Christian Conversion of Jews?

Dialogika Resources

"Christians and Jews: Starting Over — Why the Real Dialogue Has Just Begun"

Luke Timothy Johnson is the Robert W. Woodruff Professor of New Testament and Christian Origins at Candler School of Theology, Emory University. His article from the January 31, 2003 issue of Commonweal magazine is posted here with the kind permission of the editors.

How should Christians think about Jews? Or better, how should Christians think about themselves with reference to Judaism? This will always be a necessary question for Christians to ask, and will never be an easy question for them to answer.

It is a necessary question because Christians and Jews each lay claim to the same body of sacred texts and the story found in them, but do so in such different terms that each claim appears to challenge the other. It is necessary as well because Jews and Christians share a history of internecine rivalry. The primal trauma experienced by the first Christians is expressed in the New Testament's polemic against non-believing Jews. Christian payback extends across the long centuries of anti-Semitism supported and even sponsored by the church. Figuring out how Christianity should approach Judaism is necessary also because the Holocaust of the twentieth century and the subsequent rise of the state of Israel have fundamentally altered the terms of the conversation.

Recent exchanges in this and other journals indicate that the question remains as difficult as ever. Even as many Jewish scholars and religious leaders seek a more informed and less inflammatory context for constructive conversation (see Christianity in Jewish Terms, Westview Press), others find additional reasons for rage, not only because of the uncovering of historical evidence concerning the church's role in the Holocaust, but because of the Vatican's obtuseness in pursuing the canonization of Pius IX, Pius XII, and Edith Stein (see "Continuing the Conversation: The Church and Daniel Goldhagen," Commonweal, March 8, 2002). Christian voices are equally divided and perhaps even more confused. A good example of the distortions introduced by supersessionism is a recent exchange in America ("Covenant and Mission," October 21, 2002) between Avery Dulles—who thinks that, despite everything, Christians should still proselytize Jews—and members of the Christian Scholars Group on Christian-Jewish Relations (Mary Boys, Philip Cunningham, and John Pawlikowski)—who defend their statement that, "revising Christian teaching about Judaism and the Jewish people is a central and indispensable obligation of theology in our time."

I do not hope to answer the question of how Christians should think about Jews, because I think that is the wrong way to put the question. Instead, I hope to suggest a way that Christians might begin to think of themselves with reference to Jews. If Christianity is not supersessionist, is it anything? I think so. But discovering what Christianity is apart from supersessionism will require more work and clearer thinking than has usually been in evidence.

The charm of supersessionism

It is an odd word, supersessionism. The Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church, a reference work that defines almost everything, has no entry for it. The term is traditionally used for the conviction that the church has replaced Israel as God's chosen people. Israel has lost its place and Christianity now occupies it. Supersessionism is shorthand for the dominant Christian theological position regarding the Jews.

The claim that supersessionism is explicit in the writings of the New Testament exaggerates. The New Testament, it is true, provides plenty of ammunition for later supersessionist arguments. Avery Dulles defends the idea, expressed in Hebrews 10:9, that Christ "abolishes the first [covenant] in order to establish the second," but the New Testament compositions were not written from a position of Christian superiority to Judaism. They were, rather, composed in the context of competition among sects within the framework of Judaism. For Dulles to speak of Hebrews as "the most formal statement on the status of the Sinai covenant under Christianity," is, at the very least, anachronistic.

Supersessionism in the proper sense emerges in the middle and late second century, when Christianity had become almost entirely Gentile, and when history seemed to be running against the Jews. The failed Jewish war against Rome in 67-70 and the suppression of the Bar Kochba Revolt in 135 meant the destruction of Jerusalem and its Temple, and the apparently permanent scattering of the people. Justin Martyr, Origen, and Tertullian make the explicit claim that the Jews have been displaced as God's people and replaced by Christians.

