In light of the recent atrocities that have occurred with gruesome regularity, and the ways in which incivility in our national discourse has abetted these attacks and strained our own national identity—questioning who is and who is not authentically American—the need for a work that thinks about these questions and advocates for the wisdom of the whole person seems especially important. Maia Kotrosits’ Rethinking Early Christian Identity: Affect, Violence and Belonging (Fortress Press, 2015) is just such a work. This insightful and careful piece of scholarship has made its way into my lectures and discussions with students, has influenced my conversations with colleagues and friends, and has chipped away at my own presuppositions. Her work has made me aware of the fault lines in my own scholarship, and the ways in which I gravitate to particular methods of interpretation. It is always healthy to reevaluate one’s commitments.
Her work and others like it are slowly nudging a field that dislikes change forward to a place where we can let go of the binary approach to interpreting Early Christianity. Kotrosits’ work pushes us to see each text as one (or several) instantiation(s) of the wide variety of ways that early Christians interpreted the life and actions of Jesus. After reading this book, I felt hopeful for the future of biblical studies and for the ways in which this might change religious and civic dialogue. For this, especially this, thank you. Maia, it was a pleasure to read and think along with you.
I am very grateful to have been invited to be on this panel and to be able to discuss this material. I am an absolute novice when it comes to affect theory, so I do not feel qualified or able to make many comments on how the method was or was not applied in the book. However, throughout the book I intuited its value and relevance to biblical interpretation. This was evident in the questions that kept running through my mind especially as I read the introduction, “Making Sense of Ourselves.” I asked, “Why haven’t I read this before? Why wasn’t this part of my coursework? Why haven’t I encountered this in other works? I look forward to hearing more on the method from those on the panel more qualified than I. Since the main focus of my scholarly work is on Acts, I will focus on how the methodology and the offered interpretations affect Acts scholarship, and how they might challenge, complicate and create space for new directions in the field.
I will begin with my reservations. I do this consciously because I think that they are relatively small in comparison to the greater areas of agreement. If I have misunderstood the aims or application of affect theory, I hope that my mistakes will provide the beginning of meaningful dialogue. My critique falls into two main areas: 1) the implications of the method, and 2) how Acts as a whole is characterized--not the exegesis of the individual stories--but how questions of dating, sources and their connection to and dependence on other texts would impact your work.
I am well aware of all of the problems inherent in thinking historically about a text, especially because history is the construct of the victors, and therefore cannot and does not account for the experience and voice of marginalized or minority populations. I agree whole-heartedly that using sites of memory—even those too terrible to recall—can be an important corrective to these hegemonic narratives as well as a useful way of coping with and healing trauma. As the child of immigrants, I am also painfully aware of how one’s identity constantly shifts and catches on to various “nodes of attachment.” (81) In spite of all this, my reservation remains that when we fragment experience and meaning into smaller and smaller containers, does it become harder for us to be truly relational? The personal can be epistemological without claiming normativity, but in this vast ocean of personal experience, where are the buoys that provide markers or meeting points for the collective? If the emotional, affective, and bodily experiences form the glue, how can we develop language that will allow us to share this? If all knowledge is subjective and all forms of knowing are equally valid but unreliable, how do we still claim a common good or even begin to discuss and hold ourselves accountable to such a principle? All of these questions are intensified when interpreting texts that belong to a culture that understood emotion and embodiment very differently. I am very supportive of this work, but at the same time I can’t help but feel that we will always need a healthy dose of context—even with all its problems—to provide some guidance and boundaries to our work.
