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Israel and the People of God in Early Christianity

This is a replication of a published article:

‘‘Not My People?’ Israel and the People of God in Early Christianity.’  In First the Kingdom of God: A Festschrift in Honor of Professor Dr. Peter Kuzmic.  Ed. Miroslav Volf, Corneliu Constantineanu, Marcel V. Măcelaru, Krešimir Šimić. Regnum Press and Wipf & Stock, 2011.  ISBN: 978-953-6110-14-8.


The 1998 Vatican document presented by Cardinal Edward Cassidy, ‘We Remember: A Reflection on the Shoah,’ observes that ‘the fact that the Shoah [Holocaust] took place in Europe, that is, in countries of long-standing Christian civilization, raises the question of the relation between the Nazi persecution and the attitudes down the centuries of Christians towards the Jews’ (n. II).[1] The document acknowledges that some Christians have, in the history of the Church in Europe, mistreated and persecuted the Jews, and not done all that they could to oppose anti-Semitism.[2]  The ‘We Remember’ document is intended as an expression of repentance by the Catholic Church and a resolve ‘to build a new future in which there will be no more anti-Judaism among Christians or anti-Christian sentiment among Jews, but rather a shared mutual respect, as befits those who adore the one Creator and Lord and have a common father in faith, Abraham.’
Pope John-Paul II stated in his 1999 Post-Synodal Apostolic Exhortation Ecclesia in Europa that the Church and the Jewish people were united in that the covenant God made with Israel was, as Paul stated in Rom. 11.29, irrevocable, and it is the same covenant that has reached its fulfillment in Christ (56).  The same document distinguishes this conviction from religious relativism, which sees religion of one sort to be as good as another.  On the contrary, the Church has a mission to all peoples (55).

The present essay begins by noting that western, orthodox, Christian[3] writers of the second, third, and early fourth centuries held that Israel had been replaced by the Church as God’s people.  (The cut-off date for this study is when Christianity gained privileges under Emperor Constantine.)  The question that I will pursue is, ‘What Scriptural (Old Testament) justification did these writers give for their views about the Jews?’  This was not the view of the ethnically Jewish New Testament writers.  In Mt. 23.38-39, Jesus pronounces the same judgement of desolation on Jerusalem or Israel that the prophets did (Is. 1.7; Jer. 26.9; Ez. 6; 14.15f; Joel 2.3; Mic. 6.13; Zech. 7.14) but with same expectation that one day she would receive the Lord.  Rom. 11.25-29 quotes Is. 59.20 with the hope that, despite her past sinfulness, all Israel would be saved.  Luke lets stand the question of the disciples after the resurrection, ‘Lord, is this the time when you will restore the kingdom to Israel?’ (Acts 1.6; cf. Lk. 2.25).  Also, following on the view of the Old Testament, New Testament authors work with the Old Testament view that the righteous are only a part of the covenant community.  There is a righteous remnant within Israel (Rom. 9.27), an Israel of God (Gal. 6.16).  While not all Jews believed in Jesus, many did (Jn. 12.42).  All the New Testament authors are Jewish, and the critique of Judaism is one well-known from the Old Testament prophets; it is an internal critique and not an attack on another ethnic group.  To be sure, for Christians, the world comes to be divided between followers of Christ and everyone else, but New Testament writers still see Israel as God’s covenant people.  Indeed, Paul weeps for them because they, as God’s covenant people, are rejecting God’s salvation (Rom. 9.1-5).  The covenant, like the root of a tree, remains, even if branches are to be grafted in (Gentiles) or pruned off (unbelieving Jews) (Rom. 11.16-24).

How, then, is it that in the Patristic period we find the conviction that the Jews were no longer God’s covenant people?  At least, such are many of the statements, although there are certain noteworthy exceptions.  This paper will explore this question by looking at how these Christian authors used the common Scriptures, the Old Testament, to make their case (New Testament passages will seldom be presented).  I will examine this under five headings:
      Proof from Scripture that Israel was no longer the people of God
      Proof from Scripture that Israel was sinful
      Christians rightly understand the Law
      Scripture foretells the demise of Israel
      Proof from Scripture that Israel has been replaced by the Church

Argument 1: Proof From Scripture that Israel was No Longer the People of God

Clement of Alexandria, writing in the latter part of the 2nd century, might be quoted as representative of the early Christian position that Israel was no longer the people of God (Instructor 2.8):[4]

For being hard of heart, they understood not that this very thing, which they called the disgrace of the Lord, was a prophecy wisely uttered: "The Lord was not known by the people" [Is. 1.3] which erred, which was not circumcised in understanding, whose darkness was not enlightened, which knew not God, denied the Lord, forfeited the place of the true Israel, persecuted God, hoped to reduce the Word to disgrace; and Him whom they crucified as a malefactor they crowned as a king.

Tertullian also argued from Scripture that Israel would reject God (Jer. 2.10-12; Is. 65.13-16 LXX; An Answer to the Jews, sect. 3), that God’s blessing or Spirit would be taken from Israel: Is. 3.1, 3; 5.1ff (sect. 13), and that Christ asked God to disperse Israel (Ps. 59.11; sect. 13).

