Wednesday, July 15, 2009


Version at BMCR home site
William S. Campbell, Paul and the Creation of Christian Identity. The Library of New Testament Studies 322. New York: T & T Clark International, 2006. Pp. 224. ISBN 9780567033673. $39.95 (pb).
Reviewed by Ralph J. Korner, McMaster University

Table of Contents


William Campbell's study is a valuable contribution to our understanding of Christian identity formation in the first century CE. But it also has relevance for contemporary society. Right at the outset he decries the imperialist implications of Christian universalising claims that have served to facilitate the concept of a dominant Western culture and a resultant sense of superiority over other world faiths, in particular Judaism. While clarity with respect to one's underlying presuppositions is laudable, it does raise the question in the reader's mind of whether Campbell can avoid an anachronistic retrojection of modern concerns onto an ancient society. In my view he succeeds admirably. Campbell's resultant study is even-handed and historically contextualized. His primary focus is assessing Paul's role in the creation of Christian identity in the first century, and that is my concern in this review.

Traditional research has seen Paul and his mission as being divorced from his Jewish context and Jewish identity. Campbell disagrees. Over the course of ten chapters, Campbell cogently argues that Pauline Christ-followers would not have seen themselves as some sort of new, a-cultural, universal association that was disconnected from its Jewish roots, but rather as Jews and Greeks who, while ethnically diverse, were united under the transforming influence of Christ, and who expressed that diverse unity within their existing culture(s).

He maintains that the central tenet in Paul's creation of Christian identity for both Jews and gentiles is a transforming encounter with, and an ongoing process of conforming to, the Messiah, in the tradition of Abraham's faith. In this respect Campbell stakes out the middle ground between the polar extremes of a highly individualistic and supersessionist traditional perspective and the two-covenant New Perspective position in which the coming of Jesus was only for the purpose of gentile inclusion.

Traditionally, Paul's remonstration against the Jews who opposed him in Pisidian Antioch, that he and Barnabas were "turning to the Gentiles" (Acts 13:14-52), has been seen by scholarship as a watershed moment in the historical development of nascent Christianity. This apparent turning point is said to have shifted Paul's evangelistic focus towards the gentiles and thus away from Jews, and, concomitantly, even away from the value of a Jewish heritage for gentile Christ-followers. Through prioritizing Paul's use of the Abrahamic covenant for Christian identity formation, Campbell finds the middle ground that maintains continuity between the new gentile mission and ancient Jewish heritage. He argues his case both from negative and positive angles.

Negatively, he seeks to demonstrate that, from social, cultural, and theological perspectives, Paul is not directly culpable for, nor would he ever have approved of, this divergence of mission that ultimately resulted in the creation of a church with a predominantly gentile identity, often in complete usurpation of its Jewish roots. Paul's intent aside, Campbell also reminds the reader of the limited audience for Paul's theology; his communities "did not constitute the whole of the Christ-movement" (p. 71; author's emphasis).

Positively, in light of Romans 9-11, Campbell situates Paul's theology of gentile mission as being in continuity with his Jewish roots rather than discontinuous with them. This continuity is said to affirm diversity within the unity of the universal church. Thus, the inclusion of gentile Christ-followers in the church does not replace or displace Israel in God's divine purpose. Contrary to popular belief, church teachings, and much scholarship, Paul was not attempting to create a new religion/Jesus cult/association that was severed from its Jewish roots.

In chapter one, Campbell situates his methodological approach equally within two camps--sociological and theological. He appropriately reminds the reader of the occasional nature of Paul's writings. Paul is in dialogue with the immediate social dynamics of his faith communities. As such, Paul wrestles with how to link these social realities with, and contextualize them within, the eschatological Christ-event. This foundational presupposition gives strength and focus to Campbell's subsequent analyses.

Sociologically, Campbell situates Jewish identity in the first century CE within the context of Lee Levine's claim that the primordial elements of Jewish ethnic understanding "[forged] formidable [bonds both] internally and with other communities" (p. 5). Some examples of these elements include: "common history, origins, customs, cultures, and aspirations [within] a well-defined religious component" (p. 5).

Into this Jewish understanding, Paul inserts the Christ-event, not simply as an additional element of, but rather as being fundamental to, not just the entire Jewish ethno-religious narrative but also to the process of gentile inclusion into the Abrahamic covenant. Campbell then asks the question, to which he returns throughout the book, as to whether Paul's apparent lack of concern regarding Jewish identity issues (e.g., festival and dietary observances, Rom 14-15) is due to his rejection of Judaism or to his assumption that the Christ-movement would retain its essential Jewish identity and thus allow for diversity within that unity.