Second, based on my reading of the chapter on Acts, it seems clear that Kotrosits views Luke and Acts as two halves of a whole, namely, a two-volume work with shared themes meant to be read together. Recent scholarship comparing the language and themes in the gospel and in Acts is making the claim to shared authorship look less and less probable. Even more recently, a linguistic, statistical comparison of the Peter and Paul sections of the text suggests that Acts was originally the work of two different authors writing at different times in different locations. Even the most ardent narrative critic would have to account for this type of radical redaction. How might this affect the way in which she presents the document—as a whole—as, “a reflection on the sharper edges of diasporic and imperial belonging.” (114) If Acts is no longer attached to its Lukan tether, and its dating gets moved closer to the mid-second century, how might this change the interpretation of what these sharp edges entail? This is offered as food for thought. On to the positive!
I truly appreciate Kotrosits’ detailed exegetical work on Acts 16-19, which opened my eyes to patterns in the text that had previously overlooked. I concur that there is both a pattern of conflict with imperial values and a continual shifting of alliances. Her careful analysis of these textual dynamics supports her claim that, “Whether explicitly or more subtly through intertextual association, social groups split, mix, and merge, forming surprising and multidirectional affiliations.” (99) For example, Kotrosits notes that the conflict in Ephesus is about idols, so Paul would have easily formed an alliance with a Jewish man named Alexander on this thoroughly Jewish issue. While in Thessalonica, Paul is accused of acting contrary to imperial values by Jews and gentiles alike, but later on Paul still attracts some subset of these same Jews and gentiles to become followers of the Way. This was something that I had not previously considered and brought out a whole new dimension of the text. In addition, I think this hermeneutic could explain what so many studies of Acts overlook about the shifting dynamics between followers of the Way themselves. The partnerships that Paul forms and dispenses with on his missionary journeys—Barnabas, Silas, Timothy and John/Mark—begs this type of analysis since it seems to me to epitomize shifting alliances.
Could this methodology also account for the on-going resistance beginning in 15:36—narratives that mirror Greco-Roman resistance narratives describing the arrival of foreign gods into a new land? Paul’s post-Jerusalem council itinerary reads as separate vignettes of resistance with brief respites. No sooner is one conflict resolved than another begins. The resistance comes from Paul himself, locals, believers, “Jews”, the Holy Spirit, the Spirit of Jesus and Roman authorities. As Kotrosits points out in her exegesis of the Pentecost scene, the wholeness that is expressed there is never fully realized in Acts. (103) This is exemplified by the fact that Asia—which is included in the original list of ethne in chapter 2—is one of the places that Paul is expressly forbidden to enter and speak the word. (Acts 16:6) This is just one of many places where this ideal vision is in tension with its actual enactment.
Kotrosits’ methodology continues to bear fruit when we look past Paul and notice the “minor” characters in chapters 15-16. In Acts 15 directly after the Jerusalem council, which is usually read as the mediating event par excellence of Acts, Paul and Barnabas, his indefatigable helper, separate in a bitter dispute over John Mark’s role in spreading the Way. (Acts 13:13; 15:38-39) Agreement is always counterbalanced with disruption, which Kotrosits indicates is the hallmark of the diasporic life. In addition, Kotrosits points out that the term “believer” is not a simple one, but instead represents a complex web of relationships and allegiances. This complexity is exemplified by Timothy’s family (16:1-3); his mother is Jewish and a believer. This suggests his father is Greek and most likely an unbeliever, and Timothy is a Jewish, uncircumcised believer, suggesting that what constituted “Jewishness” and “believer” was not universally normative. Further, the issue of Timothy being uncircumcised and having a Greek father appears to be acceptable in his own community but may not have been other areas such as Phrygia, Galatia and Macedonia. For this reason, Paul takes Timothy to be circumcised, “because of the Jews who were in those places.” (16:3) According to Kotrosits, “the landscape of affiliations and violent encounters are not easily resolved around identity lines…Simply rethinking the interactions of Paul, who is always getting himself into sticky predicaments, generates ways to understand violence and sociality in Acts without needing to assume that Christian identity is the cause or beneficiary of it.” (97) This highlights why Kotrosits’ work on questioning our ready categories of early Christian identity is so important. It forces us to read the text even more closely, and to interrogate our previous assumptions more deeply.
