I am grateful to Peter Leithart for inviting me to write for this conversation, and to Gavin D’Costa, Eugene Korn, Alasdair Roberts, Jeff Meyers, Jerry and Charles Bowyer, and to Peter again for all their thoughtful and provocative responses. I will try to give some sort of response to each in turn.
But first let me address a question that comes up several times—the question of dual covenants. Do I endorse that? I cannot, as no orthodox Christian can do so. It is abundantly clear in Scripture and tradition that Jesus is the only way to the Father. Now how and when God makes that way known to his people is in some cases mysterious, and we Christians must be humble in the way we think about that vis-à-vis Jews, as I explain in my book Israel Matters (pp 132-33). But there is only one covenant, the one God made with Abraham and renewed through Jesus. And that needs to be confessed by Jews and gentiles alike in order to be saved (Romans 10:9).
Gavin asks what I think about Jewish followers of Jesus in Israel and Christian worship more generally. I do not think it is just for the Israeli high court to deny them the right to Aliyah. If Buddhist Jews are considered Jews in every legal sense, so should Jews who worship the Jewish messiah. I also think Christian worship should make space for Jewish expression without forcing them into worship and fellowship that is gentile only. Worship distinctive to both Jews and gentiles seems to have been the norm in the apostolic church, as suggested by Romans 14. If messianic communities that privilege Jews are necessary for a while to prevent the loss of Jewish distinctives (Mark Kinzer), the goal should be eventual fellowship that is truly bilateral, that is, fellowship in one body but with both gentile and Jewish worship and life.
On the boundaries of Israel and Palestinian rights to land, my answer is simple: the God of Israel is just and will not brook injustice. Now I do not think settlements in Samaria are unjust unless they take over land already owned by Palestinians. But these are local and political questions that must be worked out ad hoc.
Eugene Korn reminds us helpfully that the purpose of God’s covenant with his Jewish people was always to reach the world with salvation through Israel, so mission to the world was not a New Testament innovation. He recounts David Flusser’s findings that 80% of Jesus’ teachings were shared by first-century rabbis and their tradition. He argues that the Old Testament makes the land of Israel fundamental to the covenant because so many of Torah’s commandments are applicable only to that land, and that this belief was held even by anti-Zionist rabbis—whose complaint was about the state of Israel not Zionism per se. Rabbi Korn insists that criticism of the state of Israel can be legitimate, and points out (with a chuckle?) that Israelis engage in that criticism “overtime.”
I appreciate Alastair Roberts’ insightful response to Reformed supersessionism today that “devolve[s] all old covenant promises onto the Messiah.” This reading of Scripture is actually “inattentive” to Scripture, ignoring or riding roughshod over the “many threads” of the story of Israel “that are still loose.” It doesn’t notice that there are a good number of prophecies about the restoration of Israel in the NT (such as the end of Jerusalem’s domination by gentiles in Lk 21:24 and a time when the apostles will judge the twelve tribes in Lk 22:30) that have not yet occurred. It calls into question God’s faithfulness to his promise that Israel will never cease from being a nation before him (Jer 31:35-37), and ignores or spiritualizes a host of biblical prophecies that by a plain sense reading are clearly about the future of Jewish Israel (such as Ezek 36 & 37; Luke 13:35; Luke 21:24; Acts 3:21).
As Alastair rightly argues, the problem with the idea that all the promises of Israel are fulfilled in Christ alone is that, contrary to Paul’s image of the olive tree in Romans 11 that is composed of both natural branches and grafted-in wild shoots, all the natural branches get stripped off in this “Jesus is the only fulfillment” model and the tree is reduced to its root, Christ. That is just as unnatural (and inimical to the biblical testimony) as reducing the body of Christ to its head.
