View Full Version : Why This New Race?: Ethnic Reasoning in Early Christianity

Taras Bulba
Tuesday, May 9th, 2006, 06:57 PM
To those people here who feel that Christianity is indifferent to issues of ethnicity and race, well think again. This study shows that since its early days, race and ethnicity did indeed play a key role in Christian thinking.


Why This New Race?
Ethnic Reasoning in Early Christianity

Denise K. Buell

"Why This New Race is a superbly researched, elegantly written, and honestly and courageously argued book. It is usually enough in the western academy and beyond to disturb the peace with the invocation of 'race.' It is also usually enough to rattle and unsettle many by seeking to problematize 'early Christianity.' Buell's sensitive effort to explain 'early' (masking anxiety over ongoing contemporary) Christianity in terms of complex social collectives, including those the ancients (and moderns) call 'races' and 'ethnic groups,' will surely disturb the peace and haunt the discourses. Not a moment too soon!"
—Vincent L. Wimbush , Claremont Graduate University, author of The Bible and African Americans: A Brief History

"Why This New Race is a stunning contribution to the history of Christianity. Buell masterfully demonstrates how ethnic reasoning permeates early Christian theology and identity formation. She shows how Christian claims to universalism did not exclude particularistic claims to peoplehood which set boundaries between insiders and outsiders, orthodox and heretics. A must-read for anyone interested in the problematic intersections of Christianity, race, and religion in antiquity and the modern world."
—Karen King, Harvard Divinity School, Harvard University, author of What Is Gnosticism?

"With elegant prose and compelling historical research, she examines a little-known early Christian writing."
—Henry L. Carrigan, Jr., ForeWord Magazine


Why This New Race offers a radical new way of thinking about the origins of Christian identity. Conventional histories have understood Christianity as a religion that from its beginnings sought to transcend ethnic and racial distinctions. Denise Kimber Buell challenges this view by revealing the centrality of ethnicity and race in early definitions of Christianity. Buell's readings of various texts consider the use of “ethnic reasoning” to depict Christianness as more than a set of shared religious practices and beliefs. By asking themselves, “Why this new race?” Christians positioned themselves as members of an ethnos or genos distinct from Jews, Romans, and Greeks.

Buell focuses on texts written before Christianity became legal in 313 C.E., including Greek apologetic treatises, martyr narratives, and works by Clement of Alexandria, Origen, and Tertullian. Philosophers and theologians used ethnic reasoning to define Christians as a distinct people within classical and ancient Near East society and in intra-Christian debates about what constituted Christianness. Many characterized Christianness as both fixed and fluid-it had a real essence (fixed) but could be acquired through conversion (fluid). Buell demonstrates how this dynamic view of race and ethnicity allowed Christians to establish boundaries around the meaning of Christianness and to develop universalizing claims that all should join the Christian people.

In addressing questions of historiography, Buell analyzes why generations of scholars have refused to acknowledge ethnic reasoning in early Christian discourses. Moreover, Buell's arguments about the importance of ethnicity and religion in early Christianity provide insights into the historical legacy of Christian anti-Semitism as well as contemporary issues of race.


List of Abbreviations
Index of Ancient Sources
General Index
1. ěWorshippers of So-Called Gods, Jews, and Christiansî: Religion in Ethnoracial Discourses
2. ěWe Were Before the Foundation of the Worldî: Appeals to the Past in Early Christian Self-Definition
3. ěWe, Quarried from the Bowels of Christ, Are the True Genos of Israelî: Christian Claims to Peoplehood
4. ěA Genos Saved by Natureî: Ethnic Reasoning as Intra-Christian Polemic
5. ěFrom Every Race of Humansî: Ethnic Reasoning, Conversion, and Christian Universalism

About the Author

Denise Kimber Buell is associate professor of religion at Williams College. She is the author of Making Christians: Clement of Alexandria and the Rhetoric of Legitimacy. She lives in Williamstown, Massachusetts.

Taras Bulba
Tuesday, May 9th, 2006, 07:02 PM
I havent read this book fully, but I have skimmed through it. Very interesting indeed. I like how the author notes that the common notion upheld today that early Christianity was very much indifferent to issues of race and ethnicity is really more a product of modern sensitivity to the issue than really having basis in historical inquiry.

As the author demonstrates throughout the book, ethnicity and ethnic reasoning was very much a key element of Christian thinking. The church itself was actually often defined in ethnic terms, and this played itself out in many theological disputes, especially with the Jews and heretics.