The claim seemed to be magnificently confirmed by historical events. As the Gospels show, Jesus fulfilled the messianic prophecies of Scripture in great detail. In Matthew, everything from Jesus' virgin birth to his betrayal for money fulfilled specific prophecies (Matt 1:22-23; 27:9-10). The embarrassing fact that Jesus did not fulfill other messianic prophecies—in particular, those predicting a triumphant rule over Israel's enemies—was managed by hermeneutical sleight of hand: those prophecies, it was explained, concerned Jesus' second coming, not his first. Jesus' own prophecies had even more impressively been confirmed by history: the Temple had been destroyed just as he had predicted, and the people had been punished and scattered. The gospel, moreover, had been proclaimed to the Gentiles and received by them (see Mark 13:1-37; Matt 24:1-51; Luke 21:5-36). Real historical events confirmed Jesus' status as prophet. They also showed the emptiness of Jewish counterclaims. How could Jewish messianic expectations be accomplished when there were no longer a Temple and no longer a people on the land, and when the failed Bar Kochba uprising had proven how futile was the hope for a Jewish king?

As the sole legitimate heirs of the biblical promises, Christians had the right and the obligation - so they supposed - to define those whom they had supplanted, especially since Jews themselves seemed to ignore the clear lessons of history and insisted on persisting. How can such odd obduracy be understood? What might God have in mind? Do the Jews survive in order to bear the curse they brought on themselves for the death of Jesus? Is their continued presence an object lesson? Whatever conclusion Christian theologians reached, they assumed that their historical victory gave them the right to define Judaism in Christian terms.

History's Little Turns

Things have changed. Christianity today is the world's largest religion but it can no longer claim to be history's darling. Four developments in recent centuries suggest that history has abandoned Christians. First, world exploration revealed how tiny a territory - and how short a time span - Christians and Jews had been debating: history and geography no longer fit in the frame of the Bible. The majority of humans, who were wholly ignorant of the biblical story, also must be considered. Second, while the Enlightenment toppled revelation from its throne and installed human reason in its place, Christianity was secular reasons special target. Third, the age of revolution removed Christianity's political clout, making it no more than one more competitor for secondary allegiance within the secular state. Fourth, the Holocaust revealed the moral rot in Christian consciousness concerning Jews. The logic of isolation and exclusion that had been Christian policy for centuries found diabolical expression in the machinery of concentration camp and mass murder. In the face of these jolting historical realities, many Christians find it harder to maintain theological smugness toward Judaism.

Even worse - from the perspective of supersessionism - the same historical turns that toppled Christianity from its place gave Judaism a place of its own. The state of Israel is not only an unexpected, perhaps unprecedented, historical resurrection of an ancient nation, it enables Jews to read the Bible again as something more than the revelation of God's commandments. They can once more read Torah as the story of a people and a land pointing to a fulfillment in the reality of present-day Jews as a people on that land. A keystone of Christian supersessionism was the impossibility of reading Torah in terms of material and historical fulfillment. With the appearance of the state of Israel, that argument disappears (see E. Fackenheim, The Jewish Bible after the Holocaust).

Who's laughing now?

After the necessary time of silence and witness following the Holocaust, the classical forms of Jewish observance and thought have reappeared with new vigor and confidence. The Talmudic tradition thrives in the open market, and exercises political influence in Israel. Jewish scholars celebrate the breadth and fecundity of midrashic study in contrast to the narrowness and aridity of modern historicism. Although many Jewish scholars are deeply interested in Christianity as another way of reading Torah, they approach conversation not as the rejected but as the elder child, fully confident of the special place of this people before its God. They simply do not need to take Christians into account in order to account for themselves.

Christians, in contrast, find themselves deeply divided in their responses to the changed historical circumstances. On one side we find Christians acting as though nothing significant has changed. Many Evangelicals seek the conversion of Jews to Christianity. Many millenarians find the state of Israel a welcome bit of fuel for the final conflagration: having a literal landscape for Armageddon helps enormously when charting the course of the final days.

Roman Catholics vacillate. The Second Vatican Council's ecumenically path breaking Nostra aetate (Declaration on the Relationship of the Church to Non-Christian Religions) disavows any basis in Scripture for regarding Jews as "repudiated or cursed by God," but precedes that line with the bald statement, "the church is the new people of God." And while deploring "the hatred, persecutions, and displays of anti-Semitism directed against the Jews at any time and from any source," Nostra aetate fails to acknowledge the church as one of those sources and takes no account of the Holocaust or the papacy's inadequate performance in the face of the Nazi regime. "A unilateral pronouncement by one party which presumes to redress on its own terms a wrong that it does not admit," was how Rabbi David Polish responded to the declaration. The same combination of contrition and obtuseness has too often characterized subsequent Vatican statements and gestures.

