“Covenant and Controversy”: Examining the Christian Roots of Anti-Semitism

“Covenant and Controversy”: Examining the Christian Roots of Anti-Semitism March 1, 2016

By Joshua Sharf.



Over the last 50 years, the success of Israel, America’s movement toward a more open society, and a desire for a closer relationship between Christians and Jews, have led American Christians to begin to confront the Christian roots of anti-Semitism in a serious way.

The reorientation really began in late 1965, with Pope John XXIII’s Nostra Aetate, where he disavowed Jewish responsibility for the crucifixion and acknowledged the continuance of God’s covenant with the Jews, a statement reinforced by Pope John Paul II in November 1980.  It was affirmed by Israel’s stunning victory in 1967’s Six Day War, which showed the world Jews who fight.  If there’s anything Americans respect, it’s people who fight for themselves.

Now a new movie, Covenant and Controversy, takes on replacement theology, or supersessionism, with mixed results.  Still preached by many evangelical faiths, replacement theology has been responsible for some of the deepest anti-Semitic attitudes in Europe and what used to be known as Christendom.

Simply explained, it is the claim that the Christian church has replaced, or superseded, God’s covenant with Israel, and that God’s special relationship with the Jews has been terminated.

For obvious reasons, such a view is in direct opposition to Judaism.  In a live-and-let-live environment, that wouldn’t matter so much.  However, it has also historically led to contempt, forcible attempts at conversion, and violent reprisals when such attempts were rebuffed.

Even in the United States, supersessionism was a mainstay belief of the Southern Baptist Convention.  Eli Evans, in his history of the southern Jewish experience, The Provincials, helps describe the bifurcated relationship that he and his fellow Jews had with their largely Baptist neighbors, and supersessionism’s contribution to it.  Jews were the living embodiment of the Old Testament.  But they were also derided for having missed the New Testament boat, and considered prime targets for conversion.

Now, there is a push among some evangelical groups to renounce replacement theology as disrespectful to Judaism, dangerous to Jews, and destructive of the Jewish-Christian relationship.

The movie’s imagery is fairly simple – mostly archival footage from World War II and Israel, along with talking heads.  It’s the seriousness of the topic, and the sincerity of the speakers, that hold one’s attention.

While the Nazis were not Christian, Covenant and Controversy insists that their genocidal plan only found a receptive audience through centuries of preparation by Christian anti-Semitism, even though Christianity itself never countenanced the wholesale murder of Jews.  The film doesn’t merely concede the point; it makes it one of the pillars of its argument.

It also looks to current Muslim anti-Semitism as it relates to Israel, recognizing both the unique nature of Muslim Jew-hatred, and also some of the themes that Arabs have adopted from Christian Europe.

The film seems to be a sincere effort on the part of evangelical Christians to take ownership of Christian anti-Semitism, and try to root it out of Christian practice.

The leading subject of the movie, Dalton Thomas, explicitly says that anti-Semitism is a result of the missionary effort, and that:

If your theology of Israel divests them of their national, ethnic or territorial, identity or destiny, you have embraced replacement theology…. Namely, that there are no promises that remain for the Jewish people on a national level.

Still, those looking for a renouncement of missionizing to Jews will be disappointed.

One woman attributes Jewish rejection of Christianity not to irreconcilable theological differences, but to past Christian persecutions, hoping that turning a new page on that will lead Jews to be more receptive.

When the honey-rather-than-vinegar approach fails, as all other approaches have failed, one can imagine deep disappointment resurfacing as outright resentment.

Others acknowledge the past, but seem determined to repeat the mistakes that helped lead to it. “The Jews have suffered, and there’s more suffering to come.  I think, frankly, the worst is yet to come.  And Christ then will return and then all Israel will be saved.  Therefore, today, even in spite of the Holocaust, the Jew needs to hear the Gospel. The Christian needs to hear the Gospel.”

