1. Introduction


What type of book do you have in your hands? It is not a traditional scriptural overview, though the key introductory issues, social background, and central contents of 1 Corinthians are covered. Instead, this volume explores the way 1 Corinthians constructs social identity. It comments on those aspects of the letter that seem to have a decisive impact on the social identity shaping processes of the original audience. It sheds light on these processes through the lens of Henri Tajfel’s and John Turner’s social identity and self-categorization theories. The combination of these two theories has become the dominant way for social psychologists to study group processes in the United Kingdom and Australia. Within biblical studies they have emerged as the principal social-scientific lens for studying the biblical text, producing a steady flow of dissertations, books, and articles.

Brief Overview of Tajfel and Turner

To begin, a snapshot of Tajfel’s and Turner’s work as it relates to this work is appropriate. Tajfel and Turner suggest that people gain their identity not only from their self-conception but also from the groups to which they belong. This is, first, because groups provide a positive social identity which facilitates self-respect. Second, individuals seek to avoid anxiety over their behavior. Belonging to groups provides a set of norms according to which one can model one’s own behavior and assess the behavior of others.

Members of groups categorize themselves according to the norms and expectations of the group. To the extent that members conform to the norms of the group, they are accepted within it. However, acting against expected norms is viewed as deviancy by fellow group members and can lead to marginalization and rejection. Thus, there are strong social pressures to adopt the norms of the group to which members belong (the ingroup) since this guarantees acceptance. Group norms tend to accentuate similarities between members and minimize differences. Thus an ideal prototype of the group emerges, one who embodies the similarities that group members share, and that also distinguish them from members of other groups. Ingroup members have a vested interest in portraying their ingroup in the best possible light since this reinforces their own sense of worth. Consequently, as ingroup members prefer the norms of their own ingroup in comparison with somewhat similar outgroups, ingroup bias develops.

Members of the ingroup not only categorize themselves according to the norms of the ingroup but also in contrast to the characteristics of outgroups (as the ingroup sees them). To strengthen the positive identity of the ingroup, the norms and characteristics of outgroups can be criticized, particularly when the ingroup feels threatened by the outgroup. Such criticism leads to unfavorable stereotyping of outgroup members which, then, leads to prejudice. Negative characteristics are attributed to outgroup members to enhance the feelings of superiority of these members of the ingroup.

First Century Mediterranean World and Paul’s Rhetoric

It might seem odd, at first, to use a contemporary social theory to analyze ancient societies. Are social identity and self-categorization theories applicable to the first century Mediterranean world? Hinkle and Brown have proposed two criteria for the application of social identity and self-categorization models. They argue that, for appropriate use of these models, group identity must be salient for members, in other words, ready to be acted upon. Furthermore, ingroups and outgroups must exist in an atmosphere of competition. Malina, studying the ancient Mediterranean world from an anthropological perspective, claims that both these criteria apply to the ancient Mediterranean world: group identity was more important than personal identity and the pivotal values of the Mediterranean area were honor and shame. Such values, along with patronage, naturally led to an atmosphere of competition between opposing groups in a time when resources were limited.

Jews living in the land of Israel had access to the temple for sacrifice and worship. They, therefore, looked down on Diaspora Jews (those living elsewhere in the Mediterranean world) who were unable to participate in temple rituals. Additionally, their belief in monotheism prohibited Diaspora Jews from being involved in the pagan worship that was often part of civic ceremonies, thus excluding them from much of civic life. Even outside the temple, sacrifices to the gods were part of all-important family celebrations such as marriages or birthdays. Food, particularly meat, wine and oil, which were used in temple sacrifices, were later sold in the market place. Furthermore, marriage laws kept Jews apart from the rest of the civic community since Torah limited intimate relations with gentiles (Gen 34:14; Deut 7:3–4). All these factors resulted in the Jews being isolated and often shunned by gentiles. Yet the very isolation and marginalization of the Jews became an important index of their identity and would affect the identity of the gentiles in Christ who were part of the Christ-movement that was still functioning within the broader synagogue community.

To better understand the nature of Paul’s mission-focused discussion, it is important to reflect on these ways that groups are formed and impact identity, since Paul was in fact forming new groups and giving them direction on how to re-orient their lives under their new realization of who they were in Christ. However, this new identity was only one among a number of others that existed, nested one inside the other among the population of Roman Corinth in the mid-first century CE.

