Engrafting or Replacement – Part 2

grafting image

In my previous post, I began examining where the Gentile dominated church began to ignore Paul’s warning in Romans 11 of becoming arrogant in their engrafting into the covenant people of God.

But if some of the branches were broken off, and you, although a wild olive shoot, were grafted in among the others and now share in the nourishing root of the olive tree, do not be arrogant toward the branches. If you are, remember it is not you who support the root, but the root that supports you. Then you will say, “Branches were broken off so that I might be grafted in.” That is true. They were broken off because of their unbelief, but you stand fast through faith. So do not become proud, but fear. For if God did not spare the natural branches, neither will he spare you. (Romans 11:17-21, ESV)

Although Paul had foreseen this problem arising among non-Jewish believers and placed his admonition in writing, his predication became manifest in the church of the late second century, despite his rebuke to the early believers. Oskar Skarsaune notes that during the lifetime of Justin Martyr (c. 100-165 C.E.) this problem had already arisen, and only grew by compound measure in the years following. The increasingly Gentile Christians began to look at themselves as not merely being engrafted into Israel, the covenant people of God, but replacing and superseding her.

Skarsaune reduces the situation to the following:

But whereas in Paul the Gentiles are added to the true Israel of Jewish believers to share in their inheritance, in Justin it is the other way round: the few Jewish believers are added to the church of the Gentiles to share in their inheritance…While in Paul the Gentiles share in the promises given to true Israel, in Justin the promises are transferred from the Jewish people to the church of the Gentiles. This church replaces the Jewish people. It takes over the inheritance of Israel while at the same time disinheriting the Jews…. In this way, Christians of the second century were never able to assert their election in Christ without at the same time lashing out against the Jews. 1

But we must ask ourselves why this line of antagonism came into being. While there were multiple factors involved, I would like to address two. Skarsaune astutely observes that

the Jew had the religious and cultural security of hundreds of years of unbroken tradition. The Christians were newcomers with no prehistory, and they were painfully aware of it. The rabbis handed on a tradition of scriptural exegesis which could claim the authority of generations of excellent teachers, reaching all the way back to Moses on Mount Sinai. They had perfect command of the entire Old Testament, and they could argue their point from minute details in the original Hebrew text. And there was a basic consistency in their approach to the Bible: they not only recognized the Torah as divine, they also observed it.

The Gentile Christians were at an obvious disadvantage on all points. In many respects their interpretation of the Bible was startlingly new. They found meanings in biblical verses that no one had found there before. And they could quote no recognized tradition or authority to support them. Worst of all, they had no direct access to the original text, and their knowledge of the Old Testament was often limited to selected passages and proof texts. 2

My first point is what Skarsaune labels as the “inferiority complex of the younger—the much younger—brother.” 3 One can easily see this as a reasonable factor in the antagonism of non-Jewish believers against their counterpart. It is often the case when one person with natural abilities, knowledge or influence is alongside another with inferior abilities, a resentment from the one of lesser abilities often drives them to antagonize the other party in an attempt to prove their equality. They have to reduce the other person in order to boost their own self-worth or esteem. In our historical example, the Jews did have the upper hand over the non-Jewish Christians in relationship to Scriptural knowledge and exegesis. They also enjoyed a command of the actual language of the Hebrew Scriptures (the church fathers would continually enlist Jewish tutors to teach them the Holy Tongue in order to study the Scriptures in their original language) that was far superior to even those who could understand the Hebrew text.

And as far as the Jews were concerned, Skarsaune reminds us that “there was a basic consistency in their approach to the Bible: they not only recognized the Torah as divine, they also observed it.” This is where a contrast began to be apparent between the Jews and the Gentile Christians. Whereas the Jews continued in their living out the precepts of the instructions given to them by the God of Creation at Sinai, the non-Jewish believers, feeling unbound to these instructions in any kind of literal way, began to find contempt for those who adhered to their plain intent. For the act of “doing” had become a spiritualization. To the non-Jewish Christian, the plain meaning of the commandments began to be pushed to the wayside as inapplicable, and a more mystical, allegorical interpretation began to emerge as a seemingly superior one.

