Part I: The Story of Israel and the Church from Abraham to Today


Since the fall of mankind, God has been at work in the task of restoring humanity to Himself. In the fullness of time, He accomplished his definitive redemption through the incarnation, death, and resurrection of His Son Jesus Christ. Yet before Christ came into the world, a long period of preparation was necessary during which God chose a people for Himself--a people who would be His witness to the world and would prepare it for the coming of the Messiah. This was the people of Israel.

The people of Israel are not only at the heart of the Old and New Testaments. Far from being a mere relic of the past, their resilient survival to our own day and their uneasy coexistence alongside of the Church has intrigued, fascinated, and at times irritated Christians. The controversial rebirth of the State of Israel in the middle of the twentieth century, along with the recent rise of Messianic Judaism, has only intensified the urgency of many questions concerning them and their place in God's purpose.

This paper is the first of three parts that will examine Israel's place in the plan of salvation, with special attention given to her typological and eschatological role. We will take a close look at the relationship between Israel and Christ as type and archetype, examining the parallels between Christ and biblical Israel, and investigating the role of post-Christic Jewry and its relationship with the Church. We will see how the life of Christ is reflected not only in the Israel of the Old Testament but also in the history of the Jewish people from the birth of Jesus to our own day. To do this, we will first lay out some historical and biblical foundations by looking at Israel's origins and founding, her identity, her mission, and the way she prepared the coming of the Messiah in the Old Testament. We will then look at how Christ fulfilled Israel's mission, and attempt to discern the role of Israel and of Judaism after His first coming. Of particular importance will be the painful topic of the relationship of Israel with the Church. We will examine the theology of Israel developed by the Church Fathers and how this theology influenced the course of Jewish-Christian relations to our present day.

These initial considerations will lay the groundwork for the second part, in which we will seek answers to some pressing questions: Why have the Jews not accepted Christ and why have the Church's mission efforts to the Jews produced so little fruit? What does the Bible say about the restoration of Israel and how is this typologically related to the life of Jesus? Is there a divine purpose for the re-birth of the nation of Israel in the twentieth century, and could this be connected with the salvation of the Jewish people? What is the eschatological role of Israel? How has the position of the Church towards Israel changed since Vatican II and how may this affect the eschatological scheme of things? 

The third part will examine the birth of the modern State of Israel, the rise of Messianic Judaism, and the parallel phenomenon of Christian Zionism in light of the biblical and theological principles exposed in the first and second parts. We will also examine the Hebrew-Catholic movement and attempt to explain why this latter group remains small and rather marginal while the Messianic movement is growing rapidly worldwide. We will seek answers as to why the Catholic Church is presently failing to respond to the recent openness of the Jewish people for Jesus, while Messianic groups supported by Evangelical Christians are reaping the largest harvest of Jewish conversions to Christ since the first century. Finally, we will propose how Catholics could learn from Messianic Judaism so that they may be able to better present the Catholic faith to Jews as the fulfillment of their faith in the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, and the accomplishment of all promises made to Israel.

Israel in the Old Testament

Origins: The Patriarchs

The story of Israel begins around the nineteenth century B.C. when God calls Abram from Ur in Mesopotamia to leave the country of his ancestors and go to the land between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean, promising to make of him a great nation and to bless through him all the families of the earth: 

Now the LORD said to Abram, "Go from your country and your kindred and your father's house to the land that I will show you. I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you, and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you, and the one who curses you I will curse; and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed." (Gen 12:1-3)

After Abram's arrival in the land of Canaan, God expands this blessing with the promise of giving him and his descendants the land in which he had just settled: 

Raise your eyes now, and look from the place where you are, northward and southward and eastward and westward; for all the land that you see I will give to you and to your offspring forever. I will make your offspring like the dust of the earth; so that if one can count the dust of the earth, your offspring also can be counted. Rise up, walk through the length and the breadth of the land, for I will give it to you. (Gen 13:14-17)

The promise is reiterated in Genesis 17 when God renames Abram to Abraham and establishes a covenant with him and his descendants, sealed with the sign of circumcision. He also now promises him the land of Canaan as a perpetual holding, or everlasting possession (אַחֻזַת עוֹלָם):

No longer shall your name be Abram, but your name shall be Abraham; for I have made you the ancestor of a multitude of nations. I will make you exceedingly fruitful; and I will make nations of you, and kings shall come from you. I will establish my covenant between me and you, and your offspring after you throughout their generations, for an everlasting covenant, to be God to you and to your offspring after you. And I will give to you, and to your offspring after you, the land where you are now an alien, all the land of Canaan, for a perpetual holding; and I will be their God. (Gen 17:5-8)

After the testing of the Aqedah, where Abraham is found willing to sacrifice his son Isaac, God confirms with a solemn oath His promise to multiply Abraham's descendants and bless all the nations of the earth through them (Gen 22:16-18). God reaffirms this unconditional promise of descendants and land to Isaac (Gen 26:3-5, 24), then to Isaac's son Jacob (Gen 28:13-14). God renames Jacob "Israel" after his famous "struggle with God" (Gen 32:24-28), then later confirms this new name at Bethel:

God said to him, "Your name is Jacob; no longer shall you be called Jacob, but Israel shall be your name." So he was called Israel. God said to him, "I am God Almighty: be fruitful and multiply; a nation and a company of nations shall come from you, and kings shall spring from you. The land that I gave to Abraham and Isaac I will give to you, and I will give the land to your offspring after you." (Gen 35:10-12)

Jacob's sons become the fathers of the twelve tribes of Israel. But their inheritance is still far from being acquired. God had told Abraham that his descendants would be "aliens in a land that is not theirs, and shall be slaves there, and they shall be oppressed for four hundred years" (Gen 15:13). Thanks to Jacob's son Joseph, Jacob's family is saved from famine by resettling in Egypt. Within a few generations, however, their descendants are enslaved by the Egyptians for four hundred years. This lasts until God raises up Moses to deliver them and lead them back into the land that He had promised their forefathers.

The Exodus and Mount Sinai

God delivers Israel from Egypt with great signs and wonders: He afflicts the Egyptians with the ten plagues that culminate with the death of their firstborn sons. The blood of the mysterious Passover Lamb, which protects the Israelites from the angel of death, marks for them the beginning of the Exodus. They escape Egypt, cross the waters of the Red Sea while the Egyptians drown behind them, and begin their long journey towards the Promised Land of their ancestors.

