I am in the midst of writing a book on Dynamics of Identity and Early Christianity (for Continuum) which tries to shed some new light on the question by looking to associations, cultural minorities, and ethnic groups in the world of the early Christians. “Identity” has to do with the way in which individuals and groups answer the questions “who am I” or ‘who are we in relation to others?” Social scientists emphasize that there are two main processes in identity-construction and re-negotiation: internal self-definitions and external categorizations. External categorizations involve outsiders’ perspectives on who a group is and stereotypes about that group, and they can play a role in how members of the evaluated group re-negotiate and express their own identities internally.
In previous posts (click here), I have noted a common set of ethnographic stereotypes that were used to categorize other peoples or groups as “barbarous” and dangerous to society, particularly cultural minority groups or ethnic groups. The early Christians, for instance, were charged with Thyestan feasts (cannibalism) and Oedipean unions (incest), and similar charges went back and forth between social and ethnic groups in antiquity. Judeans, too, were stereotyped and charged with the same sort of activities when a particular Greek or Roman author disliked them.
Yet, as I said, the charges go both ways. A good example of this is offered by a passage in the Wisdom of Solomon (first century BCE or CE — in the so called Apocrypha of the Bible) which characterized ‘pagans’ as dangerous and barbarous. This author describes the ‘detestable’ activities of those who inhabited the ‘holy land’ before the arrival of the Israelites. This gives this Hellenistic Judean author opportunity to critique contemporary associations or ‘societies’ of ‘initiates’ outside of the Judean sphere in the process, calling on the same sort of stereotypes we have seen in Greek or Roman slander against Judeans. God ‘hated them for practicing the most detestable things – deeds of sorcery and unholy rites (τελετὰς ἀνοσίους), merciless slaughters of children, sacrificial feasting on human flesh and blood – those “initiates” from the midst of a “society” (ἐκ μέσου μύστας θιάσου) and parents who murder helpless lives, you willed to destroy. . .‘ (Wis 12:4-5; cf. Wis 14:15-23 [NETS]).
At the same time, personified Wisdom herself is an ‘initiate’ of another, superior kind, an ‘initiate (μύστις) in the knowledge of God’ (Wis 8:4). Elsewhere the author critiques the ‘idolatry’ of Greeks generally, the ‘impious ones’ (άσεβοῦς) who do not know such ‘divine mysteries’ (2:22) and who instead establish their own inferior ‘mysteries and rites’ (μυστήρια καὶ τελετάς; 14:15): ‘For whether performing ritual murders of children or secret mysteries or frenzied revels connected with strange laws, they no longer keep either their lives or their marriages pure, but they either kill one another by treachery or grieve one another by adultery’ (Wis. 14:23-24). Once again, ritual murder and sexual perversion converge in this characterization of the associations of another ethnic group.
The process of defining the ‘other’ as dangerous barbarians who will kill and eat you if they can is in fact the process of defining one’s own group as well. This is the boundary-constructing process of distinguishing ‘us’ from ‘them’, and virtually all groups in antiquity engaged in such modes of external categorizations and self-definition that are at the heart of identity.
(Sure this post is somewhat long, but at least I’m trying — I’ve lost the knack for short and sweet, it seems, if I ever had it).