Christianity remains evangelical, but the need specifically to convert Jews is dangerous, and profoundly anti-Semitic, as Thomas’s comments make clear.  At first glance, the equating of Christians and Jews in the above quote might seem likee progress in that regard.  In practice, people’s limited capacity for self-appraisal being what it is, it can lead Christians to favor proselytizing to Jews who are obviously not saved.

The asymmetry in this approach should be obvious.  There are 2.2 billion Christians in the world.  Jews number less than one percent of that total, using the most generous measurements.

Jewish participation in an intramural Christian theological debate must necessarily be limited.  Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik, in his legendary essay, “Confrontation,” notes the dangers of interfaith dialogue, in particular, the dangers of attempting to reconcile core beliefs of different faiths.  The obvious danger is that such requests will be reciprocal.  If we ask Christians to edit their beliefs, what then will they ask of us?  Critically, erasing the differences between faiths erodes what is unique about each faith community.

Jews do, however, have the right to ask Christians to refrain from past aggressive tactics.  When the Mormon Church opened a center in Israel, the government made it a condition that they not proselytize.  Israel couldn’t very well ask them not to take walk-in business, but advertising and marketing campaigns were another matter.  Such enforcement would be unthinkable absent a Jewish state, but virtually no Christians oppose it.

The unresolved tension among the different viewpoints should leave Jewish viewers uncomfortable.  We rightly have no input to the debate, but we have a very definite stake in its outcome.  Perhaps the most hopeful and unprecedented development is that the discussion is happening at all.

We can take heart that Christians increasingly take Thomas’s approach.  When I asked a friend of mine, she hadn’t heard about replacement theology at all.  “Transferred?  No way.  Gentiles were grafted into the original tree of life, but we do not replace it and it was not transferred.  God decides who is accepted into Heaven. He is the one who knows our hearts.”

Joshua Sharf is a Fellow with the Haym Salomon Center and head of the PERA project at the Independence Institute. Follow him @joshuasharf.

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12 responses to ““Covenant and Controversy”: Examining the Christian Roots of Anti-Semitism”

  1. The Christian denigration of non-believing Jews began very early. The Apostle Paul was of two minds. In his earliest epistle, 1 Thessalonians, he expressed bitter anti-Jewish venom. In one of his last epistles, Romans, he seemed to have changed his view and looked upon Israel, both believing and non believing in Jesus, with affection. Only a shrink could figure this man out anyway. But very early on, right after the Jewish-Roman war, Christians among the gentile began bitter anti-Jewish rhetoric. Those who knew Jesus best, those around James his brother, were soon relegated to the position of heretics. This continued with various emphases until the post-Holocaust era. It still continues. Evangelicals seem pro-Israel but actually they want the Jewish state to exist so that when the Second Coming occurs the non-believing Jews there can be sent rapidly to hell! With philosemites like this what Jew needs enemies?

  2. Spiritual carpetbagging. It started with Saul the Apostate’s appropriation of a failed messiah’s sect. Since then there’s been a steady parade of Catholics, Protestants, Muslims, Bahais, Mormons and so on. They show up, claim the mantle of Judaism and are surprised, then angered, when Jews don’t immediately abandon their religion and wholeheartedly support the latest claimant.