The greatest event of the Exodus, however, is not the entrance into the land of Canaan, but the great theophany at Mount Sinai. There God reveals to the children of Israel that He has chosen them as a people for Himself and set them apart for a special relationship with Him and a mission to the world. This election gives Israel both a distinctive status and a special responsibility: they are to be a "holy people," separated from all that is profane and consecrated to God's service. They are now God's special possession and the object of His special protection: "Now therefore, if you obey my voice and keep my covenant, you shall be my treasured possession out of all the peoples. Indeed, the whole earth is mine, but you shall be for me a priestly kingdom and a holy nation" (Ex.19:5-6). Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger elaborates on the importance of Sinai in relation to the entrance into the Promised Land:

Sinai is not a halfway house, a kind of stop for refreshment on the road to what really matters. No, Sinai gives Israel, so to speak, its interior land without which the exterior one would be a cheerless prospect. Israel is constituted as a people through the covenant and the divine law it contains. It has received a common rule for righteous living. This and this alone is what makes the land a real gift. Sinai remains present in the Promised Land. When the reality of Sinai is lost, the Land, too, is inwardly lost, until finally the people are thrust into exile.[1]

At Sinai Moses receives the Torah, comprised of moral, ceremonial, and judicial precepts that are to entirely govern the life of the children of Israel. The Tabernacle is built, with the Ark of the Covenant at its center. This rudimentary tent will be the sanctuary in which God will dwell among His people, and the place where the Levitical priests will offer sacrifices to atone for the sins of Israel. The Torah is an all-embracing rule of law and life necessary for Israel to truly become God's people. By living faithfully according to its precepts, the Israelites will live in safety, prosperity, and peace in the land that God has promised them: "I will place my dwelling in your midst, and I shall not abhor you. And I will walk among you, and will be your God, and you shall be my people. I am the LORD your God who brought you out of the land of Egypt, to be their slaves no more." (Lev 26:11-13)

After having received their identity as God's people at Sinai, the Israelites are led through the wilderness by the pillar of smoke and pillar of fire. Yet because of their unbelief, they are condemned to wander in the wilderness for forty years until the first generation dies out. Still, God does not cease to guide them, protect them, and provide for them along the way, feeding them with manna, the bread from heaven that sustains them for the duration of their journey. As they finally approach the Promised Land, Moses reminds them of God's covenant with which the possession of the land is intimately connected:

I call heaven and earth to witness against you today that I have set before you life and death, blessings and curses. Choose life so that you and your descendants may live, loving the LORD your God, obeying him, and holding fast to him; for that means life to you and length of days, so that you may live in the land that the LORD swore to give to your ancestors, to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob. (Deut 30:19-20)

Whereas the promise of the land of Canaan made to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob was unconditional, its possession has now become conditional upon their faithfulness to the Mosaic covenant. Sin and unfaithfulness will lead to exile:

If you do not diligently observe all the words of this law that are written in this book, fearing this glorious and awesome name... The LORD will scatter you among all peoples, from one end of the earth to the other; and there you shall serve other gods, of wood and stone, which neither you nor your ancestors have known. (Deut 28:58, 64)

But even exile should not be a cause for despair. Though Israel may be scattered because of her unfaithfulness, if they repent and return to God, He will also return them to their land. In addition, God will circumcise their heart and enable them to love Him with all their heart and soul - a promise only ultimately realized in the New Testament (Jer 31:31-33, Rom 2:29).

When all these things have happened to you, the blessings and the curses that I have set before you, if you call them to mind among all the nations where the LORD your God has driven you, and return to the LORD your God...then the LORD your God will restore your fortunes and have compassion on you, gathering you again from all the peoples among whom the LORD your God has scattered you. Even if you are exiled to the ends of the world, from there the LORD your God will gather you, and from there he will bring you back. The LORD your God will bring you into the land that your ancestors possessed, and you will possess it; he will make you more prosperous and numerous than your ancestors. Moreover, the LORD your God will circumcise your heart and the heart of your descendants, so that you will love the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul, in order that you may live. (Deut 30:1-6)

The Kingdom of Israel

The Israelites finally conquer Canaan under the leadership of Joshua. But they have still not learned to walk in the ways of the Lord. Because of their sins and idolatry, after Joshua's death they experience a turbulent and unstable period, first under the judges and then under the tragic reign of King Saul. Only with the accession of King David to the throne does the nation finally find "rest from all her enemies." (2 Sam 7:1)

The Davidic kingdom is the peak of Israel's greatness in the Old Testament and the summit of all that had been hoped for since the time of the Exodus. After David captures Jerusalem, establishes Zion, and has the Ark of the Covenant brought into the city (2 Sam 5-6), God establishes the Davidic dynasty that He promises will endure forever (2 Sam 7:16). David's son Solomon builds the Jerusalem Temple, the house of the Lord (1 Kings 6), which is grandiosely inaugurated (1 Kings 8). God renews the covenant with Solomon, but with a warning that Israel will be cut off from the land if they do not keep his commandments (1 Kings 9:6-7). There follows an unprecedented time of peace and prosperity in Israel, until Solomon turns away from the Lord later in his life, triggering a gradual decline that ends with all the curses about which God had warned.

After Solomon's death, the kingdom is divided: the ten northern tribes in the north secede from Solomon's successor and take on the name of Israel. Only Judah and Benjamin remain united in the south, and they are known from then on as "Judah." Both kingdoms sink further into sin and idolatry until the catastrophic end. The Assyrians deport the ten northern tribes in 722 B.C. They are never to return and become known as the ten "lost tribes" of Israel. A century and a half later, in 586 B.C., the Babylonians destroy the Temple and Jerusalem and carry Judah into the Babylonian captivity.

