In 2018, the Construction of Christian Identities SBL seminar organized a review panel on Maia Kotrosits’s Rethinking Early Christian Identity: Affect, Violence, and Belonging (Fortress, 2015).
To open this forum and as a member of the steering committee of the Construction of Christian Identities SBL seminar, I want to begin with some reflection on what the goals of this seminar have been in order to bring Kotrosits’s work into discussion with our larger aims.
This seminar, while, perhaps ironically titled “Construction of Christian Identities” has worked, from the beginning, to challenge analytical categories such as “Christian” and the scholarly lenses such as “identity.” Our goals have been aimed at thinking around paradigmatic scholarly categorizations, disrupting scholarly boundaries, and questioning the continued use of these conventional categories. While titled “Christian,” this analysis has also included those we have called Jews (or Judaeans, if you wish), as well as the inclusion—and disruption of—their lived experiences in the Roman world. We know from the work of scholars in this area that titles such as “Jew” and “Christian” are imposed by most in our field as key identity features that shape the lives of some ancient peoples, even while these categories fail to account for the complexity of real life and experience. We know that identifying and analyzing these texts and the people who wrote them as “Jews” or “Christians” necessitates a normativization of these particular voices, which may not represent the majority and certainly do neglect other voices who may not have been recorded or remembered. Most important to my own work, and why I came to participate in this seminar, is the disruption of thinking about categories like “Christian” and “Jew” as not only separate but as mutually exclusive categories, which hides the multiplicity and complexity of life in the ancient world—and how that is reflected in our understanding of our world today.
Kotrosits’s work is well situated to be discussed in our seminar, and we are grateful to Maia for letting us host the discussion. The analysis found in Rethinking Early Christian Identity upsets these disciplinary categorizations through a theoretical analysis of so-called early “Christian” (and some Roman) texts using a combination of affect theory, queer theory, and diaspora theory. The book takes this layered approach and moves in and out of applying it to these ancient texts, which (as Schaefer’s piece will point out) can be problematic because of the nature of texts as written documents, as written language. Kotrosits does well, however, in thinking through the trauma of the history of Israel and the more recent history of the destruction of the second temple within these texts, and both applying theory and peeling back various levels of language in her analysis.
I’d like to take the rest of my time here to discuss two major points of intersection between my own work and that of Kotrosits’ book. First, I’ll discuss queerness and problems of intersectionality, and second, I’ll spend a little time thinking about the use of trauma and the destruction of the temple within her book and within other first century texts that she does not cover in the book.
In thinking through my first topic, I’d like to focus on queering early “Christianity” and the problems therein. In her second chapter Kotrosits examines the queerness of early “Christianity” (as well as the queerness of the study of early “Christianity”) and the problems with using this category of analysis. Queerness, she argues, “imparts ambiguously a particular identity and anti-identity, in any case carrying queerness’s implications of subversion” (50). The use of the word queer, then, and the claims to queer theory, in other words, supplies the scholar with a perhaps subconscious understanding that early “Christians” were subversive and anti-imperial, and thus inherently distinct from the Romans. Kotrosits is rightly critical of this approach, using Jasbir Puar’s work on “queer exceptionalism” (51) to draw attention to the way that queering specific populations then casts them “as a perverse ‘threat to life’” (51); in the case of the early “Christians,” this would be the subversion of the imperialist Romans, which with the success of Christianity then reclaims queerness not as an (eventual) subversion but as a virtuous and “right” sense of exceptionalism and therefore entitlement. Kotrosits notes that “Where there are ancient Christian subjects, no matter how diverse, diffuse, or intricately configured, what often follows is a description of the unique positions of these subjects in history, a claim about their very atypical deployment of discourse, or a contention that these subjects are peak innovators or distinctively transgressive” (53).
This is then brought in, often subconsciously I think, to the discipline of early Christian and NT studies. From my position as a scholar of 1st/2nd century “Judaism” (“Judaism” also ever in quotes), this exceptionalism is, for me, obvious and frustrating. Even as some (although not enough!) early Christian and/or New Testament scholars stake a claim within the “Judaism” of the 1st century for their work, many of them also privilege the Jesus movement as supersessionist simply by their approach of positioning it as inherently new and unique. Let’s take the example of the Radical New Perspective in Pauline studies—the idea that the apostle Paul was not only “Jewish” but participated within “Judaism” and was therefore “Torah observant.”
