Friday, April 10, 2009


Version at BMCR home site
V. Henry T. Nguyen, Christian Identity in Corinth: A Comparative Study of 2 Corinthians, Epictetus and Valerius Maximus. Wissenschaftliche Untersuchungen zum Neuen Testament. 2. Reihe 243. Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, 2008. Pp. xii, 272. ISBN 9783161496660. €59.00 (pb).
Reviewed by John K. Goodrich, Durham University, England

In this innovative and learned study Henry Nguyen attempts to illumine the concept of "social identity" ("social persona") in early Pauline Christianity through a heuristic comparison of three first-century CE social critics: Valerius Maximus, Epictetus, and the Apostle Paul. Throughout the book (a revised doctoral dissertation in New Testament completed at the University of Aberdeen), Nguyen traces in these ancient authors a shared dissatisfaction with the popular contemporary practice of evaluating people based solely on external indicators of rank and status. By analyzing the function of the correlative terms persona and πρόσωπον, as well as related themes in the writings of Valerius, Epictetus, and Paul, Nguyen observes how each author subverted this dominant cultural preoccupation and proposed alternative models of social identity.

Chapter 1 lays some groundwork for the study. Here Nguyen briefly presents the book's aim and articulates the methods he applies. Concerning his sociohistorical approach, Nguyen explains that by analyzing the cultural environment of the New Testament, including the "social practices, beliefs, behaviour, values, and ideals of the people in their own contexts," he is then able to "shed light on how [ancient] people perceived and valued certain concepts" (8). Moreover, by avoiding a purely lexical approach, Nguyen attempts to analyze social identity as a concept, which he defines (using Richard Jenkin's definition)1 as "'our understanding of who we are and of who other people are, and reciprocally, other people's understanding of themselves and of others (which includes us)'" (1).

Chapter 2 introduces the reader to the traditional as well as popular ("conventional") Roman conceptions of social identity. For Nguyen, the central words under investigation are the Latin persona and Greek πρόσωπον. Nguyen demonstrates that the two terms are conceptually linked to one another and were occasionally used in ancient literature to denote an individual's social identity, particularly one's rank and status. Nguyen further demonstrates that in Rome rank and status were associated with one's functions, honors, duties, and rights. Given these traditional aspects of identity, Nguyen then argues that rank and status were regularly and visually projected in everyday life through one's attire, entourage, seat assignments, legal privileges, and commemoratives (i.e., statues and inscriptions). Nguyen uses these visual expressions of identity collectively to expose the "persona-conscious nature of Roman society" (43).

Chapter 3 analyzes Valerius Maximus' conception of social identity through his treatise Facta et dicta. Following an introduction to the person of Valerius, his social position, and his purpose for writing the treatise, Nguyen explains how in certain chapters of the work (e.g., "Of physical likeness" [9.14]) Valerius, without ever trivializing the Roman system of rank and status, criticized the popular practice of projecting and assessing social identity through exclusively external criteria. In place of this counterfeit portrayal of one's identity, Valerius offered an alternative perspective by presenting real-life examples (exempla) of nobility, which typified the Roman values and virtues traditionally and ideally associated with being a "Roman gentleman" and were ultimately personified in Tiberius.

While Nguyen adequately summarizes the content of Facta et dicta and its significance for his study, on the whole the chapter lacks the sufficient primary-source citations (esp. of exempla) to illustrate for the unfamiliar reader how Valerius articulated his conception of Roman identity (one must remember that this monograph is primarily intended for New Testament specialists). This criticism in no way detracts from the overall coherence of the argument, merely its ease of readability, since the interested reader will be required to have a copy of Valerius in hand.

Chapter 4 examines the Dissertationes and Encheiridion of Epictetus. After an introduction to Epictetus' life, career, and literature, Nguyen surveys Epictetus' many criticisms of the Roman hierarchical system and popular culture (e.g., "Of personal adornment" [3.1]), demonstrating his frustration with the elaborate expressions of social identity which accompanied the pursuit of rank and status, especially by orators. Nguyen notes that Epictetus labeled the desire for such prestige an "incurable fever" and alleged that such desires "enslaved" the individual. Nguyen further explains how Epictetus taught that one's identity resided only internally, consisting primarily of one's volition (προαίρεσις) and life role (πρόσωπον), which is individually allotted by God. An individual's identity, then, should be marked by freedom from desire and the attainment of those attributes which make one morally "good and excellent" (καλὸς καὶ ἀγαθός).

