Supersessionism by Jesper Svartvik

The word “supersessionism” describes the influential idea that Christians (the people of “the new covenant”) have replaced Jews (the people of “the old covenant”) as the people of God. One early example of supersessionism appears in the Epistle of Barnabas, most probably written between the fall of the Second Temple (70 C.E.) and the second Jewish revolt against the Romans (135 C.E.):

These things [the Jewish cult] then he abolished in order that the new law of our Lord Jesus Christ, which is without the yoke of necessity, might have its oblation not made by man. (Epistle of Bar 2:6)

Those who are in favor of this theological interpretation often refer to Jer 31:31-32.

The days are surely coming, says the Lord, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and the house of Judah. It will not be like the covenant that I made with their ancestors when I took them by the hand to bring then out of the land of Egypt—a covenant that they broke, though I was their husband, says the Lord.

This passage is quoted in the New Testament in Heb 8:8-9, which contains a remarkable difference: instead of the phrase “though I was their husband,” it reads, “so I had no concern for them.” These words in Hebrews are a cornerstone of Christian supersessionist theology: the people of Israel no longer find favor with the God of Israel because God has made a new declaration of love to the Christian church.

Heb 8:9 differs significantly from Jer 31:31-32 because it quotes a translation of the Hebrew Bible into Greek. This translation, known as the Septuagint, describes a relationship that has been terminated: God seeks a divorce. In the Hebrew text, God wants to continue the relationship. Both the Septuagint and Hebrews use the Greek verb amelein, meaning “to ignore,” “not to care about,” “to abandon.” In the Hebrew Bible, however, the verb is ba‘al, which can be translated as “to be a husband,” “to be faithful,” “to be the Lord.”

The best explanation of the difference between the Hebrew and Greek texts is that either the translators of the Septuagint were translating from a Hebrew manuscript that contained a different word or that the translators misread the manuscript that they were reading—the translator might have misread ba‘al as the word ga‘al (“to despise,” “to abandon”).

If Hebrews is based on ga‘al, then those who use Heb 8:9 as a cornerstone of their theology are silently claiming that the Hebrew text in Jer 31:31-32 is inferior to the text of the Septuagint. It is not a question of being “biblical” or “unbiblical” but rather a choice between two biblical manuscript traditions. Hence, readers should ask themselves whether ba‘al (“to be faithful”) or ga‘al (“to despise”) best represents how the God of Israel is described in the biblical texts in general and in Jeremiah in particular.

After the end of the Second World War, a number of Christian churches began to question and to some extent even denounce supersessionism. One of the most famous examples is the Roman Catholic document Nostra Aetate. Published on October 28, 1965, this is arguably the most important text on Jewish-Christian relations since Paul’s letter to the Romans. The fourth paragraph of this declaration on the relationship between the Roman Catholic Church and non-Christian religions states:

It is true that the Church is the new people of God, yet the Jews should not be spoken of as rejected or accursed as if this followed from Holy Scripture.

To a remarkable degree, this single sentence highlights the tension between the Roman  Catholic Church’s eagerness to retain the language of being the “people of God” and its desire to refute the idea of supersessionism.

Jesper Svartvik, "Supersessionism", n.p. [cited 24 Feb 2017]. Online: http://bibleodyssey.org/en/passages/related-articles/supersessionism

Contributors

Jesper Svartvik

Jesper Svartvik
Professor, Lund University and the Swedish Theological Institute

Jesper Svartvik is Krister Stendahl Professor of Theology of Religions at Lund University and the Swedish Theological Institute in Jerusalem.

A system of religious worship, or cultus (e.g., the Israelite cult). Also refers to adherents of that system.

A detailed letter, written in formal prose. Most of the New Testament books beyond the gospels are epistles (letters written to early Christians).

A West Semitic language, in which most of the Hebrew Bible is written except for parts of Daniel and Ezra. Hebrew is regarded as the spoken language of ancient Israel but is largely replaced by Aramaic in the Persian period.

The set of Biblical books shared by Jews and Christians. A more neutral alternative to "Old Testament."

Associated with a deity; exhibiting religious importance; set apart from ordinary (i.e. "profane") things.

Describing the hybrid form of Judaism and Christianity commonly practiced in the early Christian church, prior to the mission to the Gentiles.

A collection of first-century Jewish and early Christian writings that, along with the Old Testament, makes up the Christian Bible.

An offering or the act of making an offering, especially in a religious context.

The first covenant made by Yahweh with the Israelites. Though this covenant is often described as eternal and unbreakable, the New Testament develops the idea that the old covenant has been superseded by the new covenant in Jesus Christ.

The world's largest Christian church organization administered by hierarchy made up of a single pope and a network of cardinals, bishops, priests, and renunciates (such as nuns and monks).

The Jewish revolt led by Bar Kokhba against Rome, from 132 to 135 C.E. The revolt ended with the complete destruction of Jerusalem.

The structure built in Jerusalem in 516 B.C.E. on the site of the Temple of Solomon, destroyed by the Babylonians seventy years prior. The Second Temple was destroyed in 70 C.E. by the Romans responding to Jewish rebellion.

Of or related to a theology holding that Christianity takes the place of Israel's in God's plans.

Relating to thought about the nature and behavior of God.

Writing, speech, or thought about the nature and behavior of God.

Bar 2:6

6The Lord our God is in the right, but there is open shame on us and our ancestors this very day.

Jer 31:31-32

A New Covenant
31The days are surely coming, says the Lord, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and the house of Judah.32It will not be lik ... View more

Heb 8:8-9

8God finds fault with them when he says:
“The days are surely coming, says the Lord,
when I will establish a new covenant with the house of Israel
and with the ... View more

Heb 8:9

9not like the covenant that I made with their ancestors,
on the day when I took them by the hand to lead them out of the land of Egypt;
for they did not continu ... View more

Jer 31:31-32

A New Covenant
31The days are surely coming, says the Lord, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and the house of Judah.32It will not be lik ... View more

Heb 8:9

9not like the covenant that I made with their ancestors,
on the day when I took them by the hand to lead them out of the land of Egypt;
for they did not continu ... View more

Jer 31:31-32

A New Covenant
31The days are surely coming, says the Lord, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and the house of Judah.32It will not be lik ... View more

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