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Apostle to the Gentiles: Constructions of Paul's Identity

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image of Biblical Interpretation

In Galatians 2:7–9, Paul lays out the parameters for the spread of the gospel for himself and his Judiean colleagues: all agreed that ?We should go to the gentiles and they to the circumcised? (Gal 2:9). This division of labor is crucial for understanding Paul: his task involves an intentional crossing of ethnic boundaries. Ethnicity determined the organization of the mission and Paul was responsible for the ethnic and religious "other."

Here I explore Paul's construction of his identity as a Judean teacher of gentiles. Drawing on recent work in anthropology and critical race theory, I propose an approach which understands identity as flexible and multiplicative. Two principles operate within this dynamic model: 1) people shift identities according to specific circumstances and 2) people prioritize their various identities, ranking some higher than others.

This model helps us understand Paul, who describes himself in a variety of ways: Judean by birth, born of the tribe of Benjamin, seed of Abraham, apostle to the gentiles, in Christ. These multiple identities as Paul shifts among them and sometimes ranks one over others serve his argument in strategic ways. He is willing, for example, to forego certain practices of the law (an important part of his Judean identity) in order to interact with gentiles (and he rebukes his colleagues for refusing to do so [Gal 2:11–14]). Yet other aspects of his identity are more important and also less flexible: his "in-Christness" (which he shares with gentiles) and his birth as a Judean (which he does not share with gentiles). In closing, I consider the implications this reading has for the identities of the members of his audience, who are simultaneously gentiles, in Christ, and adopted sons of God.


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