Michael Bird and Scot McKnight, eds. God’s Israel and the Israel of God: Paul and Supersessionism

1 month ago 181

Bird, Michael F. and Scot McKnight, eds. God’s Israel and the Israel of God: Paul and Supersessionism. Bellingham, Wash.: Lexham Press, 2023. xi+188 pp.; Pb.; $25.99. Link to Lexham Press

This volume of essays deals with the controversial topic of supersession, that the Christian church has in some way replaced Israel as God’s people. As Michael Bird observes, supersessionism is “a mode of scholarly, in-house, deviant labeling against any interpreter daring to articulate a perspective on Paul that is sufficiently conducive to some preferred vision of interfaith relationships” (49). In biblical studies, accusing someone of supersessionism is a variation of Godwin’s Law. Sooner or later, someone will accuse another Pauline scholar of supersessionism and drop the mic, thinking they automatically win the debate. But it is worse than that. Scot McKnight expresses scholarly loathing of supersessionism in his conclusion to the book: “The undeniable implication of so much of supersessionist mentality has been vicious, sinful, sickening racism. I deplore it…” (167).Supersessionism

However, as Ben Witherington states, Paul was, in fact, a radical Jew who did not fit neatly into the diversity of early Judaism (66; I agree, I wonder if Peter, James, and or John would fit neatly into that diversity). For Witherington, supersessionism is an anachronistic term Paul would not have recognized (77). Nevertheless, if Jesus is Israel’s Messiah, some sort of supersessionism is unavoidable, at least in the salvific sense.

Lurking in the background of these discussions is the opinion of N. T. Wright. In his massive Pauline Theology, Paul and the Faithfulness of God, Wright suggested that Paul’s theology was an inner Judaism, sectarian supersessionism. Paul presents a freshly reworked people of God, and Israel’s eschatology is “freshly imagined” (PFG, 784). For Wright, Paul is no different than Qumran, another Jewish sect that withdrew from mainstream Judaism and was extremely critical of the temple aristocracy. In a footnote, Wright asks if the Mishnah is supersessionist when it presents a way of being Jewish different from earlier generations (PFG, 809, note 110). Wright concludes Paul was not only a sectarian supersessionist but “it is silly to call this supersessionism” (cited by McKnight, 30).

Part One of the book collects three essays on Pauline Supersessionism. Scot McKnight calls supersessionism “a game to be played” (Chapter 1). Following N. T. Wright, McKnight recognizes that Paul describes the church not as “Israel replaced” but as “Israel expanded.” With respect to salvation, one’s identity is “in Christ,” whether Jew or Gentile, male or female.  Jewish believers in Christ no more ceased being Jewish than males ceased being males. Those identities are swallowed up in the new identity in Christ (34). McKnight cites Jewish scholar Jon Levenson as saying, “Nowhere does Christianity betray its indebtedness to Judaism more than in its supersessionism” (Levenson, The Death and Resurrection of the Beloved Son, Yale, 1995; x)

Michael F. Bird offers an overview of “Paul’s Messianic Eschatology and Supersession” in Chapter 2. Bird suggests that supersessionism is Jewish. “Paul’s ‘messianic eschatology’ seems to necessitate some form of supersessionism, with Paul believing Israel is redefined around the Messiah and the spirit. This is an inescapable inference given that Paul believed he was right, and his fellow Jews were wrong” (46). Bird carefully considers the Qumran literature where the “sons of light” stand in contrast to other Jews who were described as the “sons of darkness.” Enoch also draws lines between righteous Jews (the author’s group) and unrighteous Jews (who disagree with the author). Even Philo considered True Israel the philosophically minded and morally upright person (whether they were Jews or not).

The third essay by Ben Witherington III discusses “Paul, Galatians, and Supersessionism.” He does not like the term supersessionism since it is anachronistic. Israel still has a future, but that future is “in Christ.” The Jews of Paul’s day would have seen Paul as an apostate (citing Alan Segal), As demonstrated by Paul’s frequent conflict in the synagogues (2 Cor 11:24).  For Paul, there is no two-track model of salvation (Jews keep Torah, while Gentiles have faith in Jesus). Witherington also wants to eliminate the anachronistic phrase “parting of the ways” (79). Jews and Gentiles are “united in Christ” in Galatians. For Paul, this is the only way.

Part Two of the book collects four responses to these essays. Lynn C. Cohick’s essay “Thinking about Supersessionism from Paul to Melito of Sardi” could have been one of the main essays in the collection since she does not so much respond to the first three writers as wholeheartedly agree with them. She admits that her understanding of supersessionism differs little from the first three essays. She concurs that supersessionism, understood as replacement theology, is not found in Paul’s letters, even if Jesus Christ fulfills biblical promises for all people (84).

David Rudolph offers “A Messianic Jewish Response.” Rudolph does not like N. T. Wright, which puts him at odds with McKnight and Bird. Since Wright and his followers see Jewish life is obsolete in the new covenant, does that erase messianic Jewish life? He suggests that third-race views like Wright’s are a “theology of Jewish erasure.” Christian theology expropriates Jewish identity through spiritualizing, leading to the stigmatization of Jews (113-14).

Janelle Peters responds from a Catholic perspective, but she writes as an expert in early Judaism and Christianity at Loyola Marymount. In her essay, “Paul, Nostra Aetate, and Irrevocable Gifts in Light of the Romans’ Plant Metaphor,” she observes that Paul valued his Jewish heritage and that Jewish believers did not cease to be Jewish because of their faith in Christ. She agrees that early Jewish sects could be construed as succession, but this is not true in modern Judaism. No early Jewish sect is close to Christianity or modern Judaism (the Qumran examples cited by Bird are what she has in mind). Since Vatican II, the Catholic view is that God made promises to Israel and affirms the “unceasing validity of the Jewish covenant.”

Ronald Charles is the Director of Messianic Jewish Studies at Kings University. In his essay, “A Critical Response to Pauline Supersessionism,” Charles suggests that McKnight is really fighting a proxy war against religious pluralism. He pushes back on each of the three main essays, generally saying, “Paul doesn’t quite say that…”  about your pods, Witherington rejection of anachronisms, he faults him for not being as careful with the term Christian to talk about early Christ followers, and he thoroughly critiques Witherington’s exegesis of Galatians.

McKnight offers a short reflection as a conclusion to the book. In response to David Rudolph, “our non-messianic Jews members of God’s covenant people,” he is clear: they are members of God’s covenant with Israel, always have been, and always will be (Romans 11:28–29). However, Rudolph does not make clear what “covenanted” means. In response to Charles, McKnight points out that there is no reason for anyone to think Messianic Jews need to surrender their observance, nor is there any reason for gentile believers to denounce messianic Jews for observing the Torah. “I would gladly surrender bacon if it offends my brother or sister, but only so long as no bacon is required of all believers” (173).

Conclusion. McKnight, Bird, and Witherington affirm Paul’s Gospel’s radicalness, which states that one can only be right with God through faith in Jesus the Messiah. Even if this is “salvific supersessionism,” it cannot be described as “replacement theology” in the traditional sense. The three main authors are feisty, and most respondents do not hold back in their criticism. This book is an excellent introduction to the extremely difficult problem of supersessionism.

NB: I appreciate Lexham Press’s generous offer of a review copy of this book, but this did not influence my thoughts about the work.

Read Entire Article