Since the early eighties, social psychologists have noted that individual identity does not remain static throughout one’s life. Individuals are constantly shifting their self-understanding as they write and speak with others both inside and outside the groups within which they most belong. Groups communicate their definitions of their ideal member, and individuals align themselves in agreement with or opposition to those definitions. Paul used rhetoric, persuasive language, to address the Corinthian Christ-followers’ identity. Corinthian civic identity was in transition in the first century, and that unsettledness, if left uncontested, would ultimately hinder Paul’s gentile mission in that important city.

In 1 Corinthians, Paul was intentionally seeking to shape the identity of new Christ-followers, developing the language and practices that he felt necessary for prioritizing their in Christ social identity in a way that supported his gentile mission. Paul’s strategy was to transform their Roman identity by forming an alternative community with a distinct set of beliefs and practices, their ethos. To do this, however, he would have to mediate between at least two differing visions of social identity: the imperial ideology of Rome, ultimately, but first the specific concerns of the Christ-following group.

It is important to remember that the Roman empire is never far from Paul’s rhetorical strategy. He is forming an alternative community, both in continuity and discontinuity with the broader community, and he seeks to establish an ethos that allows for social integration while maintaining proper boundaries necessary for group identity to develop. The rhetorical situation then is this: Paul is addressing the debates over the social implications of the gospel especially in light of the way existing social identities (ethnic, gender, or socio-economic) are to continue, discontinue, or be transformed in Christ (7:17; 12:13; see also Gal 3:28).

Recent Works on 1 Corinthians and Social Identity

Scholars who have researched 1 Corinthians have recognized that it contains significant material regarding the social setting of the early Christ-movement and is thus particularly suited to social-scientific analysis. The findings of some of these very recent works have shaped my own reading that follows, and may be of interest to readers interested in the ongoing scholarly work on social identity in this letter. Jack Barentsen’s Emerging Leadership in the Pauline Mission proposes that Paul’s model of leadership was similar to that described in Haslam, Reicher, and Platow’s The New Psychology of Leadership. They argue that for leaders to succeed, they must themselves be examples of the identity that they construct, defend, and embed within their followers. About 1 Corinthians, Barentsen notes the way Paul, as an example of a Jewish follower of Christ, both does and does not fit as a role model for Corinthian gentile believers. Further, he highlights the way the existing leaders in Corinth had been mismanaging the group’s identity. Paul, perhaps surprisingly, relies on processes that are found in Tajfel and Turner as he empowers the Corinthians “to strong identity performance.” First Corinthians 1–4 along with several other chapters in Corinthians were given a sustained social identity reading in my own books, You Belong to Christ and Remain in Your Calling, and the findings of these works are condensed throughout this book. Paul’s teaching on sexual ethics in 1 Corinthians 5–7 is interpreted using social identity theory in Alistair May’s The Body for the Lord. He helps readers understand the complexities of group belonging and the psychological nature of group-based problems as they relate to the way the Corinthians were to embody their new identity. First Corinthians 5:1 to 11:1 is given a social identity reading in Sin-Pan Daniel Ho’s Paul and the Creation of a Counter-Cultural Community. He helps readers to understand the way Paul wants to change the Corinthians’ current social practices and values (for example, sexual practices and idolatry) so that these will align more precisely with their new in Christ social identity. Daniel Ho also recognizes that Paul uses Israel’s Scriptures and then builds up a new and alternative value system using discussions of Christ. First Corinthians 12–15 is covered from the perspective of social identity and honor-shame by Mark Finney in one of his chapters in Honour and Conflict in the Ancient World. Finney makes a particularly strong case for the way worship and belief problems were also identity and honor problems. Finally, 1 Cor 16:1–4 is addressed in my article, “The Jerusalem Collection,” which applies the findings of social identity theory to the economic practices Paul discusses there. This present book, building on and expanding all of these insights, offers a sustained reading of the entire letter through the lens of social identity.

Paul Within Judaism in 1 Corinthians

This book is also written from a post-supersessionist perspective; in other words, it reads Paul as one who does not think that God’s covenant with the Jewish people has been made obsolete or that the church has replaced Israel as God’s people. This perspective will especially show in those places in the letter where Paul addresses the continued salience of Jewish and non-Jewish identities (1:22–24; 5:8; 7:17–24; 9:19–23; 10:1, 18, 32; 12:13; 16:8). Furthermore, I take Paul’s audience to be the gentile Christ-followers in Corinth (12:2). That does not mean that there were not Jews among the congregation; there were. However, Paul’s primary focus is on the formation of gentile identity in Christ, helping them to see how this group relates to the God of Israel, the people of Israel, and the broader synagogue community of which the movement is still a part. This approach is essentially different from a more traditional reading, in that I take Paul to be urging distance not from Judaism but rather from the Roman empire.

