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The New Jews

How Jewish obsolescence as described by the early Christian church echoes in contemporary anti-Zionism

Jon D. Levenson
February 28, 2019
Original image: John Baskerville, 1772 or 1771, Beinecke Library
Original image: John Baskerville, 1772 or 1771, Beinecke Library
Original image: John Baskerville, 1772 or 1771, Beinecke Library
Original image: John Baskerville, 1772 or 1771, Beinecke Library


The people then was a model by way of a preliminary sketch,
and the law was the writing of a parable;
the gospel is the recounting and fulfilment of the law,
and the church is the repository of the reality.
The model then was precious before the reality,
and the parable was marvelous before the interpretation;
that is, the people was precious before the church arose,
and the law was marvelous before the gospel was elucidated.
But when the church arose
and the gospel took precedence,
the model was made void, conceding its power to the reality.

In these verses from his poem “On the Passover,” Melito of Sardis, a bishop of the second half of the second century, eloquently states the classical Christian doctrine that has come to be known as “supersessionism” or “replacement theology”: The Jewish people and the Torah, valid and precious in their own time, have now been rendered obsolete by the fulfillment of that which they foreshadowed, the church and the Gospel, respectively.

Melito also harbors considerable rage against the Jews, not simply because of their refusal to meld into the church but also, and more pointedly, because of the role he believes they played in the crucifixion of Jesus:

What strange crime, Israel, have you committed?
You dishonoured him that honoured you;
you disgraced him that glorified you;
you denied him that acknowledged you;
you disclaimed him that proclaimed you;
you killed him that made you live.

The superseding of the people Israel, then, was not simply a smooth realization of God’s providential purpose; it was also a punishment for the murderous evil of the Jews.

Melito’s theology was well rooted in the Scriptures. When a Roman commander exhibits faith in Jesus’ miraculous powers, the latter is said to have exclaimed: “Truly I tell you, in no one in Israel have I found such faith. I tell you, many will come from east and west and will eat with Abraham and Isaac and Jacob in the kingdom of heaven, while the heirs of the kingdom will be thrown into the outer darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.”

The image of the Jews properly disinherited and cast into the outer darkness for their faithlessness echoes throughout the centuries. Rosemary R. Ruether, who authored Faith and Fratricide: The Theological Roots of Anti-Semitism (1974), an early and now classic study of anti-Jewish Christian theology, claimed that “anti-Judaism is the left hand of Christology.” Contrary to what is sometimes claimed, the fact that some who wrote and preached this theology were themselves of Jewish origin (including, arguably, Melito himself) provides scant extenuation. For what we are considering is not a racial anti-Semitism, along the lines of the pseudoscientific ideology that fueled Nazism and led to the Holocaust, but rather a Christian anti-Judaism rooted in the replacement theology that has its foundation in early Christology and grew in intensity over the centuries, often to lethal effect.

That replacement theology allowed Jews to redeem themselves by becoming Christian, as racialist ideology did not, hardly augured well for Jewish survival. Historically, it has been the practice of Judaism, and not the practice of a self-consciously Jewish version of Christianity or anything else, that has enabled the Jews to survive as an identifiable group over the generations. Ruether pointed out the double standard common among the Church Fathers. “The persecution of the Church is construed as holy martyrdom,” she wrote, “while the persecution of the Jews is read as divine wrath.”

For Augustine (354–430), the very existence of the Diaspora has become proof that the Jews are involuntary witnesses to the truth of the Gospel, as they “groan in grief over their lost kingdom and quake in fear under the sway of innumerable Christian peoples.” As Pope Innocent III (1198–1216) would put it, “Their sufferings and homelessness are the just deserts for their crimes.” It is according to this logic that the Jews’ lack of a homeland became a point of Christian doctrine.

In turn, it is also hard not to connect this to Christian historical opposition to the modern reestablishment of Jewish sovereignty within the land they have traditionally held to have been promised to their ancestors. “Every criticism of Israel is not to be equated with anti-Semitism,” Ruether rightly remarked already in 1974. “Yet there is no doubt that anti-Zionism has become, for some, a way of reviving the myth of the ‘perennial evil nature of the Jews,’ to refuse to the Jewish people the right to exist as a people in its own homeland.”


