In memory of Anthony J. Saldarini

September 18, 1941 - September 16, 2001


Prof. Anthony J. Saldarini died on Sept. 16, 2001 after a lengthy illness. A leading Christian scholar of Late Second Temple and Rabbinic Judaism, he was strongly committed to Jewish and Christian reconciliation. Tony was beloved by friends and colleagues as a warm, always encouraging and supportive person.  His scholarship, energy, and friendship will be sorely missed. The homily at his funeral liturgy was delivered by his close friend, Daniel J. Harrington, S.J. and we are grateful to Fr. Harrington for allowing us to post this homily.

The author of over sixty articles, Anthony Saldarini's books include:

  • The Fathers According to Rabbi Nathan. Version B. Translation and Commentary. Studies in Judaism in Late Antiquity. Volume 11; Leiden: Brill, 1975. 
  • Scholastic Rabbinism. A Literary Study of the Fathers According to Rabbi Nathan. Brown Judaic Series 14; Chico, CA: Scholars, 1982. 
  • Jesus and Passover. Ramsey: Paulist, 1984. 
  • Targum Jonathan to the Former Prophets. With Daniel J. Harrington, S.J., Wilmington: Michael Glazier Press, 1987. 
  • Pharisees, Scribes and Sadducees in Palestinian Society: A Sociological Approach. Wilmington: Michael Glazier Press, 1988. British edition:Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1989. 
  • Matthew's Christian-Jewish Community (Studies in the History of Judaism; Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1994). 
  • Dictionary of Judaism in the Biblical Period: 450 B.C.E.-600 C.E. (2 vols.; New York: MacMillan, 1996). Associate editor for History 450 B.C.E.-135 C.E.; author of about 300 entries. 
  • Cambridge Bible Companion (Cambridge/New York: Cambridge University Press, 1997). One of four authors.

In memory of our friend and colleague, we present here one of his last lectures on Christian-Jewish relations. Posted with the permission of the author and the Office for Ecumenical and Interreligious Affairs of the Archdiocese of Chicago.  



The First Century Speaks to the Twenty-First Century

The Joseph Cardinal Bernardin Jerusalem Lecture

April 14, 1999 Chicago


Anthony J. Saldarini

Boston College



Perhaps we are wasting our time here. History teaches us that Jews and Christians have been fighting since the late first century and experience has demonstrated again and again that the Christian tradition readily generates anti-Jewish and anti-Semitic attitudes and actions. Since the second century the Christian "teaching of contempt"1 concerning the Jews has dominated our theological, communal and political relationships. Christians, who read the New Testament seriously, frequently learn to despise Jews because of the anti-Jewish polemics there. Twenty-five years ago the theologian and scholar, Rosemary Radford Reuther of this city, warned that "possibly anti-Judaism is too deeply embedded in the foundations of Christianity to be rooted out entirely without destroying the whole structure.2

How might Christians correct anti-Judaism in the New Testament? Some have suggested excising anti-Jewish statements from the text, but Christians can no more do that than Jews edit the Torah. We can correct the biases in translations, but in the end many New Testament passages still attack Jewish leaders, practices or views.

Perhaps Christians could just leave the Jews alone. This is an attractive idea, but impossible. Christians have received revelation about God from and within the Jewish community and constructed their very way of life and thought from the Bible and early Jewish traditions. Christians have to study Judaism. Jesus the Jewish teacher and his early Jewish followers began as a Jewish reform movement or sect, so Christians have to say something about Jews. To this day Jews and Christians remain historically linked for better or worse. Safe to say after three thousand years, Judaism is here to stay and after two thousand years, Christianity as well. So, despite the shameful history of Christian anti-Semitism, we need to get on with our lives.

