Conflict and Identity in Romans: The Social Setting of Paul's Letter

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Conflict and Identity in Romans: The Social Setting of Paul's Letter by Philip F. Esler Fortress, Minneapolis, 2003. 458 pp. $29.00. ISBN 0-8006-3435-7.

THIS BOOK IS NOT SO MUCH ANOTHER exegetical commentary on Romans as a complete reframing of the message and context of Paul's letter. Simply stated, Esler's thesis is that in Romans Paul is attempting to reshape the identity of the congregation in Rome in the wake of ethnic tensions between Judean and non-Judean Christ believers. Esler's thoroughgoing argument draws on social identity theory, an awareness of the dynamics of ethnicity in antiquity, and, most importantly, a close reading of the text that is guided by a whole new set questions that are explored in terms of a pragmatic model of interpretation. Esler moves beyond an analysis of what Paul is attempting to say or communicate, to a consideration of what he is trying to do. And preeminently, what Paul is doing through this letter is exercising leadership by reinforcing the fundamental common identity his addressees shared in relation to God and Christ. Indeed, Esler avers that in writing Romans Paul was acting as an "entrepreneur of identity" (p. 109). At every point the rhetorical strategy of the letter is reconceived so as to challenge the reader to reckon with the social force of the ideas and language of Romans.

Esler differentiates his approach from more traditional theological interpretations of Romans. He objects to a static notion of theology as a constellation of concepts or beliefs that are detached from the social realia and the politics of identity that shape everyday life. More than any of Paul's letters, Romans has historically been read as a timeless theological treatise on the nature of the gospel. Since Paul Minear's book, The Obedience of Faith (1971), scholarship has taken more seriously the local situation reflected in Romans 14-15, and since Munck, Stendahl and others, Romans 9-11 has been viewed as an integral part of the letter rather than as an excursus secondary in importance to the theological themes of Romans 1-8. One of the merits of this book is that by making social identity the thread running throughout the letter, Esler provides a reading of Romans 1-8 that is informed by and integrated with the practical concerns pertaining to the relationship between Judean and non-Judean Christ believers evident in 9-15. Although social context has been featured more prominently in more recent studies of Romans, Esler puts flesh and bones on the text, so to speak, and requires readers to imagine what was at stake for Christ believers in an ethnically diverse congregation negotiating multiple aspects of identity and complex interpersonal relationships in an agonistic world where people competed for honor and status.

The first third of the book is devoted to a discussion of identity and ethnicity from a theoretical perspective and to a consideration of the situation and purpose of Romans. Although there is much to learn about social identity theory in this part of the book, Esler's emphasis on ethnicity as an integral aspect of cultural identity guides his reading of the letter. He maintains that the cultures of the Mediterranean world were essentially ethnic groups defined by their common heritage and customs, and that religion should be understood as a subset of a more encompassing communal identity. Judeans were an ethnic group with a history of hostility with Greeks, and this is reflected in the congregational setting implied in Romans. According to Esler, the community of Christ believers in Rome was ethnically diverse and, although it included Judeans, had developed a group identity that was distinct from the judean community in Rome. He bases this claim on his assessment of the "architectural context" of Rome where the archeological evidence indicates that Judeans met in large public synagogues (proseuchai), while Christ believers met in domestic households. In response to this mixed congregation that included Judeans but was at some remove from the Judean community in Rome, Paul sought to recategorize Judeans and Greeks into a new group in Christ. …