Navigating the Waters around Supersessionism

There has been a good deal of online chatter recently about “supersessionism.”

Supersessionism is the idea that Judaism has been superseded by Christianity (as “the true religion”), or that Israel has been superseded by the Church (as “the people of God”). In this way of thinking, Christianity is superior to Judaism and the Church has replaced Israel.

It’s no surprise that supersessionism has been part of the mix in a lot of Christian anti-Semitism through history. Christians and Jews both, then, are right to condemn supersessionism.

James Tissot, Moses and the Ten Commandments

However, it turns out it’s not all that easy to spot this anti-Semitic supersessionism in the wild. A Rabbi might condemn something they think reflects an aberrant, “supersessionist” version of Christianity only to find out it’s an essential part of historically orthodox Christianity. A Christian pastor might criticize other Christians for the latent “supersessionism” of their Christ-centred interpretation of the Old Testament, only to find themselves labeled “supersessionist” because of their Trinitarian reading of the Old Testament.

Contrary to some online exhortations (“C’mon Christians, it’s not so hard! Just don’t be supersessionist!”) this really is a rather knotty problem for Christians. And it won’t go away any time soon, because the tensions inherent to the problem of supersessionism grow out of the very nature of Christianity itself.

Here are a few historical realities that need to be considered by anyone—Christian or Jew—who wants to talk about Christianity and supersessionism. While there is debate about many of the details of these things among historians of Christian origins and early Judaism (a.k.a. late Second Temple Judaism), the basic points are not all that controversial.

1) Jesus of Nazareth was a devout Jew. As far as we can tell historically, he remained so to the end (Jesus was executed under Roman jurisdiction in or around 30 CE). Keep in mind, though, Jews (or perhaps better, “Judeans”) in the first century disputed vigorously among themselves as to what God-approved, Torah-faithful religious devotion should look like.

2) Paul of Tarsus was a devout Jew. His revelatory Jesus-experience near Damascus (within a few years of Jesus’ death) was not a “conversion” from one religion to another; he describes it rather as a prophetic “call” by the God of his ancestors to proclaim Jesus as Messiah and Lord among the Gentiles (non-Jews, “the nations”; e.g. Gal 1). As far as we know, Paul considered himself to be a devout Jew to the end of his life. This claim was sharply disputed by other Jews of his day.

3) The earliest followers of Jesus were all Jews, and most of the authors of the writings that make up the New Testament were Jews. The scriptures of early Judaism were their scriptures, because they were Jews. They claimed Jesus as the promised Messiah of Israel, their Messiah. They viewed what had happened to Jesus and what was happening among them as the beginning of the fulfillment of Jewish expectations for God’s “last days” salvation.

So far this sounds like Christianity should be simply a sect of Judaism. In fact, that’s essentially what it was, to start with: a branch of early Judaism on the “apocalyptic” side of the family tree. So what happened? A few more historical realities to keep in mind:

4) Early in the development of this Jesus movement these Jesus-followers began to understand Jesus in rather exalted, even exclusive, terms. Jesus was viewed not only as Davidic Messiah bringing about God’s promised reign on earth, but as Lord over all powers of this age, even as the fullest revelation of God to humanity—even as God-in-human-flesh. Exactly how early this “high Christology” developed and how widespread it was are matters of debate among historians, but these ideas are evident in one form or another throughout the New Testament writings, even in the earliest of them (Paul’s letters, written 15-30 years after Jesus, ca. 45-60 CE).

5) Within a decade or so after Jesus, Gentiles had begun to join this Jewish Jesus movement. This created a contentious problem for the movement: do we accept Gentiles as Gentiles, or do we expect Gentiles to become Jews? Within another decade, a formal decision was made accepting Gentiles as “righteous Gentiles,” no conversion necessary (Acts 15; ca. 49 CE); however, the controversy continued for many years after. That decision, though, along with the active evangelization of Gentiles by people like Paul, meant that it wasn’t long before Gentiles outnumbered Jews within the Jesus movement (e.g. this seems to have been the case in the Roman churches Paul wrote to in the late 50s CE).

