Superseding Supersessionist Theology

Superseding Supersessionist Theology April 20, 2019

When I shared yesterday’s blog post on Facebook, I added some words, which I want to also share here, to provide further opportunity for discussion and input from blog readers. I already had the post scheduled for yesterday, based on conversation about the Gospel of John in my Sunday school class last weekend. There is no way to talk about the imagery in the Gospel of John, the timing of the crucifixion, and other related matters without talking about Passover. And yet last night in church, as the choir sang a song with the title “The True Passover Lamb,” I found myself thinking about this imagery from a different perspective. First, here’s the song:

We live in an era in which white supremacists march in the streets chanting that Jews “will not replace us.” And yet historically it has been white Christians who have been saying theologically “we will replace you,” with the theology at times providing justification for mistreatment and even attempted genocide. Where does that leave this language, woven into the Christian tradition in its earliest texts, when considered in this context of ours today? Most religions have claimed to replace and improve upon some other, usually while owing an incredible amount to that earlier tradition, and in most cases having emerged directly from it. I disagree with Muslims who claim that the Paraclete predicted in the Gospel of John was the prophet Muhammad. But despite its co-opting of texts in my own tradition, I would not go so far as to suggest that they don’t have the right to hold this view. And so as a religion professor situated in the liberal Christian tradition, I find myself thinking about these kinds of things when others would simply be enjoying the music.

I know that, in one sense, ultimately my own responsibilities are (1) how I express my own faith, (2) what I teach in my classes, and (3) what I advocate for in communities that I am part of. But that somehow doesn’t seem adequate as I share a blog post I wrote, with echoes of a Christian song with supersessionist lyrics and a style that emulates Jewish musical traditions still in my head, in an era in which antisemitism is on the rise.

I added subsequently in a comment:

I was afraid when I posted this that, in addition to still alienating Jews I would also offend Christians, and Muslims, and most of all hurt the feelings of my pastor, our choir director, and the choir! 🙂

Ultimately, my inclination is to strive to be the sort of Christian and the sort of individual who stands so clearly for social justice, inclusion, welcome, equality, freedom of religion and of speech, and mutual understanding, that it more than counters any ongoing negative impact there could potentially be from these elements of the Christian tradition. After all, the Gospel of John is a Jewish text, not an anti-Jewish one, and to the key issue is not how this Jewish group sought to interpret their tradition, but what Gentile Christians did with that language subsequently.

My acknowledgment that Jewish friends, hearing the words of the song, might have felt profoundly uncomfortable, is part of my effort in this direction. But more than that, I’d like to reclaim Jesus and his earlier followers as Jewish advocates for inclusivity and breaking down barriers, so that even language like that in the song is understood not as an attack but as a bridge, not as an attempt to exclude but as an invitation to collaborate.

What are your thoughts on this? Thank you for the opportunity to share my experiences and things that I think about and wrestle with, and participate in a wider conversation about them!

Of related interest, Indianapolis JCRC shared some materials for Passover that provide an illustration of some of the ways that it is possible to give expression to a specific faith tradition in a manner that is also supportive of others. See also the array of Passover-related music shared by the Milken Archive.

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  • Thanks for these thoughts. Related note here from James Davila

  • It’s a tricky issue. On the one hand, I think a great deal of “supersessionist” theology comes from seeing a radical discontinuity in the religious teachings of Jesus and Judaism. I don’t. It’s not as though Jesus replaced Judaism with Christianity. Even the faithful Israel / unfaithful Israel distinction is something that goes back to the Old Testament, not something new Jesus presented.

    On the other hand, speaking purely historically, Gentiles came into Jesus’ movement and quickly outnumbered the Jews, and theologically speaking, Paul et al had to both make sense of this and figure out a way to accommodate it, which meant removing the primacy of distinctively Jewish community markers (e.g. Torah). This is what happened, so I think we have to acknowledge a sort of “historical supersessionism” that precedes theological supersessionism. What theological conclusions we draw from what happened are hopefully healthy ones.

