Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2006.02.31

Denise Kimber Buell, Why This New Race: Ethnic Reasoning in Early Christianity.   New York:  Columbia University Press, 2005.  Pp. 288.  ISBN 0-231-13334-0.  $45.00.  

Reviewed by Aaron P. Johnson, University of Texas at Austin (
Word count: 2215 words

Identity, in particular, ethnic or racial identity, in the ancient Mediterranean world is experiencing something of an upsurge in modern scholarly interest.1 Inquiry into ancient constructions of self and other has become a persistent element in the study of early Christianity, garnering no little diligence across the disciplines of history, religion and classics. Buell's Why This New Race contributes to modern discussions of early Christian identity by closely attending to the ways in which Christian authors of the first through third centuries mapped themselves onto the ethnic, racial and religious terrain of Greco-Roman discourses of identity. There has been a consistent tendency among modern readers, however, to define Christianity as a religious movement that sought to transcend racial ties and kinship attachments; there was to be, after all, "no Jew or Greek" among the followers of Jesus. For this reason, the rise and maturation of Christianity, so we had thought, was intimately linked to its dismissal of its ethnic Jewish roots. When the author of the Epistle to Diognetus framed his interlocutor's question, "Why this new race?" it was supposed by modern readers that any good Christian in antiquity would have been quick to respond that the interlocutor had gotten it all wrong, that Christianity was a universal religion shorn of all local, racially-limited entanglements. Following von Harnack, modern readers supposed that when Christians used the term genos for themselves it was to be taken as a voluntary "class" of religious adherents and not as a "race" or kin group.

Refusing to sap the terms genos and ethnos of their racial weight, Buell's primary project is to dismantle this pervasive modern sentiment that early Christian identity was inherently a "not-race." Instead, early Christians defined themselves as ethno-racially distinct from their antagonists -- whether non-Christians or rival claimants to the appellation "Christian" -- by engaging in "ethnic reasoning" (1-34). Rather than assuming a concise criterion (such as claims to "blood" lineage and kin relations) for ethnicity/race, Buell offers an approach that seeks to analyze the movement of articulations of ethnicity between the poles of fixity and fluidity. While identity boundaries based upon birth seem immovably fixed by biological givenness, they may also be redrawn by discursive or ritual means to incorporate or exclude others (7-10). Furthermore, religious elements, more often characterized as "voluntary," were integral to ancient as well as modern conceptions of race and ethnicity; in fact, religion has often been a "site of production of 'race'" (21). One must refrain, therefore, from disentangling race and religion in ancient literary works through the application of anachronistic categories and typologies (such as "nature religions" vs. "ethical religions," 23; or "practice" vs. "belief," 59-62). By attending to the ethnic reasoning of early Christian texts, Buell seeks to overcome the limitations and myopia of previous scholarship.

Following an introductory chapter outlining the theoretical moves she deems necessary to address more adequately the issues around early Christian identity, the body of the book isolates passages from early Christian texts -- ranging from apologetic treatises to martyr acts and Gnostic writings -- that exhibit salient features for appreciating the role of religion in ancient constructions of ethnicity (Chapter 1), the importance of crafting historical narratives for Christian identity (Chapter 2), the manipulation of fluidity/fixity in Christian-Jewish relations (Chapter 3), the impact of ethnic reasoning on developing anti-heretical polemic (Chapter 4), and the significance of universalizing claims within Christian ethnic reasoning (Chapter 5). Not only did Christians of the ancient Mediterranean adopt ethnic terminology for themselves (such as genos or ethnos -- terms which Buell refuses to define), but they also used such concepts to shape their identifications of who they were and to formulate their arguments against those whom they were allegedly not. Instead of being an alternate or parallel category, piety (or "religion") was an integral feature of such ethnic articulations, embedded within the notions of what an ethnos was in antiquity. For instance, both Aristides and Athenagoras constructed Christian identity against a portrayal of the identities of other races that emphasized their negative religious elements (35-36, 49-51). Here, Buell's theoretical sensitivity shows its merits; for it alerts us to the ways in which Christians developed their arguments within racial discourses as well as uncovering the polemical strategies adopted by the defenders of the faith. For instance, all of Athenagoras' bluster over the difference between the religious practices of the cities and races of the Roman world only served as a smokescreen to hide the radical disjunction of Christian forms of piety from those local customs (51).

