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Spring 2015 · Vol. 44 No. 1 · pp. 16–29 

Seed of Abraham (Friesen?): Universality and Ethnicity in Paul

Ryan Schellenberg

Although it helpfully indicates a significant shift in the study of Paul, the phrase “new perspective” is, by now, a misleading one. For one thing, like the title of the well-worn Modern Chemistry textbook I used in high school, it features an adjective that, though once accurate enough, now serves only to highlight its datedness. For another, what has emerged in the wake of the epoch-making studies of Krister Stendahl, E. P. Sanders, and James Dunn 1 is not so much a new perspective as a new interpretive project. No, even that suggests far too much coherence. What has emerged are conversations animated by a new cluster of problems, some of which derive, more or less directly, from the challenge to traditional Lutheran readings of Paul that preoccupied Pauline scholarship for much of the last quarter of the twentieth century. This article is an invitation to attend to one of those conversations, and one that I expect to be of particular interest to Mennonite Brethren.

Despite himself, Paul called gentiles to “judaize”—that is, to adopt specifically Judean practices.

A fundamental insight of the “new perspective” has been that Paul was concerned not with generic humans but instead with Jews and gentiles. 2 More recent scholarship has pushed the issue further, reflecting on the implications of the fact that for Paul “Jew” and “gentile” were not only theological but first of all ethnic categories: Paul encountered people who were part of his clan (“Jews by birth”) and people who were not (“gentile sinners” [Gal 2:15 NRSV]), and the differences between them concerned not only salvation history, but also and especially social reality. And so {17} ethnicity has come to the fore of the study of the apostle to the ethnē, with scholars eagerly asking what it is, how Paul engaged it, and how it shapes our understanding of his gospel for Jews and gentiles. As we will see, this recent burst of research problematizes an idea that has long been cherished by interpreters of Paul, and which has served as a key scriptural sponsor of Mennonite Brethren attempts to distinguish Anabaptist belief from Mennonite ethnicity—namely, the notion that “for Paul, the church was above ethnicity.” 3


Always alert to the need to justify their continued existence, biblical scholars find it gratifying to narrate the interpretive errors of their predecessors. These days, one of the more popular such stories concerns the relative value assigned to the main segments of Paul’s letter to the Romans. The Reformers and their heirs saw the initial three chapters, wherein Paul outlines his doctrine of universal sinfulness and “justification by faith,” as the theological heart of the letter. Chapters 9–11 received rather less emphasis—an excursus on predestination, for Luther and Calvin, or, for some later interpreters, an addendum on the residual “Jewish question” that plagued the church’s first generation. 4 The “new perspective” turned this valuation on its head, with Krister Stendahl leading the charge: “Rom. 9–11 is not an appendix to chs. 1–8, but the climax of the letter.” 5

And it is not, for Stendahl, a treatise on predestination—at least not the predestination of generic individual souls. What concerns Paul in Romans 9–11, as in the letter as a whole, is something considerably more specific: “What are the ramifications of the Messiah’s arrival for the relationship between Jews and Gentiles?” 6 That is, how does each group figure in God’s ongoing covenant with his elect people Israel? From this perspective, what Paul says about predestination in chapter 9—like his articulation of justification by faith earlier in the letter—is not itself a theological starting point but rather a deduction from two prior convictions: first, that God is faithful to his covenant promises to Israel; and, second, that he has called Paul to be an apostle of Christ not to Israel but to the gentiles. The theological energy of the letter results from Paul’s ongoing attempt to sort out how these two convictions relate to one another.

Luther too, of course, had noticed that Paul spoke often in this letter about Jews and gentiles, but for Luther these were but particular examples of universal spiritual types, with “gentiles” as generic godless sinners and “Jews” representing self-righteous legalists of any era or ethnicity—and especially papists. So, according to Luther, in Romans 1 Paul condemns “the sins of the pagans, . . . [who] live apart from the grace of God,” while in chapter 2 he turns his attention to those “who only appear to be godly,” 7 {18} addressing, as Ernst Käsemann would put it some centuries later, “the hidden Jew in all of us.” 8 Not surprisingly, those reading Paul in Luther’s wake frequently forgot that Paul was writing to a church populated not by ideal types but by real, flesh-and-blood Jews and gentiles.