Kotrosits states, “these texts are thick with the dynamics of national haunting and ongoing transgenerational trauma; they mark the strange and unpredictable turns of social life.” (1) This insight is apt for a text like Acts that is steeped in the affective turns of life—where people are jailed and released, die and return to life, are shipwrecked and set sail, receive visions of a Macedonian man and a floating sheet of unclean animals—all with a sense of casual aplomb. Acts is serious and darkly humorous at the same time. Like the Book of Esther, it seems to use humor as a salve and a mechanism for coping,
Another insight I gained from Kotrosits’ reading of Acts was that the text sets a quick pace for self-reflection. Alliances and venues change before the reader has time to absorb the import of what has just happened. For example, in Acts 5, before the reader can fully appreciate the betrayal perpetrated by Ananias and Sapphira and what must have been the sadness, anger and disappoint among the community, Peter pronounces judgment and the bodies are carried out and disposed of before the reader has time to think about what has just happened. In 5:12 we are asked to move immediately along to the next scene. This scene, and especially 5:11 exemplifies something “queer” about Acts when it says that “great fear seized the whole church.” This fear seems more likely to be the traditional “fear of the Lord” rather than “am I next?” The sudden and violent death of two community members incites faith and this action is categorized as one of the many signs and wonders done through the apostles. Acts seems to be a document filled with vignettes of dark schadenfreude. Does this reflect the darker side of being haunted when those living in diaspora become inured to violence to the point of seeing it as a release and a way of making meaning? Violence infects the world of Acts to such a point that it is sometimes difficult to read, and yet it also seems strangely at home in our own world where gun idioms are a casual part of everyday speech and firing weapons are among the most popular memes that can we casually share with our friends for a good laugh. I can’t help but think that one of the reasons modern Christians are drawn to Acts as an idealized window into early Christian life is that the casual violence of Acts fits our own violent world so well. It becomes, therefore, relatively easy to project ourselves into the landscape of its stories.
Another place where Kotrosits’ scholarship corrects traditional Acts scholarship is that Paul’s Roman citizenship is not always something that will afford him status or protection. Within the complex web of identity politics in diaspora, Roman citizenship may have had value only in limited places. In front of a mixed crowd in Jerusalem, Paul invokes his citizenship in the city of Tarsus as a defense and sign of his authority. (21:39; 22:3) In some cases, municipal citizenship may have held sway with particular audiences. For example, Lydia is identified as a citizen from the city of Thyatira (16:14). Since Lydia is held up as a positive exemplar, we can assume that her citizenship meant something, even in the Roman colony of Philippi. Based on epigraphic data, it could be that she is a visiting benefactor. Paul, on the other hand, gets very little benefit from his Roman citizenship initially since he is arrested, beaten with rods and jailed before he can convince anyone that his status should offer him some protections. Kotrosits’ insights help to characterize rather than lionize Paul. In Acts, he is not the faultless father of the church, but a flawed and vulnerable man whose story seems to have a tragic edge.
