Reviews of

Ethnicity and Inclusion

In Eerdmans, ethnicity, history of interpretation, inclusion, Jonathan Rowlands, NT reception history, Reception history on December 5, 2022 at 3:00 pm
Book cover

2022.12.11 | David G. Horrell. Ethnicity and Inclusion: Religion, Race, and Whiteness in Constructions of Jewish and Christian Identities. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2020. 

Review by Jonathan Rowlands, St. Mellitus College

In Ethnicity and Inclusion, Horrell examines the ways in which the contested categories of ethnicity, race, and religion coalesce in and arise from conceptions of the relationship between Judaism and early Christianity. Seeking to focus “on the log in my own eye rather than the specks in others’ eyes” (pp. 2–3), Horrell brings these issues into conversation with the implicit whiteness (another contested term) of contemporary biblical scholarship. In so doing, he not only upturns claims about Judaism and early Christianity, but also offers sobering critique of NT studies itself. Horrell articulates the need to re-examine conceptions of race, ethnicity, religion, and identity in antiquity, as well as the ways in which these categories are apprehended in contemporary scholarship. 

Most of Horrell’s work comprises three parts. In part 1, Horrell examines the ways in which ethnicity, race, religion, and identity have been approached in biblical scholarship. Chapter 1 offers an overview of three key phases in NT scholarship: Baur and the Tübingen school, Dunn and the New Perspective on Paul, and Esler and social-scientific approaches. Despite their disparate nature, Horrell identifies a “certain structural dichotomy” persisting throughout the three phases contrasting “an ethnically particular Judaism with an inclusive non-ethnic or trans-ethnic Christianity” (p. 46). In chapter 2 Horrell examines contemporary research on race and ethnicity in antiquity to begin to critique this ‘persistent structural dichotomy’ between an ethnic Judaism and non- or trans-ethnic Christianity. Horrell views ethnicity and race as primarily rhetorical categories in early Christian literature, employed for the purposes of “constructing group identity” (p. 66). In chapter 3, Horrell returns to social-scientific discourse to define ‘ethnicity,’ ‘race,’ and ‘religion’ “to inform and orient the exegetical investigations and critical reflections that follow” (p. 67). In so doing, he finds “ethnic and racial identities” to be “socially constructed rather than natural or inherent, fluid and flexible rather than biologically or genetically determined” with religion, “rather than being neatly separable or distinct” functioning to serve the construction of ethnic and racial identity (p. 89). 

Part 2 offers a series of exegetical studies focussing on and employing these (now defined) categories of ethnicity, race, and religion. In chapter 4, Horrell examines how Jews and early Christians employed ancestry and descent to contribute to group identity, finding “considerable overlaps and similarities in the various kinds of appeals Jews and early Christians make to ideas of ancestry and descent” (p. 135). In chapter 5 Horrell examines the ways in which early Christian and Jewish group identity coalesces around a ‘way of life’, including the practices that comprise it and the socialisation of children into the ‘way of life.’ He claims “following Christ is not … a ‘way of life’ in exactly the same way Judaism is,” although suggests the two are “at least comparable in significant ways” (p. 175). Chapter 6 discusses land and space in Jewish and early Christian literature (specifically Luke-Acts, Paul, 1 Peter, Hebrews, and Revelation). While Horrell sees notions of Jerusalem as ‘ancestral homeland’ to be key to Jewish identity, by contrast “nowhere in the New Testament is the land of Israel described in such concrete terms” (p. 214). However, again Horrell finds the border between Jewish and early Christian conceptions of land more porous than often assumed, with many Jewish views of land “find[ing] parallels and echoes in New Testament and early Christian texts” (p. 214) such that “a clear distinction is difficult to sustain” (p. 215). In chapter 7, Horrell asks how groups in antiquity understood themselves to be a ‘people’. He finds in early Christian sources an apparent self-consciousness of early Christianity as a people, such that “being Christian is deemed to stand in distinction from being Jewish or being Greek” (p. 247). This distinction is only found “embryonically in the New Testament itself and [emerges] much more prominently in later Christian literature” (p. 246) In the final chapter of part 2 (chapter 8), Horrell compares Jewish and early Christian conceptions of mission. He finds (“contrary to an earlier tradition of scholarship”) a lack of evidence for “proactive or zealous missionary activity on the part of the Jews” and notes a contrast with “the energetic missionary activity of the earliest Christian movement” (p. 294). Despite this, Horrell notes that both Judaism and early Christianity offered “possibilities for both joining and leaving,” such that “differences notwithstanding, there seems little basis for a categorical distinction” between the two (p. 295). 

