It only takes a few minutes of listening to most Christian radio shows to hear stereotypical anti-Jewish tropes. They range from the proverbial hypocritical Jewish Pharisees to the alleged legalism in the ancient Jewish community and even go so far as to presume the “Old Testament” is no longer relevant to Christians.
But utter silence toward the critical role of the Jewish people in the formation and ongoing heart of Christianity is one of the most notably unnoticed hallmarks of modern Christian preachers, popular speakers, and theologians.
According to Willie Jennings, associate professor at Yale Divinity School, the reason Christians neglect the Jews in the biblical narrative is they see themselves as the recipients of their history. “Most Christians were taught that the Bible is theirs; it was their story; it was for them and that God came for them first,” said Jennings. “Now that’s not a minor thing. That’s the mother of all distortions.”
I find myself continually frustrated by the culture and theology of Christianity that neglects Jewish people — the people through whom Jesus arose, the people he first addressed, and the people for whom he also sacrificed his life as an atonement. Christians clearly love Jesus and are inspired to deeply love others because of him — both of which stem from the Jewish commandments to love God and neighbor. But loving someone without familiarizing yourself with that person’s family or history, loving Jesus without knowing about his Jewish community, is like trying to love your spouse while you suffer from amnesia.
When I sought counsel from a close friend, who holds a doctorate in theology from Fuller Seminary, about the validity of love disconnected from Jesus’ community of origin, she put it in this illuminating way: “Like a tree with no roots, their actions can be virtuous,” said Jen Rosner, “while lacking a certain depth and anchoring in the fullness of the story of God and God’s redemptive plans for the world.”
These faithful Christians may not realize that they have inherited the long historical lineage of Christianity that, since the early centuries of the common era, has partaken in a deliberate or unwitting de-Judaizing of Christianity. The distancing from its original Jewish leadership, the replacement of Passover with Easter, the changing of names: Yeshua to Jesus, Miriam to Mary, Saul to Paul, continue to this day, despite Christian scholarship, altruism, and the progressive ideal of honoring a diversity of cultures.
It continually mystifies me that the nation that birthed Christianity should not be forefront in the hearts and minds of Christians. When white supremacists marched through Charlottesville, Va., in 2017, their bigoted message, underscored in their slogan “the Jews will not replace us,” was predominantly aimed at the Jews, as well as immigrants and minorities. Many Christians rightly spoke out against a general oppression of race, but they mostly omitted naming the Jewish community as that hate group’s largest target. Like many, they neglected their messiah’s community and the one who asserts to have “come first for the lost sheep of the house of Israel.”
The Jewish prophets, such as Isaiah, predicted the nations coming to faith in the God of Israel, but this universalization of belief would not suppress Israel’s unique history, role, or identity. Israel would always remain distinct, God’s chosen people, and an ongoing testimony to God’s unwavering love. For those biblical writers, the Gentiles would gain access to God and participate in the last half of the redemptive journey. As Messianic Rabbi Stuart Dauermann and author of Converging Destinies: Jews, Christians, and the Mission of God reminds us: “Salvation came to the nations through the Jewish people who had preserved the knowledge of God, his works, and his saving promises despite being subjected to many challenges throughout history.” Most critically, because Jews, for the most part, chose not to believe the gospel, it spread to the nations.
Dauermann continues to say that Christian service should be rooted in an indebtedness to the Jewish people because the doorway of salvation was opened to the Gentiles who were “separate from Christ, alienated from the commonwealth of Israel, and strangers to the covenants of promise, having no hope and without God in the world” (Eph. 2:12).
Christians’ acts of social justice will only be enriched once they recognize the means through which mercy was shown them.
“The Church’s acts of love will be sweetened, strengthened, and deepened when rooted in humble gratitude toward and respect for the Jewish people,” Dauermann added.
Thankfully, there are efforts made by various churches to awaken from the apathy toward Jesus’ Jewish community and to recognize Jesus’ eternal connection to the Jewish community of the past, present, and future. I applaud those churches that attempt to restore the Jewish context to Christianity without dissolving the separate identities of Jew and Gentile. Christians should retain all their glorious Gentile cultures from around the world while maintaining ties to the people that brought the Christian world its scriptures and messiah.
True love loses its value if the Church persists in its varying degrees of supersessionism, which maintains that the Jewish foundation has been replaced. Supersessionism destroys historic Israel’s religion. Jesus challenged Jewish leaders to prioritize love, but not through destroying the holy system that God had established through them for so many centuries. Jesus did not obliterate the history, covenants, or laws of the Jewish people, but pointed to himself as the enabler of renewal. During the Passover meal prior to his death, Jesus said to his Jewish disciples, “This cup is the new covenant in my blood; do this, whenever you drink it, in remembrance of me. For whenever you eat this bread and drink this cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes” (1 Cor. 11:25). That is, when the disciples would continue to enact the rituals of the Passover, they would uplift their current deliverer while still honoring the grand deliverance from Egypt.
Christianity’s love didn’t arise in a vacuum and neither should that of its followers. Christians should partake in social action while acknowledging the love that sparks those acts emerges out of a rich Jewish history seeped in the commandments of God and in a Jewish sacrifice for the nations until the “fullness of the Gentiles has come in” (Rom. 11:25).