This is particularly clear from traditional readings of the role of Abraham in Romans 4, according to which Abraham serves as an example of the principle established in chapter 3—namely, that “a person is justified by faith apart from works” (3:28 NRSV) and therefore has no grounds for boasting. 9 By showing that Abraham too, although righteous by any human standard, was justified not by “works” but rather by his faith (4:2–5), Paul demonstrates just how unfounded is the boasting of the rest of us. From this perspective, Abraham’s utility lies in his reputation for unsurpassed righteousness, and readers for whom other righteous persons come to mind more quickly than Abraham may be encouraged to reflect on them as examples instead—to consider, as Karl Barth does throughout his treatment of the passage, “Abraham and his like.” 10

But it is what “his like” do not share with Abraham that Paul will go on to highlight as the passage continues. This is not just a righteous man, after all, but father Abraham himself, “the ancestor of all who believe,” Judean and gentile alike (4:11–12). In other words, the point here is not that even good people need faith (though surely Paul thought they did), but rather that both gentiles and Jews could be(come) Abraham’s “seed”—the “many nations” he had been promised by God (cf. 4:16–17)—by sharing in his faith (cf. Gal 3:6–18). As John E. Toews puts it, “Abraham is not simply an example of Christian faith prior to Jesus. He is the father of all the people of God, which is now a worldwide people.” 11 In sum, Abraham is not just an archetype but also an ancestor, which means that the logic of the passage is not only theological but also ethnic: 12 Since Christ is Abraham’s “seed” (Gal 3:16), gentiles who are “in Christ” become part of Abraham’s family and thereby gain access to God’s covenant people and their inheritance: “If you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham’s seed, and heirs according to the promise” (Gal 3:29 NIV; cf. Rom 4:16). If this seems like crudely materialistic logic to modern Western readers, that may be because Paul—like most of the humans on the planet—took ancestry much more seriously than we do. 13


If Luther’s reading discarded real Jews and gentiles for universal types, the most influential nineteenth-century exegetes would go one step further, touting universality as Paul’s most important moral and religious achievement. F. C. Baur gave the position its classic articulation: In contrast to {19} the other apostles, who remained mired in tribal religious practices like circumcision, Paul alone saw the truly spiritual and thus universal truth of the gospel:

Everything that was national and Jewish in the Messianic idea . . . was at once removed from the consciousness of our apostle by the one fact of the death of Jesus. . . . Through his death, Jesus, as the Messiah, had died to Judaism, had been removed beyond his national connexion with it, and placed in a freer, more universal, and purely spiritual sphere, where the absolute importance which Judaism had claimed till then was at once obliterated. . . . The apostle therefore saw in the death of Christ the purification of the Messianic idea from all the sensuous elements which cleaved to it in Judaism . . . [Paul] has passed beyond all that is merely relative, limited, and finite in the Jewish religion, and has risen to the absolute religion. 14

In sum, what is particular—and notice that for Baur this is epitomized by human bodies (“sensuous elements”) and their ethnopolitical concerns (“national and Jewish”)—is transcended; what remains is the freedom of absolute spirit.

Those scholars most often associated with the “new perspective” have simultaneously decried the anti-Jewishness of this reading and reproduced its logic. 15 Take, for example, N. T. Wright, who critiques Baur for his readiness to “cast Paul and the Jews in the roles of pure spirit and outward religion [respectively],” 16 but then himself articulates Paul’s “critique of Judaism” in terms strikingly reminiscent of Baur:

Israel rejected the call of Jesus, and now rejects the apostolic message about Jesus, because it challenges that which has become her all-consuming interest: her relentless pursuit of national, ethnic and territorial identity. She is, Paul reckons, in danger of making herself simply a nation “like all the others.” Blood and soil were the marks of pagan nations; Israel was using Torah and circumcision to emphasize exactly those things. 17

It would surely have surprised Baur to learn that alluding to a nationalistic German slogan (Blut und Boden), would, a century later, prove such an effective, if perversely ironic way to vilify Jewish ethnic identification. In any case, whatever one makes of such rhetoric, it is clear that for Wright, as for Baur, it is human bodies (“blood”) and their ethnopolitical concerns (“soil”) that are transcended by Paul’s vision for Israel. 18 Indeed, although Wright would dispute this characterization of his position sharply, its logic requires the same dichotomy of material and spiritual that one finds in Baur; for, while spirits, perhaps, can live without blood or soil, bodies most certainly need both. {20}

This reading, according to which Israel, being God’s people, is intended somehow to attain peoplehood while pursuing neither national, nor ethnic, nor territorial identity, has a correlate in the popular evangelical exceptionalism of recent decades according to which Christianity is not a religion but a relationship. It is untenable for precisely the same reason: humans do not have relationships in the abstract, but only embodied relationships. Ethnic identification is one result. Religious practices are another.


