Historical Perspective Affects New Testament Interpretation

time for the Church to reconsider

In interpreting Biblical texts, people often look to “Church tradition” for some guidance, which for many theological concepts can be helpful — however in the context of understanding God’s plan for the Jews, the early Church’s historical perspective itself affected its understanding.  That is the topic of this article.

The Jerusalem Council – example of the Jewish Perspective

As discussed in previous articles, what we know as the “Church” began as a Jewish movement; the disciples were Jews and almost all of the early followers of Jesus were Jews.  When Gentiles began to believe in Jesus, the Jerusalem Council in Acts 15 met to decide whether they would need to undergo circumcision and follow the Law of Moses – becoming proselytes to Judaism. The decision of the Council was that the Gentile Christians were to continue to follow the same protocol set out for Gentiles living amongst Jews under the Law of Moses, as specified in Leviticus 17 & 18 and (1) abstain from things polluted by idols (2) from sexual immorality (3) from eating anything that has been strangled and (4) from blood. (Acts 15:20).  At this time in Church history, it is evident that the point of reference for Church decisions was the Law.

The Transition

But what began as a movement amongst Jews and then a movement led by Jews (the Apostles) but populated by Gentiles became a movement led and populated by Gentiles after the death of the Apostles.  As a result, the historical perspective of the Church changed.  Let’s explore this a bit…

Synods of the Early Church – example of a Gentile Perspective

As covered in earlier article, both Jewish believers and Gentile Christians at Jerusalem and Antioch (including Polycarp, a Church Father) continued to commemorate the death of Jesus at the same time as the Jewish feast of Passover (i.e. on the 14th of Nisan on the Jewish calendar) as they say they learned from the Apostle John. From a Jewish historical perspective this made sense, as the “last supper” took place during the Passover Seder (or meal). To the rest of the Church in other parts of the Empire however,  who had little or no contact with Jewish customs and traditions it did not.  Early-on the rest of the Church had moved the commemoration of the Lord’s death to the first Sunday after Passover, to tie it to the day Jesus rose from the dead and called the holiday “Easter”.

In the last decade of the second century a number of synods were convened to deal with what had become a significant ‘controversy’ in the Church; the fact that the Church at Jerusalem and Antioch were continuing to commemorate the death of Jesus in association with the Jewish Passover on the 14th of Nisan.  The outcome of these synods was a Church ruling that the celebration of Easter was to be observed exclusively on the first Sunday  following Passover. Furthermore, for the believers in Jerusalem and Antioch to continue to commemorate the Lord’s death on the Passover was considered heresy.  As a result of this decision,  the commemoration of the Lord’s death on the Passover by the Church had completely disappeared around the time of the First Ecumenical Council, held in 325 at Nicaea — to be ever replaced by the celebration of Easter on a Sunday.

Historical Perspective  and Current Events

Historical perspective, then as now informs how current events are understood, which in turn impacts what we believe.

When the Church was largely Jewish, the coming to faith of the Gentiles was understood within the context of what the Tanakh (Old Testament) said in that regard.  Gentile Christians were seen as having been grafted into the commonwealth of Israel and were considered as Israel’s multinational extension. 

The concept of supersessionism (also known as “replacement theology”; the belief that the Church replaces Israel) would have made absolutely no sense to these new Gentile Christians because it was evident for all to see that the Church was largely comprised of Jews.  Paul himself was a Jew, “a descendant of Abraham, from the tribe of Benjamin.” (Romans 11:1) and as he taught “God has not rejected His people whom He foreknew” (Romans 11:2).  To the writers of the New Testament, the idea of a purely Gentile Church existing itself without an identifiable Jewish contingent was inconceivable.

After the death of the Apostles, when the Jewish nucleus of the Church had disappeared, the Church’s theology about the Jews began to change — which given the events around them is understandable.  Gentile Christians saw the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 CE, the end of Temple worship, the eradication of the priesthood and the land that had been given to the Jews by God was now overrun by the Romans.  From their historical perspective, it appeared that the Jewish way of life was also destined for extinction.  Where once Gentiles saw themselves as the multinational extension of physical Israel, they began to see themselves as “spiritual Israel”.

Contrary to the second and third century theological assumption, the Jewish people and Judaism did not cease to exist. By the fourth and fifth century,  the Jews survival according to Augustine was to serve as a witness to God’s judgement on sin. This perpetuated the belief that the Jews were spiritually bankrupt and without a future.

Historic perspective resulted in the prospering of the Gentile Church being seen as a work of God — but not the prospering of the Jewish people.

