The Legacy of Supersessionism and Christian Theology Today

by Zacharie Klassen

I am a student of historic Christian theologies of Israel and Judaism and the ways those theologies have informed and continue to inform views of the land of Israel, Jewish people, and the practices of Judaism in Christian thought. I am also a member of a long-standing Jewish-Christian text discussion group that meets monthly to discuss texts of importance to the Jewish and Christian traditions. What I offer below is, I hope, a small bit of insight that I have garnered over the last 7 years of study into how Christians should think about our relationships with Jews today given the complicated history of our relationship over the last 2000 years. Given my reflections, I then end with a very brief suggestion for how we might begin to approach the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Supersessionism: Historic Christian Views of the Theological Status of the Jewish People

Christian views of Jews have, from at least the time of the Christian apologist Justin Martyr (100-165CE), been characterized by a theological attitude that has come to be called “supersessionist.” While scholars debate the precise meaning of the term, in a nutshell a supersessionist reading of scripture says that when the majority of Jewish Israel rejected Jesus as Messiah, the Church then superseded or replaced the Jews as God’s chosen people. In the Old Testament, Israel was called to be the people of God, representing God to the world, but with the rejection of Jesus, Jewish Israel was cast aside and rejected with no enduring role in God’s economy of blessing for the world. Some supersessionist interpretations had a punitive element: God not only rejected the Jews, but punished them by making them into a landless, oppressed people on account of their rejection and murder of Christ (a view that resulted in horrific violence against Jews throughout history) and on account of their supposed obstinacy and legalism. Sometimes the exile of the Jews was seen as a witness to the truth of Christianity since they brought with them the Old Testament scriptures that testified to Jesus.

As I will discuss below, many biblical scholars and theologians today do not find the above supersessionist view in the New Testament. Rather, they argue that the New Testament shows the early Christ-movement beginning within Judaism and eventually aiming towards uniting Jew and Gentile together in Christ. Historically, this unity would never be achieved on a large scale, and soon Christianity became an almost exclusively Gentile faith that was largely hostile towards Jews, often caricaturing them rather than meaningfully engaging them. Unfortunately, anti-Judaic attitudes, encouraged by stereotypes and punitive supersessionist theologies of God’s rejection of the Jews, took on increasingly sinister socio-political implications once Christianity became a state-power with Constantine.

While it is an enormous leap to jump all the way from early Christianity to modern Europe from the brief description above, it is nonetheless there that we see the horrific culmination of centuries of anti-Judaism within and outside the church. While the Final Solution of the Nazi’s was not driven only or primarily by a Christian agenda, long-standing attitudes of Christian anti-Judaism, perpetuated through supersessionist theological ideas and through the collaboration of churches with the Third Reich, most definitely played a role in the Holocaust. This has led many Christian theologians and biblical scholars who write “post-Holocaust” to repent of anti-Judaic attitudes, seek greater understanding with Jews, and rediscover the original Jewish context of the Christian confession of Jesus the Messiah. This has led to theological developments within Christian thought that deserve brief mention.

A Biblical Correction: Jesus and Paul in Post-Holocaust Theology

In the post-Holocaust era, theologians and biblical scholars emphasize the Jewish context of Jesus’ ministry and, rather than see Jesus in opposition to his Jewish tradition, they place Jesus in continuity with it.[1] Jesus came to fulfill the law, not abrogate it. When Jesus challenged his fellow-Jews, he did so not because Jewish law was now useless, but in order to call them to greater faithfulness to that law. Jesus did not call his fellow Jews to abandon their Jewishness. In fact, even when the Gospels seem to portray Jesus in opposition to Jewish tradition—such as when he engages the Pharisees about Jewish purity laws—some scholars argue those Gospels are actually portraying Jesus as fulfilling the tradition.[2] Jesus came proclaiming a Jewish message to the Jews first (Matthew 10:5-6) and only later would that message be expanded to Gentiles in full-force through the ministry of the Apostle Paul who, after all, called himself the Apostle to the Gentiles (Romans 11:13).