Of course, a good exegete should not ask whether a position attributed to Paul is tenable, but whether or not it is Paul’s position. So, what does Paul have to say about blood and soil, about ancestry and the land?

Blood and soil, of course, function for Wright as metonyms for ethnicity. And, indeed, theorists often highlight the role of each in the construction of ethnic identity—and note that I use the verb “construction” here advisedly, since, though it is often experienced as fixed and immutable, ethnicity in fact results from active processes of group formation. Accordingly, the borders that define ethnic groups are variable, subject to change as various criteria of shared identity are emphasized or deemphasized in response to particular social and political exigencies. 19 The most common criteria are as follows, though it is important to note that no one of them is a necessary component of ethnic identification:

(1) A common proper name to identify the group; (2) a myth of shared ancestry (note “myth,” since the genealogical accuracy of the claimed descent is irrelevant) [our “blood”]; (3) a shared history or shared memories of a common past, including heroes, events, and their commemoration; (4) a common culture, embracing such things as customs, language, and religion; (5) a link with a homeland, either through actual occupation or by symbolic attachment to the ancestral land, as with diaspora peoples [our “soil”]; and (6) a sense of communal solidarity. 20

I have already attempted to demonstrate the central role of blood—or rather its close cousin “seed”—in Romans 4, the logic of which concerns not spiritual ancestry, but simply ancestry. Still, I do need to address one potential objection raised by the culmination of Paul’s parallel Abraham-argument in Galatians: “There is no longer Jew or Greek,” Paul famously announces, “there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus” (Gal 3:28 NRSV; cf. 1 Cor 12:13). Does not Paul here dismiss the relevance of ethnic identity to the new family of God? {21}

Here it is important to notice that Gal 3:28 is in fact the penultimate statement in the passage, which concludes with an assertion that looks initially like an odd anticlimax: “And if you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham’s seed, heirs according to the promise.” For those brought up on Baur-esque readings of Paul, it is rather jarring to recognize that here Paul treats “belonging to Christ” not as an end in itself but as a means of securing status in the Abrahamic covenant. The point is that gentiles too can become Abraham’s seed, with Christ serving as the key link in an alternative genealogy. In other words, Paul is claiming for Jewish and gentile believers a shared ancestry, a claim that makes it difficult to sustain the notion that Paul’s emphasis on unity in Christ results in a radical devaluation of ethnicity or kinship. Caroline Johnson Hodge’s summary of the passage is worth quoting in full:

Greeks need not become Jews to become people of the God of Israel; they need only be baptized into Christ. At the same time, this shared identity in Christ is not somehow ethnically neutral, as is often assumed. Being baptized into this Jewish messiah and receiving his spirit and his lineage bestow on the gentiles an affiliation with Israel. Being in Christ means being a part of Israel. 21

Still, this is not simply an exchange of one ethnicity for another; for, although occasionally Paul can speak of his converts as former gentiles (1 Cor 12:2; cf. 1 Thess 4:5), their incorporation into Israel does not in fact mean that Greeks stop being Greeks, Romans stop being Romans, etc. On the contrary, fundamental for Paul is the notion that gentiles are adopted into Abraham’s family as gentiles (Rom 4:17–18; 15:9–18; 3:8, 14)—hence his exasperation with Peter in Antioch (“How can you compel the gentiles to judaize?” [Gal 2:14]). Sitting around Paul’s ideal table, then, at which the single body of Christ eats in unity, we find both Jews and Greeks, all of whom are Abraham’s offspring. In short, Paul’s gentiles-in-Christ gain an ethnic affiliation, but they do not lose one. 22

