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Scott P. Richert

Reader Question: Why Aren't Christians Jewish?

By February 19, 2009

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A reader who teaches a catechism class writes:
I'm not sure how to explain to some of my kids why, if Jesus is Jewish, we aren't. I explained to them that Jesus came to save the Jews but they did not believe He was/is the Messiah, and they are still waiting for the coming of Christ. It still doesn't explain why He was Jewish, and we're Christian/Catholics.
This is an important question, and it goes to the heart not only of the Christian understanding of the Church, but also of the way in which we interpret Scripture and salvation history. Unfortunately, in recent years, a great many misunderstandings have developed, and these have made it harder for people to understand how the Church views herself and how she views her relations to the Jewish people.

The most well known of these misunderstandings is dispensationalism, which, in a nutshell, sees the Old Covenant and the New Covenant as completely separate. In the history of Christianity, dispensationalism is a very recent idea, first put forth in the 19th century. In the United States, however, it has taken on great prominence, especially in the past 30 years, being identified with certain fundamentalist and evangelical preachers.

The widespread dissemination of dispensationalist doctrine may well play into the confusion that your students have, because it makes a stark break between Judaism and Christianity (or, more correctly, between the Old Covenant and the New). But the Church--not only Catholic and Orthodox, but mainstream Protestant communities--has historically viewed this relationship much differently.

Christ came not to abolish the Law and the Old Covenant, but to fulfill it. That is why the Catechism of the Catholic Church (para. 1964) declares that "The Old Law is a preparation for the Gospel. . . . It prophesies and presages the work of liberation from sin which will be fulfilled in Christ." Furthermore (para. 1967), "The Law of the Gospel 'fulfills,' refines, surpasses, and leads the Old Law to its perfection."

But what does this mean for the Christian interpretation of salvation history? We look back at the history of Israel with different eyes. We can see how that history was fulfilled in Christ. And we can see, too, how that history prophesied Christ--how both Moses and the Passover lamb, for instance, were images or types (symbols) of Christ.

In the same way, Israel--the Chosen People of God, whose history is documented in the Old Testament--is a type of the Church. As the Catechism of the Catholic Church notes (para. 751):

The word "Church" (Latin ecclesia, form the Greek ek-ka-lein, to "call out of") means a convocation or an assembly. . . . Ekklesia is used frequently in the Greek Old Testament for the assembly of the Chosen People before God, above all for their assembly on Mount Sinai where Israel received the Law and was established by God as his holy people. By calling itself "Church," the first community of Christian believers recognized itself as heir to that assembly.

In the Christian understanding, going back to the New Testament, the Church is the New People of God--the fulfillment of Israel, the extension of God's covenant with the Chosen People of the Old Testament to all mankind.

This is the lesson of Chapter 4 of the Gospel of John, when Christ meets the Samaritan woman at the well. Our Lord says to her, "You adore that which you know not: we adore that which we know; for salvation is of the Jews." To which she replies: "I know that the Messias cometh (who is called Christ); therefore, when he is come, he will tell us all things."

Christ is "of the Jews," but as the fulfillment of the Law and the Prophets, as the One Who completes the Old Covenant with the Chosen People and extends salvation to all who believe in Him through the New Covenant sealed in His own blood, He is not simply "Jewish," as your students put it.

And, thus, neither are we who believe in Christ. We are the spiritual heirs to Israel, the Chosen People of God of the Old Testament. We are neither completely disconnected from them, as in dispensationalism, nor do we completely replace them, in the sense that salvation is no longer open to those who were "the first to hear the Word of God" (as we say in the Prayer for the Jewish People offered on Good Friday).

Rather, in the Christian understanding, their salvation is our salvation, and thus we conclude the prayer on Good Friday with these words: "Listen to your Church as we pray that the people you first made your own may arrive at the fullness of redemption." That fullness is found in Christ, the "Alpha and Omega, the first and the last, the beginning and the end" (Revelation 22:13).

If you have a question that you would like to have featured in our "Reader Questions" series, send me an e-mail at catholicism.guide@about.com. Be sure to put "QUESTION" in the subject line, and please note whether you'd like me to address it privately or on the Catholicism blog.

Comments
February 19, 2009 at 11:36 am
(1) rich m says:

The separation from Jewish practices came about at the first council of the Church at Jerusalem when it was decided that Christians need not be circumcised.
Also the Jews chased the Christians from the synagogues and the temple and had them arrested.
So from the Christian side, it was decided at the council of Jerusalem and from the Jewish side, Christians were rejected and deemed non Jews.

