For the rest of the blog posts in this series, go here.
In the previous part of this series we looked at how the theology of Christian Zionism, which claims that the Jewish people must return to the land of Israel before the second coming of Christ, is very young. Its roots are found in the 16th century and its developed form didn’t appear until the 19th century. However, most Christian Zionists don’t view this as a problem, since they believe that this was not the birth of the theology but its resurrection – Christian Zionism was the original church teaching about the role of Israel, and the Puritans and Dispensationalists simply rediscovered it.
However, the early church did not believe in Christian Zionism. None of the church fathers, neither any anonymous early Christian writings, argued that the Jewish people must return to Israel before the second coming of Christ. On the contrary, they were supersessionists, teaching that Christ had fulfilled the covenant with and promises to Israel and that these now belonged to His followers, the church.
The non-existence of Christian Zionism in the early church is rather indesputable, even most Christian Zionists themselves acknowledge this. They claim that the apostles believed in Christian Zionism, but that it was immediately lost. I call this “The Men in Black Theory”. Just as the movie agents use their neuralyzer to erase people’s memories, Christian Zionism was suddenly deleted from the collective mind of the whole church right when the final pages of the New Testament was written.
I mean, I myself believe in some stuff that has been lost in church history for quite a long time: believer’s baptism, personal Pentecostal experience, pacifism, etc. But all these things existed to some extent in the early church. Zionism didn’t. Even Clement and “Barnabas”, who were disciples to the apostles themselves, were supersessionists. Either the apostles didn’t view Zionism as something very important to teach, or they simply didn’t believe in it.
Christian Zionists often try to explain the Men in Black phenomena with ethnicity. Since most of the early church leaders were Gentiles, they ignored the Jewish roots of Christianity and changed the theology about Israel, they claim. But this theory has a very negative view on the church fathers and other early Christians, that I simply cannot agree with. These guys studied the Scriptures really hard and were eager to defend the teachings of the apostles against their heretic opponents. Would they just ignore a main apostolic teaching and change the Christian doctrine just because of their ethnicity?
Furthermore, supersessionism is not an anti-Jewish theology, as Christian zionists often claim. On the contrary, supersessionist Christians identify themselves with Israel and the Jewish people. If the church fathers abandoned Zionism because it was Jewish, why didn’t they abandon the Old Testament as well, as Marcion did? Why did they become Christians in the first place? The church fathers defended their Jewish roots and identified themselves with God’s Israel, just as the apostles did.
But this idea about supersessionism being non-Jewish and even antisemitic is a popular misconception. Hence, I am going to tackle that issue in the next part of this series.
[…] the apostles make sure that their successors in the early church believed in it as well? This, my next post will be […]
I agree with the majority of what you said but why the emphasis on the ‘Church Fathers’? Those guys contradicted each other and screwed up Christian theology in general.
I think it is very important to read the church fathers to understand theology in general but also as a guideline for true doctrine. There were some disagreements, and some “screwed up”, but defenitely not all. I find it hard to generalize in such a manner, to me it’s like saying “Why read theologians? hose guys contradicted each other and screwed up Christian theology in general.”
And again, the point of this article is that if Christian Zionism is a true doctrine, it should have existed at least a bit in the early church.
I get your point I just recommend “The Openness of God” by Clark Pinnock, it puts things in perspective.
Historical context is very helpful. After 70 CE, Christians wanted to distance themselves from the Jews because the Jews had violently opposed the Roman Empire and been brutally put down. Christians did not fight in the Jewish Wars which should tell us that they did not believe a violent reclaiming of Holy Land had anything to do with the return of Jesus or the establishing of the Kingdom of God on Earth.
They did not want Rome to see them as Jewish and treat them in the same way. Look at Justin Martyr in the 2nd century for instance, who spoke pretty harshly against Judaism even though a significant portion of Christians were still Jewish ethnically at that point. Or even look at the differences in language between Mark and John; Mark, written before 70, spoke of Jews positively and the same as Christians, but John, written after, always speaks of “the Jews” as if an opposing group.
With regards to the question here, then, supersessionism makes far more sense of what they wanted to accomplish. Christian Zionism would have been incredibly dangerous and counter-productive. Did they think it was true but just gave up on it as a matter of survival, as seemed to be the case with women in leadership? There’s no evidence for that, and they didn’t give up on even more dangerous things like refusing to worship the Emperor or serve in the army.
There could be some truth in that, but it’s quite speculative as well. Personally I think the difference between how Jews are portraited in John and the synoptics often is exaggerated. And then, as I state above, I don’t find supersessionism being the “Gentile” position against the Jewish Zionsim. Since there is no evidence of Christian Zionism in the first place, it is hard to argue that supersessionism came as a consequence of the church not wanting to be labelled Jewish.
