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How Christianity Destroyed the Concept of Race in the Ancient World

The early Christian church radically altered the social idea of religion as derivative of race.

Like all decent people, I found the events of last weekend in Charlotte, VA repugnant. The sight of people marching and chanting “Jews will not replace us” and “Blood and Soil” (a chant inspired by Hitler’s mythological representation of the Aryan struggle) turned my stomach.

I have seen some Christian leaders react with strong statements of condemnation, which is appropriate, necessary, and in keeping with the early Christian tradition of embracing all people regardless of their ethnic identity. White supremacy in America regularly appropriates and re-interprets the symbols and language of the Christian faith (BTW, radical jihadists/terrorists do the same with Islam). So I thought it worthwhile to discuss the concept of ethnic identity in the first century and share how the Christian church successfully challenged their contemporary culture to rethink it.

In the ancient Roman world, it was a given that different ethnicities worshipped different gods in different ways. Even in the New Testament, you can see this perspective. The Greek word for other nations, ethnos, combines the ideas both of other races and other religions into one word, the Gentiles – the “others,” the non-Jewish members of the world. The Hellenistic culture accepted this fusing of ethnic and religious identity and mitigated any issues via their definition of piety, which was radically different from ours today.

Today, to be “pious” means a person follows a particular religious belief without syncretism. A Christian, Hindu, or Buddhist can all be considered “pious” if they strictly follow their beliefs. In the first century, to be “pious” meant that a person regularly sacrificed to the various deities when appropriate. When going on a long ship ride, it was “appropriate” to sacrifice to Poseidon. When arriving at a new town, it was “appropriate” to sacrifice to the patron deity of the town (and every town had one). So piety was not allegiance to a certain deity as much as a recognition of one’s duty to respond to the multi-verse of deities when needed.

Hellenistic Judaism largely disputed this characterization of piety, instead choosing to define their religion along both practical and ethnic lines, emphasizing certain actions as “ethnic markers” that signified who was “in” and who was “out.” Circumcision, dietary laws, keeping the Sabbath, and inter-ethnic marriage were raised as barriers to both protect the internal cohesion of the minority from disbursement and ensure outsiders would not easily coopt the group for their own purposes. In the larger ancient world, these Jewish practices were seen as nonsensical and offensive (especially circumcision), causing much consternation and persecution from non-Jews (for more on this subject, check out Podcasts 3 and 4 on my Intertestamental Period page). The Roman historian Tacitus recalled seeing an elderly Jewish man being stripped naked in court so that the ruler could prove he was circumcised and needed to pay a tax on Jews. To become Jewish meant not only accepting these practices and beliefs but taking on a new ethnic identity, rejecting your Roman identity, the social status thereof, and the Hellenistic values of the larger society and putting on the ethnic/religious identity of Judaism.

Into this amalgam steps the Apostle Paul who, as the representative of the new faith built around a Jewish peasant from the backwaters of Galilee, boldly declares, “There is no Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male or female…” (Galatians 3:28). Having already convinced his Jewish colleagues of the correctness of admitting Gentiles without the need of becoming Jews first (Acts 15), he must have sounded like a madman to the Romans. Roman society was highly stratified both socially (aristocrats/plebeians), economically (freemen/slaves), and ethnically (Romans/everyone else). The structure of Roman society was exalted as the foundation of the Empire, with women even being paid by the government for birthing extra children.

Paul’s clarion call to the gospel regardless of ethnic, social, or economic status threatened the foundational social presuppositions of Roman society. One could remain a “Roman” but become a “Christian” no matter where you fit. There was no requirement to take on a new ethnic identity. This innovation aroused suspicion amongst the Roman leaders, leading to the persecution we see on occasion during the time. Piety gained the new definition that we recognize today – an acceptance of a new way of life and dedication to a particular set of beliefs (the earliest declaration being “Jesus is Lord”) and actions rather than identification with a certain ethnicity (like Judaism). While racial identities still existed (there were still Egyptians, Parthians, etc.), their concept equating race and religion waned as the church grew in number and importance. It is notable in this development that the first century Christian church rejected the Jewish ethnic nationalism that flared up in the First Jewish Revolt (66 – 73 CE), choosing to instead accept their suffering at the hands of the Roman authorities while attending to the sick and poor around them.

