Walter Cardinal Kasper

Dialogika Resources

The Theology of the Covenant as Central Issue in the Jewish-Christian Dialogue

This text was delivered at Sacred Heart University in Fairfield, Connecticut


I would like to start first of all by expressing my deepest gratitude and emotion for the honour of being conferred the title of Doctor honoris causa of your University. It is indeed a great joy for me to receive this title from the lnstitute for Jewish-Catholic Research.

The tradition of my strict German academic background would not consider it very professional to speak of emotion, since it is believed that an academic discourse should not meddle with feelings. Fortunately, Americans are more flexible in this respect. Moreover, especially if you are German, it is impossible not to have personal feelings when speaking of relations between Jews and Christians.

When we speak of these relations, we touch upon the deepest roots of our existence as Jews and Christians, since we deal with our respective identities. We speak both of our rich common spiritual heritage and of our undeniable constitutive differences. We speak of two thousand years of common history, marked by dark times of terrible misunderstandings and even appalling crimes, but also - as modern research reveals -by many inspiring examples of exemplary and enriching relations. We ultimately speak of our common future and common responsibility for the future, since we both - Jews and Christians live in the hope of the coming of of God's Kingdom, as a Kingdom of justice and peace. In the present situation, especially after the terrible events of September 11, it is our common task to bear mutual witness to this hope before the eyes of the world.

Therefore, the honour that has been conferred on me is to be perceived first of all as a duty. If I want to honest and self-critical, I would say that I have not deserved this honour due to achievements in the research of the history of our relations. Rather, I understand this honour as a further commitment, in the promotion of religious relations between Jews and Christians, and specifically between Jews and the Catholic Church. I am deeply committed to this task and am very grateful to have found in your institution another excellent academic partner for this dialogue.


We do not start from scratch in our task, since there is a long-standing tradition of Jewish-Christian dialogue. In the Middle Ages, despite destructive tendencies, we find already some positive examples in the field of academic discussion. Many people built bridges between our two communities, especially in the century just concluded. With personal courage and expertise in the fields of history, philosophy and theology, these people built bridges, or at least their pillars, on which we can walk today.

I speak of men such as Martin Buber, with whom l became familiar when I was a student in the 50s, a time when dialogue between Jews and Christians - at least in Germany - was not yet very developed. I speak of Franz Rosenzweig, David Flusser, Shalom Ben-Chorin, Zvi Werblovaki, Ernst L. Ehrlich, Jakob Petuchowski, Jules Isaak, who, despite the tragic destiny of his family during the holocaust, devoted himself to the cause of Jewish-Christian understanding. Many others should be mentioned. In their endeavours, they refused to revert to a cheap uniformisation and facile levelling of differences.

On the part of Catholics, I would like to mention John Österreicher, former Director of the Institute for Jewish-Christian Studies of the Seton Hall University, who is remembered especially with reference to the Declaration of the Second Vatican Council concerning the Jewlsh question in Chapter 4 of Nostra aetate. This leads me to mentionthe great "bridge-builders" of the Conciliar period: Pope John XXIII and Cardinal Augustin Bea, the first President of the Pontifical Secretariat for Christian Unity, founded in 1960, now the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity.

We only need to study - in the presentation of John Österreicher - the interesting yet dramatic history of this fourth chapter, and the difficulties raised by some Christians and Jews, to understand the incredible change that took place at the time. Unfortunately, that shift occurred only after the shock of the Shoah and the shameful silence of most Christians. The Council strongly and unmistakably condemned any form of anti-semitism, recognising both the Jewish roots of Christianity and the continuation of God's Covenant with the Jews.

The Church reproves every form of persecution against whomsoever it may be directed. Remembering, then, her common heritage with the Jews and moved by no political consideration, but solely by the religious motivation of Christian charity, she deplores all hatreds, persecutions, displays of anti-Semitism leveled at any time or from any source against the Jews.

The same Declaration also reads:

[The Church cannot] forget that she draws nourishment from that good olive tree onto which the wild branches of the Gentiles have been grafted.

