Friday, July 27, 2007

Major Quake, Tsunami Likely in Middle East, Study Finds

The Middle East region—especially coastal cities such as Beirut, above—faces an impending earthquake from an underwater fault that rumbles every 1,500 years, scientists say. A Beirut research team recently identified the fault as the likely cause of a devastating quake in A.D. 551, which struck the coast of Phoenicia, now Lebanon. Photograph by Barry Iverson/Time & Life Pictures/Getty

Major Quake, Tsunami Likely in Middle East, Study Finds
Kate Ravilious
for National Geographic News
July 26, 2007

In A.D. 551, a massive earthquake spawned huge tsunamis that devastated the coast of Phoenicia, now Lebanon.
Now a new underwater survey has finally uncovered the fault likely responsible for the catastrophe and shown that it rumbles approximately every 1,500 years—which means a disaster is due any day now.
"It is just a matter of time before a destructive tsunami hits this region again," said Iain Stewart, an earthquake expert at the University of Plymouth in the United Kingdom not involved in the underwater survey.
The ample archaeological and historical evidence from the A.D. 551 earthquake indicate that it was truly a catastrophic event. The resulting tsunami damaged all major coastal cities between Tripoli and Tyr, and Tripoli was reported to have "drowned." (See a Lebanon map.)
Hitting the Jackpot
Earthquakes are common in Lebanon, but many of the faults remain hidden beneath the deep waters of the Mediterranean Sea.
Surveying the region is difficult because some of the continental shelf drops off very quickly in places, reaching water depths of around 4,921 feet (1,500 meters) only five miles (eight kilometers) from the shore.
Ata Elias of the National Center for Geophysical Research in Beirut, Lebanon, and his colleagues had a hunch that the fault responsible for the A.D. 551 earthquake would lie in this offshore region. So they did an underwater geophysical survey—and "hit the jackpot," Elias said.
By bouncing radio waves off the sea floor and studying the reflection patterns, Elias and his team were able to build a three-dimensional map showing all the lumps and bumps on the ocean bottom.
Running parallel to the Middle Eastern coast, they discovered a distinctive stepped ridge—the shape made by a "thrust" fault when one of Earth's tectonic plates shoves its way beneath another.
"We inferred that this thrust fault is the source of major earthquakes," Elias said.
The team was able to trace this fault along the coast for more than 62 miles (100 kilometers).
The findings are published in the August issue of the journal Geology.
Shell Secrets
Back on land the team found additional evidence to link this fault to the A.D. 551 earthquake. A "staircase" of platforms rising from present-day sea level shows how the land had moved upward each time the thrust fault moved.
Each time the thrust fault ruptured it lifted the coastline by around three feet (a meter), Elias said.
When the platforms were at sea level they were colonized by mollusks. But as soon as they were thrust out of the water by an earthquake the mollusks died.
By dating the mollusk shells on the raised platforms, Elias' team could determine when the thrust fault moved.
At least four earthquakes similar to the A.D. 551 quake have occurred over the past 6,000 to 7,000 years, the team found—suggesting a 1,500- to 1,750-year recurrence time for destructive quakes.
From the length of the thrust fault and the amount of uplift of the platforms on land, Elias and his colleagues estimate that the A.D. 551 earthquake must have had a magnitude of about 7.5 on the Moment magnitude scale, a more modern form of measurement than the Richter scale.
When the fault ruptured in A.D. 551, part of the the seafloor collapsed by around 5 to 10 feet (1.5 to 3 meters). This drop triggered a surging tsunami, which gained height rapidly as it pushed toward land.
Stewart of the University of Plymouth said the study is interesting, but remains cautious about blaming the newfound thrust fault for the A.D. 551 event.
"The Mediterranean has a lot of big earthquakes and there are lots of benches [platforms] everywhere. It is hard to link those benches to a particular fault," he said. (Related: "Ancient Tsunami Smashed Europe, Middle East, Study Says" [December 4, 2006].)
Nonetheless, he believes that the risk of another big earthquake occurring is very high, and should be taken seriously.
"In the past this area has had a lot of big earthquakes and tsunamis, but in modern history it has been quite quiet," Stewart said.
"We have been lulled into a false sense of security, just like we were in the [2004 Indian Ocean earthquake]."
Drowned Cities
Some of the many historical records from the time of the A.D. 551 earthquake describe the complete ruin of Berytus (Beirut), Jewel of Phoenicia, and the sea retreating one to two Roman miles, or 4,921 to 9,842 feet (1,500 to 3,000 meters) from shore, enough to ground mooring ships and uncover sunken ones.
More than 30,000 people died in Beirut alone. (Who were the Phoenicians?)
"If this earthquake and tsunami were repeated today, it would be a disaster of enormous proportions," said Sanford Holst, an author and expert on ancient Phoenicia.
More than 70 percent of Lebanon's roughly 4 million people live along the coast. The seaport of Beirut has a population of 1.5 million.
What's more, much of the country's infrastructure is also located along the coast. Major highways, electrical power stations, airports, and economic centers are all next to the sea, Elias said.
To prepare for the next big quake, many of the tall buildings that line the coast need to be reinforced to withstand earthquakes. New buildings need to be built with large earthquakes in mind. And people need to be informed.
"We need an earthquake and tsunami alert system and proper emergency plans," Elias said.

A cinder cone rises from the flank of Mount Etna in Italy. A new study says that an ancient landslide on Mount Etna triggered a series of killer waves along the Mediterranean coast from Italy to Egypt, wiping out Stone Age settlements. Photograph by J. Lowenstern/USGS

Ancient Tsunami Smashed Europe, Middle East, Study Says
James Owen
for National Geographic News
December 4, 2006

A massive tsunami smashed Mediterranean shores some 8,000 years ago when a giant chunk of volcano fell into the sea, researchers say.
Waves up to 165 feet (50 meters) high swept the eastern Mediterranean, triggered by a landslide on Mount Etna on the island of Sicily, according to the new study.
The research team says the natural disaster likely destroyed ancient communities, with a series of killer waves hitting the eastern Mediterranean coastline from Italy to Egypt.
Italian researchers based their findings on geological clues and evidence of a hastily abandoned Stone Age fishing settlement in Israel.
Maria Teresa Pareschi and colleagues at the National Institute of Geophysics and Volcanology in Pisa estimated the tsunami's strength by modeling the impact of the landslide from Etna, the tallest active volcano in Europe.
The team's calculation, published in the journal Geophysical Research Letters, shows that 6 cubic miles (25 cubic kilometers) of mountainside collapsed into the sea, generating giant waves that reached coasts as far away as the Middle East and North Africa.
The waves would have reached heights of about 165 feet (50 meters) off southern Italy, the team says, with a sea surge reaching 43 feet (13 meters) swamping parts of Greece and Libya.
Smaller waves hitting coasts farther away would also have had devastating power, according to Pareschi, who led the study.
"A tsunami wave height of a few meters can penetrate deeply inland," she said.
Long Waves
The team estimates the tsunami would have hit a maximum speed of around 450 miles an hour (725 kilometers an hour), taking a little over three and a half hours to reach what are now Israel and Egypt.
Evidence for the natural disaster comes mainly from disturbed sediments along the bottom of the Ionian Sea to the east of Sicily.
Tsunamis are known to destabilize soft marine sediments, the team notes, leaving telltale coverings of clay deposits after they reach land.
These deposits identify Mount Etna as the source of the tsunami and discount other possible causes, such as an asteroid strike or an undersea earthquake, the team says.
The researchers also speculate that a Neolithic village just off the coast of present-day Israel was hit by the tsunami.
The well-preserved Atlit-Yam settlement, which due to altered sea levels today lies submerged, "shows evidence of a sudden abandonment" 7,000 to 8,000 years ago, the researchers write.
These signs include a pile of gutted fish that had been processed and then "stored for future consumption," which was discovered buried under a layer of clay.
Secondary Tsunamis?
Further research by the Pisa-based team will investigate whether secondary tsunamis were set off by the sediment flows triggered by the initial tsunami from the Mount Etna collapse.
Pareschi said the probability of a new big collapse on Etna is low, but she added, "the eastern sector of the volcano is sliding toward the sea, and we have to understand very well the triggering mechanisms."
If the Etna tsunami had happened today, she said, the impact would be catastrophic, because the eastern Mediterranean coast is so densely populated.
Some ten percent of tsunamis worldwide occur in the Mediterranean.
The most recent volcano-triggered tsunami was caused by a landslide on the Italian island of Stromboli in the Tyrrhenian Sea in 2002.
The volume of the landslide "was however a thousand times smaller than the Mount Etna one," Pareschi said.
A tsunami early warning system is currently being developed for the Mediterranean and the northeastern Atlantic. Due to become operational in December 2007, it will form part of a global tsunami warning system coordinated by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO).
The measure follows in the wake of the devastating Indian Ocean tsunami, caused by an earthquake in December 2004, which struck coastlines with little or no warning.
Pareschi says the ancient Etna tsunami would have been comparable with the 2004 event, which claimed around 275,000 lives.

Who were the Phoenicians?
By Rick Gore

We know they dominated sea trade in the Mediterranean for 3,000 years. Now DNA testing and recent archaeological finds are revealing just what the Phoenician legacy meant to the ancient world—and to our own.

"I am a Phoenician," says the young man, giving the name of a people who vanished from history 2,000 years ago. "At least I feel like I'm one of them. My relatives have been fishermen and sailors here for centuries."
"Good, we can use some real Phoenicians," says Spencer Wells, an American geneticist, who wraps the young man's arm in a tourniquet as they sit on the veranda of a restaurant in Byblos, Lebanon, an ancient city of stone on the Mediterranean. The young man, Pierre Abi Saad, has arrived late, eager to participate in an experiment to shed new light on the mysterious Phoenicians. He joins a group of volunteers—fishermen, shopkeepers, and taxi drivers—gathered around tables under the restaurant awning. Wells, a lanky, 34-year-old extrovert, has convinced Saad and the others to give him a sample of their blood.
"What will it tell you?" Saad asks.
"Your blood contains DNA, which is like a history book," Wells replies. "Many different people have come to Byblos over the centuries, and your blood carries traces of their DNA. It's going to tell us something about your relationships going back thousands of years."
Wells has no doubts about the power of the new genetic techniques he is bringing to our understanding of ancient peoples. Nor does his bespectacled colleague standing beside him on the veranda, Pierre Zalloua, a 37-year-old scientist with a dark goatee and an intense passion for his Lebanese heritage. The two men hope to find new clues to an age-old riddle: Who were the Phoenicians?
Although they're mentioned frequently in ancient texts as vigorous traders and sailors, we know relatively little about these puzzling people. Historians refer to them as Canaanites when talking about the culture before 1200 B.C. The Greeks called them the phoinikes, which means the "red people"—a name that became Phoenicians—after their word for a prized reddish purple cloth the Phoenicians exported. But they would never have called themselves Phoenicians. Rather, they were citizens of the ports from which they set sail, walled cities such as Byblos, Sidon, and Tyre.
The culture later known as Phoenician was flourishing as early as the third millennium B.C. in the Levant, a coastal region now divided primarily between Lebanon, Syria, and Israel. But it wasn't until around 1100 B.C., after a period of general disorder and social collapse throughout the region, that they emerged as a significant cultural and political force.
From the ninth to sixth centuries B.C. they dominated the Mediterranean Sea, establishing emporiums and colonies from Cyprus in the east to the Aegean Sea, Italy, North Africa, and Spain in the west. They grew rich trading precious metals from abroad and products such as wine, olive oil, and most notably the timber from the famous cedars of Lebanon, which forested the mountains that rise steeply from the coast of their homeland.
The armies and peoples that eventually conquered the Phoenicians either destroyed or built over their cities. Their writings, mostly on fragile papyrus, disintegrated—so that we now know the Phoenicians mainly by the biased reports of their enemies. Although the Phoenicians themselves reportedly had a rich literature, it was totally lost in antiquity. That's ironic, because the Phoenicians actually developed the modern alphabet and spread it through trade to their ports of call.
Acting as cultural middlemen, the Phoenicians disseminated ideas, myths, and knowledge from the powerful Assyrian and Babylonian worlds in what is now Syria and Iraq to their contacts in the Aegean. Those ideas helped spark a cultural revival in Greece, one which led to the Greeks' Golden Age and hence the birth of Western civilization. The Phoenicians imported so much papyrus from Egypt that the Greeks used their name for the first great Phoenician port, Byblos, to refer to the ancient paper. The name Bible, or "the book," also derives from Byblos.
Today, Spencer Wells says, "Phoenicians have become ghosts, a vanished civilization." Now he and Zalloua hope to use a different alphabet, the molecular letters of DNA, to exhume these ghosts.