Minucius Felix (mid-2nd century or early 3rd century) claims that Scripture demonstrates that Israel deserves her present fortune because of her obstinacy (Octavius 33).  The Jews, he concludes, ‘were given up by God as deserters from His discipline.’

Commodianus (mid-third century African bishop) references Isaiah 6.10 in his argument that Israel was hard-hearted and rejected the Law, as also in the time of Moses (Ex. 32).  Thus God rejected her (Instructions 38).

The criticism of Judaism, of course, does not begin with Christians; it begins within Judaism itself.  It is a critique found most especially in the prophets, who separate out the unrighteous, idolatrous Jews from the righteous remnant.  Jewish self-critique was also found in the 1st century, particularly in Qumran, which separated itself from the unrighteous of Israelite society, had nothing to do with the Temple, and predicted a coming judgement.  Such a critique is very similar to that of John the Baptist, Jesus, and the early Church—all themselves Jews.  From the 4th century, Christian critique of Judaism seems to have taken on darker forms.[5] 

Yet when such a critique is voiced by Gentile Christians, when it is voiced within a fairly anti-Jewish Roman Empire,[6] when it is stated that the Jews killed Jesus, and when Jewish suffering is said to be the result of the Jews’ crucifying Jesus, criticism of Judaism is quite different from that within Judaism.  Language such as ‘Christkillers’ (Ignatius, Magnesians 11.1 long; cf. Philadelphians 6.1 long), ‘fighters against God, those murderers of the Lord’ (Ignatius, Thrallians 11.2 long; cf. Melito, Peri Pascha (73-74, 93), and ‘Jews fighting against Christ’ (Smyrnaeans 2.1 long) seem to move the critique to a new level.

Still, for Ignatius, the key issue was not ethnicity but Christ versus Jewish law (Philadelphians 6.1).  Hippolytus  complains that the Ebionite sect lives according to the Jewish Law and believes that in it they are justified.  Jesus was made the Christ because he fulfilled the Law, and they too might become Christs by fulfilling the Law (Refutation of All Heresies 7.22).

For Cyprian, quoting Is. 1.15-20, salvation also comes to the Jews, just as to the Gentiles, albeit their repentance would need to include the specific sin of killing Jesus:

… by this alone the Jews could obtain pardon of their sins, if they wash away the blood of Christ slain in His baptism, and, passing over into the Church, should obey His precepts (Treatise 12.1.24).

Also significant for assessing this data is the fact that the Church was a persecuted minority, and Jews were at times involved.[7]  During the Jewish-Roman war of 132-135, the Jewish leader, Bar Cocheba, punished Christians who would not deny or blaspheme Christ (Justin, First Apology 31)—a practice already evident in the first century (Acts 9.2; 26.11; 2 Cor. 11.24; Gal. 1.13; 1 Cor. 15.9; 2 Cor. 5.16; Mk. 13.9 (Mt. 10.17; Lk. 12.11; 21.12; cf. Mt. 23.34); Jn. 16.2).[8]  Whatever the social dynamics for disagreement between Jews and Christians, the key debate was over how to interpret the authoritative Word of God that they both accepted.[9]

Argument 2: Proof From Scripture That Israel was Sinful

That the Jews have been sinful and have therefore lost their status as God’s people is a prevailing view.  They were variously said to be a sinful people, the most sinful people, idolaters (perhaps picking up the critique of the prophets), or the ones who murdered Christ.  Justin stated that Scripture foretold that the Jews would reject God’s salvation (Is. 1.3f; 66.1; 1.11-15; 58.6-7) (First Apology 38).  Clement of Alexandria illustrated modes of rebuke for the instructor almost wholly from passages where God rebukes Israel for her sins, with passages from Jeremiah and Is. 1often cited (Instructor 1.9).