If being a “gentile-in-Christ” is not ethnically neutral, still less does Paul’s emphasis on unity in Christ diminish his awareness that he himself remains a member of the Jewish “race” (genos). 23 Circumcision and uncircumcision may no longer “be anything” (1 Cor 7:19; Gal 6:15), and Paul may construe the prerogatives of Judean identity not as profits but as deficits in his new apostolic account book (Phil 3:4–6); still, he remains a Jew by birth, a “natural” Jew (physei [Gal 2:15; cf. Rom 11:24]) who shares with his kin a particular sort of flesh (tōn syngenōn mou kata sarka [Rom 9:3]). In other words, Paul continues to organize his social reality by utilizing the standard “vocabulary of peoplehood and human difference,” 24 and, in so doing, betrays an understanding of racial identity that modern {22} theorists would surely deride as essentialist. 25 Even if what he emphasizes is the possibility of adoption (Rom 8:15; 11:17–24; Gal 4:5), Paul’s world still consists of distinct and disparate families. 26 (And is there any advantage to belonging to the family Paul does? Yes, “much in every way!” [Rom 3:2 NIV].)

So, if ancestry remains important in Paul’s construction of believers’ identity, as in his own self-conception as a Jew by birth, what about the land? W. D. Davies, in his classic treatment of the subject, comes to the blunt conclusion: “His interpretation of the promise is a-territorial.” 27 And there is indeed a striking paucity of references in his letters to the land of Israel or to Jerusalem. 28 Still, one need not join Davies in reading Paul’s silence here as intentional repudiation of traditional land theology, which Paul replaces with an emphasis on the believer’s spiritual home “in Christ.” No, although the promise to Abraham of a real, concrete homeland may be deferred, it has not been forgotten. Paul refers to it expressly in Rom 4:13, and interprets it there not in a spiritualizing but in an imperial mode, such that it is not just Canaan that Abraham’s descendants will possess, as in Gen 17:8, but rather the entire world (kosmos). In other words, his interpretation of the promise is, like that of a number of other Judeans of his age (cf. Sir 44:21; Jub. 22:14; 32:19; 4 Ezra 6:59; 1 En. 5:7), not a-territorial, but pan-territorial. 29

Paul’s reinterpretation of the scope of the promise makes it clear why he hardly mentions the land of Israel: since God’s Kingdom, the inheritance of believers (1 Cor 6:9–10; 15:50; Gal 5:21), will soon cover the entire world, the immediate fate of “the present Jerusalem” (Gal 4:25) is not a primary concern. This hardly represents a disinterest in “soil,” or a failure to recognize that people—even God’s people—need places to dwell. When Paul speaks of his own homelessness (1 Cor 4:11), it is clear that he does not relish the experience. His hope lies in his conviction that it is a temporary condition: “Our citizenship is in heaven, and it is from there that we are expecting a Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ. He will transform the body of our humiliation that it may be conformed to the body of his glory, by the power that also enables him to make all things subject to himself” (Phil 3:20–21 NRSV).

As a number of recent interpreters have emphasized, this is not a vision of escape to an otherworldly home, but rather of imperial conquest. 30 Paul expects a Savior to come from heaven to earth, establishing his authority and vindicating those who are loyal to his realm. 31 Given the eschatological timeline he presupposes, it is not difficult to imagine our homeless apostle counseling Diaspora Judeans and others estranged from their lands to remain, for the time being, in the condition in which they were called (cf. 1 Cor 7:17–31)—which is to say, not taking the land by force but patiently {23} awaiting their inheritance. But this hardly means that what he has in mind is permanent displacement or a “diasporization” of identity. 32 Although the currency has been adjusted for eschatological inflation, peoplehood and land remain two sides of the same coin.


“You know the trouble with Mennonites?” John Reimer asks on the final page of Rudy Wiebe’s The Blue Mountains of China. “They’ve always wanted to be Jews.” 33 And, indeed, in thinking with Paul about the nature of ethnic identity, Mennonite Brethren have very readily placed themselves in the role of Jews, with “the English”—or, later, white suburbanites—sitting in for gentiles. Such an analogy is not fruitless. On the contrary, I will describe below a few pieces of fruit I think it bears. But it does have its limits. In other words, I do not think our current thinking on ethnicity can be guided solely by that mode of biblical theology according to which whatever Paul said about Jews and gentiles in the first century can be applied, mutatis mutandis, to situations of ethnic diversity today. No, hidden behind that slippery phrase lie too many variables unnamed and unexamined for such an approach to be viable. We will need other sources of wisdom as well.

