“Race" and Anti-Semitism in the Ancient World?

By Philip F. Esler
Principal and Professor of Biblical Interpretation
St Mary’s University College, Twickenham, London
May 2012

One of the most disquieting statements in the New Testament comes in John 8:44 when Jesus, in discussion with the Ioudaioi who believed him (v. 31), says, “You are of your father the devil, and your will is to do your father’s desires.” What are we to make of this, or indeed of many other statements in the New Testament unfavorable to Ioudaioi? In a recent editorial in Op-Ed (May 2012), I suggested that ethnicity is a very helpful framework for understanding Judean identity in the first century CE, with Ioudaioi a term that designates an ethnic group: “Judeans” (named from their homeland like all other ethnic groups in the ancient world). In this editorial, I will propose that “race” and anti-Semitism should play no part in seeking to understand that world.

In biblical interpretation, especially its social-scientific form, we should carefully describe or model the key concepts we are going to employ. It is not just that the meaning of words matters, which it does. In addition, the self-conscious use and explanation of concepts with a genuine social-scientific pedigree like “identity” and “ethnicity” allow us to put our cards on the table and help us avoid errors we might otherwise slip into, for example, anachronism. Granted, we must be alert to the difference between the emic language of the cultural insiders who wrote and attended to our New Testament texts two thousand years ago and the social-scientific, trained outsider or “etic” language we bring to the task. I doubt there are any ancient words that easily convey what we mean by “identity” or “ethnicity,” but there are certainly data in the New Testament and in other works from that period that readily respond to analysis using those concepts.

“Race” is another thing altogether. Whereas ethnicity is a culturally constructed perspective, “race” purports to be a biological reality.1 The category of race—denoting primarily skin color—was first employed as a means of classifying human bodies by Francois Bernier, a French physician, in 1684. He divided humankind into basically four races: Europeans, Africans, Orientals, and Lapps. Linnaeus offered a similar view in 1735.2 Of all people, Immanuel Kant seems to have given respectability to the notion of race in a 1775 essay. Kant believed in a hierarchy of races: Native Americans and Africans were below Europeans.3

In the introduction to Race: The Origins of the Idea, 1760-1850, Hannah Augstein shows how racial theory developed in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries to embrace several elements:

  1. that mankind is divisible into a certain number of “races” whose characteristics are based on physiology and defy the modifying influences of external circumstances;
  2. that intellectual and moral capacities are unevenly spread within the various human “races;”
  3. that mental endowments are tied up with certain physiognomical specificities, defined as racial characteristics, that reveal the (alleged) inward nature of the individual or the population in question.4

Augstein demonstrates how the evolving idea of race was tied to evolving scientific or rather pseudo-scientific knowledge. Especially important was phrenology, the view that character and abilities could be determined by examining the shape of the skull.5 Enthusiasts travelled to foreign lands collecting skulls of other (allegedly “primitive”) peoples and seeking to demonstrate how their shape correlated with their inferiority to northern Europeans. Matthew Kneale’s novel The English Passenger gives fictional expression to this fantasy. The shameful high point of this interest came with Robert Knox’s 1850 work, The Races of Man, replete with obnoxious pictures of the alleged “races.” In Germany in 1878, Wilhelm Marr invented the word “anti-Semitism” in a work alleging that Jews were racially inferior; it was a matter of their blood.6 Marr was a great help to the development of Nazi ideology. All this represented a deliberate movement away from ancient attempts (such as those of Hippocrates) to differentiate groups on the basis of climate and environment.7

After the Second World War, especially driven by the publication of the 1950 UNESCO statement The Race Question, a powerful realization spread around the globe that there was no such thing as race; that although there were physical differences in human populations across the world, it was not possible to develop any sensible group categorization on the basis of them. There is often greater variation between population groups than among them.

For a wonderful North American demolition of the notion of race, it is hard to better Ashley Montagu’s classic Man’s Most Dangerous Myth: The Fallacy of Race, which first appeared in 1942 with a foreword by Aldous Huxley. Appearing at the height of Nazism, this book challenged the idea that race was a determinant of human behavior. In the Introduction to the sixth edition of 1997, Montagu states that

the term “race” is a socially constructed artifact--that there is no such thing in reality as “race;” that the very word is racist; that the idea of “race,” implying the existence of significant biological mental differences rendering some populations inferior to others, is wholly false.8

Given the inescapable connection of the notion of race with pseudo-science of the 18th and 19th centuries and its unscientific (and nauseating) essence of trying to classify people into groups on the basis of observable physical characteristics and then inevitably arranging those groups in a hierarchy (generally with “white” skinned people at the top), it surprises me that anyone would use the word today in a positive sense. Yet this happens, and it seems to be far more common in the United States than in Europe. In part, this stems from a particular position that has come to be known as “racializationism.” Supporters of this view, like Roger Sanjek, noting that “racism” lies at the heart of various social hierarchies, choose to use the categories of the racists to fight racism.9 Yet as Paul Spickard and Jeffrey Burroughs have pointed out, this approach “tends to give in to pseudoscientific racists.” Spickard and Burroughs note that they “cannot help feeling that adopting the language of the oppressor (and thereby the analytical categories of the oppressor) is a poor platform to fight oppression.”10 On the other hand, we must tread very carefully in relation to oppressed and marginalized people who have come to understand themselves in the language of race; their identity is their identity after all.