That God rejected Israel due to her sinfulness is succinctly stated in Commodianus (Instructions 38):
Evil always, and recalcitrant, with a stiff neck … of hardened heart.  Ye look upon the law which Moses in wrath dashed to pieces [Ex. 32]; and the same Lord gave to him a second law.  In that he placed his hope; but ye, half healed, reject it, and therefore ye shall not be worthy of the kingdom of heaven.
Minucius Felix accepts that Israel did at times worship God, who is the same God of all.  But both Scripture and the writings of Flavius Josephus or Antoninus Julianus prove that they were wicked.  Thus they forsook before they were forsaken; they deserted God’s discipline (Octavius 33).  Irenaeus argues that the Jews’ sinfulness led to their rejection by God.  Their sinfulness culminated in slaying the Son of God (Against Heresies 4.36.2).
Tertullian (An Answer to the Jews) references various passages in Scripture that demonstrate the sinfulness of Israel and predict her exile, for example:
              Ex. 32 shows that Israel turned to idolatry
              Dt. 28.65ff predicts exile and agony for Israel
              Is. 1.2, 4, 7-8, 15 predicts Israel’s sin and destruction
              Is. 33.17 predicts Israel’s exile
              Is. 65.1, 13-16 states that Jews would forsake the Lord and others will serve Him
              Jer. 2.10-13 states that the Jews have exchanged their glory for something unprofitable,
                         forsaking God and pursuing idolatry
 Tertullian feels no need to locate these verses historically: rather, Scripture characterizes the Jews as forsaking God and foretells, in Is. 65.1-16, that others would serve him.
 Origen states unequivocally that the Jews’ sins are paramount, given their sin against Christ:[10]
  on account of their unbelief, and the other insults which they heaped upon Jesus, the Jews will not       only suffer more than others in that judgment which is believed to impend over the world, but have     even already endured such sufferings. For what nation is an exile from their own metropolis, and         from the place sacred to the worship of their fathers, save the Jews alone? And these calamities they   have suffered, because they were a most wicked nation, which, although guilty of many other sins,     yet has been punished so severely for none, as for those that were committed against our Jesus            (Contra Celsum 2.8).
 Cyprian’s Treatise 12 (book 1) is devoted to the question of the Jews as God’s people.  His approach in the treatise is simply to quote passages of Scripture under certain headings.[11]  He cites the following texts to demonstrate Israel’s sinfulness: Ex. 32; Jdg. 2.11-13; 4.1; Mal. 2.11; Jer. 7.25; 25.4, 6-7; 1 Kgs. 19.10; Neh. 9.26; Is. 1.2-4; 6.9-10; Jer. 2.13; 6.10; 8.7-9; Prov. 1.28-29; Ps. 28.4-5; 82.5.
 The sinfulness of the Jews culminates in their attitude towards Jesus Christ, according to Commodianus (Instructions 40). 
 There is not an unbelieving people such as yours.  O evil men! in so many places, and so often rebuked by the law of those who cry aloud.  And the lofty One despises your Sabbaths, and altogether rejects your universal monthly feasts according to law, that ye should not make to Him the commanded sacrifices; … that life was suspended on the tree, and [you] believe not on Him.  God Himself is the life; He Himself was suspended for us.  But ye with indurated heart insult Him.
This last quote points to two theological and exegetical problems with the discussion among the Church fathers.  First, there is the notion that the Jews are more sinful than other nations.  This is because they are blamed for Jesus’ death—an accusation not in the New Testament.  Perhaps, however, Paul’s presenting the extreme sinfulness of the Gentiles before the sinfulness of the Jews in his argument in Romans sets the proper tone for Christian thinking about the Jews.  Rom. 1.18-3.26 makes the argument that Jews and Gentiles are equally culpable for their sins, not that the Jews are more sinful.  Second, Commodianus expresses the view that the practices of Judaism that mark them off as a particular people are odious before God.  While this can be argued from Scripture (Is. 1.11-14 is probably alluded to here), this is again not the New Testament perspective (e.g., 1 Cor. 9.20; Gal. 5.6; 6.15; Rom. 14.1ff; etc.).

The prophets’ indictment of Israel for her sinfulness applied to particular times, but the early Christian writers still applied these passages to the Jews of their day.  They could use numerous passages to make the case that the Jews were sinful, and all they needed to do was add that their sin reached new heights in putting Christ to death.  Among the texts cited, Is. 1.2ff may have been the most often referenced.  The early Christians who cited such texts against the Jews did not point out the hope that those texts offered for an Israel restored after their sin and exile, as Paul does in Rom. 11.25-29.

Argument 3: Christians Rightly Understand The Law

On the issue of the Law, several perspectives can be identified in the patristic sources.  The primary argument of interest here—one well attested in the texts—is that the Law needs to be read ‘spiritually’ rather than literally.  Some argue that this is a development in light of the movement of salvation history, while others, more critical of the Jews, argue that the Laws should never have been followed literally.

Early in the second century, Ignatius advocated that the progression of salvation history meant a different attitude towards the Law:

"Old things are passed away: behold, all things have become new." For if we still live according to the Jewish law, and the circumcision of the flesh, we deny that we have received grace (Magnesians 8.1 long)

The prophets were His servants, and foresaw Him by the Spirit, and waited for Him as their Teacher, and expected Him as their Lord and Savior, saying, "He will come and save us." Let us therefore no longer keep the Sabbath after the Jewish manner, and rejoice in days of idleness; for "he that does not work, let him not eat” (Magnesians 9.2 long).

Also in the early 2nd century, Aristides wrote:

And in their imagination they conceive that it is God they serve; whereas by their mode of observance it is to the angels and not to God that their service is rendered:--as when they celebrate sabbaths and the beginning of the months, and feasts of unleavened bread, and a great fast; and fasting and circumcision and the purification of meats, which things, however, they do not observe perfectly (Apology 14).

Another early 2nd century writer, in the Epistle to Diognetus, sees Jewish religious practices as virtual idolatry.  The key to such an argument is that a literal interpretation is believed to lean in this direction:

 But those who imagine that, by means of blood, and the smoke of sacrifices and burnt-offerings they offer sacrifices [acceptable] to Him, and that by such honours they show Him respect: these, by supposing that they can give anything to Him who stands in need of nothing, appear to me in no respect to differ from those who studiously confer the same honour on things destitute of sense.... (3).

