The Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada has awarded Prof. Terry Donaldson of Wycliffe College a three-year research grant ($35,000), for a project entitled "Identity, Ethnicity and the Emergence of Gentile Christianity."
The project deals with a well-recognized aspect of early Christianity—the process by which it developed, in the first century and a half of its existence, from a messianic movement located entirely within the Jewish world into a largely Gentile religion beginning to make its way in the larger Roman world. While the process has been studied from many angles, this project will attempt to shed fresh light on it by using the categories of identity and ethnicity.
"Gentiles" did not think of themselves as such; this is a Jewish term, used as a blanket category for those who were not Jews. Gentiles who came into the church brought other identities with them, having to do with their cities, ethnic groups, social classes, various degrees of Hellenization, Roman provinces, and so on. Since the category "Gentile" was well established in Christian scripture, many non-Jewish believers came to think of themselves as Gentiles; others came to think instead that they had been Gentiles before but as Christians were Gentiles no longer. In either case, such an identity co-existed and interacted with the native identities that they brought with them and with new identities specific to the Christian movement (Christian; "third race"; "true Israel"; etc.).
Prof. Donaldson’s purpose is to examine the development of Christian identity among Gentile Christians and various forms of Gentile Christianity in this period, by viewing it in the context of race and ethnicity in the Roman world and through the lens of contemporary social-scientific study of ethnicity and identity.
Prof. Donaldson is the author of Judaism and the Gentiles: Jewish Patterns of Universalism (to 135 CE), published by Baylor University Press (2008) and available through CRUX books at Wycliffe College. It shows that second-temple Jewish tradition comprised a variety of views about the religious status and possibilities of Gentiles, that there was notable Gentile interest in Jewish religion, that many Jews welcomed this interest, and that a hope for an eschatological conversion of Gentiles was entertained widely. The itemized analysis of literary and inscriptional texts will enable students and scholars to verify matters for themselves; and the careful conclusions are cogent and balanced. It is a noteworthy contribution, important for all serious students of ancient Judaism and early Christianity.