On a superficial level, this sounds good: what better than to say that Paul was resoundingly Jewish and participated in the Judaism of his time. This is, however, is an inaccurate presentation: after all, what does it mean to be “Torah observant” in the first century? Does it differ between those living in Judaea and those in the so-called diaspora? What does it mean, exactly, to make the claim that Paul was Torah observant? What is the claim of calling Paul a Torah observant Jew doing for the scholar, the scholarly audience, and also what does it mean in terms of what we ourselves are reading in Paul’s letters? The claim here, that Paul is still participating in first century “Judaism,” is meant to subvert the idea of supersessionism found in Paul’s letters, but within this claim there is still often a refusal to see what this means in terms of what other first century “Jews” were doing at the time, how they acted, what they did. In the first century, being Torah observant could mean practically anything in terms of one’s connection to Israel, Judaea, and even the Mosaic laws (Sheinfeld, “From Nomos to Logos,” forthcoming). This claim, then, that Paul was Torah observant without an analysis of what that could mean thus inadvertently reinforces the supersessionism found within the discipline even while attempting to subvert it.
The terminological problems with queering the study of early “Christianity” can also be found within the terminology associated with intersectionality, which Kotrosits acknowledges. Intersectionality is an attempt to acknowledge the various and at times overlapping (dare I use the word?) identities that are at play within each individual—whether each of us sitting here or of each individual in antiquity (54–55). Kotrosits notes some of the problems with that term, what I would describe as a lack of nuance for what is meant to be a category of nuance—it misses “fissions and fusions” (54) that could occur at almost any point in one’s life. Using Puar, Kotrosits encourages us to instead rethink “queerness as assemblage, which ‘moves away from […] a binary opposition […] it underscores contingency and complicity within dominant formations’” (54–55). She identifies assemblage as “an ‘affective conglomeration that recognizes other contingencies of belonging,’ a ‘series of dispersed but mutually implicated and messy networks,’ which foregrounds the receptions and receptiveness of bodies, the production of populations, and new modes of belonging that do not just cross but effectively scramble identity categories” (55). To put it less eloquently, using assemblage instead suggests that our lives and identities (so-to-speak) are messy and complicated. To return to my example, Paul is, to use some of his own words, neither Jew nor Greek, but lives instead in a complicated tension that is constantly shifting and changing. Like our own lives, Paul’s life was complicated well beyond what we might call “intersectional.” This plays out not just for Paul, or for the texts in Kotrosits’s analysis, but also in the language used more broadly within our disciplines: intersectionality—what previously for some studies in the ancient world might have called syncretism—is what we have been calling the combination of different identities, but this is problematic, as if there is always—or ever!—a clear distinction between one identity and another within each of us, as if we can just cut one identity out or ignore it when we want. What, after all, is a Christian? Or a Hellenistic Jew? Or a diaspora Jew?
Turning to our second topic, Kotrosits is rightly critical of the identification of the authors of the texts from the early Jesus movement as “Christian,” and she draws connection between the trauma of Israelite history—especially the recently destroyed temple—and of the reflection of diaspora. Some examples from her book: 1st Peter, pseudepigraphically attributed to Jesus’s right-hand disciple, “contains near-constant appeals to the scripture, tropes, and rhetorical strategies of ancient Israel” (64). What this looks like, she argues, is an “explicit recourse to exile, foreignness, and diaspora [and therefore] Israel is the organizing concept for the people in 1 Peter” (64). She notes in her reading of Ignatius that “like ioudaïsmos, christianismos is not itself national, but beset with the losses of the nation [and it] overtly refuses Israelite diasporic configurations of belonging (even while being one)” (80–81). Also that the conversations in the Secret Revelation of John “subtly establishes the text as a diasporic reflection full of tension, sorry, and uncertainty” (118). Coming at trauma and diaspora from another perspective, later in the book Kotrosits argues that “The Gospel of Truth obscures the very traumas that unwrite it, and its concealments are a refusal to speak about what its audience already feels to be true. […] the very absence of references to national belongings in the Gospel of Truth [becomes] the imprint of diasporic trauma” (117).