Still, perhaps attending carefully to what Paul says about Jews and gentiles can help Mennonite Brethren think through the perpetual conundrum that is encapsulated in the phrase “Ethnicity and Faith”—itself the title of an issue of this journal some decades ago. 34 John H. Redekop contributed an essay to that issue in which he reiterated the assertion, central to his 1987 book, A People Apart, that Mennonite Brethren must be “religious first and then multi-ethnic.” 35 For Redekop, this meant building upon a developing division of labor between the terms Anabaptist and Mennonite according to which the former would designate a theological tradition and the latter an ethnicity. No more “faith-culture fusion”; these would be two identities, separate and unequal. Not surprisingly, given the tradition of interpretation we have noted above, Paul is invoked repeatedly in the piece as one who saw that the gospel transcended ethnic bounds. 36

My intention here is not to mount a long belated critique of Redekop’s book. Rather, I highlight A People Apart because it articulates with particular straightforwardness an idea now generally taken as self-evident among Mennonite Brethren, namely, that religion is one thing, and ethnicity another. That we have come to adopt this way of thinking is perhaps unsurprising given the denominational religious landscape in which North American Mennonites have dwelt, a context in which official articulations of identity and difference have been doctrinal (hence “Anabaptist distinctives”), and in which differences in ethos, though recognized informally, {24} have seldom been valued as significant aspects of denominational identity. Indeed, such differences have generally been regarded by Mennonites and other denominational groups as slightly embarrassing vestiges of a pre-American ethnic past, hindrances to full assimilation into mainstream North American society, and thus hindrances to the evangelization and incorporation of neighbors. The implicit assumption seems often to have been that people of all denominations, whatever their theological disputes, share a common North American way of life, or at least will do so soon. (And if Christian denominations have not valued their cultural heritage, the market has been happy to fill the void, providing its own generalized and capitalized version of what passes for culture and trivializing traditional cultural practices by turning them into folklore.) 37

So perhaps it is not surprising that Mennonite Brethren have attempted to divorce theological from ethnic identity. But other roads are imaginable. In the same 1988 issue of Direction, Delbert Wiens was articulating a different vision, speaking of Mennonite Brethren faith as a concrete set of practices and dispositions—a habitus, to put it in Pierre Bourdieu’s terms: 38

Like other traditional cultures, [our elders] formed a concrete community with a web of expected responses and patterns of behavior that defined their particular way of life. This ethos was exhibited in their daily routines. And so the growing children could imitate and experiment their way into its shapes and also become Mennonites. So could others.

. . .

To be genuine disciples it was also necessary for each individual to meet Jesus “outside” the holy community. But the Christian then “returned” with the intention to incarnate godliness in the whole of life and to help to build that godliness into every aspect of the geography and ethos that was enclosed under the sacred canopy. Good Mennonites did not pay much attention to something so abstract as dogma, though they were not likely to deny the truthfulness of such statements. They were more interested in whether their lives were the truth. 39

In other words, the modern notion that “religion” and “ethnicity” could be abstracted from concrete life and thus separated from one another was foreign to our elders. As we have seen, it was foreign also to Paul.

Indeed, Paul, like the earlier Mennonites of whom Wiens speaks, sought to cultivate not primarily a set of beliefs but rather a way of being, an ethos, “the obedience of faith” (Rom 1:5; 16:26; cf. 15:18). And it is important to see that this was a specifically Judean ethos. The high visibility in our texts of the dispute over gentile circumcision is too often allowed to obscure the {25} fact that Paul and the early Christ-followers nevertheless called gentiles to embrace a wide range of Judean ethno-religious practices: 40 aniconism (rejection of images), monolatry (worship of only one God), a particular set of sexual mores, refusal to abort or expose infants, baptism, Judean modes of prayer (including key Aramaic words), particular practices of reading particular Judean texts, attitudes toward wealth and poverty that developed out of Israel’s particular historical experience, and, more generally, identification with that historical experience. Each of these practices was ethnically coded; each contributed to a distinct and recognizable Judean identity. 41 Only in retrospect, with the modern conceptual separation of religion and ethnicity, could they be identified as moral/theological rather than ritual aspects of Judean life—itself a very tenuous distinction, as close attention to the list above would demonstrate.

Despite himself, then, Paul called gentiles to “judaize”—that is, to adopt specifically Judean practices. 42 His dispute with other early Christ-followers was not about whether gentiles, having been adopted into Abraham’s family, would adopt the ethos of that family. That was taken for granted. Rather, the dispute concerned the status of a particular and strategic set of practices—circumcision, above all—that were deemed by Paul to be unnecessary barriers to full gentile participation. Or, to put it another way, it was taken for granted that gentiles-in-Christ would adopt the ethos of Abraham’s family; what was controversial was whether their participation would also have a role in the ongoing formation of that ethos.

