On ethnicity

Beverly Gaventa talks about division and unity among the first Christians.



Beverly Gaventa talks about division and unity among the first Christians.


Introducing the term “race” or “ethnicity” into conversations about early Christianity is pretty difficult, I think. It’s probably easier and more accurate to talk about ethnicity – there’s not this theorising about race that we see much later and in ways that can be quite, quite detrimental … to put it mildly, to understate things considerably.

There is a concern about ethnicity, and particularly (obviously) around Jew and Gentile. Which already is a Jewish way of putting things – people running around in Rome who were what we call Gentiles didn’t say, the world is divided between Jew and Gentile. They talked about Greeks and barbarians – people who could speak Greek versus people who couldn’t. But as early Christians saw it, the question was, are Gentiles admitted to this Jewish phenomenon on the same grounds as Jews? And if so, what does that mean? What does that mean for being Jewish?

I think Paul here walks a very fine line. This is a very controversial question in New Testament scholarship, but I think he manages to maintain both that Jews are still Jews, Gentiles are still Gentiles – although sometimes he will say, former Gentiles … they haven’t become Jews, but they are together part of something called the ekklesia. They’re en Christo, at least. And so the differences remain, but they don’t matter. They’re distinctions that don’t seem to be divisive for Paul. Which is something I wish we could learn from him.