Christian Insecurity: “If the church was the new Israel, for what purpose did national Israel exist?”

Christian Insecurity stands on three legs: 1. the Problem of Jewish Survival as challenge to Christian claims as inheritor of God’s Covenant; 2. the Problem of the Second Coming several times predicted, each time deferred by Paul; 3. the Problem of History, that three centuries of intense search by leading Christian scholars have failed to uncover any evidence for Jesus as described in the gospels, man or mission. In the present blog we turn to:

1. The Problem of Jewish Survival 

“[W]hen we say… Jesus Christ, our teacher, was crucified and died, and rose again, and ascended into heaven, we propose nothing different from what you [Pagans] believe regarding those whom you consider sons of Zeus.” (1.Apol 21)

Justin Martyr, contemporary to the “John” gospel 

A central claim of the early church is that God transferred his covenant to “the Christians,” the new Israel. Put another way, according to this claim Christianity replaced Judaism. But this posed a problem to early theologians: How explain that God provided for those whom Christian scripture describes as murderers of His son to survive alongside His new “chosen people”? Evangelizers of the early centuries recognized the problem and responded to the threat of the living ghost in their midst with “logical” invective called, the Adversus Judeaos. “The Jews” represented an inexplicable threat which, according to Rosemary Ruether, called “into question the very foundations of the Christian claim." Four centuries after the destruction of Jerusalem by Rome, as the emergent Church was consolidating identity and authority, Augustine set about to provide a rational and systematic explanation for the anomaly, for Jewish survival. His Witness Doctrine would both explain God’s plan for Jewish survival while representing their survival as God’s gift for His “new Israel.” 

During Augustine's time, the existence of the Jews and Judaism posed an apologetic problem for the church. If the church was the new Israel, for what purpose did national Israel exist? 

“Augustine offered an answer for this perceived dilemma. For him, the Jews functioned primarily as witnesses. They were witnesses to the faith preached by the prophets, witnesses of divine judgment, and witnesses of the validity of Christianity. He wrote, “But the Jews who slew Him . . . are thus by their own Scriptures a testimony to us that we have not forged the prophecies about Christ.” The Jews, according to Augustine, shielded Christians from accusations that Christians invented Old Testament prophecies that pointed to Jesus. Thus, the existence of non-Christian Jews was not a problem but an essential testimony to the truth of Christianity.” 

Whether Augustine was himself convinced by his explanation that Jewish survival was evidence that Christians “have not forged the prophecies about Christ,” doubt continues to dog the faithful as evidenced by the three centuries-long Search for the Historical Jesus.