Ophir and Rosen-Zvi’s Goy might best be described as a genealogical-philosophical study of discursive Others in ancient Judaism, including in the literature of the Hebrew Bible, Second Temple Judaism, Paul, the Mishnah, and the Talmud. Through eight thoroughly researched chapters, they make two interrelated arguments. First, they challenge the notion that ancient Jewish authors shared a clear and consistent “other” against which they constructed a stable notion of Israelite or Jewish identity. Second, they argue that a fundamental shift occurs in the discourse of the other(s) within early rabbinic literature (or, perhaps, in the writings of Paul), in which a singular other (the goy) emerges as a “universal figure of Otherness” (264) to Jewishness. For the authors, this discursive figure fundamentally transforms Jewish notions of alterity, reappearing, they suggest, “in its abstractness and generality” throughout Jewish history.
Of the two arguments made by Goy, the first is largely successful. Ophir and Rosen-Zvi’s careful readings of biblical, (other) Second Temple, and early Christian literature show that there were many different ways of constructing the other(s) for ancient Israelites and Jews. The ancient authors behind these texts found different ways of marking identity through alterity, and this multiplicity of others should challenge scholars to be much more careful about assuming that every ancient Jewish text deployed a simple and clear binary between Jews and Gentiles, between us and a singular, universalizing them. In making their case, Ophir and Rosen-Zvi engage a vast body of ancient and modern scholarly literature and do so with care and nuance.
The one major lacuna to Ophir and Rosen-Zvi’s excellent survey of Jewish literature is the absence, except for a brief vignette in the book’s introduction, of the material evidence for Jewish communities in and around the ancient Mediterranean during the time-span covered by the book. This is important particularly for contextualizing the book’s claim that an important discursive shift took place in early rabbinic literature, since it is precisely during this same time period that we have material evidence of Jewish synagogues that negotiated the multicultural landscape of Late Antiquity in ways that do not run parallel to the rabbinic sources but capture the same pluriformity that Ophir and Rosen-Zvi see in pre-rabbinic Jewish literature.
The second argument made by Goy is where I find myself less convinced. The strength of Goy’s individual chapters lies in their close readings of specific literary remains from antiquity, wherein each text is allowed to showcase its particular reading of the others within its conceptual and discursive landscape. However, each of these chapters is also punctuated by a teleological fixation on the discursive shift in rabbinic literature for which the authors finally argue. With each reading, the reader is told, “we aren’t there yet.” This focus on the telos in the rabbinic figure of the goy runs counter to the book’s strength, which is the articulation of the messiness of alterity in ancient Jewish literature. Rather than presenting the rabbinic discourse of the other as one discourse among many for ancient Jewish writers, Ophir and Rosen-Zvi make the rabbi’s goy into a Kuhnian paradigm shift or a Foucauldian epistemic break. Their argument that the rabbinic other was cleanly articulated as a universalized, yet singular, non-Jew was not persuasive to me, particularly since the authors recognize that multiple others endure in Jewish identity discourse after the production of the early rabbinic goy (265), though I leave it to experts on rabbinic Judaism to speak more authoritatively on this issue than I can.
The teleological focus on the rabbinic goy is also disrupted by the strange position that Ophir and Rosen-Zvi assign to the writings of Paul. On their telling, Paul’s letters offer “the first systematic use of a generalized, abstract category of the Jew’s Other” (21). Paul thus precedes the rabbis in making a “clear opposition between Ioudaioi and ethnē . . . that refers . . . to individuals, rather than to ethnic collectives” (21). As a result, Paul unsettled and haunted the authors’ project (140). Paul beats the rabbis to the punch, but it is not clear whether or if the rabbis ever engaged with Paul’s writings (177-78). Paul is presented as potentially offering the discursive shift by which Ophir and Rosen-Zvi argue the rabbis “transformed existing technologies of separation through which a new Jewish self was shaped” (264); however, the lack of a clear genealogical connection between Paul and the rabbis renders the narrative messier than Ophir and Rosen-Zvi would like it to be. From their account, we are thus left with the tantalizing possibility that Paul is, in fact, the originator of modern Jewish subjectivity (167).
