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.

As the late theologian Larry Hurtado pointed out, 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 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 among 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. Being a Christian meant undermining the unilateral equation of race and religion, along with social status, gender, and customs.

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.” We are a reflection of the scene of Revelation 7:9 (late 1st century writing) – an uncountable body from every nation.

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 nor today.

The church on the other hand has a responsibility to  stand together in solidarity with those who are referred to in the quote given in Revelation 7 from Isaiah 49:10:

Never again will they hunger; never again will they thirst.

The sun will not beat down on them, nor any scorching heat.

For the Lamb at the center of the throne will be their shepherd;

He will lead them to springs of living water.

And God will wipe away every tear from their eyes.

   To choose otherwise to look away, to ignore, to dismiss others’ pain  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. Christianity embraces its character of being pan-ethnic and pan-national.

Author: thomrowe

I am a teacher at my local church, having studied in academia. This site houses all of my materials. Please feel free to explore and enjoy. Charis!

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