With Christians under attack in the Muslim world—in Ethiopia, in Pakistan, in Egypt—now is hardly the time to start a culture war with their “elder brothers,” as John Paul II described the Jews.
Yet that is exactly what a writer at Pajamas Media did yesterday. Clayton E. Cramer, a software engineer with an M.A. in history, argued that replacing the abbreviations B.C. and A.D. in school textbooks, substituting B.C.E. and C.E. in their stead, will “offend the still-large majority of Americans who culturally or religiously identify themselves as Christians.” The only reason to make the switch, he declared confidently, is to “signal one’s sensitivities.” He wondered if the new usage is not a “form of culture war.”
But when I posted a comment observing that the usage is hardly new—the term B.C.E. was introduced into English in 1881—and that it is almost universal among Jewish scholars, I was the one to ignite a culture war. “B.C.E.” and “C.E.” are scholarly terms, I argued; scholars prefer them because they are theologically neutral, and textbook writers are simply following scholarly convention.
The newer terms are theologically neutral even if—as for the Jewish writers who introduced them, and for me as well—C.E. stands for the “Christian era” and not the “common era.” Indeed, the first writer to use the term C.E. in English was Elias Hiram Lindo. In his Jewish Calendar for Sixty-Four Years, published in England in 1838, Lindo spoke openly of the “Christian era.” In an interesting footnote, he did not use the term B.C.E. but rather A.C. without further explanation.
In short, the usage antedates political correctness by many decades. Jewish writers prefer it, not because they wish to “signal” their “sensitivities,” but because the traditional B.C. and A.D. abbreviate a theology, as I put it in my original comment, that they find obnoxious and irrelevant. The name for that theology is supersessionism, although it is sometimes called “replacement theology” or “fulfillment theology.” It holds that the Jews’ role in history was “fulfilled” with the birth of Jesus of Nazareth, after which God’s new covenant with the Church “superseded” the old covenant with Israel. Thus all prior history, including Jewish history, was simply “Before Christ”—that is, leading up to the messiah’s arrival. And since then we have been living the years of “Our [sic] Lord.”
Now I did not think that I was saying anything particularly controversial by describing this theology as both obnoxious and irrelevant to the Jews—obnoxious because it writes them out of their own history, irrelevant because to them the messiah has yet to arrive. The reaction to my comments, which ranged from accusing me of falsehood and duplicity to calling me a “Jewish bigot” who displays a “contempt for Christians and Christianity,” only begins to measure the depth of my own naïveté.
But that’s what two decades of teaching Evangelical Christians in the American South will do to you. Let me explain. In twenty years at Texas A&M University, I encountered exactly two antisemites, and only one of them was a believing convert-seeking Christian: and he was a man of my own age. With few exceptions, the younger generation of Christians that I encountered in my classrooms were the sort who would have been condemned for the Judaizing heresy five hundred years earlier. Especially in my course on the Bible in literature—in which I taught only the Hebrew Bible, and from a bilingual Hebrew-English text—they signed up to explore their religion from a Jewish angle. “Studying with you is like studying with Abraham,” a student once said to me reverently. “F. Murray Abraham?” I nearly said, but didn’t.
The younger generation of Evangelical Christians, at least in my experience, are entirely innocent of theological antisemitism. They have never even heard of supersessionism. Most of them appear to attend churches which have been deeply influenced by the doctrine of dispensationalism, which teaches that God has not—could not—revoke his promises to Israel (“God is not man to be capricious, or mortal to change his mind” [Num 23.19]). Thus the “old” covenant remains in effect. Christianity does not supersede Judaism, but adds to it.
This revolution in Protestant Christian thought has been matched by equally revolutionary theological developments within Roman Catholicism. The Second Vatican Council, convened by John XXIII in 1962, began the work of repudiating the Church’s antisemitism and anti-Judaism and refashioning a new relationship with Israel, founded (as John Paul II later put it) upon “the great spiritual heritage common to Christians and Jews.” Under John Paul II and Benedict XVI, the repudiation of supersessionism has become Church doctrine. When he visited the Rome Synagogue, Benedict quoted the prayer that his predecessor had offered at the Western Wall in Jerusalem, to emphasize their common belief on this issue:
Supersessionism is officially dead in the Evangelical Protestant and Roman Catholic churches. Even the more recent attempts to resuscitate the theology have foundered on the bold views of Christian leaders. Thus the Rev. Brian W. Harrison has recently argued that supersessionism “was never at any stage abandoned” by the Church. Despite quoting John Paul II to the effect that God’s covenant with the Jews is “irrevocable,” Harrison maintains:
This much I would observe. If God’s covenant with the Jews remains “eternally valid for them,” and if anyone can convert to Judaism, then perhaps there is at least one other way to the Father. But it is precisely when I say things like that that supersessionism raises its ugly head.