Representation In The Writings Of Paul: Part Two

[Note: Part One of this series can be found here.]

When we hear the term representation in the contemporary world, the idea is often that various subaltern groups who have suffered at the hand of a reputedly cruel and unjust majority culture dominated by white men deserve to have their achievements celebrated so any identifiable non-majority group can cheer on the success and positive presentation of someone who is like them. It should be noted that the Bible does deal with questions of identity politics and representation in the Pauline sense has something to do with those concerns, but not always in the way that we expect if we come to the Bible with the perspective of our own evil age. Since, as might be imagined, the way that Paul deals with representation in the sense that is the obsession of many people in the present day, it is worth breaking down this topic into more manageable chunks. Let us first look at how it is that the Bible deals with questions of representation in ethnicity, as this plays a surprisingly important role in Paul’s life and writings.

Paul repeatedly in the Bible affirms his own complicated identity. In Acts 22:1-3, he states: ““Brethren and fathers, hear my defense before you now.”  And when they heard that he spoke to them in the Hebrew language, they kept all the more silent. Then he said:  “I am indeed a Jew, born in Tarsus of Cilicia, but brought up in this city at the feet of Gamaliel, taught according to the strictness of our fathers’ law, and was zealous toward God as you all are today.” Here Paul cites several aspects of his identity, including his religious identity as a Jew–and a strict and zealous and well-educated Jew at that. Later on in his defense, in verses 25 through 29, he engages in a conversation with a Roman officer about the thorny matter of citizenship: “And as they bound him with thongs, Paul said to the centurion who stood by, “Is it lawful for you to scourge a man who is a Roman, and uncondemned?” When the centurion heard that, he went and told the commander, saying, “Take care what you do, for this man is a Roman.” Then the commander came and said to him, “Tell me, are you a Roman?” He said, “Yes.” The commander answered, “With a large sum I obtained this citizenship.” And Paul said, “But I was born a citizen.” Then immediately those who were about to examine him withdrew from him; and the commander was also afraid after he found out that he was a Roman, and because he had bound him.” Here we see that the political identity of Paul was a Roman citizen, which had considerable privileges in the world at the time, including a freedom from the arbitrary punishment that was repeatedly inflicted on those who lived under the empire’s rules but were not citizens.

At other times, Paul went into even more detail about his identity, as is the case in Philippians 3:3-7, when Paul states: “For we are the circumcision, who worship God in the Spirit, rejoice in Christ Jesus, and have no confidence in the flesh, though I also might have confidence in the flesh. If anyone else thinks he may have confidence in the flesh, I more so: circumcised the eighth day, of the stock of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew of the Hebrews; concerning the law, a Pharisee; concerning zeal, persecuting the church; concerning the righteousness which is in the law, blameless. But what things were gain to me, these I have counted loss for Christ.” Paul’s own simultaneous boasting of his privileged identity as a religious Jew ethnically of the tribe of Benjamin and his statement that the aspects of his identity that might serve to his benefit instead he counted as a loss ought to be an example for others to follow. To the extent that people wish to grift off of their identity and gain some sort of reward for it, it is better to consider these things as a loss rather than a gain, something not to take advantage of rather than the reverse. That this is contrary to the spirit of our times only makes it more important for us to avoid weaponizing our identity to view our identity as a source of privilege or as a way of tearing down others.

Lest we think that Paul only thought of ethnic identities when it came to himself, it is worth pointing out that these matters are something we also find in his life and writings with regards to other people. We find this repeatedly discussed in Acts 16, as it happens. Acts 16 begins with a passage about the disciple Timothy, and it is worth considering the heavy cost that identity politics could place on a young believer like Timothy, as it is written in Acts 16:1-3: “Then he came to Derbe and Lystra. And behold, a certain disciple was there, named Timothy, the son of a certain Jewish woman who believed, but his father was Greek.  He was well spoken of by the brethren who were at Lystra and Iconium.  Paul wanted to have him go on with him. And he took him and circumcised him because of the Jews who were in that region, for they all knew that his father was Greek.” Timothy’s identity was complicated because his mother was a believing Jew but his father was Greek. In the eyes of the Gentiles, it is likely that it was Timothy’s father’s identity that was more decisive, but in the eyes of the Jews of Paul’s day (and among our own as well), the fact that Timothy’s mother was Jewish meant that Timothy was counted as a Jew, and he needed to be circumcised or he would be viewed as a traitor to his people, and so it was that Paul circumcised Timothy (a painful and awkward matter for a young man, it might be imagined) so that Timothy would be able to be of use in the ministry as a helper among the Jewish diaspora of the Mediterranean world and the Gentile godfearers who associated with them and learned and practiced obedience to God’s laws.