February 19, 2009 at 3:21 pm
(2) Phil Cunningham says:

Amen to Scott’s comments about dispensationalism (really Marcionism). Unfortunately, the closing paragraphs reduce Judaism since the time of Christ to a sort of vestigial state or irrelevancy, whereas a 1985 Vatican document reminds Catholics that, “The history of Israel did not end in 70 A.D. It continued, especially in a numerous Diaspora which allowed Israel to carry to the whole world a witness-often heroic-of its fidelity to the one God and to ‘exalt Him in the presence of all the living’ (Tobit 13:4).” It would be better to explain that the revelation of Christ crucified and raised was only given to certain Jews, who quickly found their “Good News” more welcome among Gentiles. Over time the church became more and more Gentile, non-Torah observant, and non-Jewish. However, the Jewish tradition continued to evolve and rabbinic Judaism became the expression of their rich covenantal life with God. As the same Vatican document put it: “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 practiced still today, can greatly help us to understand better certain aspects of the life of the Church’ (John Paul II, 6 March 1982).”

February 19, 2009 at 4:05 pm
(3) Ave Maria Gratia Plena says:

In a manner of speaking we are the Jewish people now. God has raised up children of Abraham from the very stones which were the unbelieving Gentile nations of the ancient world. The Church is the New Israel. The Jews, who reject Jesus as the Messiah cannot be the People of God since those who accept Jesus and only they can constitute the People of God.

This does not mean that the Jews are rejected by God or anything of the kind. It means that their religious faith and spiritual practice is gravely deficient. Until they accept Jesus and become incorporated into His body the Church the Jews will lack the fullness of truth. They possess valuable insights, many great truths and much of Sacred Scripture. But their faith, like their Scriptures is incomplete. And that places a distance between them and God.

February 19, 2009 at 4:31 pm
(4) Scott P. Richert says:

I thank Dr. Cunningham for his comment. The document that he cites is “Notes on the correct way to present the Jews and Judaism in preaching and catechesis in the Roman Catholic Church.” The text is available on the Vatican’s website by clicking on that link.

Dr. Cunningham’s criticism of my closing paragraphs is somewhat out of place. My post was not concerned with the state of Judaism since the time of Christ; it was concerned with the question raised in the title: Why aren’t Christians Jewish? No part of it, including the final paragraphs, contradicts anything in the Vatican document to which Dr. Cunningham has directed us.

In fact, the document goes into great detail about the use of typology in catechesis and emphasizes, as I did, that “we should be careful to avoid any transition from the Old to the New Testament which might seem merely a rupture.” The first substantive paragraph begins by quoting the Vatican II document Nostra Aetate, which declares that “the Church of Christ acknowledges that, according to the mystery of God’s saving design, the beginning of her faith and her election are already found among the patriarchs, Moses and the prophets.”

And, later, in language that parallels my final paragraphs, the document affirms that:

“In virtue of her divine mission, the Church” which is to be “the all-embracing means of salvation” in which alone “the fulness of the means of salvation can be obtained” (Unit. Red. 3); “must of her nature proclaim Jesus Christ to the world” (cf. Guidelines and Suggestions, I). Indeed we believe that is is through him that we go to the Father (cf. Jn. 14:6) “and this is eternal life, that they know thee the only true God and Jesus Christ whom thou hast sent” (Jn 17:33).

Jesus affirms (ibid. 10:16) that “there shall be one flock and one shepherd”. Church and Judaism cannot then be seen as two parallel ways of salvation and the Church must witness to Christ as the Redeemer for all, “while maintaining the strictest respect for religious liberty in line with the teaching of the Second Vatican Council (Declaration Dignitatis Humanae)”

That is one of the reasons why the document does not support the statement by Dr. Cunningham that “It would be better to explain that the revelation of Christ crucified and raised was only given to certain Jews, who quickly found their ‘Good News’ more welcome among Gentiles.” In fact, quite the opposite: Citing Romans 9-11, the document states not that only “certain Jews” received the revelation, but that “There is moreover the sad fact that the majority of the Jewish people and its authorities did not believe in Jesus – a fact not merely of history but of theological bearing, of which St Paul tries hard to plumb the meaning.”

The lack of belief does not indicate that the revelation was not given to them, but was given and was rejected, and thus the document goes on to state that:

This fact, accentuated as the Christian mission developed, especially among the pagans, led inevitably to a rupture between Judaism and the young Church, now irreducibly separated and divergent in faith, and this stage of affairs is reflected in the texts of the New Testament and particularly in the Gospel. There is no question of playing down or glossing over this rupture; that could only prejudice the identity of either side.

Yes, as the document states, even later (post-Resurrection) developments in Judaism can help Christians to understand their own faith more fully. But that fact does not change the reality, which the document establishes from the beginning, that the fullness of salvation is found in Christ.

February 19, 2009 at 6:14 pm
(5) Steve says:

Dear Scott and Phil Cunningham, there is only one (everlasting) covenant. God made a covenant with Noah, then confirmed it with Abraham, Issac, Jacob, Moses, etc., and with all of humanity. There is no “Old Covenant” verses a “New Covenant,” in the sense that in a “new” covenant (God) “has made the (“Old”) obsolete, and whatever is becoming obsolete and growing old is ready to disappear..” This is not true. How can Christians believe this about God?