At the other extreme, certain Christian historians and theologians seem willing to eviscerate Christianity altogether. Experiencing such moral revulsion at Christianity's sponsorship of anti-Semitism and its complicit role in the Holocaust, they vigorously eschew every trace of supersessionism (see, Clark Williamson, A Guest in the House of Israel and A. Roy Eckhart, Jews and Christians). In fact, the major difficulty in many Christian-Jewish dialogues is finding any real representation of a Christian position that is not so self-denying as to be in danger of disappearing. Many Christians, such as James Carroll (Constantine's Sword) see the New Testament as so drenched in anti-Judaism that they apply the logic of the medieval church's Talmud-burning on their own Scripture: Christianity must find another basis than these fatally flawed—in Harold Bloom's phrase, "pragmatically murderous" ­ texts. Rosemary Radford Ruether's provocative equation of Christology and anti-Semitism (see Faith and Fratricide) has for recent authors acquired the status of an unquestionable premise. To borrow James Carroll's image, Christianity must atone for its past by throwing itself on the same sword it wielded against Jews. Only the suicide of Christian truth claims is sacrifice sufficient to answer the Holocaust.

But showy self-immolation is no solution. Ironically, such public self-negation simply continues the pattern of Christian grandiosity. Moreover, this reflex among Christians shows how devastating the long history of supersessionism was. It led to the persecution and murder of Jews. It fundamentally distorted Christian identity as well. Nothing so reveals the powerful hold of supersessionism on the Christian consciousness as the fact that many of those who rightly abjure it find that they have no Christianity left.

With respect to supersessionism's first consequence, the persecution and murder of Jews, Christians need to do more than make symbolic gestures or eloquent apologies. They need to pray for the mercy of God and ask for the prayers of those Jews who have survived their savage stupidity. Most of all, they need to repent. The word means change. And that brings us to the second consequence, the distortion of Christian consciousness. With respect to this, Christians need to change in fundamental ways. But they need to change as Christians.

Simple reminders

A healthier conversation might begin by Christians recognizing that what makes supersessionism wrong is not its current political incorrectness but its lack of theological imagination. If, in fact, two parties should make contradictory truth claims on precisely the same point, then it would be necessary that one claim cancel the other. If you say that you alone inherit this property but I say that I alone inherit it - and we are the only available heirs - then one of us being right means the other must be wrong. But putting the matter that way in the case of Jews and Christians is to put it wrongly, for two reasons. The first reason is that, if we truly believe that there is but one God for all humans (see Rom 3:29-30), then Jews and Christians are not either together or separately the exclusive recipients of God's gifts. All humans are God's children. A sibling rivalry between two children in complete disregard of the larger family is both self-centered and silly. For either Jews or Christians to understand "election" in terms of an exclusive claim on God's revelation or care is to diminish God as well as the religious impulses of all the world's peoples. It is imperative that Christians and Jews move into modernity at least in this respect, that they recognize that the biblical story is not world history and that the self-disclosure of God in Scripture does not exhaust God's capacity for self-disclosure. The "Gentiles" of the present day also should figure into Jewish and Christian thinking about God.

The second reason is that the internal claims of Jews and Christians are markedly different and do not cancel each other. In Jewish terms, for example, Jesus must be considered a failed Messiah even if he is not regarded as a false Messiah. He did not, after all, make things better for Jews, and that is the minimum requirement for a Jewish Messiah. Judaism is fundamentally misconstrued, however, when it is reduced to messianism. Defining Judaism in terms of messianic expectation is defining it from a Christian rather than a Jewish perspective. Not even in the first two centuries of the Common Era, when messianism was rampant in Palestine, do we find a trace of it in the Diaspora, where most Jews lived. From Bar Kochba to Sabbatai Sevi, and from Sabbatai Sevi to Zionism, Judaism has flourished religiously apart from any significant messianic impulses but centered in community patterns of observance, study, and worship, based on the commandments of God.

