How Should a Christian View Israel? Part Three
As I already mentioned, I will expand on R. Kendall’s Soulen’s The God of Israel and Christian Theology which has shown the long history of supersessionism in Church history. Soulen, Professor of Systematic Theology at Wesley Theological Seminary, Washington DC. has written on the standard Christian “canonical narrative”—i.e., our view of the Bible’s overarching narrative framework—in such a way that avoids supersessionism and consequently is more coherent. Soulen identifies three kinds of supersessionism: (1) economic supersessionism, in which Israel’s obsolescence after the coming of the Messiah is a key element of the canonical narrative, (2) punitive supersessionism, in which God abrogates his covenant with Israel as a punishment for their rejection of Jesus, and (3) structural supersessionism, in which Israel’s special identity as God’s people is simply not an essential element of the “foreground” structure of the canonical narrative itself. Soulen sees structural supersessionism as the most problematic form of supersessionism, because it is the most deep-rooted. He identifies structural supersessionism in the “standard model” of the canonical narrative, which has held sway throughout much of the history of the Christian church. This standard model is structured by four main movements: creation, fall, Christ’s incarnation and the church, and the final consummation. In this standard model, God’s dealings with Israel are seen merely as a prefigurement of his dealings with the world through Christ. Thus, the Hebrew Scriptures are only confirmatory; they are not logically necessary for the narrative (see Lionel Windsor’s Reading Ephesians and Colossians after Supersessionism: Christ’s Mission through Israel to the Nations (New Testament after Supersessionism Book 2)
In this post we will discuss punitive supersessionism, in which God abrogates his covenant with Israel as a punishment for their rejection of Jesus.
Punitive supersessonism has mostly resulted from Gentile Christians assuming the destruction of Jerusalem in AD 70 and 135 are God’s permanent rejection of Israel. According to Philip S. Alexander, the AD 70 destruction of Jerusalem handed Christians “a propaganda coup” in that it gave them the opportunity to argue that the catastrophe was “a divine judgment on Israel for the rejection of Jesus.” (see Philip S. Alexander, “‘The Parting of the Ways,’” in Jews and Christians: The Parting of the Ways A.D. 70 to 135, ed. James D. G. Dunn (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1999), 20.
The same was also true concerning the failed second Jewish revolt in AD 135. Marcel Simon asserts that the destruction of Jerusalem in 135 “appeared to Christians as the confirmation of the divine verdict on Israel.” (see Marcel Simon, Versus Israel: A Study of the Relations Between Christians and Jews in the Roman Empire (135–425), trans. H. McKeating (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1986), 65
A common proof text used for punitive supersessionism is Matt 21: 43: “Therefore I tell you, the kingdom of God will be taken away from you and given to a nation producing its fruits.”
Many have read this out of context and assume that this teaches God divorced and judged unfaithful Israel (who had murdered the Messiah) and married a faithful bride: His Church. But once again pre- 70 ad, there is no new religion what was separate from the Jewish world called “Christianity” nor was there something called the “Christian church.” Even Reformed scholar Michael Kruger says the following:
“There is little doubt that the very earliest Christians were, in fact, Jews. They believed that Jesus of Nazareth was the long-awaited Jewish Messiah who would fulfil God’s extensive promises to Israel and usher in the kingdom of God. Thus, Jesus was understood quite naturally within the categories. Sure, something new was happening with Jesus – the inauguration of a new covenant, in fact (Luke 22.20). But the first Christians would not have conceived of this as the beginning of an entirely new religion; on the contrary, they would have seen it as the completion of something very old, namely the story of God’s dealings with Israel (cf. Jer. 31.31). Thus, early Christians were quite content, at least at first, to continue worshipping at the Temple (Acts 2.46) and following the laws of Moses.” –Michael Kruger, Christianity at The Crossroads, How the Second Century Shaped the Future of the Church.