What then are we to do? Christians need to rethink and reform their theological tradition. A negative evaluation of Judaism has dominated Christian theology since the second century. This authoritative theological tradition goes by the names supersessionism, substitution, fulfillment, and replacement. The Christian church, according to this view, is the new people of God and the true Israel founded by a new covenant. Most Christians understand this view in a fairly crass fashion. Christians have superseded Jews, that is, Christians have set aside or forced out as inferior or taken the place of Jews. The old covenant is no longer valid because it has been replaced by a new covenant. The new covenant has completed, fulfilled, or perfected the preparatory, preliminary, temporary, imperfect, limited, defective old covenant. Consequently, Jews are no longer the "Israel" of the Bible. As early as the mid-second century the Christian writer Justin Martyr informed his astonished literary dialogue partner, Trypho the Jew, that Jews had been replaced by gentile Christians as God's "true Israel."

I am sure that some of this language I have just used sounds familiar and comfortable to many Christians here. Really? Turn to the Jews nearest you and tell them that you are the true Israel and they are not. Tell all the Jews in this room frankly and clearly what the Christian theological tradition has said for nineteen hundred years: that their way of life and relationship with God, their covenant, ended two thousand years ago. No? Why not? This theology is impeccably traditional and orthodox.

I concede immediately that this Christian supersessionist outlook has been seriously criticized by many Christian writers and teachers since World War II. But I emphasize to you that replacement theology has not been replaced. Despite thousands of dialogues, uncounted pages of criticism and frequent ecclesiastical pronouncements, Pharisees are still hypocrites to most Christians because Matthew says so (Matt. 23) and Jews are still legalistic because Paul criticized the law. For most Christians and in most educational textbooks and ecclesiastical documents, including the recent Catechism of the Catholic Church, Israel has value only insofar as it has provided the foundations for the Christian church. In the view of most Christians what is good in Jewish teachings and practices has been absorbed by, integrated into and subsumed under the new, final, and fully adequate revelation from God in Jesus Christ. To put the matter bluntly, for most Christians Judaism doesn't matter after Jesus Christ.

Christian preachers and teachers who have been informed and sensitized by Jewish-Christian dialogue avoid articulating the insulting claims that I have reviewed. But a tactful and prudent silence will not cure the tradition and cannot endure. Christians must proclaim what they know and act accordingly. So, we Christians must correct the underlying theology which replaces Israel with the church and thus denies the integrity and legitimacy of the Jewish people as the people of God. If we do not, anti-Judaism and anti-Semitism will continue to arise. If we can make a little progress on this problem, we will not have wasted our time here this evening.

God's Manifold People

Let me make four connected statements about Jews and Christians which underlie what I will say here about Jesus and the New Testament.

1. History matters in theology and in our relationships with God. God teaches us through history, we learn from history and our religious traditions change in history.

2. After nineteen hundred years of vigorous religious life in intersecting communities, both Jews and Christians may safely conclude that theologically speaking God remains faithful to Israel as his people and that God has called the nations to worship and obey him through Jesus Christ.

3. Both the Jewish and Christian communities are here to stay.

4. God has called the Jewish and Christian communities to be his people in some sort of relationship with one another.

But what about two millennia of anti-Judaism? At this point you may be thinking, with British understatement, "Stoutly said, Saldarini, but there is this little matter of two millennia of anti-Semitism and violence." Or you may be recalling the gently ironic Irish joke about the two women conversing outside church after Sunday Mass: "Ah, didn't Father preach a fine sermon on marriage." "Indeed he did; I only wish I knew as little about marriage as Father!" We need not close our eyes to anti-Judaism to appreciate and accept one another and we need not be naive to hope for change. We who are here today cannot escape history, but we are not totally determined by it either. We make history because our one God is a living, revealing, active God who has changed us and our two communities over the course of human history. We have in our hands the means to reverse our traditions of mutual denigration.

Interpreting Jesus

Since I am a teacher of early Christianity and its relationships with early Judaism, I will contribute to a new relationship between Jews and Christians by drawing an extended analogy between the first century and the post-World War II United States. In both periods Jews and followers of Jesus regularly lived and worked closely together with a growing understanding of one another and freely disagreed with little institutional oppression. In the first century the boundaries between Jewish followers of Jesus and the majority of the Jewish community had not yet hardened and in the twentieth century the hostile walls which estranged us from one another have been somewhat lowered.

