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Benedict on Judaism and Christianity

Did the New Covenant replace the Old Covenant, making the Jews irrelevant? The pope emeritus, for one, believes not.

Jimmy Akin

Since his retirement from the papacy in 2013, Benedict XVI has continued to write, but few of his writings have become public.

The most theologically significant was published in the journal Communio, and it deals with several controversial questions about the relationship between Judaism and Christianity. It is a twenty-two-page paper titled “Grace and Vocation Without Remorse: Comments on the Treatise De Iudaeis”—the last phrase being Latin for “on the Jews.”

Since he is no longer pope, the document does not carry magisterial authority, but it is an insightful look at what an orthodox Catholic theologian says about these questions.

Christianity began in a Jewish context. Jesus and the first Christians were Jews, and they held sacred the same things other Jews did, including the temple and the Jewish scriptures. Eventually, the Christian movement spread in Gentile circles. Over time, Gentile Christians came to outnumber Jewish ones, and the two movements grew apart.

Today they are viewed as two separate religions, but they are intimately linked. This has led Christians to reflect on the way their religion is related to both biblical and post-biblical Judaism.

Marcion’s mistake

An early proposal was that of Marcion. He journeyed to Rome around A.D. 140 and joined the Church there. Marcion proposed a radical division between Christianity and Judaism, according to which the God of the Old Testament was a different and inferior deity, not the God of the New Testament.

Consequently, he composed a New Testament that included only the Gospel of Luke and some of Paul’s letters. It was purged of Jewish elements. But the Church excommunicated Marcion and his followers, indicating his proposal for the relationship between Judaism and Christianity was unacceptable.

Replacement theory

Other less extreme proposals followed Marcion, and a view became popular that is now known as replacement theology or supersessionism. According to this view, the Church has superseded Israel in God’s plan so that the latter has little or no distinctive role today.

In 2015, the Pontifical Commission for Religious Relations with the Jews described supersessionism this way: “the promises and commitments of God would no longer apply to Israel because it had not recognized Jesus as the Messiah and the Son of God, but had been transferred to the Church of Jesus Christ which was now the true ‘new Israel,’ the new chosen people of God” (The Gifts and Calling of God Are Irrevocable 17).

The period in which this view was prominent was one of mutual tension and hostility between the two groups, and, since Christians were in the majority in Europe, non-Christian Jews suffered persecution.

The twentieth century

In the twentieth century, the Nazi movement—despite its anti-Christian outlook—adopted antisemitism and took it to new extremes, attempting to exterminate European Jewry.

This caused Christians—especially those in Europe—to take a new look at the relationship between the two groups. One result was the fourth chapter of Vatican II’s declaration Nostra Aetate, which adopted a balanced and positive appraisal of Christianity’s relationship with Judaism.

Following the Council, a view developed that decisively rejected super­cessionism and held that the special covenant of God with the Jewish people had never been revoked.

In his article, Benedict XVI states: “Both of these theses—that Israel is not replaced by the Church, and that the covenant was never revoked— are basically correct but are in many ways imprecise and need to be given further critical consideration.”

Defining what you’re rejecting

The first difficulty he notes is that, prior to Vatican II, supersessionism was a poorly defined concept. There was no formal theory of replacement, and, as a result, it was not listed in standard theological dictionaries.

Also—at least in Catholic circles—it was always recognized that Judaism was different than other world religions and that the Jewish people had a special role in God’s plan. (Although Benedict does not make this point, some in Protestant circles have gone further and argued that today the Jewish people has no special significance, though the majority of Protestants disagree with this view.)

For Catholics, Benedict states, “Above all, two points of view have always resisted the idea that the Jewish people have been totally cut off from the promise.”

The first of these is the fact that the Jewish people possessed the Old Testament Scriptures, and this set them apart from other religions. The second is that the New Testament speaks of the Jewish people as having an ongoing significance for God. Thus St. Paul says that “all Israel will be saved” (Rom. 11:26).

The 144,000

Benedict also cites Revelation 7:3-8, where 12,000 members of each tribe of Israel—referred to as “the servants of our God”—are sealed and given divine protection.

