Before I begin the main part of my reflections about Rethinking Early Christian Identity, I want to say a few words about something else. This way of beginning is itself a response to the book, a way of thinking about the ways identity, whatever it is or is not, adheres to persons and follows them around, and the ways our histories and experiences of trauma, belonging, and estrangement produce waves that propagate into, out of, and across our selves, our networks, and our associations, and of course, our scholarship and our thinking about the ancient world.
Although I had read Rethinking Early Christian Identity before, I began to re-read it in preparation for the review panel at SBL on the same day Christine Blasey Ford delivered her testimony to the Senate Judiciary Committee. I read Kotrosits’ introduction, titled Making Sense of Ourselves, with its reflections on the place of the scholarly self in otherwise-supposedly-objective practices of textual interpretation and historiography, as Blasey Ford moved between searing personal experience and expert scientific analysis of that experience. “Indelible in the hippocampus,” many of us can remember her saying, “is the laughter,” and then the survivor and the professor pointed to the “norepinephrine and epinephrine in the brain” to explain the way her own experience and memory worked. I was reading this book as I was listening to her testimony that morning, and then later that afternoon as I was listening to the words of Brett Kavanaugh, and the juxtaposition of these testimonies and my experience of them and this book produced resonances almost too powerful to hear, like when the microphone comes too close to the speaker. I found myself fighting through a thicket of entanglements, face to face with a certain kind of estrangement, and, to take a line from the book somewhat out of context, I found myself confronting “what it means to have one’s nation in shards at one’s feet.” I felt the burden of the violence committed against Blasey Ford, even though I had no direct experience of that violence, and I felt the sharp edges of the things I share with the perpetrator of that violence.
I have two broad categories of appreciations for the work Maia Kotrosits has done in Rethinking Early Christian Identity. The first category is about scholarly posture and the second is about the scholarly toolbox, so to speak. I notice that this is a Fortress book, and perhaps that is not accidental. I remember, early in my doctoral work, reading Neil Elliott’s The Arrogance of Nations, a book about Romans, and I remember the reflections he included in that book about his own place as a scholar working from within an empire, an imperial citizen whose empire was in the midst of wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, writing about empire in the ancient world. I remember thinking, in my new graduate student kind of way: this person is looking into the camera, he is acknowledging that scholarship is a production that is produced by persons. I remember feeling permitted, in a way I had never felt before, to be a person, and to let that personhood be a part of my scholarship. Rethinking Early Christian Identity gave me the same feeling, but in more sustained ways. Especially later in the book there are discussions of authorship and whether and how much of the author’s self is embedded in writing, and what kind of self it is that is embedded. But there is a vibrant sense throughout this book that it was written by a person, and that it was intended to be read by persons, and that the author and the readers were intended to be harnessed together by shared dispositions, recruited into a delightful conspiracy carried out in its pages and carried out in journeys into the past. This sense of authorial presence is the sort of thing that our guild insists be bludgeoned out of texts, but I know Kotrosits will take it as a compliment when I say that her presence abides in this book, and that her inhabitation of it is both a theoretical grounding and a hermeneutical key. I want to read more books like this one.
And speaking of theory and hermeneutics, a second category of appreciations concerns the way Kotrosits in this book compels me to reconfigure my approach to whatever it is we call “Early Christianity.” Or perhaps she does not compel me to reconfigure so much as she simply makes it untenable to think about “Early Christianity” in simplistic ways, anymore. The New Testament and other early Christian literatures, she argues, are haunted by the loss of the nation, by the trauma of imperial violence, and by the severance of so many bonds with the past. This is one of those things that seems so obvious once you see it, but I never would have gotten there by myself. The simple way to put this is that by reading these texts and traditions in light of Affect Theory, Kotrosits has introduced something new to our scholarly toolbox.
But that simple way of putting it is not quite right. This is not about a new wrench tossed into the toolbox or a new kind of hammer. I find in the pages of this book a call to reassess everything about our work on this period of history and our orientation toward it. Take for example the discussion of Jesus and the Samaritan woman at the well in John. Kotrosits observes that both Jesus and the woman are colonial subjects, that both of them had been and would be brutalized by imperial power in different but overlapping ways, and that their shared and differing experiences are embodied or emplaced in an orbiting pair of temple spaces and rhetorics about those spaces. I have thought a lot about and written a bit about this story using spatial theory, but that tool of spatial theory is given new valence once one recognizes the echoes of trauma that bounce around in the text and in those two temples, once those spaces are inhabited by colonized, subjected, and violated bodies. The “strange and tangled colonial history” of the land of Israel, as Kotrosits puts it, loiters in the text of John and it lurks beneath the page.