It is typically understood that the distinctions of the commandments for the Jewish believers and the non-Jewish believer are clear from both the Jewish (i.e. the “Noahide” laws of Judaism) and the Christian (i.e. the “Council of Jerusalem” in Acts 15) perspectives. However, in Justin Martyr’s dialogue with Trypho, a Jew who does not recognize Jesus as the Jewish Messiah, we get a glimpse of the current Jewish perspective viewing Christianity within its original framework, being a sect of Judaism, rather than a new and separate religion. Trypho reprimands Justin and other Christians by asking, “how is it that you Christians, who claim to worship the God of the Bible, do not observe his law?” 4. Even though Justin and most of his Christian brethren were non-Jewish, Trypho expected to see at least some semblance of the commandments being evident among them. In this we have the first evidences of how the “spiritualization” of the commandments damaging the witness of Christians among their Jewish brethren.

This brings me to my second point. Because of the sheer numbers of non-Jewish believers over Jewish believers pouring into this new, Messianic sect of Judaism, much of the original context of this faith became lost. Therefore, “the church of the second century came to think of itself as essentially Gentile, a non-Jewish entity set over against the Jewish people as such5 At this point, the church begins to lose its original, Jewish identity and creates a new one as somewhat of an antithesis to the Judaism which has been passed from Moses to Joshua, from Joshua to the Prophets, from the Prophets to Jesus, the Jewish Messiah, and then from Jesus to his disciples. We begin to have a disconnect between the followers of the Jewish Messiah and the historical biblical faith. Not only do we see this, but we see a new “people of God” claiming their “chosenness” over and above the covenant people of God. We see the development of a theoological system, by which the non-Jewish church claims the covenantal blessings that belong to the Jewish people, while leaving the covenantal curses for the Jews. Rather than remembering that non-Jewish believers have been brought “into” the existing family of God according to Ephesians 2, the predominant concept was that the non-Jewish believers were now the “new” people of God, and had replaced the disobedient, hard-hearted, stiff-necked Jews. This is Replacement Theology, a subtle theological strain which still infects our churches today.

  1. In the shadow of the temple : Jewish influences on early Christianity. 2002 (267-268). Downers Grove, Ill.: InterVarsity Press
  2. Ibid. (p. 265-266).
  3. Ibid. (p. 265).
  4. Ibid. (p. 270).
  5. Ibid. (p.268).

Engrafting or Replacement – Part 1

Justin MartyrThe other day I reviewed the excellent work, In the Shadow of the Temple, by Oskar Skarsaune. Today, I would like to elaborate on a few of his thoughts in regard to the place of Jews and Gentiles in the people of God. In looking at the development of Christianity in the years after the destruction of the Holy Temple in Jerusalem, Skarsaune observes some changes that begin to develop around the time of Justin Martyr (c. 100-165 C.E.). He notes the ever-increasing Gentile influx and subsequent sway over what has been to this point a sect of Judaism, and uses the writings of Justin Martyr (and others) to show how there began to be a rising arrogance and intolerance among non-Jewish believers for their Jewish brethren.

With regard to how non-Jewish believers began to view Jews and Jewish believers at this time, Skarsaune notes that the dialogue between the believing Gentile and the non-believing Jew grew to an intensity which had yet been unsurpassed in the history of Israel’s self-criticism. Skarsaune shows a change from what he labels “Jewish self-criticism” to “anti-Jewish slogans” in the dialogue against unbelieving Jews. Whereas the Church Fathers use many of the same words as the prophets of old in their condemnation of Israel’s failings (directed at the unbelieving Jew’s failure to recognize the Divine voice yet once again), there is a marked change from the prophetic voice which longs for repentance, and the condemning slander of voices such as Justin Martyr.

All this changed radically when this way of preaching penitence to Israel passed into the hands of Gentile Christians without this deep sense of solidarity with Israel. In their hands, these harsh Old Testament words to Israel became a weapon to discredit the Jewish people as disbelieving by nature, while the Gentile Christians exalted themselves as more willing to believe and obey God. 1

He shows evidence of this through the following quote from Justin Martyr:

If you [Jews] will confess the truth, you yourselves cannot deny that we [Gentiles] are more faithful than you in relation to God. For we, having been called of God by means of the mystery of the cross, which is so despised and full of shame; and (suffering) punishments even unto death for our confession and obedience and piety, … we, I say, endure all things lest we should deny Christ even in word. But you were redeemed from Egypt with a high arm and a visitation of great glory [there follows an extensive enumeration of all the wonders  worked by God for the benefit of Israel during the desert wandering]. In spite of all this you made a calf, and eagerly committed fornication with the daughters of the aliens, and committed idolatry, and did so again afterwards when the land had been entrusted to you with such great power.… You are convicted by the prophets, even after Moses’ warnings, of having gone so far as to sacrifice your own children to demons, and of having, in addition to all this, dared so much against Christ, and still do dare. (Dialogue with Trypho 131.2—133.1) 2