Paul has long played an important role in how Christians have told the history of Judaism, though in ways that have shifted with the times. Paul’s various binaries have offered Christian readers a cycle of narrative frames as powerful as Hegel’s dialectic: Jewish works vs Christian faith; Jewish legalism vs Christian grace; Jewish flesh vs Christian spirit; Jewish particularism vs Christian universalism. The modern scholarly turn, to which Ophir and Rosen-Zvi are also indebted, that treats Paul as a Second Temple Jewish writer rather than a (proto)Christian has also served as a powerful frame for reconceptualizing the braided history of Christianity and Judaism. Christian Zionists have turned the “Jewish roots” of Christianity into a geopolitical philosophy, animated by an eschatological fervor, while liberal Protestants have seen in them a call to ecumenism in the wake of the Holocaust. Following close readings of the New Perspective and the “radical” New Perspective (or the Sonderweg School), Ophir and Rosen-Zvi argue that by theorizing the ethnē “Paul was part of the very formation of Jewishness, the formation of the categories that became the building blocks of Jewishness” (167). Though Ophir and Rosen-Zvi focus on the role that the rabbis played in the formation of Jewishness, Paul, as he so often does, remains central to the (hi)story of Judaism.
This should not detract from the reading of Paul’s letters offered by Ophir and Rosen-Zvi, which is an ingenious contribution to modern Pauline scholarship that truly breaks new ground in some respects. Perhaps the most important intervention they make in Pauline studies comes as a result of the nuanced work they do in the chapters on biblical and other Second Temple Jewish literature. While most modern scholars treat Paul’s binary opposition between Jews and Gentiles (Ioudaioi and ethnē) as something that Paul inherited as a Jewish thinker, Ophir and Rosen-Zvi argue that Paul invents this very binary for the purpose of theorizing the inclusion of non-Jews in his universal ekklēsia (140-49).
What difference does this shift from reception to invention make in their reading of Paul? Ophir and Rosen-Zvi argue that Paul’s conceptualization of the Gentile offers him the discursive ability to transition from the particular to the universal via a simultaneous interpellation and revocation, a reading that fuses their reading of Pauline scholarship with the work of Louis Althusser and Giorgio Agamben. On their reading, Paul is trapped between two contradictory beliefs: “God is ethnic, but the new community is not” (152). The category of ethnē resolves this tension for Paul, but only via a process of interpellation and revocation (159). To join the ekklēsia, new members must first accept their interpellation as “Gentiles,” rather than as whatever ethnic particularity with which they may have previously self-identified. It is only then that the difference between Jew and Gentile can be revoked via baptism into the spirit. In other words, “Paul calls upon [his converts] to recognize themselves as gentiles–a Jewish category–and, at the same time, renders this recognition all too obvious and transparent. After responding to the call, these people recognize themselves as gentiles who have always been gentiles. Paul thus interpellates the Romans into ‘gentility,’ so they may later become men and women of the spirit” (159). The passage to universalism, then, is not a leap from the particular to the universal, but is mediated by the category of the gentile itself as an abstract, generalized other to Jewishness. This process is not unlike modern Christian preaching, where potential converts must first accept their interpellation as “sinners” before they can be born again as Christians.
This reading of Paul is both creative and ingenious. I suspect that Ophir and Rosen-Zvi are correct in arguing that Paul’s first rhetorical challenge is convincing the Romans, Corinthians, Galatians, Philippians, and others that constitute his various audiences that they are, in fact, Gentiles. This challenge remains doubly daunting in the face of Ophir and Rosen-Zvi’s largely persuasive argument that this category was not something Paul inherited as an assumption common to first-century Judaism, even if it has roots in biblical and other Second Temple texts.
