Identity and reality in the modern Australian and ancient Jewish diasporas

Our family has been away from Australia for almost 3 years now. One of the funny things we’ve noticed about ourselves is how much our Australian identity is wrapped up in symbols and dreams that have little to do with reality. For example, this 1-minute ad for Tourism Australia–based on Les Murray’s poem, “The Dream of Wearing Shorts Forever”–brings a little tear to my eye:

H/T Wes.

But here’s the strange thing: even though this ad / poem expresses our Australian identity, it doesn’t express our Australian reality. Australia is, in reality, one of the most urbanised countries in the world. The vast majority of us huddle together in urban sprawl. The enormous paddocks, the river bends, the grassy forests, the kangaroos and the pristine islands have very little to do with the average daily experience of an Aussie. In fact, our own family is quintessentially urban. We prefer living in the bustle of town-houses, not in the empty vistas viewed from wide plank verandahs. Indeed, as a family we’re pathologically camping-averse–we’ll never hesitate to point out that 40 years of camping in the wilderness was God’s punishment for Israel’s rebellion.

But none of that matters. We’re Australian. No matter what our experience is; the kangaroos, the deserts, the river beds, the bush and (above all) the wearing of shorts define our identity. It’s who we are. And the longer we’re away from the reality, the more these dreams define our identity.

Which all leads me to make a point about the research I’ve been doing over the last 3 years. I’ve been looking at Jewish identity in the first-century Mediterranean Diaspora, especially as it relates to the apostle Paul. I’ve been asking what symbols define “Jewishness” for Paul and his contemporaries, and what this has to do with Paul’s explicit references to Jewishness in his letters. And I’ve realised that in answering this question, purely historical study can only get me so far. Historians like to dig around to try to discover the historical “reality” behind the texts. But I’ve discovered that if you really understand what makes ancient Jews tick, you also need to read their texts, sympathetically. You need to read the Scriptures, especially, because it’s the Scriptures that provide the symbols, the stories, and the grand narrative that defines what it means for Jews to be Jews. And even if these symbols and stories don’t always match up to what life was “actually like” on the ground for first-century Jews, that doesn’t necessarily matter. Scriptural identity is often more important than daily reality.

For Paul, the thing that defines Jewish identity above all is possessing and knowing God’s special revelation in the Scriptures of Israel (especially the Law of Moses). In this, he agrees with Josephus and Philo:

[F]or all men are eager to preserve their own customs and laws, and the Jewish nation above all others; for looking upon their laws as oracles directly given to them by God himself, and having been instructed in this doctrine from their very earliest infancy they bear in their souls the images of the commandments contained in these laws as sacred; […] and they admit such foreigners as are disposed to honour and worship them, to do so no less than their own native fellow citizens. (Philo, Legatio ad Gaium 210–211 [Yonge])

He [i.e. Moses] left no pretext for ignorance, but instituted the law as the finest and most essential teaching-material; so that it would be heard not just once or twice or a number of times, he ordered that every seven days they should abandon their other activities and gather to hear the law, and to learn it thoroughly and in detail. That is something that all [other] legislators seem to have neglected. (Josephus, Against Apion 2.175 [tr. Barclay, 2007])

Are Josephus and Philo describing a historical “reality” here? It’s unlikely that every single Jew knew the law “thoroughly and in detail”. But that doesn’t matter. The point is that God’s revelation in the law defines Jewish identity. Just as modern Aussie identity is defined by wearing shorts, ancient Jewish identity is defined by possessing, knowing, learning and honouring God’s revelation in the Scriptures, especially the Law of Moses.

I’ve argued, on the basis of Paul’s letters, that Paul agrees with his contemporaries that Jewish identity is caught up directly with God’s revelation in the Scriptures. However, Paul utterly rejects any assumption that possessing the law will lead to obedience (and therefore to salvation) in any straightforward way. For many of Paul’s Jewish opponents, the divine Jewish calling (or “vocation”) consisted primarily in keeping and teaching the precepts of the Law of Moses as an exemplary witness to God’s power and wisdom. For Paul, however, the divine Jewish vocation consisted primarily in preaching the gospel of Jesus Christ, as the fulfilment of the Law of Moses, to the Gentiles.

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