Skarsaune comments by saying

For in Justin the enumeration of Israel’s sins is no longer meant to be a call to repentance and return to God. In Justin it has become something quite different: Justin takes the biblical record of Israel’s sins to mean that the Jews have a natural inclination toward disbelief and sin, while on the other hand the Gentiles have a natural inclination toward belief and obedience. The ruthless Jewish self-criticism contained in several passages in the Old Testament—unparalleled in the ancient world and one of the finest fruits of mosaic and prophetic teaching—is misused by Justin as if it were some kind of ethnological description of the peculiarities of the Jewish people. 3

We can see the correctness of his observation. No longer is the apex of the message repentance, but only vilification. To understand how this turn of events takes place, we have to get into the minds of those believers within this time period. Although we have no absolute way of do so, I believe Skarsaune does an excellent job at connecting the dots. He notes the following:

In the second century one observes a marked change. The Christians of Gentile origin by now far outnumbered those of Jewish origin. Gradually, this fact came to influence the concept of the church. In Justin Martyr, the church is an essentially non-Jewish entity. It is made up of believing Gentiles, and over against this church of the Gentiles Justin places the Jewish nation as essentially non-believing. The border between believers and non-believers tends to coincide with the border between Gentiles and Jews. True, Justin knows of Jewish believers. But whereas in Paul the Gentiles are added to the true Israel of Jewish believers to share in their inheritance, in Justin it is the other way round: the few Jewish believers are added to the church of the Gentiles to share in their inheritance.

This shift of perspective had far-reaching consequences. While in Paul the Gentiles share in the promises given to true Israel, in Justin the promises are transferred from the Jewish people to the church of the Gentiles. This church replaces the Jewish people. It takes over the inheritance of Israel while at the same time disinheriting the Jews. One might express this development by using Paul’s image from Romans 11. In Paul, God has cut off some of the branches of Israel’s old olive tree, and in their place he has grafted some wild branches—the Gentiles. In Justin, God has cut down Israel’s olive tree, and in its place he has planted an entirely new tree—the church of the Gentiles. Onto this tree he has grafted a few branches from the old tree—those branches are the believing Jews.

Once Christians began to think this way, they would naturally pose the question of election as an either/or alternative: Either the Jewish people or the (Gentile) church is the inheritor of the Old Testament heritage. No one in antiquity fostered the idea of God having two peoples; it had to be the church or the Jews. In this way, Christians of the second century were never able to assert their election in Christ without at the same time lashing out against the Jews. 4

Skarsaune’s observations are adept. Although we haven’t seen any proof, per se, in his summary we can see a logical progression in which the spiritual superiority and arrogance of non-Jews is becoming a serious issue. The identity of the “people of God” is in question, and in order to define this term, someone has to “win” this title.

More to follow…

  1. In the shadow of the temple : Jewish influences on early Christianity. 2002 (262). Downers Grove, Ill.: InterVarsity Press.
  2. Ibid. (p. 262-263).
  3.  Ibid. (p. 263).
  4. Ibid. (267–268). Emphasis mine.

Book Review: In the Shadow of the Temple

In The Shadow of the Temple coverIn the Shadow of the Temple :
Jewish influences on early Christianity
by Oskar Skaursaune

455 Pages
InterVarsity Press, 2002

Until reading this book, I was totally unaware of Skarsaune and his literary offerings. Now, I realize how deprived I have been.

In In the Shadow of the Temple, Skarsaune begins his account of the development of Christianity by first peering into the last two centuries of the Second Temple period, beginning with the Hasmonean dynasty and the subsequent influence of Hellenism upon Jewish religion and culture. From there he sets the stage to masterfully guide us through the first few centuries of the development of Christianity, culminating in “The Constantinian Revolution” of the early fourth century.

Throughout each chapter he weaves the story of the early believers with the fibers of secular historical records (such as Pliny the Elder & Tacitus), Jewish writings (Talmud, Apocrypha, etc.), and the writings of both Jewish and non-Jewish believers (Didache, 1 Clement, etc.). Skarsaune examines as much of the evidences as possible in order to place each piece of the puzzle with care. He is very articulate without being verbose. Following are some highlights from this work.

