What Does “Jew & Gentile” Have to do With “Black & White”?
The Jew/Gentile conflict throughout the New Testament is often either (1) leveraged to prove there should be no recognition of race and ethnicity in Christ (“no Jew, no Gentile”), or (2) is denied to have anything to do with race and ethnicity since it is properly a covenantal/religious conflict. Others—those I’d agree with—see this conflict as an indispensable Biblical example of both definitive unity in Christ and a call to seek progressively lived unity in the Body. I hope, in what follows, to provide some clarity to the similarities and differences between the New Testament Jew/Gentile conflict and the white/black conflict we have inherited in the United States.
The “Middle Wall of Partition”: God’s Intent and Man’s Corruption
First, it is true that the Jews and the Gentiles had been distinguished as people groups by God Himself since Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. We read in Ephesians 2,
[R]emember that at one time you Gentiles in the flesh, called “the uncircumcision” by what is called the circumcision, which is made in the flesh by hands—remember that you were at that time separated from Christ, alienated from the commonwealth of Israel and strangers to the covenants of promise, having no hope and without God in the world. (vv. 11-12)
Prior to the coming of the Messiah, God had made a distinction between the peoples of the earth—he had prepared a people group to receive the coming of the Messiah, to be a preparatory school for the whole earth. But as the conflict between the Jews and the Messiah Himself make clear, throughout the Gospels, and leading to His crucifixion, the Jews had abandoned their calling and put their hope not in Messiah, but in the Law, in the additions and corruptions of their fathers, in their lineage and ethnicity, and in the exclusive privilege of their own people group to the blessings of God. John the Baptist confronted this assumption of privilege by genos, ethnos, and patrilineal descent when calling the Jews to repentance: “Do not begin to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our father.’ For I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children for Abraham” (Lk. 3:8), and Jesus confronted the same when the Jews declared boldly in response to His accusations, “we have Abraham as our father” (Jn. 8:39). Even the Apostle Paul, when he recounts the reasons he might boast in himself and his privilege, notes his genos, ethnos, and phule: “circumcised on the eighth day, of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew of Hebrews” (Phil. 3:4). He, of course, utterly rejected this privilege in order to gain Christ: “But whatever gain I had, I counted as loss for the sake of Christ” (Phil. 3:7).
But we must be clear, this was a corruption. The Jews were called to be a light to the world, to prepare and bring the nations to the worship of God and the expectation of Messiah. And the make-up of the assembled Jews on the Day of Pentecost shows that, despite the ethnic exclusive claims of the Jewish leaders, God had in fact prepared a people of various genos, ethnos, phule, and tongue to receive the Messiah, our Lord Jesus Christ. The assembled masses, 3,000 of which were converted to Christ, consisted of,
Parthians and Medes and Elamites, those dwelling in Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the parts of Libya adjoining Cyrene, visitors from Rome, both Jews and proselytes, Cretans and Arabs…. (Acts 2:9-11)
And we read of the Ethiopian traveling back to his native land, reading the scrolls of Isaiah, just a few chapters later. Anyone, of any race or ethnicity, could join the people of Israel through circumcision.
So, the first point to be made is that God did in fact distinguish these people groups, but not primary along the lines of physical descent, but upon lines of covenantal membership and covenantal identification with the family of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. This was, in many cases, corrupted by the Jews, especially the leaders, into a system of inclusion or exclusion by heredity.
One, Yet Fractured?
Now, we see the ripple effects of this centuries long divide rolling throughout the pages of the New Testament. We see both the angry reaction of the Jewish leaders to the Apostle’s claim that Messiah was also for Gentiles, as well as the Judaizers’ attempt to require Gentiles to become Jews before they can receive the blessings of Messiah. But, we must ask, what in fact was the status of Jew and Gentile upon the institution of the New Covenant—after the coming of Messiah, His crucifixion, and resurrection?
Paul is quite clear about this. In the Book of Romans alone, we see that the gospel is the power of God to save both Jews and Gentiles (1:16), that God will judge both impartially on the last day (2:7-11), that both are likewise condemned as sinners without any special rights (3:9), that both are to be saved by faith (4:16-17), that true Israel includes both Jew and Gentile (9:24), and that “there is no distinction between Jew and Greek; for the same Lord is Lord of all, bestowing his riches on all who call on him” (Rom. 10:12-13). In short, Gentiles are to be saved as Gentiles; because the Old Covenant was preparatory for the New, requiring Gentiles to become Jews was a repudiation of the meaning and purpose of Israel itself; there is no more distinction in the eschatological age of Christ and His Spirit; the middle wall of partition was broken down at the Cross (Eph. 2:14).
But the New Testament also makes clear the seeming intractability of this divide—within the Church itself. Though Peter had already been told, “What God has made clean, do not call common” (Acts 10:15), we nevertheless read that, “before certain men came from James, he was eating with the Gentiles; but when they came he drew back and separated himself, fearing the circumcision party” (Gal. 2:12). We also read in Acts 6 (discussed several times in this series) that “a complaint by the Hellenists arose against the Hebrews because their widows were being neglected in the daily distribution” (v. 1). And we know that the Jerusalem council—the first synod, we might say—was organized to deal with the Judaizers’ claims against the Gentiles.