Such a post-supersessionist approach, like the social identity reading discussed above, also relies on previous works that should be briefly highlighted. William S. Campbell’s Paul and the Creation of Christian Identity argues for a particularistic understanding of Christ-movement identity, one in which existing identities are not obliterated (7:17–24). Gentile Christ-followers are not to be confused with Israel nor are they the New Israel, or Israel redefined. Instead, God offers an inclusive salvation to Jews as Jews and gentiles as gentiles. Two of Kathy Ehrensperger’s works are crucial to the reading put forth here: Paul and the Dynamics of Power and Paul and the Crossroads of Cultures. These books further highlight Paul’s work as an empowering rather than domineering leader, a bicultural mediator between Greek, Roman, and Jewish identities, and one who reasons with Israel’s Scripture within its tradition rather than out of it. Further, Ehrensperger contends that key aspects of Roman social identity are incompatible with the exclusive loyalty required in worshipping the God of Israel. Peter Tomson’s work, Paul and the Jewish Law, highlights the way Paul’s teaching has its basis in halakah, the various streams of traditional applications of Torah, while David Rudolph’s reading of 1 Cor 9:19–23 in A Jew to the Jews opens up the possibility of Paul’s continued Torah observance. Finally, Mark Nanos’s influence is evident throughout this work, especially his suggestion that the Christ-movement still exists within the synagogue community, that therefore its identity is formed within its Jewish context, and that pre-existing ethnic identities continued to be relevant.

Preview of the Rest of the Book

The reading of 1 Corinthians that follows seeks to clarify the identity processes evident in the text. It presupposes that Paul and the Christ-movement do not yet have a separate institutional identity. It also takes Paul’s “rule in all the churches” that existing identities matter as its hermeneutical key (7:17). For gentiles, these identities are part of God’s good creation and crucial to the gentile mission. For Jews, Paul’s rule supports their continuing covenantal relationship with God but also reminds gentiles that they have not replaced Israel as God’s people, and that Jewish identity is not incompatible with Paul’s gospel.

This book is designed to serve as a running commentary on the letter with the assumption that readers will have a copy of the Bible open beside them, preferably the New Revised Standard Version (NRSV), which is quoted throughout. The reader may find it useful to have a Study Bible close as well, to gain a quick overview of a passage before or while reading this book. The Jewish Annotated New Testament may be particularly useful for this purpose since it shares the Israel-centric perspective of this book and is based on the NRSV. Furthermore, John M. G. Barclay’s “1 Corinthians” commentary in The Oxford Bible Commentary would allow readers to compare some of the ideas offered here with the standard, though social-scientifically informed, view. Finally, a book like this cannot hope to stress everything needed to explain the letter, so readers may want to consider Edward Adams and David Horrell’s edited volume, Christianity at Corinth, for many of the essays that have most influenced 1 Corinthians scholars. For a more in-depth next step, Roy Ciampa and Brian Rosner’s The First Letter to the Corinthians, in the Pillar Commentary Series, is the most important current commentary and would provide further adventures in Paul’s letter after finishing this book.

Discussion Questions

  1. What are your apprehensions concerning reading 1 Corinthians through the lens of contemporary theories like Tajfel and Turner?
  2. It was noted that Mediterranean culture was group oriented. How is that relevant as you begin to read 1 Corinthians? The same was noted as regards the culture being honor-oriented. How might that impact your understanding of the text? Is today’s culture oriented toward the group, or toward honor?
  3. In the overview of recent works in 1 Corinthians, a lot of work seems to have been done on the social dynamics of the text. How might that help you in a contemporary setting of diversity?
  4. Post-supersessionist interpreters argue that Paul continued to identify himself as Jewish. What concerns do you have about that claim? How might supersessionism reveal itself in your contemporary context?
  5. What potential weaknesses might there be in taking Paul’s rule in all the churches that each person should remain in their calling as the hermeneutical key for reading the whole letter? What alternative hermeneutical key would you suggest?