How have these changes in historical interpretation altered Christian views of Jesus? At St. Kevin's Parish in Uphams Comer, in the Dorchester section of Boston, Massachusetts in the 1940's and 50's when I was a boy, Jesus was a Christian. In many places he still is. Even more strangely in the 1930's and 40's in Germany Jesus was an Aryan Christian. How could a first-century Galilean Jew become a Christian and for some an Aryan, non-Jewish Christian at that?

Let me make three preliminary points which will begin to explain conflicting points of view concerning Jesus and the New Testament.

1. First, we have four late first-century interpretations of Jesus in each of the four gospels. We have not a word written by Jesus and no contemporary accounts of his activities.

2. Second, Christians must in each generation interpret Jesus for themselves just as the first century gospel authors did.

3. Third, though the risk of misinterpreting Jesus is great, no single interpretation is valid to the exclusion of all others.

This last point should not trouble us. Both Jews and Christians love to interpret their traditions, to argue about their interpretations and to reinterpret once again. Look at the books and commentaries on our shelves and the gusto with which we discuss them and produce even more. We like to think that what we believe is the way it always was and that the truths of our religions are eternal and unchanging, but two hours of reading and reflection will show that this is not true.

We necessarily interpret as we read, listen and try to understand, but not all interpretations are created equal, despite the claims of some post-modern interpreters. History has the vocation of criticizing and limiting interpretations to the rationally probable. Historically a Christian Jesus is a parochial, self-serving myth and an Aryan Jesus perverse. If Jesus is a Jew, how can we understand that reality and how can it help Jewish-Christian relations and a renewed Christian theology of Judaism today?

Jesus and His Jewish Followers in the First Century

Jesus came from a little village called Nazareth in central lower Galilee. Lower Galilee is the Esdraelon Valley which runs from the Mediterranean Sea to the Sea of Galilee for about twenty-five miles east-west by twenty miles north-south. It is a region smaller than a daily commute in many metropolitan areas. As a young man Jesus moved to Capernaum, a medium-sized town (10,000 to 20,000 people) in the northeastern comer of the Esdraelon Valley on the northwest shore of the Sea of Galilee. Although Jesus has become an internationally known Christian religious figure and Christians revere Jesus as the savior of the world, during his lifetime he was a strictly local teacher who worked within a twenty mile radius of Capernaum, teaching and healing farmers and artisans from his own social class in villages which probably numbered a few hundred at most. Jesus never worked in the two large Galilean cities, Tiberias the capital on the shore of the Sea of Galilee and Sepphoris three miles north of Nazareth, nor did he go into the large cities of the Decapolis in the Jordan River area nor those along the Mediterranean coast.

Jesus was a non-institutional, "popular" teacher and worker of powerful deeds who attracted wide local interest but only a small group of dedicated followers. He was one of those holy men, like the Biblical prophets and wise men, who had a special relationship with God. Some people accepted Jesus' relationship with God as authentic but most distrusted his claims, as we would expect. After all how many of you have been moved by modem spiritual teachers, faith healers or mystics? What would you think if a family member became a follower of the messiah, Sun Myung Moon, of the Unification Church?

Jesus was a Jewish reformer, one of many in the Greco-Roman period. He and his disciples promoted renewed social relationships based on the Biblical tradition, a program communicated by the metaphor of the kingdom of God. Other Jewish movements and sects emphasized other themes and aspects of the Jewish tradition. The Pharisees had their own program for creating a law-observant Jewish society with special stress on purity, tithing and sabbath rest. The Dead Sea community committed themselves to a renewal of the covenant and they along with other groups of priests argued over sacrificial law, holiness and priestly purity. The Sadducees exhorted the ruling classes to remain faithful to Biblical law traditionally interpreted. They all drew from the same Biblical sources, but emphasized distinctive themes and practices. They were so similar that they constantly disagreed with one another.