Interestingly enough, the question of ethnic identity and representation comes up in the next passage, where Paul has a notable dream and interprets it so that the person he sees in his dream represents his whole people. Acts 16:9-10 reads: “ And a vision appeared to Paul in the night. A man of Macedonia stood and pleaded with him, saying, “Come over to Macedonia and help us.”  Now after he had seen the vision, immediately we sought to go to Macedonia, concluding that the Lord had called us to preach the gospel to them.” Paul sees the man of Macedonia, who must have been recognizable by costume or something else of that nature, as being a representative of his entire people as being receptive to the Gospel message that Paul had been commissioned to share. Similarly, Luke, with his typical attention to detail, notes identity frequently in Acts. Acts 16:14 notes the following about Lydia: “Now a certain woman named Lydia heard us. She was a seller of purple from the city of Thyatira, who worshiped God. The Lord opened her heart to heed the things spoken by Paul. ” Here we see professional as well as local identity noted by Luke. Paul himself, in his letters, notes those associates of his who were fellow circumcised Jews, as is the case in Romans 16:6-11: “Greet Mary, who labored much for us.  Greet Andronicus and Junia, my countrymen and my fellow prisoners, who are of note among the apostles, who also were in Christ before me. Greet Amplias, my beloved in the Lord.  Greet Urbanus, our fellow worker in Christ, and Stachys, my beloved. Greet Apelles, approved in Christ. Greet those who are of the household of Aristobulus. Greet Herodion, my countryman. Greet those who are of the household of Narcissus who are in the Lord.” Let us note here how Paul introduces people as countrymen, or fellow prisoners, or fellow workers. Paul was very attentive to those factors that allowed people to identify with others.

A couple of times, Paul’s discussion of ethnic identities has immense spiritual consequences. Romans 11:1-5 reads, for example: “I say then, has God cast away His people? Certainly not! For I also am an Israelite, of the seed of Abraham, of the tribe of Benjamin.  God has not cast away His people whom He foreknew. Or do you not know what the Scripture says of Elijah, how he pleads with God against Israel, saying,  “Lord, they have killed Your prophets and torn down Your altars, and I alone am left, and they seek my life”?  But what does the divine response say to him? “I have reserved for Myself seven thousand men who have not bowed the knee to Baal.”  Even so then, at this present time there is a remnant according to the election of grace. ” Here Paul uses his understanding of representation to point out that a righteous remnant of the tribes of Israel who believed and followed God allowed God to remain faithful to His promises to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob while punishing the majority of the people descended from them for their persistent rebellion and unbelief. Similarly, Paul understood that this identity as belonging to Israel and the seed of Abraham also was open to believing Gentiles, as it is written in Romans 11:17-25: “And if some of the branches were broken off, and you, being a wild olive tree, were grafted in among them, and with them became a partaker of the root and fatness of the olive tree, do not boast against the branches. But if you do boast, remember that you do not support the root, but the root supports you. You will say then, “Branches were broken off that I might be grafted in.”  Well said. Because of unbelief they were broken off, and you stand by faith. Do not be haughty, but fear.  For if God did not spare the natural branches, He may not spare you either.  Therefore consider the goodness and severity of God: on those who fell, severity; but toward you, goodness, if you continue in His goodness. Otherwise you also will be cut off.  And they also, if they do not continue in unbelief, will be grafted in, for God is able to graft them in again.  For if you were cut out of the olive tree which is wild by nature, and were grafted contrary to nature into a cultivated olive tree, how much more will these, who are natural branches, be grafted into their own olive tree? For I do not desire, brethren, that you should be ignorant of this mystery, lest you should be wise in your own opinion, that blindness in part has happened to Israel until the fullness of the Gentiles has come in.” Here we see that the identity of Israel and the blessings promised to Israel also applied to those outsiders who became a part of Israel through their faith in and obedience to the God of Israel, showing Paul’s understanding to be consistent with that written in other places like Isaiah 56 and Psalm 87 and the book of Ruth where Gentiles are specifically noted as being a part of Israel when they walk in faith and obedience to God. And so we see that what we represent to Paul includes both our physical as well as our spiritual identities, but that representation happens all the same on both levels and many others besides.

About nathanalbright

I'm a person with diverse interests who loves to read. If you want to know something about me, just ask.
This entry was posted in Bible, Biblical History, Christianity, Church of God, E Pluribus Unim, History, Musings and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Representation In The Writings Of Paul: Part Two

  1. Pingback: Representation In The Writings Of Paul: Part Three | Edge Induced Cohesion

  2. Pingback: Representation In The Writings of Paul: Part Four | Edge Induced Cohesion

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