Paul is also being viewed through a new lens in post-Holocaust thought. While there is no end to the many debates about what Paul really thought, many today argue that he did not think Jewish Israel was totally rejected and neither did he think that the Jewish law was obsolete and of no further use for Jews after Christ’s coming. Israel’s hardening was a mystery for Paul (Romans 11:25), not a zero-sum game. Post-holocaust theologians often point to modern biblical scholarship that reads the letters of Paul as animated primarily by his Gentile mission.[3] In this view, Paul’s feisty letters address what faithfulness to Christ looks like for Gentiles, not Jews. Everywhere Paul seems to be denigrating the Jewish law, he is doing so as he addresses Gentiles who purport to adopt it, not Jews. In this view, Paul’s letters consistently show him pursuing a Jew-Gentile unity in Christ that does not require Jews, on the one hand, to abandon the Law, or Gentiles, on the other hand, to adopt the law. Paul hoped that both could be united in Christ, who is of ultimate importance to both. That importance, however, did not mean, for Paul, that the law was obsolete for Jews. While Paul certainly saw Jewish belief in Christ as Messiah as ultimately necessary, his letters do not suggest that Jewish Israel’s unbelief meant their rejection (Romans 11:1-12).  The above views of Jesus and Paul thus assume a non-supersessionist view of Jesus’ and Paul’s ministry with respect to Judaism. Neither Jesus nor Paul assumed that the Church would replace Jewish Israel, rather, their ministries called Jewish Israel to greater faithfulness as well as an openness to see God’s end-time inclusion of the Gentiles in the covenant through the Messiah.

Post-Holocaust Understandings of the Relationship between the Jews and the Church

If the church did not replace Jewish Israel, then how should Christians understand the relationship between the Jewish people and the Church today given that so much time has passed and given the rich and complex development of these traditions throughout the last 2000 years? One key feature of post-Holocaust theological reflection is a rejection of a triumphalistic understanding of the Church as the singular fulfillment or completion of Old Testament Israel. For example, the late Lutheran systematic theologian Robert Jenson argued that the Church and Rabbinic Judaism[4] should both be seen as “detours” from what was, in Paul’s time, expected to be the straight path from Jesus’s resurrection to the arrival of the Kingdom of God.[5] Rabbinic Judaism and the Church both arose out of Israel’s history, producing new forms of community in continuity with the Israel of the Old Testament. Both new forms of community gathered around new texts: the New Testament for the Church and the Mishna (and later Talmud) for Rabbinic Jews. Neither the Church nor Judaism as they have existed through history have realized the Kingdom of God on earth and so neither should one be seen as the complete or fulfilled people of God independent of or in exclusion of the other. Only the return of the Messiah can bring such completion or fulfilment. If such an account of the people of God is to be entertained, however, then how should Christians relate to our Jewish friends today?

To Make Jealous, To Be Made Jealous: A Proposal for Christian Theologies of Judaism Today

Let me test a proposal for how we can relate to our Jewish friends today. I suggest we look to Paul’s fascinating application of Deuteronomy 32 in Romans 10 and 11. There Paul explores the mystery of Israel’s hardening by suggesting that the “stumbling” of Israel (Romans 11:11) has brought about the inclusion of the Gentiles and that such an inclusion would make Israel “jealous” in order to draw unbelieving Israel towards the community of Jews and Gentiles united in Christ. Paul had hoped that Jewish Israel would see God’s inclusion of the Gentiles in the covenant, along with Gentile commitment to the God of Israel, and be persuaded that Jesus was the Christ. Paul’s hope did not, in fact, come to pass on any large scale. Jewish Israel did not become jealous of God’s inclusion of the Gentiles. Why not? The old supersessionist and anti-Judaic answers that chalk it all up to Jewish pride and legalism will not do. In fact, those supersessionist and anti-Judaic attitudes may be one of the major reasons that many Jews did not become jealous of Gentile inclusion in the covenant. Gentile hubris, something Paul warned against in Romans 11:17-20, the denigration of the Jewish law, and finally violence against Jewish communities would have made Jewish jealousy of Gentile Christianity exceedingly difficult. But perhaps Paul’s use of the concept of “jealousy” here might continue to be a fruitful idea. We could, of course, use it in the straightforward meaning it had for Paul and say that it is our job as Christians to live such faithful Christian lives that Jews can look at our commitment to Christ and see in it faithfulness to the God of Israel. Second, however, perhaps Paul’s use of “jealousy” could be turned back on us Gentiles and challenge us to look at the commitment of our Jewish neighbours and their practices in order to discern the faithfulness of God at work there. Is it possible, especially in this post-Holocaust era, that us Christians might be made jealous by Jewish faithfulness? I certainly can say that my experience in a Jewish-Christian text discussion group has made me jealous of my Jewish friends in their devotion to reading scripture and plumbing its depths. They inspire me to be a more dedicated reader of the bible. To be clear, when I suggest that us Christians be prepared to be made jealous by Jews, I am not advocating that us Gentile Christians become Jews; Paul would have something to say about that! What I am suggesting is that we be open to seeing faithfulness to the God of Jesus Christ in Jewish obedience to the law.