Exile and Return

While in exile, Daniel recalls the prophecy of Jeremiah that God would restore Judah after 70 years of captivity (Jer 25:11, 29:10). He prays fervently that the Lord would have mercy on Jerusalem (Dan 9:1-19). Similarly, Nehemiah appeals to God's covenant with Moses, confessing the sins of His people and praying that He would restore the children of Israel to the land where He had "chosen to establish His name" (Neh 1:5-9). God hears these prayers and the exile comes to an end with successive waves of Israelites returning to Jerusalem under Zerubbabel, Ezra, and Nehemiah. They rebuild the temple and the city, yet these are but a shadow of their former glory, with the Ark of the Covenant now lost and the Holy of Holies empty. The kingdom of Israel is not restored as in times past, and the land remains under the foreign domination of the Persians, Greeks and Romans (except for a brief period of independence under the Maccabbees). In the beginning of the first century of our era, Messianic expectations run high. The Jews are anxiously waiting for the coming of the Messiah who, they hope, will deliver them from their oppressors and restore the kingdom of Israel to its former glory.

Hebrews, Israelites, and Jews in the Old Testament

Before moving on to the coming of the Messiah and to the New Testament, it is worth pausing for a moment to look at the three terms used to designate the chosen people in the Old Testament.

The name "Hebrew" is the most ancient and dates back to Abraham (Gen 14:13). Some believe that the word comes from the Hebrew root signifying "to pass over" - thus he is "the man who passed over" the Euphrates. Others derive the name from Eber the ancestor of Abraham; the Hebrews are thus "sons of Eber" (Gen 10:21, 24). This name is later applied to the Israelites in Scripture only by one who is a foreigner (Gen 39:14, 17; 41:12), or when the Israelites are spoken of when contrasted with other peoples (Gen 40:15; 43:32; Exod 1:3, 7, 15, 19). The term fell into disuse after the exile, though Paul still refers to himself as a "Hebrew of Hebrews" to emphasize his descent from Abraham (2 Cor 11:22; Phil 3:5).

As we have seen, the origin of "Israel" goes back to Jacob. His sons and their descendants who form the whole people of the twelve tribes are called "Israelites," the "children of Israel" (Josh 3:17; 7:25; Judg 8:27; Jer 3:21) and the "house of Israel" (Exod 16:31; 40:38). After the death of king Solomon the ten northern tribes arrogated to themselves this name, as if they were the whole nation (2 Sam 2:9; 3:10, 17) and their kings were called "kings of Israel," while the kings of the two southern tribes were called "kings of Judah." After the Exile, however, the name Israel came to designate the entire nation, though the ten original northern tribes exiled by the Assyrians were lost. This is seen in the books of Ezra and Nehemiah (see Nehemiah's prayer above), in the two books of Maccabees, and in the New Testament (1 Macc 1:20, 30; Matt 2:6, 20).

As for the term "Jew" (Yehudi), it derives from the name of the patriarch Judah (Yehudah). At first, "Jews" were Israelites from the tribe of Judah (2 Kings 16:6; 25:25; Jer 32:12), in contrast to those from the other tribes. During the Babylonian captivity and after the restoration, this distinction was lost and the name was extended to the entire Hebrew nation (Esther 3:6; Dan 3:8; Ezra 4:12). Thus, as we come to the New Testament we find the terms "Jew" and "Israelite" used interchangeably to designate the descendants of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, although these were now chiefly from the tribes of Judah and Benjamin.

The Messiah and the Birth of the Church

Jesus of Nazareth, Messiah of Israel, fully accomplished Israel's mission by recapitulating the story of his people in his own life (except for their sins and unfaithfulness). We already see a prefiguration of the life of Christ and a typological relationship between Israel and Jesus in the life of Joseph the patriarch. Just as Israel, still in her infancy and counting only seventy people, left her land to settle in Egypt, so the Son of God had to flee to Egypt in his infancy (Matt 2:13-14). In fact, the whole story of Joseph and his brothers is itself a type of the relationship between Jesus and his people Israel. The striking similarities between the two are presented in appendix A.

As Messiah of Israel, Jesus is a new Moses, the prophet and deliverer that Moses announced (Deut 18:15). Christ will initiate a New Exodus that will redeem not only Israel, but all mankind from the slavery of sin. Before He does this, however, He recapitulates Israel's first Exodus in His own life. Like Israel, He begins his life by coming out of Egypt with the Holy Family (Matt 2:15; 20-21). As Israel passed through the waters of the Red Sea, so Jesus passes through the waters of the Jordan at the beginning of his public ministry and is baptized by John the Baptist (Matt 3). Israel was tempted for forty years in the Sinai wilderness; Jesus goes into the desert for forty days where He is tempted by the devil, but unlike Israel, passes the test and remains faithful to God the Father (Matt 4:1-11). Whereas Moses gave the Old Law to Israel at Mount Sinai, Jesus gives to Israel a New Law from the Mount of Beatitudes (Matt 5-7). God the Father sustained his people in the desert by sending them manna, and so Jesus also provides bread for his people through the multiplication of the loaves (Matt 14:15-21), which is itself a sign of the heavenly Eucharistic bread that would come later. Jesus also identifies Himself with the Davidic king, as we see in the triumphal entry into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday when He is acclaimed as king and "Son of David." Before His passion, Jesus institutes the New Covenant with the house of Israel and the house of Judah that the prophet Jeremiah had spoken of (Jer 31:31). Like the Mosaic covenant, the New Covenant is sealed with blood (Exod 24:8, Matt 26:28). Yet, irony of ironies, Jesus is rejected by His own people - the very people who had been waiting for centuries in eager expectation for the coming of the Messiah. Forsaken, betrayed, beaten and spat upon, Jesus must take the way to the cross where He offers Himself as a pure, unblemished victim, the new Passover Lamb who is slain to take away the sins of the world.

Why, then, did Israel reject her own Messiah? At the time that Christ came, the Jews were longing for a political liberator who would come and free them from the Roman occupying power and restore the Davidic kingdom in all of its political and military strength. But contrary to these expectations, Jesus did not come to deliver the Jews from the Romans. He came, rather, to establish a spiritual, everlasting kingdom of which the Davidic kingdom at its peak was only a shadow and type. This kingdom would be founded by his death on the cross. He was the suffering servant of Isaiah 53, the innocent lamb led to the slaughter, stricken for the transgressions of his people, who came to save the "lost sheep of the tribes of Israel." Moreover, not only was he sent "to raise up the tribes of Jacob and to restore the survivors of Israel," he was also the one given as a light to the nations so that God's salvation may reach the ends of the earth (Isa 49:6). Through Him, all people could now come to the knowledge of the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob and partake in the promises made to Israel. With the dividing wall now broken, Gentiles could be joined with the commonwealth of Israel to become One New Man, Jew and Gentile reconciled to each other and members of the new household of God, the Church (Eph 2:11-22). They were to be united in the new spiritual kingdom that would give them access to the heavenly sanctuary of the New Jerusalem, present in the liturgy of the New Covenant and veiled under sacramental appearances.