The author of this epistle simply takes Jewish food laws, Sabbaths, boasting, circumcision, fastings, and new moons to be ridiculous (4).  No Scriptural argument is proffered.  The ease with which these are dismissed suggests that the Jews are not the author's concern so much as making the argument that Christians 'are distinguished from other men neither by country, nor language, nor customs which they observe.  For they neither inhabit cities of their own, nor employ a peculiar form of speech....' (5).

And yet another early 2nd century author, in the Epistle of Barnabas, argued that the Scriptures should not be read literally but typologically, for we live in the last days (6).  This argument could be stated in one of two way, and Barnabas employs them both:

*A literal reading is said to be a misreading of Scripture, as when Barnabas insists that a circumcision of the flesh was never God’s intent but in fact a deception by an evil angel (9).  Circumcision was always to be understood spiritually—as a circumcision of the heart (Jer. 4.4; Dt. 10.16).  Barnabas also argues this point allegorically: Abraham's circumcision of 318 men (confusing Gen. 17.26f and 14.14) points to Christ, since ten and eight are written with the first two Greek letters of Jesus’ name ('I' and 'H') and 300 is the written with the Greek letter 'T', representing by its shape the cross of Christ.  Various foods are interpreted as characters with whom one should not associate (10). 

*A literal reading is said to be no longer the right reading of Scripture, as when Barnabas says that Jewish sacrifices were already abolished by the prophets (Is. 1.11-14; Jer. 7.22; Zech. 8.17; Ps. 51.19) (2).

The spiritual interpretation of the Old Testament in general clarified the distinction between Jews and Christians, as we find in Melito of Sardis’s Paschal Sermon (39-45):

              Earthly                                                                          Heavenly or Spiritual

              The Jewish people                                                     The Church
              The Law                                                                       The Gospel
              Sacrifice of sheep                                                       The life of the Lord
              Temple                                                                        Christ
              Earthly Jerusalem                                                      Heavenly Jerusalem
              Meagre inheritance in one place                            Abundant grace throughout the world

A spiritual interpretation of Israel’s Law was considered to be superior (Origen, Contra Celsum 4.49).  It is not that the Church needed a spiritual interpretation of the OT in order to ‘save’ the Scriptures for the Church, although this is a result of the argument.  Rather, it suggests that interpretation is better when it uncovers the spiritual meaning.  The Jews’ literal following of the Law was therefore an example of bad exegesis.

The notion of a hermeneutical progression, from literal to spiritual, can be found in various authors of the second and third centuries: that the spiritual reading should always have been preferred is not the only argument.  Justin Martyr, while he allowed that some Christians hold to the Jewish regulations (Dialogue with Trypho the Jew 47), argued that nobody now obeys all the Mosaic Law since one cannot offer the paschal lamb (46).  Moreover, he avers, the Mosaic Law was given because of Israel's hardness of heart--to remind them constantly of God through the many precepts (19).  However, Christ replaced the Law, as Is. 51.4-5 and Jer. 31.31f state (11).  The laws on circumcision, foods, sabbaths, sacrifices and oblations were instituted because of the Jews’ unrighteousness and idolatries, to divert them from the practices of the nations around them, not because there was any necessity for such sacrifices (19-22). 

Clement of Alexandria actually argues that the Law was good.  It was better than the laws of the Greeks, although something better in Christ has now come (Stromata 1.27).

Tertullian argued that, on the one hand, the Mosaic Law was prefigured in the command that God gave to Adam and Eve while, on the other hand, there were righteous persons (Abel, Enoch, Noah, Abraham, Melchizedek) who were so without the Mosaic Law (An Answer to the Jews 2).  He believed that a shift from a temporal or carnal reading of the Law to an eternal or spiritual reading took place when, through Jesus, a new covenant was given and the spiritual came (An Answer to the Jews 6).  Thus he argues that the 10 Commandments were enclosed as seeds in the Adamic Law, and natural law prevailed until Moses (e.g., Noah was found righteous).  The Mosaic Law also had its place in time, but God 'reforms the law's precepts answerably to the circumstances of the times, with a view to man's salvation' (2).  It was a temporal mirror of the new law in the new covenant, which is eternal.  Jer. 31.31ff promised a new law, a new circumcision.  With the abolition of the old Law and circumcision also went Sabbath observance (4). 

Even so, Tertullian advanced the argument that prior to Jesus Jewish regulations were not acceptable to God.  The prophets bore witness that God hated the Jews' Sabbaths (Is. 1.13), as we already read in Genesis regarding Cain’s (Israel’s) sacrifice and Abel’s (Christians’) sacrifice (5). 

The Didascalia Apostolorum suggests that the first law of Moses contained only the ten commandments, but the second law given to Moses contained all the additional stipulations regarding food, sacrifices, and circumcision on account of Israel’s idolatry (26.6.16-17).  Unlike the first (Ezek. 20.9-11), the second was not good (Ezek. 20.25) (26.6.18).  Christ has taken away our idolatry, and so too these laws (so Mt. 11.28).  The prophets’ statements about Israel’s practices attest to this (Jer. 6.20; 7.21-22; Is. 1.11-14) (26.6.17).

