Ongoing Research Projects: Ethnicity, Race, and Religion in Early Christian and Jewish Identities

Abigail Pearson

The latest research project in theology to begin here at the University of Exeter focuses on exploring how ethnicity, race, and religion were understood by Jews and Christians at the time of Christian origins. To find out more about the project aims and the contemporary relevance of the research, I spoke to project leader Professor David Horrell who shared his inspiration for the project and revealed what we can expect from the upcoming conference.

Ethnicity, race, and religion are complex components of identity, and their relationship is set to be explored in a new research project taking place at the University of Exeter. “I’m mainly interested in exploring how supposedly ‘ethnic’ aspects of identity feature in both Jewish and Christian texts,” explains Professor David Horrell, “and exploring the practices and beliefs the texts depict.” A further aim of the research seeks to examine how Christian and Jewish identity has been represented in contemporary scholarly works. “The second major aim is critically to probe the traditions of modern New Testament scholarship, particularly in terms of how it depicts the character of the Christian movement in contrast to its depictions of Jewish identity in the same period.”


The idea for the project stemmed from a study of 1 Peter, when David began to look at the specific language used in the text to describe Christian identity. “I became interested in this topic initially through a study of 1 Peter 2.9-10, thinking about the ways in which (Jewish) ethnic identity-descriptors were there being applied to the ‘Christian’ people – precisely by labelling them as a ‘people’, a ‘race’ and , a ‘nation’.”  Similar research by other scholars has also influenced the project. “I was inspired and informed by some recent research, especially by Denise Kimber Buell, which has begun to explore the ways in which early Christian discourse uses ‘ethnic reasoning’ to express group-identity, both to distinguish Christians from others and also to encourage others to join this new people.”

As the project focuses on the time of Christian origins it primarily explores New Testament texts – especially the letters of Paul and 1 Peter. Other early Christian texts within and beyond the New Testament will also be considered, as well as Jewish texts from the same time period such as the writings of Josephus and Philo.
But contemporary issues related to ethnic and religious identities will not go unacknowledged, and I think it is the present day relevance of the research which makes the project so interesting. As David explains, “’religion’ and ‘race’ or ’ethnicity’ are clearly bound up in some of the most intractable and prominent conflicts in the contemporary world.” We need not look far for an example. “When David Cameron speaks of British values as those of freedom and tolerance, but also insists that we should be proud that Britain is a Christian country, this illustrates the overlaps and the problems: how are those of other faiths to feel fully British if the national identity is, in a sense, Christian?”

These modern implications form a central part of the research, and their consideration raises further important questions. “Are Islamophobia and antisemitism forms of religious or racial prejudice – or are they forms of hostility and fear in which both coalesce in certain ways? More broadly, why is it that people frequently draw an ideological division between Islam and the West, which correlates both to a religious and a racial division between “white” and “Arab”?”

Whilst reflecting upon these broader aspects of the project David began to notice interesting overlaps between Western ideals and Biblical interpretation. “I was struck by the significant parallel between the kind of model of inclusion that modern scholars find in early Christianity and the modern, Western, liberal model of tolerant social inclusion – both are problematic, interconnected, and reflect their racial and religious origins in the white, modern West.”


Image: King James Bible from 1634 Credit: Photograph by David Horrell, courtesy of Exeter Cathedral Library.

This realisation encouraged David to explore further the dominance that Western scholarly traditions continue to hold over Biblical studies. One of the crucial ways the project will do this is through a three day conference to be held on 9th-11th August. Ethnicity, Race, and Religion: Identities, Ideologies, and Intersections in Biblical Texts and Interpretation  will bring together a range of voices from both within and beyond Western scholarship. “I have invited plenary speakers who represent different perspectives, experiences, and areas of expertise outside of these Western contexts,” David tells us, “and I hope that by listening hard, my own presuppositions and approaches will be challenged and widened.”

Speakers attending the conference include Professor Musa Dube, (University of Botswana), Dr Ma. Marilou S. Ibita, (Catholic University of Leuven, Belgium, and the Institute of Formation and Religious Studies, Quezon City, the Philippines), and Dr Gregory Cuéllar (Austin Presbyterian Theological Seminary, USA).

As well as these engaging plenary talks, the conference also promises to showcase related research from across many of the sub-disciplines in theology. “We have a wide range of papers offered by people from around the world, dealing with topics ranging from the constructions of Jewish and Gentile ethnicity in Paul’s letters, to Contextual Bible Study and other ways of bringing non-Western voices and interpretations to expression. It should be an exciting and engaging event!” bibleinthebushconference

The conference also brings an opportunity for some of these topics to be discussed in
front of a wider audience. On Monday 8th August a public lecture has been arranged with Professor Musa Dube, who will be speaking on The Bible in the Bush: Translating and reading the Bible in AfricaThe event is open to all and begins at 7.30 pm in Chapter House on Exeter Cathedral grounds.

