- Why This New Race: Ethnic Reasoning in Early Christianity by Denise Kimber Buell
This is an important book that should cause readers to think in new ways about the relation between formative Christianity and claims of ethnicity, universality, and particularity. Kimber Buell skillfully reads the ancient texts and applies her method of analysis with illuminating results. Limitations of the study are not due to her skills but of the method itself. Modern habit has thought of Christianity as universal and voluntary over against, for example, Judaism that is particular and ethnic. The latter along with the concept of race find no relevance to early Christianity. Kimber Buell succeeds in showing that all of these assumptions are at best misleading when applied to ancient Christian writings.
The book’s argument is clear: “early Christian texts used culturally available understandings of human difference, which we can analyze in terms of our modern concepts of ‘ethnicity,’ ‘race,’ and ‘religion,’ to shape what we have come to call a religious tradition and to portray particular forms of Christianness as universal and authoritative” (2). Kimber Buell rejects the consensus in the social sciences that ethnicity centrally concerns claims about kinship and descent from common ancestors. She does not deny the importance of such claims as one way of appealing to essence or fixity, but bases her analysis on an approach articulated by Ann Stoler: “I define the necessary criterion of ethnicity/race as the dynamic interplay between fixity and fluidity” (9). What I consider to be a limitation of the study, Kimber Buell considers a [End Page 727] strength or at least a necessity in light of the doctrines about language that she assumes: “foregrounding fixity/fluidity, rather than some specific content like kinship and descent, risks making race/ethnicity indistinguishable from other cultural categories, such as religion and citizenship, since both could also be said to share this dynamic of fixity and fluidity. I invite the reader to explore rather than predetermine their interrelationships” (10). Kimber Buell’s skillful analysis by means of fixity/fluidity is productive, but the exploration to which she invites the reader is nearly impossible since the concepts of ethnicity and race remain vague at best. I had little idea of what she thought religion was, except for some indications of what it is not. The book’s use of fixity/fluidity is only coherent because it does in fact focus on the language of peoplehood, criteria of belonging, kinship, and descent. It does operate with a concept of religion, but it is only implicit.
Thus, the book’s method is not theory formation through the mutual interrogation of clearly distinguished first and second order categories that one might expect. The approach is more like an operation—analysis via fixity/fluidity—applied to both folk and scholarly language. This operation proceeds by the analysis of “ethnic reasoning” in the ancient texts. The book explores this mode of persuasion through four strategic uses of the reasoning taken up in the chapters.
One of the study’s interesting, but more controversial features, will be its use of “race” for the ancient materials. Against objections that race is an anachronistic modern concept, Kimber Buell mounts a number of arguments for using the term in a semi-interchangeable way with ethnicity. Some of these arguments concern her strategy of “problematizing” our modern conceptions, a motif throughout the book. It bears emphasis that Kimber Buell throughout also reflects upon her relation to the past as an interpreter who is ethically responsible and she critiques various conventional approaches.
Chapter 1 shows that religious practices were closely connected with ethnicity in antiquity. Analysis of Christian apologies and martyr narratives reveals Christian writers using this connection to define Christian peoplehood and to claim legitimacy for this “race” or “people.” Certain religious practices were often seen as belonging inherently to specific ethnoracial groups, but sometimes adoption of the practices could be understood as defining membership. The Apology of Aristides, for example, describes Christians as kin with an eponymous ancestor, but they are, among all of...