Some interpreters have taken this image of the 144,000 as a symbol of the entire Church. This is possible, but it is not the only way of understanding the symbol.

After introducing the 144,000, John writes, “After this I looked, and behold, a great multitude which no man could number, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and tongues, standing before the throne and before the Lamb” (Rev. 7:9).

This group clearly contains Gentile Christians, and they can be seen as contrasting with the 144,000 of the twelve tribes of Israel (although Revelation sometimes uses contrasting symbols, as when Jesus is spoken of as a lion but depicted as a lamb in 5:5-6).

Benedict sees the 144,000 as indicating an ongoing significance for the Jewish people in God’s plan: “According to the perspective of the New Testament, this eschatological view is not simply concerned with something that will eventually come to pass after many thousands of years; rather the ‘eschatological’ is always also somehow present.”

No complete substitution

However individual passages may be interpreted, Benedict observes that in Catholic theology the Church was never understood as depriving Israel of any place in God’s plan.

He writes: “On this basis the idea developed in the Middle Ages of the pope’s twofold obligation of protection: on the one hand, the Christians must be defended against the Jews, but also the Jews had to be protected. They alone in the medieval world could exist alongside Christians as a religio licita (Latin, “permitted religion”).

But if the Church never superseded the role of Israel as a whole, what about the individual distinctives that characterized the Jewish people in God’s plan?

Benedict considers five of these:

  1. The ritual laws that pertained to the nation of Israel as a whole
  2. Those that pertained to individuals
  3. The legal and moral instructions of the Torah
  4. The messiah
  5. The promise of the land.

The temple and its sacrifices

In the Torah, God gave Israel certain practices that pertained to the whole nation. These included the tabernacle—which would eventually give way to the temple—as well as the animal sacrifices performed there.

Benedict refers to these as “cultic” laws, though this can be misleading to some English speakers, given the meaning the word cult has in popular speech. He means merely the ritual practices God gave the Israelites.

If people today want say to that the Church has not replaced Israel, what would it mean to claim that these laws have not been superseded?

Surely we can’t say that Jewish people still need to perform animal sacrifices. The New Testament makes it clear that Christ’s sacrifice on the cross has made those obsolete, and the Eucharist has taken their place as an ongoing rite.

From a Christian point of view, the temple and its sacrifices must have been superseded in some sense, and Benedict states, “I think that here it becomes apparent that the static view of law and promise, which stands behind the unqualified no to the ‘theory of substitution,’ necessarily breaks down at this point.”

Instead, Benedict argues, we need a dynamic view of the Old Testament’s ritual laws so that, rather than simply being replaced by the sacrifice of Christ, they find their fulfillment in him and continue in that way.

He writes, “There is really no ‘subst­itution’ but a journey that eventually becomes one reality. And yet this entails the necessary disappearance of animal sacrifices, in place of which (‘substitution’) the Eucharist occurs.”

Personal ritual laws

The pope emeritus now takes up the ritual laws that pertained primarily to individuals, such as circumcision and keeping of the Sabbath.

Benedict states: “Today it is clear that, on the one hand, these ordinances served the protection of Israel’s iden­tity in the great scattering among the peoples. On the other hand, the abolition of their binding character was the condition for the emergence of worldwide Christianity from the Gentiles.”

He observes that the question of these observances has been a problem for both Jews and Christians and that, in the sixteenth century, Protestants began to accuse Catholics of improperly introducing a new legalism that substituted new practices (e.g., fasting before Communion, abstaining from meat on Friday) in place of the former Jewish requirements.

Ultimately, he says, “This need not be discussed further here.” I really wish he had discussed it further, because there are some interesting questions here.

Every community needs rules to regulate its life, and since Christ gave the Church the power of the keys (Matt. 16:19, 18:18), it has the ability to regulate the ritual lives of its members, so it can introduce and modify practices such as fast and abstinence. The more theologically interesting questions concern the divinely instituted laws found in the Old Testament.

