A New Testament Understanding of the Jewish Rejection of Jesus: Four Theologians on the Salvation of Israel

By Johnson, John J. | Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society, June 2000 | Go to article overview

A New Testament Understanding of the Jewish Rejection of Jesus: Four Theologians on the Salvation of Israel


Johnson, John J., Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society


Is Christian theology inherently anti-Semitic? Are the fundamental teachings of the NT blatantly anti-Jewish? Is the church's historical oppression of Judaism responsible (at least in part) for the Holocaust? More importantly, does the Holocaust force Christians to re-think the matter of Jewish salvation? A growing number of scholars, both Jewish and Christian, are answering "Yes" to these questions, and are seeking alternative understandings of the Christian message which they believe will avoid the antiSemitic trappings of the past.

The landmark work in this area is Rosemary Ruether's Faith and Fratricide, which was published in 1974. This book examined how Judaism has been demeaned and vilified by the NT, the Church fathers, and the states of Christian Europe. Ruether called for a radical new openness on the part of Christians toward Judaism in order to make amends for these sins: "Christians must be able to accept the thesis that it is not necessary for Jews to have the story about Jesus in order to have a foundation for faith and a hope for salvation." 1 The solution to Christian anti-Judaism, Ruether claimed, lies in a "revitalization of Christian absolutism which can accept the independent salvific validity of the Jewish tradition."2

Ruether's book has had a tremendous influence on the contemporary Jewish-Christian dialogue. The extent of this influence can be judged from the fact that Gregory Baum, who wrote a powerful apologetic work in 1968 vigorously defending the NT against the charge of anti-Semitism, penned the introduction to 1974's Faith and Fratricide. He there admitted that the apology he presented in his earlier work was untenable.3 Baum stated he had come to believe that, in light of the history of Christian anti-Judaism, especially the Holocaust, Christian theologians must "look for a formulation of the Christian faith that does not negate Jewish existence."4

Baum is not alone in his abrupt change of position. For example, Krister Stendahl no longer believes that Paul's letter to the Romans teaches that Jews must receive Christ as their Savior in order to experience salvation.5 There is a host of prominent thinkers, many of them Christian, who share Baum and Stendahl's views, and they continue to have an enormous effect on the ongoing Jewish-Christian dialogue.6

This article is an attempt to understand, from a decidedly NT perspective, some of the ways in which the Jewish people's rejection of the messiahship of Jesus Christ has been understood. My aim is to challenge the new orthodoxy that now prevails among many mainline Christian theologians regarding the matter of Jewish salvation. This new orthodoxy is largely a result of theological reflection upon the Holocaust. Due to the sheer horror of Jewish suffering, and Christian complicity in that suffering, many now consider any attempt to link Jewish salvation with the Christian Savior theologically untenable, if not dangerously anti-Semitic.

I wish to demonstrate that the traditional claim that Jesus is the Savior of the Jews is not anti-Semitic, and that it is in fact a requirement if an honest interpretation of the NT evidence is to be maintained. Christian theology must be based on revelation, not on human experience, however tragic and far-reaching that experience may be. To assume that Christian theology must change as a result of the Holocaust is to base our theological thought on the tragedy of human evil rather than on the revelation of God. And while the Holocaust is a particularly obscene example of human depravity, it is different only in degree, not in kind, from all the sins of mankind throughout the centuries. C. S. Lewis, responding to the alleged "new urgency" brought about by modern man's recognition of the riddle of evil, cogently remarks, "(W]hat new urgency? . . . it is no more urgent for us than for the great majority of monotheists all down the ages. The classic expositions of the doctrine that the world's miseries are compatible with its creation and guidance by a wholly good Being come from Boethius waiting in prison to be beaten to death and from St. …

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