Again, it is not my contention that our ambivalence regarding Mennonite ethnicity can be addressed simply by transposing Paul’s story into a Mennonite key. We, of course, live in the modern world; the pre-modern experience of Paul and the early Mennonites is irretrievable. Although it may be tempting to wish it could have been so, Mennonite Brethren have not been able to leap directly from pre- to postmodern modes of being, bypassing the alienating abstractions of modernity on their way to new forms of holistic life in community. 43 And nostalgia will not get us very far.

Still, Mennonite ethnicity persists, and there remain a Mennonite Brethren ethos and Mennonite Brethren folkways—what we might, from a theological perspective, call habits of faithfulness (as well, of course, as our own particular habits of unfaithfulness). To value this ethos need not mean to suppress cultural change, nor to deny newcomers a role in shaping it. On the contrary, as Paul’s rhetoric of Jew/gentile kinship confirms, it is in the very nature of ethnic identification to thrive in the tension between continuity and change, fixity and fluidity. 44 That is, it is characteristic of ethnic groups to retain a sense of shared peoplehood even while they adopt new families, 45 discover common “ancestors” with those previously deemed outsiders, 46 and together forge new ways of being particularly themselves in new cultural spaces. {26}

So, Mennonite ethnicity persists, and will persist, whether our theological discourse acknowledges it or not. My wager is that we stand a better chance of expressing it in hospitable ways if we acknowledge it than if we try to marginalize it. In sum, I do think there is something we can learn from Paul in this regard, namely, to more straightforwardly celebrate our (sometime) heritage of lived faithfulness while strategically deemphasizing those aspects of ethnic identity that, like circumcision in Antioch, serve as markers of exclusion and barriers to shared peoplehood.


