Questions about the concepts of race and ethnicity

I took a break from commenting on the internet for a long time, but I came back because there are some questions that I really want to ask but don’t know where to ask.

1. What is the difference between race and ethnicity?

  • My understanding is that race is a social construct, but I’m not sure how to describe ethnicity. I also see the concept of race as something that tries to group people based on physical characteristics and the concept of ethnicity as something more related to culture and language (that’s all I can think of at the moment).

2. What does the Bible say about racism and/or ethnocentrism?

  • I know that the Old Testament contains plenty of examples of violence and warfare between different tribes and people groups, but I want to know if any of the Old Testament and New Testament writers have anything to say against racism and/or ethnocentrism (when I ask this question, I have in mind how many Americans and Europeans from the 18th to 20th centuries who used the Bible to justify their racist views of other peoples).
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Oxford English Dictionary:
Status in respect of membership of a group regarded as ultimately of common descent, or having a common national or cultural tradition; ethnic character.

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I think that opposition to racism and ethnocentrism is one of the major points of the story of Jesus and the Samaritan woman at the well.

Also, multiple passages and stories clearly instruct us on how we are to treat immigrants and foreigners.

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I think of race as a category created by those in power used to disenfranchise and enfranchise. It is tied to ethnicity, but is more fluid and based on whatever power dynamics are in play at a certain point in history. That’s why Irish and Italians didn’t count as “white” at one point in American history. Some people today consider people of Chinese, Japanese, or Korean ethnicity who have lived several generations in the States to belong to the category “white.”

I think of ethnicity as a cultural or heritage identification with a particular country or people group. I have Swedish ethnicity, but other than being able to name my Swedish great-grandparents, I have very few ties to Swedish culture. Some people’s ethnicity has a much more pronounced affect on them, depending on how tied they are to that ethnic community. Latino is a racial category, but Latinos may be ethnically Mexican, Guatemalan, Dominican, Argentinian, etc. and those are very distinct ethnicities. Black or African-American is a racial category, but blacks may trace their ethnicity to Haiti or Nigeria or South Africa, etc. Those are very different heritages. Because of the ethnic mixing that happened during slavery, many blacks in the US don’t have strong identification with a particular African or Afro-Caribbean culture, but the slave communities in the States developed their own cultural distinctions (cuisine, marriage customs, legends, dialect), etc. that some black people might feel are part of an ethnic heritage even though they aren’t tied to a particular country of origin.

Well racism was a thing in the OT for sure.

It’s interesting to see how on the one hand, in some parts certain people groups are cast as the worst kind of people and in other parts the narratives specifically highlight the faith of Gentiles and foreigners (Ruth the Moabite, Rahab the Canaanite, Naman the Aramean, Eilshah’s Shunammite patroness). This theme continues in Jesus’ ministry (The Roman centurion, the Syrophonician woman, the Samaritan woman).

I think parts of the NT, Matthew and Galatians for example, have a lot of anti-Jewish superiority themes. A good commentary will help draw them out for you.



Thanks for the answers to my first question; they help me a lot. Before I read your responses, I was thinking along similar lines, that ethnic identity is self-described and that racial identity is imposed by people in power on other people groups.

I’m of Vietnamese ethnicity (Kinh to be more clear, since there are actually more than 50 ethnic groups in Vietnam), and I think I have ethnic Han Chinese ancestors in my dad’s side of the family. With the sheer ethnic and cultural diversity in East Asia, I always think it’s weird some Europeans in the 19th and 20th centuries grouped all East Asians into a racial category they called “Mongoloids” which sounds absurd and arbitrary to me. (Are the terms “Mongoloids” and “Caucasoids” considered to be outdated in academia today?)


I have other things on mind, but I need to unpack them. I’ll get back to you on my second question later.

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I like that story of Jesus and the Samaritan woman, and I think it’s a good example. A verse that strikes me is “Here there is no Gentile or Jew, circumcised or uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave or free, but Christ is all, and is in all” (Colossians 3:11). I heard that a lot of ancient peoples did not like the Scythians because they were considered to be savages and barbarians and were looked down upon.