Fast forward 300 years and the church had become widespread throughout the known Mediterranean world – from France to Africa to Iran – encompassing multiple ethnic groups. Fast forward again to today – the church is the most multi-ethnic body in the world, spread over every country (even where it isn’t wanted) where Christians still proclaim the same message as in the first century, “Jesus is Lord.”

I’m not worried about the white supremacists. Once they stop being fed media attention and oxygen from certain parties, they will crawl back into the dank hole from whence they came. Their views of race match up neither with the church of the ancient world or today.

The church on the other hand has a responsibility to prioritize our relationships as the body of Christ over against the other barriers that make Sunday the most segregated day of the week. To choose otherwise is to reject our own history and beliefs, bought with the blood of those who suffered in the first century to reject the idea that Christianity is an ethnic religion.

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Where does the title come from?

This is the post excerpt.

I was once accused during my first graduate degree program of “hanging around with the theological stray dogs of the faculty.” This remark gave me the title for this blog. Of Course, being at a mainline fundamentalist school (that’s a technical definition, not a pejorative), it didn’t take much to find yourself on that side of the line. Having completed my formative theological education at a neo-evangelical college, I readily concede that my presuppositions and engagement was indeed different from most.

Yet I find that Jesus did much the same during his ministry. A group of “stray dogs” is an apropos description for the Twelve – several from Galilee, far from the religious heartland of Judea, a tax collector / Roman collaborator, a Jewish nationalist, and an eventual turncoat. Jesus went places and talked to people considered suspect in respectable first-century Jewish company. He challenged the reigning religious, political, and ethnic/social assumptions of Palestine, spending time with Samaritans, beggars, Gentiles, and women in addition to the every day people who sought him out for various reasons. “The healthy do not have need of a doctor, but the sick do, ” Jesus told the religious authorities.

But we have forgotten that in parts of the evangelical church. We have acted like rulers, not servants. We have forgotten that God himself gave up his glory to take on the rags of humanity. “Foxes have dens and birds have nests, but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head,” Jesus told would-be disciples (Matt. 8:20). He identified with the stray dogs on the street.

So here are my goals for the site: 1) This will be a repository for my lectures, studies, and teaching materials. Feel free to explore. 2) When the Spirit leads, I will add some thoughts. I always welcome your thoughts and comments. Theology is a conversation, not a monologue.

TR

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My Pence-ive Moment

What God Wants Is Gratitude No Matter the Giver

Hurricane Harvey devastated communities along the Texas and Louisiana coast this past week. My parents’ town of Rockport was among the hardest hit, suffering a loss of 70% of the town’s structures. The adjacent town of Fulton Beach, 2 minutes from my parents’ house, had its entire waterfront almost demolished. The response of the government, the state, and individual citizens has been incredible to watch. While my parents did not suffer great loss (their house amazingly survived – the only real interior damage was a picture fell off the wall), others in this community made up of retirees and blue collar workers suffered terrible losses. When you live on a fixed income and lose your house to a storm, there’s nothing left with which to financially rebuild.

So I found myself a week later driving my parents down to Rockport from Houston in order to check on their house and assess the damage. Leaving north Houston at 6 am, we were determined to reach Rockport by 10:30 to attend a prayer vigil at their church, First Baptist of Rockport, which was damaged by the storm. A rumor had floated among the small congregation that several government officials would show up, including the Vice President, Mike Pence, and Samaritans Purse CEO, Franklin Graham. When my parents shared this with me, I began to think, “What should I say if I suddenly find myself face to face?”