  1. Foundational are Krister Stendahl, “The Apostle Paul and the Introspective Conscience of the West,” Harvard Theological Review 56 (1963): 199–215; repr. in Paul among Jews and Gentiles, and Other Essays (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1976), 78–96; E. P. Sanders, Paul and Palestinian Judaism: A Comparison of Patterns of Religion (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1977); James D. G. Dunn, “The New Perspective on Paul,” Bulletin of the John Rylands University Library of Manchester 65 (1983): 95–122.
  2. The debate regarding how best to translate Ioudaios has not produced a consensus, and is unlikely to, since neither “Jew” nor “Judean” is a fully satisfactory translation. For the problems with the former, see esp. Steve Mason, “Jews, Judaeans, Judaizing, Judaism: Problems of Categorization in Ancient History,” Journal for the Study of Judaism in the Persian, Hellenistic, and Roman Periods 38 (2007): 457–512. For the difficulties with the latter, see esp. Caroline Johnson Hodge, If Sons, Then Heirs (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2007), 11–15. I will use the terms interchangeably here.
  3. Wally Kroeker, “So You’re not Really One of Us,” Christian Leader, 23 July 1985, 3; cited in John H. Redekop, A People Apart: Ethnicity and the Mennonite Brethren (Winnipeg: Kindred, 1987), 134.
  4. E.g. C. H. Dodd, The Epistle of Paul to the Romans, MNTC (New York: Harper & Row, 1932), 149.
  5. Stendahl, “Introspective Conscience,” 205.
  6. Ibid., 204. Cf. John E. Toews, Romans, Believers Church Bible Commentary (Scottdale, PA: Herald, 2004), 28–29.
  7. Martin Luther, “Preface to the Epistle of St. Paul to the Romans,” in Martin Luther: Selections from His Writings, ed. John Dillenberger, trans. Bertram Lee Woolf (Garden City, NY: Anchor, 1961), 26.
  8. Ernst Käsemann, New Testament Questions of Today, NTL (London: SCM, 1969), 186.
  9. So, e.g., C. E. B. Cranfield, A Critical and Exegetical Commentary on the Epistle to the Romans, 2 vols., 6th ed., ICC 32 (Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1975), 1:224.
  10. Karl Barth, The Epistle to the Romans (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1968), 120 and passim.
  11. Toews, Romans, 125. {27}
  12. See esp. Johnson Hodge, If Sons, Then Heirs; Richard B. Hays, “ ‘Have We Found Abraham to Be Our Forefather According to the Flesh?’ A Reconsideration of Rom 4:1,” Novum Testamentum 27 (1985): 76–98.
  13. Witness Israel Kamudzandu, Abraham as Spiritual Ancestor: A Postcolonial Zimbabwean Reading of Romans 4, Biblical Interpretation Series 100 (Leiden: Brill, 2010).
  14. Ferdinand Christian Baur, Paul the Apostle of Jesus Christ: His Life and Work, His Epistles and His Doctrine, ed. Eduard Zeller, trans. Allan Menzies, 2 vols., 2nd ed. (London: Williams & Norgate, 1876), 2:125–26. Cf. Adolf von Harnack, Outlines of the History of Dogma (London: Hodder & Stoughton, 1893), 42. On the categories of “national” and “universal” religions, see further Cavan W. Concannon, “When You Were Gentiles”: Specters of Ethnicity in Roman Corinth and Paul’s Corinthian Correspondence, Synkrisis (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2014), 3–4.
  15. See further Johnson Hodge, If Sons, Then Heirs, 7–8.
  16. N. T. Wright, “The Paul of History and the Apostle of Faith,” Tyndale Bulletin 29 (1978): 80.
  17. N. T. Wright, What Saint Paul Really Said: Was Paul of Tarsus the Real Founder of Christianity? (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1997), 84.
  18. Thus in a recent chapter in which he otherwise emphasizes that the early Christians comprised “a real community of actual human beings” characterized by concrete religious practices, Wright is quick to emphasize that what Paul has in mind is a “non-geographical and non-ethnic polis” (Paul and the Faithfulness of God, 2 vols., Christian Origins and the Question of God 4 [Minneapolis: Fortress, 2013], 1:1332).
  19. For illuminating case studies relevant to Paul’s milieu, see Edith Hall, Inventing the Barbarian: Greek Self-Definition through Tragedy, OCM (Oxford: Clarendon, 1989); Shaye J. D. Cohen, The Beginnings of Jewishness: Boundaries, Varieties, Uncertainties (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1999); Jonathan M. Hall, Hellenicity: Between Ethnicity and Culture (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2002); J. Albert Harrill, “Ethnic Fluidity in Ephesians,” New Testament Studies 60 (2014): 379–402.
  20. Philip F. Esler, Conflict and Identity in Romans: The Social Setting of Paul’s Letter (Minneapolis: Fortress, 2003), 43–44.
  21. Johnson Hodge, If Sons, Then Heirs, 106.
  22. On the concept of “multiple ethnicity” that such a formulation requires, see Hall, Inventing the Barbarian, 6–7; Esler, Conflict and Identity in Romans, 49–50; Johnson Hodge, If Sons, Then Heirs, 117–35.
  23. As Leif E. Vaage has observed, Paul consistently speaks of Ioudaioi as constituting not an ethnos but a genos—a term that often emphasizes shared “blood.” I am dependent in the analysis that follows on his “The Homeless Apostle and His Jewish Identity” (paper presented at the annual meeting of the Society of Biblical Literature, Chicago, IL, 17 November 2012).
  24. Denise Kimber Buell, Why This New Race: Ethnic Reasoning in Early Christianity (New York: Columbia University Press, 2005), 2.
