Solid Footing Amidst The Shifting Sands of Public Opinion About Israel

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This is a detailed review of a book that has much to commend it. The book is: Calvin L. Smith, ed., The Jews, Modern Israel and the New Supersessionism. New Revised and Expanded Edition (Broadstairs, Kent, UK: King’s Divinity Press), 2013.

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This much-needed work deals with the old phenomenon of supersessionism but in a new guise, termed here “the new supersessionism,” whereby Christians engaged in rapprochement with the Muslim world are influencing many in the church to view the modern State of Israel unsympathetically, as an aggressive usurper in the region, calling into question both the legitimacy of the Jewish state and the chosenness of the Jewish people. Furthermore, the book refutes those who stigmatize those derisively termed “Christian Zionists,” whose convictions concerning the chosenness of the Jewish people are viewed as theologically deficient and politically naïve or fascistic. Such parties are represented as favoring an alleged Israeli government policy of blood and soil to the detriment of the suffering and poor displaced Palestinians and in defiance of a right understanding of the Bible. As a result of such mischaracterizations, many Christians are at best no longer sure they want to support the Jewish state, while others are mobilized against it.

Written on a popular level, this book aims to equip a younger generation especially vulnerable to such propagandizing pressures. It includes contributions from a wide range of Christian and Messianic leaders and scholars from the United Kingdom in order to demonstrate that those Christians who favor the founding of the Jewish state and the chosenness of the Jewish people on biblical grounds are not some sectarian lunatic fringe, all from the same camp, nor are they a recent development. Its editor, Calvin L. Smith is Principal and Director of Postgraduate Studies at the Kings Evangelical Divinity School, and editor of the Evangelical Review of Society and Politics as well as consulting editor Pneuma: The Journal for the Society of Pentecostal and Charismatic Studies and other scholarly works. His breadth of learning and experience serve him and his readers well in designing a book notable for its comprehensive scope and relevance to the hour.

In his Foreword Mitch Glaser picks up on this theme, commending the book as the right provision at a crucial time. Calvin Smith’s Introduction details the need for the book as a response to the new supersessionism, characterizing it as both scholarly and accessible.

The first chapter by Steve Malz, “The Real Roots of Supersessionism” seats supersessionism in Plato’s bifurcation of reality into the world of appearances and the world of Forms. This laid a foundation for a hierarchy of the spiritual as good and the material as bad, which eventually worked out to the church and the New Testament being good and the Older Testament and the Jewish people, bad. Malz traces the development of a bifurcated spiritual/good vs. material/bad hermeneutic from Plato to Ignatius of Antioch, Philo of Alexandra, Origen, Chrysostom, and Augstine of Hippo, showing how this tradition disenfranchised the Jewish people, establishing the church as the New Israel.

In Chapter Two, “The Parting of the Ways,” Barry Horner concentrates primarily on the historical process of disenfranchisement of the Jewish people. While the Newer Testament established the faith as foundationally and solidly Jewish, and while the first fifteen bishops of Jerusalem were all Jews, matters changed drastically on the heels of the brutal suppression of the Bar Cochba Revolt in 135 C.E. after which the Bishops of Jerusalem were unrelievedly Gentiles. The year 135 C.E. was also a theological watershed as it marked the promulgation of Justin Martyr’s Dialogue with Trypho the Jew, which for the first time postulated the church as the New Israel, with the old Israel being punitively cast off by God. Yet, even as the church was in process, so Justin was in process, holding simultaneously to the church being the New Israel, and to a premillennial eschatology rooted especially in the books of Ezekiel and Isaiah. Yet he also held that in some manner Christians of all nations would participate in millennial worship scenario. Irenaeus of Lyons, who flourished in the last quarter the second century, is perhaps the most clearly premillennial of the early Church Fathers, due in large measure to his efforts to defeat spiritualizing gnostics. However he also saw the Jews as being disinherited for their unbelief with their inheritance passing to the Gentiles alone.

Origen of Alexandria, born during the heyday of Irenaeus of Lyon, systematized this spiritualizing hermeneutic, while dismissing any talk of a physical millennium as “carnal.” He held that the Jews would never be restored to divine favor. Chrysostom took matters further, and in his eight homilies against the Jews, denounced them and those who consorted with them in a manner likely to provoke violence, which it did. This continuing tradition of contempt only grew darker and more distinct through the influence of Jerome and Augustine of Hippo, who saw the Jews as consigned to wander the earth, a subordinated fugitive people, and a sign to all of what happens when one forsakes God.