Although the originality of these studies in Valerius and Epictetus carry significance for Classical research in their own right, the pay-off for Nguyen is the exegetical and theological insight the project furnishes for Pauline interpretation. In his treatment of Paul in chapters 5 and 6, Nguyen examines 2 Corinthians almost exclusively, due to the frequency therein of the term πρόσωπον (12 of 24 Pauline uses) as well as its explicit critique of those who evaluate people based on purely external criteria. In chapter 5 Nguyen situates the reader in first-century CE Corinth. Appealing to Paul's epistles and other literary sources, Nguyen demonstrates how many in the colony "aspired to improve their social standing by visibly expressing their persona through their outward appearance" (129). Nguyen then presumes, along with the majority of New Testament scholars, that many of the popular societal norms of Corinth influenced the church and in fact caused many of the problems that Paul battled in his Corinthian epistles, including a preoccupation with rank, status, wealth, beauty, wisdom, eloquence, and other external manifestations of identity.

Chapter 6 reaches the exegetical and theological climax of the book with an analysis of Paul's portrayal of Christian identity in 2 Corinthians, which Nguyen contends has both an internal and external dimension. First, Nguyen examines the internal dimension of identity in 2 Cor 2.14-7.4, underscoring Paul's repeated promotion of his inner, rather than outer, ministerial qualifications. For instance, Nguyen suggests that when Paul stressed the "Spirit" over the "letter" (3.1-6), a heart-directed rather than appearance-directed ministry (4.7-12), the "treasure" rather than the "earthen vessel" (4.7-12), the "inner person" over the "outer person" (4.16), "unseen things" rather than "seen things" (4.18), "living by faith" rather than "outward appearance" (5.7), "boasting in the heart" rather than "in πρόσωπον" (5.12), and knowing things κατὰ πνεῦμα rather than κατὰ σάρκα (5.16-17), Paul was in fact "diminishing the value of the exterior features of identity and placing all weight on the interior features of identity, the latter being the more authentic and genuine aspect of the person" (171). While some critics will take issue with the Platonic overtones of Nguyen's interior-exterior distinction and reject his reading of some of these supporting texts, the reader will nevertheless concur that Paul's conception of Christian identity (according to this epistle anyway) stresses the internal reality of Christian identity and subverts the popular Roman perspective.

But for Nguyen, Christian identity, as portrayed in 2 Corinthians, finds its final expression in the external dimension, which Paul spelled out in the phrase "in the πρόσωπον of Christ" (2 Cor 4.6). While Nguyen makes too much of the contrast between "Moses's πρόσωπον as a temporary expression of his identity as a visible presence of God" and "Christ's πρόσωπον . . . as the permanent expression of his identity as God's visible presence," he is nevertheless correct when asserting that "the latter of the two πρόσωπα should be regarded as the appropriate goal for the Christians' transformation of identity" (182). To this end, Nguyen contends that the "πρόσωπον of Christ" (4.6) is equivalent to the "image of God" (4.4; cf. 3.18) and so refers to Christ's identity. Thus, when Paul stated that God reveals in the hearts of Christians "the knowledge of the glory of God in the πρόσωπον of Christ" (2 Cor 4.6), he implied that Christians exhibit the identity of Christ, specifically as they manifest the character of Jesus and embody his death and resurrection in everyday life. For the Christian, then, "the very life of Jesus breaks through and manifests itself in the midst of his weakness and suffering" (193). Thus, Nguyen concludes: "Paul approaches identity by presenting both an internal and external aspect of Christian identity -- an outward dimension that expresses the inward spiritual transformation, rather than superficial values. That is, Paul is not simply making an outward/inward distinction, but a distinction between outward expressions based on superficial values and outward expressions based on the inward spiritual transformation that is taking effect" (194).

