- Ethnic Inheritance and Negotiating Multiple Identities
Caroline Johnson Hodge’s If Sons, Then Heirs: A Study of Kinship and Ethnicity in the Letters of Paul offers a reading of Paul as showing how identity is constructed through kinship and ethnicity. Working against the grain of much scholarship that explicates Pauline texts according to the interpretive framework of a universal/ethnic dichotomy, Johnson Hodge roots Paul in his Jewish context to overcome the standard conception of Christianity as a universal religion that transcends historical particulars such as ethnicity, kinship, political location, race, culture, etc. Peoplehood and lineage are central to Paul’s theo-political argument that the event of Christ’s death and resurrection re-construes the origins of gentile Christfollowers such that they share a common ancestry with the Jews in Abraham. According to Paul, non- Jewish persons may become part of Jewish salvation history as the people of God of Israel, not because Christ’s universality elides all differences, but because the cross and empty tomb provide the conditions for a new mythological radix that forms a tensional yet salvifically ascriptive aggregate. Paul uses kinship and ethnic categories to recreate the identity of his non-Jewish audience, producing the possibility of becoming descendents of Abraham through the ritual of baptism. Christ-followers only secondarily inherit the identity and divine promises that were first given to the Jews; the notion that Christianity could supersede Judaism is rejected out of hand.
Johnson Hodge argues that Paul uses patrilineal descent - a concept contemporaneous with Paul – as a mechanism to craft a new genealogy that links gentiles (non-Jews) to Israel through Christ. Far from being a given, fixed set of familial circumstances or historical relations, the logic of inheritance, descent, and connection through the male bloodline is a strategy of status establishiment. “Blood” or biology are not neutral ways of classifying lineage as we might understand them today. Kinship is malleable, used to institute authority for various social hierarchies. That ancestry can be orchestrated does not negate the “natural” sense of consanguinity. Ethnicity, says Johnson Hodge, consists in the dynamic of a natural yet malleable identity. Ethnic groups usually bound together through a shared kinship, yet this kinship – the essential common bond that forms the groups’ organic cohesion – remains socially structured and constructed. Put differently, what seems to be antagonistically paradoxical in a predetermined-yetshapeable identity – namely, kinship and the social -- actually work in tandem to configure a strategic construction. The categories of kinship and ethnicity are not merely metaphorical, but are the primary modes that shape the relationship between Jews and God, Paul and gentiles, Paul and Jews. Patriliny offers an authority to Paul’s new genealogy that legitimizes non-Jewish inheritance of God’s promises. Nevertheless, the “blood ties” assumed in the language of patrilineal descent are far from ironclad.
For Paul, the employment of patriliny forms a myth that makes it possible for non-Jewish people to share in Jewish identity without the need for Jews to share in non-Jewish identity. Paul, as a Jew working for and with the gentiles, engages in “mythmaking” as he argues that non-Jews have become affixed to the Jewish originary moment. Myth, here, is not a repository but a tool used to persuade. Paul writes to a non-Jewish audience in order to convince them that they have a new identity – they have been given a new status with new attributes – and thus a new way of life that finds its intelligibility in the God and people of Israel. Paul’s letters are not ethical handbooks for new converts to apply to moral issues, nor are they ideological treatises that espouse a new universal religion with dogmas deployed against archaic parochial cults. Neither is Paul renovating the constitution of Jews as God’s people, for they are always already God’s chosen. Instead, Paul is creating a myth that aggregately grafts non-Jews to Jewish ancestral roots, in order to form his audience’s identity. This...