Christians & Jews: Starting Over: Why the Real Dialogue Has Just Begun
Johnson, Luke Timothy, Commonweal
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 of Jewish-Christian 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. …