6) By the end of the first century, “the parting of the ways” between Christianity and Judaism was well on its way; by the middle of the second century this parting was effectively complete. The “Gentilization” of the Jesus movement, along with the desire of these Christians to distinguish themselves from Jews in the aftermath of two failed Jewish revolts against Rome (66-73 and 132-136 CE), paved the way for this parting (which was not often as amicable as the word “parting” implies). Christianity emerged as a predominantly Gentile religion, and Judaism evolved into its current form (Pharisaic-Rabbinic).

These historical realities are part of the DNA of Christianity. They can’t simply be brushed aside. Nor does it work to blame supersessionism on a later Hellenization/Romanization of an early Jewish Jesus-movement (no “Thanks, Constantine!” allowed here). An exalted, even exclusive view of Jesus in relation to all other powers of this age and all other claims of divine revelation was already present in the earliest, “most Jewish” versions of Christianity.

James Tissot, The Sermon of the Beatitudes

In other words, again, the tensions inherent to the problem of supersessionism grow out of the very nature of Christianity itself. We might try to resolve these tensions by denying Christianity’s organic connection to early Judaism, as if Christianity and Judaism are completely distinct religions. Or, we might try to resolve these tensions by denying Christianity’s strong claims about Jesus even related to the Torah and key aspects of Jewish belief and practice, as if there is nothing distinctive about Christianity related to Judaism. Either way, we end up with something that is not Christianity.

So, what should we do?

Well, we need to be honest about the origins of Christianity and the nature of Christianity’s claims about Jesus. This should be part of any religious instruction about Christianity and Judaism, and part of any Jewish-Christian dialogue. It doesn’t help to gloss over these realities in order to resolve any problems that might arise from them.

We also need to be honest about the history of Christian anti-Semitism, and the ways in which Christian teachings about “Christianity as the true religion” and “the Church as God’s true people” have helped to fuel that anti-Semitism (not to mention European colonization and similar evils). This, too, should be part of religious instruction for Christians about Christianity and Judaism, and confessed by Christians in Jewish-Christian dialogue.

We Christians must also do the hard work of thinking carefully about Christianity’s origins and claims related to Judaism.

What does it mean for Christianity and our relationship to Judaism that Jesus was and remained a devout Jew? What does it mean for Christianity and our relationship to Judaism—and any other religion, for that matter—that Jesus did not found Christianity as a religion, let alone a religion distinct from Judaism?

What does it mean for Gentile Christians and our religious practices that Jesus was and remained a devout Jew? What does this mean for our relationship to the scriptures, symbols, and practices of Judaism, including reading Torah, keeping Sabbath, performing ritual washings, and eating sacred meals?

What is the significance of the fact that the Jewish scriptures (the Tanakh) say nothing directly about Jesus, yet they make up most of the Christian scriptures (as the Old Testament)? What does it mean to claim that the Jewish scriptures bear witness to Jesus? What does it mean to claim that Jesus (not any scripture) provides us with the fullest revelation of God and God’s will?

What does it mean for “Israel” to be the people of God, yet for “the Church” also to be the people of God? What exactly is the relationship between the two? What, in fact, does it mean for any specific group of people to claim they are “the people of God,” or “the children/family of God”? How does this relate to biblical ideas that all people are created “in God’s image” and are “God’s children”?

How do we understand the repeated New Testament claim that the new Messianic community forming around Jesus (“the Church”) is in some way an extension of the ancient people of “Israel” in fulfillment of Israel’s scriptures? That in Jesus the Messiah (“in Christ”) Gentiles have been “grafted in” to Israel, included in Israel’s promised inheritance?

What does it mean to claim that Jesus of Nazareth, crucified by Rome and resurrected by God, is Israel’s Messiah? That this Messiah Jesus is Lord over all powers of this world, including religious powers? That this Messiah Jesus is the ultimate revelation of God, even God incarnate? How do these claims relate to modern Judaism? to other religions? to other claims of divine revelation and authority?

These and similar questions are more complicated and difficult than they might appear on the surface. Yet we must grapple with these questions in order to navigate the waters around supersessionism. Let’s strive to do so with historical and theological integrity as Christians, with a deep sensitivity and love for our Jewish neighbours, and with grace for one another—because we will make mistakes along the way.