It is also surprising that some biblical commentators insist on finding both “race” and “anti-Semitism” as useful categories for understanding first century CE data. Certain recent enterprises of this kind have unwisely found succor in Benjamin Isaac’s 2004 work The Invention of Racism in Classical Antiquity,11 which proves on examination, however, not really to justify its title, as several reviewers critical of the work have shown.12 The impossibility of finding racism, an 18th and 19th century concept, in the ancient world pushes even Isaac towards adopting “proto-racism” as a substitute.13

Anyone reading certain parts of the New Testament, John’s Gospel especially, will soon discover negative attitudes being expressed towards Judeans (for example, in John 8:31-59). It is entirely appropriate to investigate the extent to which, over the centuries, such passages have provided resources for anti-Jewish and (since the late nineteenth century) anti-Semitic views. Anti-Semitism is a vicious reality in our world and needs to be opposed in a vigorous and informed way. But the moral seriousness of this endeavor is no excuse for interpreting anything in the Fourth Gospel as “anti-Semitic.” That would be a gross anachronism. We owe it to the cause of historical truth to do all we can to understand phenomena in terms appropriate to them. While the framework of ethnicity is appropriate to the first century CE world, that of “race” and anti-Semitism is not. What we find in John is antipathy being expressed to a populous and impressive ethnic group, the Judeans, by a small group needing to differentiate themselves from them and whose identity was certainly not ethnic however we might choose to describe it. John wanted his readers to accept that they were born “not (in the ethnic language of shared descent) of blood nor the will of the flesh nor of the will of man” but of God; he wanted his readers to regard themselves not as Ioudaioi (= children of Abraham) but as children of God.

Whatever use was made of the Fourth Gospel in later centuries, we owe it to its author and his first audience to try to understand their context and the John’s response to it in ways that are not cast in the 19th century pseudo-scientific language of “race” and anti-Semitism. And it cannot help us combat contemporary anti-Semitism if we eschew historically precise and accurate investigations of how this group, who in the first century CE called themselves Ioudaioi (when other ethnic groups were in view) and today Jews, interacted with and were treated by other groups in their milieux at the various stages of their long history.


1 Katherine Southwood, Ethnicity and the Marriage Crisis in Ezra 9-10: An Anthropoligical Approach. Oxford Theological Monographs. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012, 36-41.

2 West, Cornel, “A Genealogy of Modern Racism,” in Philomena Essed and David Theo Goldberg, eds., Race Critical Theories. Oxford: Blackwell Publishers, 2002, 90-112, at 99.

3 Robert Bernasconi (in Julie K. Ward, and Timothy L. Lott, eds., Philosophers on Race: Critical Essays. Oxford: Blackwell Publishers, 2002, 145-166) argues that one finds in Kant’s philosophy “expressions of a virulent and theoretically based racism, at a time when scientific racism was still in its infancy” (p. 145). In particular he cites Kant’s 1775 essay “Von den verschiedenen Racen der Menschen” that “invented the scientific concept of race insofar as he gave the first clear definition of it.” (p. 147).

4 Augstein, Hannah, ed., Race: The Origins of the Idea, 1760-1850. Bristol: Thoemmes Press, 1996, ix-x.

5 Ibid., xix-xx.

6 Esler, Philip F., Conflict and Identity in Romans: The Social Setting of Paul’s Letter. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2003, 52.

7 Augstein, op. cit., xviii.

8 Montagu, Ashley, Man’s Most Dangerous Myth: The Fallacy of Race, first published in 1942 , with a foreword by Aldous Huxley. Sixth edition, abridged student edition. Walnut Creek: Alta Mira Press, 1997, 31.

9 Sanjek, Roger, “The Enduring Inequalities of Race,” in Steven Gregory and Roger Sanjek, eds., Race. New Brunswick, N. J.: Rutgers University Press, 1994, 11.

10 Spickard, Paul and Burroughs, W. Jeffrey, “We Are a People,” in Spickard, Paul and Burroughs, W. Jeffrey eds., We Are a People: Narrative and Multiplicity in Constructing Ethnic Identity. Philadelphia, Temple University Press, 2000, 1-19, at 7.

11 Isaac, Benjamin, The Invention of Racism in Classical Antiquity. Princeton and Oxford: Princeton University Press, 2004.

12 See, for example, Fergus Millar, “Review Article: The Invention of Racism in Antiquity,” The International History Review 27 (2005) 85-89, Craige Champion, Scholia Reviews, 14 (2005) 10 and Hans Derks, “How to Invent Racism and Antisemitism in Antiquity,” The European Legacy 13 (2008) 83-87.

13 Ibid., 2, 24, 36 and passim.

Add new comment

This question is for testing whether or not you are a human visitor and to prevent automated spam submissions.