But history shows a different picture. We are faced today with the troubling fact that the Jewish segment of the Church soon completely disappeared, leaving behind an exclusively Gentile Body of Christ. What happened? Why did the Church, Jewish in origin and whose very purpose was the unification of Jew and Gentile, end up completely divorced from Judaism?

Of course, a large part of Israel from the outset did not recognize the time of her visitation. We can only inadequately explain this mystery of why the Jews failed to recognize their own Messiah. First, as Stephen pointed out before his death, Israel was blinded by the same unbelief that prevented her from entering the Promised Land, made her reject the prophets, and led her into exile (Acts 7:51-53). Her hardness of heart, combined with her expectation of a national deliverer, kept her from recognizing the humble servant of the Lord who came to redeem her from her sins. She was neither expecting nor prepared for the radical transformation of the Old Covenant brought by the New which would involve the end of the Levitical priesthood and of the animal sacrifices. Second, from the perspective of the divine purpose, God permitted this blindness in order to bring salvation to the Gentiles and riches to the world. Yet this does not dispense us from asking ourselves whether the Church herself does not at least bear partial responsibility for Israel's unbelief and separation from her Messiah for 2,000 years.

Israel in the Age of the Church

Early Jewish-Christianity

The first Christians were all Jews who initially still frequented the Synagogue and who would have considered it unthinkable that their new faith was a break with their Israelite heritage. There was no reason why Jewish-Christians should not have had their sons circumcised or have continued celebrating the Jewish festivals commemorating God's great works of salvation of the Old Testament.

This self-evident view began to be challenged after the apostles decided that Gentiles could be admitted into the Church without first having to convert to Judaism and be subjected to the Law (Acts 15). Suddenly, the Judeo-Christians were faced with the difficult task of having to welcome a sudden influx of believers from pagan backgrounds as equals in Christ while not wanting to scandalize the unbelieving Jews whom they still wished to win for the Messiah. How were they now to relate to Judaism and to the Torah? Even Peter was not exempt from the difficult situations this problem raised (Gal 2:11-14).

Paul's position regarding this issue is often misunderstood. He is, of course, emphatic in his rejection of all Judaizing tendencies that sought to impose the Law on Gentiles, and he also makes it clear that Jewish believers are justified by faith in Christ apart from their observance of the Law (Rom 3:28, Gal 2:16). But other passages, often overlooked, bear testimony to the fact that Paul did not simply do away with the Torah for Jewish-Christians. After all, he called the law and commandments "holy, righteous, and good" (Rom 7:12) and had Timothy - whose mother was Jewish - circumcised (Acts 16:3). Also overlooked is the passage where the brothers in Jerusalem rejoice that thousands of Jews have believed and are zealous for the Torah (Acts 21:20) and where Paul agrees to make a vow to quell the false rumors claiming that he had allegedly taught "all the Jews who are among the Gentiles to forsake Moses, telling them not to circumcise their children or observe the customs." He should take this vow, they tell him, so that "all will know that there is nothing in what they have been told about you but that you yourself live in observance of the law" (Acts 21:24). While under arrest in Rome, Paul told the local leaders of the Jews that he had "done nothing against our people or the customs of our ancestors" (Acts 28:17). Long after he wrote his epistles to the Galatians and to the Romans on justification by faith apart from the works of the law, Paul was still a Torah-abiding Judeo-Christian who apparently never discouraged Jewish-Christians from keeping the law (as long as they did not see in it the means for salvation). He was apparently just as misunderstood then as now.

The Parting of Ways

The conflict between Church and Synagogue began in earnest with the first Jewish persecutions of Christians, quickly escalating after the death of Stephen and the scattering of the Church throughout Judea and Samaria. Paul in his missionary travels always brought the gospel "to the Jew first" in the Synagogues, but this earned him stonings, flagellations, imprisonments and threats of death at Jewish hands. The split between Church and Synagogue was exacerbated after the Great Jewish War and the destruction of the Temple in 70 A.D. Remembering Jesus' prophecies about Jerusalem being surrounded by foreign armies, the Judeo-Christians fled the city before the final catastrophe, thereby reinforcing their image as traitors in the eyes of the Jews who did not believe in Jesus. At the same time, the Christians saw in the destruction of the Temple the confirmation of their belief that the scepter had passed from the Jewish religious leadership to the Church. It was the end of Old Testament Judaism.

Deprived of Temple and priesthood, Judaism was forced to redefine itself in the years following the fall of Jerusalem, with its worship now revolving around Synagogue and Torah rather than Temple and sacrifices. In order to exclude the Judeo-Christians from the Synagogues, which they still attended, the rabbis inserted in the daily prayers a malediction of "heretics" (aimed towards Christians), which the Judeo-Christians could not in good conscience recite. The final break between Church and Synagogue occurred during the next Jewish-Roman war in 132 A.D., when the Jews hailed their leader Bar Kokhba as the Messiah, thereby dashing the final hopes of the Christians that the Jews would recognize the messiahship of Jesus. The Romans crushed the Jewish rebellion and razed Jerusalem, renaming it "Aelia Capitolina" and forbidding Jews to even approach the city. Though Jews had already been living across the Mediterranean world for a long time, this new disaster marked the beginning of the post-Christic Diaspora, during which the Jews would wander through history deprived of their Holy City and of the land that God had promised to their ancestors.

At the same time, the increasingly Gentile Church was becoming less and less tolerant of the Judeo-Christians' identification with their natural roots. Both the Synagogue and the Church displayed animosity toward Jewish Christians who tried to maintain any semblance of the Jewish heritage. "Buffeted and excluded by the policy of the Jewish community for holding on to his belief in Jesus, the Jewish Christian was in turn castigated by the Christian Church for holding on to any semblance of Judaism. Jewish Christians were indeed men and women caught in the middle."[2] With the legalization of Christianity in the fourth century, massive conversions from the Roman world and increased persecution for Jews (including Jewish Christians) resulted in the Church becoming increasingly "gentilized" until the Judeo-Christian presence virtually disappeared from its ranks. A few centuries after the Jewish Messiah had come to his people Israel, the Church had become a completely Gentile entity and would continue her pilgrimage through history largely divorced from her Jewish roots and heritage.