In Chapter Three, Colin Barnes explores the “Denouement of Supersessionist Triumphalism: European Churches and the Holocaust,” examining how the need to vindicate the church as the new and proper Israel and to condemn the Jews as being rightly rejected by God prepared the way for Christian complicity and passivity in this miserable dark period. During the Second Reich, prior to the ascendancy of the Nazis, 70 to 80 percent of German clergy belonged to the anti-Semitic German National People’s Party which, in its first election fought against “the Jewish predominance in public life.” During this period, the church was at the forefront of developing a narrative laying the German defeat and humiliation in the First World War at the feet of conspiratorial Jews. The church also learned to attribute the Old Testament solely to the activity of God, with the Jews having nothing to do with it except to sit under its condemnation.

Jewish misery was seen to be a proof of the truth of the gospel and of the depth of Jewish sin, and the requirement that Jews wear special clothing to mark them as such was but an extension of the church’s conviction that the Jews were a different and cursed breed. The church also saw it as a Christian responsibility to keep Jews in their subjugated and humiliated status. All of the provisions of the Nuremberg laws had their precedent in Church pronouncements. This was nothing new. Clergymen of the highest rank defended Nazi policies and deportations of Jews as being but a continuation of policies the church had long and rightly employed. The church viewed the Jews by divine fiat to be a suffering, wandering, homeless people. Even the idea of ghettos for the separation of Jews was first developed by the church, in Venice in 1516. And in a bizarre twist, Christian clergy held Jewish suffering and sequestering to be the church’s responsibility, but that Jews should be kept alive that they might continue to suffer as s sign from God of what happens to those who killed Christ.

Chapter Four introduces a brighter note, examining the role of evangelicals in promoting and supporting the return of the Jewish people to Zion on biblical, not political grounds. Among the prominent figures named in this chapter, William Blackstone, John Nelson Darby, Robert Murray McCheyne, J. C. Ryle, Louis Brandeis, Woodrow Wilson, and the Seventh Earl of Shaftesbury, Anthony Ashley Cooper, and quite a few others. Christian zeal for a Jewish return to the Land predated the founding of the modern State of Israel, and was joined to a revival of zeal for the soon return of Jesus Christ, especially in the 19th and early 20th centuries.

Chapter Five begins Part Two of the book, on Supersessionism and the Bible and examines “Who is the Israel of Romans 11:26” on exegetical grounds, and against the background of the general New Testament usage of “Israel” and “Israelite,” especially in Galatians 6:16, 1 Corinthians 10:15, and Romans 9:6 which some hold to suggest that the term “Israel” has another reference than to ethnic Israel. The chapter, though brief and accessible does a decent job in making the alternative explanations plain, while in the end favoring the interpretation that the “all Israel” of Romans 11:26 is the Jewish people considered as a whole.

Chapter Six, by Ronald E. Diprose, surveys New Testament texts that some would take as justifying a superessionist stance. Diprose disagrees. However, I found this chapter disappointing because it was too short and general on a subject that is so fundamental to the argument of the entire book.

Chapter Seven, “Biblical Theology, Israel and the Alien,” is one of the strongest. Calvin Smith sets the framework by defining biblical theology as “that disciplines which combines biblical studies and theology to establish and explore the Bible’s unifying story (or `metanarrative’), . . . together with a focus on tracing and analyzing major themes across both Testaments” (163). He adds that “biblical theology (interprets) individual segments and passages in light of and in constant reference to the contents of the canon of Scripture as a whole, sometimes referred to as canonical interpretation” (164). He then explores the theme “Israel” or “the house of Israel” across the Testaments, suggesting that the integrity of the term as applying to ethnic Israel fortifies the case against supersessionism. He shows how a future for Israel is upheld in the gospels, in Acts 1:6, in the division of the post-resurrection apostolate into reaching Jews and Gentiles, in various allusions in Luke/Acts, in Romans 9-11 for which he provides a very nice summation of the flow of argument. He also argues for the reinstatement of eschatology as an area of concern, sans the sensationalism often associated with it, and shows how the prophecies of Joel are linked with those in Revelation such that some of those prophecies including both people and land are still in process. Similarly, he discusses briefly how the dual portrait of God’s Servant as both suffering and reigning points toward a culminating Davidic reign over Israel in the Land.