Continuing on this theme Nostra aetate goes on to state:

The apostle Paul maintains that the Jews remain very dear to God, for the sake of the patriarchs, since God does not take back the gifts he bestowed or the choice he made [...] neither all Jews indiscriminately at (the time of Jesus' death), nor Jews today, can be charged with the crimes committed during his passion. Jews should not be spoken of a rejected or accursed as if this followed from Holy Scripture.

Such statements are still valid and binding for the Catholic Church today; they are irrevocable. Like all conciliar statements, they set the direction for the Catholic Church in the new century and the new millennium. Other Christian Churches have produced similar declarations.

Such statements were not an end in themselves. In the meantime, they have brought rich fruits and led to a new phase in our mutual relations. The Catholic Church has tried above all to introduce this new perspective in catechetical research, in theological education, and adult formation. To this end, the Pontifical Commission for Religious Relations with the Jews published some guidelines in 1985.

Like no one else before him, Pope John Paul II has committed himself to the construction of bridges between Jews and Christians and to the promotion of dialogue. He has always maintained Jewish friendships, from his childhood until today. He was the first Pope to visit the Synagogue in Rome on April 13, 1986, and to refer to the Jews as "our older brothers" in such a moving way. His journey to Israel is unforgettable – to Jerusalem, to Yad Vashem, and to Wailing Wall during the Jubilee Year 2000. On this occasion, the Pope called upon all Christians to overcome anti-semitism and unchristian prejudices against Jews. After his journey to Auschwitz the Pope also visited Babi Yar in the Ukraine, June 2000, where over 100,000 Jews were killed in few days. During this visit, we prayed with the words of the psalm De profundis: "Out of depths I cry to you, 0 Lord; 0 Lord hear my voice. Let your ears be attentive to my cry for mercy" (Ps 130, 1-2).

I mention these events to underline the fact that the way Christians look at Jews has changed radically. And a change is taking place also in the way Jews look at Christians. I would like to remember the Declaration Dabru emet, signed by over 300 Rabbis. This Declaration reads:

In recent years, there has been a dramatic and unprecedented shift in Jewish and Christian relations. Throughout the nearly two millennia of Jewish exile, Christians have tended to characterize Judaism as a failed religion or, at best, a religion that prepared the way for, and is completed in, Christianity. In the decades since the Holocaust, however, Christianity has changed dramatically. An increasing number of official Church bodies, both Roman Catholic and Protestant, have made public statements of their remorse about Christian mistreatment of Jews and Judaism. … We believe these changes merit a thoughtful Jewish response. Speaking only for ourselves -- an interdenominational group of Jewish scholars -- we believe it is time for Jews to learn about the efforts of Christians to honor Judaism. We believe it is time for Jews to reflect on what Judaism may now say about Christianity.

And the document states further:

Jews and Christians worship the same God. Before the rise of Christianity, Jews were the only worshippers of the God of Israel. But Christians also worship the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, creator of heaven and earth. While Christian faith is not a viable religious choice for Jews, as Jewish theologians we rejoice that, through Christianity, hundreds of millions of people have entered into relationship with the God of Israel.

The authors of this declaration continue: "Jews and Christians seek authority from the same book - the Bible (what Jews call 'Tanakh' and Christians call the 'Old Testament')."

After the Second Vatican Council the dialogue has developed further and will continue to do so. I say this despite the irritations present in any human relationships, and ours is no exception. The dialogue must continue into the future because Jews and Christians have the same roots, the same father in faith, Abraham. We must overcome the mutual prejudices locking us up in a windowless and absurd prison, like Kafka’s castle. Our relations should not be influenced by those trying to build walls between us. Recent events have shown us with appalling clarity where such absurd ideologies can lead. In the current situation, dialogue is, more than ever, the new word for peace.

If we want to be responsible for the future, we should not neglect the past, We will not and cannot forget the traumatic experience of the Shoah. We must remember it in respect for its victims and as a warning for the future. Remembering the Shoah is as Yehuda Bauer and others in their Opus magnum have told us- 'Remembering the Future." In this sense, we need a culture of memory. Hence, the Shoah should not constitute an obstacle, but rather should encourage us to continue a serious a dialogue.

