Origins of Christian identity in the letters of Paul
Louy, Stephen D.
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A common theme in examining Christian identity focuses on the emergence of that identity, on locating the point in time within the history of the Christian church that one can first observe a clearly identifiable community which can be called ‘Christian.’ There is evidence that a clear sense of a Christian identity existed by the second century CE. This is expressed in several authors from the second century CE, who employ ‘ethnic’ terminology to refer to the Christians as a ‘new’ or ‘third’ race. What allowed these authors to identify the Christians as a distinct ‘race’ so soon after the emergence of the group? This study explores the origins of this ‘race’ of Christians. Examination of the earliest existent Christian texts, the undisputed letters of the apostle Paul, demonstrates a group which exists partially within the Jewish identity group, and yet simultaneously displays features of a unique group identity. Two methods of investigation are employed to explore the origins of a Christian ‘race.’ First, from those authors who describe the Christians as a ‘race,’ a ‘vocabulary of identity’ is identified, and instances of this vocabulary are examined in the undisputed Pauline corpus to demonstrate the continued Jewish identity of Paul and many of his congregants. Second, a series of group identity features which are unique to the Jewish identity group are drawn from the work of John Hutchinson and Anthony D. Smith, James D.G. Dunn, and E.P. Sanders. An examination of these features in the undisputed Pauline corpus shows the beginnings of a distancing between the nascent Christian movement and its Jewish parent body. Continuing the investigation, the study explores the Pauline epistles for evidence of uniquely Christian group identity features. A series of these identifiers are examined, demonstrating the methods by which the earliest Christ-followers were identified as Christ-followers. These Christ-following identifiers served as the basis for the eventual ‘ethnic’ distinction of the Christian movement. The thesis concludes that the Pauline epistles reveal the origins of the later Christian ‘race’, and that during the first century Paul and his congregations simultaneously existed within the Jewish identity group, and alongside this group as members of an identifiable Christ-following identity group.