Jesus the Jew in Christian Theology

As interesting as ali this first-century practice, thought and sociology may be in itself, what does it matter for believing Christians and for Jewish-Christian relations'? Does Jesus the Jew precisely as a Jew have any impact on Christian theology and on Jewish-Christian relations? Or is Jesus' life as a Jew just accidental? After all, he had to be born something: Inca or Ethiopian, Mongolian or whatever. Is Jesus' Jewishness superseded by his role as Christ, the anointed one, the Messiah sent by God to save all nations? For Christians the Christ is universal, a God-man for all humans. So is Jesus "Everyman" for everyone? Has Jesus become an abstracted, allegorical character in a morality play'?

Any human being, even the Son of God incarnated as Jesus of Nazareth, must live concretely in a place, time, society and culture. To wrench Jesus out of his Jewish world would destroy Jesus as he really is and destroy Christianity, the religion which grew out of his teachings. Even Jesus' most familiar role as Christ or Messiah (Hebrew for "anointed one") is a Jewish role. Christians may respond that Jesus is the Son of God, the second person of the one triune God. But that term, "Son of God," is a Biblical Hebrew , idiom for kings and prophets and others chosen by God. And the very term "God" and the way Christians conceive of God rests on the Jewish Bible and dissolves without it. If we Christians leave the concrete realities of Jesus' life and of the history of Israel behind in favor of a mythic, universal, spiritual Christian church and an otherworldly kingdom of God, we deny our origins in Israel, our history, and with that, God who has loved and protected Israel and our church. We cease to interpret the actual Jesus sent by God and make him over into our own image and likeness. Finally, to move from theology to the brutalities of life, if Christians violently wrench Jesus out of his natural, ethnic and historical place within the people of Israel, they open the way to destroying Israel, the place and people of Jesus, with equal violence. This is a lesson of history which haunts us all at the end of the twentieth century.

If, however, Jesus the Christ and the Son of God is as radically Jewish as are his titles, if the core symbol of Christianity is permanently Jewish, then Jesus and his followers remain permanently related to Israel. All old joke about a priest, minister and rabbi captures the irony of this situation well. The priest and minister arrived at the heavenly gates where St. Peter welcomed them, but put off their entry due to Jesus' busy schedule. A while later a rabbi arrived and was immediately sent in. When the priest and minister protested, Peter shrugged and explained, "A relative of the boss."

Matthew's Community

Even if Jesus was a Jew living in Galilee, by the last third of the first century, when the four gospels were most probably written, the majority of Jesus' followers were gentiles living in the eastern Mediterranean. Many people think that Jews and Christians were sharply divided from one another by this time and that a new Christian religion was fighting its Jewish parent for independence and supremacy. But for most places in the Mediterranean world this view is inaccurate. Most people still could not clearly distinguish the followers of Jesus from Jews. A large number of Jesus' followers were ethnic Jews and still lived as Jews. Non-Jewish converts from Greco-Roman gods to the God of the Bible lived and thought substantially like Jews. For their part followers of Jesus did not call themselves Christians (the word only appears in the New Testament three times, always in the mouths of outsiders) and the word does not appear widely in literature. The assemblies of believers in Jesus may have had their conflicts with the Jewish community but they were for the most part not yet self-consciously opposed to the Jewish community. The clear boundaries that divide us today had not yet been drawn.

Among the many Jewish groups in the late first century, such as the early Rabbis, the priests who survived the destruction of the Temple and local villagers faithful to their ancestral customs, was a group of Jewish followers of Jesus who were addressed and instructed by the Jewish author of the Gospel of Matthew. They probably lived in the vicinity of Galilee or in southern Syria-Lebanon. By becoming followers of Jesus neither the author nor his audience ceased to be Jews. People did not change the ethnic group into which they were born and Christianity did not yet exist as a separate religion which they could join. Many first-century Jews probably viewed the author of Matthew as deviant, misguided or strange, but he was precisely a strange Jew. Think of the variety of Jews in the United States and Israel today and what they think of one another. Christians in the Appalachian mountains who handle snakes and drink poison because the longer ending of Mark says God will protect them (Mark 16: 18) are in my judgment seriously mistaken in their practice and orientation, but they are still Christians.