Like Justin, Origen acknowledged that some Christians followed the Jewish laws (Contra Celsum V.61), but the superior reading of the Scripture was allegorical (4.49).  Christians thereby penetrated to the Law’s deeper meaning (2.4; 5.60, with reference to 2 Cor. 3). With reference to Jn. 16.12-13 and Acts 10.13-15, he argued that the coming of the Spirit after Jesus’ death and resurrection allowed a spiritual understanding of the Law (2.2)With Jesus’ coming, Jewish Scriptures could now be clearly interpreted (4.42).  The Law, indeed, had both a literal and a spiritual understanding (7.20), but the literal interpretation has come to an end with the end of Israel’s governmental authority, the Temple, and the Jews’ presence in Jerusalem (7.26).

Origen adds a new piece to the argument: the expansion of the Gospel beyond Israel’s borders to all nations requires that the Law no longer be taken literally.  The Jews cannot practice laws requiring them to be in the land of Israel and offering sacrifices at the Temple.  The laws on capital punishment or the practice of warfare no longer apply when God’s people have no land or civil government (Contra Celsum 7.26).  Moreover, Jewish Law ended for the purpose of universal mission, as Jesus (Mk. 7.18f), Paul (1 Cor. 8.8), and the meeting of the apostles and elders (Acts 15) declared (Contra Celsum 8.29).

At the beginning of the third century, Novatian wrote three treatises for Christians against Jewish practices of circumcision, the Sabbath, and food regulations.  Of these, only that on food regulations has survived.  In it we encounter the view that Jewish regulations set the Jews apart from and above others: the Law leads to boasting and, as a Jewish system, it is seen as a problem for a universal mission.  So much emphasis on Jewish sinfulness because of the Law runs through the writings of the early Christian authors that Novatian’s argument is noteworthy: ‘They consider that they only are holy, and that all others are defiled’ (On Jewish Meats, 1).

Like a number of other Christian authors at the time, Novatian advocated a spiritual interpretation of Jewish food laws: ‘Thus in the animals, by the law, as it were, a certain mirror of human life is established…’ (On Jewish Meats 3).  For example,

what does the law mean when it says, “Thou shalt not eat the camel?—except that by the example of that animal it condemns a life nerveless and crooked with crimes. Or when it forbids the swine to be taken for food? It assuredly reproves a life filthy and dirty, and delighting in the garbage of vice, placing its supreme good not in generosity of mind, but in the flesh alone. Or when it forbids the hare? It rebukes men deformed into women. And who would use the body of the weasel for food? But in this case it reproves theft (On Jewish Meats 3).

With Novatian, not much is left of the notion of an unfolding salvation history.  Quite simply, he argues, the Jews failed to see that the Law was meant to be interpreted spiritually (2, with reference to Rom. 7.14—a misunderstanding of the text).  Even Rom. 10.4 is interpreted as Christ’s coming to disclose the Law’s spiritual meaning (4), although later Novatian argues (with mostly New Testament quotes, but also Dt. 8.3 and Zech. 7.6 LXX) that the literal Law no longer applies (5).

Regarding the Law, Cyprian (Treatise 12.1) argues from the Scriptures that only after Christ came would the Scriptures be understood: Is. 29.11-18; Jer. 23.20; Dn. 12.4-7; Is. 7.9; Jn. 8.24; Hab. 2.4; Gen. 15.6; Gal. 3.6-9.  After Christ came, sacrifices would be abolished: Is. 1.11-12; Ps. 50.13-15; Ps. 50.23; Ps. 4.5; Mal. 1.10-11;.  The priesthood too would be abolished after Christ’s coming (Ps. 110.3;  1 Sam. 2.35-36), and another prophet after Moses was to come: Dt. 18.18-19.

Perhaps the most positive assessment of the Law is to be found in Minucius Felix. As we have already noted, he argued against those who saw Jewish laws as superstitious customs and stated that God blessed them when they obeyed the Law (Octavius 33).

Argument 4: Scripture Foretells the Demise of Israel

Justin taught that, as a result of the Jews’ rejection of God’s salvation, the land of the Jews would be devastated (Is. 64.10-12; 1.7) (First Apology 47).  With Scriptural texts and 1st century history on their side, this was a typical Christian view of the period.

Clement of Alexandria’s interpretation of Daniel’s 70 weeks (Dn. 9.25-27) is that Israel was in captivity for one ‘week,’ after which the temple was rebuilt, existed until Christ for sixty-two weeks, was ruled by Christ for one week, and in the middle of that week he would cause the ‘incense of sacrifice cease’ (Stromata 1.21).

Tertullian finds proof in Dn. 9.25-27 that Jesus’ death is tied to Israel’s destruction (An Answer to the Jews 8, 13), as indeed it happened in the 1st century.  Amos 8.9, too, says that God would darken the earth at noon on the day of judgement for sinful Israel.  Since the Passover lambs were to be slaughtered at twilight (Ex. 12.6), the darkness during Jesus’ sacrificial death (Mt. 27.45 with Jn. 19.14) can be said to fulfil the passage in Amos.  But Amos 8.10 immediately adds, ‘I will turn your feasts into mourning, and all your songs into lamentation,’ and Tertullian interprets this as the Holy Spirit’s foretelling Israel’s captivity and dispersion after Jesus’ passion (An Answer to the Jews 10).  Jesus’ sacrificial suffering and Israel’s suffering in judgement are therefore related. Circumcision was given to the Jews so that they could be identified and not admitted to Jerusalem, and Isaiah 1.7-8 predicted the desolation of the land of Israel (An Answer to the Jews 3). 

