Biblical Studies Race, Ethnicity and the Gospels
Yung Suk Kim
  • LAST MODIFIED: 25 August 2021
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195393361-0286


The study of race and ethnicity in the Gospels has yielded a significant number of publications. Methodological, in-depth critical biblical study by scholars focuses attention on the contemporary social and political context where racism, classism, and all sorts of phobias are widespread. Race and ethnicity are often discussed alongside gender, class, politics, and ethics. While some interpreters have a clear focus on race/ethnicity in the Gospels, others broadly deal with various topics covering race, gender, religion, and ethics. There are a few directions in this study. First, Jesus’ Jewish ethnicity is the focus of study and the Gospels are explored with an understanding of his ethnicity in context. The questions addressed include: (1) How did Jesus think of his ethnic identity in the context of political turmoil under the Roman Empire? (2) How did he think of his ethnic identity in relation to Jerusalem and elites? (3) How did he think about other races or ethnicities? Second, there are studies concerning the tensions that existed between Jewish ethnic identity and Christian ethnic identity in the Gospels. In particular, Matthew’s Gospel and Luke’s Gospel belong to this category of the study since there are distinctive stories that reflect the relations between Jews and gentiles. Among others, Matthew 15:21–28 (Jesus’ encountering a Canaanite woman) and Luke 4:16–30 (Jesus’ radical sermon about God’s preference for gentiles) reflect the tension or confrontations that existed between Jews and gentiles in early Christian communities. Mark’s Gospel and John’s Gospel also include episodes about race/ethnicity: Mark 7:24–30 (the Syrophoenician woman) and John 4:1–42 (Jesus and the Samaritanwoman). Third, scholarly attention is also given to matters of biblical interpretation concerning race and ethnicity in the Gospels. Interpreters tackle prejudices about race, supersessionism, white racism, and oppressive ideologies. Fourth, the Four Gospels as a whole are re-examined from the perspective of racial, ethical concerns. While Jesus’ ethnic identity, the relations between Jews and gentiles, and biblical interpretation about race/ethnicity are included, scholarship also extends to the myriad intersection of topics such as migration, liberation, refuge, postcolonial issues, and identity politics.

General Overviews

Brett 1997 brings into question the biblical concept/construction of ethnic identities in the Bible and biblical interpretation. Buell 2005 argues that early Christian identity is not a transcendental concept but a kind of a new ethnicity around which Christian churches have worked. Levine 2006 argues that Jesus has been greatly misunderstood by Christians and that he must be understood within his Jewish context. Nasrallah and Fiorenza 2009 touches on the intersectional topics of ethnicity and gender under the Roman Empire, in the New Testament, and in contemporary interpretation. Bailey, et al. 2009 prepares theoretical background and theory about minoritized biblical hermeneutics that deals with race and ethnicity in the Bible. Different minority scholars tackle the problem of race and ethnicity in biblical texts and biblical interpretation. Hockey and Horrell 2019 fully explores the issues of race, ethnicity, and ideology in modern biblical interpretation. The special focus is to challenge Western domination of the discourse on race, ethnicity, and religion. Horrell 2020 explores ethnic characteristics in Jewish and early Christian texts and challenges the dichotomy between ethnic Judaism and inclusive Christianity. Smith and Choi 2020 brings forth nonwhite women’s scholarly voices in the study of Christian texts and deals with intersectional subjects affecting minority communities such as race, ethnicity, gender, slavery, and power.

  • Bailey, Randall C., Tat-siong Benny Liew, and Fernando F. Segovia, eds. They Were All Together in One Place? Toward Minority Biblical Criticism. Semeia Studies. Atlanta: Society of Biblical Literature, 2009.

    This edited volume includes contributions from minoritized scholars with African American, Asian American, and Latino/a American experience. The focus is racial/ethnic elements in biblical interpretation, and the volume deals with various interrelated topics such as race, class, gender, and colonialism.

  • Brett, Mark, ed. Ethnicity and the Bible. Leiden, The Netherlands: Brill, 1997.

    This book has a collection of twenty-one essays that deal with ethnicity in the Bible and biblical interpretation. Part 1 examines ethnicities in the selected texts from the Bible from various perspectives. Part 2 focuses on examples of contemporary interpretations of ethnicities in biblical interpretation.

  • Buell, Denise Kimber. Why This New Race: Ethnic Reasoning in Early Christianity. New York: Columbia University Press, 2005.

    DOI: 10.7312/buel13334

    This book challenges traditional notions of Christian identity in early Christianity characterized by universal, transcendent concepts of race. Buell argues that race or ethnicity played an important role in forming early Christian identity, thinking that they are a special people (race).

  • Hockey, Katherine M., and David G. Horrell, eds. Ethnicity, Race, Religion: Identities and Ideologies in Early Jewish and Christian Texts, and in Modern Biblical Interpretation. London: T&T Clark, 2019.

    This edited volume contains contributions from a diverse group of scholars. The focus is to reveal racism, prejudices, ideologies in biblical texts and biblical interpretation. The contributors challenge narrow or mistaken views of race/ethnicity dominated by Western or North American scholars.

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

    Horrell argues against the view that early Christianity is more inclusive or open than Judaism, challenges racism and whiteness in biblical studies, and calls for more embodied perspectives on ethnicity and religion.

  • Levine, Amy-Jill. The Misunderstood Jew: The Church and the Scandal of the Jewish Jesus. New York, NY: HarperOne, 2006.

    Reading Jesus and the New Testament from a Jewish perspective, Levine argues that he is a devout Jew who loved Jewish scriptures and Jews. Correcting the church’s misunderstanding of Jesus and early Judaism, Levine provides room for interfaith dialogue between Christians and Jews.

  • Nasrallah, Laura, and Elisabeth Schüssler Fiorenza, eds. Prejudice and Christian Beginnings: Investigating Race, Gender, and Ethnicity in Early Christianity. Minneapolis, MN: Fortress, 2009.

    This edited volume deals with the intersection of race, gender, and ethnicity in the Roman Empire and the New Testament. The book’s approach is interdisciplinary and discusses race and gender in the Roman Empire and contemporary studies of race and empire.

  • Smith, Mitzi J., and Jin Young Choi, eds. Minoritized Women Reading Race and Ethnicity: Intersectional Approaches to Constructed Identity and Early Christian (Con)Texts. Lanham, MD: Lexington, 2020.

    This edited book includes essays by nonwhite minority women scholars, who read the New Testament texts with intersectionality. The focus is on race, ethnicity, gender, identity, and politics. The book attempts to challenge dominant voices of New Testament interpretation and calls for more inclusive interpretation.

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