I heard of this, but I get confused because I’m sure most of the New Testament writers were Jewish. Was it their intent to set an anti-Jewish tone in their writings or did Christians interpret those passages to justify their anti-Jewish prejudice? I know most Christian leaders today would condemn Judeophobia or anti-Semitism, but I also heard of anti-Semitic white supremacists who follow a racist form of Christianity and still use those interpretation. In any case, I find it unsettling because Christians got a rough history with Jews, and that’s just putting it mildly.

There is a difference between clearly communicating that the gospel was not just for the chosen people and being anti-Jewish. It is an inclusive versus an exclusive attitude. Matthew, for example, was anti-Pharisaic and pro-Gentile, but that doesn’t make him anti-Jew. Same with Paul. The early church was considered a sect of Judaism for a while. The apostles taught primarily in the Jewish synagogues if they were allowed to. So anyone reading anti-Semitism into the Gospels is reading a context that isn’t really there.


I think I see what you mean. At first, I wasn’t certain what you meant by your earlier response (I probably misread it, my bad), but I think you made it more clear to me now. However, there’s still the issue of Christians throughout history using the New Testaments books to attack Jews.

I remember stumbling into the comments section of a newspaper article, which I know is probably not a good idea and shouldn’t have gone into the first place, and there was this guy trying to convince me that Christians should be “counter-Semitic” (just another word for anti-Semitic) based on his reading of one of the New Testament books. I did not bother responding to him because I don’t like arguing on the internet, and I don’t think I can persuade him anyways.

Was looking around a bit; Wiki turned out to have a pretty comprehensive overview


What hit me is that I forgot BioLogos did some essays on race during Black History Month. I will have to reread them sometimes. I remember they helped clarify some things for me very well (something that stumped me earlier but I forgot to mention is when some individuals try to use genetic differences as evidence for the existence of races).


I think that’s interesting you brought that up because I looked at some Jewish websites earlier, and many Jews on those websites feel that the New Testament promotes anti-Jewish prejudice due to how Christians used it. I don’t think that was the intention of its writers at all, or at least I don’t want to believe that because that thought doesn’t sit comfortably well with me. I think, however, if we look at the Jewish perspective, the Holocaust probably did a lot to affect their view of Christianity in a way I would not be able to understand, not being in their shoes. I wish we could do better to reconcile with them.

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The thing is, those aren’t mutually exclusive. The writers were essentially writing about theology, and could never have imagined a time when Jews would be a minority group in a dominant Christian culture. A surface reading of the messages by your average Joe, Giuseppi or Josef may have contributed to unintended consequences at times.

Although I’m not Christian, I’m all for it :slight_smile:

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Old Testament:

On one hand, regulations regarding the treatment of Hebrew slaves did not apply to foreign slaves (a statement of ethnic superiority), but on the other hand Xenophobia was forbidden.

New Testament:

As Paul says, all humans are one under Christ Jesus, which means that all humans are equal.

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Sometimes we reserve criticisms for our own children, not because we don’t love them, but precisely because we do. We feel this kind of logic when we distinguish between who is saying something. You (or your mom or your dad) may berate yourself for being ______ (fill in any critical word of the day there). But it is a quite different matter if a friend or a stranger calls you that very same thing.

So when Jews writing the bible are critical of their own, or Paul, (who was a Pharisee himself after all) is critical of the people he loves, their concern is born of love and a fervent wish for their salvation.

So today, when Zionists, misappropriate a few select scriptures to justify blindly supporting Israel in all that it does, they miss the scriptural boat entirely. God does no such thing, and in fact disciplines them severely the many times they stray. Does that make God anti-semitic? Those so disciplined are loved. So it isn’t just Israel, but all of us. It is when such discipline seems withheld that we should worry. None of us likes it as it happens, but discipline is born of love. (Proverbs 3:11-12, Hebrews 12:6) So anti-semites also entirely miss the biblical message when they try to justify their hatred.


One thing I think we should keep in mind as Christians is that we are children of Abraham. In a sense, we are all Jewish. When the New Testament talks about the Pharisees and the Jews, it is talking about us. To separate ourselves apart when critical comments are made shows lack on insight as to our condition.


