“Remain in Your Calling”: Paul and the Continuation of Social Identities in 1 Corinthians, by J. Brian Tucker


The primary aim of this in-depth study is to show how Paul negotiates and transforms existing social identities of Messiah-followers in order to extend his mission in Corinth.1 It attempts to accomplish this through a study of 1 Corinthians that builds on the author’s previous doctoral findings in 1 Corinthians 1–4 published in monograph form in 2010.2 Thus, the two monographs are best read as a two-volume set with the second volume representing a “slight methodological advancement” from the first.3 To paraphrase Zetterholm’s accurate endorsement of this second volume: This is an impressive and indispensable work that moves the discussion forward regarding how complex and variegated Jewish and Gentile identities are transformed and continued (emphasis mine) in Messiah. In fact, after reading this monograph I found myself compelled to issue the following warning: Leaders who neglect this important and finely nuanced study do so at the peril of themselves, Messianic Judaism, and the community of Messiah-followers at-large.

This followup study, like its predecessor, is rightly categorized as a work of social-scientific criticism (hereafter “SSC”)—albeit arguably of the most responsible kind in the field of Biblical Studies. That is to say, this study “analyzes the social and cultural dimensions of the text and its environmental context through the utilization of the perspectives, theory, models, and research of the social sciences,”4 while making every effort to safeguard itself from accusations of “semantic anachronism.”5 Moreover, Tucker rightly distances his approach from those SSC approaches perceived as exegetically indigent.6 The study consists of two parts: Part I, “Paul’s Approach to the Formation of Social Identities” (Ch. 1–5) and Part II “Transformation and Re-contextualization of Social Identities” (Ch. 6–8). It closes with a Conclusion (Ch. 9).

In chapter one, Tucker astutely begins with a critique of “third race” dialectic and a discussion of the issues associated with the universalistic versus particularistic approach to Messianic identity.7 He continues with an identification of the problems associated with ambiguous language regarding historic and ethnic Israel in relation to “church” (especially where attenuation or erasure of Jewish identity is asserted). He closes the chapter with a concise analysis of the shortcomings of the New Perspective on Paul (NPP), a clear and wise differentiation of his approach to SSC from that of Malina and the Context Group, a concise and insightful response (including Wayne Meeks’ own response) to the series of essays edited by Still and Horrell in 2009,8 and a summary of the plan of the book.9

In chapter two, Tucker’s analysis of Paul’s approach to Messianic social identity correctly “cuts a middle path between the construed or created binary formulations,”10 by appropriately referring to the formative and transformative processes associated with being a Messiah-follower that allow for the exegetical both/and nuancing of communal, individual, dynamic, preexistent, continued, hybrid, nested, negotiated, salient, subservient, remade, reimaged, kinship, and “in Messiah” identity.11 Tucker’s focus is rightly on the inclusive term “social identity” (which includes self-definition and/or self-presentation) precisely because Paul’s theologizing defines the Messiah-movement in the context of social categories of identity (ethnicity and kinship), rather than to the exclusion of these (see 1 Cor 1:22–24; 7:18–20; 10:32; 12:13) or in the formation of a new ethnic (or “third race”) identity.12 As Tucker astutely notes, narrower terms (than “social identity”) run the risk of confusing the categories with regard to Paul’s use of the term “Israel” (see Rom 9:30–31; 11:25), or missing the point that Paul did not seek to obliterate ethnic identities, but rather to bring the nations to the one God of Israel, so that God would be seen as the God over all.13 Hence, it must be emphasized that Paul’s theologizing provided the social categories necessary for the formation of an “in Messiah” social identity.14

In rich interaction with his dialogue partners, Tucker proffers six aspects of social identity evident in ancient texts which may indicate that identity formation is occurring between a writer and his or her recipients,15 and makes immediate connections to the Corinthian correspondence.16 In this chapter, Tucker makes one of his finest contributions, rightly concluding that Paul disentangled Roman social identity and practices in Corinth through the discourse available to him (i.e., Roman imperial ideology), and transformed Roman social identity—especially by using the narrative of Israel in order to provide the constitutive and corrective elements necessary for identity as Messiah-followers.17

Chapter three is focused on the kind of “apocalyptic identity formation” that Paul created through his writings, and is centered on the all-important teaching or rule of Paul in all the ekklesiais (communities of Messiah-followers) as expressed in 1 Corinthians 7:17–24.18 It pays careful attention to Paul’s rhetoric in this passage, rightly emphasizes each person’s God-assigned calling with respect to “social position,” and correctly concludes that there are four key components to Paul’s formation of identity in the community of Messiah-followers: (1) It is an inclusive approach that includes a continuing role for previous identities; (2) It appropriates and transforms existing cultural discourses; (3) It relies on Jewish halakhah and teaching discourse (i.e., “let him/her walk”); and (4) It represents an empowering rule that Paul applies throughout his outreach in the Roman Empire.19