It certainly looks  to be an eventful few months for the project – we look forward to the conference and to seeing the results of this exciting research as it emerges!

‘Ethnicity, Race, and Religion in Early Christian and Jewish Identities,’ is an AHRC funded project set to run until March 2017. To find out more about the ongoing research, visit the project webpage.

To find out more about the conference or to book a place, visit the conference webpage.  You can also follow the conference on Twitter @Err_Conf2016

-Upcoming Event- The Bible in The Bush: Translating and reading the Bible in Africa – Monday 8th August, 7.30pm

We are delighted to announce that Professor Musa Dube from the University of Botswana will be presenting a talk at Chapter House, Exeter Cathedral, on Monday 8th August at 7.30pm.

‘The Bible in the Bush: Translating and Reading the Bible in Africa’ will introduce and explore some of the themes which arise from biblical interpretation in African contexts.

Professor Musa Dube is currently Professor in the Faculty of Theology and Religious Studies at the University of Botswana. She is a member of the United Methodist Church, the Circle of Concerned African Women Theologians, and the Society of Biblical Literature. Her research focuses on postcolonial and feminist readings of the Bible, theological issues surrounding HIV and AIDS, and translations and interpretations of the Bible in Africa.

Her recent publications on these topics include Postcolonial perspectives
on African Biblical Interpretations
(Society of Biblical Literature, 2012), The HIV and AIDS Bible: Some Selected Essays (University of Scranton Press, 2008), and Postcolonial Feminist Interpretations of the Bible (Chalice Press, 2000).

In 2011 she was awarded the Friedrich Wilhelm Bessel Research Award by the prestigious Humboldt Foundation (Germany) in recognition of both her academic and community oriented work on postcolonialism, HIV&AIDS and biblical studies.

Her expertise is guaranteed to make this an insightful and engaging talk, both for those with prior knowledge of the subject matter as well as those new to the topic.

Entry to the event is free, and all are welcome. Refreshments will be served afterwards.

‘The Bible in the Bush: Translating and Reading the Bible in Africa’ takes places at Chapter House, Exeter Cathedral, on Monday 8th August 2016 at 7.30 pm. Free entry.

Directions: Chapter House is located to the right of the Cathedral’s main entrance, through the small garden with black railings.


-Conference Announcement- Ethnicity, Race, and Religion: Identities, Ideologies, and Intersections in Biblical Texts and Interpretation

Ethnicity, Race, and Religion: Identities, Ideologies, and Intersections in Biblical Texts and Interpretation, University of Exeter, 9th-11th August 2016.


Image: King James Bible from 1634 Credit: Photograph by David Horrell, courtesy of Exeter Cathedral Library.

Ethnicity, race, and religion are overlapping components of identity which intersect with one another in complex ways. Understanding how they are used and understood in biblical constructions of identity is the aim of an exciting international conference set to take place in Exeter next month – Ethnicity, Race, and Religion: Identities, Ideologies, and Intersections in Biblical Texts and Interpretation.

The conference, hosted by the Centre for Biblical Studies here are the University of Exeter, will run from 9th August until 11th August.

The conference seeks to explore how ideologies of race have shaped biblical interpretation and the influence this has had upon racial ideologies past and present. Over the course of the three-day conference, attendees will have the opportunity to hear papers discussing how  issues surrounding ethnicity, race and religion are represented in the New Testament, the Hebrew Bible and Jewish tradition, Biblical Interpretation, and in the Bible in Film.

See the full conference programme for further details about the schedule and for paper abstracts from each speaker.

The plenary session speakers will be:

Registration for the event is currently open, click here to see our pricing options and to make a booking.

This conference is organised by Professor David Horrell and Dr Katy Hockey, and is part of an ongoing AHRC funded project, ‘Ethnicity, Race, and Religion in Early Christian and Jewish identities: A Critical Examination of Ancient Sources and Modern Scholarship.’

Theology and Religion Postgraduate Study Day

Theology and Religion Postgraduate Study Day
13th June 2016, University of Exeter

Abigail Pearson

On Monday 13th June the department came together for the end of term Theology and Religion Postgraduate Study Day, hosted at the university’s Catholic Chaplaincy. This event offered the chance for MA and PhD students to share their research in front of students and staff.