In what way is the Gospel of Matthew Jewish and what can we learn from it?3 The narrative implies that the author of Matthew around 90 CE hoped to attract members of the larger Jewish community to Jesus' new interpretation of the Jewish tradition. He cites the Bible frequently, using Hebrew and Greek versions, in order to authenticate his view of Jesus and his teaching. Matthew's Jesus fits comfortably within first-century Jewish understandings of how God guides human affairs and acts through divinely empowered agents. Typological associations of Jesus with Moses, personified Wisdom and the prophets resonate deeply with first-century Jewish understandings of history and its heroes.

The author of Matthew is an informed participant in a number of first-century Jewish legal debates. Second Temple Jewish documents, such as the Book of Jubilees, the Temple Scroll and the Covenant of Damascus as well as the early strata of the Mishnah, finally edited about 200 CE, argued over tithing, the validity of oaths and vows, the conditions for divorce, the exact requirements of Sabbath, the conditions of purity and dietary laws. The Pharisees, Sadducees and priestly factions clashed over these items before the Temple was destroyed and their heirs continued the disputes afterwards. Matthew joins in this debate as a serious defender of his group's understanding of how one should live as a Jew according to the teachings of Jesus. He accepts the Jewish Bible and bases his arguments on it, using the types of reasoning found in first-century Jewish literature. But he sees the whole tradition through the eyes of Jesus as he understands him.

Many argue that Matthew's polemics against Jews prove that he has left the Jewish community. But his harsh attacks against his opponents and their positions are typical of inner Jewish sectarian conflict. In fact, vilification of one's rivals and opponents appears in modern political campaigns in the United States and in Israel and in ancient Jewish, Greco- Roman and Christian literature. Bare-knuckle power struggles among rival groups go back as far as we have writing. Matthew's accusations of hypocrisy and blindness against his opponents, the "scribes and Pharisees" in chapter twenty-three, communicate the same message as the epithets "Wicked Priest," "Scoffer," "Man of the Lie," "Violent One," and "Seekers After Smooth Things" which lace the Dead Sea Scrolls. Significantly, the author of Matthew, like the authors of the Dead Sea Scrolls, attacks only the leaders of the Jewish community who, in his judgment, culpably rejected Jesus and misled the people away from him. He does not attack the Jewish people in general. In the gospel narrative the crowds of Jewish people remain for the author of Matthew fertile ground for sowing the teachings of Jesus concerning Judaism. In Matthew's late first-century setting he directs his polemics against rival leaders and their competing programs for understanding and living Judaism in the light of the loss of the Temple.

What can we learn from Matthew and the historical Jesus?

1. First, neither in the first century nor in the late twentieth for that matter have the relationships between the followers of Jesus and the Jewish community as a whole been completely peaceful or trouble free. Prejudices, stereotypes, polemics and conflicts have caused social discord in the first century and today. We must recognize that even though everyone "does it," everyone engages in social, religious, political and cultural conflicts, they are destructive within each of our communities and between them.

2. Second, in the first century and in our half of the twentieth century both the positive and the negative relationships between Jews and Christians have for the most part been real, experienced, lived relationships and the conflicts real, face-to-face conflicts. We have not engaged in elaborate, traditional set-pieces based on Jewish conspiracies to take over the world. I acknowledge that many people carry around stereotypes in their heads and emotions, but rubbing shoulders continually challenges those imaginary figures. Real conflicts can be solved and real relationships can be worked out in contrast to universal, eternal prejudices which resist reason and experience.

3. Third, the New Testament, read in context, may subvert the anti-Jewish theology which it spawned and suggest new avenues of thought.

Now, can we put these experiences from the first century to work at the beginning of a new millennium?