I agree here with Kotrosits, but as I finished the book and scanned the bibliography, I was disappointed at the lack of engagement with other first century “Jewish” texts that would so easily fit into and support Kotrosits’s analysis. I would like to turn now to thinking about how looking at some of these other texts could support and enhance the arguments found in Rethinking Early Christian Identity. I’ll focus on two “Jewish” apocalypses, 2 Baruch and 4 Ezra, written in response to the destruction of the second temple.
In her analysis of 2 Baruch, Liv Lied explores the description of the “land” as a redemptive category, breaking out of traditional concepts of the Land that are based on spatial epistemology and instead Lied approaches the concept of Land through a more flexible and mobile praxis epistemology. In the case of Lied’s approach to 2 Baruch, this means that the Land is not just physical or geographic location as found centered on the inscribed Jerusalem, but that Land acts as a redemptive category in 2 Baruch, as Land is then defined as being located wherever the remnant community observes the laws, regardless of their actual, physical location. What this means then, according to Lied, is that in 2 Baruch “convenantal space [is used to] address the crisis caused by the fall of the Jerusalem temple and the dispossession of [Roman] Palestine in 70 C.E. and to argue for Israel’s survival and ultimate redemption in the other world” (Lied, 318) via the praxis and location of the remnant community. In other words, as I myself have argued elsewhere, in 2 Baruch diaspora is everywhere and all the time, even in the remains of Jerusalem, and this will only change once redemption has arrived. Location matters, but it matters in that it is now temporal. Lied’s analysis, and my own which builds on her work, suggests that diaspora is already complicated, already a potential place of assemblage, and that therefore 1st Peter—and other texts—are participating in the trope of trauma and diaspora to an even greater extent than Kotrosits argues.
In another recent book, Losing the Temple and Recovering the Future, Hindy Najman examines how 4 Ezra participates in the trope of continued encounters with the divine in texts from the second temple period; in this case, specifically in response to the destruction of the second temple. Fourth Ezra creates what Najman identifies as a “reboot” — a term we are all probably familiar with when it comes to our computers—but is now applied to other things, such as narratives found in comics, or in this case, ancient apocalypses. In this text a reboot is when there is a return to an earlier point in the narrative. Some features, such as the protagonist remain the same, but other features may be altered or eliminated (16–17). In the case of 4 Ezra, using the figure of Ezra (who after the destruction of the first temple is in exile in Babylon) allows for a reboot of the audience attempting to come to terms with the trauma caused by the destruction of the second temple, which is when 4 Ezra was written.
The “purpose of this reboot,” Najman argues, “is […] to imagine an alternative past” when the second temple had never been built, in order to guide the audience to cope with the destruction through a focus on scripture and on the end-time (17–18), and thus ultimately to guide the audience through the trauma of the destruction (20–23). Like with 2 Baruch and Lied’s analysis, Najman’s examination of 4 Ezra could contribute to Kotrosits’s understanding of trauma, diaspora, and its connection with tropes found throughout ancient Israelite and later “Jewish” discourses.
My reason for bringing up these two recent examples of work on “Jewish” apocalypses is that, if I had to produce a critique of Kotrosits’s book, it would be that there was little engagement with contemporaneous texts that did not belong to our disciplinary categories of “Christian” or “Roman.” However, this critique does not invalidate Kotrosits’s argument. Instead, I invite her—or others who seek to expand upon her arguments—to include what these “Christian” (still in quotations!) texts look like when we consider them in the fuller set of discourses in which they participated in their historical environs in the first and second century.
Dr. Shayna Sheinfeld is Visiting Scholar in Jewish Studies at the University of Kentucky. She is also an academic coach and writing retreat leader. You can learn more about her work at: www.shaynasheinfeld.com.
Lied, Liv Ingeborg. The Other Lands of Israel: Imaginations of the Land in 2 Baruch. Leiden: Brill, 2008.
Najman, Hindy. Losing the Temple and Recovering the Future. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2014.
Sheinfeld, Shayna. “From Nomos to Logos: Torah Observance in First Century Judaism.” In Paul within Judaism: New Perspectives. Edited by Prof. Mgr. František Ábel. Lexington Books/Fortress Academic, forthcoming.