In the first session, we heard from Leanna Rierson and Giovanni Hermanin De Reichenfeld. Leanna Rierson spoke about “The Emergence of Humility in Contemporary Leadership Theories and the Potential Application to Biblical Studies.” Her aim is to combine leadership theories, humility studies, and Biblical Studies in order to better understand leadership in both the ancient world and in contemporary culture. The approach she proposed involves using case-studies to investigate Paul’s humility and how this contributed to his effectiveness as a leader. Giovanni Hermanin De Reichenfeld gave a paper titled “The Material of the Gifts from God: is the Spirit a Creature in Origen’s Commentary on the Gospel of John?” His discussion of whether Origen considered the spirit to be part of creation revealed Origen’s multi-layered understanding of the Holy Trinity and how each of its aspects came into being. I was the chair for the session, and though I was nervous because I had not chaired before, it was made easier by the well-timed speakers and enthusiastic questions from the audience.

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The Futures of Biblical Studies Conference Report

The Futures of Biblical Studies
University of Kent, 1-2 June 2016

Rebekah Welton

This conference was the opening event for the newly formed Institut13173727_1370286236321692_1977418188179063420_ne for Biblical Studies comprising the universities of Exeter, Kent, Sheffield and St Mary’s Twickenham. It also celebrated the launch of a new biblical studies library at the University of Kent, donated from the personal collections of David Clines who also provided us with the key note lecture. I was extremely excited to be presenting a paper at my first ‘proper’ conference – in the sense that previous paper presentations have been at post-graduate events. Sharing your work in a room of leading scholars in one’s own discipline is an altogether different experience to presenting to fellow students from the very broad umbrella of humanities. So whilst I was nervous, I was also excited to be a part of both the ‘real’ world of biblical scholarship and also excited to be a part of the ‘future’ of this discipline.

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Workshop announcement: Exodus and the 21st Century Bible Film, 26-27 March 2015

David Tollerton

Bible films are currently undergoing an intriguing renaissance. 2014 saw two big-budget representations of the Hebrew Bible in the form of Noah and Exodus:Gods and Kings, and more cinematic treatments of biblical material are on their way: Mary and Last Days in the Desert in 2015, and Redemption of Cain, Ridley Scott’s follow-up David and a host of Jesus films all currently in development. In one sense the Bible’s representation in film had never really disappeared, with biblical allusions and archetypes scattered across 21st century cinema. However, Noah, and more recently, Exodus: Gods and Kings are of a different order, using A-list Hollywood stars to directly depict Bible stories for a contemporary multiplex audience. They are also contentious films, both facing controversies surrounding the ethnicity of their cast and religious communities uncertain at the prospect of their sacred texts being appropriated by secular filmmakers.

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Bowls, bowls, bowls…

Siam Bhayro

magic bowl2

In our department, we have a couple of projects that relate to the study of Aramaic incantation bowls, including the recently launched Virtual Magic Bowl Archive.

At first sight, these dusty little pots may seem of marginal interest at best, particularly for theologians and Bible scholars, but it turns out that they are a really big deal. For a start, they are the best epigraphic source we have for studying the everyday beliefs and practices of the various Christian, Jewish, Gnostic, Pagan and Zoroastrian communities of the near east in Late Antiquity and in the early days of Islam. While manuscript sources have been copied and subjected to repeated editorial activity over the centuries, often in order to present official histories, these humble vessels come straight from Late Antiquity and show us what we were never meant to see.

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Biblical Studies and a Backpack: Contextual Interpretations in Northern Namibia

Namibia 1

Gateway to the Homestead

By Helen John

Just over a year ago, I set off with my backpack to a village in the Ondonga region of Northern Namibia, not far from the Angolan border. My research centres on investigating the identities and belief systems of a village community in that area, to be researched through a programme of contextual Bible studies. In other words, I aimed to facilitate groups in the community to discuss their interpretations of a series of New Testament texts. This was with a view to understanding how the influences of both traditional culture and worldviews, and Christianity inform the community members’ understandings of the text and their wider identities and beliefs.

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Tax for the Common Good

by Esther Reed

On Tuesday 21 October, St Mary le Bow Church, London, Christian Aid launched its latest report Tax for the Common Good. This report brings together two subjects that are usually far apart: theology and tax. Esther D. Reed and other authors look at what lessons the Bible may hold about matters such as the purpose of tax, how governments should apply it, how companies and individuals should pay it and what they should expect of governments in return. Download the report

Esther explores what Christian ethics can tell us about the taxation of multinational companies. She argues that such companies are required to pay more tax than the law requires of them, if failure to do so would damage the conditions required for everyone to flourish. She further argues that the fact of human sinfulness makes it necessary to have coercive measures at national and international level to prevent tax evasion and restrain tax avoidance.

In his foreword to the new report, Christian Aid’s Chair, Dr Rowan Williams, expresses his hope that the report will stimulate thought and decisions among people who are able to influence the behaviour and policies of companies, ‘so that tax justice at last becomes a reality’.