In the decades after the Holocaust, many Christian communions undertook a full-scale reevaluation of this “teaching of contempt,” as it had come to be called. Finding it incompatible with their core convictions, many eventually issued formal statements of renunciation and clarification. Here, for example, is an excerpt from the “Notes on the correct way to present the Jews and Judaism in preaching and catechesis in the Roman Catholic Church,” issued by the Commission for Religious Relations with the Jews in 1985:

We must in any case rid ourselves of the traditional idea of a people punished, preserved as a living argument for Christian apologetic. It remains a chosen people, “the pure olive on which were grafted the branches of the wild olive which are the gentiles” (John Paul II, 6th March, 1982, alluding to Rom[ans] 11:17–24). We must remember how much the balance of relations between Jews and Christians over two thousand years has been negative. We must remind ourselves how the permanence of Israel is accompanied by a continuous spiritual fecundity, in the rabbinical period, in the Middle Ages and in modern times, taking its start from a patrimony which we long shared, so much so that “the faith and religious life of the Jewish people as they are professed and practised still today, can greatly help us to understand better certain aspects of the life of the Church” (John Paul II, March 6, 1982).

Similarly, in 1987 the Presbyterian Church (USA), again quoting from the 11th chapter of Paul’s Letter to the Romans in the New Testament, bluntly proclaimed that “Christians have not replaced Jews” and repudiated without qualification what it acknowledges as “the church’s long and deep complicity in the proliferation of anti-Jewish attitudes and actions through its ‘teaching of contempt’ for the Jews.” Other Protestant denominations have done likewise.

The causes for this dramatic reversal are many. Skeptics will justifiably point to guilt about the Holocaust and to the loss of self-confidence among elite majority groups in general, but there are also profound theological factors at work. Mounting secularization has deeply undermined the political power of the church in many countries, reversing the Constantinian arrangement that had dominated in the West since the fourth century CE and leading many Christians to perceive themselves as a minority group, and of late as an increasingly vulnerable one. The historical-critical study of the New Testament and of the Judaism contemporaneous with it has underscored the Judaic character of Jesus and of many of the controversies raging in the Christian scriptures. Similarly, historical research has presented arguments that the authors of the Gospels were generally eager to present the Romans, recently victorious over the Jews in the Land of Israel, in the best possible light and thus to place more blame on the Jews for the crucifixion than many historians find warranted. As for what in Christian discourse is known as the Old Testament, increasing concentration on this collection, shared (in a way) with the Jews, along with a sense among many that each testament makes its own discrete contribution to Christian theology, has softened or obliterated some traditional anti-Jewish thinking. And, to mention one more factor, developments in the always contentious subject of Pauline theology have suggested that, however ambiguous and shifting Paul’s thinking may have been, he did not in the end endorse an understanding of the relationship of the church to (non-Christian) Jews along the lines of the unqualified replacement theology with which we began.

Alongside these acts of rectification (but to some degree predating them), there has also emerged something stronger: a vociferous movement of Christian philo-Semitism, evidenced most conspicuously by Christian support for the State of Israel on explicitly theological grounds. About this, many Jews are ambivalent, if not downright hostile, because they see the movement as motivated by an expectation of an end-time in which the Jews are restored to the land and, either before or after Jesus has returned, convert to Christianity.

But not all Christians who support Israel for religious reasons accept that scenario—and even among those who do, other motivations are usually at work. Especially important among these is the promise in Genesis to Abraham, understood as the father of the Jewish people and the recipient of the land promise, that God will bless those who bless him and curse any who curse him. Some Christians adhere to a dual-covenant theology, in which God’s covenants with the Jews (including his grant to them of the Land of Israel, within whatever set of borders) and with the church are valid and indefeasible: neither replaces the other. If in classical Christianity “anti-Judaism is the left hand of Christology,” to quote Ruether, in contemporary Christianity the picture is much more complex and, on balance, much fairer to Judaism and the Jews.

Yet older patterns of Christian thought remain alive and well. In 2004, the General Assembly of the same Presbyterian Church (USA) that had repudiated “anti-Jewish attitudes and actions” in 1987 voted overwhelmingly “to initiate a process of phased, selective divestment in multinational corporations operating in Israel” to protest what it called “the occupation [which] has proven to be at the root of evil acts committed against innocent people on both sides of the conflict.”

Criticism was swift. Alan Dershowitz stated the counterargument well:

The General Assembly of that church has voted to divest from only one country in the world. No, it was not China, which has occupied Tibet for half a century and continues to deny basic human rights to its own citizens. No, it was not Iran, which threatens nuclear holocaust, executes dissenters and denies religious freedom to Christians and Jews. No, it was not North Korea, Libya, Russia, Sudan, Cuba or Belarus. It was—you guessed it—Israel, the only democracy in the Middle East and America’s most reliable ally in a troubled part of the world.

The gross double standard to which Dershowitz pointed is real and suggests that the loudly professed moral concerns of the Presbyterians (and other Protestant groups that have passed similar resolutions) do not fully account for their anti-Israel actions. What, then, does account for them?