As a final form of appreciation for this book, I want to talk about one of the ways this book has reconfigured my thinking about the ancient world. Rethinking Early Christian Identity is a book about books, a text about texts, but I want to turn my attention for a moment away from texts and toward a person who, although he has a life in a text, steps out of his book and into a different kind of existence. I want us to think about Jonah. Suddenly, beginning in about the year 180 CE, which is about as early as we can reliably trace a “Christian” material culture, Jonahs begin to adorn the walls of catacomb chambers, leap along the sides of sarcophagi, and even take form in the occasional statue or stele. Jonah’s sudden appearance near the end of the second century was an appearance in earnest; in some contexts like the catacombs of Rome, images of Jonah approach half of all depictions in a given space. Jonah is ubiquitous: not Jesus, not Paul or Peter or parables or the magi at the manger or the beloved disciple and Mary at the cross. Those things actually rarely or never appear in “early Christian art.” But Jonah does appear, all the time, and so do Daniel in the lion’s den, the three men in the fiery furnace, Noah in the ark, Moses striking the rock in the wilderness, Susannah and the elders, and—actually—the Samaritan woman at the well. Now “early Christian art” features other images to be sure, of baptisms and banquets and shepherds and peacocks and gravediggers. Lazarus coming out of the tomb is pretty common. But what we call “early Christian art” is dominated not by figures from the New Testament, and not by triumphant stories and figures from Israel’s the biblical past, like David and Solomon and Samuel, but by depictions of precisely those stories from Israel’s texts that depict a people at its most precarious, its most shattered, its most diasporic, and at its most contingent. Jonah, the reluctant prophet who is recruited by the Jewish God by way of an aquatic kidnapping to go and speak a word to the Ninevites, is the pied piper of this parade of Israelites in various states of estrangement, isolation, and peril. It is difficult to imagine a better biblical text to lead this procession. Jonah and his companions make their way through most of the material contexts of “early Christianity.”
There is nothing new in this observation. Scholars have long noted the surprising subject matter of earliest “Christian art,” the way it subverts expectations and forefronts certain kinds of stories. Stories of captivity, stories of people trapped or enclosed and then released again, stories of peril and deliverance, stories of unwilling presence in foreign lands—these dominate the repertoire. The most common explanation for this is that most “early Christian art” is funerary, and that all of these stories can plausibly do double duty as analogies for resurrection. But many who study “early Christian” material culture have recognized that there is more to it than that, and I think this book can help point a way forward.
One big debate in catacomb studies right now is whether the spaces that have been described as “Christian catacombs” can rightly be called Christian at all, whether they can be thought of as definitively Christian spaces or not. I am on record as thinking that they are something like “Christian” spaces, indeed the only permanent and reliable spaces available to “Christians” in a time before they had dedicated worship buildings like the one at Dura. I have argued that the catacombs are a cradle of “early Christian identity,” at least as that identity is expressed in a visual symbol set and iconography. But others say that nothing like “Christian identity” is available to us in these early spaces and images, and that instead we should think of the art of the Roman catacombs as one aspect of a broader late antique visual and material culture, with no single originating group identity standing behind the images. Especially in the past ten years, many have begun to point out that these spaces that we so confidently understand as “Christian” were contested in their origins and are palimpsestuous in our histories, having been erased and rewritten many times over by competing groups and ideologies both past and present.
Although Rethinking Early Christian Identity is a book about texts, like the Gospel of Truth and Hebrews, it useful for understanding what the origins of catacomb art and other kinds of early “Christian” material culture might have been. It can be true that the images in the Roman catacombs are expressions of diasporic longing and traumatic reverberation, dwelling on the loss of the nation and on the many kinds of estrangement that stand between the past and the present, and that we can point to those expressions and in some ways call them “Christian.” But it is also true that “Christianity” is far too confident a term to apply to the ideologies that produced these images—that nothing like pure religious identity, however we would define it, characterized the people who made these images or the communities they formed. Jonah stands as a witness to the messiness of thinking about identity in any confident way: he is an Israelite prophet sent to an imperial Nineveh, appearing in spaces in the heart of the Roman empire decorated by people responding to that empire’s violence against Judea. All the Jonahs of “early Christian art,” and all the Daniels and Susannahs and Moseses too, are responses to the violence and trauma perpetrated by an empire and the ways that violence and trauma reverberated in unexpected and unpredictable ways. In the figures of Jonah, and the men in the fiery furnace, we see a working-out of an associative trauma, the forging of strange affiliations, the deployment of Israel’s biblical stories to understand a contested and uncertain present. Jonah might be so ubiquitous in “early Christian art” because he is a way of contemplating competing and dissonant loyalties: to history, to a land leveled and burned and lost several times over, to a capricious God, to an empire, to the present absence of a nation, to a shared set of stories. Jonah and these other figures from Israel’s the biblical past flourished in the uncertainty of the second and third and early fourth centuries. But in the triumph of an imperial Christianity in the fourth and fifth centuries, all of these figures receded to one degree or another, some disappearing from the Christian artistic repertoire completely. They were replaced in the visual lexicon by a confident and grand imperial iconography. As the memory of loss receded, and as “Christian identity” crystallized around empire, Jonah and Daniel and Shadrach no longer made sense.