The aim of dialogue is not for Jews to become Christians or Christians to stop being Christians, giving up some of the essential elements of their individual traditions. Dialogue sets partners before one another, each with their own identity. This is the only way they can speak to each other and mutually enrich one another. Dialogue has nothing to do with proselytism. Only when we combine our personal commitment with a high degree of competence and knowledge can we make progress in our dialogue. This is why serious scientific work and academic exchange are fundamental for an honest reading of our history, for the sake of our future relations.

Peace in the world is not only a question of silencing weapons and signing political agreements. War, as well as peace, is born in human hearts. If people do not overcome their interior hatred and do not deeply desire peace and reconciliation, no external peace and understanding can ever be reached. Peace has also a deep religious dimension. This is even more so when we speak of Jews and Christians and also Muslims. I therefore agree with the famous saying that world peace is not possible without religious peace: peace among religions is a precondition for world peace.


After this general introduction in the Jewish-Catholic dialogue, I wish to focus now on one of the many issues related to the dialogue, namely the question of the Covenant. This topic is of fundamental importance for both the Jewish and Christian traditions, although it also defines the differences between us and has often been the object of conflict - in the past as well as in the present.

Had I known from the very beginning how difficult this question is, I would have steered clear of it. I do not have any exegetic competence or specific knowledge in the Judaistic field, which are both essential for an in-depth and comprehensive study of the issue. For Jews and Christians, the question of the Covenant is also an eschatological one, which, according to both our religious convictions and hopes, will find its full realisation only at the end of time. Therefore, our theological knowledge in such issues will always be fragmentary and partial.

Covenant is the traditional translation of the Hebrew word berit, whose etymology is still controversial. Jerome translates it in the Vulgata with foedus or pacturn (covenant, contract), whereas the LXX only speaks of diatheke in Latin testamentum (last will), and never of syntheke (contract).

This linguistic dimension highlights the complexity of the topic of Covenant in delineating fundamental inter-relations. It contains the elementary forms of human life-relations, couple-relations, family-relations, and even power and law relations. It is an agreement between two parties having the same rights. The word Covenant therefore is an expression of inter-personal solidarity, within the framework of a highly developed law culture.

The ancient world did not know, of course, our modern secular law culture. At that time, a contract was never a merely profane event: God, or the deity, was the guarantor of any legal agreement. An infringement of contract was considered a crime against the respective deity. The prophet Hosea himself condemns the breach of a contract as a betrayal against God (Hos 6,7). This is the biblical and theological usage of the word Covenant.

It is clear that the word berit is fundamental in what we Christians call the Old Testament. The essential formula reads: "I am your God, you are my people" (cf. Lev 26,12; Jer 7,23). In this sense, the Covenant has a concrete historical dimension: the people of Israel as a concrete historical feature. But, since this people lives in history and moves across history, we constantly find new covenants: the pact with Noah (Gen 9,8-17), the pact with the fathers, especially with Abraham and his descendants (Gen 15; Sir 44,19-21), the pact with the people of Israel on the Sinai (Ex 19 ss.; Deut. 5), the renewal of the covenant after the conquest of the land (Jos 24). The renewal of the pact after the exile and the promise of a new eternal covenant is particularly important in the prophets (Jer 31,31-33; Ez 16,60; 37,36; Ez 36,24-28; ...). The history of Israel is a history of change and renewal of the heart (teschuva).

The theology of the Covenant is not static either; what the Covenant is and what it means must be reinterpreted anew in each generation. This is why there are different theologies of the Covenant, especially the deuteronomic, the priestly, the prophetic. Tradition and interpretation belong together.

The New Testament is situated in the history of tradition and interpretation of the Old Testament, and, in its own way, takes this history further. The theology of the Covenant in the New Testament is to be found above all in the context of the accounts of the last supper of Jesus. These accounts reflect both the prophetic tradition of the new Covenant (Lc 22,20; 1 Cor 11,25) and the priestly one of the blood of the Covenant (Mc 14,24; Mt 26,28; Ex 24,8). In both cases it is the question of the fulfillment of the promise in Jesus Christ and in his death on the cross. The conflict between Christians and Jews has its origins in this. The rejection of this message on behalf of the majority of Jews corresponds, especially in the Gospel of John, to the Christian accusation of unfaith directed against the Jews.