Instead of allowing its apparent novelty and lack of ethnic roots to promote a vision of Christian identity as a religion sui generis (as Harnack thought), early Christians diligently sought, by tapping into the ancient heritage of the Jews, to bolster claims to antiquity and so confer historical validity upon their existence as a people (Chapter 2). While it may be argued that such attempts are historical sophistries and suspiciously "fictive" in comparison to the "real" claims of other Mediterranean peoples, Buell rightly notes the "fictive" and constructed quality of all formulations that attempt to mark out historical space for any distinctively identified people (69-70). Early Christian writings should thus be read within the context of Hellenistic historiography. Framing Christianity as a restoration of what was good and true in the ancient Hebrew way of life and tracing the followers of Jesus back to Abraham, Christians (as portrayed, for instance, in the Pseudo-Clementine Recognitions) sought to assuage the anxiety over novelty and confirm membership in "a genealogically continuous people ... indexed by state of mind and actions, not simply birth" (72). Some authors went further, attempting to trump rival claims to antiquity by tracing the Christian heritage to a time before the men of hoary antiquity, such as Abraham or Noah, and defining themselves as the restoration of primal humanity at the very creation of the world (or as Clement would have it: before the creation of the world; hence, Christians are "not just the oldest people but are in fact the only human race," 74).

In spite of Buell's efforts to inscribe this sort of cosmological universalism within the parameters of ethnic reasoning, it remains difficult (at least to this reviewer) to escape the sense that it is precisely in these sorts of expressions that Christians seem to be looking for an identity that transcends the particularity of racial identities; by heralding the restoration of a time before nations or races, Christians like Clement and Origen (at least in those few passages noted by Buell) simultaneously envision an identity that is post-national/racial. The Gnostic Tripartite Tractate is succinct on this historical schema: "the end will receive a unitary existence just as the beginning is unitary" (cited at 83). Such a sentiment shuns the plurality entailed by ethnic particularity, while the pneumatic genos of the Tractate, if denoting "race" rather than "type" (as Buell translates it at first, 83), contains a collectivity of souls who can potentially never come into contact with each other and share a communal way of life, hence becoming so vacuous as to scarcely carry the cluster of ideas that attend to ancient racial frameworks. As in the time before history, so at the end of history, distinctive racial identities are dissolved; ethnicity is an ephemeral and localized aberration of the history of the physical world. Harnack's whisper, not fully exorcised, can still be heard in spite of Buell's assertions that this sort of universalism must be read ethnically.

Ethnic reasoning is more safely and solidly investigated along the border of Jewish and Christian polemic (Chapter 3). Justin's Dialogue with Trypho evinces a form of ethnic reasoning that is both thorough-going and rich; Buell's explorations of this text are equally rich and productive of insights into the early Christian manipulations of identity. For Buell, Justin moves effortlessly along the continuum of fixity and fluidity with an unexpected double-movement: Christians are portrayed as bearing an identity firmly fixed within the historical foundations of the biblical narrative and therefore honored with the venerable title of "true Israel," while the Jews, in spite of the red herring of descent "according to the flesh" (a claim remarkably never voiced by Trypho himself), embody a fluid ethnicity with rather porous boundaries (94-115). A male proselyte, through the ritual act of circumcision, obtains the status of a "native-born" (Dial. 123.1, cited at 108). Seemingly fixed racial identities thus acquire a fluid malleability turned towards polemical ends. This point receives further expression in the interface between rival Christian groups, in particular the allegedly more "orthodox" Clement and Origen against Valentinians and other Gnostic groups (Chapter 4). In the most interesting and illuminating chapter of the book, Buell shows how the criticisms leveled by the former two Christian thinkers against Gnostic appeals to a soteriological paradigm based upon fixed races denominated "by nature" contained their own constructions of a stable identity for Christians whose conversion marked an ethnoracial transformation (119-126). At the same time, Buell offers a reading of key Gnostic texts (especially the Gospel of Philip) that highlights the fluid nature of Gnostic identity and the ability of changing one's genos through ritual (128-135). Hence, ethnic reasoning was employed dynamically and strategically along the fixed/fluid continuum by both mainstream Christians (if Origen and Clement may be so labeled) and Gnostic Christians (if the authors of the Tripartite Tractate and Gospel of Philip may be so labeled). The benefits of Buell's approach are manifest in this chapter, as she presents the weaknesses of assuming that the "orthodox" vs. Gnostic opposition is neatly coterminous with a non-racial vs. racial opposition: both sides manipulate notions of fixity and fluidity within a thoroughly ethnoracial discourse.