  3. I have read Hyam Maccoby and Robert Eisenman on this. And then N.T. Wright et al in the “new perspective on Paul” scholarship. For a long time I signed on cart blanche to the Maccoby/Eisenman antipathy toward Paul…it has a long tradition in Jewish circles. Indeed, I’ve always had a not-so-friendly relationship with Paul. But. N.T. has a point about what Paul was up to in putting forward Jesus as “Lord” over against Casesar. For that project, Paul was ready to take the risks of the innovations he cooked up. So, my personal take on Paul is that he had good intentions, but. It did not go well. He miscalculated. What the Judaizers were warning him of….of throwing the baby out with the bath water….is exactly what happened. They were correct in sizing up human realities, and Paul was wrong…not that he wanted to be, but he was. Tomorrow the lectionary includes 2 Corinthians 5:16-21….wherein Paul came up with an expanded concept of forgiveness…a radical one…in response to the fact that he and the Corinthian congregation had come to such an impossibly tangled up knot of mutual grievances that none of it could be sorted out in any coherent way, and thus, forgiveness in the state of people not even asking for forgiveness was the higher mandate of the Gospel. At some point, Jews and Christians will see clearly the need to forgive each other on that level. Included in that will be a need to forgive Paul. It’s the only way we can really go on, and it’s the reason my family has constructed itself as a resurrection of early Jewish Christian (Ebionite) values.

  4. Paul may well have not intended that his distinctions between what was required of Jewish believers in Jesus and what was required of gentile ones be used in an antiJewish way, but the fact remains that his influence, through some of his letters (particularly 1 Thessalonians and Galatians), through the work of the author of Luke’s Gospel which was a very pro-Roman work, through the work of the Johannine School which was very apocalyptic and therefore antiJewish to a large extent — thanks to Paul his influence went in one direction. Many scholars, John Gager, Krister Stendahl, Daniel Boyarin try their best to make Paul as very Jewish indeed but it just doesn’t ring true — or at least true enough.

    As far a being ebionite, remember that for the ebionites Paul was The Man of Lies.

  5. I do not think the Pauline corpus/Luke-Acts “very pro-Roman”. Rather, it was a strategic circumventing/undermining….a rhetorical Hilary approach (she better deliver) over against a Bernie approach. I’m splitting the difference along N.T. Wright’s thinking on this. In Paul’s mind, he was being Jewish (even though in the cold light of day, his actions ended up being anti-Jewish in their effect. Paul’s intention was not to create anti-semites, although he effectively did. He did not mean to. In my view, he was unrealistic…and the proof of that was the discord his congregations were mired in. Paul’s program did not work. Yes, for the Ebionites…in their day, Paul, to them, was an adversary. But, dislike of Paul was not their religion. Need it be ours?

    The question for human beings in the very present moment is what a train wreck in the past does for us now.

  6. I’ve read more Christian apologetics and Jew-conversion crap than you can imagine. Christianity took sharp turns away from Judaism early on. The attempts to say “We’re the real Jews.” simply don’t wash.

  7. Well this is all academic. The reality is that Jesus and Paul both expected the coming of the Kingdom in their lifetime and they were wrong. Instead of the Kingdom we got the Church, a second-rate prize I might say. So what is left: a very charismatic apocalyptic Jewish preacher whose death has become at least the symbol of good being sacrificed to evil, but more than that?

  8. If any attached to the way of the Cross imitate Jesus in denial of self for another, that other and the world benefit. If one views that as academic, I like the school. After all, their term of endearment for him was Rabbi.

  9. I haven’t watched this film but based on the article above I would like to clarify one point: the Nazis and their helpers were indeed Christians. I think it is factually and conceptually wrong to claim otherwise. I make this point, and the other major point made in the film, namely that it was the thousands of years of disparagement and contempt of Jews and Judaism in Christianity that made the Holocaust possible. Absent that antisemitism the modern, secular (racial) version of the Nazis would have been unthinkable, and indeed laughable. The reason why the message of hatred espoused by the Nazis was so readily embraced is because it already aligned perfectly with what everyone from France to the Soviet Union had ever heard about Jews, thanks to Christianity. I make an in-depth study of this in my book Six Million Crucifixions.

    Gabriel Wilensky

  10. With its belief that Christians (of whatever particular branch), and only Christians (of whatever particular branch), are the one true faith and they, and only they will make it into some sort of afterlife heaven which gives them the Right–nay, the Duty–to denigrate other religions and make everyone else Christians (of whatever particular branch) indicates Christianity si founded on bigotry and racism.