Paul himself compares the service of the new Covenant to the service of the old Covenant (2 Cor 3,6.14). This comparison is further developed in the Letter to the Hebrews where Paul speaks of a second better Covenant (8,6; 8,8-12 etc.). Jesus Christ is now clearly described as the mediator of the new Covenant (12.24). Hence, despite a general continuity, an essential discontinuity is already to be found in the New Testament concerning its relation to the Old; one can even speak of renewal and contradiction. It is difficult to reconcile both aspects,

But it is only after the New Testament, in the Barnabas Letter and in Justin, that the theory of the replacement of the Old Testament by the New one was developed. This substitution model was farther used by successive Christian tradition. Post-biblical Judaism was often considered as an obsolete, outdated religion; the old Covenant was seen, at best, as a preparation for the new one. The two statues in the Strasbourg Cathedral show this idea very well: on one side, we find the blindfolded synagogue, blind to the truth of Jesus, and on the other we see the triumphant Ecclesia looking at the future with eyes wide open.

Nevertheless, Christian tradition very seldom developed a clear and explicit theology of the Covenant, with the exception of the foederal theology of the 16th and 17th century within the reformed tradition. This theology had a great influence on Pietism and on the historical philosophy of Idealism. We have to wait until the 20th century to find another new important theological contribution with Karl Barth, probably the most significant Protestant systematic theologian of the last century. The Lutheran tradition dealt with the problem in terms of relationship between Law and Evangelium, whereas the Catholic tradition saw it in terms of relationship between the old and the new Law. The fundamental lines of thought are to be found in Augustine, and in the Summa theologiae of Thomas Aquinas. The old Covenant was considered to be a model of promise and preparation and the new Covenant its superior fulfillment.

Finally, the latest developments in ecumenical theology - to which the Jewish-Christian dialogue owes so much - proposed a new perspective. Similarly, in the Second Vatican Council, reference is made to chapters 9-11 of Paul's Letter to the Romans, where we read about the people of Israel:

Theirs is the adoption as sons, theirs the divine glory, the covenant, the receiving of the law and the promises. Theirs are the patriarchs and from them is traced the human ancestry of Christ" (9,4-5). "It is not as though that God's word had failed" (9,6). "I ask then, has God rejected his people? By no means! ... God did not reject his people, whom he foreknew (11,1-2). "... for God's gifts and his call are irrevocable" (11,29).

On this basis, the new Catholic and Protestant exegesis - undertaken by authors such as Fitzmeyer, Stendahl, Mussner, Lohfink, Zenger and many others - developed the thesis of the "unbroken Covenant", which is uninterrupted because of the unshakeable loyalty of God. Therefore, Judaism is not a mere social and historical feature, but also a theological and current reality. God's Covenant with Israel has not simply been replaced by the new Covenant. God has not rescinded his contract with Israel; He has not repudiated and forsaken his people. Israel is still God's partner. God is still devoted to his people with love and loyalty, mercy, justice and pardon; God is always with his people especially in the most difficult moments of history. Every Jew, as one of His people, lives in promise.


This overview of the question of the Covenant has led us directly to the crucial issue of the Jewish-Christian dialogue: what is the relation between the old Covenant, which is valid, and the new Covenant, which is described by the New Testament as the eternal Covenant? It is clear that, in the same way as we have rejected the replacement theory, we must also reject any relativistic pluralism or undifferentiated dualism, in the sense of the simplistic co-existence of two realities.

Over the last decades, this question has been tackled by two opposing streams: the theory of the One Covenant and the theory of the Two Covenants. Is there only one tradition to which both Jews and Christians belong? Or should we speak of two complementary Covenants? Both theories are supported by Catholic as well as Protestant theologians. Both positions contain some dangers. The danger in the One Covenant theory is either to 'christianise' Judaism, or to belittle the unicity and universalism that Christian faith attributes to Jesus. The danger in the Two Covenant theory is to consider Judaism and Christianity as two independent realities and play down the importance of the Jewish roots of the Church. There are of course variations in the way both theories are advocated, so that between them there are nuances and intermediate positions. The relation between Judaism and Christianity is indeed so complex that it cannot be reduced to a concise formula. [Webmaster's note: During the dialogue, the author stated that this sentence was a main thesis.]