As they are presented in the Torah, the ritual practices were ever binding only on the Jewish people, and the New Testament makes clear that circumcision, kosher laws, and other such norms are not binding on Gentile Christians.

But what about Jewish Christians? The New Testament indicates that Paul did not see himself as being under the Jewish law, but he sometimes con-formed to the Jewish law to evangelize Jews (1 Cor. 9:20-21).

To explain this, a theory developed later in Church history that during the apostolic age it was optional for Jewish Christians to observe these practices, but that after the gospel had been fully preached they became prohibited to Jewish Christians, and it would be mortal sin to observe them (ST I-II:103:4 ad 1).

The Council of Florence endorsed this view in its 1442 Decree for the Jacobites (DS 1348). Yet, it would be difficult to argue that the pope and bishops today hold that Hebrew Catholics are not permitted to circumcise their children.

One solution would be to propose that they are permitted to do so as a cultural practice—as a way of retaining their identity as a people—without thinking they are religiously required to do so.

Thus, there are interesting areas to be explored here, but the number of Jewish Catholics is small enough that Benedict may have judged it better not to explore them on this occasion.

Law and morality

In addition to its ritual laws, the Torah also contains precepts of a judicial nature that regulated the life of ancient Israelite society. These included things such as establishing cities of refuge in the Holy Land and requiring certain fines and punishments to be imposed for crimes.

Christians have not viewed these as binding outside Israel, and Benedict notes that Jews also regard these as “subject to development,” so that “a dispute between Christians and Jews is not necessary” concerning them.

With regard to the moral precepts of the Torah—“Do not commit adultery,” for example—Benedict writes, “What the Lord said after the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew 5:17–20 applies; namely, that the law remains valid, even if it must be read anew in new situations. But this new reading is neither a repeal nor a substitution but a deepening in unaltered validity. There is really no substitution here.”

The Messiah

Benedict writes that “the question of the messianic identity of Jesus is and remains the real issue of dispute between Jews and Christians.” On this subject, he says recent devel­op­ments in exegesis have opened up new possibilities for dialogue between the two communities regarding the messianic hope expressed in the Old Testament.

“In the medieval debates between Jews and Christians,” Benedict says, “it was common for the Jewish side to quote Isaiah 2:2–5 (Mic. 4:1–5) as the core of the messianic hope. We see how the one who makes a messianic claim must prove his identity before the bar of these words: ‘He shall decide the conflict of peoples . . . and they shall beat their swords into ploughshares and their spears into pruning hooks. Nation shall not lift up the sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more’ (Isa. 2:4, Mic. 4:3-4). It is clear that these words have not been fulfilled but remain an expectation of the future.”

However, Benedict argues, Jesus did not wish to bring in a perfect world all at once but envisioned a “time of the Gentiles” (Luke 21:24) preceding the end. Thus, from a Christian perspective, Jesus should be seen as having fulfilled some of the prophecies concerning the Messiah but not yet all of them.

Benedict also notes Jesus challenged popular assumptions about the Messiah and his role as a political deliverer. On the other hand, he notes that the idea of God himself suffering as part of the drama of redemption is “not foreign to Judaism,” and therefore the Christian understanding of Jesus’ role can be understood in continuity with the Old Testament and not simply as a replacement or cancellation of its hopes.

The land

God promised Abraham that he and his descendants would possess the land of Israel (Gen. 12:1-2, 15:7-16). Even when they disobeyed and were sent into the Babylonian exile, God returned them to their land.

Following the Bar Kokhba Rebellion of A.D. 132-135, the Jewish people were again dispossessed and did not regain nationhood until the creation of the modern state of Israel in 1948.

This has raised questions about the role of this event in God’s plan. According to some—including some in the Jewish community—modern Israel has nothing to do with prophecy. It is simply an accident of history.

According to others—including some in the Christian community—the Jewish people have an enduring, God-given right to the land, and the foundation of Israel is a fulfillment of his plan.

The question of modern Israel aside, the question remains of whether the Jewish people have an ongoing title to the Holy Land or whether this has been superseded.

