, 929. Similar idea: Josephus, Against Apion 2.40–42; Strabo 3.2.15 and 4.1.12 (see E. C. van der Vliet, L., ‘The Romans and Us: Strabo's Geography and the Construction of Ethnicity’, Mnemosyne, 4th ser., 56 (2003) 269–70CrossRefGoogle Scholar). Primary references illustrating this Roman discourse are surveyed also in Donaldson, T. L., ‘“Gentile Christianity” as a Category in the Study of Christian Origins’, HTR 106 (2013) 454–57CrossRefGoogle Scholar.
63 Contextualising Ephesians in the genre of benefaction, Hendrix, Holland (‘On the Form and Ethos of Ephesians’, USQR 42 (1988) 3–15)Google Scholar explains its cumbersome style as following that of dedicatory benefaction inscriptions, which have extremely long sentences and pile up adjectives. See also Sellin, Epheser, 207–10, following Faust, E., Pax Christi et Pax Caesaris (NTOA; Göttingen: Vandenhoeck and Ruprecht, 1993) 315–25CrossRefGoogle Scholar. I disagree, though, with Faust's attempt to locate this benefaction language in the concrete context of an anti-imperial subversion of the Roman peace of Flavian rule.
64 Oliver, Ruling Power, 888. Provincial conscripts adopting Roman names: Balsdon, J. P. V. D., Romans and Aliens (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1979) 152Google Scholar; Doer, B., Die römische Namengebung: Ein historische Versuch (1937; repr. New York: Arno Press, 1975) 181Google Scholar. Unit cohesion: Haynes, I., ‘Introduction’, The Roman Army as a Community (ed. Goldsworth, A. and Haynes, I.; Journal of Roman Archaeology Suppl. 34; Portsmouth, RI: Journal of Roman Archaeology, 1999) 9–11Google Scholar. Meeks, ‘From Jerusalem’, 167, 171–2.
65 See Muddiman, Ephesians, 50.
66 See Rader, Church and Racial Hostility, 251–2.