On the other side, the Christian claim that Jesus is Messiah is not connected in any manner to empirical leadership over the Jews, but to Jesus' exaltation to God's right hand as the resurrected Lord. For Christians, Jesus is not a new Moses who displaces the old law with a new one, but the New Adam —whose "life-giving spirit" (1 Cor 15:45) inaugurates a "new creation" (2 Cor 5:17; Gal 6:15). Christians understand the "promise to Abraham' not in terms of the flourishing of the people on the land, but as the eschatological gift of the Holy Spirit poured out on all flesh and capable of transforming human freedom itself (Acts 2:17-39; 2 Cor 3: 17-18). Christians understand righteousness as measured not by the observance of the commandments but by the obedient faith of Jesus (Rom 3:21-26).

The texts shared by Christians and Jews, in short, are read in fundamentally different ways, not simply because Christians read Tanakh (the Hebrew Scriptures) in light of the New Testament, but because the New Testament itself is based on distinctive religious experiences and convictions not recognized as their own by Jews past and present. Christians and Jews are not and should never have been in the present situation of Jews and Muslims in Israel today, wrangling over specific geography because of religious associations. The saddest theological aspect of the Crusades was not the violence they fostered toward Jews as well as Muslims but the way they distorted the point of Christian faith, for which "the Jerusalem above" ought to be the only Jerusalem that matters (see Gal 4:26; Heb 12:22).

Given the fact that Jesus is clearly not a Jewish Messiah in any manner that makes sense to Judaism, and given the fact that Judaism honors God by its profound and enduring witness to God's holiness through its own understanding of Torah and its demands, there is every reason for Jews to continue within and celebrate their own tradition with no particular concern for what Christians might think. That so many Christians over the centuries have assumed that they had the right to define Judaism simply shows how far they were confused about Christianity's distinctive experience and conviction.

Toward a truer conversation

Christians can begin to leave supersessionism behind by cultivating three unaccustomed attitudes, and turning each attitude into a consistent practice. The first is an appropriate theological modesty.

Theological arrogance is found as much among those who propose reconstructing Christianity from the ground up as among those who think that no real change is necessary. From neither side does one hear any sense that Christians, like all other humans, are caught up in a mystery that goes beyond easy definition or calculation. From neither side does one learn, how obscure and difficult are the texts of Scripture, which wound even as they heal. Spokespersons for Christianity seem to have forgotten that they represent not the most logical and reasonable of religions (Judaism and Islam are both far more perspicuous) but the most paradoxical, based not in God's coherent revelation of law but in God's self-revelation in the crucified and raised Jesus. They seem, oddly, not to have learned that the God who so brings life out of death in Jesus challenges all human pretense of grasping or controlling God. They have not learned the most important lesson taught by their first and greatest theologian, the Apostle Paul. Paul spoke not of knowing God but of being known by God (1 Cor 8:3; Gal 4:9). He concluded his own anguished search - as a Jew - into the mystery of God's presence among Jews and Gentiles with a confession of God's indecipherable and inscrutable ways (Rom 11:33-36).

If such modesty is appropriate, even imperative, for any Christian at any time who proposes to speak about God, how much more should those claiming the name of Christian today abandon all arrogance in theological discourse. For, in plain truth, Christianity today is not in a good position even to represent itself, much less speak for God. The partial collapse of supersessionism has revealed the degree to which Christianity has defined itself negatively, in terms of contrast to Judaism, rather than positively, in terms of the experience of God in the Resurrection of Jesus the Lord. Even the heroic Christian theologians who - like Ernst Kaesemann - disavowed Nazi anti-Semitism, continued in their own reading of the New Testament to perpetuate an implicit Marcionism in their reading of Paul and the Gospels. What was essential to Christianity had to be what was unique to Christianity. The same tendency to contrast Christianity to a stereotypical Judaism continues, alas, even among questers for the historical Jesus. Marcus Borg's Jesus, with his "politics of compassion" in contrast to the Law's "politics of holiness" is only a contemporary variation of the same old anti-Jewish strand in Christian theology. The entire phenomenon of the historical quest for Jesus, in fact, is testimony to Christianity's own confusion about its own foundational experiences and convictions.

The attitude of modesty that is needed can manifest itself in practices of speech and behavior. Christians might refrain for a season from declaration and pronouncement and definition. They might confess ignorance and confusion as well as moral inadequacy in the face of the mystery with which they have been entrusted - who knows why? They might relearn the delights of honest labor and inquiry, as they delve deeper into their peculiarly complex Scriptures and traditions. They might acknowledge that they are required above all to learn who they are—what they actually believe and what they actually practice—before they can undertake to declare anything about others.