So, if all that Paul had said in Romans was true, how could that continued disunity still exist? The answer is obvious: there had been hundreds of years of division by group, by genos, by ethnos, and by phule. Further, there had been generations of misinterpretation and abuse of the covenantal distinction instituted by God. The sad fact is that the 1st Century Jews had warped a religion intended to be a blessing to every nation and tribe into an ethnically exclusive source of privilege and boasting: “we have Abraham as our father” (Jn. 8:39). As such, Gentiles were considered dogs, with whom the Jews had no dealings (Jn. 4:9). The Jewish leaders had not only fenced the Law of God, adding requirements and traditions not contained therein, but they even fenced their ethnic heritage, making it a basis for acceptance before God and a rejection of the “other.” And this friction continued into the Church itself, because it was (and is) a corruption of the redemptive-historical plan for Israel and the nations.
Here is where the regional history of a people, culture, and society is so important. Without the historical context, Peter was committing no greater crime than just preferring to hang out with those whom he was most comfortable. And without this centuries old context, the neglect of Hellenist widows might be viewed as just a statistical anomaly. To be clear, if we do not include in our understanding of this conflict the collision of different people groups, with centuries of differing history and centuries of regional privilege and prejudice, then we can make no sense of the post-Resurrection Jew/Gentile problem at all. If we attempt to interpret and understand these events without the socio-historical context, we start from illicit neutral ground which inevitably obscures part of the very import of their presence in the Biblical canon.
What Does the 1st Century Divide Have To Do With Us?
So, what does all this have to do with our current context and history of racism? Obviously the 1st century context of division was not about skin color, or as Du Bois called it, the “color line.” This is obvious because the so-called “black race” and “white race” were not even constructed until late in the 17th century. And I have been at pains in this series to make plain that racism as we know it in America, including its racist ideas, prejudices, and biases were constructed for the very purpose of justifying subjugation.
As discussed in more detail elsewhere, racist ideas began to flourish in Europe in the 15th century—through story, literature, art, and religious accommodation—largely due to Enlightenment era expansionism, seeking economic gains in foreign lands. These ideas were brought to the Americas by both Pilgrims, Puritans, and those seeking economic resources in these “new” lands—lands that would be taken by theft and near genocide of its indigenous peoples. Under the influence of false ideas about Africa, Africans, and racist ideas imported from Europe, indentured servants began to be distinguished by group, with Africans supposedly worthy (by religion or otherwise) of less rights than other indentured servants. For example, after Bacon’s Rebellion (1676), fears of further cooperation between Europeans and Africans led to laws intended to divide African and European indentured servants by granting protections to those of Christian national origin and denying such rights to those of African descent, they and their children. As Africans alone became subject to life-long servitude as property, the “white race” was constructed and granted privilege over the intentionally marginalized “black race.” Justifications for these injustices began to abound, from “Biblical” to biological and anthropological, developing steadily over the following 200 years (see HERE). These racist ideas were also accompanied with false stereotypes of African peoples—hyper sexualization, mental inferiority, proneness to fits of rage, laziness, etc. And if we were to continue this story through Emancipation, Reconstruction, Civil Rights, up until this very day, we’d see that many of these same racist ideas and false stereotypes have endured, justifying the inequities that we see throughout American society—inequities along the exact same color divide manufactured centuries earlier.
In short, we today likewise have a history of division between two people groups, forged over centuries. We do not expect to see the black/white divide narrated and countered in the New Testament as we do the Jew/Gentile divide. But, as discussed in the last clarification post, we also do not see the downloading of pornographic material to be consumed on HD television addressed in the 1st century church either. What we do see is a church that was definitively unified in Christ yet nevertheless fractured by centuries of religious, cultural, and ethnic divide. And we see the Apostles addressing this divide in their quest to bring about lived unity out of the existing spiritual unity in Christ. And we see this done, most importantly, not by ignoring the divide or simply re-iterating the existing definitive unity. Nor do we see them denying or even downplaying the very real, very existential, history of distinctions.
No, what we see is them making structural changes in Acts 6 to address ethnic inequities. We see Paul confronting Peter to his face for who he decided to eat with. We see the Jerusalem Council overturning the claims of the Judaizers and giving instructions to Gentiles for the sake of lived unity. And throughout the Pauline corpus, we see him addressing Jews in one way and Gentiles in another, “Now I am speaking to you Gentiles” (Rom. 11:13), “You who call yourselves Jews” (Rom. 2:17). We even see him arguing that Gentiles owe a share in their physical resources to the impoverished Jews in Jerusalem (Rom. 15:17). Within the very contexts of arguing for no distinction as to gospel, judgement, guilt, redemption, and unity in Christ, Paul nonetheless recognizes the distinction of peoples, with different incarnated histories and cultures (religious and otherwise), as well as the differing relationships and contexts they find themselves in. And finally, we see the example of the Apostle as he leads the way toward lived unity, declaring his willingness to become a Jew to the Jews and a Gentile to Gentiles, that he might give offense to none (1 Cor. 9:20-23; 10:31-33).
In conclusion, the Biblical documentation of the New Testament Jew/Gentile divide, as well as the Apostles’ approach to the conflict, are of inestimable importance to seeking lived unity among black, white, and brown people groups in our own context. Not because the Jew/Gentile divide was identical to the black/white divide; not because there is a one to one correspondence between the two historical problems; but because it is a record of a Church already united in Christ nevertheless seeking unity among fractured and divided people groups—groups divided by centuries of separately developing histories, religion, family lineage, expectations and assumptions of privilege, enduring prejudices, and ethnic exclusivity.