It also misreads the text of Romans 11, where Paul warns gentiles not to become “arrogant toward the [Jewish] branches [that have been broken off because of their unbelief].” Paul reminds the gentile Christians, “Remember it is not you who support the root, but the root that supports you.” Notice the present tense of “supports.” Paul does not say “that supported you,” as if Jewish Israel was a thing of the past that God meant to transcend because it was now obsolete. No, Jewish Israel was still supporting the gentiles. The type was not eliminated when the antitype appeared. The “nourishing root of the olive tree” (v. 17), which was a Jewish symbol for Israel (Jer. 11:16), was still supporting the wild gentile branches that had been grafted in. And God was not done with Jewish Israel, as Reformed supersessionism alleges. Not according to Paul: some day in the future “these natural branches will be grafted back into their own olive tree” (v. 24).
This Reformed supersessionism—which itself was transcended by the Puritans who saw much of what I am arguing–fails to account for Paul’s declaration that “the gifts and calling of God” for Jewish Israel are “irrevocable.” Paul said this of God’s calling of Israel to be his chosen people, and he said it of an Israel that for the most part had rejected their messiah. Yet their chosenness was still in place for Paul. But according to the view that Jeff Meyers and the Bowyers and Peter Leithart seem to share, God did revoke what Paul says is irrevocable.
Let me say a bit more about Paul and this claim that for him Israel and the law of Moses and all Jewish distinctiveness are obsolete—since Christ has fulfilled all the promises. According to this view, there are no more promises to be fulfilled for Jews qua Jews, since Jesus has now become “the only Jew” (Jeff Meyers). If this is so, why does Paul say of his fellow “Israelites” that “to them belong . . . the promises” (Rom 9:4)? As I said in my essay, for first-century Jews the land was always included among the chief promises which they believed God made to Abraham and his progeny. And Paul himself testified in Acts 13:19 that he believed the promise of land which God made to, as he put it, “this people Israel.”
If Jewish law was obsolete for Paul, why does Paul insist in his most mature reflection on law and the messiah that he does not “overthrow the law” but that in fact “we uphold the law” (Romans 3:31), and that “the law is holy, and the commandment is holy and righteous and good” (Rom 7:12)? The law does not seem “temporary” for Paul, as Peter Leithart and many others have argued.
And why, I would ask further, does Jesus insist that he did not come to “abolish the law but to fulfill it”? And that until heaven and earth pass away, not an iota (the smallest letter of the Greek alphabet) or a horn (the smallest stroke of the pen in Hebrew) would pass from the Law until everything is accomplished (Matt 5:17-18)? And that anyone who relaxes one of the least commandments (perhaps in Leviticus?) would be called least in the kingdom of heaven (v. 19)? As I write this evening, the heaven and earth have not yet passed away—which would suggest that according to Jesus the Law should still be observed by his Jewish followers and should not be allowed to pass away. But one gets the impression that for some of the writers in this series Jesus did indeed come to abolish the Law. I know they have their ways to interpret this passage, but their interpretation appears to violate the plain sense of this text.
Alastair, who shares a preterist view of Revelation with James Jordan and Peter, rejects Jordan’s view that the salvation of “all Israel” (Romans 11:26) took place in Jerusalem just before 70 AD. It cannot bear the weight, he rightly asserts, of the exalted claims of Romans 11 that “ungodliness will be banished from Jacob” and that “all Israel” will come to their “fullness.” What about the millions of Jews in the Diaspora? he asks. I would add that a small proportion of Jews in the first century is hardly “all Israel” or its “fullness.” That all Israel would be saved was was a familiar rabbinic expression that meant the great majority of Jews—hardly the case for what happened before 70.
Nor can “all Israel” in Romans 11 mean the future “new Israel” of the Church, composed of both Jews and Israel, as NT Wright and others argue. In every use of the word “Israel” in the previous verses of chapter 11, the word refers to Jewish Israel. Joseph Fitzmyer in his commentary on Romans reports that pas Israel (all Israel) occurs 148 times in the OT and in every case stands for “historic, ethnic Israel.” The upshot is that Paul sees a future for Jewish Israel that will involve massive spiritual renewal: “All Israel will be saved” (v. 26). The future tense (“will”) means that it did not happen with the first coming of Christ. So for Paul there is at least one thing that was not fulfilled for Jewish Israel in the first coming of Christ. The supposition that “all Israel” is the Church makes no sense, for Paul believed that the church was already saved. And it beggars the historical imagination to think that the salvation of “all Israel” took place just before 70 AD.