Smith nicely refutes the popular argument that Israel’s alleged failure to righty treat the aliens in her midst negates her land rights in the region. He shows how the aliens in the biblical context lived in a reciprocal and covenantal relationship with ethnic Israel not matched by Palestinian conduct today. Furthermore, he refutes new supersessionist Stephen Sizer and others, showing how the term “Israel” has always been foundationally ethnic. He ends the chapter by highlighting resemblances between how the new supersessionism and Islam speak of Israel’s defunct elective status.

Chapter Eight is an adaptation of a conference paper and several lectures delivered by Jacob Prasch at Midlands Bible College, U.K. Although no doubt many will disagree, few will deny the provocative brilliance of this “Apostolic Jewish-Christian Hermeneutics and Supersessionism.” After briefly sketching the historical process whereby the church became enamored of an allegorical approach to interpretation, Prasch then critiques the Reformation’s fealty to historical grammatical exegesis as being right in what it gets right, but wrong in what it omits. His prescription is a return to what he terms “a Jewish hermeneutic.” He names a few figures from the Puritans, the Plymouth Brethren, to Jacob Neusner and others who see the New Testament and its hermeneutic in a thoroughly Jewish light. He contends that Jesus and the apostles employed rabbinic approaches to hermeneutics which are fundamentally different from the Reformation’s historical-grammatical exegesis, developing this position at some length, providing New Testament examples. In brief, he argues that “hermeneutics should not be extracted from Sitz im Leben” (207), and he views the Sitz im Leben of the New Testament to be thoroughly Jewish.

Chapter Nine “A Calvinist Considers Israel’s Right to the Land,” is written by Stephen M. Vantassel, a five-point Calvinist who, at the same time, rejects paedo-baptism. He views the polarization between the Reformed and non-Reformed camps to be essentially due to holding disparate hermeneutical schemas. He attributes Reformed denial of Israel’s right to the land to three arguments: that Israel’s disobedience voids her right to the Land, that Christ eliminated ethic distinctives in the New Testament, leaving no room for a particularist land promise, and that the apostles are essentially silent about a land promise. He sees two fundamental areas of weakness in the Reformed position: their wholesale rejection of direct fulfillment (which some view as “literal fulfillment”) of prophetic texts, and the inadequacy of the formerly presented three arguments which he refutes. He closes with four reminders: that God owns the land, that the land is His special gift in a manner not linked to Israel’s obedience, that the promise of the land cannot be broken, and that the negative consequences of Israel’s rejection of the Mesiah were destruction of the Temple, not banishment from the Land.

Part Three of the book, “Supersessionism and the Jewish People Today,” begins with a chapter by Brian Brewer, “Jewish Believers in Jesus and the New Supersessionism.” He addresses two tasks, defining what is meant by Messianic Jews, including a brief history of the development of the Messianic Jewish Movement broadly considered, and tangible effects of the new supersessionism on Messianic Jews in four areas: identity as Jews, relationship to Torah and Judaism, Gentile inclusion, and postmodern Jews. The chapter seemed weak to me as if written by someone whose knowledge of the issues and history comes from books rather than from intimate contact with the movement. Still the author comes delivers six astute observations concerning how supersessionism creates problems especially for Messianic Jews.

A non-Jew with twenty years of ministry experience in the Messianic Jewish context, Richard Gibson demonstrates uncommon intelligence and perceptiveness in Chapter Eleven, “Supersessionism, Messianic Jews and the Jewish Community: A Messianic Leader’s Perspective.” He focuses on how supersessionism has negative effects upon ministry to the Jews, upon Messianic Jews and Messianic fellowships, and upon the wider Jewish community. This chapter is so good, I am tempted to outline it at length here. Instead let it be sufficient to say that Richard Gibson really “gets it” in perceiving the uneasy social space that Messianic Jews are obliged to occupy due to Christians’ ambivalence toward or even negativity toward Yeshua-believing Jews pursuing Jewish life and identity.