Approaching the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict

Post-Holocaust Christian theology has been characterized by a new posture of listening to Jewish voices rather than beginning by speaking about Jews, usually through caricature. If there is anything we can learn from post-Holocaust theology and biblical studies as we approach the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, this would not be a bad place to start. If the church today wishes to understand this conflict, it will not do to work with caricatures or presumptions about Israelis or Palestinians. If the church takes time to listen to the voices of Israelis and Palestinians, we will soon realize that there are numerous perspectives at play. For example, there are many Jewish perspectives on the land of Israel and not all of them agree about its status or importance to Jewish identity. Some are strongly committed to a robust and wide-reaching Zionism, some to a limited Zionism which does not necessarily condone or agree with the policies of the State of Israel as it currently operates. Many Jews are committed to justice for Palestinians. This should be instructive for the Church that wants to support the Jewish people. Christians can advocate for justice for Palestinians without necessarily being anti-Judaic or even anti-Zionist. May God grow in us a Spirit of charity and courage as well as a desire for justice and peace as we engage in this ongoing conversation.

Zac Klassen

Zacharie Klassen was previously Pastor at The ConneXion EMC from 2011-2013. He completed his PhD in Religious Studies at McMaster University in Hamilton, Ontario in September of 2020. Recently, he was called to be Pastor at Bloomingdale Mennonite Church in Bloomingdale, Ontario. Zac, Melodie, and their three boys live in Waterloo, Ontario.

Further Reading:

  1. Kendall Soulen, The God of Israel and Christian Theology. Minneapolis: Augsburg Fortress, 1996.

A good introduction to the issue of supersessionism in the history of Christian theology. Soulen also proposes a constructive solution to the problem.

  1. The New Testament After Supersessionism Series (Cascade Books).

As described on the series webpage, the NTAS is “a series that presents post-supersessionist interpretations of the New Testament. By post-supersessionism, we mean a family of theological perspectives that affirms God’s irrevocable covenant with the Jewish people as a central and coherent part of ecclesial teaching.” Presently there are four volumes published in this series: Romans, Philippians, Ephesians & Colossians, and Revelation.

Foot Notes: 

[1] The examples here are numerous. In the realm of theology, one could point to the systematic attempt of Paul M. van Buren who, throughout the eighties and nineties, developed his 3-volume Theology of the Jewish-Christian Reality, including a novel, if ultimately insufficiently Christological account of Jesus’ Jewish identity. Lutheran Systematic theologian Robert Jenson’s late-career Systematic Theology rejects supersessionism while also offering a fully Trinitarian theology of Jesus the Son’s identity with the people of Israel. Of course, the proposals of post-Holocaust theologians are quite diverse and not all see eye to eye on the issue of the relationship between the Church and Judaism.

[2] See, for example, the highly engaging book by Matthew Thiessen, Jesus and the Forces of Death: The Gospels’ Portrayal of Ritual Impurity within First-Century Judaism (Baker Academic, 2020).

[3] This modern biblical scholarship is extensive. A highly readable and recent text worth mentioning is Paula Fredrisken’s Paul: The Pagans Apostle (Yale University Press, 2017).

[4] Like term “Church,” the term “Rabbinic Judaism” seeks to identify a single community out of a great diversity of its expressions through history. The simple definition provided by Encyclopedia Brittancia will suffice in the present context: “Rabbinic Judaism, the normative form of Judaism that developed after the fall of the Temple of Jerusalem (AD 70). Originating in the work of the Pharisaic rabbis, it was based on the legal and commentative literature in the Talmud, and it set up a mode of worship and a life discipline that were to be practiced by Jews worldwide down to modern times.” See https://www.britannica.com/topic/Rabbinic-Judaism

[5] See Jenson’s Systematic Theology vol.2, p. 171 (New York: Oxford, 1991).

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