The New Testament does not offer us any theory, an answer to our question, but it does evoke an image. Images are more appropriate in expressing a dialectic of continuity and discontinuity, renewal and contradiction, which can hardly be harmonised with concepts. In a way, images are more appropriate even in resolving this dialectic, as stated by Michael Signer.

In his Letter to the Romans, Paul evokes the image of the cultivated olive tree in which the Church of the Gentiles is grafted as branches: the root bears the branches and gives them strength (Rom 11, 17-24). With this image Paul opposes any sense of Christian triumphalism: "Consider this: You do not support the root, but the root supports you" (Rom 11,18). The Church refers to Israel and depends on Israel: it cannot turn away from Israel or against it. If she did so, she would deny, wound and weaken herself. Salvation comes from the Jews (John 4,22), Historical theological anti-Judaism (which is something apart ideological anti-semitism) has cut off the Church from the supporting and nourishing root of Israel and has therefore impoverished and weakened it. It was also one of the reasons why many Christians did not oppose the Holocaust as would have been expected from them.

Abraham Joshua Heschel has imparted a corresponding lesson for Jews. He was a student of Martin Buber, and his successor in Frankfurt. After his expulsion from Germany, he taught at the Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati, then at the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York. He writes: "Judaism is the mother of Christian faith. It is interested in the destiny of Christianity. Would a mother ignore her child, even if it is stubborn and rebellious?". This is a warning against Jewish isolation and distancing tendencies.

Christians and Jews are different. These differences should not be erased. But, for the sake of their respective religious identities, Jews and Christians cannot turn away from each other. In their diversity, they are dependent on one another. They are older and younger brothers, who have the same father and the same common root in Abraham.

They can become distant and even enemies, as unfortunately has been the case. But they can also recognise and discover each other anew, like Joseph and his brothers after a long search marked by sin and failure. This kind of mutual rediscovery has begun to emerge in the current ecumenical rapprochement. It is ultimately an eschatological event.

The image of the olive tree and its branches is rooted in the wider mystery of God's free election, in his mercy and justice. In the end, mercy will win over justice. Therein dwells our hope: "For God has consigned all men to disobedience that he may have mercy upon all" (Rom 11,32). All Israel will be saved in the end (Rom 11,26). And Paul sings praise to the fathomless wisdom of God: "O the depth of the riches and wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are his judgements and how inscrutable his ways!" (Rom 11,33). Israel's existence and election is a mystery of mercy; the existence of the Church too is a mystery of pure mercy, and is quite apart from the personal merits of individuals. Relations between the Jews and the Church is also a mystery that we can solve only in an eschatological way.

All this is a Christian interpretation of Judaism, and a self-understanding of Judaism. It would be interesting to know what a Jewish interpretation of Christianity -an interpretation open to dialogue - would be like. It seems to me that, from the Jewish perspective, it is Franz Rosenzweig who has stepped the furthest. But it is not within my competence to judge this.

As far as I can determine, the Jewish tradition too has expressed views against a univocal Jewish isolation. [Webmaster's note - at the author's request, some aspects of the original paper that appeared here are being refined in the light of the conversation that occurred.] The very Jewish idea that the Torah existed before the creation of the world, and that the world was created after it and according to it, leads, leads to a universal perspective. Hence the promise - in Zechariah 14.9 - of the final gathering of all peoples, and of the eschatological rule of God over all peoples, is interpreted by some Jews as a signal of hope for the salvation of all peoples. In the New Testament too we find the hope of the eschatological gathering of all peoples (Mc 8,11; Lc 13,29). In the end, God will be everything to every one (1 Cor 15,28).

Jews and Christians have therefore a common root, and their estrangement is historical yet not devoid of promise. And in their estrangement, they must take into account their respective history. They must give up their claims of exclusivity and their feeling of superiority linked to it; they must behave as partners open to a relationship, being there with each other and for each other. Their teaching of contempt must be replaced by a teaching of mutual respect and appreciation. In times of dangers and difficulties, both communities are called to manifest, on the basis of their hope, how they can experience together, for each other and for others, their covenant with God. In this sense, in the last part of my address, I would like to trace a few fundamental lines for a possible common theology of the Covenant.