The Need for a New Christian Theology of Israel

In contrast to the Gospel of Matthew, the traditional Christian theology which replaces Israel with the Church and condemns the Jews for rejecting Jesus does not reflect a real relationship between Christians and Jews today. It does not apply to the contemporary Jewish community in any recognizable fashion nor to the first-century communities of Jews and followers of Jesus which I have described here. The New Testament documents reflect a time when followers of Jesus sincerely and creatively struggled to understand God's will for Israel. The New Testament does not have a clear answer to the problem because its authors' views vary greatly and are underdeveloped. But the flexibility and openness of the New Testament has the potential to shake Christians loose from the overdetermined traditions, attitudes and institutions which subordinate or annihilate the Jews. We need a robust, nuanced theology of Jews and Christians which grapples with the tensions and anguish of our history without the first-century polemics and the nineteen hundred years of theological anti-Judaism and social anti-Semitism.

But a new theology, a new understanding of God, of our traditions and thus of our relationship is easier proposed than developed. We have come to like orthodoxy. Even the liberals among us like a nice, stable, reliable, liberal doctrine criticizing the traditional teaching. Orthodoxies seek oneness and unity in response to our experience of plurality. But orthodoxies tend to subsume, subordinate, modify or obliterate that which does not fit. In contrast, our historical experience strongly suggests that after two thousand years God has called and formed our communities as intersecting, but not as one; as related to one another but not identical; as differently but authentically faithful to God. Our separateness is normative, not sinful, and our relationship with one another is normal and necessary. God calls us to similar but distinct ways of life in our world.

Christians may think that good will, repentance and a firm purpose of amendment will end anti-Semitism. Good intentions and a change of heart are essential, but not enough. The Second Vatican Council told Catholics to stop persecuting and discriminating against Jews and to reform their anti-Semitic attitudes. Vatican II succeeded, but only partly. Catholics have stopped teaching that the Jews killed Jesus and that God repudiated or cursed the Jews. But the Council did not correct the theology which underlay anti-Judaism and anti-Semitism. It said "the Church is the new people of God"4 and linked the value to Judaism to its fulfillment in Christianity. The recent Catechism of the Catholic Church has not gone beyond Vatican II.5 Both documents affirm the traditional replacement theology, even if more circumspectly and tactfully than in the past.

Some conferences of Catholic bishops and analogous Protestant bodies have done better. For example, in 1973 the French Catholic bishops recognized the living and permanent relationship of Israel to God and of Christians to the Jewish people.6 Responding implicitly to the Holocaust, to Christian persecution of the Jews and to Christian theology which sought to supersede Israel, the French bishops began with the historical fact that the Jewish people survived and began to develop a theological thesis that this was God's will. They acknowledged that the theological problem has not been worked out when they said that the Church "perceives in the uninterrupted existence of this [Jewish] people through the centuries a sign that she [the church] would wish to fully comprehend."7 The bishops affirmed a permanent, enduring divine call to Israel, even though they could not fully explain it.

Even though in Jesus Christ the Covenant was renewed for Christendom, the Jewish people must not be looked upon by Christians as a mere social and historical reality but most of all as a religious one; not as the relic of a venerable and finished past but as a reality alive through the ages. The principal features of this vitality of the Jewish people are its collective faithfulness to the One God; its fervor in studying the Scriptures to discover, in the light of Revelation, the meaning of human life; its search for an identity amidst other men; its constant efforts to re-assemble as a new, unified community. These signs pose questions to us Christians which touch on the heart of our faith: What is the proper mission of the Jews in the divine plan? What expectations animate them, and in what respect are these expectations different from or similar to our own?8

Answers satisfy more than questions, but questions at least acknowledge the problem.

The French bishops laid down two of the foundation stones of a new Christian theology of Israel when they affirmed that the "First Covenant was not made invalid by the Second" and that "the Jews as people have been the object of an 'eternal Covenant' without which the 'new Covenant' would not even exist."9 Translated into the language of this lecture, Jesus as a Jew does matter for Christian theology and Christians do have a permanent relationship with the real, living Jewish community.