Amen to that

The sense of confusion about the definitions of race and ethnicity is entirely appropriate, because there are no good definitions for either. The US government has definitions, used by federal agencies for various purposes, but frankly they are absurd. While I was working at the NIH, I had to use those definitions as did people who answered questionnaires about their demographics. Possible races for self definition included White (which includes all Latinos), African American, Asian and Pacific Islander, and Native American. If one selected White, then there is a choice of two ethnicities: Hispanic, or non-Hispanic.

Clearly, this is a non-scientific and non-cultural, politically driven set of definitions, but it is after all the government. The official scientific definition of race (as used in research publications, and everywhere else that race is used as a demographic variable) is self-definition. There is no objective scientific definition of race. As @Christy pointed out, racial definitions vary with culture and are wildly different in both location and time. The US has the most bizarre definition of race, which is a political, historical, economic derived definition originating from the “one drop rule” that allowed Southerners to define slaves as “Black” if they had “one drop” of African inheritance. For this and many other reasons, race has no scientific basis. The Winter 2018 issue of the ASA magazine “God and Nature” was devoted to scientific and social issues around race.

Ethnicity does indeed refer to common cultural backgrounds such as language, customs, and sometimes family relationships. It is also impossible to define precisely since almost every division of a human group can be further split, but again, self-definition generally decides ethnic categories.

As for the Bible, the ancient world, like most of the modern world, was highly conscious of inter-group differences. The revolutionary verse in Galatians 3:28 “There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” is one we should try to live up to, as difficult as it appears to be.


@Christy, followed your ref from Denisovan and Neanderthal hybrid thread.

race(2), noun
Each of the major divisions of humankind, having distinct physical characteristics.

ethnicity, noun
The fact or state of belonging to a social group that has a common national or cultural tradition.

So a cluster of distinct physical define a race as for instance in “The Bill”
IC = Identification Codes:
IC1 White European White skinned european appearance
IC2 Dark European Dark skinned european appearance
IC3 Afro–Caribbean African/Caribbean appearance
IC4 Asian Asian appearance Asian/Indian/Pakistani/Bangladeshi
IC5 Oriental Chinese/Japanese appearance
IC6 Arab Arabian/Egyptian appearance

However all of those people could identify as the same ethnicity.

I’m Fair Dinkum, bloody oath I am
I’ve loved the smell of gum leaves, since I was in a pram
Some places may be greener, but I don’t give a d*mn
'Cause I’m Fair Dinkum, bloody oath I am
(John Williamson)

That is an outdated definition and not how the term is currently used. From Wikipedia, which is pretty good: "A race is a grouping of humans based on shared physical or social qualities into categories generally viewed as distinct by society. First used to refer to speakers of a common language and then to denote national affiliations, by the 17th century the term race began to refer to physical (phenotypical) traits. Modern scholarship regards race as a social construct, that is, a symbolic identity created to establish some cultural meaning. While partially based on physical similarities within groups, race is not an inherent physical or biological quality.

“Appearance” is arbitrary and subjective. So are the particular physical traits that are deemed indicative of “race.” Many Eastern Europeans have darker skin than some Northern Africans. My brother (who is of Dutch and Swedish ancestry) has the same skin tone as my “bi-racial” cousin whose father is Nigerian. My cousin is considered African-American and my brother is considered white. Immigration and generations of inter-marriage between people from different heritages has further blurred whatever genetic lines may have once existed, especially in industrialized countries.

Yes. Like “American” or “British.”


The changes in language are fascinating. I would say that in my area of semi-rural mid-America, Chris’ definitions would be most commonly accepted, so I think things are somewhat fluid, though moving towards Christy’s definition from Wikipedia, which includes the importance of social constructs.

Would it be fair to say that thinking of differently colored skinned people as different races is equivalent to trying to suggest that there is, for example, a “blue-eyed” race of people and a “brown-eyed” race? Or maybe a “tall race” and a “short race”? … A “larger noses race” and a “smaller noses race”? In other words, while there are physical differences that people can always point to as a way of dividing people up, the differences so chosen are the arbitrary social construct that have no biological significance.