Furthermore, regarding Matt 21:43,if we read it in context, the “you” of Matt 21:43 is identified in Matt 21:45 not as Israel or the Jewish people but as ‘the chief priests and the Pharisees,”—the temple authorities who confronted Jesus in Matt 21:23-27. The “people” referred to in Matt 21:43 is not the church in contrast to the Jewish people, but the new leadership group that will replace the old.Thus, Jesus is judging the corrupt leadership. If we read Matt 21: 45, it is clear the leadership even knew Jesus was speaking to them.
Furthermore, Craig Keener notes that “nation” here probably recalls Ex 19:6 and strict Jewish groups that characterized themselves as “righteous remnants” within Israel (e.g.,Qumran) could also view themselves as heirs of the biblical covenant community. In this period “ethnos” applies to guilds, associations, social classes or other groups or even orders of priests: urban Greeks used the term for rural Greeks, the LXX for Gentiles, and Greeks for non Greeks. Matthew implies not rejection of Israel but of dependence on any specific group membership, be it synagogue or church (The Gospel f Matthew: A Social Rhetorical Commentary), pgs,515, 516.
We already mentioned Romans 9-11. We know anyone that has read Romans 9-11 knows no possibility of Paul teaching Israel’s rejection by God. Now when I say rejection, I mean the consequences of God’s judgment on Israel would mean Israel, was an the “earthly” people of God in the Old Testament, has been replaced, expanded, or fulfilled in the divine plan not by another “earthly” people or peoples, but by a “spiritual” people, the church of the New Testament.
But to assert this, we need to remember that by the time Paul wrote the letter to the Romans (about 57 C.E.), it was clear that most Jewish people at that time were rejecting Jesus as the Messiah. Paul called them branches of the cultivated olive tree which had been cut off. Yet he warned the Gentile believers that they must not take undue pride in being grafted into the olive tree or think themselves better than the cut-off branches, since they hold their position only by faith and without it will themselves be cut off.
But regarding Romans 9-11, despite Israel’s unbelief in Jesus, “God did not reject his people, whom he foreknew” (Romans 11:2). Israel remains God’s beloved chosen people “on account of the patriarchs” (Rom. 11:28). Paul also says God’s gifts and callings to Israel are irrevocable (Rom 11:29). Also, in Romans 11, the “riches” Gentiles are experiencing now during the state of Israel’s “stumbling” will escalate with the “full number” of national Israel’s salvation (see Rom. 11:26). The 10 references to “Israel” in Romans 9-11 refer to ethnic/national Israel so the Israel who will be saved in Rom 11:26 must refer to ethnic/national Israel. Israel will experience a national restoration and salvation at some point in the future.
It is clear that the Lord made the new covenant with the house of Israel and the house of Judah (see Jer. 31:31–34, quoted in Heb. 8:8–12) and not with the nations of the world, which leads us to ask the question: How do Gentiles get to partake in the new covenant? In response, God’s plan for Israel was to be a light to the nations and be a conduit for Gentiles to come to faith in the one true God. The only way Gentiles get to partake in the new covenant is that they grafted in as Paul talks about in Rom. 11: 13-24.. Israel will be grafted back in when the fullness of the Gentiles leads it to respond (Rom 11:11-12; 15, 30-32).
As we just said, in punitive supersessionism, God abrogates his covenant with Israel as a punishment for their rejection of Jesus. But this view seems to contradict Romans 9-11. Furthermore, by the time Paul wrote the letter to the Romans (about 57 C.E.), it was clear that most Jewish people were rejecting Jesus as the Messiah. In Romans 11, Paul called them branches of the cultivated olive tree which had been cut off. Yet he warned the Gentile believers that they must not take undue pride in being grafted into the olive tree or think themselves better than the cut-off branches, since they hold their position only by faith and they can be cut off as well. Thus, Jewish people who have rejected the Messiah (cut-off natural branches), and Jewish people who have come to faith in the Messiah, (natural branches attached to the tree), and Gentile believers (grafted-in wild branches) each have their own kind of ongoing participation in the one Israel. If anything, punitive supersessionism is a display of Gentile boasting that Paul had warned about.
In the next post, we will pick up the controversial topic of Zionism and why Christians are divided on the topic.
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