Enduring Covenant in the Christian Middle Ages

By Harris, Jennifer A. | Journal of Ecumenical Studies, Fall 2009 | Go to article overview

Enduring Covenant in the Christian Middle Ages


Harris, Jennifer A., Journal of Ecumenical Studies


It has been some thirty-five years since Rosemary Radford Ruether published Faith and Fratricide: The Theological Roots of Anti-Semitism. (1) Her sweeping 1974 study covers an enormous chronological range, from pagan antiquity to the Holocaust, in order to dig down to the roots of Antisemitism in Christian thought. Ruether described the revocation of the Mosaic covenant as being at the heart of Christology and put this at the core of her theological argument. (2) The termination of the covenant with Moses, she averred, is the key to Christian Antisemitism from the Christian Scriptures onward; thence, she drew her conclusion through the patristic and medieval periods. (3) Ruether was careful to point out the Christian distinction between a spiritualized covenant of faith--made with Abraham and affirmed in the Christian Bible--and the covenant with Moses that was abrogated with the coming of Jesus. (4) It is this distinction, she feels, that fuels Antisemitism. (5) While the abrogation of the Mosaic covenant appears to tell Ruether's story about Christian Antisemitism, continuity of the Abrahamic covenant was of little concern to her. The division between Abrahamic and Mosaic covenants itself, she insisted, is the fault line between Jews and Christians, and this break is to be exposed and rejected wherever found. (6)

The ambitious scope of Ruether's study was bound to attract attention, both positive and negative, to her work. (7) Indeed, her work on antiquity and the early church has been challenged and qualified since its publication, most notably by John G. Gager. (8) Ruether's assertions about covenant and the Middle Ages, however, have generated little sustained reflection from the scholarly community. (9) In fact, her popularization of the story of covenantal supersessionism that begins in the decades after the Crucifixion (and continues to the Holocaust and beyond) is still found in surveys of the period, and her book is uncritically cited in numerous works. (10) In this essay, I will set forth some of the evidence for a more nuanced view of Christian thought on covenant in the Middle Ages. In particular, I will discuss the endurance of the Abrahamic covenant, its impact on Christian understanding of the Mosaic Law, and the changing reception of this important doctrine within the medieval Christian imagination. As shall be seen, this story differs greatly from the one told by Ruether and others.

I. The Idea of Covenant

The concept of covenant has inspired modern scholarship on ancient Hebrew Scripture and religion since Julius Wellhausen published his monumental study, Prolegomena zur Geschichte Israels, in 1885. (11) Following Wellhausen's treatise, a number of scholars of religion generally and of ancient Israel specifically have turned their attention to the role of covenantal election in the formation of Israelite religion and identity. (12) The undeniable importance of covenant in ancient Judaism, and in early Christianity, is also evinced in a number of studies. (13) The balance of interest in covenant shifts, however, as we move into studies of the medieval period. (14) While there is a wide range of biblical covenants, the majority of scholarship on covenant in the Middle Ages is content to examine, or simply suppose, the predominance of supersession--that is, the cessation of the Mosaic covenant with the coming of Christ and the transfer of God's election to the followers of Jesus. (15) While supersession was never officially endorsed by the early or medieval churches, one can follow the trates of this theological viewpoint from the apologetics of Justin Martyr (c. 100--c. 165 C.E.), (16) to the polemics of John Chrysostom (347-407), and, much later to Petrus Alfonsi (1062-1140), to the violence and expulsions that eventually characterized Jewish-Christian relations in later medieval Europe. Nevertheless, this "lachrymose narrative" is not the only one; in fact, the historiographical construct of increasing supersessionism in the Christian Middle Ages needs to be revised in light of a number of texts that offer another view of the matter. …

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