We’re saying mostly the same thing; I’m just fleshing out what I think is another (weaker, perhaps) argument for your point.
I do think that it is pretty well established that the post-70 church wanted to distance itself from Judaism (I had a few entire lectures oriented around this idea during my seminary time). Of course, if I and all my classmates and professors were wrong, then my point is moot.
I definitely did not mean to suggest that supersessionism came as a result of not wanting to be labelled Jewish. I do think it exaggerated some of the “we’re not the same as them” rhetoric but saying that it created the theology would be a huge stretch I’m not willing to make.
My point of discussing how the post-70 church wanted to distance themselves was to acknowledge the inconsistency of that attitude with Christian Zionism. You can’t be simultaneously encouraging fighting for Jewish independence against the Romans while very deliberately going out of your way to show the Romans why you aren’t the same as the Jews. Combined with their being no evidence for it in the first place – the argument from silence – I think this logical inconsistency adds to the case that early Christians could not have been Zionists, definitely not violent Zionists.
Sorry bro, I just read your previous comment too fast. I’m so used that I get a lot of opposition when I’m writing about this issue that I simply assumed that you didn’t agree with me 🙂 Now I get what you meant and yes, I definitely agree. The unwillingness to fight for Jerusalem’s freedom, as well as Jesus’ and the apostles’ unwillingness to fight for the independence of Israel, is hardly consistent with Christian Zionism as well as with nationalism.
Thank you once again for your wonderful blog! I have a few comments.
Almost all the early Church fathers held the idea that Jerusalem would be restored one day and that Christ would rule from there for a thousand years. Nevertheless, they (almost exclusively) applied the promises to the Church. However, a few interesting passages open up for other interpretations:
Justin the Martyr said:
”But I and others, who are right-minded Christians on all points, are assured that there will be a resurrection of the dead, and a thousand years in Jerusalem, which will then be built, adorned, and enlarged, [as] the prophets Ezekiel and Isaiah and others declare. (Dialogues 80).
One can then read the promises from “Ezekiel and Isaiah and others” about the rebuilt Jerusalem and see that there are really promises of a return.
The clearest example comes from Irenaeus:
”But when this Antichrist shall have devastated all things in this world, he will reign for three years and six months, and sit in the Temple at Jerusalem; and then the Lord will come from heaven in the clouds, in the glory of the Father, sending this man and those who follow him into the lake of fire; but bringing in for the righteous the times of the kingdom.” (Against Heresies: Book 5, Ch. 30).
This passage actually supports a return of the Jews to the land, in that Irenaeus was writing after 135 when Jerusalem was completely destroyed and Jews not allowed to return. Still, Irenaeus believed that the Temple would be rebuild, which of course no Christian would ever initiate (due to Christ’s prophecy that ‘not a stone would be left upon a stone’ and due to the theological understanding of Christ’s sacrifice making the sacrifices of the temple on the way to be obsolete). The only possible interpretation of Irenaeus’ statement is that he believed that the Jews would return – who else would like to see temple in Jerusalem rebuild?
In any case, it is quite clear why the early church hardly preserved this idea (even if we can, as shown above, see that there are some remnants of it). You write in you last comment to me: “If the apostles were zionists, and cared about the issue as much as many of modern Christian zionists do (that is, extremely much), wouldn’t they make sure that their successors in the early church believed in it as well?” Well, I do not think they cared for Christian Zionism as much as we do today. Why? Clearly because of Christ’s command: Acts 1:6-8:
“Then they gathered around him and asked him, “Lord, are you at this time going to restore the kingdom to Israel?” He said to them: “It is not for you to know the times or dates the Father has set by his own authority. But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.”
These where not the times to focus on Israel getting restored in the land, as the Jews were already living there and, more importantly, the Apostle’s had the urgent command from the Lord to preach the gospel to all nations. Doing that, the focus would rather be to emphasise that the gentiles are a part of God’s people, which was also emphasised by the apostles. This was a huge ‘wall’ (Ep 2) to overcome and the message of the gentiles’ inclusion in God’s people (Ep 3) made a huge difference for the many godfeares who had preciously been situated in the periphery of the people of promise. Now these, and other gentiles, were invited to partake in the people of God and all of its promises. Paul did have to emphasis this quite a lot, not the least to the Galatians, but also to the Romans, among whom the Gentiles felt they had to acquire a Jewish identity in order to become true members of the God-people. The Apostles were clear (Acts 15): Gentiles do not have to become Jews in order to partake in the people of God, but can do so precisely as Gentiles.