Friday, July 06, 2007

Healing stories and medical anthropology: a reading of Mark 10:46-52

Healing stories and medical anthropology: a reading of Mark 10:46-52

Santiago Guijarro

The healing stories of the Gospels have been studied by exegetes from a literary and a theological point of view. Both approaches have contributed greatly to a better understanding of them. Nevertheless none of these methodologies has been able to interpret those stories from their native point of view. The purpose of this article is to contribute to this native understanding of the healing stories. This aim is pursued by using some cross-cultural models taken from medical anthropology. These models can help us to imagine how Jesus and his contemporaries experienced and understood illness and healing. The first step is to elaborate a reading scenario combining these models and some literary and archaeological evidence. Then this model is applied to the story of the blind man of Jericho (Mark 10:46-52). This example shows how medical anthropology can be a tool for a more fruitful reading of the healing stories.


Exegetes have frequently resorted to Western medicine to explain the meaning of the healings reported in the Gospels. This approach, however, has not proved to be very insightful for understanding the significance that illness and healing had for Jesus and his contemporaries. The attitude of these exegetes towards the gospel narratives is quite similar to that of Western doctors when they encounter patients from other cultures. Very often these doctors use the biomedical model to understand the symptoms communicated to them by these patients, instead of trying to interpret the symptoms using the cultural patterns of their patients' native culture (Good & Delvecchio Good: 165-66).

As a result of the inadequacy of the biomedical model to explain the original meaning of these accounts and of the social contexts in which they originated, exegetes have devoted themselves to the study of the literary and theological features of the passages (Theissen; Leon-Dufour; Latourelle). Such studies have contributed greatly to our understanding of the healing narratives, for it is true that they were cast in rather precise literary forms. It is also true that over time they came to embody ever more precise theological concepts, as is apparent in the passage we are going to consider in this article (Kertelge: 179-84; Robbins; Johnson). It must be recognized, however, that the main purpose of these narratives was that of reporting the healings performed by Jesus.

To understand the original meaning of these narratives we can turn to medical anthropology, a sub-discipline of cultural anthropology, whose object is the study of non-Western medical systems from a cross-cultural perspective (Worsley; Young). Scholars in this branch of learning have elaborated some conceptual models that are especially appropriate for a better understanding of illness and healing in Jesus' time.

This kind of approach was proposed twenty years ago in a very insightful study by P. Borgen, but his suggestion was not followed by mainstream scholarship. Almost at the same time J. Pilch began to publish in this journal a series of articles in which he applied different models taken from medical anthropological studies to New Testament texts (BTB 1981:142-50; 1985:142-50; 1986:102-06; 1988: 60-66; 1992:26-33). This and other studies have been collected and published recently in one volume (Pilch 2000). More recently H. Avalos has produced two interesting studies on the role of the temple in the health care system of the Ancient Near East (1995), and on the import of the health care strategies for the rise of Christianity (1999). Following the steps these studies have already taken, the purpose of this essay is to propose some anthropological models in order to understand in its own terms the healing of the blind man from Jericho as it is reported in Mark 10:46-52.

Reading Scenario: Different Forms of Understanding Illness and Healing

Medical anthropologists have discovered that there are many ways of understanding and experiencing health and illness. They have also shown that the ways in which an individual or a group perceives, symbolizes and reacts to illness and health are determined by their own culture. A. Kleinman, one of the most widely recognized authors in the field, has attempted to understand medicine as a cultural system that includes all elements related to health in a given society. These elements include the perception of illness and its etiology, the individual and collective ways of reacting to it, the values that determine both, and the therapeutic strategies available or the social institutions dedicated to health care. These elements are mutually connected and form an integrated cultural system (Kleinman: 24-25; Worsley: 327-30). This means that illness and healing can be adequately understood only within the framework of a specific culture.

The ways of understanding and experiencing health and illness in the world of Jesus and of the first Christians show noteworthy similarities with the "non-Western" medicines predominant in pre-industrial societies. The medical systems of these societies have in common a series of traits such as the following: (1) the symptoms of illness are explained on the basis of the belief that there exists an interdependence between the natural, the supernatural, the society, and the person; (2) the "healer" has a precise knowledge of the patient's social roles within the community and shares the values and social norms of the patient; and (3) participation in the healing process by other significant persons, mainly members of the extended family, relatives and neighbors, is decisive in the overall process. In contrast, Western bio-medicine, which is the prevailing model in industrialized societies, is rooted in an empirical conception of diseases, and its goal is the treatment of pathologies. As a result of those presuppositions, it does not pay much attention to the personal, social, and supernatural factors which determine the perception and interpretation of illness in most cultures (Worsley: 316-17; Good & Delvecchio Good: 167-74).

It is possible to be more precise on how illness and healing were perceived in the world of Jesus, and to identify the most relevant differences existing between that health care system and ours. To this end I will develop three conceptual models that allow a systematic comparison between various ways of understanding and experiencing health and illness. Using these models I will try to clarify (a) in which sector of the health care system the healing reported by Mark should be located, (b) which understanding of the illness is transparent in this episode and how it affected the status of the sick person; and (c) which was the therapeutic strategy followed by Jesus.

The Health Care System

The health care system is not a real entity but rather a conceptual model elaborated on the basis of what the persons involved think and do vis-a-vis health and illness in a given social context. This model includes, therefore, perceptions, expectations and value judgments that are not always conscious. But it also takes into account the reactions and patterns of behavior of those involved in the illness and in the healing process. Both the perception of illness and the reactions to it are governed by cultural values, and are subject to the influence of different social factors such as institutions, roles, and relations in which the evaluation and treatment of the illness take place. The cross-cultural nature of this model makes it especially appropriate to establish comparisons among different health systems (Kleinman: 25-27).

In its overall structure a health care system consists of three sectors which intersect in various ways: the popular sector, the professional sector, and the folk sector. In the popular sector, the most important one, the treatment of the illness is carried out by those belonging to the social networks of the sick person, notably family and relatives. It is in this non-specialized sector, deeply rooted in popular culture, where the treatment of illness is defined and initiated in most cases. The professional sector is governed by formal institutions and persons trained for this task through a socially sanctioned process. Because of their specialization, personnel in this sector usually propose their version of clinical reality as the only acceptable one. Finally, the folk sector comprises another series of different medical approaches. Some of them are close to the professional sector, but most are related to the popular one. It is in this last sector that we find the traditional healers (Kleinman: 49-60).

These three sectors are defined differently within each culture, and even within various social groups in the same culture. Furthermore, each culture establishes an implicit hierarchy which determines the way a sick person will pass from one sector to another in search of health. To correctly understand the story of Bar Timaeus' healing we must have a basic knowledge of these three sectors in the world of Jesus. This is not the place to make a complete description of the health care system of first-century Palestine. For our purposes it will be enough to locate some literary and archaeological data within the framework provided by the model, so as to identify and describe the health sector in which that healing must be placed.

In most cultures, the popular sector provides the first explanations and remedies to treat sickness. Considering the centrality of the family in the world of Jesus, we may assume that the participants in this first sector were above all those related to the sick person by kinship or fictive kinship ties. Thus, the popular sector's network included family relations, neighbors, clients and the patron. Usually the sick person and the social networks to which he belonged made use of the values and beliefs of the popular culture regarding specific illnesses in order to interpret them and react to them in a culturally meaningful way. The Gospel narratives provide us with some sporadic evidence about this sector. In them we find relatives that look after the sick (Mark 1:30) or ask for healing on their behalf (Mark 7:25; 9:17-18), we find also neighbors or clients that help the sick (Mark 2:3-4), and even patrons that intercede for their servants (Luke 7:74).

Given the prevalence of this sector in non-Western health care systems, we ought to suppose that this was also the most important sector in the health care system of first-century Palestine. This presupposition is confirmed when we consider the health care functions performed by the family vis-a-vis its members, although not every family was able to perform those functions in the same way (Guijarro 1998: 5941).

The practice of professional medicine in ancient Palestine is documented, at least within those social groups under Greek influence, from the Hellenistic period on. Ben Sim (Sir 38:1-15) praised physicians and their profession, but at the same time he reminded his readers that healing was always in God's hands (Noorda: 215-24). In the same vein, the Jewish historian Josephus mentions several times the activity of physicians in first-century Palestine (VITA 404; ANT 19.157; 7.343), pointing out their failures (BJ 1.598) and their inability to heal, as in the case of Herod the Great (ANT 15.245-246). Even Jesus referred to himself in a figurative way as a physician (Mark 2:17; Gos Thom 31). In spite of these positive references, the traditional attitude towards physicians in Israelite society was one of distrust. Israelite monotheism could think of God alone as the source of health, and consequently healing could be acquired only through his mediators, especially through the prophets, who were the authorized consultants in the traditional health care system of the Israelite society (Avalos 1995: 260-77).

As in the rest of the Hellenistic-Roman world, professional physicians, following the teachings of Hippocrates, sought to find out the causes of illnesses and their remedies. These professionals had a global, philosophical perspective on the cosmos and an integrated idea of the human person (Scarborough; Kee: 49-101; Seybold & Mueller: 98-100). The Gospels mention only one case of recourse to this professional sector, the one of the hemorrhaging woman, and they do not fail to mention the fact that she had spent a great fortune on physicians (Mark 5:25-26).

To this same sector of professional medicine can be ascribed most of the activities carried out in the sanctuaries of Aesculapius and in the therapeutic baths. In them, besides the therapies of the Hippocratic medicine, we find the practice of other therapeutic treatments, such as the incubatio (Seybold & Mueller: 101-02). We do not know for sure whether there existed in first-century Palestine sanctuaries devoted to Aesculapius or to Serapis, the healing gods more popular at the time, but excavations at the pool of Bethesda have shown that this place could have been one of them. Since the well-known study of A. Duprez on Jesus and the healing gods, this site has been identified as the scenario where the healing of the paralytic narrated in John 5:2-9 took place, but this identification has been challenged by recent research (Devilliers; Boismard). In any case it seems that the site was a healing center at least from the Hellenistic period on (Pierre & Rousse: 26-27). We can be more sure about the existence of therapeutic baths. Josephus mentions the fountains of Callirhoe, to which Herod was sent by his physicians (ANT 17.171), and the archaeologists have uncovered other similar facilities on both sides of the Jordan in the Hellenistic and Roman period (Dvorjetski; Weber).

Finally, folk medicine, the third sector, which reached beyond the circle of family, relatives and neighbors, depended on different specialists who did not practice professional medicine. An outstanding feature of this sector is its proximity to the popular sector, with which it shares a common understanding of sickness and its etiology. Folk medicine is the realm of magic and exorcism, and the arena of popular healers who constitute its most representative figures. Popular healers share a set of traits in different cultures: they share their patients' worldview and understand health and illness very much like them; they accept the symptoms presented to them as coincident elements of a syndrome; they treat their patients outdoors, and they usually live in close proximity to the social situation of the sick person (Pilch 1991: 198-200).

