Identity Mapping

Identity Mapping September 14, 2012

From Roy Ciampa, used with permission. For Dr Ciampa’s fuller study, see this.

What do you think of Ciampa’s idea of “identity mapping”? Where do we do this? Where do you see it?

On Treating Modern Women as Ancient Greco-Roman Wives

 by Roy E. Ciampa, Ph.D.

One of the most unfortunate habits of biblical interpretation in the past several centuries, in my opinion, is that of assuming that the teachings of biblical texts are directly transferable to other cultures, including those that are quite different from those to which they were originally addressed. It is sometimes an unspoken assumption that “inspired” means “non-contextualized” and thus directly applicable to people of all times and cultures. This has had disastrous results for many marginalized people, including modern slaves, Jews and women.

Of course, a crucial part of the problem is that modern readers are usually not fully aware of the extent to which their context differs from that being addressed by the biblical texts. One result of this lack of awareness is what I call the “mapping of identities.” The “mapping of identities” takes place when people or groups in the biblical text are identified with people or groups in the culture and context of the modern reader, with one identity being mapped onto another.

This takes place, for instance, when modern readers directly apply labels for social or demographic groups (e.g., “Jews,” “slaves,” or “wives”) to people they believe fit those labels in their own society. They tend to assume cultural similarities between the group in the biblical world and those in their own world and tend to overlook crucial differences. This has played out with horrible consequences for Jews and slaves, among others, in the modern era, but the focus here will (naturally) be on the consequences for women.

Since slavery is no longer an acceptable part of Western culture (at least not explicit, legalized slavery), when readers come to biblical texts that mention slaves and masters they realize instantly that the texts, if they are to be applied, cannot be directly transferred. Since husbands and wives are omnipresent across all societies, people without in-depth knowledge of biblical cultures readily assume that the marital relationships being referenced and addressed in the biblical texts closely parallel those with which they are intimately familiar in their own context.

Most Bible readers are not familiar with important aspects of marriage relationships in the Greco-Roman world.

In that particular context, marriages were not typically entered into by men and women of similar ages and with similar life experience, but by adolescent girls (aged 14-15 or so) and fully adult men (aged 28-30 or so).* And, although there are references to well-educated women in the Greco-Roman world, they seem to be exceptions to the rule (and considered noteworthy, literally, by the ancient authors).

Normally men and husbands were much better educated and had greater exposure to information and experience outside the household. This is implicit even within one of the most remarkable texts of the New Testament relating to this subject. In 1 Corinthians 14:34-35 Paul says women or wives are not allowed to speak in the church meeting (in fact it would be shameful to do so), but should ask their own husbands at home if they have any questions. This latter clause only makes sense in a context where it is safe to assume that a wife’s husband is better informed and therefore capable of answering whatever questions the wife might have.

Such was the context of the typical Greco-Roman marriage. It had less in common with marriage in most of the Western world today than it did with those in parts of the world where child brides are married to older men. Many wives in the Roman world experienced life much like Balki Souley, a young bride married at the age of twelve, discussed in a recent story on child marriages in the Washington Post (“In Niger, hunger crisis raises fears of more child marriages”). This was the experience of women in the ancient world and remains the experience of millions of women in Africa and elsewhere today.

The New Testament texts themselves make perfectly good sense as instructions to people living in that social context. For a young bride to be submissive to her significantly older, more mature, experienced and knowledgeable husband, and for him to be exhorted to treat her in kind and loving ways (in terms that might sound somewhat paternalistic to us) would be part of honoring Christ in such a culture and relationship. Those would be loving ways for people to relate to each other.

All of the New Testament statements about how wives and husbands should relate to each other are addressed not to wives and husbands who married peers of similar age and life experience as in modern western cultures, but to wives and husbands within the asymmetrical relationship that was the Greco-Roman marriage.

Should all that the New Testament authors wrote about husbands and wives be considered directly transferable to husbands and wives who do not reflect the cultural inequities (i.e., unequal ages, levels of maturity, education and life experience) of the Greco-Roman marriage?

For me to treat my wife as though she were less wise, discerning, mature, knowledgeable or apt to lead than I am would be insulting and a failure to recognize and love her for who she really is rather than treating her according to the reality of most ancient wives. It would be to map the identity of a first-century Greek wife onto her identity and thus treat her not as Christ would have me treat her but as Christ would have an ancient Greco-Roman husband treat his less mature and less knowledgeable wife.

A constant theme of Jesus’ teaching and that of the New Testament is that we should love one another. To love one another we must know each other and treat each other in light of who we really are, rather than in light of some artificial or misapplied category from another time and culture. Many Christians unwittingly teach wives and husbands to relate to each other according to a Christianized version of Greco-Roman standards, without being aware of, or contemplating the significance of, the differences.

Love calls for something much better than that.

*See, e.g., Everett Ferguson, Backgrounds of Early Christianity (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 2008), 75.

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