Often when a scholar enters a new field of study, she locates a handbook or dictionary on that topic, and uses that resource to find her bearings and identify broad trends within her chosen topic. As a systematic theologian, I would have greatly appreciated this sort of introductory work when I began to research social identity theory. However, until just this year, I had found no single work which would serve as such a starting place.
The T&T Clark Handbook to Social Identity in the New Testament, edited by J. Brian Tucker and Coleman A. Baker (New York: Bloomsbury, 2014), is a must-read in its field. Part 1 includes essays on methodology as well as the history of social identity theory and self-categorization. Part 2 provides applications of social identity theory to nearly every NT book. The contributors include authors from around the globe, both established authors – pioneer Philip Esler, and established voices such as Coleman A. Baker, J. Brian Tucker, and Daniel K. Darko – and those newer to the field. The editors thankfully do not attempt to homogenize the diverse voices, but respect the differences. As with any multi-author book, the essays vary in quality, and certainly some essays will be less relevant or interesting for various readers. In short, the handbook is a long-overdue, much needed resource for this field. The obvious drawback is that it is essentially cost prohibitive for most students, with a price tag of $200 (about 30% less at Barnes & Noble). It is an invaluable tool, and personally the only handbook I own on that topic, but for many it will have to be accessed through a library, due to the high price.
Social identity theory was first applied to the New Testament by Philip F. Esler, and this book actually includes his landmark essay on the topic. I was pleased to see a newer contributor to the field, Jack Barentsen, included in this book. Noteworthy contributions include Aaron Kuecker’s “Filial Piety and Violence in Luke-Acts and the Aeneid: A Comparative Analysis of Two Trans-Ethnic Identities,” highlighting applying familial language to describe a group is appealing yet potentially dangerous depending on a group’s attitude toward social categorization and treatment of those outside the group. Daniel K. Darko also addresses familial language issues.
Another helpful contribution is Kar Yong Lim’s “‘If Anyone is in Christ, New Creation: The Old has Gone, the New has Come’ (2 Corinthians 5:17): New Creation and Temporal Comparison in Social Identity Formation in 2 Corinthians,” which helps the reader understand Paul’s rhetorical strategies with regard to his characterization and treatment of his opponents.
Multiple essays raise the issue of pre-existing identities, and their relationship to the Christian identity: are they no longer relevant at all, or instead downgraded in importance, but still in play? Tucker terms these approaches universalistic and particularistic, respectively (“Paul’s Particular Problem: The Continuation of Existing Identities in Philemon”). The authors disagree on the answer, and show a variety of ways in which the issue of subgroup and nested identities might be related to a person’s Christian identity. For example, what type of relationship does ethnicity have with Christian identity? (See Aaron Kuecker’s “Ethnicity and Social Identity” essay for more on this.) These are important questions in an era of globalization, where particularity and identity are constantly being negotiated and fought over.
The book as a whole highlights the constructed, dynamic nature of the Christian identity, and illuminates group dynamics and identity issues in the NT text, which may be particularly helpful for North Atlantic readers, who are often more individualistic in their mindset than the NT authors and so struggle to grasp certain aspects of the texts. If the book were not cost prohibitive, I would certainly recommend it as a “necessary” or “required” text for both newcomers and experts in the field of social identity studies. If you cannot afford to buy it, be sure to locate it in a nearby library!
Thanks to Bloomsbury for the review copy.