In the Hellenistic-Roman world this type of popular healer was quite common. In most cases, their healings were a means to confirm the authority of their doctrine and the basis of the claims they made about their person (Graham: 103-05). In the Israelite tradition, as we have seen, the most representative figure of this kind of popular healer was the healing prophet. This type of healer was not uncommon in the time of Jesus, although he himself was the most outstanding instance in first-century Palestine. Other contemporary healers, like Honni and Hannina ben Dosa, share with him, among other traits, a close resemblance to the prophet Elijah (Green; Vermes: 6446; Meier: 581-88).

Access to these three sectors of the health care system was determined by different factors. We can suppose that popular medicine was always the first recourse. When healing could not be achieved through it, resourceful families would have recourse to professional medicine, but this was a luxury reserved to very few. Moreover, it is very probable that among the most traditional strata of Palestinian society (those on the lowest rung), recourse to this kind of medicine would stir up considerable distrust, since in some way it could be an affront against the sovereignty of God over health and illness. For the majority there remained recourse to the popular healers of folk medicine. This would avoid conflict with traditional allegiance to Israel's God, because in the end it was a type of religious healing. It is in this sector of folk medicine that the healings of Jesus must be located.

The Explanatory Model

There is always an explanatory model, explicit or implicit, behind the various ways of understanding illness and of behaving when confronted with it. An explanatory model is a simplified, abstract representation of some complex real-world interaction, consisting of a set of directives followed by those participating in a healing episode in order to understand and treat the illness. The purpose of such models is to offer an explanation of the illness, to help one choose among the various available therapies, and to provide meaning to the illness from the personal and social point of view. The explanatory model in vogue is the one that determines which symptoms are relevant and which are not, and how they are to be interpreted and treated (Kleinman: 104-10).

Underlying explanatory models surface in various ways in the semantic fields of the illness, that is in the terms and expressions spontaneously used to refer to the illness in question (Young: 266-68). This means that to understand the explanatory model of a given illness, we have to pay close attention to the semantic field used by whoever describes it. The data that are not "familiar" to us in the story of the healing of the blind man of Jericho and in other New Testament healing stories are, in fact, the entrance door to the explanatory model of illness and health shared by Jesus and his contemporaries.

The explanatory models employed in the various sectors of the health care system, especially in the popular and in the folk sectors, depend in large measure on the cultural interpretation of sickness. The difference between sickness and its cultural interpretation is reflected in the terminology used by medical anthropologists. They usually distinguish between disease and illness. Disease refers to abnormalities in the structure or functioning of a bodily organ or system of organs, whereas illness refers to the perceptions and experiences that a person has of his/her condition (Young: 264-46).

Understanding sickness as illness is, then, a cultural process. All cultures have patterns of perceiving, comprehending, explaining, assessing, and treating the symptoms of sickness. These patterns are influenced by personal and family perceptions, and through them by the cultural values of each society. The assessment of sickness takes place by a process of labeling symptoms and the sickness itself, as well as by expressing its significance for the individual and the group to which he or she belongs. In this way, the sickness itself takes on a precise meaning and is shaped according to certain patterns of behavior, being thereby transformed into a specific cultural form. That cultural form is what we call an illness (Kleinman: 72-80).

As a result of this process, the cultural construction of a sickness establishes (a) the way it is understood and explained; (b) the way it affects the status of the sick person; and (c) how to treat it, depending on the therapeutic strategies available (Avalos 1999: 23-27). This last aspect will be considered later. Now I turn to the first and second, which are more closely related to the explanatory model.

Two relatively recent studies can introduce us into the cultural understanding of sickness and its etiology in the ancient world: the study of L. Wells concerning the vocabulary of healing in the Greek world, and that of L. P. Hogan on illness and health in the Second Temple Israel. Both of them review a large amount of literary and epigraphic evidence that reveals how people understood sickness at that time, especially in the popular and folk sectors.

Wells has studied the language of healing employed in the dedications and inscriptions of the major Aesculapius shrines of the Hellenistic world and in the New Testament. After a detailed consideration of both sets of documents, she concludes that the terminology used in these two contexts is the same and has almost identical meaning. Her conclusion reveals that the explanatory models of illness were broadly shared in the Hellenistic-Roman world (Wells: 100-431; 219-29).

The focus of Hogan study is the understanding of healing in Second Temple Israel. He scrutinizes the literary documents of that period and concludes that Judeans of the period believed God was ultimately behind all illnesses, even though a given illness could be brought about concretely by various agents or causes: God Himself for some concrete reason; God's agents (angels, demons etc.); evil spirits; stars; and, above all, sin. God was also the ultimate source of healing and health, but there were various means for restoring health. The principal ones were faith and prayer, repentance, exorcisms, physicians, folk medicine, and magic. Not all these means had the same value, but all of them share the same religious explanatory model, which did not separate the natural from the supernatural, the social from the personal (Hogan: 306-10). In any case, these features provide us with a very general framework which has to be filled out in each case, taking into consideration the terminology used.

All these issues on the nature of sickness, its etiology and therapeutic strategies are a wide framework in which we must place the "regional" differences that shape many aspects of the cultural understanding of sickness and healing. Thus, for example, the Israelite explanatory model was configured by the Levitical system of purity, something which was not so prominent in other healing traditions of the Hellenistic world (Avalos 1999:34-58). In every instance it is necessary to find out how the general framework and the local tradition interact to configure the explanatory model.

A crucial aspect of every explanatory model is the way in which it determines the status of the sick person. In most cultures sickness is interpreted in terms of social deviance, and consequently it attaches an stigma to the sick person. The degree of stigmatization and its precise meaning depend on how a particular sickness is perceived. In the Levitical health care system, for example, some chronic diseases, such as leprosy, attached to the sick person a stigma that required his or her exclusion from the community (Lev 13-15). This exclusion was not for sanitary purposes, but was the consequence of a purity system. This same understanding of purity determined that those who were affected by some physical blemishes such as lameness, deafness or blindness were not allowed to enter the Temple. To rightly understand the meaning of those stigmas we need to bear in mind that in the Mediterranean society of the first century the status of a person was perceived then in terms of honor and shame, which were the core values of that culture.

The Therapeutic Strategy

An important aspect of every health care system is its therapeutic strategy. A therapeutic strategy is basically the procedure followed to treat an illness in order to obtain healing. The first step in this process is to establish a hierarchy among the therapeutic options available, that is among the different sectors of the health care system. Once this hierarchy has been established, each sector initiates its own therapeutic strategy.

The therapeutic strategy is the most noticeable feature in the healing stories of the Gospels. But it is also the most difficult aspect to understand for the Western reader. The reason is that the therapeutic strategies that appear in the gospel narratives presuppose an understanding of sickness and healing which is foreign to us. This understanding is derived from the explanatory model of popular and folk medicine of the first-century Mediterranean world, whereas the therapeutic strategies known to us derive from the biomedical model of Western professional medicine. To understand those stories in their own terms, then, we need a tool that may enable us to draw comparisons between the process of curing disease as professional Western medicine understands it, and the process of healing illness as it was understood in first-century popular and folk medicine.

Good and Delvechio Good have developed such a tool. They consider different steps in the interpretation and treatment of symptoms, and make a parallel description of the therapeutic strategy followed by the biomedical model and that of the cultural model (Good St Delvecchio Good: 167-81). Both processes are determined by various cultural assumptions and consequently employ different explanatory models. The biomedical model is rooted in an empiricist conception of sickness based on organ malfunction; this is the model prevalent in Western medicine that determines its interpretation and treatment of the symptoms. In contrast, the cultural model understands sickness not simply as a pathology, but as a significant human reality. Consequently it considers healing as a hermeneutic process whose goal is to interpret that reality. The following chart summarizes the different steps and the strategies followed by both models (Good & Delvecchio Good: 179)


Pathological Entity Somatic of
lesion or dysfunction
Structure of Relevance Relevant data are
those that reveal so-
matic disorder
Elicitation Procedures Review of systems
laborotory tests
Interpretive Goal Diagnosis and expla-
nation (Erklaren)
Interpretive Strategy Dialectically explore
relationship between
symptoms and
somatic disorder
Therapeutic Goal Intervene in somatic
disease process


Pathological Entity Meaningful construct,
illness reality of the
Structure of Relevance Relevant data are
those that reveal
meaning of illness
Elicitation Procedures Evaluate explanatory
models, decode
semantic network
Interpretive Goal Understanding
Interpretive Strategy Dialectically explore
relationship between
symptoms(text) and
semantic network
Therapeutic Goal To treat patient's expe-
rience: to bring to
understanding hid-
den aspects of illness
reality and to trans-
form that reality
The biomedical model is suitable for understanding disease and cure in the professional sector of contemporary Western medicine, but it is of little relevance when applied to other sectors of Western medicine. It is also inadequate when sickness is perceived and experienced according to patterns of other, non-Western cultures such as those in the gospel stories. In these cases, the cultural model is much more useful. As we shall see further on, many of the "strange" traits that appear in the gospel accounts of healing can be explained much better with the help of this second model.

The Healing of the Blind Man of Jericho (Mark 10:46-52)

The healing of the blind man of Jericho is one of the most elaborate miracle stories in the whole New Testament. The presence of some theological accents characteristic of Mark's Gospel, and its place at the end of a section centered on teaching about discipleship (Mark 8:31-10:52), reveal its catechetical character. This feature is equally apparent in the story of the healing of the possessed boy (Mark 9:14-29). Both of these healings, the last "miracles" related by Mark, are presented to the reader/hearer as "didactic examples" (Kertelge: 182-84). Such theological adaptation may have removed from the story some characteristic traits of the healing process which are more evident in other healing stories (touching, laying on of hands, use of saliva). But it is still possible to discover signs that reveal how Jesus and his contemporaries understood this episode.

The Health Care System

The first step to an adequate understanding of the story reported by Mark is to locate it in the framework of the health care system of that time, and to find out in which sector of that system it should be placed.

The reference to the family can be indicative of the treatment of illness in the popular sector. This reference is implicit in the man's name, and perhaps was explained later to those who did not understand the meaning of the name, ("son of Timaeus"). Since the family was the most important social institution in the ancient world, it was the first place where healing was looked for. It is evident that Bar Timaeus' family was unsuccessful in providing a remedy for his blindness. The mention of his father shows that the family was affected by his situation. As in the case of the beggar asking alms at the Temple gate (Acts 3:2), it is probable that his family had not detached itself from him.

We can presuppose, therefore, that Bar Timaeus approached Jesus after having sought healing in the popular medicine sector without success. There is no indication that he had resorted to the professional medicine of his time. No doubt, there would be physicians in Jericho as well as in Jerusalem, but only the members of elite families had access to them, The only recourse available to Bar Timaeus, as to so many other sick persons of his time, was a folk healer.

Most of the traits that characterize folk healers appear, in fact, in the encounter of Jesus with Bar Timaeus: Jesus accepts the description the sick man gives of his illness and shares his understanding of it, because he asks no questions about its nature or etiology; the encounter takes place out. doors; the vocabulary used by both reflects a system of shared beliefs, and the therapy occurs through a dialogue. Both Jesus and Bar Timaeus interpret the illness and its healing in religious terms. The compassion Bar Timaeus asks for is an attribute of God, and his request presupposes that only God can bestow healing. Jesus responds to him by attributing the healing to his attitude of faith.

These traits of the folk healer, many of which are common to folk healers of other cultures, were patterned in the Israelite society by the tradition of the prophet healer connected precisely to the town of Jericho and its surroundings. The ideal type of the Israelite heater who acted as mediator between God and the sick person was the prophet Elijah (I Kgs 17:17-24) and his disciple Elisha (2 Kgs 4:8-37; 5:1-19). Jesus was not the only folk healer in first-century Palestine. We know of at least two other figures: Honi and Hannina ben Dosa, whose activity as folk healers and popular miracle workers can be still discerned in the rabbinic traditions (Green: 646-47). Like John the Baptist and Jesus himself (Mark 6:15 par.; 8:28 par.; Luke 4:26; John 1:21), Honi and Hannina were associated by their contemporaries with Elijah. The setting of the story in Jericho could be a way of relating Jesus to him.

