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Prejudice and Christian Beginnings: Investigating Race, Gender, and Ethnicity in Early Christian Studies.

Prejudice and Christian Beginnings: Investigating Race, Gender, and Ethnicity in Early Christian Studies. Edited by Laura Nasrallah and Elisabeth Schussler Fiorenza. Minneapolis: Fortress, 2009. xiv+319 pp. $26.00 cloth.

Some studies of the New Testament and classical world have considered gender and ethnicity while others have investigated race within the politics of empire. This volume introduces intersectional analysis, asking us to think about the shifting relationships between the three categories while considering the unexamined legacies of nineteenth- and twentieth-century methods of interpretation. What a daunting task! As more than one author laments, mastering one branch of knowledge is difficult enough, let alone several. Yet failure to engage these multiple disciplines can yield one-sided images of history, and blindness to our own assumptions.

The introductory essay by Elisabeth Schussler Fiorenza describes the ambitious aims and benefits of intersectional analysis. Quite simply, intersectional analysis gives a truer sense of how people live in the world because it looks at multiple social structural positions. For example, women of subordinate groups (by way of national, ethnic, and racial designation) are often more oppressed by elite white women than by men of their own group. Those elite women hold power by way of class, while they are denied it by way of gender. One thinks of the early suffrage movement and its racism as emblematic of these complexities. As always, Schfissler Fiorenza's attention to language, with words like "kyriarchy," "malestream," and "the*logy," makes us think twice.

Shelley P. Haley, in "Be Not Afraid of the Dark: Critical Race Theory and Classical Studies," integrates categories in showing how nineteenth-century interpreters placed their images of black womanhood on top of ancient Roman views of color and foreigners. Roman literature conceived of Dido, the African foreigner, as an exotic temptress. Scybale, the female African companion of Pseudo-Virgil's Moretum, however, becomes a large-breasted oddity or an old negress servant at the hands of early twentieth-century translators. Haley shows that albus, translated as "white" by Europeans, was more likely pale brown in the Mediterranean world, just as ater, candidus, and fuscus, applied to Mediterranean people, are likely to be varying shades of brown.

Cynthia Baker, in "'From Every Nation under Heaven': Jewish Ethnicities in the Greco-Roman World," skillfully undermines the image of Jewish uniformity and particularity by showing Jewish ethnic diversity in early texts like Philo's Against Flaccus and Acts 2. Jewish ethnic sameness, she suggests, allowed Christian theology to contrast Jewish particularity with Christian universalism. Yet Jews showed multiple ethnic allegiances, as much to their "fatherlands" where they were born and raised as to their "mother city" Jerusalem or the province of Judea.

Sze-kar Wan, in '"To the Jew First and Also to the Greek': Reading Romans as Ethnic Construction," shows how Paul's ethnic constructions exhibit hybridity, joining the Jew/Gentile and Greek/barbarian modes of dividing up reality, rendering both "Jew" and "Greek" as positive terms. Paul incorporates Gentiles into the Jewish outlook, recasting circumcision as a generalized practice of the Law as the path to Jewishness and inclusion in the people of God. Paul both acknowledges the centrality of circumcision as the way to Jewishness and also transforms it to bring in Gentiles.

Both Susannah Heschel, in "Race as Incarnational Theology: Affinities between German Protestantism and Racial Theory," and Gabrietla Gelardini, in "Religion, Ethnicity, and Ethnoreligion: Trajectories of a Discourse in German-Speaking Historical Jesus Scholarship," consider the problem of Jesus' Jewishness for Protestant theology, which attempts to affirm his distinctive message, while denying its Jewish elements. Gelardini shows how influential figures like Rudolf Bultmann and Ernst K/isemann divided Jesus from his Jewishness. Heschel shows how this impulse took on racial dimensions in Nazi Germany, where a group of scholars under Walter Grundmann set out to eradicate Jewish elements form German religious life. They argued that Jesus was an Aryan, and took to removing Jewish elements from scripture and prayer books. She rejects the common idea that Nazism was pagan and anti-Christian, asserting an affinity between racism and Christian theology, similar to Rosemary Radford Ruether's famous remark that anti-Semitism is "the left hand of Christology."

Vincent Wimbush, in "'No Modern Joshua ...': Nationalization, Scriptures, and Race," writes of being haunted by Frederick Douglass, who "used the religious as a registration of the political and the political as a registration of the religious" (272). The nation saw itself as the chosen people, but left out non-white peoples from the narrative, while blacks inverted the story, identifying their suffering in the wilderness of post-slavery America with the wandering of the slaves liberated by God from Pharaoh. But Douglass's "civil hermeneutics" proposed not a simple replacement of characters, nor a new Joshua who might make the people stand still, but Americans as a mixed rabble in motion, debating, and moving toward redemption.

A final essay by Fernando Segovia, "Poetics of Minority Biblical Criticism: Identification and Theorization," articulates a taxonomy of approaches for the poetics of minority biblical criticism. He proposes to consider the context of the critic as the starting point for understanding ancient texts, much as Haley, Heschel, and others in the book have done, while retrieving religious and theological insights obscured by classical interpretations.

Not every article shows the same level of intersectionality. Some are primarily about race or ethnicity, with gender often of secondary interest. In spite of its self-conscious reflection and attention to prejudices, several questions remain unexamined. If we all agree with the goal of dismantling kyriarchy and bringing forth resources to create a more just world, what is the measure by which we determine these things? This question haunts all biblical interpretation, even the most professedly literalist. Terms like "minority criticism" and "dominant culture" are used without qualification. They sound slightly outdated, as America becomes increasingly non-white and diverse. Finally, although perhaps inevitably in new approaches, this work is highly focused on the "others" out there in scholarship who have not gotten it right.

Are they trying to do too much? Probably. Is this approach an intriguing and necessary way to unlock the ancient texts and our own understandings of them? Most certainly.

Claudia Setzer

Manhattan College

doi: 10.1017/S0009640711000710
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Author:Setzer, Claudia
Publication:Church History
Article Type:Book review
Date:Sep 1, 2011
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