Romans as written to diaspora Judean ethnoi

The more I read my commentaries, the less satisfied I am with them. Not Jewett, really, or Deibler's Semantic and Structural Analysis, but Esler and Witherington and socio-rhetorical analysis that proceeds on the notion of Christianity being a live -- if nascent -- option in the field at the time. Jews and Gentiles and a presumption of conflict with "Jewish opponents." To riff on Jay, "Did'jou know Paul was a Jew?" (NSFW) Of course they do, but much depends on how you take that "was," what you think Paul was doing as an apostle, and how you construct his world. So I've gone off looking for things that make sense in post-Neusner studies.

What I've got is the notion that we're not talking Judaism and Christianity at least until the 2nd century, not clearly until the 4th century; that if we're talking about Rome, we're talking about a diasporan identity filiated toward Jerusalem/Judea but referring to Hasmonean rather than Herodian Second Temple Judaism; that "Judean" is the correct translation of Ioudaioi, and that it's an ethnos -- Paul isn't talking about religio or cultic matters, but about ethnic Judean identity, its nature and its effects.

Remember above all things that ethnicity is not a matter of "race" or genetics. Being racially semitic (which is itself another topic for debate) is not the criterion for being ethnically Judean. There is no essential conflict between the dominant sense that Romans is addressing a gentile audience, and that it is addressing a Judean one. They need not be two separate groups -- many things resolve when you consider that we have a letter directed toward a single audience of highly-Judaically-socialized citizens. Plus, given that Paul is soliciting for mission support to the West, I see no reason (yet) that references to the nations should not be proselytic reminders to a Judean community, an internally-universalist pitch much like Rahner makes for anonymous Christianity.

On this line of thought, Romans is an argument about the Judean identity crisis in a diasporan community in which those who could be identified as Judean were expelled under Claudius, and only those who could "pass" were able to remain and take up the identity of Judean ethnic community. Those whose unmutilated penises could pass for citizens' at the baths, and who weren't so picky about what they could eat. You can imagine there were problems with the idea of ethnic solidarity! But there always are, in a community where some can pass as white, and others cannot. Incidental to the letter, this provides a measure of much-needed sympathy for the demonized "Judaizers" -- those who would compel the gentile converts to engage in *all* of the indices of Judean ethnicity, not just all the ones that were convenient to them as citizens of empire. Much as we're inclined to say about Christianity in the American empire, "Judaism" wasn't just an ancient, respectable moral philosophy with its God and set of rules, though it was attractive in Rome for those aspects. It was a culture, a way of life, and one that had a funny relationship to the authorities of the world. It could tolerate them, but it could not ascribe to them the authority they wanted. It had, at times, to be counter-culture. And when and where it had to, were serious questions! (Sounds familiar, but that's for after the exegesis.)

Anthony Smith (The Ethnic Origins of Nations, 1986, cited in Jonathan Hall, Ethnic Indentity in Greek Antiquity, 1997, p. 25) gives six characteristics for an ethnic group:
1) An ethnonym, a unified name by which the group is known
2) A common myth of descent
3) A shared history
4) A distinctive shared culture
5) A specific territorial association
6) A sense of communal solidarity

Jonathan Hall, dealing with ancient Greek ethnoi, finds 2 and 5 to be the most crucial, and with respect to Judeans as an ethnos in the Hellenistic environment, I would say that 1, 2, and 5 are reasonably incontestable. 1: The ethnonym says a lot about who they take themselves to be -- the gentilic "Judean" of the Hasmonean dynasty rather than the semitic "Israel" of the later Bar Kokhba revolt. 2: The common descent -- to which Paul appeals -- is Abrahamic. Mythos is important here -- while there may be a hierarchy prioritizing normative genetic descent, just as with the Aharonic, Zadokite, and Davidic lines, especially in the Hellenism of the diaspora we're talking about conversion as adoption into the family. Fictive kinship, as David Rhoads has said about the baptismal system. If Jesus is "the offspring," as Paul claims, this is an Abrahamic claim to Judean ethnicity through Jesus. 5: The specific territory the Judeans call their own is Judea, most specifically Jerusalem. It is well-attested that the diasporan communities, while having no such strong desire for return as we see in some contemporary forms, were quite willing to "send home" tribute/offerings to Jerusalem. (This bothered some emperors and governors more than others.) Paul's mention of the Jerusalem offering need not be a questionable pitch to get money from the Romans, but might be a proof of alignment in both ethos and pathos.

The trouble is that 1, 2 and 5 constitute the object of struggle. The battlegrounds are 3, 4 and 6. I've already touched on solidarity, and to some degree on distinctive shared culture as well. The degree of sharing, and what must be shared (the difference between a criterion of ethnicity and an index of it), are a real problem, and possibly the whole point of the "Jerusalem conference" of Galatians and Acts. (The perennial question of "What is a Jew?") Shared history becomes a real problem, as the marked Judeans have a very different near-term history than the converts (expulsion and persecution), and claim to embodying the longer-term history to which the converts have joined themselves.

I think this has solid claim to a thick interpretation of Romans, and one that can build out usefully into divided Christian contexts. But it's early yet, and I'm still learning. Maybe tomorrow will break it in half...though I don't think so, based on the research so far.


  1. Matt - I am very much enjoying your reflections. Thanks for keeping the internet open with ideas for those of us who are no longer immersed in academia. It's good to hear fresh (and insightful) thoughts/reflections.



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