This initial consideration of the story from the perspective of the health care system of the time reveals a perception of illness and healing which cannot be reduced to its biological aspects. The societal and religious implications of the story are equally evident. We might also observe that the sick person's trip in search of healing had probably begun before Bar Timaeus met Jesus, as in the case of the hemorrhaging woman (Mark 5:25-27), or the paralytic of Bethesda (John 5:57). The fact that his father is mentioned points to the popular sector of medicine as the first step in this search. In any case, the context in which this healing episode must be understood is that of Israelite folk medicine, whose most prominent figure was the prophet who heals in God's name. Jesus acts as a folk healer following the steps of Elijah, and in so doing he claims to be the legitimate intermediary through which God grants healing to the sick. This explains the centrality of faith in this and in other healing stories.

The Explanatory Model

To grasp the way Jesus and his contemporaries understood and experienced illness and healing, we need to identify the explanatory model they used to interpret these experiences. To this end, we must explore the semantic field of the sickness--that is, the words used to name and describe it and everything around it. This especially includes all those traits that we find rather strange, such as Bar Timaeus' request for compassion, the titles with which he addresses Jesus and the response of Jesus ascribing the healing to his faith.

These traits reveal that Jesus and the first Christians shared with their contemporaries the belief that God was the source of illness and healing (Exod 15:26). Although the causes of the blindness are not mentioned in the story, we can presuppose that first-century Israelites ascribed it to the influence of a demon (Matt 12:22), or perhaps to some personal or inherited sin (John 9:2). These beliefs constituted the common framework, but to grasp the full significance of the story we must be more specific about the meaning of blindness and the implications of this condition in first-century Mediterranean societies.

A brief consideration of the use of terms related to vision (blind, eye, to see) in the New Testament reveals a complex reality that goes beyond the physical ability (Michaelis: 340-46). "The blind" was a symbolic representation of those that could not guide others (Matt 15:15; 23:16-24; Luke 6:39; Rom 2:19). "The eye" could be a source of scandal (Matt 5:29; Mark 9:47), of desire (Matt 5:27-28; 1 John 2:16), and even an instrument to harm others (Matt 6:22-23; 20:5). Closed eyes expressed the inability to understand (Matt 13:15; Luke 24:16), while raised eyes were a means to communicate with God through prayer (Luke 16:23; 18:15; John 6:5; 17:1). In the ancient world there was a very close relationship between the eyes and the heart (Eph 1:18), so that when the eyes were shut the heart was unable to understand (John 12:40; Matt 13:15; Acts 28:27; 1 Cor 2:9). In Cicero we read that the eyes were the way to the heart (Cicero, DE LEGIBUS 1.26-27; ORATIONES 3.221), a belief that can also be found in the Old Testament (Jenni & Vetter: 336-46).

This relationship between the eyes and the heart derives from an understanding of the human person in terms of three symbolic zones: one of emotion-fused thought, which functions through the eyes and the heart; one of self-revelation through speech, which operates through the mouth and the ears; and one of deliberate action, which finds expression through the hands and feet (Malina: 73-77). This perception of the individual is one of the taxonomies that can help us understand sickness and healing in the ancient Mediterranean world (Pitch 1991:203-07). Of these three zones that constitute the human being, the first is crucial for knowledge of the individual. For this reason, the ancient physiognomists looked at the study of the eyes as a fundamental task to ascertain or describe a person's character (Malina & Neyrey: 26-27). The eyes were not only an instrument of vision but also a channel of communication between persons and a way of access to their innermost self. All such functions were closed off to a blind person.

Anthropological studies have emphasized that this insistence on the eyes and vision, as well as on the visual dimensions of things, is a common element in the Mediterranean societies, where the eye is "an instrument of knowledge, power, predation, dominance and sexuality" (Gilmore: 197). For this reason public exposure to the gaze of others implies a violation of the body, and the fear of such exposure is an important means of control (seclusion of women, veiling, interior courts, etc.). This preponderance of everything which is visual finds expression in the belief in the "evil eye," which is one of the most characteristic traits of Mediterranean societies (Elliott; Duncam & Derret). According to this belief, some persons have the power to injure other people through the eye and the sense of sight, generally as a consequence of envy or greed. For that reason the evil eye is sometimes synonymous with envy (Matt 20:5). This pervasive belief reveals the conviction that the eye and vision constitute an instrument of power over others.

This perception of the meaning and power of the eye and vision determines the understanding Jesus and his contemporaries had of blindness. The blind person was, in a certain way, someone whose access to the center of the emotions and thought (the heart) was barred, whether from inside to outside (desires, emotions), or from outside to inside (evil eye). The lack of vision would separate him to some extent from the social interactions which revolved around honor, because honor and shame were visual values. For that reason, perhaps the most noteworthy aspect of blindness was the lack of power that it implied: he who could not see could not control others nor influence their lives.

These cultural clues shape the social condition of the blind person. In most cultures, as we have seen, sickness assigns to the sick person a deviant status. In the Mediterranean culture this deviant status was understood and expressed in terms of its core values, that is in terms of honor and shame. When the ancient rhetoric treatises talk about the enkomion they consider good health as an attribute of the honorable person, but illness as something shameful (Malina & Neyrey: 140-41). The dishonorable condition of Bar Timaeus is pointed up in various details of the story: he is a beggar, he is outside the city, and he is not allowed to address Jesus. The name of the father (Timaios = honorable) and the son's condition may provide subtle allusions to the dishonor (atimos = dishonorable) affecting the entire family.

The social condition of Bar Timaeus is depicted in terms, not of physical deficiency but of social exclusion because blindness would render one incapable of actively taking part in major social interactions. This perception of blindness in terms of social exclusion appears in some passages of the Israelite literature that presuppose the Levitical health care system. In 2 Sam 5:6-8 the author quotes a popular saying: "The blind and the lame will not enter the house of the Lord." And, according to the Levitical prescriptions, among the descendants of Aaron that were not allowed to present the offering were "the blind and the lame" (Lev 21:18). In Jesus' time the exclusion of the blind was even more emphasized, at least in some religious groups in which purity was a central concern. In one of the halakhic documents found in the Qumran caves we read that the blind and the deaf are not pure "because those who cannot see or hear cannot observe [the Law]" (4QMMT 56-57), and in the Temple Scroll it is stated that the blind should be barred not only from the Temple, but also from the holy city: "No blind will enter it in all his life; he will not defile the holy city in whose center I dwell" (11QTemple 45:12-14).

As a result, healing was defined, not in physical but rather in social terms. For that reason the healing of the blind, the deaf, and the lame was a literary paradigm used in the prophetic writings to announce the restoration of the people of God (Clements). It is no accident that, in the story, the blind man's recovery of sight is followed by integration into the group of Jesus' disciples. This integration is in fact the last step in a process of social reintegration which runs through the entire story. The first step is to address Jesus without paying attention to those who command him to be silent. Then Bar Timaeus leaves behind the signs of his exclusion: his place beside the road and the beggar's mantle. And finally he talks to Jesus, asking him for healing. It is evident that, in Mark's view, this process describes the ideal itinerary of disciples. They must recover their sight to be able to follow Jesus on the way to the cross (Mark 10:51). But before this passage was placed in Mark's account, the story of the healing of the blind man may have been one more example of the social reintegration of outcasts through which Jesus expressed the coming of the kingdom of God (Guijarro 1999: 123-24).

The Therapeutic Strategy

The therapeutic strategy that surfaces in this story is better understood when we place it in the folk sector of the health care system of Jesus' time, and when we know the social connotations of blindness at that time. We explore this therapeutic strategy now, using the comparative model proposed by Good & Delveccio Good.

The first stage of the healing process is the appearance of the sickness. Cultural patterns would orient the sick person and those who were related to him/her (family, relatives, neighbors, etc.) to perceiving that condition in social rather than in biological terms. For them blindness was not (as we have already noted) primarily a physiological pathology but rather an illness with social implications.

The second stage is the search for relevant data about the sickness. This is the stage at which Western medicine looks for symptoms that reveal the existence of a known pathology. This interest is completely lacking in the story. Rather what we are told about are signs revealing the meaning of the illness. The place where Bar Timaeus is situated, his begging condition, the fact that he is not permitted to speak to Jesus ... all these features indicate which symptoms were relevant for them.

The third stage looks to the identification of the sickness. Here the explanatory model shared by Jesus and his contemporaries must be taken into consideration, and this can be achieved through the scrutiny of the semantic field employed. This semantic field includes references to the origin of the sickness (perhaps sin) and of the healing (God). This semantic field reveals an emic understanding of blindness, which involves the importance of everything visual in ancient Mediterranean culture. Unlike the biomedical model, which focuses principally on the physical examination of the patient, the cultural model takes various dimensions of human experience into account: the natural (physical blindness), the divine (only God and faith can heal), the personal (the inability to see), and the social (exclusion and dishonor). In the story all these dimensions are related, but the divine and social dimensions come to the fore and are thus the most important for identifying the significance of blindness.

The interpretive goal of this process is not, as in the biomedical model, diagnosing and explaining physical symptoms, but rather understanding the meaning that the illness has for the patient. Consequently the interpretive strategy does not rest on exploring the relation between the physical symptoms and dysfunctions but rather on exploring the relation between the symptoms and the semantic field of the illness. This is precisely what we find in the story, mainly in the brief dialogue between Jesus and Bar Timaeus. Twice Bar Timaeus begs Jesus to have compassion on him, but Jesus makes him articulate his request in a more specific way: "What do you want me to do for you?" The reader gets the impression that the blind man does not want to mention his blindness because of the social connotations it bears, but Jesus compels him to relate his situation (beggar, at the edge of the road, etc.) to its source, and he makes him ask openly to remedy the source of his social exclusion and his shame.

Finally, the healing process does not rest on intervening in the somatic process of the pathology but in treating the patient's experience by establishing a new frame of reference. This aspect is more evident in this story than in other healings of blind people. Jesus pays no attention to the physical dimensions of the sickness (he neither lays hands on him nor applies dust or saliva); rather, he concentrates on its meaning. The healing is interpreted in terms of salvation which occurs thanks to faith in God. The first consequence of the man's recovering his sight is his incorporation into Jesus' group of disciples. This creates a new significant social framework that erases all the signs of the social exclusion caused by the stigma attached to the sickness: he is not beside the road but on it, he has thrown away the beggar's mantle, and what is most important, he finds welcome in a new social group.


In this essay, I have tried to show the usefulness of medical anthropology for an adequate understanding of healing stories in the Gospels. I am aware that the model presented is somewhat incomplete, but thanks to that model we have been able to discover some features implicit in the story and to interpret other features that are better understood from this perspective.

The analysis of Mark 10:46-52 with the help of this reading scenario has shown, first of all, that the healing of Bar Timaeus is better understood when placed into the structure of the prevailing health care system of first-century Palestine. The story belongs in the folk sector of that system, but it is noteworthy that at first the case was dealt with in the popular sector, and that Timaeus' family had no access to the professional sector. As we have seen the folk sector of the Israelite health care system was closely related to the tradition of the prophet healer. This relationship points to the Israelite roots of Jesus' healing activity.

The study of the explanatory model that the story takes for granted helps to clarify how blindness was understood and experienced at the time of Jesus. For Jesus and his contemporaries it was not only a disease but an illness that had strong religious, social, and cultural implications. According to the Levitical purity system, blindness implied, first of all, an exclusion from the political religious system. This exclusion was symbolized in the prohibition to enter the Temple. Furthermore, in a society which had honor as its core value, blindness entailed also a social segregation, because those who could not see were unable to participate in the main social interactions.