Israel in the Patristic Writings

Edward Flannery, in his classic book The Anguish of the Jews, writes: "Jews generally are acutely aware of the history of anti-Semitism, simply because it comprises so large a portion of Jewish history. Christians, on the contrary, are all but totally ignorant of it, for the simple reason that anti-Semitism does not appear in their history books... The pages Jews have memorized have been torn from our histories of the Christian era."[3] It is an imperative if unlikable task to sketch out the history of the Church's relationship to the Jews if we are to accurately grasp Israel's intimate connection with the life of Christ up to our present day.

The uneasy co-existence of the Jewish people who had rejected their own Messiah and of the Church fighting for her survival in the Roman Empire became the occasion for a profusion of apologetical writings from the Church Fathers concerning Israel and Judaism. This theological offensive against Judaism would shape the Christian's view of the Jews up to our own day. Flannery writes: "The refutation and debasement of Judaism progressively became integral elements of [the Church's] apologetics; among its apologists, there were signs of a rising irritation, the beginnings of a certain Judaeophobia."[4]

It is in the patristic period that what is known today as "replacement theology," "theology of substitution," or "supersessionism" emerged and gained popular acceptance. This idea proposed that God had revoked his election of Israel, and chosen instead the Church as "New" and "True Israel." Nicholls points out how two major themes run through this controversial literature: "The first is the rejection of the Jew by God and the election of the Gentiles as the true Israel in their place. The second is the inferiority of Jewish law, worship and scriptural interpretation and their spiritual fulfillment in Christianity... Central to both themes is the idea that the Jews rejected and killed Jesus, the Messiah sent to them by God. This is why they have lost their status as the chosen people."[5] He continues:

The rejection of the Jews has its counterpart in the choice of the Gentile church to succeed them as God's chosen people...The contrast between the Jews and the nations, a basic theme of the Bible itself, is turned backward and given the opposite of its original meaning: now the Gentiles instead of the Jews are the people of God. After the end of the first century, few writers attempt to maintain the Pauline idea that Israel is the stock on to which the Gentile church is grafted. The election of the Gentiles and the rejection of the Jews have to go inextricably together...Since the Jews never accepted God, the covenant with them was abortive, and it was replaced by one with a people who did accept God, the prophet and the Messiah. In short, the Church is, and always has been, the true Israel.[6]

Therefore, "the claim of Jesus and his disciples that the kingdom of God was in the midst of their contemporaries has been transformed into the claim of the Catholic Church to supersede the Jewish people as the elect people of God."[7] But this is not all: Even the Hebrew Scriptures are interpreted as "a remorseless denunciation of the Jews, while the Church, in turn, is presented as totally perfect."[8] All criticisms and curses of the Old Testament are directed towards the Jews while all promises of blessings are now seized by the Church as her own.

The Fathers we will now quote show how easily this anti-Judaic replacement theology turned into fiery anti-Semitic rhetoric. Though the Church condemned the champion of early Christian anti-Judaism, Marcion, who rejected the Old Testament entirely, the writings of many other Fathers show a hostility to Judaism at least equal in virulence.

The whole of the epistle of Barnabas, for example, is an exposition of the Church as the true Israel. It attempts to demonstrate how Jews misunderstood the Old Testament, "which, the writer asserts, was never intended to be observed literally, since all therein is but a prefiguring of Christ and the Church."[9] Not only is the Church the true Israel, it has always been so, even in Old Testament times. The Christians claim the whole of the Scriptures for themselves and antedate the rejection of the Jews and the emergence of the Church to the beginning of revealed history. Thus Ignatius of Antioch writes: "Christianity did not believe in Judaism, but Judaism in Christianity."[10] Justin Martyr, in his Dialogue with Trypho, says of the Bible to Trypho the Jew: “your scriptures, or rather not yours but ours, for you, though you read them, do not catch the spirit that is in them.”[11]  St. Hippolytus in his Demonstratio Adversus Judaeos reminds the Jews that their misfortunes are the result of them having killed Christ. He warns of the ills "that will befall them in the future age on account of the contumacy and audacity which they exhibited toward the Prince of Peace."[12] Origen, in his work Against Celsus, writes that the Jews' rejection of Jesus "has resulted in their present calamity and exile."   Moreover, he states, "we say with confidence that they will never be restored to their former condition. For they committed a crime of the most unhallowed kind, in conspiring against the Savior of the human race."[13] 

With the conversion of the Roman Empire to Christianity in the fourth century came a sharp increase in the intensity of the Christian diatribe against the Jews. Parkes notes that Eusebius of Cesarea and Hilary of Poitiers present to the pagan world "a complete caricature of the history of the Jews."[14] Eusebius establishes it on a distinction between "Hebrews" and "Jews": The ancient Hebrews and patriarchs were, in fact, Christians whereas the Jews, in contrast, are a less worthy people for whom the law was a necessity. Similarly, Hilary reinterprets Jewish history for the purpose of proving that Jews are a perpetually perverse people, despised by God. St. Gregory of Nyssa describes the Jews as "slayers of the Lord, murderers of the prophets, enemies of God, haters of God, adversaries of grace, enemies of their fathers' faith, advocates of the devil, brood of vipers, slanderers, scoffers, men of darkened minds, leaven of the Pharisees, congregation of demons, sinners, wicked men, stoners, and haters of goodness."[15] St. Jerome calls them "serpents," and "haters of all men." Their image is Judas, and their psalms and prayers are the "braying of donkeys."[16]

St. John Chrysostom's name, the "golden-mouthed," seems ironical in light of his writings concerning the Jews. He calls them "most miserable of all men...lustful, rapacious, greedy, perfidious bandits, inveterate murderers, destroyers, men possessed by the devil who debauchery and drunkenness have given them the manners of the pig and the lusty goat...they are impure and impious, and murder their offspring and immolate them to the devil." Their Synagogue is "an assembly of criminals... a den of thieves... a cavern of devils, an abyss of perdition, the domicile of the devil, as is also the souls of the Jews." Their rites are "criminal and impure;" their religion is "a disease." Why these denunciations? Because of the Jews' "odious assassination of Christ" which lies at the roots of their degradation and woes." For this deicide, there is "no expiation possible, no indulgence, no pardon." Vengeance is without end; Jews, moreover, will always remain without temple or nation. Their rejection and dispersion was "done by the wrath of God and his absolute abandon of you." Thus the Jews live "under the yoke of servitude without end." God hates the Jews and always hated the Jews, and therefore so should Christians: "He who can never love Christ enough will never have done fighting against those [Jews] who hate him." "Flee, then, their assemblies, flee their houses, and far from venerating the synagogue because of the books it contains hold it in hatred and aversion for the same reason." Chrysostom himself gives the example: "I hate the synagogue precisely because it has the law and prophets... I hate the Jews also because they outrage the law."[17]

What is particularly troubling about Chrysostom's language is the context. Christianity in Chrysostom's time was no longer threatened by Judaism, and he never experienced persecution from the Jews. Parkes explains: "The only explanation of his bitterness contained in the sermons themselves is the too close fellowship between Jews and Christians in Antioch. There is no single suggestion that the Jews were immoral or vicious; no suggestion that Christians were actually corrupted by the contact, either in their morals or their orthodoxy."[18] Jean Daniélou continues: "If the imprecations of a Chrysostom against the Jews are so violent, it is because in the fourth century Judaism had not ceased to be highly attractive to Christians."[19]

In the midst of this ever-increasing Christian anti-Semitism, efforts to convert the Jews to Christ did not cease. The Church's evangelistic approach, however, was a far cry from Paul's attitude of becoming as a Jew to win the Jews and becoming as one under the law to win those under the law. Jews who converted to Christianity were now violently forced to completely renounce their Jewish heritage. This is illustrated by the following professions of faith that were extracted from them on Baptism:

I do here and now renounce every rite and observance of the Jewish religion, detesting all its most solemn ceremonies and tenets that in former days I kept and held. In future I will practice no rite or celebration connected with it, nor any custom of my past error...I promise that I will never return to the vomit of Jewish superstition. Never again will I fulfill any of the offices of Jewish ceremonies to which I was addicted, nor ever more hold them dear.[20]
I renounce the whole worship of the Hebrews, circumcision, all its legalisms, unleavened bread, Passover, the sacrificing of lambs, the feasts of Weeks, Jubilees, Trumpets, Atonement, Tabernacles, and all the other Hebrew feasts...and I absolutely renounce every custom and institution of the Jewish laws.[21]
If I wander from the straight path in any way and defile the holy Faith, and try to observe any rites of the Jewish sect...then may all the curses of the law fall upon me...may there fall upon me and upon my house and all my children all the plagues which smote Egypt, and to the horror of others may I suffer in addition the fate of Dathan and Abiram, so that the earth shall swallow me alive, and after I am deprived of this life I shall be handed over to the eternal fire, in the company of the devil and his angels, sharing with the dwellers in Sodom and with Judas the punishment of burning.[22]

Thus we see how the Church spared no efforts to separate herself from her spiritual parent and sever all ties with Jews and Judaism.

St. Augustine, milder than Chrysostom, is known for his theory of the Jews as a "witness-people" whose role is still providential. They give witness to the truth of the Christian faith by their dispersion and their woes, serving as "slave-librarian" of the Church. Because they rejected Christ, they are condemned to perpetually wander across the world as a sign of their unbelief. At the beginning of the Middle Ages, this was the commonly accepted notion in Christendom that the "wandering Jew" is destined to move about the world until the end of time, never finding rest.

Christian Anti-Semitism in the Middle Ages

The next logical steps after anti-Jewish theology and anti-Semitic rhetoric were discriminatory anti-Jewish legislation and persecution that peaked in the high Middle Ages. Flannery writes, "While the Church and the Christian state were at the zenith of their power and influence, the sons of Israel reached the nadir of their unending oppression. This was the age of Innocent III and Henry II, Gregory VII and Henry IV, of the Crusades, of Aquinas and Dante, of St. Francis, of Notre Dame and Rheims Cathedrals; but it was no less the age of anti-Jewish hecatombs, expulsions, calumnious myths, autos-da-fé, of the badge, the ghetto, and many other hardships visited upon the Jews."[23]

It is outside the scope of this paper to go into the details of the discriminations, humiliations, expulsions, exiles, pogroms, massacres and other horrors that were inflicted on Jews by Christians throughout the history of the Church. These are all too well documented in numerous works, such as Messianic Jewish scholar Michael L. Brown's Our Hands Are Stained With Blood - The Tragic Story of the "Church" and the Jewish People.[24] Yet this tormented history remains so vivid in the memory of the Jewish people that we cannot afford to ignore it, especially because of its culmination in the Holocaust.

The 1998 Vatican document We Remember: A Reflection on the Shoah asks the poignant question: "It may be asked whether the Nazi persecution of the Jews was not made easier by the anti-Jewish prejudices imbedded in some Christian minds and hearts. Did anti-Jewish sentiment among Christians make them less sensitive, or even indifferent, to the persecutions launched against the Jews by National Socialism when it reached power?"[25] Though a group of Jewish scholars conceded in a recent statement that Nazism was not a Christian phenomenon, it is difficult to disagree with them that "without the long history of Christian anti-Judaism and Christian violence against Jews, Nazi ideology could not have taken hold nor could it have been carried out."[26] Nicholls proves this point by reproducing from Raul Hilberg's book The Destruction of the European Jews a table of comparisons between the canonical laws of the Church in the medieval period and the later measures of the Nazis, showing how the latter were not original but followed a known precedent.[27]

Israel and the Church in the New Testament

Thus, for most of Christian history, Israel and the Church grew completely apart one from another, more often than not in a state of enmity, with Christians convinced that God had revoked his election of the Jews and that the Church was now the "New" and "True Israel."

Does this claim have any Scriptural validity? Derek Prince, in his little book The Destiny of Israel and the Church notes that of 77 instances of the words Israel or Israelite in the New Testament, not once is Israel used as a synonym for the Church. Moreover, the expression "New Israel" is not found in the Scriptures. In only two instances is "Israel" used in a special way. The first is Romans 9:6-8:

It is not as though the word of God had failed. For not all Israelites truly belong to Israel, and not all of Abraham's children are his true descendants; but "It is through Isaac that descendants shall be named for you." This means that it is not the children of the flesh who are the children of God, but the children of the promise are counted as descendants.

A close examination of the text reveals that Paul is restricting here the use of Israel to those who believe in the promises. In other words, it is not enough to be a physical descendant of Abraham to be a true Israelite. At the same time, he is beginning to imply that others may be included in the promise made to Israel, subsequently quoting Hosea:

Those who were not my people I will call ‘my people,' and her who was not beloved I will call beloved. And in the very place where it was said to them, ‘You are not my people,' there they shall be called children of the living God. (Rom 9:25-26)

Though others who were previously estranged from God will also become His people, there is no hint here of a Gentile Church outright replacing Israel. This is made even plainer by Paul's language at the beginning of the same chapter, where he still calls Israelites those who have rejected the Messiah:

For I could wish that I myself were accursed and cut off from Christ for the sake of my own people, my kindred according to the flesh. They are Israelites, and to them belong the adoption, the glory, the covenants, the giving of the law, the worship, and the promises; to them belong the patriarchs, and from them, according to the flesh, comes the Messiah, who is over all, God blessed forever. (Rom 9:3-5)

The other passage where "Israel" is used in a special way is Galatians 6:16, which the RSV translates as follows: "Peace and mercy be upon all who walk by this rule, upon the Israel of God." Read as such, the text seems to imply that all who "walk by the rule" - that is, all Christians - are the Israel of God. The problem with this interpretation is that the RSV omits the Greek word kai (and) in the original text. A more accurate translation of the passage (such as rendered in the NAB and NJB) would be: "Peace and mercy be upon all who walk by this rule, and upon the Israel of God." Read in this way, the text would rather imply that the "Israel of God" is not constituted of all Christians but of the remnant of natural Israel who have accepted God's promises in Christ. The eternal election of Israel is in any case reaffirmed in Romans chapter 11:

I ask, then, has God rejected his people? By no means! I myself am an Israelite, a descendant of Abraham, a member of the tribe of Benjamin. God has not rejected his people whom he foreknew...a hardening has come upon part of Israel, until the full number of the Gentiles has come in. And so all Israel will be saved...As regards the gospel they are enemies of God for your sake; but as regards election they are beloved, for the sake of their ancestors; for the gifts and the calling of God are irrevocable. (Rom 11:1, 25-29)

It is precisely through the unbelief of Israel that salvation has come to the Gentiles. Yet God has not rejected them; on the contrary, their unbelief is only temporary, and their coming to faith will be even a greater blessing to the world:

Now if their stumbling means riches for the world, and if their defeat means riches for Gentiles, how much more will their full inclusion mean! ...For if their rejection is the reconciliation of the world, what will their acceptance be but life from the dead! (Rom 11:12, 15)

Next comes Paul's remarkable warning to the Gentile Church in the illustration of the olive tree (Rom 11:17-24). Though natural branches (Jews) were broken off the tree of Israel because of their unbelief, and wild branches (Gentiles) were grafted in their place, he warns the Gentiles not to become proud, lest they too be cut off. Further, God has the power to graft the natural branches of Israel back into their own olive tree. In light of the Church's treatment of the Jews that we have seen, Paul's warning went unheeded. Elias Friedman writes: "If the truth be told, St. Paul had done more than give a warning; he had prophesied."[28] The arrogance of the Christian nations towards the Jewish people throughout the ages shows to what extent they had forgotten and despised the root that was meant to support them.

Some attempt to justify replacement theology and the abolishment of the role of the Jewish people in the plan of salvation by quoting Paul in Galatians 3:27-28: "As many of you as were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus." Yet if this passage were literally meant to abolish the distinction between Jew and Greek, it would also have to abolish the difference between man and woman. Though there is indeed no difference in regards to salvation, the fact that the universal vocation of Jew and Greek, man and woman are the same does not exclude the fact that their role in the plan of salvation may be different.

Israel and the Church: An Evaluation

Before we begin to look at the present state of Jewish-Christian relations and consider what the future may hold, it will be helpful to briefly recapitulate what we have covered so far on the relationship of Israel with the Church.

Israel rejected her own Messiah. Though Jesus so intently desired to gather her children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, they were not willing to come to him. Without excusing the Jews' unbelief, it is nonetheless undeniable that the Church's attitude of contempt towards her own spiritual roots only widened the gap between them and made reconciliation next to impossible. Yet it is not enough to condemn gross anti-Semitism. It must be admitted that the theology developed by the Church Fathers, radically opposed to the spirit of Paul and of the New Testament, became the very seed for the teaching of contempt, even though it never became authoritative Church teaching. This theology also became the justification for the regime of assimilation of Jewish converts, as seen above in the professions of faith required from Jews at baptism. Because it was assumed that God had rejected Israel, there was no more possible role for post-Christic Judaism in the plan of salvation. A Jew who became a Christian ceased to be a Jew, and he therefore had to completely renounce his religious heritage to follow Christ.

The founder of the Association of Hebrew Catholics, Elias Friedman, argues that this policy of assimilation remains to this day the chief obstacle to the conversion of the Jews:

At present, the admission of the Jewish convert to the Church is governed by a regime of assimilation, which systematically ignores the specific elements of his identity (...). The ultimate effect of the regime is to alienate the convert from his people of origin and prepare the way for the total absorption of his descendants into the Gentile community. Between themselves, converts may have a past in common, but they have no present and no future in common. Whatever be the sentiments, virtues or attainments of the individual convert, he has no way of transmitting his historical identity, as an Israelite, to his descendants. These, in consequence, cease eventually to be Israelites, as daily experience shows to be the case. The effects of the regime of assimilation on the convert's fellow Israelites are no less destructive. Quite apart from the justifiable criticism that the convert has betrayed his people, they perceive the regime of assimilation as an expression of Gentile contempt for Jewish identity and a real menace to their historical survival - for if all Jews were to be converted, only to be assimilated, the Jewish People would cease to exist: hence, their total opposition to the Christian Mission. The regime of assimilation has thus become the major obstacle to the admission of Jews to the Faith.[29]

The survival and distinctiveness of the Jewish people is a living testimony of God's promise to guard and preserve the seed of Israel until the end of times, as prophesied by Jeremiah:

Thus says the LORD, who gives the sun for light by day and the fixed order of the moon and the stars for light by night, who stirs up the sea so that its waves roar- the LORD of hosts is his name: If this fixed order were ever to cease from my presence, says the LORD, then also the offspring of Israel would cease to be a nation before me forever. Thus says the LORD: If the heavens above can be measured, and the foundations of the earth below can be explored, then I will reject all the offspring of Israel because of all they have done, says the LORD. (Jer 31:35-37)

By adopting the regime of assimilation, the Church worked directly against these words. The conversion of the Jews under these circumstances would have meant their assimilation into Gentile Christianity and the end of the natural seed of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. The fruit of the theology of substitution has thus not only been Christian anti-Semitism but also the guaranteed failure of the Church's mission to the Jews.