While I think that Ophir and Rosen-Zvi make as convincing a case as any modern Pauline scholar for how Paul might be read, I think that their reading is subject to the same problems that have long bedeviled modern (or, for that matter, ancient) readers who have tried to read Paul’s letters as though they were engaged in a systematic project. Like the biblical and Pauline conception of the “remnant” (164), there is always a remainder that escapes systematization. For example, Ophir and Rosen-Zvi argue that the category of Gentile renders those so interpellated into a “no-man’s land, a blurry zone” (166), riffing off Agamben’s reading of Paul’s messianic calling (klēsis) in 1 Corinthians 7 (158-59). On their reading, Gentile does the work of suspension, allowing Paul to transition his converts into a universal community. Such a reading misses the other “work” that Paul does with those who “used to be Gentiles” (1 Cor 12:2). As is so often the case in Pauline scholarship, Ophir and Rosen-Zvi ignore the strange twists and turns that Paul’s Corinthian letters force upon those who have wrestled Galatians and Romans into some semblance of systematic coherence.
In 1 Corinthians 10, Paul’s ex-ethnē ethnē are rendered as descendants of the Israelites who wandered through the wilderness. Paul’s construction of an Israelite heritage for his Corinthian audience does the work of cautioning them against the dangers of idolatry that lay behind the choices they make around how, where, and with whom to consume meat that may or may not have been sacrificed to idols. In 2 Corinthians 3, Paul makes an about-face before his Corinthian audience and argues for a clear genealogical distinction between the Corinthians and the Israelites. Paul and the Corinthians are able to see and be transformed by the spirit of God, while the Israelites and their heirs have a veil placed over their hearts. Paul’s argument is not mere idle theological reflection, but is tied to a real, tangible problem: he must show himself to be a frank and honest speaker to a Corinthian audience that has questioned his honesty, credentials, and his handling of money (2 Corinthians 2:17-3:11). I would argue that Paul’s ethnē may well be a “no-man’s land,” but it is not merely a step on the road from the particular to the universal. Rather, it gives Paul a rhetorical flexibility that allows him to resolve tangible problems that confront him in his missionary work. Following the example of Ophir and Rosen-Zvi’s earlier chapters, it might be better to offer readings of the various others that are constructed in Paul’s letters than to assume that Paul was a systematic theorist for whom the category of ethnē was a central component.
Would such a shift change the narrative that Ophir and Rosen-Zvi offer for the formation of the binary of Jew and Gentile? I suspect that it might. But there are other ways in which their narrative might be strengthened by dwelling deeper on the messiness of how the other is constructed. For example, Ophir and Rosen-Zvi’s Gentile is not the only passageway into a no-man’s land where ethnic identity is relativized. In 1 Cor 9:19-23, Paul claims that he can transcend his own ethnic identity as part of his missionary strategy to win others to Christ. As one who has not passed through the universalizing interpellation of the Gentile, how has Paul acquired his ethnically-malleable self?
To take another example, Ophir and Rosen-Zvi make the important point that the assumption that the binary of Jew and Gentile was given and not invented by Paul was an ancient one. As evidence, they point to Ephesians 2:11-16, with its famous imagery of the dividing wall between Jews and Gentiles being dismantled in Christ. And yet, Ophir and Rosen-Zvi fail to notice that another Pauline interpreter took Paul’s binary of Jew and Gentile and expanded it: the author of Colossians writes, imitating Paul’s famous binary list in Galatians 3:28, “In that renewal [afforded through Christ], there is no longer Greek and Jew, circumcised and uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave and free; but Christ is all and in all!” (3:11). Colossians shows that the genealogy of Paul’s binary is messier then Ophir and Rosen-Zvi allow. Even more to the point, most modern scholars argue that Ephesians is an edited and revised version of Colossians, meaning that the process by which Paul’s categories were converted into a universalizing framework were messier than Ophir and Rosen-Zvi might want to acknowledge.
It is precisely the very messiness of discourses of alterity that make Goy both a great and, at times, disappointing book. Where it dwells in the messiness of forging us and them, where them can be many or one or both simultaneously, Goy is an important and absolutely necessary intervention in scholarly assumptions. Where it seeks to offer a systematic, teleological, and almost linear account of alterity, to render the messy neat, Goy founders.
Cavan W. Concannon is Associate Professor of Religion at the University of Southern California.