To answer this, we must return to that 1987 statement renouncing the teaching of contempt. In its sixth affirmation, the statement makes this claim:

The Genesis record indicates that “the land of your sojournings” was promised to Abraham and his and Sarah’s descendants. This promise, however, included the demand that “You shall keep my covenant ….” (Genesis 17:7-8). The implication is that the blessings of the promise were dependent upon fulfillment of covenant relationships. Disobedience could bring the loss of land, even while God’s promise was not revoked. God’s promises are always kept, but in God’s own way and time.

Now, the exegesis of Genesis 17 here is tortured. Nothing in that particular chapter implies that the gift of the land to Abraham and Sarah was conditioned on adherence to the covenant. But if we read Genesis 17 as the Presbyterian statement does, we have a ready explanation of the double standard that Dershowitz uncovers: The legitimacy of China, Iran, North Korea, and the other malefactors does not rest upon fidelity to a covenant with God. Israel’s does.

The position of those Christians who support Israel for theological reasons and that of the Presbyterians (and groups that reason similarly) are in one sense diametrically opposed, but in another and deeper sense, quite similar. Both view the State of Israel through the lens of their readings of the Old Testament. The first set of Christians focuses on the eternity and unconditionality of God’s promises to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob and, in some cases, also on a very particular doctrine of the end-times derived from the New Testament. The other set focuses on those texts (especially prominent in Deuteronomic tradition) that speak of the dependence of the people Israel’s tenancy in the Promised Land upon fidelity to God’s covenantal stipulations. Both positions assume the continued reality of Jewish chosenness; neither asserts that the church, or some other body, has replaced the Jews.

This is not to deny that some Christians critical of Israel echo the old supersessionist theology. In a highly astute analysis of the application of liberation theology to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, Adam Gregerman provides telling examples of the new application of the old thinking. One Christian activist “reduces the complex message of the Bible to a simple dichotomy: Strong Israelites are sinful and merit only divine rebuke, but weak and stateless Israelites are beloved of God.” The implication is clear: “Only powerless and weak Diaspora Jews are faithful to their religious and moral traditions.” (One wonders how many of these liberation theologians preach their message of the high ethical and spiritual value of communal vulnerability and statelessness to the Palestinians.)

Another contemporary theologian, Gregerman writes, “repeatedly misapplies the prophetic indictments to contemporary Jewish supporters of Israel, similar to the way early Christians misapplied prophetic indictments to the Jews of their time.” Needless to say, the same thinker “neglects prophetic statements that emphasize the eternity of the covenant” and, I would add, thus reflects in a new idiom the ancient Christian thinking in which the promises and consolations of the Hebrew Bible apply principally to the church—and its judgments and punishments, to the Jews.

Although the Presbyterian Church (USA) has issued statements softening its 2004 resolution a bit, the movement to divest has surfaced, and sometimes triumphed, in other shrinking denominations of what was once termed Mainline Protestantism as well. Even Rosemary Ruether, the Roman Catholic author of Faith and Fratricide, published in 1974, had by 1989 changed her own stance dramatically. In that year she published The Wrath of Jonah: The Crisis of Religious Nationalism in the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict (co-authored with Herman J. Ruether), which, as Gregerman brilliantly shows, fell afoul of the very strictures she had developed in the earlier book and instead delivered a liberationist broadside against Jewish particularism in general and a religiously informed Zionism in particular.

Nor has the deicide charge vanished. As Manfred Gerstenfeld writes,

Polls by the Anti-Defamation League (ADL) exposed that the evil myth that Jews are responsible for the death of Jesus is alive and well in Europe. It was found that 46% of Poles, 38% of Hungarians, 21% of Danes and Spaniards, and 19% of Norwegians and Belgians believe this. So do 18% of Austrians and British, 16% of the Dutch, 15% of Italians, and 14% of Germans.

This is not unconnected to the unqualified and woefully uninformed condemnation of the State of Israel that is evident in many European circles and, increasingly, on the American left. Gerstenfeld reports of anti-Israelism:

The inroads this has made in Europe were proven by a 2011 study conducted by the German University of Bielefeld. From this study it emerged that at least 150 million adult EU citizens agreed with the statement that Israel is conducting “a war of extermination against the Palestinians.”

Were this in fact the case, hardly any Palestinians would still be alive. To the contrary, the number of Palestinians has increased over the past decades. The persistent myth of Jews being responsible for the killing of Jesus has partially mutated into a new myth: that Israel is committing an act of genocide against the Palestinians.

The accusation that Israel is committing genocide against the Palestinians is hardly absent from American discourse, either. The 2016 platform of Black Lives Matter stated it directly and, of course, accused America of being “complicit” with it. Given the population figures, if the Israelis, successful in so many things, have been trying to commit genocide, they are surely the most unsuccessful of nations at that grisly crime.