Chapter two reviews the scholarly context with respect to Pauline interpretation and Christian identity. Campbell states that, since the time of F. C. Baur, Pauline scholarship has consistently maintained an antithetical understanding with respect to Judaism and emergent Christianity. This has served to minimize Paul's corporate emphasis on how differing peoples relate to the one God of Israel and to maximize an individualistic emphasis in Paul's teaching concerning the polarities of grace and works.

Campbell surveys the history of scholarship on Paul wherein he has been variously seen as the Hellenizer of Christianity (Tübingen), as being rooted in Rabbinic Judaism (W. D. Davies), as reflecting Jewish eschatology (Munck), as having his central mission grounded in Rom 9-11 (gentile and Jewish inclusion, Stendahl) rather than in the law/gospel antithesis of Rom 1-8 (justification by faith, Käsemann), as being continuous with Palestinian Judaism and covenantal nomism (E. P. Sanders, Dunn), and, in a recent rejoinder, as again one who critiques the use of law as a means of justification (Gathercole). This moves Campbell to the point of his book--the need to somehow reclaim Paul's message that the gospel offered relationship for differing peoples to the one God of Israel.

In chapter three, Campbell wrestles with the theological significance of the dispute at Antioch. He cogently argues that those who convert Paul into a separatist and an advocate of gentile "Christianity" have oversimplified the historical evidence (Paul still continued with the collection for Jerusalem) and anachronistically interpreted this incident (Luther's theological formulations have been retrojected into this early period). Rather, Campbell judiciously argues for a Jewish "otherness" that is neither incompatible theologically, nor insurmountable sociologically, for Paul.

Chapter four engages the question of how Paul theologically negotiated the tricky precipice of not having gentile Christ-followers fall into becoming Jewish proselytes. In Abraham, Paul found a covenantal context wherein gentiles and Jews, in spite of their inherent differences, could have one ancestor who could be seen as the father of many nations, and not just one. Spiritual oneness though must not become sociological sameness--diversity in unity is Paul's social task. In future chapters Campbell addresses how Paul tried to avoid a splintering into factions of Christ-followers and Jews within synagogue contexts.

But Paul the innovator does not just have Jewish dynamics with which to contend. In chapter five, Campbell explores the reality of what it meant for Paul's mission to grow within a tripartite context: "Christians," Jews, and Roman civic authorities. Campbell approvingly cites Tellbe's study of how tripartite interactions account for the differing self-understanding and identity of the "Christian" communities in Thessalonica, Rome, and Philippi.1 Paul's theology cannot be reduced to simply a Jewish-"Christian" dialogue. Imperial ideology is an equal partner in his "theologizing."

In chapter six the questioned is asked as to whether Paul is the architect of "Christian identity." The term "Christian identity" has a universal quality to it, which runs counter to Campbell's previous dictum that Paul's theology is particular and not universal to all Christ-followers. But if one reads with that caveat in mind, Campbell's discussion clarifies Paul's unique theological contributions: (1) as theologian, Paul fashioned a rationale for the inclusion of gentiles into the church with Jews that was grounded in a common commitment to the Messiah/the Christ; (2) as champion of the gentile cause, he placed gentile Christ-followers on an equal footing with Jewish Christ-followers, not just as "Jewish" proselytes; (3) as apostle, his proclamation at Antioch did free the Pauline communities from undue Jewish influence.

But of particular importance is Campbell's helpful definition of Paul's unifying differentiation of church and Israel as corporate entities: "gentiles are the called of God but although closely related to, they do not become part of Israel even though they are called to share in the inheritance of Israel with Israel and not simply by themselves as a separate entity" (p. 102). A minor weakness in this chapter is Campbell's use of the absence of phraseology (e.g., the church is not called "New Israel" [Ἰσραὴλ κατὰ πνε̂υμα]; p. 67) to argue for the ongoing presence of Jewish heritage for Christian identity formation. Beginning with the next chapter, though, Campbell does give more substance to this claim.

In chapter seven Campbell hones his focus on the Jewish nature of Christian identity through a study of the book of Romans. The identity of Paul's addressees in Romans receives particular attention, especially with respect to the first half of chapter 2 (vv. 1-16), wherein Campbell reverses the traditional view that Paul's very negative interlocutor is Jewish. By claiming, not without some justification, that Paul is addressing a gentile, Campbell preserves a more positive Pauline view of Jewish heritage, for which view he summons significant evidence from the rest of Romans.