Next, Nguyen extends his argument by treating Paul's apologetic use of πρόσωπον in 2 Corinthians 10.1 and 7. He contends that the phrase κατὰ πρόσωπον in 10.1 "helps to draw the Corinthians' attention to his [Paul's] display of the characteristics of the person of Christ" (197). Moreover, the expression τὰ κατὰ πρόσωπον βλέπετε in 10.7 is either an exhortation for the Corinthians to begin noticing Paul's Christ-like character, or an indicative statement about their "preoccupation with external status symbols" (198). In either case, here Paul chastised the church for their failure to see his embodiment of Christ's identity. Nguyen then explains how Paul continued to subvert the Corinthians' social values throughout the remainder of the letter with the "power in weakness" motif. The chapter concludes with a summary analysis of Paul's use of πρόσωπον in 2 Corinthians, a brief look at supporting evidence in Paul's other epistles, and a stimulating comparison of the models of social identity articulated by Valerius, Epictetus, and Paul.

There are many commendable features of Nguyen's study. The surveys of Valerius, Epictetus, and Paul are quite detailed and will be useful for students of both Classics and New Testament for the light they cast on the social history of the Greco-Roman world. Moreover, while many other studies concerning Roman social history have addressed related topics (e.g., honor, clothing, patronage, social mobility, etc.), this study brings many of these topics together into conversation, filling a lacuna in scholarship by addressing the more abstract concept of identity, to which all of these contribute.

Specifically for the benefit of New Testament scholarship, Nguyen sheds light on a lexical nuance of a particularly loaded, yet neglected term, πρόσωπον, and demonstrates that in 2 Corinthians πρόσωπον was Paul's choice term for "identity." Furthermore, based on this study it is clear that the term πρόσωπον and the theme of identity are particularly significant for Paul's discourse in 2 Corinthians. Nguyen's treatment of identity is, therefore, extremely welcome as it ties together many familiar texts and motifs under this more general rubric.

One wonders, however, how helpful it is to limit Paul's definition of identity to this one model. While embodiment of Christ is clearly a major component of Christian identity in the passages Nguyen has examined, it can also be argued from elsewhere in 2 Corinthians that other theological realities also contribute toward Paul's perspective (e.g., that Christians are partakers and sharers of divine grace). In other words, while Nguyen's approach (which traces Paul's employment of πρόσωπον and internal/external themes) has led him to his conclusions, a different starting point may lead another researcher elsewhere. Thus, attempting to identify the center of a distinctly Pauline definition of identity may be compared with attempting to identify the core of Paul's theology: different approaches will produce variegated results.

Additionally, while Nguyen defined "social identity" and the various nuances of persona and πρόσωπον at the beginning of the book, what these terms mean when he uses them in context, and whether or not they are being employed pejoratively, can on occasion remain rather unclear for the reader. This is perhaps due to the lack of terminological variety Nguyen employs when referring to the concept (see for instance the first full paragraph on page 44, where persona is used eight times in a span of four sentences). Nguyen's intended meanings for these terms could have been clarified had he simply utilized a greater variety of synonyms. Indeed, because the study concerns a particular social concept, which is admittedly difficult to pinpoint, Nguyen inevitably struggles to find a consistent way to refer to social identity that does not leave the reader with a clouded understanding of what exactly is being discussed.

Moreover, Nguyen's repeated use of value-laden terms (e.g., "superficial," "shallow," "obsessive") is quite pervasive. While sometimes these terms describe an ancient author's perspective, in many other instances it is difficult to discern whether the terms express the ancient or modern author's assessment.

Aside from these minor criticisms, the book is an interesting and successful undertaking. Nguyen demonstrates a strong understanding of the relevant texts, which is not always evident in "background studies" in New Testament scholarship. Indeed, Nguyen's comparative method is exemplary, modeling the thoroughness in socio-historical research and acquaintance with the primary-source material for which modern biblical scholarship should aim.


1.   Jenkins, Social Identity (Routledge: London, 1996), 5.

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