  25. Many would point to Rom 2:28–29 as an exception, a passage usually translated such that it promotes a spiritualizing notion of Jewish identity wherein {28} true Jewishness is something hidden, not manifest. A close reading, however, makes clear that what Paul is concerned with in the passage is not what makes one a true Jew, but what truly merits praise from God. See further Matthew Thiessen, “Paul’s Argument against Gentile Circumcision in Romans 2:17–29,” Novum Testamentum 56 (2014): 375–78.
  26. As Buell emphasizes, the discourse of racial/ethnic identity always entails both notions of fixity and of fluidity: “Certainly some fundamental ‘essence’ such as blood, flesh, or seed is often asserted as the basis for reckoning membership in an ethnoracial group and is traceable through means such as genealogy or kinship. But ideas about race and ethnicity gain persuasive power by being subject to revision while purporting to speak about fundamental essences” (Why This New Race, 7). Cf. Concannon, When You Were Gentiles, 13–16.
  27. W. D. Davies, The Gospel and the Land: Early Christianity and Jewish Territorial Doctrine (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1974), 179.
  28. Some have argued that Paul’s gentile collection demonstrates his commitment to an eschatological tradition in which Jerusalem plays a central role as the “mountain of God” to which the nations bring their wealth (Isa 2:2–4; 60:5; Mic 4:1–4). See esp. Johannes Munck, Paul and the Salvation of Mankind (London: SCM, 1959), 282–308. But this interpretation has not proven convincing. See David J. Downs, The Offering of the Gentiles: Paul’s Collection for Jerusalem in Its Chronological, Cultural, and Cultic Contexts, WUNT 2/248 (Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, 2008), 3–9.
  29. On Paul’s eschatological but concrete interpretation of the promise, see esp. Mark Forman, The Politics of Inheritance in Romans, SNTSMS 148 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2011).
  30. N. T. Wright, Paul: In Fresh Perspective (Minneapolis: Fortress, 2009), 71; Andrew T. Lincoln, Paradise Now and Not Yet: Studies in the Role of the Heavenly Dimension in Paul’s Thought with Special Reference to His Eschatology, SNTSMS 43 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1981), 193. It may be useful to recall that although some Philippians had Roman citizenship, this did not mean that Rome was their true home, or final destination.
  31. See Gordon M. Zerbe, Citizenship: Paul on Peace and Politics (Winnipeg: CMU Press, 2012), 21 and passim.
  32. This reading of Paul complicates—but does not, in my judgment, invalidate—the narrative suggested by John Howard Yoder, according to which the early believers inherited from other Jews a “Jeremiac model” of normal (pacifist) life in diaspora. See esp. Yoder, The Jewish-Christian Schism Revisited, ed. Michael G. Cartwright and Peter Ochs, Radical Traditions (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2003), 183–204.
  33. Rudy Wiebe, The Blue Mountains of China, New Canadian Library 108 (Toronto: McClelland & Stewart, 1975), 227.
  34. “Ethnicity and Faith,” Direction 17, no. 1 (1988).
  35. John H. Redekop, “Ethnicity and the Mennonite Brethren: Issues and Responses,” Direction 17 (1988): 4. {29}
  36. See esp. ibid., 7. Indeed, Redekop was confident that his position rested on a solid biblical foundation, noting of his book: “To date not a single critic . . . has attempted a critique based on biblical teachings” (12).
  37. Cf. José Comblin, Called for Freedom: The Changing Context of Liberation Theology, trans. Phillip Berryman (Maryknoll: Orbis, 1998), 146–51.
  38. Pierre Bourdieu, Outline of a Theory of Practice, trans. Richard Nice, Cambridge Studies in Social Anthropology 16 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1977), 82–83. For an attempt to use Bourdieu’s concept to articulate the dynamics of Mennonite identity, see Daphne Naomi Winland, “The Quest for Mennonite Peoplehood: Ethno-Religious Identity and the Dilemma of Definitions,” Canadian Review of Sociology and Anthropology 30 (1993): 110–38.
  39. Delbert L. Wiens, “Theological Response to Ethnicity in the Modern World,” Direction 17 (1988): 104, 113.
  40. Cf. Paula Fredriksen, “Judaizing the Nations: The Ritual Demands of Paul’s Gospel,” New Testament Studies 56 (2010): 232–52.
  41. See, e.g., Wis 14:12; Augustine, Civ. 4.31; Tacitus, Hist. 5.5; Juvenal, Sat. 14.102; Celsus 7.3; Rom 8:1.
  42. Cf. Yoder, Jewish-Christian Schism, 95.
  43. Which is perhaps to say, to use Delbert Wiens’s terms, that we have not travelled from village to city without first stopping over in town. Cf. “From the Village to the City,” Direction 2 (1973): 98–149.
  44. See Buell, Why This New Race, 5–7 and passim.
  45. On the adoption of new families into the Prussian and Russian Mennonite communities—and the corresponding increase in the number of “Mennonite names”—see Alan Peters, “The Impact of the Family in Mennonite History: Some Preliminary Observations,” Direction 1 (1972): 78–80.
  46. E.g. Harrill, “Ethnic Fluidity in Ephesians,” 393–94.
Ryan Schellenberg is Assistant Professor of Biblical Studies at Fresno Pacific University, and author of Rethinking Paul’s Rhetorical Education: Comparative Rhetoric and 2 Corinthians 10–13 (2013).

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