So far so good, but the tensions between the reigning tradition of replacement theology and post-Holocaust attempts to understand our relationship soon muddle the French bishops' forthright stand in favor of the Jewish community. They correctly instruct Christians to understand the Old Testament/Hebrew Bible in itself, but they quickly add that "the Old Testament renders its ultimate meaning to us [presumably, gentile Christians] only in the light of the New" (emphasis mine).10 Their theological language is still weighted against Jews. Less sophisticated and enlightened preachers, teachers and people still put Jews down or outside in some sense and treat them as incomplete or as an appendage or as part of the foundation of the Christian church, rather that as a chosen community of God's people.

Only if Christians thoroughly think out a new doctrine, as the French bishops began to do, a new way of teaching and speaking to replace the old, only then will they change their story and their interpretations and affirm the integrity, vocation and value of the Jewish community in itself, under God. If Christian theological teaching does not change, then Christian thought and attitudes will not change and, inevitably, the traditional anti-Jewish teachings will reappear in new ways and anti-Semitism will go on and on. The problem of anti-Semitism in the Christian community and of anti-Judaism in Christian theology is rooted in the New Testament, has flourished in almost all Christian theologies and societies for centuries and is alive and well today despite massive efforts by Jews and Christians since World War II. Radical intervention is required.

Creating a New Theology of Christians and Jews

So how shall Christians speak of God, Jesus Christ, Israel and the church? Christians have favored grand schemes which somehow encompass the history of Israel and Christianity's goal to convert all people to faith in to the Biblical God through Jesus Christ. Ironically, such theological and historical schemes (covenantal theology, dispensationalism, salvation history, theologies of history, etc.) have frequently ignored history, oversimplified the realities of our communities and prejudiced theology against all non-Christians. The very popular concept of "salvation history" is an ineffective dodge in the face of science and historicism. God does not work in some ethereal dimension of salvation history or spirituality or grace. Grace is God's self-gift to us. Spirit is incarnate in matter. Either God acts in history on and with us as we are, here and now, in this room and in the city and suburbs of Chicago where people are watching TV, playing, fighting and talking, or God does not act at all. No special sphere of "salvation history" will preserve God from modern criticism of religion. Covenantal theology, too, is an ineffective abstraction in the face of Christians' uncertainties about their relationship with Israel and with other nations.

We may make more progress by speaking of the actual relationships of our communities in the first century as well as in the twentieth. Recent interpretations of the letters of the apostle Paul have argued that Paul did not create a new religion, as late nineteenth century liberal Protestant theologians argued, but that Paul, in Romans 9-11, sought to bring the nations, the gentiles, into Israel as worshippers of the one Biblical God. Perhaps Paul, the Jew who believed in Jesus and reached out to the nations, can be a model for us Christians today. He affirms God's choice of Israel, the twists and turns of Israel's history, God's freedom to judge and show mercy to both the nations and Israel, God's will to save all humans, the dependence of gentiles on Israel for their relationship with God and God's enduring faithfulness to Israel. Paul expects God to resolve everything soon, at the end of the world which he expected during his lifetime. He does not know exactly how it will happen because he concludes Romans 9-11 with a hymn of praise to the inscrutability of God's wisdom and judgments - a sure sign of confusion.

Neither Paul's expectation of the end of the world in his lifetime nor our neat schemes of covenants and salvation history work very well. We live concretely in a messy, unfinished world. If the stories about God in the Bible are to be believed, that is, really accepted as revelatory of God, God works in this messy world, not in an antiseptic salvation history nor with one pristine, clearly outlined covenant. The creation of humans did not go smoothly in the early chapters of Genesis. The Hebrews' march through the desert was less than a triumphal celebration of God's power. The anxieties of Jeremiah, the agonies of Job, the "necessity" of Jesus' death, all these human experiences authoritatively recorded in the Jewish and Christian Bibles, inscribe for Jews and Christians a God who responds to human needs in the vagaries of history. Thus we must accept God and each other even if we do not fully understand our troubled relationship. We must humbly defer to God and leave room for each other because God has called both our communities, has kept us both alive and vigorous and has forgiven our sins.

