One Race or Many? A Note on Acts 17:26

Posted by R. Fowler White

In Luke’s record of Paul’s sermon at the Areopagus in Acts 17:22-34, we read that Godmade from one man every nation of mankind” (Acts 17:26). From this passage and our current historical and socio-cultural context, some are drawing various inferences about the Bible’s use of the term race. For the purposes of this post, three points stand out to me.

First, in discussions about the term race and the Bible, the term itself is usually not defined, but, as talking and writing continue, it becomes reasonably clear from the term’s usage that it refers to distinct groupings of human beings based on inherited physical and behavioral differences, with those differences sometimes extending to include language, religion, or nationality. Turning to a Bible concordance, however, it doesn’t take long to realize that the Bible doesn’t use race in quite the way we do. That observation leads us to our next point.

Second, these days, some folks claim that the Bible speaks only about “the human race.” The Bible, however, does express the concept of “races” in its references to various subgroups (otherwise known as nations, peoples) descended from a common ancestor within the human race. Right there, in the trait of “descent from a common ancestor,” the Bible sharpens our understanding of the term races. What I mean is this: at the least, we have to acknowledge that God’s covenant-making acts with Abraham and his descendants created and preserved a specific group of descendants from Abraham through Jacob for His divine purpose (see, for example, Ezra 9:2; Acts 7:19; compare Rom 9:5; 11:14). Though God’s acts were certainly not motivated by any superiority of those particular Abrahamites, His acts did make Israel, as descendants from Abraham through Jacob, a race distinct from other races, such as those descended from Noah’s sons, from Lot, or from others (e.g., Mark 7:26). Of course, Bible believers who claim that it speaks only about “the human race” are trying to make the good point that, despite our ancestral differences, we are also united in the first man Adam. Still, it seems to me that denials that the Bible speaks of “races” amount to word games that don’t help us reach a common mind with others. We do better just to say what we mean: God our Creator made us all from one man, just as Paul said at the Areopagus.

Third, perhaps you’ve heard, as I have, the suggestion, implied or expressed, that the Jew/Gentile distinction in Scripture is an example of racism. Some would cite the narrative in Acts 10 to make their point. There, God met Peter with his (holy) desire to obey the (holy) laws of separation that He had formerly but temporarily established between Jews and Gentiles. In that teachable moment, God re-educated Peter as to how in Christ He had abolished those laws and had expanded the reach of the apostolic mission to include the formerly unclean Gentiles. Now it’s reasonable to imagine or infer that the corruption of the fallen human heart would have led some to interpret God’s laws in racist terms. My point, however, is that the Jew/Gentile distinction itself was not an example of racism, for it was God Himself, with whom there is no partiality (Acts 10:34-35), who had set up the distinction between the one holy race and the many other unholy races in the first place. Attempts, then, to find a modern parallel to racism in the distinction that God made between Jews and Gentiles are misguided and at odds with the teaching of Acts 10 and the rest of the Bible. In that light, we should reserve the “racist” label for corrupt interpretations of that distinction, born in the unholy phobias and prejudices of us sinners.

Well-intentioned but misinformed efforts to address racism from the Bible remind us how important “the whole counsel of God” is both to right interpretation and to right application of individual texts of Scripture. In our striving against injustice, let’s be sure to build parallels and lessons from the Bible to our day on the foundation of that counsel.

3 Comments

  1. greenbaggins said,

    June 24, 2020 at 3:17 pm

    Fowler, I don’t disagree with the substance of your post, which does correct my thinking on a couple of points. However, I would ask this question: given that “race” has such fraught connotations today, wouldn’t it lower the temperature of some discussions to substitute the word “ethnicity”? I am not sure the Bible’s terms correspond precisely with modern English terms, particularly not when the emotional baggage is brought into view!

  2. rfwhite said,

    June 24, 2020 at 3:28 pm

    Green Baggins: I agree that in certain discussions it would increase the light and lower the temperature to substitute terms. As you say, the Bible’s terms don’t always match ours. In that connection, it’s interesting to see some translations using different terms. Perhaps they are reflecting their awareness of the same dissonance.

  3. Joe Eisenbraun said,

    July 6, 2020 at 8:32 am

    Hi, thanks for your note here. Would you consider expanding your Jew/Gentile distinctions into a little study?

    Sometimes it might refer to a primarily ethnic identity, for instance when we think in terms of maintaining the promise to Eve, the Lion of Judah as the root of David etc

    Sometimes it might refer to the Bride/World, as when we say the Jews are/were the Covenant people of God. I think this is your point: “Remember that at that time you were separate from Christ, alienated from the commonwealth of Israel, and strangers to the covenants of the promise, without hope and without God in the world.” In this respect, although the dividing wall of hostility was torn down, we still practice the dividing wall by fencing the communion table.

    I came across one the other day where Paul says we preach Christ, a stumbling block to the Jews and foolishness to the Gentiles. I just read it as “legalists and antinomians.” Is this a bit like the older/younger brother distinction in the parable about the prodigal son?

    Food for thought

    Best,
    Joe in St Louis


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