Origen contrasts the transforming power of God among Christians (Contra Celsum 1.67) to the Greek myths and the absence of any evidence of Divine presence among the Jews, who have lost everything.  The Jews
were altogether abandoned, and possess now none of what were considered their ancient glories, so that there is no indication of any Divinity abiding amongst them. For they have no longer prophets nor miracles, traces of which to a considerable extent are still found among Christians, and some of them more remarkable than any that existed among the Jews; and these we ourselves have witnessed, if our testimony may be received (2.8; cf. 7.8).

Cyprian’s argument from Scripture that Israel would lose Jerusalem, the Temple, the land, and the light of the Lord includes the following passages: Is. 1.7-9 and Mt. 23.37-39; Is. 2.5-6; 2 Sam. 7.4, 5, 12-16 (Treatise 12.1).

Argument 5: Proof From Scripture That Israel Has Been Replaced by the Church

In the early fourth century, Lactantius states that, in the last times, the ‘religion of the true God and righteousness’ was made known to the nations but taken away from a ‘perfidious and ungrateful people’ (The Divine Institutes 4.2).[12]  This perspective runs throughout the Church Fathers of the second through early fourth centuries.

According to the Epistle of Barnabas (4), the Jewish loss of the covenant was foreshadowed when Moses' first covenant, written by the finger of God, was destroyed due to Israel's idolatry and had to be rewritten by Moses himself (Ex. 31.18; 34.28).[13]  Towards the end of ch. 4, the author states that Israel was abandoned, with a quotation from Mt. 20.16 or 22.14 ('many are called, but few are chosen') (cf. 13).  Abraham was imputed righteousness and became the father of nations through belief in the Lord while uncircumcised (13).

Justin argued that the Gentile mission was foretold in Scripture (Is. 2.3; Ps. 19.3-6; 1.1-6; 2.1-13; 96.1-13 (First Apology 39, 40, 41)).  However, while the Gentiles would worship the Messiah, the Jews would not (Is. 65.1-3; 5.20 (First Apology 39)).

Irenaeus interprets Jesus’ parable of the wicked tenants to be about the Jews rather than their leaders’ sinfulness, and the giving of the vineyard to others meant to the Gentiles.  They have been ‘justly rejected’.  He cites Jeremiah to show that their rejection (Jer. 7.28-29) and replacement (6.17-18) was foretold (Against Heresies 4.36.2).

Clement of Alexandria’s replacement theology involves reading Is. 54.1 as not about a restored Israel but a different people, Christians.  Verse 3 is read as ‘you have inherited the covenant of Israel’ where the text says that Israel’s descendents will possess the nations.  The result is that a text meant to assure Israel of God’s continued covenant faithfulness towards her is used to dispossess her (Stromata 2.6).

Tertullian argued that the Scripture speaks of a people who would obey God (Ps. 18.43-44; cf. 2 Sam. 22.44, 45 and Rom. 10.14-17; Hos. 1.10.), once they were brought out of error to the Lord God and Jesus Christ (Ps. 2.7-8 and Is. 42.6-7) (An Answer to the Jews 12).

But if Christ, as Jews maintained, is still to come, who is left in Israel to suffer?  The Romans had expelled the Jews from Israel. Similarly, while Mic. 5.2 predicted that the Messiah would come from Bethlehem, no Jews are now there since their removal by the Romans.  The oil of anointing at the Temple can no longer be administered (Ex. 30.22-33).  Indeed, as predicted (Dn. 9.26), the city of Jerusalem and the Temple were destroyed at the same time.  Thus the destruction of Jerusalem and the Temple meant a fulfilment of prophecies and the impossibility of any future fulfilment concerning them.  That all this applied to the rejection of Jesus and the events from A.D. 70 seemed patently obvious.  The result was a ‘replacement theology’: the Church had replaced Israel in God’s salvation history.  Apparently (however, see below) no special covenant relationship remained between God and Israel, and no salvation could be found apart from Christ Jesus.

Origen’s argument about charismatic signs among Christians has already been noted: they serve as proof that Christians have replaced the Jews as God’s people.  Moreover, the whole Jewish nation was overthrown within a generation after Jesus (4.22):[14]

It accordingly behoved that city where Jesus underwent these sufferings to perish utterly, and the Jewish nation to be overthrown, and the invitation to happiness offered them by God to pass to others,--the Christians, I mean, to whom has come the doctrine of a pure and holy worship, and who have obtained new laws, in harmony with the established constitution in all countries; seeing those which were formerly imposed, as on a single nation which was ruled by princes of its own race and of similar manners, could not now be observed in all their entireness.

The Jews’ rejection of Jesus, Origen argues further, was predicted in Isaiah 6.10.  This passage already featured in Jesus’ explanation of his teaching in parables (Mk. 4.12; Mt. 13.13-15), the rejection of Jesus by the Jews (Jn. 12.40), and Paul’s dialogue with Jews in Rome (Acts 28.25-27)—it was a significant passage early on for Christians in the dialogue.