Elements of the tragic are also present when Kotrosits invokes parallels between Acts and the Aeneid. Following from Kotrosits’ methodological cue, we can also identify parallels between Acts and classical oratory, especially the speeches of Demosthenes. The study of the rhetoric of the classical orators has shifted recently from identifying the forms of rhetoric in Demosthenes’ speech to seeing the “affect” of the speeches through the lens of epic poetry. Scholar Harvey Yunis labels this a “tragic way of thinking.” Yunis’ proposal does not draw parallels to Greek tragedy, or even suggest that the author intended to create a work in the tragic genre. Instead, his proposal explores how commonly held traditions are used to demonstrate the necessity of actions that may appear as failures to outsiders. In Greek tragic poetry, action and intention are held up as superior to outcome. This allowed Demonsthenes to turn what was viewed as an embarrassing military defeat into a source of national civic pride. Similarly, Paul’s speeches and actions in Acts follow a comparable pattern. The losses, resistance, and violence in the text invoke a community. They facilitate a diasporic myth which claims that although Paul may have failed, there is nevertheless pride in his attempt. Paul, like Demosthenes arguing his case against Aechines, offered his audience moral confidence and comfort amid a changing, collapsing world. By drawing on the resources of epic poetry, Kotrosits observes that for both the Aeneid and Acts, ultimate success and outcome were subordinated to questions of honor and tradition. As she notes, “the Aeneid braids idealism and melancholy, cosmic waxing, and personal and social pain into the reflection on the junction of national (or rather republican) sentimentality and ascendency.” (110) Both texts—and by extension the work of Demosthenes—share their disillusionment and hope in a narrative that gives “tragic” consolation in light of an uncertain future and undetermined belonging. In the early/mid-second century, the story could have gone many different ways and had many different victors. Therefore, instead of reading Acts as a charter document, is this text, perhaps, more akin to Anne Frank’s diary; an attempt to preserve a viewpoint that could be dying away? If Acts is a tragic document, this genre seems best suited to saying goodbye rather than an ascent to power. In other words, if Acts is a site of memory, is it being written in the guise of history in a conscious effort to reproduce what is at risk of being lost—a will to remember?
In conclusion, I would like to share one insight and a poem as the constructive element of my review. While doing research on the Philippian inscriptions, I was reading Peter Pilhofer’s magisterial survey of the material remains of the city. One of the inscriptions caught my attention. It was found at the site of a 3rd century Christian basilica, which was most likely taken over from an earlier Jewish synagogue. On the obverse side of some of the construction materials there are notes and measurements written in Greek. I think this perfectly exemplifies the multivalent nature of diaspora: in an originally Jewish building situated within a Roman colony that displayed mainly Latin inscriptions and iconography, the workmen who constructed these buildings thought in Greek, the language of their origin. In spite of any romanticizing on my part, the conclusion stands: in diaspora identity is fluid and not easily categorized.
I would like to end with part of a poem that wrestles with these very questions. The poem is titled, The Island Within by Cuban-American poet Richard Blanco:
I’m still thinking about your porch light
like a full moon casting a foggy halo
in the frigid air last night, the bare oaks
branching into the sky like nerve endings
inches away from the frozen stars,
the pink gables of your Victorian home
protesting yet another winter for you
captive in Ann Arbor as you practice
mambo by the fireplace. I’m following
your red-velvet shoes to conga beats
and bongo taps taking your body, but
not your life, from the snow mantling
your windows outside, 1,600 miles
away from Cuba. I’m tasting the cafecito
you made, the slice of homemade flan
floating in burnt sugar like the stories
you told me you can’t finish writing,
no matter how many times you travel
through time back to Havana to steal
every memory ever stolen from you.
You’re a thief anyone would forgive,
wanting only to imagine faces for names
chiseled on the graves of your family
at Guanabacoa, walk on Calle Aguacate
and pretend to meet the grandfather
you never met at his lace shop for lunch,
or pray the Kaddish like your mother
at the synagogue in El Vedado, stand
on the steps there like you once did
in a photo you can’t remember taking.
I confess I pitied you, still trying to reach
that unreachable island within the island
you still call home. I thought I was done
with Cuba, tired of filling in the blanks,
but now I’m not sure. Maybe if I return
just once more, walk the sugarcane fields
my father once cut, drive down the road
where my mother once peddled guavas
to pay for textbooks, sit on the porch
of my grandmother’s house, imagine her
still in the kitchen making arroz-con-leche—
maybe then I’ll have an answer for you
last night when you asked me: Would you
move to Cuba? Would you die there?
Teresa Calpino is a Lecturer in the Department of Theology at Loyola University Chicago. Her interest is in exploring the role of women in the Roman empire through literary, epigraphic and material remains. Her newest book will focus on the role of violence in post-biblical texts.