On the other hand, understanding the story from the perspective of the cultural model of the healing process allows us to unveil the purpose of the healings performed by Jesus. In them the "miraculous" dimension, emphasized in traditional apologetics, was really of little importance. What was important was the social and political religious nature of the process. The healing of the blind man implies a healing of the roots of sin, which occurs through faith in the God of Israel (political religious dimension), and a social reintegration that entails the removal of all the signs of his exclusion (social dimension).

Finally, a better knowledge of how sickness and healing was perceived in the social context of Jesus can be of great help to elucidate the specific traits of his activity as a healer. Perhaps the most relevant one was his therapeutic strategy. His therapeutic strategy was completely different from the one promoted by the Levitical health care system. These two strategies rest on different understandings of purity. Whereas the Levitical system promoted the exclusion of the sick, the strategy followed by Jesus strove for his inclusion. Jesus' healings, like his exorcisms and his meals, expressed what the kingdom of God meant in a culturally relevant and eloquent manner. One of the most revealing signs of the coming of this kingdom was the social reintegration of outcasts. Eating with sinners, healing the lame and the blind, and exorcizing the possessed were various manifestations of one and the same project: to show how the kingdom of God was present in the activity of Jesus.

Works Cited

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Duncam M., & J. Derret. 1995. The Evil Eye in the New Testament. Pp. 65-72 in MODELLING EARLY CHRISTIANITY. SOCIAL-SCIENTIFIC STUDIES OF THE NEW TESTAMENT IN ITS CONTEXT, edited by P. F. Esler. London, UK/New York, NY: Routledge.

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Santiago Guijarro, S.S.L. (Pontifical Biblical Institute, Rome), S.S.D. (Pontifical University of Salamanca, Spain), is a professor in the Faculty of Theology of the Pontifical University of Salamanca (e-mail: He was the coordinator of one of the most recent translations of the Bible into Spanish: BIBLIA DE LA CASA DE LA BIBLIA (Madrid, 1992), and BIBLIA DE AMERICA (Madrid, 1994). He has published recently a monograph on the disruption of the family for the sake of discipleship (FIDELIDADES EN CONFLICTO. LA RUPTURA CON LA FAMILIA POR CAUSA DEL DISCIPULADO Y DE LA MISION EN LA TRADICION SINOPTICA (Salamanca, 1998). He has also recently contributed an article to BTB: The Politics of Exorcism: Jesus' Reaction to Negative Labels in the Beelzebul Controversy (29:118-29).

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Paul's contestation of Israel's memory of Abraham in Galatians 3

Paul's contestation of Israel's memory of Abraham in Galatians 3

Philip F. Esler
This essay proposes an explanation for the prominent role of Abraham in Galatians 3. While the view of existing scholarship that Paul is responding to a case being made by his opponents is accepted, there are difficulties with the current proposals. Paul's opponents are not likely to have invoked Abraham as part of a theological case, or because of his connection with circumcision or with blessings. An explanation is needed which focuses on the question of Abrahamic descent in the totality of its dimensions. By adopting aspects of theories of ethnicity, social identity and, above all, collective memory, it is argued, first, that Abraham was central to the ethnic identity and collective memory of first century Judeans and that Paul's opponents were offering his converts the exalted status of Abrahamic descent as a reward for becoming Judeans through circumcision. Second, Paul's argument in Galatians 3 represents a fundamental contestation of this memory. He formulates a counter-memory for installation in the hearts and minds of his audience. He does this by arguing that the "seed" or descendants of Abraham to whom God had made promises were not Judeans but rather Christ and those who were one with him in baptism. Thus he wrenches the prize that was Abraham from the Judeans and lodges it among his mixed congregations of non-Judean and Judean Christ-followers. The audacity of Paul's enterprise is evident in his leaving no room for Judeans who had not found faith in Christ to be Abraham's descendants, a radical position from which he would later withdraw in Romans 4.


The function of Abraham in Paul's letter to the Galatians has received considerable attention from scholars, not least in G. W. Hansen's 1989 monograph and Jeffrey Siker's shorter treatment of the subject in 1991. Such attention is more than justified. Paul mentions Abraham nineteen times, but these instances are concentrated in two of his letters, with nine in Galatians, mostly in Chapter 3 (3:6, 7, 8, 9, 14, 16, 18, and 29) and one later in the section on Sarah and Hagar (4:22), and nine more in Romans, mostly in Chapter 4 (4:1, 2, 3, 9, 12, 13, 16), with the two remaining examples coming later (9:7 and 11:1). The remaining instance occurs in 2 Corinthians 11:22. None of the deutero-Pauline letters mentions Abraham.

Prominent themes in the current discussion of Abraham in Galatians include the reason Paul introduces him (probably in response to the case being mounted by his opponents in Galatia), the character of, and rationale for, his picture of Abraham (especially the question over the identity of his true descendants), and differences between the presentation of the patriarch here and in Romans.

My aim in this article is to investigate the role of Abraham in Galatians 3 in relation to the emerging interest in collective memory, especially the extent to which such memory embraces great figures from the past and is contested between groups. The recent interest on the part of biblical scholars in the field of collective memory, an area now embracing sociology and anthropology that was pioneered by Maurice Halbwachs before the Second World War but has only in the last two decades come to the forefront of social-scientific reflection, reflects, as Andreas Huyssen has noted, the emergence of memory as a key concern of contemporary society. In addition to the two seminal works by Halbwachs (1980; 1992), in the last twenty years there have been a stream of significant texts, with notable contributions by Paul Connerton, James Fentress and Chris Wickham, Gary Fine, Jeffrey Olick, Nachmann Ben-Yehuda, Barry Schartz and Eviatar Zerubabel. Jeffrey Olick and Joyce Robbins usefully surveyed this field as it then stood in 1998. It is disappointing and surprising, therefore, to find historians writing about memory without reference to the vibrant sociological and anthropological literature--as a case in point, Halbwachs is not mentioned in the admittedly excellent 2003 collection of essays edited by Katharine Hodgkin and Susannah Radstone, Contested Pasts: The Politics of Memory. For reasons that will shortly become apparent, I find it essential to integrate notions of collective memory within a broader investigative framework that includes perspectives on group identity and ethnicity.

There are five major sections to this article. In the first I survey the relevant data in Galatians 3 and briefly consider some current scholarly approaches to it. In the second I consider how Abraham and Abrahamic descent were closely connected with the ethnic identity of first century Judeans, including those in Galatia putting pressure on Paul's converts. In the third section I explain how Abraham featured in the collective memory of first century Judeans. In the fourth section I offer an interpretation of Galatians 3:6-29, arguing that here Paul is concerned to contest the memory of Abraham and to attach his descent to the Christ-movement, detaching it from Israel in the process. I offer some concluding observations in the fifth and final section.

I have previously considered the role of Abraham in Galatians from a different aspect of social identity theory than that I will utilize here (1998: 173-74, 191-94), while I have recently examined the role of Abraham in Romans 4 from perspectives similar to those in this article (2003:171-94).

Abraham in Galatians 3 in Current Discussion

Abraham first appears in Galatians at 3:6. In the preceding verse Paul (rhetorically) asks whether the one who supplies the Spirit to them and works miracles among them does so by works of the law or heating with faith. Here, as Hansen has shown (110-13), the faith in question is that of the Christ-follower and certainly not the "faithfulness of Jesus"--as argued by Richard B. Hays (1983: 147) as part of his larger and unpersuasive project to cobble together a Pauline narrative concerning the faithfulness of Jesus, a narrative that Paul himself never happened to express. Then in 3:6 Paul states, quoting Genesis 15:6 in the Septuagint, "Thus Abraham put his faith in God and it was reckoned to him as righteousness." After this he continues, "For (ara) you know that it is those of faith--these are the sons of Abraham" (3:7). Here the particle ara marks an inference made on the basis of the preceding verse (Danker: 127). As Paul develops his argument, however, it becomes clear that this is also a thesis that he is seeking to prove.

He will conclude the argument at 3:29 with a statement very similar to that at 3:7. The entirety of the passage from 3:6 to 3:29 serves to demonstrate that those who have faith in Christ are really the sons or seed of Abraham. The act of Abraham in putting his faith in God is paralleled by the act of Paul's converts putting their faith "in Christ Jesus"--3:26). This illustrates how, as Richard Bauckham has pointed out in rightly arguing for an early high Christology in the Pauline corpus (1998; 2002), what was predicated of God in the Old Testament comes in Paul to be predicated of Christ.

Why does Paul spend 23 verses of this letter (out of 149, or some one seventh of the whole) on this topic? The obvious answer is that he is answering the case being made in relation to Abraham by those active in the congregations of the Christ-movement in Galatia who oppose his gospel. There is a long line of scholars who support this general view, with Hansen (262) mentioning Barrett, Betz, Bruce, Mussner, Brinsmead, Beker, Richard Longenecker, Daube, Bligh, Ridderbos, Guthrie, Burton, and Duncan, and even this list is hardly exhaustive. But what kind of case was it? Here I will merely sample a handful of the available views.

For C. K. Barrett it was a theological case. Speaking of the opponents, he says,

 At the heart of their theology was the concept of the people of God with its origin in Abraham, and the divine promise which constituted it. They probably took the view ... that the Abrahamic covenant had been re-defined by the Sinaitic. The

promise was made to Abraham and his seed; and the obligations of the seed were revealed in the law, fulfillment of which was made the necessary condition for receipt of the promised blessing

[15; emphasis added].

J. Christiaan Beker has proposed that the Judaizers were arguing that because both Abraham and Christ--as the heir to Abraham's blessing--were circumcised, "only sons of Abraham through circumcision belong to the domain of blessing. Gentiles cannot be full Christians without living within the domain of salvation, that is, without adopting circumcision and the Torah" (48).

In a detailed argument, Hansen suggests that the opponents of Paul's gospel were running a circumcision campaign. This is a reasonable start, for if we know anything about Paul's problem in Galatia it is that certain persons were seeking to persuade non-Judean members to be circumcised and, therefore, become Judeans themselves (Galatians 5:2; 5:12; 6:12). Yet Hansen then goes further and suggests that this circumcision campaign "was probably supported by a reference to God's original command to Abraham to receive circumcision with all his household as a sign of the covenant in the flesh (Gen. 17)" (113). He also urges that there is a strong connection drawn between circumcision and the Abrahamic covenant in Israelite literature (170-74; 175-99). Since circumcision was the means presented in such literature by which Abraham gained perfection, circumcision was the necessary means whereby one shared in the Abrahamic blessings of life and righteousness (172).

There is, however, a major problem with these first three explanations, namely, that they do not focus on the very issue at stake here--being a son or descendant of Abraham. Paul's argument is plainly predicated on the view that descent from Abraham is a very desirable thing. It is highly probable that this view was shared by his opponents in Galatia. To draw this conclusion is not to leap into what are sometimes presented as the dangerous quicksands of "mirror-reading" (Barclay), but merely to insist that, like anyone used to argument in a public forum in the ancient period or today, it was necessary for Paul to anticipate and meet the specific features of his opponents' case. On the basis of ancient rhetorical advice to anticipate an opponent's case, I have elsewhere (1998: 64-68) argued against George Lyons' attempt to deny to Paul this inevitable feature of effecfive argumentation.

Paul's aim is to redefine the character of Abrahamic descent and the means by which it is achieved--"You regard descent from Abraham as a desirable thing? ... Then let me tell you what it means and how to get it!"