Therefore I must ask similar questions of Jeff Meyers. If there are no unfulfilled promises that apply to anyone besides Jesus and his disciples, why does Paul say in Romans 11:28 that unconverted Jews “are” still beloved to God? If the Jews no longer have a special place, why are they so prominent in the book of Revelation? In this case it doesn’t matter whether we are futurists or preterists, for the continuing Jewish character of the book seems at odds with the claim that Jesus has made the Jewish-gentile distinction obsolete. Why are the 144,000 all Jews, and the gates of the new Jerusalem named after the twelve Jewish tribes? If Jerusalem is no longer the center of the world, why is it the center of God’s eschatological redemption (Rev. 14:1; 11:2,8; 20:1-6; 21:2, 12; Luke 21:25; Acts 1:11)? If the land of Palestine is “most certainly not holy anymore,” why is Jerusalem called “the holy city” that will be “trampled for forty-two months” in the End of Days (Rev 11:2)? Why are the gospels and epistles, written decades after Jesus taught the apostles, also full of Jewish distinctives? Jeff says that Acts ends with God’s patience run out for the Jews. Then why does the Council of Jerusalem in Acts 15 presume that Jews are to keep up their Torah observance, as Craig Keener and Michael Wyschogrod and other Jewish and Christian scholars have argued?
I appreciate the Bowyers’ sympathetic reading of my work on Israel. I agree with them that Ioudaioi in the gospels, especially John’s, should usually be translated “Judeans” to refer to the leaders of the Temple Establishment who were Jesus’ enemies—not “the Jews” generally. I hope they see from the beginning of this article that I reject a dual covenant approach.
I agree with Jerry and Charles that in the Amidah’s prayer for a blessing “upon us and upon all Israel your people,” the “us” is a subset of “all Israel.” But that does not seem to be so for Gal. 6:16, where “them” refers to “all” who walk by the rule of the new creation. According to the Bowyers, the “all” is not a subset of, but instead is identical to, “the Israel of God.”
They wonder who inherits the vineyard in the Matthew 21 parable about the wicked tenants. Who succeeds the Jewish apostles? My answer to that question doesn’t matter, as long as it can be conceded that Jesus might have meant that the (Jewish) apostles were to be the new tenants. My point is that this parable cannot be used to prove an end to God’s covenant with Jewish Israel, since the new tenants are Jews.
The Bowyers’ principal objection to my essay seems to be that the Jews cannot have rightful claim to the land of Israel because they lost possession of the land so often. But the repeated biblical promises that God was giving them the land forever (Gen 13:15, for example) was a promise of title–not possession. This is why Jeremiah wrote from exile that while Israel had been driven off the land by God because of their unfaithfulness, they still held the title to the land: God said he would “bring them back to their own land that I gave to their ancestors” (Jer 16:15). God promised Ezekiel when in exile that he would “gather you from all the countries, and bring you into your own land” (Ezek 36:24).
The Bowyers suggest that Paul ignores this land claim. But as I just mentioned above, Paul makes the traditional land claim in Antioch of Pisidia, proclaiming in the synagogue there that God “gave [this people Israel] their land as an inheritance” (Acts 13:19)?
Now I come to Peter’s essay, which concludes responses to this series which Peter so generously invited.
I agree with Peter that Israel was a “United Nations Israel” from the very beginning with Abraham’s servants and then the mixed multitude after Egypt and many more racial groups entering Israel either by marriage and conversion or as sojourners. This belies, by the way, the oft-heard charge that Israelites (and today’s Jews) constitute a distinct “race.” They are not a race but a genealogy—like a family today with spouses and adopted children of different races.
Peter asks about Galatians 6:16. I agree with him and the Bowyers that in the Amidah, the “us” is a subset of “all Israel your people”—those gathered in a home or synagogue as a subset of all Israel. But even if I give “and upon the Israel of God” to Peter as an epexegetical elaboration, it is still plausible and perhaps probable that Paul means here what he later wrote in Romans 11—that gentiles who are joined to the Jewish messiah are now grafted as wild shoots into the olive tree of “the Israel of God.” Paul is praying peace and mercy on both groups.