While rightly observing that Paul’s rule in this passage “requires some type of halakhic framework,” especially regarding table-fellowship, Tucker also rightly highlights the differing ways in which Israel’s Scriptures apply to Jews and Gentiles, prudently proffering 1 Corinthians 8–10, Galatians 2, and Romans 14–15 as ample evidence.20 Tucker correctly contends that in Paul’s approach to social identity formation (which is empowering, difference-affirming, and community-forming) Jews remain Jews, and Gentiles remain Gentiles, in Messiah.21 In fact, as his exegesis of Corinthians shows, Gentiles are not to become Jews in Paul’s mission.22 Moreover, he later insightfully observes that Paul empowered “called” Gentiles by reinforcing the importance of their “particularized” identity in Messiah via the reminder that their new life “in Messiah” had its discursive basis in the narrative of historic Israel—while they themselves remained Gentiles.23

While Tucker’s discussion and correction of the conventional understanding of so-called “erasure language” in 1 Corinthians 7:19 (i.e., “circumcision is nothing and uncircumcision is nothing”) is laudable, an understanding of dialectical negation is required to permanently resolve the scholarly and popular misunderstanding of this “erasure language.”24 That said, Tucker sagaciously concludes that “reprioritization” and “revalorization” are preferable to “relativization” when attempting to articulate Paul’s perspective on previous aspects of social identity, as “relativization” indicates an indifference to the distinctions between Jews and Gentiles uncharacteristic of Paul and downplays the need for his rule in all the ekklesiais.25 Chapter three closes with a concise but insightful discussion of Paul’s exception to remaining in one’s calling when it came to slavery.26

Chapter four commences with a concise and much-needed corrective to the traditional view (e.g., Barrett, Richardson, Gooch, Sanders, and Carson) that Paul’s Jewish identity was no longer relevant in Messiah.27 It continues with a rich discussion of the continued salience of Jewish identity in Messiah, and carefully following Rudolph in particular (with a slight adjustment) proffers a perspicuous explanation of Paul’s halakhic flexibility in regard to the idolatrous intentions of Gentiles, as especially evidenced in 1 Corinthians 9:20–21.28 The “slight adjustment” relates to the fact that while Rudolph’s discussion was rightly focused on the behaviors evident in the text of 1 Corinthians 9:20–21, Tucker suggests that the passage also evidences Paul’s continued discussion of the way previous identities are transformed in Messiah and allow for halakhic flexibility without duplicity.29 This first half of the chapter concludes the following: (1) Jewish identity remains relevant in Messiah and is a central characteristic of the Messiah-movement; (2) The interpretive stance that “Paul is fighting against the continuation of Judaism within the Messiah-movement” is called into question by the first conclusion; and (3) A particularistic approach to Messiah-movement identity that takes into account ethnic and kinship discourse may serve as a helpful corrective to some dehistoricized readings of Paul’s letters.30

In the second half of the chapter, these conclusions are applied to 1 Corinthians 9:21–22 to determine whether Paul remained Torah-observant and embedded within Judaism. Here, we find careful Greek exegesis designed inter alia to illuminate the contextual meaning and referent of τοῖς Ἰουδαίοις (the Jews), τοῖς νόμον (those under the law), and τοῖς ἀνόμοις (those outside the law).31 Tucker’s well-reasoned conclusion (a la Lightfoot, Bockmuehl, and Rudolph) is that the term τοῖς νόμον refers to “those living under a strict halakhic interpretation of the Pharisees.”32 Equally well-reasoned is his exegetical conclusion that Paul kept his own rule by remaining within his calling and practicing halakhic flexibility with regard to the Gentiles, based on the paradigmatic model of Messiah who remained Torah-observant, but engaged in table-fellowship with sinners (citing Matt 5:17–20; Luke 10:8; Phil 2:5–8).33

Chapter five focuses on the continuation of the Corinthians’ social identities in Messiah, and labors diligently to answer the question regarding whether Gentiles become Jews or Israel in Messiah. It opens with a concise but insightful discussion which rightly asserts that it should be expected that differing ethnic groups experience being in Messiah in differing ways, and that there is no reason on a priori grounds to suggest that Paul was melding the experiences of Jews and Gentiles into one undifferentiated discourse in 1 Corinthians1:24.34 Tucker then cogently demonstrates that Paul held that Jewish people descended from the fathers: Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob (citing Rom 9:5; 15:8), while Gentiles in Messiah descended from Abraham alone (citing Rom 4:17; Cf. Gen 17:4; and explaining 1 Cor 10:1).35 Finally, he concisely evaluates whether “Israel according to the flesh” in 1 Corinthians 10:18 implies the hypothetical correlate of a “true” or “spiritual” Israel in this letter.36 He concludes that it is likely that “Israel according to the flesh” was added to ensure that the term “our fathers” in 1 Corinthians 10:1 wasn’t misconstrued by these Gentiles as suggesting that they were now Israel.37

Chapter six is focused on the influence of Roman bathing practices and the problem of the imposition of their patronage connections on the relationship between the “baptisand” and the “officiator” in the identity-forming immersion rite.38 Tucker builds upon the work of William S. Campbell here, the key to whose approach is the retention of one’s particularity as a Jew or Gentile in Messiah with a simultaneous transformation in symbolic universe in light of the Messiah-event.39 The chapter illumines the sociohistorical context of 1 Corinthians 1:13–17.

Chapter seven features a concise yet insightful discussion of how “οἶκος space is liminally transformed in places into ἐκκλησία space through the imagery of ναός space.”40 One must read Tucker carefully here for definitions, as simple translational glosses will not suffice. In prudent dialogue with the work of Soja, Tucker demonstrates that Paul facilitated the discursive interaction between οἶκος and ἐκκλησία space, thereby creating a thirdspace which supported solidarity and difference rather than conformity and conventionality.41 Soja’s broad definition of thirdspace is then provided: “thirdspace is a purposefully tentative and flexible term that attempts to capture what is actually a constantly shifting and changing milieu of ideas, events, appearances, and meanings.”42 To his credit, and as a direct result of working from the “Within Second Temple Judaism Perspective,” Tucker sees Paul’s use of household discourse as in line with Jewish teaching and learning discourse rather than a thorough imperialistic approach a la Kim.43 Moreover, he also sees ekklesia space as ritual discourse in line with synagogue space, rather than discourse reinforcing democratic and egalitarian impulses a la Miller.44 Regretfully, too few scholars of the New Covenant Scriptures see these things, precisely because of the confessional paradigms from which they work.45 Tucker rightly goes so far as to assert that “the Pauline movement, as a continuing part of the synagogue community, would have understood the term ekklesia as indicating continuity with the Jewish symbolic universe rather than as a term describing separation, discontinuity, and newness.”46

The chapter closes with a discussion of Paul’s rhetoric of social formation using the image of the community as the body of Messiah in 1 Corinthians 11–14.47 Here, when it comes to the specific issue of women’s roles in ekklesia space, Tucker’s study would benefit from the engagement of Bruce W. Winter, Roman Wives, Roman Widows: The Appearance of New Women and the Pauline Communities (Cambridge, UK: Eerdmans, 2003).

Chapter eight, the penultimate chapter before the conclusion, convincingly argues that the rhetorical exigency that engendered 1 Corinthians was over-identification with Roman imperial ideology and eschatology, as opposed to over-realized eschatology (the dominant interpretive view).48 Tucker persuasively demonstrates that Roman imperial eschatology was one of the issues negatively impacting the stability and development of the Messianic movement in Corinth, such that existing identities required transformation (not erasure) via Paul’s apocalyptic discourse.49 He also rightly asserts that Paul’s apocalyptic eschatology involved a theologizing that was focused on Messiah’s crucifixion and resurrection as the bridge between the two eons. Tucker is to be lauded for the use of “theologizing” rather than “theology” (following William S. Campbell), as it is far more accurate to speak of Paul’s theologizing given the dynamic manner in which Paul was responding to unprecedented revelation and mystery, and the profound inauguration of the new covenant. Moreover, Tucker is to be lauded for highlighting the fact that Paul’s apocalyptic approach offered a new understanding of who controls time, but with a view of time that allowed for continuity between creation and the new creation.50 That is to say, Tucker rightly emphasizes that Paul did not hold to a dualistic understanding of the world, but saw his communities as proleptically participating (through the continuous process of transformation expressed in 2 Cor 3:18) in the coming kingdom in which all things would be completely transformed in Messiah.51

This chapter closes with keen observations that have profound relevance for 21st century Messiah-followers in the United States in particular. First, in 1 Corinthians 15:24, Paul assured the Corinthian Messiah-followers that in the end God’s kingdom would be established, and warned them that for this reason forming their identity within the nexus of Roman values and discourse was not a wise choice.52 Second, Paul alluded to the fact that transformation of select aspects of Roman social identity was not optional.53 Third, Paul’s theologizing required Messiah-followers to reassess their affiliation and identity within the broader civic life in Corinth as image-bearers of a holy God, in order to prevent the life of the Messianic community from becoming wholly conformed to this world and its value systems.54 The book then closes with a short chapter that summarizes the conclusions of each chapter. This reviewer’s own conclusion is identical to that of William S. Campbell’s endorsement: “In conversation with a vast array of literature, and in careful negotiation with the text of the New Testament, Tucker offers a fascinating introduction to Paul’s approach to the formation of social identities that is unlikely to soon be surpassed.”