Finally, in part 3 (comprising just chapter 9), Horrell asks whether assumed differences between Judaism and early Christianity arise from the “origins and context” of scholarly traditions “in the white Western nations of Europe (and now the USA)” (p. 299). Drawing upon whiteness studies, he calls for “critical interrogation of the constructions and effects of whiteness, probing especially the veiling of its particularity” (p. 316). Horrell views ‘Christianness’ and ‘whiteness’ as two mutually informative spheres of dominance in NT studies, such that “contributions and perspectives from those who do not inhabit that dominant and privileged position [i.e., Christian whiteness] warrant particular attention” within the field (p. 335). Horrell concludes by calling for “robust and meaningful critical dialogue” between “our diverse and contextually produced readings” of the NT (p. 344).

Horrell’s work offers a welcome critique on two levels. Not only does it offer a corrective to scholarship on ethnic identity (itself no small achievement), but also critiques the very systems and structures of scholarship that lead to these readings. He may not be the first to do so, but Horrell rightly calls for nothing less than systematic restructuring of NT studies as a whole and the final chapter on its own makes this monograph worth the price of admission. It makes for simultaneously sobering and inspirational reading, and deserves reading not only by academics, but by students entering the field too. Similarly, the scope of Horrell’s work is staggering. A vast array of issues is handled in detail without losing clarity of thought and argument. Moving from one topic to the next, the reader never loses sight of Horrell’s overall aims and argument. He has mastered the enviable feat of presenting his argument simply, without being simplistic. 

That being said, Horrell’s last chapter is oddly placed and would be better placed in part 1. (Indeed, that fact this chapter forms its own part hints at the slight disconnect). This chapter critiques the systems and structures resulting in inaccurate readings of Jewish and early Christian conceptions of ethnicity. But this critique does not itself arise from Horrell’s exegetical work. The call for renewed examination of the particularities of scholarly traditions might well have been reiterated at the end of the book, if this is the note upon Horrell wishes to conclude, but clarity and strength of critique may have been better served by moving chapter 9 into part 1. Moreover, for all of the effective calls Horrell makes in this chapter for reflection upon the particularity of the traditions of dominant scholarship, it is somewhat conspicuous that Horrell never really locates his own particularity. He describes his critique of whiteness in NT scholarship as “an analysis from ‘within’ the tradition I am also seeking to subject to critique,” (p. 341) but offers little sustained reflection upon the possible ways in which his own particularity might inform his critique. 

Finally, and more worryingly, Horrell’s use of the Theological Dictionary of the New Testament is jarring, to say the least. He notes the Nazi connections of Kittel (and others) early in the book (pp. 28–29). And yet, Horrell references TDNT 15 times (by my count) in his exegetical sections without caveat or explanation (pp. 106 n41; 107 n43; 151 n54; 154 n67; 223 n40; 224 n42, n43, n45; 225 n50; 226 n56, n57, n58; 234 n89; 262 n51; 263 n65), and without connection to his comments on scholarship in Nazi Germany. What makes this even more surprising is Horrell’s reference on the last page of the book to Sara Parks’ important New Blackfriars article on the ‘politics of citation’. Was there really no other source to which Horrell might appeal to make these points? To be sure, 15 references in 345 pages of argumentation is hardly frequent, but it does strike me as both tone-deaf and rhetorically deleterious that TDNT is cited without reference to its social particularity. Here Horrell’s citation practice uncritically upholds the very worst of those same systems and structures he seeks to critique. 

Horrell’s work is simultaneously a much-needed corrective to scholarship on Jewish and early Christian ethnicity and a withering critique of the systems and structures of scholarship that produce such readings. It is not without flaws. His use of TDNT, in particular, is both baffling and troubling, given the context of his argument. But Horrell’s bifurcated critique of previous scholarship on the issues addressed is compelling, clearly articulated, and ultimately persuasive. The caveats mentioned here should not stop this important work being widely read and earnestly discussed.

Jonathan Rowlands
St. Mellitus College
jonny.rowlands [at]


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