"Why This New Race" offers a radical new way of thinking about
the origins of Christian identity. Conventional histories have
understood Christianity as a religion that from its beginnings
sought to transcend ethnic and racial distinctions. Denise Kimber
Buell challenges this view by revealing the centrality of ethnicity
and race in early definitions of Christianity. Buell's readings of
various texts consider the use of "ethnic reasoning" to depict
Christianness as more than a set of shared religious practices and
beliefs. By asking themselves, "Why this new race?" Christians
positioned themselves as members of an "ethnos" or "genos" distinct
from Jews, Romans, and Greeks.
Buell focuses on texts written before Christianity became legal
in 313 C.E., including Greek apologetic treatises, martyr
narratives, and works by Clement of Alexandria, Origen, and
Tertullian. Philosophers and theologians used ethnic reasoning to
define Christians as a distinct people within classical and ancient
Near East society and in intra-Christian debates about what
constituted Christianness. Many characterized Christianness as both
fixed and fluid-it had a real essence (fixed) but could be acquired
through conversion (fluid). Buell demonstrates how this dynamic
view of race and ethnicity allowed Christians to establish
boundaries around the meaning of Christianness and to develop
universalizing claims that all should join the Christian
In addressing questions of historiography, Buell analyzes why
generations of scholars have refused to acknowledge ethnic
reasoning in early Christian discourses. Moreover, Buell's
arguments about the importance of ethnicity and religion in early
Christianity provide insights into the historical legacy of
Christian anti-Semitism as well as contemporary issues of race.
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