If one accepts that Paul is more positive than negative towards Jewish identity, then the question arises as to his understanding of Israel. In chapter 8, Campbell lays out his evidence for the case that to this point he has only emphatically stated: the church is not Israel (or New Israel). He argues that since God's covenant with his historic people is irrevocable, the identity of Israel is not transferable. Rather gentiles have become part of God's covenant with Israel and, thus, are in association with Israel as gentiles. Ethnic differentiation remains, but all other differences are nullified; the two have become one "in Christ."

This oneness "in Christ" becomes the central focus of chapter 9. Jesus of Nazareth, the first-century Jew, is the promised Christ, or Messiah, of Israel (1:4; 15:12, "stem of Jesse"). As such, life "in Christ" is primarily corporate, not individualistic. A people have been made alive, that is, the body of Christ comprised of gentile and Jewish Christ-followers. Contra Tom Wright,2 Campbell argues that Israel as a historic and theological entity was not dissolved "in Christ" and then replaced with God's universal relationship with individual Jews and gentiles. Rather as the "church," corporately they have become joint-heirs with Christ as children of Abraham. Christ-followers of whatever ethnic identity are "not simply isolated individuals linked individualistically to Christ" (p. 153).

In the tenth and final chapter Campbell revisits Paul's "theologizing." In line with Bengt Holmberg,3 Campbell calls for a recognition of the fact that Paul's ethical and theological pronouncements need to be relativized within the context of "social factors like stratum-specific behavior patterns operative in the everyday life of these Christians" (p. 161). One wonders, though, what hermeneutical checks and balances Campbell has in place to prevent a complete relativization of Paul's writings.

Israel, however, is not relativized; it is a constant within Paul's theologizing, although with one important distinction. In the Christ-event Israel is now divided into Jewish Christ-followers, who are the faithful remnant, and those Jews who have not yet chosen to follow "the Christ." This eschatological transformation, while realized, is still future; it is an ongoing process. Likewise, the church's eschatological transformation is an ongoing process. Thus, the church's failings and isolation from society require of it realism and humility.

Campbell's concise contribution (203 pages) to the question of Christian origins and Jewish-Christian relations in antiquity is a significant one. His grasp of the material is commendable, as is the precision with which he writes. Editorial precision is also to be commended. Only three minor errors came to light: ἐκκλησία is spelled ἐκκλεσία (p. 70); "word" in the singular should have been plural ("words"; p. 110); ekklesia is spelled ecclesia (p. 196). Campbell competently integrates sociological methodology with theological acumen in situating his study within the historical scholarly trajectory, all the while recognizing his points of continuity and discontinuity within that history of interpretation.

A suggestion for further development in Campbell's treatise relates to Paul's appropriation of the word ἐκκλησία for the communal self-identification of Christ-followers. Campbell only too briefly assesses the value of ἐκκλησία in his project. (In point of fact, this is one example of where a subject index would have been helpful.) There is evidence in Jewish Second Temple literature to suggest that ἐκκλησία is used somewhat synonymously with συναγωγή ("synagogue").4 Thus, an analysis of the semantic range of ἐκκλησία would indicate that, on the one hand, Paul's appropriation of ἐκκλησία allowed for a self-definition that differentiated Christ-followers (Jewish and gentile) who still met within a "synagogue" context, while, on the other hand, it maintained connectedness with their Abrahamic covenantal roots. Had Campbell more substantially integrated this element of communal identity formation into his analysis it would have served only to strengthen his case further.


1.   M. Tellbe, Paul Between Synagogue and State: Christians, Jews and Civic Authorities in 1 Thessalonians, Romans, and Philippians (Stockholm: Almqvist & Wiksell International, 2001).
2.   Tom Wright, "Paul's Gospel and Caesar's Empire," in Paul and Politics: Ekklesia, Israel, Imperium, Interpretation: Essays in Honour of Krister Stendahl (ed. R. Horsley; Harrisburg, PA: Trinity Press International, 2000), 160-83, esp. 176. See also, idem., The New Testament and the People of God (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1992), 79.
3.   Bengt Holmberg, "The Methods of Historical Reconstruction in the Scholarly 'Recovery' of Corinthian Christianity," in Christianity at Corinth: The Quest for the Pauline Church (eds. E. Adams and D. Horrell; Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2004), 255-71, esp. 261.
4.   Philo, in particular, uses ἐκκλησία and συναγωγή in synonymous ways. Cf. Anders Runesson, Donald D. Binder, and Birger Olsson, The Ancient Synagogue from its Origins to 200 C.E.: A Sourcebook (Leiden: Brill, 2008), 260-62, 271-72.

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