Now, as the Apostles slowly died out, the next generation was almost entirely non-Jewish (at least outside the land of Israel – in Israel the Jewish believes became Ebionites), now having inherited a true theology of being the people of God. But another event had taken place which came to influence the development enormously. The destruction of Jerusalem, first in A.D. 70, then in A.D. 135. This was not only taken as a vindication of Christ’s prophecy regarding this specific event, but as vindication of Christianity over and against Judaism. The Church itself started to define itself as a people over and against the Jews – a people contrasted with the large body of Jews who had not accepted the belief in the Christ. This is not more obvious than in Justin’s Dialogues. The eschatology, however, remained intact: a real restoration of a kingdom in Jerusalem, but now excluding, or, at least, not-including, the Jews. And so we got the new perspective which you are promoting.
But I have a question for you. Doesn’t seem as it would be harder for the early church to forget “water baptism, charismata, community of goods, pacifism etc” (things you believe had to get rediscovered) which are all things that are part of a Church’s daily life and culture, than to forget a then very futuristic vision of the Jew’s return to the land? – a vision about which the Church even had been told by Christ not to focus on at the moment (Acts 1:6-8)?
With many thanks and many wishes of blessings,
Thank you so much for your long and respectful answer. I really appreciate having a constructive dialogue about this.
Some short commentaries:
Justin Martyr and Irenaeus are generally considered premillenialists, but not many others of the church fathers were of what I know. Do you have a good source which discusses this?
You have a good point there that Irenaus belief that the temple would be rebuilt implies that Jews would do this. However, this does not prove that he believed that all Jews would return, or even that most of them would. Furthermore, there is of what I know nothing that shows that Irenaus denied supersessionism.
This is the complexity of Christian Zionist theology: it includes so many different things. Premillenialism, rebuilding of the temple, Jewish homecoming, blessing the state of Israel, dual-covenant theology, and more.
And as I write above, I think the theory that the church fathers changed doctrine based upon their ethnicity is quite unreflected – sounds logical, but really isn’t logical. The church fathers were echalotoligal as you refer to, and thus I don’t agree with you that a doctrine about the end time would be something they easily “forget”. I think they didn’t believed in Christian Zionism simply because they were never told to do so.
Thank you for your reply! Well, it is well known that most of the well-known fathers up to Origin held a ‘premillennialist’, or better ‘chiliast’, doctrine of eschatology: Papias,
Polycarp, The Epistle of Barnabas, Irenaeus, Justin Martyr, Tertullian (also before he was a Montanist), Lactantius, Methodius of Olympus and more. Even in the heyday of chiliasm, it was however recognised that not all Christians held such beliefs. Charles E. Hill’s Regnum Caelorum advances the case for non-premillennialist views of the early church. Apparently George Eldon Ladd is one of more influential scholars in favour of premillennialism, but I do not know his works.
You say that you think that “they didn’t believed in Christian Zionism simply because they were never told to do so.” How do you then understand the Apostles’ question and Jesus’ answer in Acts 1:6-7:
”Then they gathered around him and asked him, “Lord, are you at this time going to restore the kingdom to Israel?” He said to them: “It is not for you to know the times or dates the Father has set by his own authority?”?
Another thought, I do not think supersessionism necessarily needs to rule out Christian Zionism. If the Jews are brought back to the land princely to be turned to the Lord (Zechariah 12:10-14, Matthew 24:30. The latter builds on the former verses in the Greek Septuagint version: and the tribes (αἱ φυλαὶ) of the land (τῆς γῆς) shall mourn (κόψονται)).
[…] ”Men in Black”-teorin (om varför alla i fornkyrkan lyckades ”glömma bort” sionismen och bli ersättningsteologer) […]
[…] previous parts of the series, we have looked at the origin of Christian Zionism, we saw that it was totally absent in the early church and we have discussed how important it is to realize that just because one isn’t a Christian […]
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Who do you think the church fathers were?
[…] the apostles make sure that their successors in the early church believed in it as well? This, my next post will be […]
[…] Många olika grupper har genom århundradena menat sig vara restorationistiska även fast de varit rätt så olika varandra. När Wikipedia listar restorationistiska rörelser hamnar alltifrån mormonerna till baptister bredvid varandra. Viss restorationism gör dock misstaget att helt blunda för de tidiga kristna skrifter som skrevs direkt efter Nya Testamentet, och mena att avfallet från sanningen skedde omedelbart efter att den sista aposteln gick hem till Gud. Jag brukar kalla det för Men in Black-teorin och har kritiserat det här. […]