Paul Van Buren, in his book A Theology of the Jewish-Christian Reality addresses this very issue;

The question which confronts us now is whether we shall continue to see the one and not the other and thus continue to give our traditional answer that the church has displaced the people of Israel as God’s people and we alone are those whose manner of walking is the only one in which God’s way can be walked.”

Contrary to all expectations, the Jews did not cease to exist in 70 CE. Despite pogroms and the Crusades, the Jews survived the Middle Ages (500 – 1750 CE), survived the First World War and despite the continued attempts to eradicate us, we survived.  During the Holocaust, six million of the world’s 16.6 million Jews were gassed to death in a concerted effort to destroy us — and still we did not cease to exist as a people.  Despite God’s clear and continued hand in the survival of the Jewish people, the Church, having arrived early-on at a theology where they were the “new Israel”, the Jews and whether they lived or perished, were considered irrelevant. In their mind, the Jewish people had broken their covenant with God and therefore were no different than any other people.

The survival of the Jewish people should serve as irrefutable testimony to God’s faithfulness to His Word — of Him being a God that does what He says He will do.

God said the covenant that He made with the Jewish people.was an everlasting covenant;

“I will establish My covenant between Me and you and your descendants after you throughout their generations for an everlasting covenant, to be God to you and to your descendants after you. “I will give to you and to your descendants after you, the land of your sojournings, all the land of Canaan, for an everlasting possession; and I will be their God.”

Genesis 17:7-8

In fact, in the very same chapter in Jeremiah that God promises to give the New Covenant, He also reiterates His covenant with the Jews.  God says that He will sooner break His covenant with the day and the night and that the planets and stars will cease to have an order in the heavens, than He will reject the seed of Jacob.

The word of the Lord came to Jeremiah:  “Have you not noticed what these people have said? They say, ‘The Lord has rejected the two families He had chosen.’ My people are treated with contempt and no longer regarded as a nation among them. This is what the Lord says: If I do not keep My covenant with the day and with the night and fail to establish the fixed order of heaven and earth,  then I might also reject the seed of Jacob and of My servant David—not taking from his descendants rulers over the descendants of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. Instead, I will restore their fortunes and have compassion on them.”

Jeremiah 33: 23-26

The Scripture was very clear what the punishment would be for the Jewish people breaking their covenant with God. If the Jews obeyed His commands, He promises that they will be safe in the land and He would meet all their needs for provision;

you will have plenty of food to eat and live securely in your land. I will give peace to the land, and you will lie down with nothing to frighten you.”

~Leviticus 26: 4-6

And if the Jews did not obey His commands He was very clear what the punishment would be; He would scatter them among the nations.

“I will reject you. I will reduce your cities to ruins and devastate your sanctuaries. I will not smell the pleasing aroma of your sacrifices. I also will devastate the land, so that your enemies who come to live there will be appalled by it. But I will scatter you among the nations, and I will draw a sword to chase after you. So your land will become desolate, and your cities will become ruins.”

~Leviticus 26: 30-33

God promised and swore by Himself that the Jews would forever exists as a people and that the land He gave them would always be their possession.  The very fact that the Jews continue to exist at all is due to God being faithful to His word. He said the covenant He made with us was everlasting and He has continued through the millennia to demonstrate that to be true.

Historical Perspective – misinterpreting the “signs of the times”

As mentioned above, it is understandable that the Gentile Church arrived at the conclusion that the Jews and Judaism would cease to exist, given they witnessed the razing of Jerusalem, the destruction of Temple and the scattering of the Jews throughout the known world.  To conclude they were “spiritual Israel” was a way of making sense of what they witnessed in light of what the Scriptures said. The problem was it failed to take God at His Word.  God was very clear in Genesis that the eternal covenant was with a specific people; the physical descendants of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. The promise He gave to Abraham was repeated to Isaac and again repeated to Jacob.  By the Church seeing themselves as “spiritual Israel”, they failed to accurately understand the “signs of the times”. By continuing to hold to the view that God was finished with the Jews, they also failed to realize God’s Hand when the Jews were returned to the Land in 1948. God was doing with the Jewish people exactly what He said He would do…and sadly, much of the Church missed the significance.

The Law of Moses said that after God scattered us and exiled us from the land, that when the Jews came to their senses in the nations where He had scattered us, He would bring us back:

“When all these things happen to you—the blessings and curses I have set before you—and you come to your senses while you are in all the nations where the Lord your God has driven you, and you and your children return to the Lord your God and obey Him with all your heart and all your soul by doing everything I am giving you today,  then He will restore your fortunes, have compassion on you, and gather you again from all the peoples where the Lord your God has scattered you. Even if your exiles are at the ends of the earth, He will gather you and bring you back from there. The Lord your God will bring you into the land your fathers possessed, and you will take possession of it. He will cause you to prosper and multiply you more than He did your fathers.”

