Rethinking Early Christian Identity

Rethinking Early Christian Identity: Affect, Violence, and Belonging

Maia Kotrosits
Copyright Date: 2015
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    Rethinking Early Christian Identity
    Book Description:

    Maia Kotrosits challenges the contemporary notion of “early Christian literature,” showing that a number of texts usually so described—New Testament writings including Hebrews, Acts, the Gospel of John, Colossians, and 1 Peter, as well as the letters of Ignatius, the Gospel of Truth, and the Secret Revelation of John—are “not particularly interested” in a distinctive Christian identity or self-definition. Rather, by appealing to the categories of trauma studies and diaspora theory and giving careful attention to the dynamics within each of these texts, she shows that this sample of writings offers complex reckonings with chaotic diasporic conditions and the transgenerational trauma of colonial violence. The heart of her study is an inquiry into the significance contemporary readers invest in ancient writings as expressions of a coherent identity, asking, “What do we need and want out of history?” Kotrosits interacts with important recent work on identity and sociality in the Roman world and on the dynamics of desire in contemporary biblical scholarship as well. At last, she argues that the writings discussed made possible the rise of Christianity by effecting a “forgetfulness” of imperial trauma—and questions the affective dimensions of contemporary empire-critical scholarship.

    eISBN: 978-1-4514-9426-6
    Subjects: Religion

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-iv)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. v-vi)
  3. Acknowledgements
    (pp. vii-x)
  4. Abbreviations
    (pp. xi-xii)
  5. Introduction: Making Sense of Ourselves
    (pp. 1-20)

    What follows is a re-examination of the centrality of the designation “Christian” in the doing of what we call early Christian history, and a set of proposals for how to understand New Testament and affiliated literature without it. The story of Christian identity is usually told as one of a private and provisional identity that is shaped and made public in confrontation with empire, or of a movement that finds its legs (and maybe loses its soul) in the larger Greco-Roman culture, or a new constituency that must reckon with its multiplying size and differences. In contrast, this book contends...

  6. 1 The Force of History
    (pp. 21-46)

    Under the thermal blaze of the sun, a woman carefully examines five tiny white shards in the palm of her hand. She explains that some of these pieces must be from the bones of an arm or a thighbone, because they are flat; the others must be the inside of a bone, because they are porous. “Their whiteness is due to their calcination by the sun,” she remarks. In a change of scene, and in a different register, this same woman recalls having found remains of her brother, years before, in a mass grave: some pieces of his skull, a...

  7. 2 On the Historical Queerness of Christianity
    (pp. 47-84)

    In some of the most cutting edge historical work in the fields of New Testament and early Christianity, early Christian identity has been associated with queerness. This association is made either because of the crossing or disruption of identity categories present in “early Christian” literature, or because of the kinds of apparently transgressive social performances that coalesce around these texts. But, as I’ll argue in this chapter, there are historical and theoretical problems as well as some surprisingly double political alignments embedded in this association. So what collective affective investments might this association between transgressive queerness and Christian identity in...

  8. 3 Reading Acts in Diaspora
    (pp. 85-116)

    Reading for affect, and reading affectively, reorients one to texts and history by cueing one into the indefinite, turbulent, and immersive qualities of bodily and social life. While possibly the most recognizable qualities of bodily and social life, these qualities are also the most unsettling. Affect indeed unsettles in more literal ways: constantly bringing people into new and different vicinities, changing the charge of old relationships, confounding self-understandings, and expanding perceptions of relationship. This instability and flux is where diaspora meets up with affect—drawing attention to the unsettled and mobile dimensions of belonging of all kinds, as well as...

  9. 4 Expanding the Diasporic Imagination: The Secret Revelation of John
    (pp. 117-146)

    So begins one of the most elaborately mythological stories in the Nag Hammadi codices. John is on his way to the temple and finds himself caught in the question, posed as an accusation, of what constitutes true tradition. In grief over the accusation, he turns away from the temple and goes to a desert mountain where he pains over matters of origins and authority:

    How was the Savior appointed? Why was he sent into the world by his father who sent him? Who is his father? And of what sort is that aeon to which we will go? He told...

  10. 5 Above It All: The Affective Life of Transcendence
    (pp. 147-172)

    Sharing a penchant for cosmic universals as well as a reputation for poetry, the Gospel of John and the Letter to the Hebrews are nothing if not lofty. Eschewing place itself as meaningful, but still finding temple and city to be meaningful metaphors, these two texts seem to glide above it all with the help of florid figuration.¹ These texts alternately draw in and repel their readers with their lyricism and designs on transcendence, the latter of which reflects, at least to postmodern and postcolonial eyes, an ominous and familiar form of imperializing. Hebrews is suspicious for its “timeless and...

  11. 6 Pleasure, Pain, and Forgetting in the Gospel of Truth
    (pp. 173-200)

    The Gospel of Truth is, if nothing else, a text about enjoyment. It cocoons its reader in the sensuous realities of the Father, its vivid imagery appealing to a full spectrum of sense experience. The Father’s sweetness appears as the fruit of guiltless enjoyment, fruit that when eaten “did not cause destruction” (4.6); his fullness is imagined as a warm swell of fragrance (19.4-14); and unity feels like a deep kiss: “For everyone loves truth, because truth is the Father’s mouth; his tongue is the holy spirit. Whoever clings to the Father’s mouth and by his tongue will receive the...

  12. 7 Returning to Rome
    (pp. 201-226)

    So begins Kathleen Stewart’s bookOrdinary Affects,which is comprised of a long series of prose pieces in the third person (though the voice is hers), pieces narrating everyday experiences such as a trip to Target, or seeing coal miners at a health clinic for poor people. Her goal in this memoir-esque book is to heighten the reader’s attention to the sense-effects of living in a world supersaturated by capitalism and strung into troubling new configurations by globalization. While interested in affect, Stewart shies away from explicit theorizing in this book. Instead she lends the mundane affects/effects of life in...

  13. Conclusion
    (pp. 227-232)

    History is an expressive enterprise; it emerges as one kind of recourse for those forces that move and exceed us. Yet the fields of biblical studies and early Christian studies, in a distinct way, have built their prestige through an apparently unaffected self-presentation, prizing precision of categories and coherence of method above almost all else. The field has done so even as the rest of the world’s readers of the Bible relate to it in an unequivocally emotional key. What does critical inclusion of our affectivity into reading look like? How might the affectivity of texts, forceful and uncertain as...

  14. Bibliography
    (pp. 233-258)
  15. Index
    (pp. 259-265)
  16. Back Matter
    (pp. 266-266)