Cyprian (Treatise 12.1) argued that a second people (the Church) would come after the first (Israel) according to the Scriptures.  He references the incidents where the firstborn was replaced by the second in the stories of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob’s two wives, Joseph’s sons, Elkanah and in Hos. 2.25 and 1.10 as well as 1 Sam. 2.5.  Commodianus’s list overlaps with Cyprian’s and includes Tamar’s twins (Gen. 38.27ff) and the sacrifices of Cain and Abel (Gen. 4) (Instructions 39).  This appears to be a fairly common argument among the early Christian writers,[15] already present in Paul as an example of how God works but not as a typology for Israel and the Church ((Rom. 9.7-9, 10-13).  Cyprian further quotes the following passages regarding the replacement of Israel: Is. 54.1-4; Gen. 12.1-3; Gen. 49.8-12; Num. 23.14; Dt. 28.43-44; Jer. 6.18; 1.5; Is. 55.4-5; 11.10; 11.1-2; 45.1; 66.18-19; 5.25-26; 52.15; 65.1, 13-16; 5.26-27; 3.1-2.

What is remarkable is that the early Christian writers believed that they were simply reading the text for what it said.  Only rarely will an author present an allegorical reading on this issue.[16] Only the laws (particularly regarding food) were best handled with a ‘spiritual’ interpretation (although we have not included an examination of a Christological reading of the Scriptures here).

And it was when attention to more careful exegesis was given, the early Christian writers backed away from a replacement theology.  Even though Christian writers accused the Jews as a nation of deicide, spoke of their suffering as well deserved, and saw the Church as a replacement of Israel as God’s people, the view that Israel was not wholly rejected could still arise.  Romans 11.23-31 was the key text requiring Christians to hold out hope for Israel, and so a different sentiment appears from authors commenting on this passage.  The following authors from the 5th and 6th c., in commenting on this passage, all accept that God’s grace will yet extend to the Jews: [17]  Chrysostom (later 4th century), Diodore (later 4th century), Ambrosiaster (later 4th century), Cyril of Alexandria (early 5th century), Pseudo-Constantius (5th c.), Pelagius (5th c.), Gennadius of Constantinople (5th c.), and Theodore of Cyr (5th century).

In the period surveyed here, while Origen claims ignorance as to the meaning of ‘all Israel’ in Rom. 11.26 (Commentary on the Epistle to the Romans), the Didascalia Apostolorum (21.5.14-15) reflects on the hope of this passage in calling Christians to fast and pray during Holy Week that God would forgive the Jews, their ‘brothers,’ and that they would be forgiven and return to Jesus Christ.  Their exclusion has meant the inclusion of the Gentiles, who should mourn over Zion (Is. 66.10 and 61.1-2 are quoted).  The work also interprets Is. 9.1-2 with reference to both Jews and Gentiles who have believed.  Still, Is. 2.6; 3.8; and 5.6 are quoted to show that (now) God has withdrawn himself from Israel (23.6.5).  Thus what often sounds like a replacement theology in the Church fathers is not wholly so once Rom. 11.26-27 and restoration passages from the Old Testament are in view.


This ‘fact finding’ paper has reported on a number of works from the 2nd, 3rd, and early 4th centuries on what early Christians thought about Israel as God’s people.  There is certainly room for further research, but some conclusions do seem in order at this point.  The parting of the ways for Judaism and Christianity seems well established early on,[18]  and the typically acrimonious debate (less so Justin) centred on the interpretation of Scripture, whatever other issues may have existed.

A way forward might well be to re-examine the Scriptural argument.  Much of this examination will allow an exegetical examination of the many Old Testament texts that were cited.  Little allegorical interpretation arose on this issue of the people of God (that would change if the debate were broadened to consider the vaster amount of material regarding Christ in the Old Testament, a significant piece of the discussion left unexplored in this essay), although the hermeneutical question of a ‘spiritual’ reading does arise in regard to the meaning of the Law.  Exegetically, many texts cited by the Christian writers referred to Israel’s indictment centuries earlier prior to the exile, and little attention was typically given to those other passages that spoke of a redemption and restoration of Israel.

The above material also needs to be evaluated in the light of specific passages in the New Testament.  This part of the analysis has intentionally been omitted, since they are not shared Scriptures with the Jews.  However, when early Christian authors have to address a passage such as Rom. 11.25-29, they no longer argue for a replacement theology.  Otherwise, they do (the Didascalia Apostolorum being an exception, although it too has Rom. 11 in view).

A further matter to direct further research is Biblical theology.  What should Christians make of the Law?  What is a Biblical reading of Israel’s narrative?  Passages regarding Israel’s sinfulness in the days of the prophets are applied directly to the Jews of the Christian era, and the full narrative cycle in the Old Testament of election, sin, exile, and redemption is rather read as election, sin, exile, and replacement.