The impact of this way of looking at first-century Jewish and Christian history has been enormous, and is still felt in New Testament scholarship. There is no doubt, however, that a basic “change of paradigm” is taking place. For one thing, Jewish scholars have argued with great conviction that Jesus should not be placed outside Pharisaism, but within it: when Jesus debates with Pharisees, his own positions can be shown to agree with those of other Pharisaic authorities. In other words, Pharisaism itself was complex; it comprised different opinions; it could comprise those of Jesus. Jesus’ debates with Pharisaic opponents is therefore an intra-Pharisaic debate…It is meaningless and grossly anachronistic to picture Jesus, Peter or Paul as debating with “Judaism” or its representatives, as if they themselves were outside and represented something else, a non-Jewish position. 1

In this quote, Skarsaune rightly recognizes the intra-house debate between Jesus and the Pharisees of his days, rather than viewing Jesus as an outsider as is typically the case. Jesus has not come to topple the biblical religion in order to establish a new one through subversive tactics. He is in the order of the prophets of old, condemning hypocrisy and calling his people back to repentance through proper relationship to the Torah given at Sinai.

In another insightful passage, Skarsaune hits upon another often overlooked truth in regard to the standard model of prayer for the early believers:

In the days of Jesus the wording and sequence of the elements of the synagogue service had attained such stability that we are fully justified in speaking of a synagogal liturgy. The echoes of the synagogal prayers in the Lord’s Prayer and other early Christian prayers demonstrate that this liturgy was well known to Jesus and the early disciples. We should not think that the early Christians were antiliturgical in their worship gatherings. It is no accident that in Acts 2:42 Luke does not say that the early community “devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching … and prayer,” but to “the prayers,” which suggests fixed patterns. All the evidence points to the synagogal liturgy as a source for those prayers. 2

When examining the letters of Ignatius 3, Skarsaune aptly notes:

One gets the impression that Ignatius’s relationship to the Old Testament was mainly a literary one. For him, the Old Testament was a book, not a living past which, through traditions and observances, determined his own life and thinking. It is this, more than anything else, that betrays the Gentile Christian. The position of Ignatius may perhaps best be characterized as New Testament orthodoxy. It was the apostolic writings that made him value the Old Testament and love the prophets. The authority of the Old Testament is undisputed, but it is derived from the authority of the gospel.

This was probably one of the most characteristic differences between Jewish believers and believers coming from an entirely Gentile background. It was not a question of doctrinal differences but rather a difference of mentality. For both groups the Old Testament was an authoritative book, and the church of the Gentiles was later to defend the Old Testament bravely and at considerable cost against attacks from within the church and without. But to them the Old Testament was and remained a book, describing a history that was past and finished. To the Jewish believers, it was so much more. Through innumerable cords of tradition, festivals, daily practices, religious concepts, etc., the Jewish believers were bound up with the Old Testament; it was part of their lives.

What we observe in Ignatius may perhaps best be described as a loss of Jewish context. 4

In this observation, I believe Skarsaune has hit upon one of the primary dysfunctions of modern Christian faith. We have built our house of faith from the top down, rather than from the bottom up due to our subconscious disconnect with the Tanach (the “Old Testament”) and the patriarchs. Yes, Jesus is the pinnacle of our faith. But in order to truly understand his work, we must first have an intimate relationship with the broad foundation of the Tanach, which was laid out in order to elucidate that which would come after it. Without this understanding, the majority of the Scriptures (i.e. the “Old Testament”) becomes exactly as Ignatius views it, as “a history that was past and finished.”

To conclude, the present work from Skarsaune is one which should be in the library of anyone who is serious about understanding the development of Christianity in the first few centuries, and how the apron strings began to be cut (whether for the good or for the bad) from Mother Judaism. Skarsaune does an excellent job at reducing and articulating a plethora of information into layman’s terms in a way which is easily comprehendible and manageable. I look forward to collecting his other offerings as well.

  1.  In the shadow of the temple : Jewish influences on early Christianity. 2002 (105–106, 107). Downers Grove, Ill.: InterVarsity Press.
  2. Ibid., p. 125.
  3. was among the Apostolic Fathers, was the third Bishop of Antioch, and was a student of John the Apostle.
  4. Ibid., p. 217