Thursday, August 18, 2011

Why Christianity is more ethnocentric than Judaism

This post tries (just as provocatively) to flesh out a bit of what I left unstated here...

A moment’s reflection will show that “Christianity” shares the six characteristics that Hutchinson and A. Smith claim ethnic groups ‘habitually exhibit’:
(1) ‘a common proper name’: Christian, etc.
(2) ‘a myth of common ancestry’: ‘in Christ’ – Christians are called “children of God” by their participation in Christ. Just as God created Israel from the barren seed of Abraham, the New Testament affirms that God created a people of God from the Messiah. Denise Kimber Buell argues that the language of kinship in early Christian texts was considered real rather than metaphorical.
(3) ‘shared historical memories’: The story of Israel and of Jesus.
(4) ‘one or more elements of common culture’: Check.
(5) ‘a link with a homeland’: ‘Our citizenship is in heaven.’
(6) ‘a sense of solidarity’: Check. 
According to 1 Peter 2:9, Christians ‘are a chosen race . . . a holy nation’. As with other nations, membership in the Christian ‘people of God’ is exclusive. New believers have to abandon their previous ethnic culture and polytheistic way of life to join in, and, as a result, they are no longer Gentiles/ ‘nations’. The Gospel of John suggests that love for members exceeds love for outsiders. Indeed, Christianity is more exclusive, more particularistic, more ‘ethnocentric’ than Judaism because orthodox Christianity holds that final salvation is limited to insiders, while normative Judaism expects righteous Gentiles to have a place in the world to come without having to become Jews (see Sanders, Donaldson, Runesson).

Note: My observations here are exploratory. My main point is to critique the common Christian denigration of Judaism as nationalist/particularist. Whatever Christianity is, it is not universal.

Buell, Denise Kimber. Why this New Race: Ethnic Reasoning in Early Christianity. New York: Columbia University Press, 2005. 
Donaldson, Terrence L. Judaism and the Gentiles: Jewish Patterns of Universalism (to 135 CE). Waco: Baylor University Press, 2007. 
Hutchinson, John, and Anthony D. Smith. Ethnicity. Oxford Readers. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1996. 
Runesson, Anders. “Particularistic Judaism and Universalistic Christianity? Some Critical Remarks on Terminology and Theology.” Journal of Greco-Roman Christianity and Judaism 1 (2000). 
Sanders, E. P. Paul and Palestinian Judaism: A Comparison of Patterns of Religion. Minneapolis: Fortress, 1977.


Unknown said...

With all respect Mr. Miller, it feels like this list is reaching. Most of these things describe any group or subculture; I can think of parkour and MMA groups who share all of these aspects except for #1. (Your #2 point would, in these groups, take the form of a teaching lineage from instructor to student.) If these points keep Christianity from being "universal" then nothing is universal. Surely when we consider that anyone can take on this "common ancestry in Christ" and that Christianity can take on large variety of outward cultural expressions, a difference between its relative universalism and Judaism's nationalist/particularist trappings has to be acknowledged.

Unknown said...

*It also appears that you're stretching Hutchinson and Smith's definitions beyond what they are reasonably supposed to mean. Makes for good, provocative stuff, but not quite serious work (if I may say so without causing offense).

d. miller said...

Thanks for the response, StuntMonk. No offense taken. Quick thoughts:

Re: 2: The teacher-student relationship is rather different. I'm suggesting, following Buell, that early Christians regarded their connection to Christ and, through Christ, to each other as more *real* than a physical sibling relationship. It was more than metaphor. This has contemporary implications. Myth may be confusing here: My assumption is that most ancients did not view their common ancestry as 'mythical', though modern scholars do.

Another difference from your contemporary examples is the language that 1 Peter 2:9, for example uses. It had 'racial' resonance in the ancient world.

Just as anyone can become a Christian so it is (and was) possible for people to become Jews. I'm toying with the idea that becoming a Christian involved a more radical renunciation of a person's past cultural/ethnic ties than is commonly thought. We miss this because we don't realize that for the ancients Greek religion was indistinguishable from Greekness, just as worship of the One God was indistinguishable from Jewishness. Everything was a package. So when 'pagans' became 'Christians' they literally had to abandon their past way of life and their past social ties.

Isaac Gross said...

Or you could reverse it and say that both Jews and Christians are universalists in respect to God's Lordship and call to all peoples . . .

Are you and the people you cite in your previous post working with the same definition of ethnocentrism? Feels like there is a difference. One is a pejorative, the other is more descriptive?

I wonder if perhaps particularity and ethnocentrism (depending upon its definition) are often conflated together in the same way that Pharisees and "lovers of money" are. No doubt some Pharisees were lovers of money, but its not intrinsic to their way of life. Likewise, some Jews (ala Jonah?) fell into ethnocentrism, but this is not a part of being Jewish?

Mike K said...

I noticed this post from James McGrath's carnival and I agree with you along with Buell and others that (at least some) early Christians applied ethnic language to their communities (chosen people, holy nation, new Israel, third race) and that the contrast of Judaism as ethnocentric vs Christianity as universalistic is unfair. I had wrote an article for Studies in Religion applying ethnic reasoning to the epistle of Barnabas and will be presenting on it at the Jewish-Christian relations section for this upcoming SBL. Thanks also for the notice about Love Sechrest's Paul and the Dialectics of Race which I need to check out, though I find myself more drawn to Caroline Hodges reading that Paul did not yet see "Christians" as a distinct people but he still saw himself as an Israelite called to reach out to the nations to have them adopted into the family of Abraham through the Messiah.

Edwardtbabinski said...

How many Jews also teach their kids, as Paul taught the Corinthians, "not to be unequally yoked," but to marry a fellow Jew?

Christianity in the end amounted to religious supersessionism, Judaism has now been superseded, just as Mormonism and Islam both claim to have revelations that supersede Christian "orthodoxy."

So I agree with the author of this blog piece that some Christian teachings certainly are so exclusivistic as to compare them with what one might call, spiritual racism.

"He who does not believe is condemned already." John 3

"He who does not believe is damned." Mark 16 (late added appendix)

Not to mention the "not written in the book of life" stuff, and gory destruction of life on earth depicted in Revelation, all with the imprimatur of the "prince of peace."

Jeromey said...

Your "provocative" post has provoked me to thought. I need some clarification on what you're comparing:

Are you comparing /modern/ Christianity with /modern/ Judaism? or /ancient/ (say, 1st-century - supposing that's uniform!) Christianity (which arguably isn't "Christianity") with /ancient/ (biblical and/or second temple and/or rabbinic - supposing that's uniform!) Judaism (which arguably isn't in all cases "Judaism" [of the region of Judea])? (I assume you're not comparing ancient with modern in either category.)

I'd also challenge that gentile acceptance into ancient "normative" Judaism was quite so squeaky-clean as you're suggesting.

Recommended reading: Christine E. Hayes, /Gentile Impurities and Jewish Identities: Intermarriage and Conversion from the Bible to the Talmud/ (OUP,2002).

d. miller said...

Thanks for the comments, everyone. More in a bit, hopefully...