Contrary to modern assumptions, the universal claims found in ancient formulations of Christian identity do not entail the rejection of a stable ethnic identity (Chapter 5). People from all races are granted incorporation into Christianity -- but this does not mark a movement away from race towards religion. For the authors of the Acts of Andrew or the Shepherd of Hermas, converts to Christianity exhibited a transference of ethnoracial allegiances from one genos or ethnos to another. Once more unhelpful scholarly paradigms, such as Nock's portrayal of Christian conversion as a shift away from communal practices to a personal set of beliefs, must be rejected (158-164). Instead, "ethnic reasoning allowed Christians not only to describe themselves as a people, but also to depict the process of becoming a Christian as one of crossing a boundary from membership in one race to another" (139).

Buell's argument covers a wide range of early Christian texts and offers illuminating readings based upon a thoroughgoing suspicion of dominant scholarly conceptions of "race" and "religion." Students of early Christianity can ignore her work only at their own peril. Highly provocative, her criticism of modern assumptions and theoretical shrewdness has surely laid the basis for future discussion of ethnicity and religion in the first Christian centuries. The filling of some lacunae in Buell's treatment, however, seems pressing; many classicists might remain skeptical of her theory-heavy analyses until further close readings of ancient texts are offered and more philological legwork is performed. At the outset, it is not enough to show that ancient texts apply ethnic terminology (ethnos/genos/laos) to the Christians. These terms did not always denote the same sort of identity. What nuances attended (or were manipulated in) an early Christian's choice of genos over of other possible terms (like ethnos) at a particular point in an argument, or when a shift occurs from the use of one term to another (as in Aristides)? The assumption that either term will do and that any difference is slight or nonexistent only ignores ancient typologies and categorical hierarchies that were constructed as a basic conceptual apparatus for articulations of racial identities in antiquity.2

Related to such philological analysis, other phenomena in ancient texts deserve sustained inquiry. Both genos and ethnos could be applied to other collectivities that most scholars would take in a non-ethnic sense; the application of ethnic labels might seem to be, at most, "mere metaphor." If the label ethnos could apply to swarms, flocks and herds of various kinds of animals (Homer Il. 2.459, 469; Porphyry Phil. Orac. 328F [Smith]), to male and female gender categories (Pindar Ol. 1.66; Pyth. 4.252), to the rich and poor classes ([Arist.] De Mundo 5.396b), to vocational guilds such as bakers (Libanius, Or. 1.206, 228), or potters and smiths (Plot. Enn. 2.9.7), to Persian satrapies ([Arist.] De Mundo 6.398a) or to Roman provinces (Herodian 1.2.1, 1.15.1, 2.4.6, passim), then some students of antiquity will wonder how Christians fit within these groupings and what that might tell us about Christian identity.3 Some might be led to the conclusion that, given this sort of breadth in the application of ethnos, its occurrence in Christian texts is not so "ethnoracial" after all. This is hardly an insuperable contention, but one that certainly deserves sustained investigation.

Considerable work remains to be done. Nonetheless, the challenge has been laid down in admirable form; Buell's tracing of the rhetoric of Christian identity along a fixity/fluidity continuum surely sets future inquiry on firm theoretical footing and is bound to bear much fruit. Such diligence is to be applauded (and scarcely deserves the number of typographical errors allowed by the editors).


1.   See, e.g., J. Hall, Hellenicity (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2002); B. Isaac The Invention of Racism in Classical Antiquity (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2004); J. M. Lieu, Christian Identity in the Jewish and Graeco-Roman World (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004); G. Byron, Symbolic Blackness and Ethnic Difference in Early Christian Literature (New York: Routledge, 2002).
2.   I have attempted to provide the sort of analysis I am calling for here (though limited to a single author) at A. P. Johnson, Ethnicity and Argument in Eusebius' Praeparatio Evangelica (Oxford: Oxford University Press, forthcoming 2006), Chapter 2. See also the valuable study of C. P. Jones, "ἔθνος and γένος in Herodotus," CQ 46 (1996): 315-20.
3.   I have broadened here the temporal and semantic range offered preliminarily by J. Hall, Ethnic Identity in Greek Antiquity (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1997), 35.

Read Latest
Index for 2006
Change Greek Display
Books Available for Review

HTML generated at 13:30:46, Friday, 03 April 2009