~ Deuteronomy 30:1-5

This is exactly what happened after the Jews were scattered in the Assyrian and Babylonian exile.

The Church should have recognized that what was occurring in 1948 was exactly what God said He would do, but those that failed to recognize the everlasting nature of God’s covenant with Israel, missed it.

God said that He would gather the remnant of His people a second time. The Church’s theological assumptions and historic perspective resulted in them being unable to recognize God’s hand at work, bringing to pass exactly what He spoke beforehand;

“On that day the root of Jesse

will stand as a banner for the peoples.

The nations will seek Him,

and His resting place will be glorious.

On that day the Lord will extend His hand a second time to recover—from Assyria, Egypt, Pathros, Cush, Elam, Shinar, Hamath, and the coasts and islands of the west—the remnant of His people who survive.

He will lift up a banner for the nations

and gather the dispersed of Israel;

He will collect the scattered of Judah

from the four corners of the earth.”

~Isaiah  11:11-12

God bringing the Jews back into the Land a second time should have served “as a banner to the nations” [the Gentiles} — solid, irrefutable evidence that God keeps His promises.  God said in Ezekiel 20  that after Israel has served idols instead of Him and defiled His Holy Name, that He would bring them back to the Land because of His Name and not according to our rebellious ways. God continues to deal with Israel ‘because of His Name’.  It would seem to me that when the Church fails to recognize God’s dealing with the Jews that they fail to give Him the honour and glory that He is due.

Looking at what Paul says in Romans 11:11-15 from this same historical perspective one notices that not once but twice Paul refers to the future salvation of Israel;

I ask, then, have they stumbled in order to fall? Absolutely not! On the contrary, by their stumbling salvation has come to the Gentiles to make Israel jealous. Now if their stumbling brings riches for the world, and their failure riches for the Gentiles, how much more will their full inclusion bring! Now I am speaking to you Gentiles. In view of the fact that I am an apostle to the Gentiles, I magnify my ministry, if I can somehow make my own people jealous and save some of them. For if their rejection brings reconciliation to the world, what will their acceptance mean but life from the dead?”

~ Romans 11:11-15

Paul refers to the future salvation of Israel twice; first in the phrase “now if their stumbling brings riches for the world, and their failure riches for the Gentiles, how much more will their full inclusion bring!” and in case we missed that, he adds “for if their [the Jews] rejection brings reconciliation to the world, what will their acceptance mean but life from the dead?”

Full inclusion of the Jews was something the Apostle Paul expected. He was unequivocal that it was the rejection of the Jews that brought reconciliation to the Gentiles and that there is coming a time where Jewish acceptance will be “as life from the dead”.

In conclusion, the Early Church Father’s historical perspective impacted what they believed about the Jews. Many saw the beliefs of the Pharisees as being representative of “the Jews” as a whole; failing to take into account that they were just one of the sects of Jews at the time and thus took the position that Jesus did in His dealing with the Pharisees and applied it to the whole nation of Israel.  Since the Early Church Fathers saw the destruction of the second temple and the razing of Jerusalem led many to conclude that God had rejected the Jews because they had rejected Jesus as Messiah.  This view was carried down through Church history resulting in the theological position that any suffering that the Jews experienced was incurred by God’s rejection of them.  We will elaborate more on what the Church Fathers believed in a future article, but suffice to say that if one looks to “Church tradition” for guidance on understanding texts dealings with God’s promises to the Jewish people, it will come with this tainted historical perspective.

If one compares what has occurred in history with what God said He would do in Scripture one cannot fail to see His faithfulness to His promises to the Jewish people.  As He said He would do, He always spared a remnant. He brought us back to the land — not once, but twice — because of His Name. Full inclusion of the Jews was something the Apostle Paul expected and should be the Church’s expectation, as well — because He is faithful.  Paul said it clearly that the Jews being unfaithful in no way nullified the faithfulness of God;

So what advantage does the Jew have? Or what is the benefit of circumcision?  Considerable in every way. First, they were entrusted with the spoken words of God.  What then? If some did not believe, will their unbelief cancel God’s faithfulness?  Absolutely not!

~Romans 3:1-4

In fact, he said (:5) that the Jews unrighteousness highlights God’s righteousness. 

God’s faithfulness to His promises to the Jews should serve as great encouragement to the Church — that we can trust in His promises because He always keeps His word.

Kinzer, Mark S, 2005, Post Missionary Messianic Judaism – Redefining Christian Engagement with the Jewish People, Brazos Press