I want to make you aware of an interesting book that has been out for a couple of years [pub date 2009], but to this point has not received much scholarly attention—at least I’ve not been able to find even one review. This post is certainly not intended to be such. The book however makes a very bold if not a new claim. Love Sechrest, now a professor at Fuller, wrote her doctoral dissertation at Duke and it is now published by T & T Clark Former Jew: Paul and the Dialectics of Race (Library Of New Testament Studies).
Sechrest’s thesis is that Paul believed that both Jews and Gentiles received a “new and separate ethno-racial identity” when they entered the Church through faith in Jesus. So she upholds the “third race” concept and seeks to buttress the argument with fresh research.
Here’s her major conclusion:
Contrary to scholars who use an anachronistic definition of race or ethnicity and take it for granted that Paul continued to think of himself as a Jew, Pauline self-identity texts interpreted against the framework of ancient Jewish constructions of race suggest that Paul identified himself as an Israelite who was born a Jew but no longer was one. Paul’s perspective on and response to the Christ event apocalyptically altered his relationship with God, his relations to his kinsmen, and his interactions with the radically Other. That is to say, Paul and his Jewish-born and Gentile-born Christian family had become members of his new racial entity (164, emphasis added).
Sechrest deals with a great number of Paul’s texts through out his undisputed letters interpreting them in light of her research on the ways both ancient Jewish and non-Jewish writers conceived of ethnicity and race. She places a particular amount of emphasis on Paul’s Galatian letter. Her book should be commended for its comprehensive handling of texts biblical and extra-biblical. There were very interesting elements to her discussion. I found especially useful her argument for the allusions to Isaiah 49 in Galatians 1:15-23 (pgs 138-40). These connections reveal an apostle who was committed to the restoration of Israel and read his personal narrative through the Isaianic servant of Isaiah 49. Solid stuff!
There are significant weaknesses however that undermine her conclusion. I will point out two. First, unless I have read her wrongly, I would dispute her interpretation of the uses of the terms ethnie and genos in the Jewish literature she surveyed. In my view she too boldly draws lines between the categories of Religion, Geography and Customs, Lifestyles and Laws. Although acknowledging overlap, she creates and applies vacuum-sealed categories in her interpretation that seem to overlook obvious relationships. For example, Sechrest argues that for Jews, race and ethnicity were primarily determined by religion and not by kinship or customs or geography. She states, “Because these ancient Jewish authors held that religion was central to identity, they signaled that racial identity was not permanent” (107).
She contrasts this with non-Jewish writers where these latter criteria are significant. As clear evidence, she points to the phenomenon of proselyzation, in which a Gentile’s race is transformed through a religious reorientation. While not at all contesting that religious affiliation factors prominently in Jewish conception of race, this overlooks the fact that religion and practice had deep geographical connections. Why else would those in the Diaspora who oriented their worship and practices toward Judea, be called “Judeans” or “Jews”? It may have been the case that his geographical element was often unrecognized; it nevertheless is present in the very term.
Second, Sechrest engages a narrow swath of scholarly literature. For example, she doesn’t include writers who would be among the so-called radical New Perspective on Paul such as Mark Nanos, Peter Tomson (one reference) or Pamela Eisenbaum. These scholars and others like them represent the very opposite position on this question as she. Given these perspectives were in print prior to her work, it is necessary that she answer the counter arguments. In other words, her work seems unaware of the recent trend to read Paul within a Jewish framework. A case in point is the very recent monograph by David J. Rudolph A Jew To Jews [WUNT, Mohr Siebeck 2011]. This thesis was written in Cambridge under Markus Bockmuehl about the same time as Sechrest’s. The title itself says enough. I will be discussing Rudolph’s work in future posts.
I’ll be interested to see what other scholars, more capable than I, say about this monograph.