This is not a place to catalog my views of or critique the current administration. Let’s just say that despite my conservative background, as a male with multiple graduate degrees and PhD work, I am not in Trump’s demographic wheelhouse. Also, while my ties to the Graham family are long (I did my undergraduate degree in biblical studies literally inside the Billy Graham Center building on Wheaton’s campus) and my family has always participated in Samaritans Purse activities like the Christmas Gift Box, I have found some of Franklin’s statements on Muslims and refugees to be unworthy of his father’s lineage. And I normally wouldn’t think a prayer vigil is a place for serious policy discussion either!

So I turned it over in my mind for a long time – what should I say if given the chance? Do I have a responsibility for those who will never get to meet these men to try to pierce their conscience on subjects I disagree with them on? Should I “speak truth to power?” What would those people subject to the whims of the administration say given the chance? Should I act as the prophet Nathan to King David?

The vigil itself, set in front of the choir room exterior wall which had been destroyed by the storm, included two prayers, the signing of a Texas declaration of a day of prayer by Governor Abbott, and words of encouragement from the Vice President. The Vice President and the cabinet members present spent most of their time talking with the congregation members – the elderly, the kids (almost all of which wanted to go back to school), and the moms assembled to press their concerns. They took their time and listened to each person. A cynical person would simply call it a photo-op. And it was. But for the members of the church, the words of the Vice President and others gave them a palpable sense of hope. That the world had not forgotten their small slice of the Coastal Bend. That despite the devastation to their lives, people who represented them in the halls of power cared.

Suddenly in the midst of the crowd I found myself face to face with the Vice President. It was THE moment. He looked at me and I looked at him.

“Mr. Vice President,” I said, “thank you for the help you are giving to the people here.” We shook hands and he reached out to the person next to me.

Chickening out? Cowardly? I’m sure some would accuse me of such. “You could have changed the lives of so many if you had spoken up! How could you not be brave and courageous like Bonhoeffer to stand up to the government!” Maybe. I can see how in our hyper-partisan environment people might think that.

In the end, I realized something about Christian gratitude which overrode any sense of political outrage and self-importance. It is this: the idea of gratitude in the Bible doesn’t reference the giver. The post-exilic nation of Jews were allowed to return to Jerusalem by the pagan King Cyrus – and they gave him the title of Messiah for it (Isaiah 45:1). Jesus’ tale of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10) revolves around the fact that a sworn enemy helps the injured man.

Paul discusses some of the extra behavioral requirements by others outside the faith in Timothy 4 such as not marrying and forbidding certain types of foods. He declares, “For everything God created is good, and nothing is to be rejected if it is received with thanksgiving” (1 Tim. 4:4). Paul’s point, also seen in his views on meat sacrificed to idols, is that the need for Christian gratitude overrides who the giver is.  Obviously Paul is not giving carte blanche to his readers (or us) in terms of behavior or who to work with, but the key ingredient is gratitude. The fact that meat was sacrificed in a temple by pagan priests doesn’t mean it can’t be accepted. But it does have to be accepted with thanksgiving.

So I put aside all the reasons that I shouldn’t and expressed gratitude to the Vice President, despite any misgivings, disappointments, agreements or disagreements. Are those differences important? Yes, and I will continue to advocate for what I believe is right and give support to what I judge the administration does correctly. But at the end of the day, this meeting was about helping the residents of Rockport, not assuaging a need I have to “be right” or “stand up for _____.”

In reality, part of growing a deeper Christian faith comes through setting aside the political priorities that try to claim supremacy over our lives in favor of the better divine gifts of the Spirit such as gratitude, ultimately expressed through the Cross. So just like my mother taught me, I said, “Thank you.”

“Why Trust the Bible?” – Summer Apologetics Lecture at Stonebridge Church

This summer I took part in teaching a special series on questions about the Christian faith. This presentation covers four common questions about the Bible:

“How did we get the Old and New Testament?”

“Why are the different books in some Bibles?”

“How are modern Bibles translated?”

“Is the Bible out of date?”

Why Trust the Bible

You can listen to a recording of the session (as well as other topical sessions) here:

http://gostonebridge.com/questions