None of these three scholars--Barrett, Beker or Hansen--sees anything valuable in descent from Abraham per se. Barrett sees such descent merely as one integer in a much larger theological case, one of a number of concepts, being advocated by the opposition. Beker considers that this was a means to obtain blessings. As for Hansen, thirdly, in a revealing section of his book entitled "The Opponents' Use of the Abraham Tradition," (167-74), he does not mention Abrahamic descent as a desirable good; indeed he never mentions it at all! He regards Abraham as entering the picture because of his established connection with circumcision in Genesis 17:110-1 4 and elsewhere. This is part of "Jewish" "literary tradition." His vision is of Paul's opponents relying on such literature to prove their point. Like Beker, he also sees circumcision (note, not Abrahamic descent) as a way to obtain blessings.

More recently J. Louis Martyn has provided a detailed account of the case that Paul's opponents were probably making in relation to Abraham (302-06). He refers to these opponents as the "Teachers," which is an unfortunate and unwarranted euphemism given the fierceness with which interpersonal competition was undertaken in ancient Judean and Greco-Roman colture (Esler 1998: 65-66). Based on an erudite understanding of the various facets of the Judean portrait of Abraham in the first century CE, Martyn focuses on the extent to which the "Teachers" were offering Paul's converts Abrahamic descent as a way to win divine blessings. To get these blessings one had to be incorporated into Israel through circumcision.

Bruce Longenecker, finally, has suggested that evidently "the promotion of circumcision and works of the law was being carried out in Galatia with reference to this notion of the identity of Abraham's descendants." He further adds that "Abrahamic descent was the issue that gave rise to the promotion of circumcision and other practices of the law." He explains this in terms of "the high regard in which Abraham was held in Early Judaism," especially because he turned from paganism to worship the one true God. The "agitators" (Paul's opponents) were establishing a connection with the "Galatians" (sc. Paul's non-Judean converts to Christ) through Abraham--by saying that both they (sc. the agitators) and the Galatian converts had turned away from idolatry to serve the true God (129). In addition, he suggests that Genesis 17 entails that offspring of Abraham had to be circumcised and that by that means they became entitled to share in the covenant blessings. Probably they also linked the Abrahamic covenant with the delivery of the Mosaic law on Sinai (130).

Both Martyn and Longenecker do at least see a role for Abrahamic descent itself. Yet they do not portray such descent as a valuable end in itself, but as a means whereby the agitators can relate themselves to Paul's converts via Abraham's eschewal of idolatry and, most critically, as the vehicle for transmission of the blessings that God promised to his descendants. While it is clear that the blessings that flow to the true descendants of Abraham are an important part of the picture, I submit that even Martyn and Longenecker have failed to access the full significance of Abrahamic descent.

In the balance of this article I will set out an alternative approach to the views of these five scholars in relation to Abraham in Galatians 3. But before doing so I must briefly note the theoretical resources I consider desirable for this exercise, which will enable me to interrogate the textual data in a new way. The core of my approach will be to interpret Abrahamic descent as central to the ethnic identity of Judeans--an identity they highly valued--with the figure of Abraham being central to this identity and, furthermore, accessed and maintained by Judeans through the processes of collective memory and contested by Paul in an effort to re-direct that collective memory to serve the needs of the congregations of Christ-followers in Galatia.

Abraham, Judean Ethnic Identity, and Galatians

I take it as highly probable that Paul's fundamental concern in Chapter 3 and the rest of Galatians is with preserving the unique identity of the various congregations of the Christ movement in Galatia as he had founded them. His problem is that his version of the movement, characterized by Judean and non-Judean Christ-followers who engaged in the intimate table-fellowship of the Lord's Supper with one another, is imperiled by pressures upon the non-Judeans to be circumcised and hence become Judeans. He is determined to maintain the boundaries that separate the Galatian groups of Christ-followers from Judeans--in other words, to preserve his version of the gospel against rival versions (Esler 1998).

How do we categorize Paul's opponents? Usually they are called "Judaizers" and regarded as "Jews" who are members of the congregations, possibly under pressure from other "Jews" to do something about these goyim with whom they are associated. It is easy to view this as a religious identity. But if we eschew the anachronism of translating Ioudaios as "Jew" and adopt "Judean" instead, for reasons I have set out at length elsewhere (2003: 40-76) , we are dealing with an identity best described as "ethnic." The Judeans then become one of a large number of ethnic groups in the first century Mediterranean world, like the Romans, the Egyptians, the Greeks, the Gauls and so on, all nominated in relation to the territory from which they were known to have come, even those of their number who lived a diaspora existence abroad. Many of these groups are mentioned in the Contra Apionem of Josephus, a text whose practice of treating the Ioudaioi as (superior) members of a class best described as "ethnic" that also includes Romans, Greeks and Egyptians and so on, represents a powerful argument against the exceptionalism (and, let us be blunt, intellectual inertia) involved in treating Ioudaioi as "Jews" belonging to a religion known as "Judaism."

Ethnicity has recently been the focus of lively discussion in the social sciences (Vermeulen & Govers; Banks; Jenkins; Baumann; Spickard & Burroughs). Fredrik Barth's construal of ethnicity as representing a sense of group identity that at various times selects different indicia as expressive of that identity (as opposed to ethnicity being determined by a set of primordial cultural features) has been widely influential. In Barth's perspective, the boundaries of ethnic groups operate as processes, permitting some interactions across them and prohibiting others. A number of recent works have demonstrated how comfortably this modern notion of ethnicity can be related to groups in the ancient Mediterranean world (Bilde et al.; Hall; Konstan; Malkin). There is also a burgeoning literature that applies the theory of ethnicity to biblical studies (Brett; Cohen; Duling 2003 and 2005/2006; Esler 2003).

Although Barth recognizes that the indicia which typify a particular ethnic group can change over time, certain features do commonly recur in groups we would wish to label as ethnic. John Hutchinson and Anthony Smith have helpfully listed a number of features that tend to be associated with ethnic groups (3-14). These are (a) a common proper name to identify the group; (b) a myth of common ancestry (note "myth," since the genealogical accuracy of the claimed descent is irrelevant); (c) a shared history or shared memories of a common past, including heroes, events and their commemoration; (d) a common culture, embracing such things as customs, language and religion; (e) a link with a homeland, either through actual occupation or by symbolic attachment to the ancestral land, as with diaspora peoples; and (f) a sense of communal solidarity. I stress that these features should be seen as operating in the processual and self-ascriptive approach favored by Fredrik Barth.

It is worth dwelling on the second of these features, a myth of common ancestry or descent. Max Weber, writing in 1922, proposed that ethnic groups were characterized by the belief that they shared common descent "because of similarities of physical type or of customs or both, or because of memories of colonization and migration." It did not matter whether an objective blood relationship existed or not. Ethnic membership differed from a kinship group precisely in that it was a presumed identity, rather than the concrete social action of the latter (389). Even Fredrik Barth, who opposed defining ethnicity in terms of cultural features, stated that an ascription of someone to a particular social category was an ethnic ascription "when it classities a person in terms of his basic, most general identity, presumptively determined by his origin and background" (13; emphasis added).

The Judeans of the first century CE, whether living in Palestine or in the diaspora, were an ethnic group like other peoples of their kind. In his Contra Apionem Josephus does present them as having distinctive and desirable features, but he clearly sees them as belonging to the same broad category of group-belonging as the Romans, Greeks, Egyptians and so on. When we run through the various features that Hutchinson and Smith have highlighted as typical indicia of ethnicity, it is notable that Abraham seems to bear on all of them.

First, they had a common proper name in relation to outsiders, Ioudaioi or Judaei. This name referred to their homeland, Ioudaia or Judaea, just as Romans were called after Rome, Greeks after Greece (Hellenes after Hellas) and Egyptians after Egypt. To translate Ioudaios as "Jew" deletes the territorial connection attached to ethnic names in the ancient Mediterranean. An essential feature of Judean tradition was that they had acquired the claim to their land through God's gift to Abraham. They also had an ingroup name for themselves, Israelitai or "sons of Israel," a name which also linked them to Abraham in as much as he was Israel's grandfather.

Secondly, they had a myth of common ancestry, which began with Abraham and continued on through his son Isaac through his wife Sarah, who inherited rather than Ishmael (Abraham's son through his servant Hagar), and thence to Isaac's son Jacob, subsequently named Israel (Gen 32:28).

They had a shared history, thirdly, that began with Abraham and moved onwards, through the period in Egypt, the Exodus and settlement of Canaan, the time of the judges, the monarch, exile and return, Seleucid and Roman occupation. Aspects of this history were regularly commemorated, as with the Feast of Passover, for example.

Fourthly, they had a common culture, including distinctive religious and ethical beliefs and practices, which included an aversion to idolatry originating with Abraham. The Greek word Ioudaismos (see Gal 1:14) refers to the ethical, legal, religious and cultural practices associated with being a Judean. It thus quite nicely designates this fourth indicator of ethnicity. For modern scholars to speak of a religion called "Judaism" as the decisive aspect of the identity of this people misses the fact that this cultural (including religious) dimension is only one of a larger number that together produce an identity best interpreted as ethnic. In the ancient world, moreover, "religion" was not separable from kinship and the economic and political realms. Thus, to focus on "Jews" as representative of a religion "Judaism" is both anachronistic and grossly reductionist and does little justice to the identity of first century Judeans.

Fifthly, they had their own land, which they believed God had given to them through Abraham. Even when they lived in the diaspora they were oriented to the land, as seen in their payment of the annual Temple tax and pilgrimages to Jerusalem for the great festivals (see Binder: 48-89; Esler 2003: 64-65).

Sixthly, they had a strong sense of communal solidarity, which rested ultimately on the belief in their descent from a common ancestor, Abraham.

It is evident from this just how prominent Abraham was in the ethnic identity of the Judeans, in telling themselves who they were as a people. For Judeans to say they were descendants of Abraham presumed or invoked all these various dimensions of their group identity. Yet there is more to be said than this. Henri Tajfel, the founder of social identity theory, rightly maintained that a sense of belonging to a group extended beyond the cognitive dimension--the understanding of the nature of the group to embrace emotional and evaluative dimensions--that is, how members felt about belonging to the group and how they rated themselves with respect to the members of other groups. It is quite clear that first-century Judeans were immensely proud of being the descendants of Abraham and regarded themselves as superior to other groups by virtue of this lineage.

There are many signs of this. Two will suffice. At one point in his preaching, John the Baptist said to those coming out to him, "Bear fruit that is worthy of repentance and do not presume to say to yourselves, 'We have Abraham as our father'; for I tell you God is able from these stones to raise up children to Abraham" (Matt 3:8-9; cf. Luke 3:8). Here John is presuming in his Judean audience an ethnic pride focused on Abraham that highlights the ethical superiority of Judeans over other peoples--a pride reflected in the view that they do not need to repent. At John 8:33, secondly, the Judeans who had believed Jesus respond to his suggestion that the truth will set them free by saying, "We are the seed of Abraham and we have never been in slavery to anyone." Thus they appeal to their descent from Abraham as connected with their freedom as a people. Although this is a somewhat exaggerated claim in view of their long history of domination by foreign powers, it certainly underlines the extent to which they associated their ancestor Abraham with their honorable status as a free people.

These examples reveal that appeal or reference to Abraham is made as a way of asserting their ethnic identity. To be of such stock both tells them who they are and makes them feel privileged and superior to the members of other groups. It has cognitive, emotional and evaluative connotations. Abrahamic descent is thus a way of describing the glorious status of being a Judean. It is a status acquired through circumcision, and here apparently the Judeans were prepared to overlook that proselytes could not actually be physically descended from Abraham even though they were actually circumcised. Perhaps they acknowledged that among the people initially circumcised by Abraham were purchased servants, people not physically his kin (Gen 18: 22-27). Such a status goes far beyond the notion of Abrahamic descent as being a mode of delivery of divine blessings.