In Chapter Twelve, “Is the Gospel Relevant to the Jewish People?” Tony Pearce argues for the persistence of the Jewish people to the end of time, before considering the two-fold barriers which hinders their coming to faith in Jsus, barriers from within the church and those from within the synagogue. In the former case he lightly sketches out the narrative of Christian anti-Semitism about the Jews, including figures like Saint John Chrystostom, the Emperor Constantine, and Saint Augustine of Hippo, who filled in that sorry narrative. In the latter case, he outlines the standard Christian narrative of why Jews need to believe in Jesus and what conservative Christians imagine to be the goal of Jewish faith, i.e., salvation by works. However, this narrative is flawed and misleading. He is telling Christians what they are used to hearing about the Jews and their religion. But the truth is far more complex and nuanced than he seems to know.

Chapter Thirteen, “Faith and Politics in Today’s Holy Land,” further demonstrates the commendable sweep of this volume that touches every issue one could imagine involving the Jews, modern Israel, and the new supersessionism. Calvin Smith begins by outlining how the popular narrative about Israel has shifted from seeing her as idealistic underdog (1948-1967) to seeing her as the strong-man oppressor in the region. The David and Goliath roles formerly postulated about the Jews and Arabs have now switched, while there has been a shift away from a post-holocaust theology of contrition concerning the Jews to a newly politicized evangelical Left that takes an intense, polarized and bitter stance on Israel, advocating a “Christian Palestinianism” instead of “Christian Zionism.”

In defending Israel, Smith suggests proof-texting and arguing about land rights in the region are a dead end, preferring to concentrate on exposing and refuting Christian supersessionism. In this chapter he focuses on the plights of Christian Arabs and of Messianic Jews, demonstrating how flawed and naïve is the common narrative in the West, that Christian Arabs are oppressed by Israel, and Messianic Jews treated well because of Israel’s stated policy of supporting religious pluralism. He garnered his information from interviews conducted on repeated jourbeys to the region. He reports that Christian Arabs are suffering far more from Muslim persecution than Jewish persecution, and Arab leadership from the established churches are scapegoating Israel rather than dealing with the problems facing their constituencies. In part this is to excuse their own non-performance, and in part, to commend themselves to the Muslims around them as a precaution against being perceived to be friends of the enemy–Israel. On the other hand, while having their own problems with Israel, Arab Christian lay people are far more muted in their criticism than are their leaders, whom they view to be pandering to the Christian West, while failing to accept responsibility for their poor service to their flocks and failure to address substantive issues. Their chief complaint about the Jewish state is how Israeli authorities lump them in with other Arabs, as not-to-be-trusted potential terrorists.

As for Messianic Jews in Israel, they find little police responsiveness to their complaints about harrssment and crimes against persons and property from ultra-orthodox figures and occasional orchestrated mob actions against them. Still, Messianic Jews have more often than not prevailed in the courts. Smith urges Christians in the West to plead the case of Christian Arabs and of Messianic Jews with the Israel government, urging protection for both, the former from Muslim activists, and the latter from Jewish extremists.

The book ends with a survey of Biblical perspectives on “Israel and the Purposes of God.” This was written by Howard Taylor for the first edition of the current book, and had not been upgraded or expanded as had other portions of the volume. Since Taylor died before this new edition was developed, the chapter is included here in his memory. He begins with quotations from various historical and literary figures about the uniqueness of the Jewish people, and then reinforces this idea through his light and somewhat devotional survey of biblical evidences.

As might be expected in a book with twelve different authors, I found the chapters uneven in quality, with some simply presenting a conservative evangelical party line concerning the Jews, and others, such those by Richard Gibson and Calvin Smith, demonstrating more hands-on contact with actual Jewish people. There were also some editorial lapses, as in the chapter by Stephen M. Vantassell where the statement about God being able to turn stones in children of Abraham being wrongly attributed to Christ instead of to John the Baptist. Other chapters (3, 7, 8, 11, and 13) seemed to be a cut above the rest in the evidences they produced and the rigor of their arguments. No doubt other readers will have favorites of their own.

Overall, the book succeeds in what it sets out to do, providing accessible essays on a wide range of concerns related to Jews, modern Israel, and the new supersessionism. For its scope and accessibility, I know of no comparable book. It deserves to be widely read.

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