By reframing the New Testament and similar writings in the way she does, by rethinking “early Christian identity,” Kotrosits has opened the possibility of rethinking not just texts but also material culture—art and other material expressions of “identity”—in similar ways. The menorah appears almost never in the archaeological record prior to the destruction of the temple; afterwards it proliferates as an echo of a lost cultic and national life. The cross appeared rarely or never so long as the wounds of Judean violence were fresh, but once that violence receded from memory, an emperor could claim it as a sign by which he could conquer. The temple façade became a common motif in glass pieces from around the city of Rome in the third and fourth centuries, long after anyone who had ever seen the Jerusalem temple had died. Monasticism took hold widely only after Christianity became prosperous and safe; only then did masses of the faithful flock to the desert to give it all up. And Jonah’s great fish, the literal vessel by which the prophet was carried away from home to the heart of a foreign empire, lived on in medieval maps as the sea monster on the margins of the world. We can trace, in the visual and material histories of Christianity, the boom and bust of imperial violence and accommodation, of resistance and alliance and the posture of Christian identity with respect to power, wealth, and the imperial sword. Even when it is invisible, violence exerts its influence on the thing we call Christianity, inexorably and inevitably, its gravity present long after the thing itself ceases to be visible.
Although she did not set out to do so, Kotrosits has reconfigured the way I think about the material culture of “early Christianity.” We have been accustomed to imagining “early Christian art” and other material expressions as the first uncertain steps of a newborn religion, its first attempts to speak to itself in pictures and space. But it might be better to think of “early Christian art” as one of the wobbling trajectories taken by ones who had been assailed by blows, as the uncertain and woozy staggering steps taken by people reeling in the aftermath of conflict, whether they experienced it directly or not. In this way, the early material and textual expressions of this tradition that came to be known as Christianity look like some among many ways of coping with, responding to, and living with colonial control and imperial destruction. And the experience of “having one’s nation in shards at one’s feet” is the impetus for diverse and divergent experiments in expressing belonging and estrangement.
 “The Science Behind Christine Blasey Ford’s Testimony | Time,” accessed December 29, 2018, http://time.com/5408567/christine-blasey-ford-science-of-memory/.
 Maia Kotrosits, Rethinking Early Christian Identity: Affect, Violence, and Belonging (Minneapolis: Fortress, 2015), 14.
 Neil Elliott, The Arrogance of Nations: Reading Romans in the Shadow of Empire, Paul in Critical Contexts (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 2008).
 For my own reading of these materials, see Smith, Eric C., Foucault’s Heterotopia in Christian Catacombs: Constructing Symbols and Spaces in Ancient Rome (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2014). For my reading of material culture more generally, see Smith, Eric C., Jewish Glass and Christian Stone: A Materialist Mapping of the “Parting of the Ways,” Routledge Studies in the Early Christian World (New York & London: Routledge, 2018).
 This is one overarching argument of my book, Smith, Eric C., Foucault’s Heterotopia in Christian Catacombs: Constructing Symbols and Spaces in Ancient Rome. For a rebuttal on this front, see Lewis, Nicola Denzey, “Foucault’s Heterotopia in Christian Catacombs: Constructing Spaces and Symbols in Ancient Rome by Eric C. Smith (Review),” Journal of Early Christian Studies 24, no. 1 (2016): 132–33.
 A fortuitous pair of books emerged in recent years, examining the history of these two symbols. Fine, Steven, The Menorah: From the Bible to Modern Israel (Cambridge and London: Harvard, 2016). Jensen, Robin M., The Cross: History, Art, and Controversy (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2017).
 Smith, Eric C., Jewish Glass and Christian Stone: A Materialist Mapping of the “Parting of the Ways,” 61–76.
 I am in debt to my colleague Amy Erickson for this observation. I anticipate discussion of this point in her forthcoming volume on Jonah, in the Encyclopedia of the Bible and Its Reception from De Gruyter.
Eric C. Smith is an Assistant Professor of the History of Christianity and New Testament Studies at the Iliff School of Theology.