In an attempt, it seems, to support his thesis that the purpose of Israel is to become obsolete and outgrown, Peter cites Paul’s assertion in Romans 2 that the true Jew is not simply the circumcised in the flesh but the circumcised of heart. Therefore, Peter seems to suggest, Paul means that circumcision is obsolete and should be merely metaphorical now for what is in the heart of any Jew or gentile.
I think this misses the context. Paul starts this section of Romans by addressing Jews in Rome: “But if you call yourself a Jew and rely on the law . . .” (2:17). He uses a familiar OT metaphor of heart circumcision to rebuke unspiritual Jews, just as the authors of Leviticus and Deuteronomy did (Lev 26:41; Deut 10:16). Then after saying that “a Jew is one inwardly,” he asks, “What is the value of circumcision? (2:29; 3:1). If Paul’s aim were to show that Jewish Israel and circumcision are to be outgrown, as Peter charges, we would expect Paul to respond to his own question by saying, “None! Don’t you get it? Circumcision must be purified into something different, mighty and permanent, that will outlast heaven and earth!”
But Paul doesn’t say that. Instead he says the value of circumcision is “much in every way” (2:2). Circumcision, the premier mark of Jewishness, is still valuable to Paul! It is not to be omitted now that the messiah has come. Rather than the messiah’s advent abolishing circumcision, he shows the meaning of circumcision in ways deeper than revealed by the Old Testament.
To the Corinthian Jewish believers who were apparently asking if they should remove their marks of circumcision, he said no: they were to remain in the calling to which they were called (1 Cor 7.17-20). Gentiles were not to try to become Jews by getting circumcised, and Jews were not to try to undo their Jewishness. Paul taught that God calls different people to different callings—Jews and gentiles, men and women, parents and children. Their callings were different and each calling entailed different roles and ways to serve the Jewish messiah. They were all justified as sinners by the messiah, and this justification by the messiah provided unity in the church so that all could have table fellowship together. But just as the unity of one flesh in marriage does not mean the elimination of difference between man and woman, so too for Paul and Jesus the new unity in the Church did not mean the elimination of distinctions between Jew and gentile.
On Matthew 5:5 and its probable meaning that the meek shall inherit the land (of Israel), Peter protests that Jesus does not restrict the land to meek Jews. I agree. But if all believing gentiles get to enjoy the land, how in the world could it be big enough? I think the model Jesus has in mind is that of Isaiah 2 where on the renewed earth the nations go up to the mountain of the Lord in Zion to learn the “ways of the God of Jacob.” They inherit the right to come and learn and then take home “the word of the LORD from Jerusalem.” It won’t be like Mecca, which is barred to non-Muslims.
I think Peter’s vision of Israel’s past and non-future—Israel as the new name for what is no longer Jewish—is elegant and beautiful. It reminds me of the gardens at Versailles which are gorgeous in their geometrical symmetries. I have learned from his masterful typological work in so much of Scripture, which is often profound. But now when he constructs his model of divide and conquer, applying it to Israel and her supposed death and obsolescence, I simply cannot make it fit onto the stubborn and wild topography of Scripture. The latter is for me more like a vast Japanese garden, with asymmetries and wildness and what seems from one perspective to be disorder, but which has its own vast and intricate beauty. It has a complexity with multiple layers. There are prophecies that are fulfilled not only figuratively but also literally. Many are fulfilled in stages, just as all Christians say of Jesus’ comings. There is unity to be sure, but it is a unity that does not obliterate differences. Just as in marriage and a family where there is a spiritual and genetic union that binds together wildly different persons with many different roles in the marriage and family.
Peter of course would not deny any of this in the abstract. His typologies are full of discordances that find ultimate resolutions. He is a theological genius who can, I imagine, fit all of my problem passages into his typology. But I cannot, and I don’t think a plain sense reading of Scripture can do so either.
Gerald McDermott is the editor of The New Christian Zionism (IVP) and the author of Israel Matters (Brazos).
To download Theopolis Lectures, please enter your email.