Tuesday, March 08, 2011

Supersessionism returns

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role in history was “fulfilled” with the birth of Jesus of Nazareth, after which God’s new covenant with the Church “superseded” the old covenant with Israel.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:

God of our Fathers, you chose Abraham and his descendants to bring your Name to the nations: we are deeply saddened by the behavior of those who in the course of history have caused these children of yours to suffer, and asking your forgiveness we wish to commit ourselves to genuine brotherhood with the people of the Covenant.To make sure that no one overlooked the significance of calling Israel the “people of the covenant” rather than the “people of the old covenant,” Benedict went on to remind his listeners that the Church now officially holds that the principles laid down at Sinai “remain eternally valid,” that the Jews “were chosen by the Lord before all others to receive his word,” that the catechism teaches that the “Jewish faith, unlike other non-Christian religions, is already a response to God's revelation,” that the Church has undertaken to institute “a renewed respect for the Jewish interpretation of the Old Testament,” and that Jews share equally with Christians the task of “preparing or ushering in the Kingdom of the Most High. . . .”

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:Never, in fact, has any papal or conciliar document affirmed that the covenant God made with Israel through Moses, with all its distinctive cultic, civil, dietary and other prescriptions that still form the basis of Judaism, still remains valid and “unrevoked” for Jews after the coming of Christ. It is a great relief, therefore, to see that he United States bishops voted overwhelmingly in August 2008 to eliminate a statement to that effect that had made its way into the new Catechism published with the authority of the episcopal conference. The uncorrected version stated, “Thus the covenant that God made with the Jewish people through Moses remains eternally valid for them.”But if the Jews’ covenant with God remains “eternally valid for them,” how exactly was it “revoked”? Since I am not a Catholic, I am agnostic on the question whether a “dual covenant” theology is heretical, although an outsider might fairly conclude that the eternal validity of two separate covenants is implied in John Paul’s and Benedict’s views. The new supersessionists insist they are merely moderate supersessionists, taking their stand somewhere between “extreme supersessionism” and “dual covenant theory.” And perhaps even those Christians who are less eager for supersessionism’s return also face the dilemma of reconciling the famous words quoted in the Gospel according to John (“I am the way, the truth, and the life: no man comes to the Father, but by me”) with a post-Holocaust respect for the spiritual integrity of the Jews. But that is not my theological problem.

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.


Grandpa Dwight said...

Thank you for your patience and expository clarifications. Yesterday I felt you conducted yourself quite admirably among the slings and arrows of a large number of blithering snarkists, but such is the state of internet comport these days it was not totally unexpected. Where identity is screened, idiots seem to thrive.

Since I am much, much older than you I might be an exception to your general experience with believing Gentiles, but for my entire adult life I've understood Jews are G-d's chosen people, even now, and some day [soon?] will play another, deeper significant role in the furtherance of His kingdom. I'm sure you're aware of belief in "the remnant, et al", and trust that doctrine is not offensive to my "cousins". If I err on this, mea culpa.

I salute you for your scholarly approach to spiritual matters, and your intellectual honesty in broaching challenging beliefs. Thanks, too, for your civility and academic accomplishments. I hope it won't offend you when I remember you as I approach His throne.


aka Bill Gannon

D. G. Myers said...


Many thanks for the kind (and entirely undeserved) words.

You probably already know that the idea of a “remnant” comes from the prophet Isaiah:

“And in that day
The remnant of Israel
And the escaped of the House of Jacob
Shall lean no more upon him that beats it [i.e. upon Assyria],
But shall lean sincerely
On YHVH, the Holy One of Israel.

“Only a remnant shall return,
Only a remnant of Jacob,
To Mighty God [el gadol].

“Even if your people, O Israel,
Should be as the sands of the sea,
Only a remnant of it shall return.
Destruction is decreed;
Retribution comes like a flood!”


Shalom right back at you!


Noelle said...

Admittedly, I had rather lazily assumed that BCE/CE was some sort of unfortunate twentieth-century invention. I now stand corrected.

Speaking as a young dispensationalist person myself (although not a Southerner) it's good to hear that your experiences with us have been agreeable. I'm not sure that "replacement theology" is as dead as you think, though--there are, for example, many conservative Presbyterians who would call themselves evangelical and are still more or less supercessionists.

D. G. Myers said...

Without opening up a can of worms, let’s just say that the Presbyterian Church USA has not been a reliable friend of the Jews.

Don said...

Honestly, supersessionism has been rearing its ugly head more and more among Catholics of late. While the Pope is allegedly writing a book that "exonerates" Jews in the killing of Christ, Vatican reps the world over are making speeches that declare, in unambiguous language, that Christ's covenant erases ANY claims that Jews might have on any part of the Holy Land. Over and over we hear from Bishops and Vatican reps that G-d's covenant with the Jews is null and void (see the recent Vatican conference on the Middle East).

This may be part of a larger movement to undo Pope JPII's work in the area of Catholic-Jewish relations, or it may be that the very significant pockets of anti-Semitism in the Catholic Church are finding common cause with Muslim Jew haters.

Either way, the current Pope needs to repudiate these supersessionists (at least the more anti-Semitic among them) or risk the Church looking both nasty and ridiculous. I've seen little evidence that anyone cares.

D. G. Myers said...


Thanks for the bad news. (And forgive me the oxymoron.) The two Catholic pieces that I link above are examples, I fear, of what you are talking about.

However, I have great confidence in Benedict XVI, largely because I admire his intellect and intellectual courage so fiercely. The movement that you describe, as exemplified by Brian Harrison’s piece, which seeks nothing less than to “undo undo Pope JPII’s work,” is a direct challenge to papal authority and to Benedict’s deepest beliefs.

AJ said...

But what about the story of Essau? That story suggests that there are no irrevocable deals with God, if there were, Essau couldn't lose his inheritance.

D. G. Myers said...

Esav voluntarily surrenders his birthright.

AJ said...

I think he was a prisoner of forces he did not comprehend, and his father was just looking for an excuse to get rid of him, so much so that he accepted a fraud and rewarded a liar.

abravanel said...

Hi and thanks for the post,

I would be interested to hear of your impressions on this subject with the american Greek Orthodox Church as I am curious to find out on whether the american surroundings have brought any change in respect to their co-religionists in my native Greece.

Anonymous said...

Isn't the term even older in Hebrew? I have seen texts that refer to the CE year by the term "acording to the count of the Christians", or the acronym ayin samekh nun. I have not paid attention to when these texts were written but I would not be surprised to know that they predate the 19th Century English usage.

I agree that Mr. Cramer's complaint is uncommonly silly. What troubles me, and should trouble him (as I pointed out in his comments thread) is the number of anti-Semitic loons who jumped onto his bandwagon with veiled threats of what would happen to American Jews if we did not shape up. Ahad Ha'amoratsim

Anonymous said...

Worth reading regarding Catholic teaching: