Salvation is from the Jews (Jn 4.22)
The history of salvation affirms the continuity between Israel and the Church together with the newness brought by Jesus of Nazareth. Nostra Aetate is respectful of the different way in which Judaism defines itself. From the beginning of his pontificate, in Mainz, Pope John Paul II dared to declare: "Our two religious communities are connected and closely related at the very level of their respective religious identities" (March 12, 1979). And at the Great Synagogue of Rome, the pope said: "The Jewish religion is not "extrinsic" to us, but in a certain way is "intrinsic" to our own religion. With Judaism therefore we have a relationship which we do not have with any other religion. You are our dearly beloved brothers and, in a certain way, it could be said that you are our elder brothers." (April 13, 1986).
These words are inspired by the Pauline image of the olive tree, representing Israel onto which have been grafted the wild olive branches that are the Gentiles (Rom 11:16-24).
Thinking about this relationship of continuity and rupture within the single purpose of God is urgent for those living in Israel. Can we say that there is only one covenant that gives birth to the one People of God? The continuity between Israel and the Church would be well emphasized in this way. The decisive argument that is often quoted is Paul's phrase: "God's gifts are irrevocable". Israel and the Church, united in the one plan of grace and mercy, would be journeying towards to the same eschatological goal. Christ would not cause any break, but only a new interpretation of the Law and an openness to the Gentiles. The blessing of Abraham would thus reach all nations, with Christ as the binding ring between the two communities.
This statement contains a risk, however: it subtly adopts the replacement theology which claims that the Church accomplishes what is implicit in Israel and substitutes it in the mystery of redemption. It then reduces the newness of Christianity to the mere openness to the Gentiles. How then could we explain the rupture and discontinuity of the Christian message which cannot be attributed to Paul alone? The Christian newness of an incarnate God is totally forgotten. It is antithetical to Judaism. The coming of the Messiah that Judaism expects for the end of time is central to the Christian faith. Jesus is the Messiah of Jewish hope that fulfills the promises made to the Fathers. The Church is conscious of carrying the hope of Israel, while differing from it. The eschatological times are already upon us for believers. It is Jesus who unites and at the same time divides both people. It is true that the major feasts of the Church are the Jewish holidays celebrated by Christ. But the Feasts of the Annunciation, of the Nativity of Christ and of the Trinity have no precursors in Judaism.
The theology of two covenants has long opposed Judaism and Christianity to the point of presenting the Church as the substitution of Israel. It is therefore urgent to emphasize that the two covenants should be placed within the sole purpose of God. Judaism and Christianity must remain two open realities, dependent on the divine initiative in history and geared towards the fulfillment of the divine promises. Christians should consider Judaism both in its autonomy and in its affinity with Christianity. To forget the special historical-salvific meaning of Israel means to risk a loss for Christianity.
The hermeneutic models proposed in the past to understand the relationship between the Church and Synagogue have varied: from a dualism of opposition to complementarity, through the allegory of the substitution. Many of these models were already known in Judaism.
The dualistic model that opposes the violent God of the Old Testament to the loving Father of the New Testament goes back to Marcion. The Gnostic inspiration that drives it has no biblical basis: it opposes the world of matter and flesh to the spirit. The proponents of this position repeated that the new wine brought by Jesus cannot be poured into the skins of the Old Testament.
The allegorical model leads to the spiritualization of the Old Testament, even if still studied with love and zeal. The typology and symbolic reading of the Alexandrian school, insisting on the spiritual meaning beyond the literal meaning, prepared a mentality inspired by Hellenistic dualism in which the Old Testament risks losing its consistency and historical value. Philo had already opened this way.
In the desert of Judea a group of Essenes showed a different pattern of separation from contemporary Jewish society: that of the "true Israel." This separation model is actually a model of a reduced community to the proportions of a "perfect group," claiming to be the one and only group of the sons of light. These people divided Israel and the world, and even truth, with the sons of darkness and lies. Their dualist doctrine hardened; there was no longer an Israel, but only a withdrawn community of saints assimilated to the heavenly hosts of angels. This group lived in a permanent state of sanctification and wished to remain separate from the mass of men. This elitist model disappeared in the resistance against Rome, but it continues to live on in our days in the Church.
If the model uses a dualistic logic of contrasts, the anthological model tends to integrate the differences: The best of the Old Testament is incorporated into the spiritual identity of the Church. A choice is made between what is held to be universally valid and what appears outdated. The anthological model often ends up becoming a apologetic model. The saying of St. Augustine "Novum Testamentum in Vetere latet, Vetus in Novo patet" ("the New Testament is concealed in the Old, and the Old Testament is revealed by the New") paves the way for this type of reading.
The model of two parallel ways of salvation which defines Jesus as the savior of Christians while the Law would have the same role for Jews, forgets Paul's statement seeing in Jesus the only mediator. This mediation of salvation occurs, however, in a total kenosis.
To the model of substitution or transfer of covenant, the Second Vatican Council wished to make some happy corrections. Jesus is not a substitute for Israel, but the fulfillment of Israel. This is the official position that Christians now repeat. But this does not mean that Christianity is the fulfillment of Israel.
A serious problem arises, however, because every real fulfillment is all inclusive. Behind and before it there is nothing. And so we are again at an impasse. Jews, in fact, define Christianity not as the fulfillment of Israel but rather as its displacement.
The model that we must establish when it comes to the relations between Israel and the Church is an ideal that respects the religious significance of Israel and the value of the Old Testament in itself. The Christian belonging to Israel belongs to an original model dating back to the Church of the circumcision. The Old Testament retains its structural value for the Christian because Jesus observed it. God's covenant with His people remains at the heart of Jewish existence. Jesus is the "yes" given to the covenant (2 Cor 1.20). The response of the Jew proclaimed in the Shema: "Thou shalt love" is still valuable, because Jesus defined it as the first commandment. With Jesus, God enters human history to transfigure it.
But if Gentile Christians and religious Jews want to dialogue, it will be less useful to read together the Hebrew Scriptures common to them. Christians have everything to gain by learning to read rabbinical texts with Jews, and the Jews will have much to gain in learning to read the New Testament with Christians. We must have the courage to understand each other at the outset as different, and to learn primarily about what sets us apart rather than emphasizing, as is done in general, what unites us. In a second stage, the problem of the origins of one and the other, and of our mutual links could be considered thoroughly and peacefully, even touching upon the conflicts and tragedies of the past that cannot be ignored. To leave behind the issue of truth or falsehood allows us to enter that of difference. Everyone will then understand his difference in terms of what he owes to the other. And so an approach of authenticity rather than of repentance is to be accomplished. To talk about succession or inheritance, even in a corrected manner, is to move into a minefield and leads to the division.
In this line the fulfillment of Israel appears as a red herring. Jesus only fulfills the Scriptures. In this way, one is freed from the weight of a two thousand year old polemical approach that has produced many harmful side effects. Originally, there was the argument of Jesus with the scribes, the Pharisees and the Sadducees. Paul of Tarsus and Ignatius of Antioch rethought this problem in a polemical context. The founder of Christianity and the thinkers who followed him did a pedagogical use of the fulfillment of Scripture. Before them, the Essenes used this process extensively to show that their community gave to the oracles of the prophets their exact meaning. The question posed is that of the correct interpretation of Scripture and that of their ultimate meaning. If there is a debate, the issue can only be that one of the true law, and not that of the true Israel. Jesus proclaimed the coming kingdom of God and not a new or true Israel. Paul called the same reality the "Israel of God" as opposed to Israel according to the flesh. "Kingdom of God" and "Israel of God" are synonymous. But this is something quite other than Israel as a national group. This distinction is crucial and determines two different identities.
Historically, the debate became crucial in the Dialogue of Justin with Trypho. Both groups, Christian and Jew, then sought to clarify their identity, and even more their legitimacy facing a legacy of shared culture. The controversy already present in the New Testament became more heated at every step. The misunderstood hermeneutical problem led to excesses and even acts of violence, repeating the theme of fulfillment which could no longer be grasped. The theology of the transfer of alliance is to be evaluated in this context. It will always be rejected by the Jews.
It is rather a theology of difference and of partnership that we must have the courage to establish peacefully, rather than speaking of fulfillment that repeats with a few variations the theme of substitution. Paul's image of the grafted olive tree can contribute in justifying this choice. Of the root that receives the transplant, there is nothing left that stands out or that can be visibly identified. Only the tree born of the grafted branches remains. Another image, that of the two explorers returning from Canaan carrying on their shoulders a huge cluster of grapes, allows a better understanding of the partnership. Both carry the cluster which symbolizes Christ. But the first clears the path without seeing the one that follows, while the one following behind sees the one who opens the road through the light of Christ. Thus the Fathers of the Church explained this biblical scene.
The New Testament incarnates the Old in the sense that the covenant fulfilled in Jesus makes possible the understanding of the covenant in its fullness. There is no question of one or two covenants: the economy of God's plan is one. It affirms the only purpose of God's love for His people. This is the mystery of God who wants all embrace all men in His salvation. The embodiments of this design have changed since the covenants with Noah, with Abraham and that of Sinai. The covenant sealed in the blood of Christ does not deny the others, but incorporates them all. Israel and the Church must define themselves in terms of differences and complementarity. The New Testament illuminates the Old, and the Old gives the New its strong roots while maintaining its constitutional status, of which the permanence of Israel is the sign. The Church does not negate Israel, which continues its search for God through the Scriptures. The reconciliation between the two peoples has an eschatological dimension and recalls that the pilgrimage towards the heavenly Jerusalem is not yet complete, because the Church is not the kingdom. Perhaps we will arrive one day at the rabbinical wisdom that says of the schools of Shammai and Hillel: These and those are the words of the living God. Or perhaps we will adopt Jesus' parable: A father had two sons…
Speaking of the "mystery" of Israel (Rom 11:25) is to recognize that the ultimate meaning of salvation history escapes us. All is not revealed because everything is not accomplished. The Church proclaims that Jesus Christ is the unique Savior of the world, and it lives of His death and resurrection. But the permanence of Israel is the sign of what it lacks for the full realization of its mission. Faced with the "already here" of the Church, Israel is the witness of the "not yet". The Jewish people and the Christian people are thus in a situation of mutual imitation. Christians rejoice in the "already here", while the Jews remember the "not yet". This tension is central to the life of the Church, since in the Eucharistic liturgy it calls for the return of her Lord: "Come, Lord Jesus."
Fr. Frédéric Manns is Professor of Sacred Scripture at the Studium Biblicum Franciscanum in Jerusalem