The Evangelization of the Jewish People

“Say to the cities of Judah, ‘Behold your God!’” (Isaiah 40:9)

In 2015, to mark the fiftieth anniversary of Nostra aetate, the Commission for Religious Relations with the Jews issued a document entitled “The Gifts and the Calling of God Are Irrevocable” (hereafter, GC). Although some years have passed since its publication, this text still serves as a useful example of the post-conciliar Church’s vexing and muddled position on the desirability of evangelizing the Jewish people, a subject of renewed salience due to recent statements by Pope Francis concerning the Mosaic law. By reflecting on GC’s defects, we might achieve a fuller appreciation of the mystery of Israel (which is, we will discover, the mystery of the Church), and recommit ourselves to the universal proclamation of the Gospel, “to the Jew first, and also to the Greek” (Romans 1:16).

From the outset, GC invites confusion by carelessly trafficking in the misleading locutions that typify Catholic-Jewish discourse. For instance, it repeatedly mentions the “Jewish roots” of Christianity (e.g., 5, 13, 14) and describes the Old Testament writings as “Hebrew Scriptures” (13). Such characterizations subtly divide the people and revelation of God. The roots of the Church are Christian no less than its buds and branches, and the Scriptures are always and ever Christian Scriptures, written by believers in the Messiah who looked forward to His coming (Luke 2:25-32, 24:27; John 5:46; 1 Peter 1:10-11). 

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These preliminary blunders intimate a grave misconception concerning the identity of Israel and thus the identity of the Church. This misconception pervades the document and reflects a serious error in contemporary Catholic thought. Specifically, GC fails to grasp Israel’s perennially Christian character, flowing from the eternity of the Gospel of Jesus Christ (Revelation 14:6), who was “foreordained before the foundation of the world” (1 Peter 1:20). 

Beginning with Adam, holy souls surveyed the horizon, yearning for the Lord’s advent. This primordial expectation grew large in the minds of the patriarchs; and the special people sprung from their loins—Israel—cherished this approaching mystery, the mystery of Christ. “The fathers of old had faith in the future passion of Christ” (St. Thomas, Summa Theologiae III, 62, 6). Now, wherever there is faith in Christ, there is Christ, and wherever there is Christ, there is His Church.

Consequently, Israel was, from the beginning, the congregation of Christ, the wise believing explicitly in their redeemer, and the ignorant believing implicitly (St. Thomas, Summa Theologiae II-II, 1, 7). “Those of old not only knew the things to come, but also greatly desired them” (St. John Chrysostom, Homily 45 on Matthew; see Matthew 13:17, John 8:56, Hebrews 11:26). 

Israel’s abiding Christian identity complicates the naïve suggestion that the Jews are Christians’ “elder brothers” or “fathers in faith,” as GC alleges, echoing recent popes (14). Quite the opposite. St. Paul wrote that “not all are children of Abraham because they are his offspring,” but rather those are children of Abraham who are “children of the promise” (Romans 9:7-8), begotten through faith in Christ, the Promised One.

Such is made clear elsewhere: St. Paul explains that “it is men of faith who are the sons of Abraham” (Galatians 3:7), specifically faith in the Gospel “preached…beforehand to Abraham” (Galatians 3:8). The prophets and patriarchs are “elder brothers” and “fathers in faith” insofar as they are, like us, Christians: believers in the Messiah. Speaking of Abraham, St. Irenaeus wrote, “His faith and ours are one and the same” (Against Heresies IV, 21, 1).

Given the foregoing, it is no surprise that GC’s treatment of supersessionism proves facile. It dismissively and somewhat embarrassingly recounts that “many of the Church Fathers” believed “the promises and commitments of God would no longer apply to Israel…but had been transferred to the Church of Jesus Christ which was now the true ‘new Israel,’ the new chosen people of God” (17).

Curiously, this supposedly retrograde conviction appears almost verbatim in Nostra aetate itself: “The Church is the new people of God” (4). In any event, GC ignores the most sophisticated version of the supersessionist perspective, which holds not that the Church “replaced” Israel as God’s people, but that there is, was, and ever will be but one Israel, related to God by successive covenants, all of which have Christ as their substance, either in shadow or in truth. 

Both in the past and in the present, Israel has contemplated the face of God in Christ, although formerly the divine countenance was hidden and barely glimpsed (Exodus 33:23), whereas now it is revealed in unfading splendor (2 Corinthians 3). There is neither replacement nor rupture, but transformation and growth, as God manifests His glory with increasing clarity, and the Gentiles are “brought near” to the “commonwealth of Israel” (Ephesians 2:12-13) and “grafted” into the tree of Israel, from which those Jews who reject the Messiah are “broken off because of unbelief” (Romans 11:17, 20). Not that the unbelieving Jews are forever alienated from God. They remain “beloved for the sake of their forefathers” (Romans 11:28), the intended heirs of “irrevocable” gifts and vocations (Romans 11:29). 

However, it does not follow, contrary to GC’s sly but undeniable suggestions (e.g., 24-25), that Torah observance represents a plausible path to salvation. For whatever power the Mosaic law previously possessed derived from Christ, whose person and work are expressly rebuffed by practitioners of contemporary Judaism. Those Jews who deny Christ are genuinely severed from Israel and estranged from God, but they can return at any moment and take up their birthright. 