This analysis allows us to sharpen our critique of the five scholars discussed above. In Galatia Paul was responding to the fact that his opponents were categorizing the appeal of becoming a Judean in terms of Abrahamic descent. To be of the seed of Abraham meant acquiring a distinctive and glorious identity. Barrett, Beker and Hansen, each in their separate ways, have missed this factor entirely. Martyn and Longenecker, while seeing the importance of Abrahamic descent, opt for reasons that are too narrow fully to explain it. Paul's opponents are proffering Abrahamic descent to Paul's converts not because Abraham's people were anti-idolatrous (although they were), nor because such people obtained covenant blessings (which they did), but because descent from Abraham summed up the totality of the ethnic identity and hence elevated status, in all their various manifestations, that came from being a Judean. This identity included the blessings and the monotheistic worship of the one, true God but went far beyond them, to embrace all the components of Judean ethnic identity just rehearsed.

Abraham and the Collective Memory of Israel

How did Abraham continue to have such an appeal to and impact upon Judeans? We must first shed the idea that it was based upon their personally reading scrolls or codices containing scripture or other Judean writings. As Werner Kelber, Paul Achtemeier, and others have been reminding us for a long time now, this was a largely illiterate (or "residually oral") society. That only a tiny percentage of people could read has been demonstrated in works by William Harris and Catherine Hezser. Judeans did have access to their traditions, but by listening to texts read in synagogues on the sabbath, as described by Philo in the fragment of a lost work (cited by Esler 2003: 91) and by remembering what they heard and by discussions at other times. Israel was a speaking and listening community, not a "reading community" as Richard Hays suggests, in a remarkable example of anachronism that undermines his "intertextuality" project (Hays 1989:20-21), now unwisely supported by Francis Watson (17-24). For Hays and Watson there is no essential difference between the way Paul accessed scripture and the way we do, post-Reformation and post-Gutenberg. In fact, Abraham lived in the memories of Israelites and it is to memory that we must turn in seeking to understand this phenomenon. Direct references to Judean scripture in Galatians (including by Paul in Galatians 3) and other references that can reasonably be implied are very significant but must be understood as appropriated in this way.

Unfortunately, as Werner Kelber points out in a long essay in a forthcoming Semeia volume on social memory, the principal representatives of the recent upsurge in orality/literacy studies (such as Albert Lord, Eric Havelock, Walter Ong, Jack Goody and John Foley) have not yet seriously connected with the massive recent work in memory studies. Much work remains to be done in this area, although I have recently attempted an integration of collective memory and orality in relation to Hebrews 11 in the same volume of Semeia.

Maurice Halbwachs (1877-1945), under the influence of his teacher in sociology, the great Emile Durkheim (1858-1917), regarded memory as the production of human beings living together in society. "It is in society," he wrote, "that people normally acquire their memories. It is also in society that they recall, recognize and localize their memories" (1992: 38). Although this is a strikingly Durkheimian formulation, Halbwachs had previously been influenced by Henri Bergson and so was able to resist the pull of extreme social determinism. Probably for this reason Halbwachs interested himself in groups within society, rather than just in the larger reality of society itself (Coser: 33). "Let us remark in passing," Lewis Coser observes, "that almost everywhere that Durkheim speaks of 'Society' with a capital S, Halbwachs speaks of 'groups'--a more cautious usage" (22). Collective memory as explained by Halbwachs relates to groups rather than to society at large.

Halbwachs was much preoccupied with the ways in which a group reconstructed its memories in the present. Some theorists, such as Barry Schwartz, have argued that he traveled too far along this road, thus imperiling the continuity within which a group stands in relation to its past (1982: 25-27). Nevertheless, he was correct in affirming the capacity of groups to reconstruct the past, typically by the invention of tradition or the capture of traditions generated by other groups. More problematic, as Paul Connerton has shown, was Halbwachs' neglect of the manner in which collective memories are passed on, communicated, from one generation to another. Connerton is right to insist that "to study the social formation of memory is to study those acts of transfer that make remembering in common possible" (39).

"When we remember," James Fentress and Chris Wickham persuasively affirm, "we represent ourselves to ourselves and to those around us. To the extent that our 'nature'--that which we truly are--can be revealed in articulation, we are what we remember." They deduce from this that "a study of the way we remember--the way we present ourselves in our memories, the way we define our personal and collective identifies through our memories, the way we order and structure our ideas in our memories, and the way we transmit these memories to others--is a study of the way we are" (7). E. Zerubavel expresses a similar view: "Being social presupposes the ability to experience things that happened to the groups to which we belong long before we even joined them as if they were part of our own personal past" (3). Zerubavel also correctly notes that much of what we "remember" did not happen to us personally. We only remember some things as members of what he usefully calls "mnemonic communities," such as particular families, organizations, ethnic groups and so on (90). It is clear that the Judeans of the first century were a mnemonic community in this sense, with an unusually large body of historical tradition, read out every sabbath in their synagogues, to sustain and enrich their communal memoria.

Jan Assmann has developed Halbwachs' theory in the direction of identity formation by writing of the way in which "cultural memory" is an active force that seizes upon figures and subjects from the past, modifying and contextualizing them, to feed the needs and aspirations of a group in the present. This is opposed to unconvincing static approaches to memory that see it merely as a receptacle that preserves the past unchanged in something akin to a form of "cold storage," a useful notion of Kelber's (2005).

When memory is our focus, we are less concerned with whether certain figures from the past actually existed or with what they did than with how they are remembered, with the extent to which they become what Jan Assmann has called "figures of memory" (11). Assmann points out that no one doubts that Ahenotaken lived; yet his attempt to introduce a monotheistic religion in Egypt was overturned after his death and the memory of his innovation extirpated. Whether Moses ever lived, on the other hand, is largely irrelevant, given the abiding role he has played in the memories of Israelites and other groups. The same can be said of Abraham, who was a most important figure in the collective memories of ancient Judeans, whether he ever existed or not.

This theory provides a good foundation for comprehending how Abraham featured in the collective memory of the Judeans. We should not, like most critics commenting on Abraham in Galatians, see the issue as a battle over how best to interpret Israelite scripture in which he happens to be mentioned in important passages. The real issue is the question of Abrahamic descent itself, and the elevated status and ethnic identity that such descent entails, with scripture (accessed in oral performance and retained anamnetically) forming part of the stock of data that supports the collective memory of Abraham. By remembering Abraham, the Judeans told themselves who they were. To obtain some notion of how this process operates we might consider the current function of the memory of Abraham Lincoln to citizens of the United States or the memory of William of Orange ('Good King Willie") to the Unionist community of Northern Ireland. Using data such as the number of statues erected in his honor per year, Barry Schwartz (2000) has usefully demonstrated how the memory of Abraham Lincoln in the USA changed (and in a positive direction) during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. But to that type of memory must be added the circumstance that Judeans believed they were physically descended from Abraham. Common descent from the same ancestor is one of the major sources of communality on which traditional forms of social solidarity rest. Normally it is seen in relation to kinship in families (Zerubavel: 63-64). But with the Judeans we have a whole ethnic group claiming such connectedness. We must now consider how all this bears on what had happened in Galatia.

Paul's Contestation of the Memory of Abraham in Galatians 3

When we enter any new group or social environment, we usually learn what we should remember and what we should forget. Zerubavel refers to this process as "mnemonic socialization" (87). Some at least of those who turned to Christ while Paul was present in Galatia came from a background of idolatry; as he says in Galatians 4:8, "But then not knowing God you were enslaved to beings that are by nature not gods." No doubt when these converts joined the movement, he would have begun this form of socialization, by downplaying their memories of idolatrous practice and pagan values and building new memories based on the Christ-event appropriate for those who now know God (Gal 4:9). His congregations formed a new and distinctive mnemonic community that offered a fresh understanding of the past as part of their social reality and identity that transcended the subjectivity of individual members and was shared by the whole group. After his departure, however-unfortunately for him and his gospel--other people sought to continue the mnemonic socialization of these ex-idolatrous converts, but in a new direction that perplexed him greatly. Paul's opponents had begun contextualizing and mobilizing the figure of Abraham through techniques of oral persuasion (see Gal 5:7-8) to convince his converts of the desirable identity that was theirs if they were circumcised and became Judeans. In short, his opponents were inviting the converts to join the mnemonic community that was Israel. They were appealing to what Zerubavel calls a "mnemonic tradition" (87), meaning a tradition that embraces not only what should be remembered (here Abraham) but also how we should remember it (here in the link between Abrahamic descent and Judean ethnicity). Not only is this a notable instance of the way in which, as Assmann claims, figures from the past can be actively seized and re-deployed to shape identity in the past, but it also reveals one means by which memories are passed on to others, an aspect of collective memory that Halbwachs himself neglected.

Faced with this threat, Paul had little choice but to contest the memory of Abraham. In the last few decades what it means to contest the past has become a question of great interest to some historians and social scientists. Katharine Hodgson and Susannah Radstone accurately summarize the thrust of much of this discussion as follows:

 But to contest the past is also ... to pose questions about the present, and what the past means in the present. Our understanding of the past has strategic, political, and ethical consequences. Contests over the meaning of the past are also contests over the meaning of the present and over ways of taking the past forward [2003b: 1]. 

In Galatians 3 Paul steps into such an arena--contesting the past as it is portrayed in Judean discourse in relation to Abraham so as to respond to the present threat (as he sees it) facing his converts. Given the dominance of the memory of Abraham among the millions of Judeans who lived around the Mediterranean in the first century CE and his centrality for their ethnic identity, this was an audacious enterprise. Yet this is not so unusual, for as Jeffrey Olick and Joyce Robbins note, "Memory contestation takes place from above and below, from both center and periphery" (21). Peripheral and minority groups, such as Paul's version of the Christ-movement, regularly confront the otherwise hegemonic memories of groups that are dominant.

The notion of "counter-memory" has been used by F. Bouchard in relation to a particular theory of Michel Foucault as to how written texts serve to challenge dominant discourses, including living memories. A form of counter-memory more relevant to residually orally cultures, however, is evident in Stephen Cornell's account of how members of an ethnic group that have experienced a rupture in the taken-for-granted reality of their identity develop new ways to construe their past and thus make sense of their present (45-46). Often they generate narratives that can be repeated (and revised) by word of mouth as well as in written form. Here we have a counter or contested memory of wider application than that which Bouchard has discerned in Foucault's writings.

Cornell's version of counter-memory is also applicable to Paul's reworking of the memory of Abraham for his congregations, even though, since they encompassed Judean and nonJudean members (the feature that was both characteristic of them and attracted Judean animosity), they were not ethnic but trans-ethnic (perhaps we should say "socio-religious") in character. Paul must have envisaged that once his (largely illiterate) addressees had heard his letter read to them they would remember its contents, discuss it among themselves and, above all, retain its re-presentation of Abrahamic descent in the collective memory of the movement.

In looking at how Paul struggles to prise the memory of Abraham and the meaning of Abrahamic descent from the Judeans and embed it instead in his groups of Christ-followers, it is worth noting with Hodgkin and Radstone that the focus of mnemonic contestation "is very often not conflicting accounts of what actually happened in the past so much as the question of who or what is entitled to speak for that past in the present." In other words, "the contest is often over how truth can best be conveyed, rather than what actually happened" (2003b: 1). There may be agreement as to the course of events, but not as to how the truth of those events should be most fully represented, or how best to explain and interpret a certain episode.

Basic information concerning Abraham was accessible to Paul and those in Galatia who opposed his version of the gospel from the Israelite scriptures, especially Genesis, which were read out aloud in Judean synagogues on the sabbath and possibly, at times, in meetings of the Christ-movement. Both sides no doubt accepted the important passages in what we call Genesis 15 and 17 as an account of what had actually happened to Abraham. They did not seek to dispute these facts. Their dispute lay in how best to interpret them. This meant not just appealing to different reaches of the memory of Abraham but also re-interpreting aspects that figured in the discourse of both Israel and the Christ-movement. Paul needed to create a new mnemonic tradition to defeat the claims of the one being advocated by his opponents. Yet we must always remember that we are not dealing with a theological argument, a battle of interpretative methods, but with the most persuasive way of interpreting scripture to serve the real end of group identity. Let us see how Paul proceeds.