1 J. Brian Tucker, “Remain in Your Calling”: Paul and the Continuation of Social Identities in 1 Corinthians (Eugene, OR: Pickwick, 2011), 1. This review uses “Messiah” and its cognates in place of “Christ” and its cognates in an effort to help restore the original meaning of the latter term and its cognates.

2 See J. Brian Tucker, You Belong to Christ: Paul and the Formation of Social Identity in 1 Corinthians 1–4 (Eugene: Pickwick, 2010).

3 Tucker, Remain, 51.

4 Tucker, You Belong, 5; citing John H. Elliott, What is Social-Scientific Criticism? Guides to Biblical Scholarship (Minneapolis: Augsburg Fortress, 1993), 7.

5 For a comprehensive discussion of the approaches involved and the conscious effort to avoid semantic anachronism, see Tucker, You Belong, 1–60; Cf., Tucker, Remain, 1–29 and see also p. 51, where Tucker emphasizes the fact that his study utilizes “historical-critical tools, and overlays a social-scientific analysis to ‘fill-in-the-gaps’ in the biblical material” (without allowing sociological models to determine the meaning of a text, but rather allowing themes to emerge from the research and then locating connections within the field of the social sciences).

6 Tucker, Remain, 51.

7 It was a particularly sagacious move on Tucker’s part here to point readers to the finely nuanced work of Joel S. Kaminsky on this topic, who rightly concludes that in Israel’s prophets we see a move “toward universalism through an ever deepening particularism.” See Ibid., 7; citing Joel S. Kaminsky, Yet I Loved Jacob: Reclaiming the Biblical Concept of Election (Nashville: Abingdon, 2007), 157.

8 See Todd D. Still and David G. Horrell, eds. After the First Urban Christians: The Social-Scientific Study of Pauline Christianity Twenty-Five Years Later (New York: T & T Clark, 2009).

9 Tucker, Remain, 1–29.

10 Ibid., 34.

11 Ibid., 33–61.

12 Ibid., 39–41.

13 Ibid., 40–41.

14 Ibid., 41.

15 On this topic, see Margaret Ellen Lee and Bernard Brandon Scott, “The Woven Composition,” in Sound Mapping the New Testament (Salem, OR: Polebridge Press, 2009), 59–90.

16 Tucker, Remain, 51–61 is the source for this entire paragraph.

17 Ibid., 56–57.

18 Ibid., 64.

19 Ibid., 64–72.

20 Ibid., 72.

21 Ibid., 74–76.

22 Ibid., 130.

23 Ibid., 80.

24 Arguably the best starting place in English here is Andrew H. Bartelt, “Dialectical Negation: An Exegetical Both/And,” in “Hear the Word of Yahweh”: Essays on Scripture and Archaeology in Honor of Horace D. Hummel, ed. Dean O. Wenthe, Paul L. Schrieber, and Lee A. Maxwell (St. Louis: Concordia Academic, 2002), 57–66. Cf. Heinz Kruse, “Die ‘Dialektische Negation’ als semitisches Idiom,” VT IV (1954): 385–400.

25 Ibid., 78–79.

26 Tucker, Remain, 81. When it comes to Paul’s formation of Messianic social identity using Roman slavery ideologies the following work is indispensable: J. Albert Harrill, Slaves in the New Testament: Literary, Social, and Moral Dimensions (Minneapolis: Augsburg Fortress, 2006).

27 Tucker, Remain, 90–92.

28 Ibid., 92–97.

29 Ibid., 96–97.

30 Ibid., 97.

31 Ibid., 100–105.

32 Ibid., 104.

33 Ibid., 112–114.

34 Ibid., 122.

35 Ibid., 129–132.

36 Ibid., 132–134.

37 Ibid., 133.

38 Ibid., 139–158

39 Ibid., 141–142.

40 Ibid., 181.

41 Ibid., 162.

42 Ibid., 163; citing Edward W. Soja, Thirdspace: Journeys to Los Angeles and Other Real-and-Imagined Places (Oxford: Blackwell, 1996), 2.

43 Ibid., 162.

44 Ibid., 162.

45 Regarding this persistent problem, see Magnus Zetterholm, Approaches to Paul: A Student’s Guide to Recent Scholarship (Minneapolis: Fortress, 2009), 192–193.

46 Tucker, Remain, 169.

47 Ibid., 181–185.

48 Ibid., 186–226.

49 Ibid., 187

50 Ibid., 210.

51 Ibid., 221.

52 Ibid., 224.

53 Ibid., 225.

54 Ibid., 225.