The second attitude for Christians to adopt—a manifestation of theological humility or modesty—is a patient attentiveness to the gospel. That there is a truth to the Good News from and about God in the death and Resurrection of Jesus is the continuing reason to be Christian. Patient attentiveness is required to recover the heart of that scandalous truth. The partial collapse of supersessionism ought to reveal how imperative it is for Christians to seek together for a positive coherence in their commitment to the reality of the Resurrection. But even this simple statement will meet vigorous objections from some. Some Christians will say, "Who are you to define Christianity, Why should Christianity need definition, Why should definition be a matter of experiences and convictions?" The long and slow erosion of identity that has, at the beginning of the twenty-first century, made Christianity a club that one joins on one's own terms, gives rise to such objections. The end of supersessionism may help us answer them. If Christianity is not simply "not Judaism," then what is it? If the church is not the replacement of Israel, then what is it? If Jesus is not the Jews' Messiah, then what kind of Messiah is he for Christians? These questions have not been adequately answered by the tradition. In the aftermath of the Holocaust, Christians must address them.

The two obvious starting points for such discernment are the New Testament and the creed. A rigorous and sustained reading of the New Testament in its entirety and with critical loyalty should have the effect of disqualifying careless and partial and uninformed readings that move either in the direction of anti-Semitism or in the direction of self-despising despair. A careful and communal reading of the New Testament ought also to lead Christian readers into an encounter with what is positive and life-giving in these texts. They do not need to define Christianity as a religion of grace over against a religion of law, because they discover in the actual words of Paul that no such contrast exists in his letters. And in the actual reading of the New Testament—as opposed to reading about the New Testament—they can be touched by the power of the transforming Spirit and recognize anew the meaning of declaring "Jesus is Lord."

Recommending the creed for purposes of Christian self discernment is more controversial, precisely because many Christians have grave doubts about creeds in general and the early church creeds in particular. Many ministerial students think that the point of studying theology is to develop "their theology" rather than be prepared to proclaim adequately the faith of the church. But for that very reason, the creed - Apostles' or Nicene - can serve as a valuable instrument for Christian self-examination. The creed, after all, seeks precisely to define the faith of Christians, and it does so with a remarkable and possibly miraculous parsimony. The creed does not ask us to subscribe to specific theories of atonement or pronouncements on Mary. It does not define sin or righteousness. It says nothing about the church except that it should be one, holy, catholic, and apostolic. It says nothing at all about the Jews.

The creed does state the basic Christian convictions concerning the Triune God as creator, savior, and sanctifier, and the basic Christian story from Creation, through Incarnation, to the world to come. If Christians study the creed together, it can help them sort out what in reality they are willing to confess and what they are not willing to confess, and bring to light the dramatically different ways in which they understand what they confess. This process can encourage as well a serious intellectual engagement with what the church professes. What does a belief in the Incarnation and the Resurrection and the Ascension and the future judgment mean for Christian practice and politics? Such discernment will reveal, I believe, that the heart of Christianity is eschatological rather than historical, and that it is necessary to recover the language of ontology to express what God has done in Christ.

The third attitude that Christians should cultivate is another manifestation of theological modesty, namely the willingness to learn from Judaism. The ignorance of Christians with respect to their own tradition is exceeded only by their ignorance of Judaism. Although there has been a great deal of splendid historical work done on ancient Judaism in the time of the New Testament, too little of this learning has found its way to theological conversations, and very little of it has entered ordinary Christian consciousness. Christians are obliged to learn now not about Jews but from Jews, not out of a fear of Jews, but out of the need to discover and appreciate the shape of Christianity's own heritage through a deeper knowledge and appreciation of the gift that God has given—and keeps giving—to the Jews.

These proposals are simple, but they are difficult. Keeping silence about things they do not know will be hard for garrulous Christian theologians. Paying attention to the heart of their tradition will be anguishing for communities that would rather do anything than define their belief and practice. Learning about Judaism from Jews as a way of gaining in wisdom means learning as well an unaccustomed humility. If Christians can manage such small steps, they will begin to learn what repentance truly means.