In support of the idea that it has been superseded, some have pointed to New Testament passages that speak of the Old Testament heroes ultimately seeking a heavenly homeland (Heb. 11:16), that we as Christians have no continuing city on earth (Heb. 13:14), and that it is the Jerusalem above that is our mother (Gal. 4:26).

However, the Church has no teaching on this matter, and the Holy See has proceeded with caution on the question. In his article, Benedict points out that the modern Zionist movement began in the nineteenth century as a secular rather than a religious movement.

He says that “the question of what to make of the Zionist project was also controversial for the Catholic Church. From the beginning, however, the dom­inant position was that a theologically understood acquisition of land (in the sense of a new political messianism) was unacceptable,” for this would be “contrary to the Christian under­standing of the promises.”

In particular, he says, “the nontheo­logical character of the Jewish state means, however, that it cannot as such be considered the fulfillment of the promises of Scripture.”

However, after 1948, the Holy See recognized that “the Jewish people, like every people, had a natural right to their own land. As already indicated, it made sense to find the place for it in the historical dwelling place of the Jewish people.” The Holy See thus recognizes Israel, though “the rationale of which cannot be derived directly from Holy Scripture.”

He concludes: “Yet, in another sense, it expresses God’s faithfulness to the people of Israel.” He thus sees a continuity of God’s relationship with the people of Israel without seeing the state of Israel as a fulfillment of prophecy per se.

A “never-revoked covenant”?

In 1980, in a meeting with representatives of the Hebrew community, John Paul II said that the Old Covenant was “never revoked by God.”

This was something new in the history of Catholic doctrine, but it was repeated in the 1992 Catechism, which says that “the Old Covenant has never been revoked” (CCC 121).

Such expressions emphasize the continuity of God’s special relationship with the Jewish people, but I’ve always thought that they were rather imprecise, for God doesn’t make a single covenant in the Old Testament. He makes several.

Which one, then, is being spoken of? The most likely two would be the covenant God made with Abraham and the one he made with Moses. (The covenants with Noah and David are less likely candidates, as they weren’t with the whole of God’s chosen people at the time.)

The Mosaic covenant is the one that most naturally would come to mind, but, from a Christian point of view, elements of it have clearly been superseded.

One gets the idea that perhaps these affirmations mean that God is in a general, covenantal relationship with Israel in some way but without attempting to determine the matter precisely.

In this article, Benedict notes that the idea “belongs in a certain sense to the current teaching of the Catholic Church,” but he sees it as an area that is ripe for doctrinal development.

In particular, he notes that when Paul speaks of Israel’s distinctives in Romans 9:4, he speaks of them possessing “covenants” (plural). Benedict concludes, “it is unfortunate that our theology generally sees covenant only in the singular, or perhaps only in a strict juxtaposition of Old (First) and New Covenant. For the Old Testament, ‘covenant’ is a dynamic reality that is concretized in an unfolding series of covenants.”

Thank you, and amen.

Benedict continues by noting that “the language of the ‘never-revoked covenant’ that we are examining is correct insofar as there is no denunciation on the part of God. But it is true that a breach of the covenant on the part of man belongs to the actual history between God and Israel.”

As a result of man’s sin, God revealed a new and deeper love for man in Jesus Christ and his sacrifice, and so Benedict sees that “the reestablishment of the Sinai covenant in the New Covenant in Jesus’ blood—that is, in his love that vanquishes death—gives the covenant a new and permanently valid form.”

He concludes that “the formula of the ‘never-revoked covenant’ may have been helpful in a first phase of the new dialogue between Jews and Christians. But it is not suited in the long run to express in an adequate way the magnitude of reality.”

What language should we work toward going forward?

Benedict proposes: “If brief form­ulas are considered necessary, I would refer above all to two words of Holy Scripture in which the essentials find valid expression. With regard to the Jews, Paul says: ‘the gifts and the calling of God are irrevocable’ (Rom 11:29). To all, Scripture says, ‘if we endure, we shall also reign with him; if we deny him, he also will deny us. If we are faithless, he remains faithful—for he cannot deny himself’ (2 Tim. 2:12-13).”

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