What all this suggests is that, despite the evident sincerity and thoughtfulness with which many churches have repudiated the “teaching of contempt,” the older pattern remains alive and doggedly tenacious. In the psyches of millions of Christians (and post-Christians, as we shall see), what Melito called Israel’s “strange crime” has not vanished. Instead, complex and nettlesome issues of Israeli-Palestinian relations have become the framework in which hoary notions of the Jews as illegitimate and violent, even murderous, have resurfaced in polite company.


Liberation theology has long had a problem with Jewish particularism. Consider the liberationists’ penchant for interpreting the poor and oppressed as the beneficiaries of one of their favorite biblical events, the Exodus. That the God of Israel is especially concerned with the vulnerable and eager to protect them is exceedingly easy to document from the many biblical passages that enjoin Israel to show special solicitude for the sojourner, the widow, the orphan, the poor, and the (landless) Levite and that depict God as their special protector. Nor is it out of bounds to argue that such concern plays a role in the biblical account of the Exodus.

The problem is that what links the beneficiaries of God’s intervention in the Exodus is something very different: descent from a common ancestor. Those delivered from Pharaoh and his regime are the descendants of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, and it is explicitly God’s memory of his covenant with the patriarchs that galvanizes him into action in Egypt. Had the motivation instead been concern for the poor and oppressed, the story would have taken a very different shape. Not just Israel but all the slaves of Egypt would have been freed, and slavery, explicitly allowed in biblical law (including the possibility of lifetime enslavement in the case of foreign bondsmen), would have been abolished.

When the poor and oppressed replace the people Israel as the beneficiaries of the Exodus, an idea, or social norm, has replaced a flesh-and-blood people. It then becomes possible for any group that can be made to fit into that idea or to benefit from that social norm to be the new Jews. This is the replacement theology secularized, or supersessionism without the church—and it swiftly opens the door for the old anti-Judaism to reappear in a post-Christian culture—not in the mouths of theocratic reactionaries but in those of free-thinking progressives. Les extrêmes se touchent.

Writing in Tablet magazine in 2014, James Kirchick examined the common claim that Muslims are “the new Jews.” “‘Nazism reminds us of how thin is the crust of European civilization, and that it can be thrown off by the slightest provocation or none at all,’” he quotes Yasmin Alibhai-Brown writing in Britain’s Independent in 2006, “before reaching her damning conclusion: ‘Today the new Jews of Europe are Muslims.’ ”

Alibhai-Brown’s general point about the fragility of civilization is quite valid (although the demonization of Jews and lethal attacks upon them had had a long history in European civilization before the Nazis ever appeared). But, as Kirchick details, the differences between the Jews at the time of the Holocaust and European Muslims today are immense. And, we must ask, if the Muslims are the new Jews, what then are the Jews? Only a once despised and persecuted group now superseded in that unenviable role by others? If so, what are we to make of the widespread demonization of the State of Israel and the justification of violent assaults upon it, not infrequently by Alibhai-Brown’s “new Jews” themselves?

In other instances, non-Jews seek to appropriate the cachet of being Jewish—and perhaps also of being oppressed and vulnerable—without bearing the burdens of Jewish identity or making the sacrifices necessary to pass it on to future generations. Thus, Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.), currently the darling of the American left, announced in December that she had discovered that among her ancestors centuries ago were Sephardic Jews. “And … the story goes that during the Spanish Inquisition,” she said, “so many people were forced to convert on the exterior to Catholicism, but on the interior, continued to practice their faith, continued to be who they were, even though they were pressured to not be that on the outside world.”

But is she one of them? That is, has she made of her Jewish ancestry anything more than a remote genealogical curiosity? Not as of last June, when she wrote an article on criminal justice reform in America, a Jesuit magazine. “What should be the ultimate goal of sentencing and incarceration?” Ocasio-Cortez asked. “Is it punishment? Rehabilitation? Forgiveness? For Catholics, these questions tie directly to the heart of our faith.” Whatever it is that excites her about her distant Jewish ancestors (“I knew it! I sensed it!” she exclaimed when she announced this to Jews for Racial and Economic Justice in December), it is not the flesh-and-blood people of Israel nor the practices that have enabled their identity to survive in a world often eager to be rid of them.


Read more on progressive replacement theology in tomorrow’s Tablet magazine.

Jon D. Levenson is the Albert A. List Professor of Jewish Studies at Harvard University and the author, most recently, ofThe Love of God: Divine Gift, Human Gratitude, and Mutual Faithfulness in Judaism andInheriting Abraham: The Legacy of the Patriarch in Judaism, Christianity, and Islam.