Jews and Christians share the same faith in God: their God is not the neo-platonic One, deprived of all characteristics, or the supreme being of the Enlightenment. God is not an unreachable ruler of the heavens: He is the God of the Covenant, the God of dialogue who bends down, who turns to men as friends, speaking to them and with them. He loves his people and humankind, and He remains faithful to his love despite all human failures. He reaches out towards men, is committed in their history and listens to their cries and suffering, especially to the poor and the oppressed. He is a sympathetic and empathetic God, a God who shares in suffering, but is not overwhelmed by it and remains the sovereign God of history, guiding everything and leading everything towards his final Kingdom. He lives both in heaven and among us human beings.

I do not want to raise the question whether the doctrine of condescendence and inhabitation of God in his Shekhina has parallels with the Christological and Trinitarian doctrines – two doctrines traditionally dividing Jews and Christians. It is more important for me to note that apparently these differences are not so extreme as to prevent us from bearing common witness to the God of the Covenant. Such common witness is particularly urgent in today’s world – a world that has become secular and profane, and often doubts the sense of life and history. It is our common task and mission to help people find sense, courage, and hope.

To share the same idea of God means to share the same idea of men as partners of God in his Covenant. Jews and Christians believe that God created man in his own image after his likeness (Gen 1,28). The Bible affirms the sanctity and inviolable dignity of the human being – of every human being regardless of his or her cultural, national, religious or sexual belonging. At that time, this was a revolutionary affirmation, a breakthrough going beyond all cultural, national, religious and sexual limits, demarcations, exclusions, marginalisations, prejudices and enmities.

The universalistic biblical view is one of the very sources and foundations of modern theory and policy of human rights. This common heritage confers a common responsibility to Jews and Christians for the defence and promotion of human rights and of human life in the world, and this is – I am convinced – the best we can do for peace and freedom in the world. Against all nationalistic narrowness, ideological manipulation and materialistic depreciation of the person, we must insist on the dignity and greatness of the human being. We must stand against the immoralities and idolatries harming and degrading human dignity. Likewise, our common belief in creation can become an important contemporary message both in environmental and bio-ethical issues.

The Bible and both our religious traditions do not abandon us with this question. They speak of hope due to salvation. I am aware that, when it comes to salvation, this is a very delicate point for our dialogue, touching the deepest difference between the Jewish and Christian faiths. The cross, which is the sign of salvation for Christians, is a scandal for Jews; this is often used as an accusation against them. The Second Vatican Council opposed explicitly such wrong but long lasting interpretations and incriminations, stating that the cross has to be preached as a sign of reconciliation between Jews and Gentiles and as a sign of God’s universal love for all – Christians and Jews.

Deep and fundamental differences remain. Yet despite all remaining differences, we meet here for our common mission: to pronounce the promise of salvation and to bear witness to hope before the eyes of the world, to encourage people and show that there is a meaning to life. Moreover, we can offer the path to true happiness in life through the way of the Torah, the Ten Commandments, which, the Bible instructs, are not to be seen as burdens and limitations but as guides and signposts to happiness and fullness of life.

Recent developments in scientific and technological progress have raised new and difficult ethical questions. As Jews and Christians, we have been entrusted with an immense human, religious and ethical potential against the great destructive capacity of our world – a potential which can help to build a new civilisation of life. We have therefore a common responsibility for the future, in the new century and the new millennium, for the next generation and our young people. We should not only cast our glance backwards to the sorrowful moments of our history; today we are called to look forward and to initiate a new common history for the good of all. This is our common challenge today.

Let me now come to some very short concluding remarks. It is my deep conviction that we have embarked upon a new phase of our relationship. In the book of our common history, a new page has been opened. In our current situation, we can no longer afford to be estranged or inimical. As difficult as it may be, we must build bridges between us or, better, we must dare to walk on bridges that have existed as long as we have existed as Jews and Christians.

As sons and inheritors of our common father Abraham, we must set off and set our sights far ahead. May God bless our beginning so that we never lose faith in one another and never lose the hope He bestows upon us.