What I will say at the end of this lecture may seem strange to some Christians, but it is a return to the tradition. At the most fundamental level of theology Christians need to emphasize God more than they have and Jesus Christ as savior within the context of God's relationship to humanity. Christians too frequently center everything on Jesus to the detriment of the God who sent him, guided him and sustained him. Jesus subordinated himself to God's will to rule, conserve, care for and bring to fulfillment humanity and the universe in which humanity lives. The kingdom, that is, the rule of God should rule theology. God rules over and loves and cares for Israel, the church and all nations.

This may sound as if I am pushing Jesus to the side in order to solve the relationship between Israel and the Church. But when I speak of God, I speak of God specifically and precisely as a Christian. The triune Christian God is one reality with inner relations among three subsistents, the begetter, the begotten and the spirated one, or more familiarly, the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. In all else, in all activity, in all relationships with humans, God is, acts, loves and saves as one, indivisibly. To say that God saves humans means that the Father saves as do the Son and the Spirit. To say that Jesus the Son of God saves is to say that God saves. When God saves Israel, in the Christian understanding of God, the Spirit of God and the Son of God as well as God the Father save Israel. God has acted and acts today in and for Israel and the church.

Why these word games about God and Jesus? Because the game is very serious and often deadly. Christians have often said that because Jews did not accept Jesus, they are damned and rejected by God. But Jews have always accepted God, even when sinning, suffering and repenting. Let me put this in Christian language for Christians. Jews accept and faithfully follow the God of the Bible. That God of the Bible is the God whom we Christians believe sent Jesus Christ to save us. So Jews accept the same God we Christians worship, even though we understand God differently. If Christian Trinitarian theology is to be actively believed and not ignored, God as Father, Son and Spirit is there for Israel, faithfully fulfilling the covenant made centuries ago. When we Christians say that God loves Israel and God cares for Israel and God saves Israel we mean that God as Father and God as Son and God as Spirit does all these things as one. And so Jesus is implicitly involved even if not explicitly invoked. Christians need not try to take over for God in running the universe. God does not need the church of the nations to attack, denigrate or coerce Israel concerning faith in Jesus Christ. God in God's fullness is with Israel already.

For Christians the corollary to God's love for Israel is clear: what Jesus Christ did and was, what Jesus Christ does and is in his Church today takes place within Israel. We see this in the life of Jesus, in the history of our two communities and in the deeply Jewish roots of the Christian tradition which sustains us every day. The Israel on which the Church depends and with which it lives is not some abstraction found in books, not an historically obsolete religion, nor a purely spiritual entity which transcends this world. Israel is the actual, living community of Jews with whom Christians live in a permanent relationship to this very day. Now let us live this relationship and speak of it appropriately.


  1. The phrase comes from Jules Isaac, The Teaching of Contempt: Christian Roots of Anti-Semitism (New York: Holt, 1964).

  2. Faith and Fratricide: The Theological Roots of Anti-Semitism (New York: Seabury/Crossroad, 1974) 228.

  3. The interpretation of the Gospel of Matthew as coming from a community of Jesus' followers who still considered themselves Jewish comes from my book, Matthew's Christian-Jewish Community (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1994). This book was published in the series "Chicago Studies in the History of Judaism."

  4. Nostra Aetate, #4.

  5. Mary Boys, "How Shall We Christians Understand Jews and Judaism? Questions About the New Catechism," Theology Today 53 (1996) 165-170.

  6. "Statement by the French Bishops' Committee for Relations with Jews," in Helga Croner, ed., Stepping Stones to Further Jewish-Christian Relations: An Unabridged Collection of Documents," (New York: Paulist, 1977) 60-65. The statement was issued in April, 1973.

  7. "Statement by the French Bishops' Committee for Relations with Jews," 60.

  8. "Statement by the French Bishops' Committee for Relations with Jews," 61.

  9. "Statement by the French Bishops' Committee for Relations with Jews," 62, 64.

  10. "Statement by the French Bishops' Committee for Relations with Jews," 62.