For a long time, Christianity has sought to either deny its Jewish foundation or minimize it by declaring Christianity to be a new religion with a few Jewish trappings: Jew-ish lite. As the narrative goes, Jesus was resurrected from the tomb and started a new movement that would replace and supersede ancient Judaism.
The second-century anti-Judaic heretic Marcion certainly contributed to the deception that Christianity was set apart from Judaism. There were three streams of thought in Marcion’s doctrine: 1) Christianity needed to disconnect from the Jewish Torah because not only did the Torah lack authority, but it was also offensive culturally. 2) The God of the Torah was different than the God of Christianity. 3) The third stream of Marcion’s belief was a sinister jealousy toward the Jewish founders of the faith that determined to erase all Jewish values and ethics from Christianity. Early church fathers would embrace the jealousy of Marcion.
R. Kendal Soulen, Professor of Systematic Theology at Candler School of Theology, Emory University, and a leader in counteracting the lie that Marcion and others perpetuated, says that there are three kinds of replacement theology: 1) Punitive – God made a new covenant with the church that replaced the old covenant with Israel as a penalty for rejecting Jesus. 2) Economic – God called Israel to prepare the way for the Messiah, and after he came, Israel was no longer needed. 3) Structural – the history of salvation is structured to only need Israel as a negative example. However you describe it, replacement theology requires the elimination of Judaism from Christianity, and in most Christian circles, this superseding or displacement myth has become the bedrock of Christian theology.
One of America’s popular Christian leaders has embraced some of the core beliefs of Marcion. Andy Stanley, lead pastor of North Point Community Church in Atlanta, is encouraging his followers to “unhitch” their faith from “Jewish scriptures” and from a scripturally Jewish “worldview and value system.” In his book, Irresistible, Pastor Stanley embraces Marcion’s rejection of God’s covenant with Israel: “This (Israel) was his nation. The nation God had raised up from one man for one purpose – to bless the world. But that chapter was drawing to a close. God’s covenant with the nation had served its purpose. It was no longer needed.” He also says, “careless mixing and matching of old and new covenant values and imperatives” is what makes “the current version of our faith unnecessarily resistible.”
Yet, the foundation of Christianity is built on Jewish fathers, Jewish prophets, Jewish scriptures, and a Jewish worldview. Jesus was Jewish. He was raised in a Jewish culture, taught by devout Jewish parents, and lived a lifestyle based on Jewish customs. Remarkably, the Jesus Christianity has come to know is framed as essentially non-Jewish. Jesus’ mother never got the memo that the promises given to the Jewish people would one day be erased, and Israel would be replaced with the church. In her famous prayer known as The Magnificat, Mary proclaims, “He has helped His servant Israel, in remembrance of His mercy, according to His promise He made to our ancestors, to Abraham, and to his descendants forever” (Luke 1:54-55). Mary affirms God’s promises to Israel, and the Jewish people are everlasting and will never be taken away.
A group of Jewish elders once came to Jesus to appeal to him for the healing of a Roman centurion’s servant. The centurion was a convert to Judaism, and the elders noted, “This man is worthy to have you grant this, for he loves our nation and has built our synagogue” (Luke 7:4-5). It’s interesting that Jesus does not argue with the elders about the merits of Judaism, the synagogue, or the nation of Israel. He celebrated all three. He never once proclaimed that Israel or Judaism would be replaced by a future religion. The early church, in fact, was founded by Jews in the Jewish city of Jerusalem and was initially exclusively Jewish, being a sect of Judaism.
In the preface to his book, Our Father Abraham, Marvin Wilson writes:
“The roots of Christianity run deep into Hebrew soil. Though the Hebrew heritage of the Church is rich and extensive, many Christians are regrettably uninformed about it. Most of it has been treated either passively and superficially, or more often, it has simply been left unexplored. Christian seminaries, colleges, and other educational institutions have been largely responsible for this lack. Christian educators have frequently stressed the origins, impact, and contributions of Western Civilization on the Church and modern society. But the study of both the Hebrew world of the eastern Mediterranean and the modern Jewish community of the Diaspora has often been superficial or deemed optional or even irrelevant. The time has come for the Church to have a renewed biblical vision. It has sown the seeds of neglect long enough.”
Marvin wrote those words over thirty years ago. There are positive signs in some quarters of Christianity that a hunger and interest in the Jewish foundation of the faith are stirring, but much work needs to be done in what Marvin calls “a renewed biblical vision.” As an Evangelical Christian who has witnessed Christian arrogance toward Jews and Judaism firsthand, I can say that this renewal cannot come soon enough.
For Christianity to survive, the myth of replacement spawned by Marcion and others must be challenged. In a recent study by the Evangelical research organization Lifeway Research, churches in America are closing at an alarming rate (fifteen hundred per year), with more churches closing than are being started. There are several reasons the researchers give for the rapid decline in Church attendance in America – COVID, for example. I think it’s deeper than that. Could it be that after years of rejecting our Jewish foundation, it is finally catching up to us? You just cannot build a building without a foundation and expect it to stand indefinitely. It might do Christianity well to heed the words of the Apostle Paul, who said, “…do not be arrogant toward the (Jewish) branches. If you are, remember it is not you that support the root, but the root supports you” (Romans 11:18). As it turns out, Christianity is actually deeply Jewish.