This outline for further study seems to be the right way forward if the Church today is to consider any role it may have played in an anti-Judaism over the centuries.  If we are to avoid a simplistic discussion of the matter, driven by our contemporary culture’s soft virtues of tolerance and equality that propel us towards a relativistic religious pluralism devoid of evangelism, we will need to engage the Biblical text with all earnestness.  Perhaps we will find ourselves fasting and praying, as the Didascalia Apostolorum exhorts, for our ‘brothers’, that they might find the life of the eternal covenant in the Redeemer from Zion (Is. 59.20).  And perhaps those Christian communities that believe in the cessation of the spiritual gifts and the replacement of Israel in God’s plan should consider Origen’s challenge: what evidence of the Divine presence is there among us?

[2] The situation is graphically illustrated in Osijek, Croatia, where a plaque in the centre commemorates the Jews, now absent, and the largest church of the Evangelical Church of Croatia meets in a still-standing synagogue in the lower city.  The Jews of the region were almost completely eliminated in the Holocaust.  For more detail, see ‘Osijek,’ in Encyclopedia Judaica, Vol. 12 (New York: MacMillan Reference: 1971), col. 1498.  Online at: (accessed 1 Feb., 2011).
[3] No attempt has been made to engage writings of the Syrian Church or western sects.  Neither have gospels, epistles, apocalypses and other writings grouped together as ‘New Testament apocrypha’ been consulted.
[4] Unless otherwise noted, all quotations will be from A. Roberts and J. Donaldson, eds., Ante-Nicene Fathers, (Edinburgh, 1885).
[5] Cf. Guy Stroumsa, ‘From Anti-Judaism to Antisemitism in Early Christianity?’ in Contra Iudaeos: Ancient and Medieval Polemics Between Christians and Jews, eds. Ora Limar and Guy Stroumsa (Texts and Studies in Medieval and Early Modern Judaism 10; Tübingen: J. C. B. Mohr, 1996)pp. 21-22.  He references Ambrose, Chrysostom, Ephrem, and Cyril in particular.
[6] See primary source quotations in Louis Feldman and Meyer Reinhold, Jewish Life and Thought Among Greeks and Romans: Primary Readings (Minneapolis: Augsburg, 1996).  See ch. 10: ‘Criticism and Hostility Towards Jews.’
[7] Note Martyrdom of Polycarp: the ‘Jews especially, according to custom, eagerly’ assisted in burning bishop Polycarp to death (13).
[8] Debate continues on when the 12th benediction, pronouncing a curse on the evil ones and Nazoreans, was instituted in Jewish synagogues—around AD 90 or later?  Justin seems to have this in mind when he writes that those Christians who continue to follow the Law will not be saved if they curse Christians in the synagogue (Dialogue with Trypho the Jew 47).  The New Testament references, however, push the date of Jewish persecution of Christians in the synagogues to much earlier than the end of the 1st century--contrary to J. Louis Martyn, History and Theology in the Fourth Gospel, rev. ed. (Nashville: Abingdon, 1979; orig. pub. 1968), see the discussion in Mark Stibbe John as Storyteller: Narrative Criticism of the Fourth Gospel (Cambridge Univ. Press, 1992).
[9] In his Dialogue with Trypho the Jew, Justin speaks of the 'Holy Spirit of prophecy' (ch. 32) and 'a psalm, dictated to David by the Holy Spirit' (ch. 34).  Moreover, no Scripture contradicts another (ch. 65).  He states, however, that Scripture belongs to the Christians, not the Jews, 'for we believe them' (ch. 29).  And he does accuse Jews of removing inconvenient Scriptures that Christians read in reference to Christ (ch. 72): Jer. 11.19, as well as one from Esdras and one or more supposedly from Jeremiah that we cannot identify.
[10] According to Origen, Jesus’ prayer not to drink the cup of punishment was a prayer for Israel, for to drink it would mean that she would be punished for her sins against him (Contra Celsum 2.25).
[11] While Cyprian’s argument at times overlaps that of Hebrews, he never references it.  Only Old Testament passages will be noted here.
[12] Trans. William Fletcher, Ante-Nicene Fathers, eds. A. Roberts and J. Donaldson, Vol. 7 (Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1886).
[13] Commodianus, a century later, also finds in Moses’ dashing the ‘Law’ to pieces a foreshadowing of its replacement.  The problem with the Law, though, lay in Israel’s hardheartedness, as Isaiah (6.10) stated.  This, says Commodianus, is why they are not worthy of the kingdom of heaven (Instructions 38).
[14] In this passage, Origen further states that the Jews have never been separated from their land and temple worship for so long and without God’s visitation, and that they will never be restored due to their crime against the Saviour of the human race.
[15] Also Barnabas, Epistle 13; Tertullian, An Answer to the Jews 1.
[16] Cf. Barnabas, Epistle 9; Tertullian, Answer to the Jews 10.
[17] See Gerald Bray, Interpretation of the Letter to the Romans (5th century) (IER Migne p. 82; see quote in Ancient Christian Commentary, p. 298.
[18] This is stated over against the attempt to deny a parting of the ways between Judaism and Christianity in a scholarship represented by, e.g., Adam H. Becker and Annette Yoshiko Reed, eds., The Ways that Never Parted: Jews and Christians in Late Antiquity and the Early Middle Ages (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2007).