evolution of supersession

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3/20/2007 11:48 AM
1 out of 14


I would like to propose that the NT scriptures inarguably contain a theme that the church has or will soon supplant historical Israel as Yahweh's people on earth. I believe the theme evolved over time, in this manner.

1. The earliest self-understanding of Jesus followers was that Jesus, the Jewish Messiah, would soon return to usher in the Jewish Blessed Age. Therefore the communities of Jesus followers were simply messianic Jews, and these communities superceded no thing or no one. God was simply moving Jewish (and human) history into its next grand phase.

2. Two things then developed simultaneously: Jesus did not return immediately, and a large number of Jews did not accept Jesus as the Messiah and join the Jesus followers (I'll refer to them as churches and Xns for economy's sake). This meant that Xns began to exist as a separate new sect within Judaism in Palestine and the diaspora, and (we don't know how soon) Xn churches began to exist as separate worshipping communities from synagogues.

3. This means that a situation existed that no one had imagined: both Judaism and the (proto) Church existed on earth.

4. This created an enormous apologetic problem for Xns. The rejection of J by a majority of Jews and J's failure to return combined powerfully to suggest that the Xns were simply wrong.

5. In an interesting bit of theological judo, Xns used the (unforeseen) existence of the church as the foundation of their explanations for both the delayed return and the Jewish rejection of the Messiah.

6. The church, it was argued, was in fact not just the "waiting community," but god's means of expanding the waiting community. If the coming was delayed, it was simply so that the church could through evangelism save more persons from the Day of God's Wrath. The delay was explained as an act of mercy and patience from god, and the church-on-earth as its means.

7. What to say about that other kingdom of god, historic Israel? Again, early on there was no reason to deal with this. The any-minute coming of Jesus would separate the righteous from the unrighteous, and the righteous (both Jews and Gentiles) would live together in the blessed age free from evil.

8. But the delay meant the church had to take *some* position on Jews who rejected Jesus as Messiah. The logic went like this: the Jews who rejected the Messiah were also rejecting god' eternal plan. They would therefore be subject to god's wrath on That Day, since they had refused to enter the "waiting place." And (a key theological development here) they were also forfeiting their membership in the religion Judaism, even though there was obviously no change to their ethnic identity as Jews.

9. The waiting community on earth--the church--had by no particular design of its own become yahweh's new people on earth! And supersessionism was born. The church had supplanted historic Judaism as the means by which god worked in the world.

10. And images and stories began to be told to explain and interpret this surprise development. Paul's olive tree with limbs broken out and other limbs grafted in their place. Mt's "He will put those wretches to a miserable death, and lease the vineyard to other tenants who will give him the produce at the harvest time." Mt's "'Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it! How often have I desired to gather your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you were not willing!'" And sermons, such as Romans 9-11 or the book of Hebrews.

If this reconstruction is headed in roughly the right direction, then the theology of supersession was a lot like the theology of resurrection. It arose because a surprising experience needed to be explained. Explanations evolved and finally matured into a single orthodoxy.



3/20/2007 12:52 PM
2 out of 14

Chuck, you seem to be saying that how one understands/ interprets Jesus' failure to return in the eyes of his early followers largely determines what one's construction of Christian origins will look like. I substantially agree.


3/20/2007 1:06 PM
3 out of 14


Let's put it more directly. If Jesus had returned less than five years after his death and had ushered in the blessed age, there never would have been a supersession.


3/20/2007 1:36 PM
4 out of 14

The problem I have with your thesis, Chuck, is that it does not give sufficient credit to political power of the time. As the church structure took shape in the mid to late second century, at the same time that the contours of Christian supersessionism were solidifying, along with the movement from proto-orthodoxy to orthodoxy, the power of church leaders more and more evolved away from theological leadership to church (i.e. political) power. With this political power came the power to interpret events, myths, stories (oral and written) and the need to establish a new power structure separate and apart from the remnants of the Jewish diaspora, if there was anything left.

The “hijacking” was essentially complete by the beginning of the third century and later ratified by Constantine. It was all made so easy by the richness of the Jewish scriptures, which in so many ways allowed for interpolations to fit the orthodox story line. Given how little archeological evidence we have of “Christian” events of the first century, one must wonder just how much of the Christian story was real and how much was manufactured as part of the supersessionism movement and its inherent power to shape perceptions and thinking.


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