The only thing “new” about the “new covenant” is that God’s law will be written on our hearts. There is really nothing ‘new’ about this. Moses taught it many hundreds of years before Jeremiah was formed in his mother’s womb.

February 20, 2009 at 9:00 am
(6) Char says:

This is a lot to digest! I need to put this in teenage terms :0) I will also go and read the Vatican document. I am amazed at how much there is to learn about our faith. Its rich and beautiful! Thank you.

February 20, 2009 at 4:06 pm
(7) lorenzo says:

Is the second coming of christ written in the old testament? or is mentioned in some way?
Thanks.

February 21, 2009 at 2:33 pm
(8) Jewish Teacher says:

Great question, I just mentioned at another blog that if we all came from Adam and Eve then we should all be Jewish?

July 31, 2011 at 8:56 pm
(9) Rhon says:

According to the holy bible christians are jews, spiritual jews.

February 21, 2009 at 6:48 pm
(10) lorenzo says:

I got it! we are already in the transicional perios of the mesiah that jesus started and the end of the process is the resurrection or the second coming. (probably this same questions are present in children…that is the dificulty in teir understanding) As a recent catholic trying to come home again I still hace lots of questions….

April 18, 2011 at 4:36 pm
(11) Carla Lundy says:

We are not Jewish by natural decendent but by the faith of Abraham and God’s convenant with Abraham. We have divine relationship. God’s promise to Abraham was unconditional and confirmed with a covenant ceremony in Genesis 15:7-21 who all who would believe in the one to come (Jesus Christ). Because of His death (shed blood), burial and resurrection, salvation is promised, inheritance is to the all who believe in Him. Moreover, we see that the provisions of this covenant are “everlasting” in Genesis 17:7 That being the case, New Testament Believers (non-Jewish) benefit through Christ from the covenant that God made with Abraham.

June 5, 2011 at 11:57 pm
(12) Bennie Kahler-Venter says:

Even though Judaism rejects the idea that
Christ is the Messiah at this point in time, it is
written in various new testimental books that
Christ refers to the 12 tribes as his inheretance.
Most of the Old-Testimental agreements God
have with them still stands. People that prosecute
them will be destroyed/Judged… Etc. They are
His property. We as Gentiles are grafted onto
This olive tree that is Israel

December 22, 2011 at 1:01 am
(13) Michael says:

There’s a lot of confusion brought into this article via the responses. In the Book of Jeremiah, God tells Jeremiah that He will “sow the house of Israel and the house of Judah with the seed of man and the seed of beast.” Jesus is exactly how this was accomplished. The problem with the Jewish people, and always has been the issue, is their assumption that their glory is brought through worldly gain, including a physical and material nation. Furthermore, the word Jew is derived from Judah and has significance. Also, not all of Israel is of Judah and thereby should be seen as Israelites and not necessarily Jews. For Phil Cunningham to assert that God was still with the Jews after 70 AD through the rabbi teachings is heretical, those were the very people who were persecuting the first Church. The christian believe is simple, “the only way to the Father is through the Son” and to assume that the Father was relating spiritual writings through those Rabbis, whom denied the Son outright is blatantly wrong.

February 13, 2012 at 11:35 pm
(14) alan says:

yes but mel on num 13 isnt for love as christ is to forgive etc mel says israelites are different from judah yes thats prob true but arent all brothers different werent some of the first christians from jewish church but some dont want that yes yes went different ways etc but should you hate them? christ forgave them but mike wont mike do you believe in other teachings that christ would agree with ? what are they called

July 16, 2012 at 6:09 am
(15) Eve says:

ROMAN 10V12

December 8, 2012 at 5:45 pm
(16) Melanie says:

Christians are Jews. Because like it says that what Jesus was. He was born in Jerusalem. The scripture is his word from God. Old and New. He wanted to fullfil it. Which he did. So if you believe in God. Then you believe his son Jesus Christ. There is no “coming of Christ” because it already happened. Millions of years ago. Hopefully God can get through soon.

March 18, 2013 at 10:04 am
(17) Dr. Eliyahu Lizorkin-Eyzenberg says:

Samaritan-Jewish Commentary on the Gospel of John will help to answer this questions! Here is the link http://jewishstudies.eteacherbiblical.com/samaritan-jewish-commentary-on-gospel-of-john/

It is in the process of being written, but all trajectories are already in place.

June 9, 2013 at 2:57 pm
(18) Rohan says:

i think it doesn’t matter you are jew or pagan, pharisee or sadu…. only if u believe in jesus and act,salvation is guaranteed….is it not scott ?

September 3, 2013 at 4:01 am
(19) Mark Paul says:

Nice discussion going on guys. Holy Bible clearly states that Christians are Jews but one thing we should never forget is that Jesus was the son of God and we are all his sons and daughters.

March 10, 2014 at 9:05 am
(20) john dAuria says:

And so, the knub of the problem; Christians believe that JC was the Son of God, [God incarnate] ; Jews do not.

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