Because GC fails to recognize the essential continuity of Israel across the ages, and its enduring identity as a messianic fellowship—despite occasional gestures to the contrary (e.g., 14, 28)—the text inevitably fabricates two peoples of God: “The Church is called the new people of God, but not in the sense that the people of God of Israel has ceased to exist…[T]he Church does not replace the people of God of Israel [sic]” (23).

This fabrication in turn compels GC to posit dual means of saving obedience to the Word (despite elsewhere disaffirming a “two path” soteriology (25)): first, a path of obedience for Jews through adherence to Torah; second, a path of obedience for Christians through adherence to Jesus (24). It goes so far as to assert that a “right relationship” with God may be “learned through Torah and the traditions based on it” (24). 

This pronouncement effectively renders superfluous the coming and passion of the Lord, as St. Paul declared: “[I]f righteousness were through the law, then Christ died for no purpose” (Galatians 2:21). More disturbingly, GC cites a Jewish proverb that makes the Torah the source of “life in its fullness” (24). However, the Torah cannot provide such plenitude, for “the law [makes] nothing perfect” (Hebrews 7:19)—especially when the Torah is consciously pitted against Christ, as is the case in much modern Judaism. Fullness of life is found only in Christ: “From his fullness we have all received, grace upon grace. For the law was given through Moses, but grace and truth came through Jesus Christ” (John 1:16-17). 

It would be false to imply that GC altogether fails to express Christ’s “universal and…exclusive mediation of salvation” (35). But it cannot manage to articulate this truth without immediately subjoining some vitiating exception. For instance: “From the Christian confession that there can be only one path to salvation, however, it does not in any way follow that the Jews are excluded from God’s salvation because they do not believe in Jesus Christ as the Messiah of Israel and the Son of God” (36).

GC references Romans 9-11 to establish this bizarre hypothesis but does not furnish convincing exegesis. Small wonder, given the Apostle’s actual train of thought in the cited chapters, wherein he argues that his ethnic brethren have largely “stumbled over the stumbling stone [Christ]” (Romans 9:32) and are now dead branches pruned from the tree of Israel. 

These branches may be restored, but only through faith in, and obedience to, the Messiah (Romans 11:30-32): “If they do not continue in their unbelief, they will be grafted in again, for God has the power to graft them in again” (Romans 11:23). Indeed, St. Paul seems to anticipate such re-grafting—but not apart from the Gospel (Romans 11:26-32), as any straightforward reading of the relevant verses makes plain.

Therefore, if the Church is obliged to evangelize anyone, it is the Jews, who deserve to occupy a unique place in the “commonwealth of Israel” (Ephesians 2:12), for they bear a tangible relation to the patriarchs, the prophets, the apostles, the blessed Virgin, and the Lord Jesus himself. Did not St. Paul hasten to the synagogues of the diaspora to proclaim Christ (e.g., Acts 9:20, 13:14, 17:2)? Did not St. Peter declare, “Let all the house of Israel therefore know for certain that God has made him both Lord and Christ, this Jesus whom you crucified” (Acts 2:36)? 

To preach the Gospel to the Jews is not anti-Semitic; rather, not to preach the Gospel to the Jews is anti-Semitic, for what greater hatred is there than denying to an entire race the news of God’s saving mercy? Yet GC has the precise effect of depriving the Jews of Christ. Dialogue about mundane matters is proposed in place of evangelical mission (37, 40, 46-47). The upshot is that Jews are condescendingly shielded from the truth and thereby encouraged to seek salvation through Torah observance, although “no one is justified before God by the law” (Galatians 3:11). What manner of charity is this? What sort of justice? When did the Church determine it might fairly withhold bread and meat from some because they have milk aplenty?

In the last analysis, GC is an artifact of the lethal apathy and indifference pervading the Church today. Sadly, it is not a strange phenomenon in this regard. We need only consider the baffling formulation of Cardinal Koch, made in the wake of the pope’s supposed devaluation of the Mosaic law (alluded to at the start of this essay): “The abiding Christian conviction is that Jesus Christ is the new way of salvation. However, this does not mean that the Torah is diminished or no longer recognized as the way of salvation for Jews.” That this apathy and indifference should run to the Jews is a diabolical twist of irony. 

Christians must love the Jews, as they love all men, entertaining neither crude stereotypes nor foolish prejudices. But love entails truth. What truth? “Your father Abraham rejoiced that he would see my day. He saw it and was glad” (John 8:56). What else? “Your accuser is Moses, in whom you have put your hope. But if you had believed Moses, you would believe me, because he wrote about me” (John 5:45-46). If we forsake the mission to the Jews, what will Christ say when at last He comes? Will He not say, “Why, of all men, did you despise my kin, my flesh?” And before such an awful charge, who will stand? Who possibly will stand?  

[Photo Credit: Unsplash]

  • Philip Primeau

    Philip Primeau is a layman of the Diocese of Providence. His writing has appeared in Catholic World Report, Aleteia, Catholic Exchange, and Homiletic & Pastoral Review.

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