    • Leum

      There’s definitely a historical supersessionism that exists within Christianity that there isn’t much to be done about. As a Jew with Christian friends, I struggle with the way Christianity has historically framed itself, because with all but the most liberal Christianities there’s no way around the problem. Either a) God never established a covenant with Israel and the Hebrew Scriptures contain people writing about God but without knowledge of God (that comes only from Jesus) or b) God established a covenant with Israel and lied to us, saying the covenant would be eternal, when the intention was always eventually to reject that covenant in favor of the covenant with Christians. I know dual covenant theology is a thing, but it’s frankly a stretch since the Christian covenant is about redemption from sin and escape from Hell, and those things aren’t really a part of the Jewish covenant, in which redemption (a central concept in our religion as well) is about redemption from exile and diaspora, which is only partially analogous to sin (although the analogy is present and real) and Hell is so different in the Jewish tradition from the Christian one that there really is no parallel there either (a story in the Talmud relates a rabbi asking for a sinner to be sent to Hell in order that he might also have a share in the World-to-Come).

      • “Hell is so different” Is it different because of tradition or because of the NT?
        The Talmud example you give is the same as the reality of learning within the Christian tradition. And it is similar in the Psalms. I am thinking of Psalms 3 to 6. – 6 is the hell moment necessary for waking up to the reality of sin. Yahweh, do not in your anger correct me, and do not in your heat chasten me. Psalm 38 is a reminder.

        • Leum

          Hell isn’t eternal in Judaism; it’s essentially a twelve-month-maximum purgation process after which you’re probably either annihilated or inherit a share in the World-to-Come. Judaism is highly polyphonous when it comes to describing the afterlife and there definitely have been people who have proposed eternal hell and even eternal conscious torment, but the consensus is that if eternal hell is a thing, it’s probably reserved or a handful of the worst people ever, not the default fate of all humanity.

          As such, Jews don’t see ourselves as being in need of a savior or redeemer from Hell in the way that Christians do. Although you could make a case that we see ourselves as needed salvation or redemption from sin, the way Judaism interprets sin is less of a fall-from-perfection thing and more of a God-deliberately-made-the-world-imperfect-so-that-humanity-could-perfect-it thing.

          • Iain Lovejoy

            Salvation from being sent to hell isn’t the original Christian thing either, but a more recent development (and far from universal now). The original Christian idea was salvation from death, albeit as the consequence of sin. Very many, quite possibly the majority, of early Christians were also universalists, whose notion of hell was similar to the Jewish one, of a temporary place of purgation, although prior to resurrection, rather than a world to come. The big difference (I think, although I may have the Jewish ideas wrong) between the early Christians and Jewish thought would have been that Christians believed heaven was coming to earth, and a bodily resurrection into that, rather than our ultimate destination as being another world to come elsewhere. The coming of the Kingdom and the resurrection if the body is still technically the orthodox Christian theology, but is widely largely ignored.

          • Leum

            Salvation from death is also a thing in Judaism, but it’s not part of the covenant. You don’t have to be a Jew to inherit a share in the World-to-Come (which incidentally may or may not incorporate bodily resurrection and the establishment of Heaven on Earth, Jewish eschatology varies wildly among different thinkers).

          • Iain Lovejoy

            It seems to me from what you are saying that a lot of (perhaps all) of early Christianity’s take on these things was little different from many strands of Jewish thought at the time (which would not after all be particularly surprising, given Christianity’s origins). It seems that the later medieval focus on eternal torment in hell, and the even later Reformation ideas of penal substitutionary atonement and Jesus effectively saving people from God are where there has developed such a major divergence in thought.

          • Leum

            I definitely think early Christian eschatology borrowed very heavily on Second Temple period eschatology, but Christianity is defined by what its living adherents do and believe, not what they may have thought or done in past generations. Modern Christianity, even in its universalist forms, is heavily colored by either a belief in Hell as eternal conscious torment or by a decision to reject Hell as eternal conscious torment (and, because the snake eats itself, non-universalist Christianity is colored by the existence of universalist Christianity). That’s not unique to Christianity, of course. Reform and Orthodox Judaism each influence the other in a variety of ways that neither is fully comfortable admitting to.

  • Iain Lovejoy

    The Passover was never for Gentiles in the first place, and nor was the Law. The New Covenant can’t “supercede” anything for non-Jewish Christians, because the Mosaic covenant never applied to us to start with.
    Non-Jewish Christians overwhelmed Jewish ones within the early Christian church, as I understand it, but I don’t know enough of what happened subsequently to Jewish Christians to really talk about it. What is plain from the writings of Paul that we have is he never intended that Jewish followers of Jesus should cease to be Jewish (and of course neither did Jesus). Paul expressed to hope, indeed his certainty, that in the end the Jewish people would embrace Christ, but, as I say, not by ceasing to be Jewish but by becoming Jewish followers of Christ. How a Jewish person who has embraced Christ might incorporate that within their Jewish faith and the Law is not something (not being Jewish) I think I could respond to.