N.T. Wright on Christians as a “Third Race” in PFG

I’ve always said that if I ever lead a church plant, I’d probably call it “Third Race Community Church.” The reference to Christians as a “third race” comes from Aristides though it has clear antecedents in Paul, esp. 1 Cor 10:32, 12:2, Gal 3:28, and Col 3:11 and arguably even in 1 Pet 2:9. Wright begins talking about this topic with the words: “Among the other buzz-words which the debate about Paul’s Jewish ‘identity’ has generated, the notion of a ‘third race’ – the followers of Jesus as a new corporate entity, distinct from both ‘Jews’ and ‘Gentiles’ – has been both canvassed and attacked in the last generation. This brings the discussion of ‘identity’ into sharp focus.” Such a view even has support from E.P. Sanders and his reading of Paul.

Wright of course is aware of the opposition to such a reading. Evidently, Paul’s attempt to create a Christian meta-identity is seen by some as reinforcing an anti-Jewish interpretation of Paul. At any rate, and at the risk of self-promotion, I particularly enjoyed how Wright pushes back on his critics because its where I get a mention in despatches:

Such a suggestion has provoked strong reactions. The editors of a recent collection of essays on ‘Paul and Judaism’, discovering that one of their contributors actually believes more or less what Sanders had argued thirty years ago, describe this in the shocked tones of an elegant lady discovering that her favourite nephew is going to marry a chorus girl. ‘Bird,’ they say, ‘actually thinks that the new group of Jesus believers could be conceived of as a third race.’

To which he adds in a footnote:

The implication seems to be: How did that man get in here without a postmodern wedding garment?

As we say in Australia, “That’s going straight to the pool room.”

Wright gets to the crux of the matter when he comments:

This opening statement in 1 Corinthians [1:22-25] already means that those who belong to the Messiah are defined, are given an ‘identity’ if we must use the term, that is (a) rooted in Israel’s Messiah, and hence in that sense inalienably ‘Jewish’, but (b) redefined around the crucified and risen Messiah and hence in that sense inalienably ‘scandalous’ to Jews. Rooted and redefined: continuity and discontinuity. Those are the classic marks of Paul’s thought and life. And those are the ways in which he thought of the Messiah’s people. They remain Abraham’s family: ‘our fathers’, he says to the mostly gentile Corinthian Christians, came out of Egypt with Moses. They once were ‘Gentiles’ but are now no longer (12.2). But for Jews, like Paul, the rule is: ‘I am crucified with the Messiah’. Scandalous. A third entity.

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  • Patrick Schreiner

    As you probably already know, Love Seacrest argues this in her book “A Former Jew: Paul and the Dialects of Race” in the LNTS series.

  • Mike K

    This has been a research interest of mine as I published on ethnic identity in Barnabas (SR 40 [2011]) and Justin (forthcoming), building on Denise Buell “Why This New Race: Ethnic Reasoning in Early Christianity,” Caroline Hodge “If Sons Then Heirs: A Study of Kinship and Ethnicity in the Letters of Paul”, Love Seachrest “A Former Jew: Paul and the Dialects of Race”, and David Horrell “‘Race’, ‘Nation’, ‘People’: Ethnic Identity-Construction in 1 Peter 2:9.” Hodge and Seacrest are useful to compare as one argues from a radical NP on Gentiles adopted into the Israelite nation and the other from the “third genos (I prefer ‘people’ to ‘race’) view. However, it problematizes Wright’s earlier take on Paul’s critique of “ethnocentrism,” because it seems to me that both Paul and his opponents championed a people group marked out by certain beliefs and practices (e.g., Torah with circumcision/food/Sabbath or Christ devotion/baptism/eucharist). Also, I can see positives in how early Christians sought to articulate their sense of communal identity against modern individualism, but I wonder if the danger is that it all to easily leads to supersessionism (the ancestor Abraham, the Scriptures, the covenant belong to “Christians” rather than “Jews”) and to a sense of superiority and dehumanization of the “Other,” whether Jew or Greek, similar to other types of ethnocentrism.

  • Patrick

    Seems to me Paul states believers are the only authentic Jews from Divine viewpoint. Romans 2, Philipians 3, Ephesians 2, etc.