Having cited Genesis 15:6, (Abraham "put his faith in God") and prior to any argument in support, he dares in Galatians 3:7 to assert that the "sons of Abraham" are "those of faith." To interpret: Christ-followers are the descendants of Abraham. He is establishing an ingroup identity that embraces Abraham and Christ-follower on the basis that they are both typified by faith. It is the extremely fortunate predication of faith to Abraham in Genesis 15:6 before he was circumcised that allowed Paul to wrest Abraham from the Judeans. Thus, at a stroke, he attaches Abrahamic descent and the high status identity that went with it, to Christ-followers. This categorical way of stating the position allows, quite remarkably, no room for anyone else to share such status and identity. Paul is not suggesting that there are various ways to manifest Abraham's lineage and that being a Christ-follower is one of them. No, faith in Christ is the only way he will allow. This sentiment, which is extraordinarily anti-Judean to the extent it denies them Abrahamic descent but nicely illustrates how far someone contesting a dominant memory may go, is confirmed in the way Paul proceeds to mount his defense of this proposition.

Paul continues by saying, "Scripture, foreseeing that God would justify the non-Judeans by faith, preached the gospel beforehand to Abraham, saying 'All the non-Judeans will be blessed in you'" (3:8; a quotation from Genesis 12:3 in the Septuagint). In v 8 scripture (here in the form of Genesis 12:3) is said to have foreseen that God would justify the non-Judeans through faith and to have announced in advance that in Abraham all the non-Judeans would be blessed. This means--he insists in v 9--that those of faith are blessed with the faithful Abraham. This reinforces his point in w 6-7 about the faith connection: namely, that faith designates a beneficial ("blessed") ingroup identity embracing Christ-followers and Abraham. But it also indicates that Paul shares with his opponents a belief in the relevance of Israelite written tradition as providing material on which the debate should conducted. This was a common resource feeding into the collective memories of Judean and Christ-follower. While it is quite possible that Paul rather than his opponents brought Genesis 12:3 into the discussion, the issue is still not the basic facts concerning Abraham, but the question of how the truth of those events should be best interpreted.

The section after this (3:10-14) initially moves off in a new direction, by asserting that those who rely on the works of the law are under a curse. It is evident that no one is justified before God by the law since scripture says, "The person who is righteous by faith will live" (from the Septuagint of Habbakuk 2:4). Paul then redirects the discussion back to Abraham by asserting that Christ has redeemed us from the curse of the law (3:13), "in order that the blessings of Abraham might come upon the non-Judeans in Christ Jesus, so that we might receive the promise of the Spirit through faith" (3:14).

Paul's attempt to win control of central Israelite memory continues with equal audacity in these verses. His abrupt charge (in v 10) that those who rely on works of the law are under a curse is made on the alleged basis of Deuteronomy 27:26. Hitherto, Israel had no doubt drawn the message from Deuteronomy (28:1-14 for example) that adherence to the law brought blessing and life and had installed that message in its collective memory. It was by not performing the requirements of the law that one attracted a curse (as, indeed, at Deuteronomy 27:26). Paul's argumentative gambit here is difficult to understand unless we assume that he is suggesting that no one actually did obey the law (Esler 1998: 187). He props up his case by interpreting Habbakuk 2:4 to mean that life comes from faith (and not, by necessary implication, from law). These arguments are predicated upon a strong form of ingroup/outgroup differentiation with the outgroup being stereotyped in an extreme way. His point in v 12 appears to be that law cannot be connected with faith, but those who adhere to the law will live by it, a position that seems to make sense only on the basis that Paul was of the view that no one would obey the law and hence obtain life. Only faith could bring life.

In Galatians 3:13 Paul asserts that Christ has solved the problem of the curse of the law by purchasing us from it, by coming under the curse in his crucifixion. The purpose and result of this (the "so that"--hina--of v 14 carries both meanings) was that the blessing of Abraham might occur in Christ Jesus, with the purpose and result ("so that" again) "we might take the promise of the Spirit through faith" (v 14b). However the Abrahamic blessing might have been interpreted in the interests of recommending Judean ethnicity, Paul now radically reworks this particular collective memory by interpreting it to refer to the wonderful gifts of the Spirit that he has mentioned just above in Galatians 3:2-4, where he presented the miracles (v 4)--prophecy, speaking in tongues etc.--as fundamental to the identity of his congregations of Christ-followers (Gal 3:1-6).

Once he has thus positively connected the Abrahamic promise to the Christ-movement, Paul then proceeds to disconnect it from the Judeans with a daring piece of exegesis. Thus in Galatians 3:15-16 we find him reinterpreting a section of Israelite tradition, the repeated promises God makes to Abraham in Genesis to give the land to him and his seed (Gen 12:7; 13:15; 17:7; 24:7). It is almost certain that Paul's opponents were pointing to this usage in connection with their overall depiction of Judean ethnic identity. They were most probably appealing to the straightforward and literal sense of this word, the peshat of later generations (Brewer 14), to interpret it as referring to the physical descendants of Abraham (including those who joined this lineage through circumcision). This must have formed an important component of the mnemonic tradition of Israel that they were propounding to Paul's converts in Galatia. Paul meets this claim by contesting how the truth from the remembered past can best be conveyed. Adopting a necessarily strained interpretation of "seed," he fixes upon its singular number to make a bold statement of identity: "The promises were spoken to Abraham and his seed. It does not say, 'And to your seeds,' referring to many, but to one, 'And to your seed,' which is Christ" (3:16). This, on its own, does not yield the conclusion that non-Judeans Christ-followers are Abraham's seed. He gets to that result only a little later--at 3:29, as we shall see below.

This prompts Paul to propose a very sharp antithesis, "For if the inheritance is by law, it is no longer by promise; but God gave it to Abraham through a promise" (3:19).

Following his novel interpretation of Abaham's "seed," in Galatians 3:17-20 Paul fends off Judean mnemonic socialization and reinforces the mnemonic tradition he is constructing by denying any continuing role for the Mosaic covenant. He begins by insisting that the law, which came 430 years after Abraham, cannot annul this covenant so as to make the promise void (3:17). In essence, the law given on Sinai was intended for the limited purpose of restraining transgressions. (I have elsewhere argued against the extraordinary proposition that God gave the law in order to provoke transgressions--1998: 195-97). The memory of Moses and the law he received on Sinai played a pivotal role in maintaining Judean identity, and for this reason Paul has been driven to contest its significance. But there are limits to which he will go, as is evident in Galatians 3:19-20. These are difficult verses, but in my view they are best interpreted along the lines that Paul is not saying anything particularly negative about the law. He cannot, after all, assert that it lacked all connection with the divine purpose. Rather, his point is that because there were angels involved in its delivery to Moses, it was not given to Israel in the direct way in which God made his promise to Abraham (Esler 1998: 198-200). The section comprising Galatians 3:21-25 further develops Paul's devaluation of the law of Moses, by showing its incapacity to bring righteousness and its limited role in the period up to the coming of Christ. The image of the paidagogos in vv 23-25 brings this out very dearly. The paidagogos was essentially a positive figure: he was meant to protect the boy in his charge and restrain him from inappropriate behavior (with harsh discipline if necessary), but only for a limited period, and then his powers ceased (Esler 1998:201-03).

This brings Paul to his magnificent conclusion to this section of the text dealing with Abraham (Galatians 3:26-29). Here he paints an exalted picture of identity-in-Christ. He begins with a statement of the current status and identity of his addressees: they are sons of God through faith in Christ Jesus (v 26). Then he moves to the mechanism and process by which they acquired this identity--by baptism: those who have been baptized into Christ have put on Christ (v 27). This leads, in turn, in v 28, to the great exultation of unity in Christ Jesus (a unity of Judean and Greek, slave and free, male and female), yet this is not some isolated statement, for all the while the argument is pushing on to its summative conclusion: "If you are of Christ, surely you are the seed of Abraham, heirs according to the promise" (3:29). This is the necessary conclusion to an argument that had earlier insisted that the seed to whom the promise referred was Christ. For Christ-followers to share in the promise, they must be one in and with that seed. With this statement in v 29, Paul announces the conclusion of an argument the thesis of which he set out at 3:7: it is those who have faith in Christ who are the sons or seed of Abraham. There is no suggestion here that Judeans outside the Christ-movement are also the sons of Abraham. This represents the fullest pitch of Paul's mnemonic socialization of his converts. He has contested the memory of Abraham to such a degree as to remove Abrahamic descent entirely as an element in Judean identity and lodge it firmly in among the ranks of the Christ-followers of Galatia.

It is worth noting that later, when he was composing Romans, he drew back from so extreme a position. There is no sign that there were people in Rome putting pressure on Greek Christ-followers to be circumcised and become Judeans, in which context Abraham and descent from him could have been held out as attractive features of Judean ethnic identity. This meant Paul could afford to be much more relaxed about Abraham. This is why we find him saying in Romans 4:1: "What, therefore, shall we say Abraham our forefather in the flesh to have found [sc. to be the case]?" Here "in the flesh" includes a Judean connected to Abraham both "by natural descent" and "through circumcision"--that is, a native-born Judean and a proselyte. Since Paul is addressing a mixed group of Judean and non-Judean Christ-followers in Rome, when he refers to Abraham as "our forefather in the flesh" he is invoking a physical connection, a kinship, with Abraham (either from birth or by proselyte circumcision) which embraces him and the Judean Christ-followers he is addressing, but also extends to Judeans outside the Christ-movement. There is no implication here, therefore, as there was in Galatians, that the postulation of Abrahamic descent for Christ-followers meant its loss for Judeans who were not followers of Christ. Paul will go on in Romans 4 to work Abraham into the collective memory of the Christ-followers, but without the sharp antithetical shape to his argument in Galatians.


Many explanations have been offered for the role of Abraham in the argument Paul mounts in Galatians 3. But all of them hitherto have missed the centrality of ethnicity and collective memory in understanding what Paul says and how he says it. Abraham was central to the ethnic identity of the Judeans of his time, as Paul was only too aware. He knew that in Galatia his opponents were using this glorious figure from the collective memory and mnemonic tradition of Israel in their attempt to persuade Paul's non-Judean converts to become Judeans through circumcision. To counter this threat he had to detach Abraham from Israel and its collective memory and attach it to the Christ-movement and its collective memory. Central to his argument is the claim that Christ is the seed referred to in the scriptural promises made "to Abraham and his seed" and that Christ-followers receive these promises because through baptism they are all one in Christ Jesus. In addition, Paul reinterprets these promises to connect them with the dramatic gifts of the Holy Spirit that were characteristic of his congregations. Paul's entire argument represents a daring essay in the contestation and re-application of the collective memory of Abraham, away from the ethnic group where it arose to his socio-religious Christ-movement groups in Galatia.

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Philip F. Esler (D. Phil., Oxford) is Chief Executive of the UK Arts and Humanities Research Council (a post he is holding while on extended leave from his position as Professor of Biblical Criticism in the University of St. Andrews, Scotland, UK). He joined the St. Andrews faculty in 1992, having previously been a barrister in Sydney, Australia. Professor Esler is the author of Galatians (London, UK/New York, NY: Routledge, 1998), Conflict and Identity in Romans (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 2003), and New Testament Theology: Communion and Community (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 2005), and the editor of Modelling Early Christianity (London, UK/New York, NY: Roudedge, 199.5) and The Early Christian World (two volumes, London, UK/New York, NY: Routledge, 2000). His e-mail address is

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