Following this grim diagnosis, it is with some relief that we arrive at Vatican II and welcome the significant changes that the Council brought to the field of Jewish-Christian relations.

Appendix: Typology Between Joseph and his Brothers, and Jesus and the Jews

Especially beloved by his father (Gen 37:3) Called "my beloved Son" by the Father (Matt 3:17)
Hated by his brothers (37:4) Hated by his Jewish brothers.
Had prophetic dreams that predicted the future. (37:5-9) Was a prophet who predicted to his generation what would happen in the future (Matt 24)
His father sent him to his brothers to wish them peace; Joseph obeyed and went although he was aware of their hostility toward him. (37:14) The Father sent Jesus to his brothers, the Jews, to save them.  Jesus knew that they would kill him, but nonetheless obeyed.
His brothers first wanted to kill him, but then decided to sell him to the gentile Midianites for 20 pieces of silver. (37:28) The Jewish leaders sought to kill Jesus; after he was betrayed for 30 pieces of silver, they handed him over to the Romans.
His brothers stripped him of his garment that symbolized authority and dominion and threw him into a pit.  (23-24) Jesus was stripped of his clothes, and after his death was buried in the pit of the tomb.
After his arrival in Egypt, Joseph faced temptation and withstood it. (39:9-12) Jesus withstood being tempted by Satan for 40 days.
Was falsely accused of sin. (39:16-18) Innocently punished for our sins.
Spent over two years in prison before being raised by Pharaoh. (39:20-41:1) Spent 2 nights and 3 days in the grave before God raised him in power.
Was appointed second to Pharaoh over Egypt. (41:39-44) Appointed King over the nations; sits now on the throne at the right hand of God in heaven (Ps 110:1)
Provided grain to the Egyptians and to the whole world that suffered from hunger. (41:57) Jesus is the bread of life that sustains the whole world (John 6:48)
His brothers came to Egypt to buy some food because of the famine, and appeared before Joseph. (42:6) The children of Israel starve spiritually, and those who come to Jesus receive the Bread of Life from him.
Joseph recognized his brothers, but they did not recognize him. (42:7) Jesus knows his Jewish brothers, but they did not recognize Him.
His brothers mistook him for an Egyptian and spoke to him through an interpreter. (42:23) The Jewish people treat Jesus as if He were a gentile, refuse to call him by His Jewish name, and fail to recognize Him as their brother.
Treated his brothers harshly until they fully repented. (42:7) Jesus is waiting until His family acknowledges their sin against Him.
Joseph revealed himself to his brothers (45:4). Jesus will soon reveal his true identity to the house of David who will acknowledge that they have sold their brother to the gentiles (Zech 12:10).
The betrayal of Joseph's brothers worked for their good, to preserve life (45:5).  Joseph therefore told his brothers not to be grieved or angry with themselves. God used the rejection of Jesus by the Jews to bring the salvation of the gentiles. Even on the cross, Jesus forgave (Luke 23:34)
Joseph invited his brothers to come and live in the land of Goshen. (45:13) Jesus reserves places in His kingdom for His people, the Jewish people.


Fr. Joseph Lemann, a nineteenth century Hebrew Catholic, once wrote: "I have a presentiment that the touching episode of Joseph, son of Jacob, making himself known to his brethren and filling their sacks with corn will be renewed when Jesus, in His mercy, manifests Himself, in the Heavenly Wheat of the Blessed Eucharist, to His brethren in Israel.  What a marvel of Divine Love will, in that day, be witnessed!"[30]

Go to Part II: Israel and the Church Today
Return to articles on Israel and the Church


[1] Ratzinger, The Spirit of the Liturgy, 19.

[2] Rausch, Messianic Judaism, 12.

[3] Flannery, The Anguish of the Jews, xi.

[4] Flannery, The Anguish of the Jews, 35.

[5] Nicholls, Christian Antisemitism, 208.

[6] Nicholls, 213.

[7] Nicholls, 220.

[8] Nicholls, 209.

[9] Flannery, 31.

[10] Ignatius of Antioch, Epistle to the Magnesians 10, as quoted in Flannery, The Anguish of the Jews, 31.

[11] Justin Martyr, Dialogue with Trypho, xxix, as quoted in Parkes, The Conflict of the Church and the Synagogue, 97.

[12] Flannery, 39.

[13] Flannery, 38.

[14] Parkes, The Conflict of the Church and the Synagogue, 162.

[15] Gregory of Nyssa, Homilies on the Resurrection, as quoted in Flannery, 47.

[16] Flannery, 47.

[17] John Chrysostom, Homilies Against the Jews, as quoted in Flannery, 48-49.

[18] Parkes, 163.

[19] Daniélou, Dialogue with Israel, 39.

[20] Visigothic Profession of Recceswinth, as quoted in Parkes, 395.

[21] Profession of Faith of uncertain eastern origin, attached to the Clementine recognitions, as quoted in Parkes, 398.

[22] Visigothic Profession of Erwig, as quoted in Parkes, 395.

[23] Flannery, 89.

[24] Brown, Michael L., Our Hands Are Stained With Blood. ICN Ministries, Pensacola, 1999.

[25] Commission for Religious Relations with the Jews, We Remember: A Reflection on the Shoah, IV

[26] Dabru Emet: A Jewish Statement on Christians And Christianity, 2002.

[27] Nicholls, 204. 

[28] Friedman, Jewish Identity, 109.

[29] Manifesto of the AHC,

[30] Friedman, 92.

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