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The Bible on Race

The Bible on Race
The Bible pays no attention to race

By Gerald McDermott
July 24, 2020

This will shock many, especially those who are now pointing to the heavenly church of Revelation 7:9 that supposedly highlights diverse races:

After this I looked and behold, a great multitude that no one could number, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, clothed in white robes, with palm branches in their hands . . .

It is true that this great multitude will be of many colors, but this passage pays no attention to their colors. Instead the author of Revelation focuses on their nations and tribes and peoples and languages.

Nations (tà ethnē) in the biblical world were composed of people with different skin colors. A nation was united by its culture, which was formed by its cultus or religion. Israel was a nation united by the Jewish religion. Its people were a "mixed multitude" with different colors from Exodus day and had often assimilated people from other nations like Ruth and Rahab who were probably of slightly different colors.

This is the first tipoff that the Bible identifies people not by their pigment but by their national cultures.

Tribes (phulḗ) were family lines of common descent. Just as families today where spouses and adopted children can have different colors, tribes were often made up of people of different colors.

In this case, identity in the Bible comes from kin relationships, not skin color.

Peoples (lāoí) were groups with a common history and constitution. They often consisted of a those in the region of a nation, such as the people of Galilee in the larger nation of Judea, or the people of Macedonia or Achaia in what we now know as Greece. Because of migration and intermarriage, they often were of different colors. But they were identified by their people groups, not by their colors.

Once more, we see, identity comes from membership in a people group rather than pigment.

Tongues (glōssae) were different dialects and languages. Jews in the Bible had their own linguistic differences. In Judges 12 the tribes on the west side of the Jordan became known to the Gileadites on the east side by their inability to pronounce "Shibboleth"--just as Peter was recognized as a friend of Jesus the Galilean by his Galilean accent (Matt 26:73). At Pentecost the crowds of Jews from all over the Mediterranean world spoke different tongues and could not understand one another.

Their skins had different colors, but the biblical author took no notice of their pigments--only their different tongues and nations of residence (Acts 2:5-13).

These are the variations in creation identity which the Bible says God intended: Paul told the pagan philosophers on Mars Hill that God "determined the allotted periods and boundaries of the dwelling places" of his beloved human creatures (Acts 17:26). He decided which times in history and which cultures he would have men and women inhabit.

Those times and cultures and nations and families and tribes and languages gave "creation identity" to those millions of men and women. They were of many different colors, but the Bible says not a word about those colors. Other dimensions of the creation were more determinative.

What is true for human beings outside the church is also true for those in the church. The Bible describes the church as diverse but with a diversity that ignores skin color. It is a diversity of sex (men and women), relation to the Chosen People (Jew and gentile), and culture (different nations and tribes and languages).

We see the same thing in events in the history of the New Testament church.

In Acts chapter 6 there were complaints by Hellenistic Jews against the Hebrew Jews in the Jerusalem church. The first group were probably made up of different colors because they were from various parts of diaspora Judaism around the Mediterranean. What separated them from the Hebrew Jews was not color but language and culture. The church leaders solved the dispute by choosing seven Greeks (from Greek culture) to deal with the needs of that Hellenistic community. Once again, the problem was culture not color, and the solution that brought unity was to pay attention to culture rather than color.

In John chapter 4 Jesus went out of his way to travel through Samaria, which by the first century held a people of different cultural and racial backgrounds from Jews in Jerusalem. Samaritans were the descendants of marriages between Jews and pagans centuries back in the Assyrian empire. Their religious cultus (religion) was similar to that of Jews (they used Torah) but different (they had their own temple and priesthood and rejected the rest of the Old Testament). Jesus felt free to criticize their different culture (he said "salvation is from the Jews" in v. 22) but leaped over social and religious barriers by talking to the Samaritan woman and by praising Samaritans for religious (the one of the ten lepers who gave thanks) and moral (the Good Samaritan parable) reasons.

The Samaritans were of a slightly different color, but color played no role in this significant cultural and religious conflict.

Jesus commended Naaman the Syrian general and the widow at Zarephath (Luke 4) for their faith in God's word coming through Jewish prophets. Both were of slightly different color and ethnic background, but it was their cultural difference--not their color--that drew the attention of Jesus and the Bible.

In Romans 14 and 15 Paul dealt with conflicts between Jews and gentiles in the church at Rome. Both Jews and gentiles in the Roman church were probably of different colors, reflecting the diverse ethnicities of the Empire's capital. But the conflicts in the church had nothing to do with color. They were over culture--the Jewish way of following the messiah versus the gentile way of doing so. Paul tells them to stop judging one another, to decide not to be a stumbling block to others, and to accept one another in their different ways of following Jesus.

People of different color were undoubtedly on each "side," but color played no role in the conflict or Paul's proposed solution.

The Bible talks about personal identity under two creations. The first is the old creation whereby we know ourselves and others as men or women, Jews or gentiles, whom God has put in particular nations and people and tribes with distinctive languages. All of us--believers and not--have been made in the image of God.

The other creation is the new creation that God has been forming for millennia by joining people from the first creation to the Jewish messiah Jesus by his Spirit. Paul said that after his conversion on the Damascus Road he no longer judged a man "after the flesh" (2 Cor. 5:16). That is, he no longer judged a person by categories from the old creation--sex, nation, people, tribe, language. All that mattered was whether they were in the new creation by faith and baptism. Their old creation distinctives were no longer barriers. "In messiah there is no Jew or Greek, slave or free, male and female" (Gal 3:28). None of these distinctions could prevent a person with faith from being justified by the messiah's work and Spirit.

Not that the messiah came to destroy the old creation's distinctions. After all, God had determined them (Acts 17:26), and they would remain in the church and in eternity as part of the beautiful divine diversity. For example, Paul made it clear that men and women still had different roles in marriage and the church (Eph 5:22-33; Col 3:18-19; 1 Cor 11:3; 1 Cor 14: 33-35; 1 Tim 2:8-3:12; Titus 1:5-6). And national and cultural distinctions would be apparent even in heaven (Rev 7:9).

Therefore, in the Bible there are only two races: the old creation and the new creation. The King James translation of Acts 17:26 describes the unity of the human race in the old creation: God "hath made of one blood all nations of men for to dwell on all the face of the earth."

The other race on this planet is the new creation being formed by the Triune God of Israel. Here the work of God does not destroy the old creation's unity but redeems it. Grace perfects nature through the preaching and sacraments of the Church: If anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation," and our unity in creation is "transformed into the image [of Christ] from one degree of glory to another" (2 Cor 5:17; 4:18).

In all of its profound treatments of the two creations--two races, if you will--there is not one word in the Bible that clearly identifies a person by skin color.

Gerald McDermott is recently retired from the Chair of Anglican Divinity at Beeson Divinity School.

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