Who are the people of God?

Who are the people of God?

A discussion with reference to Isaiah 54 and Romans 9-11

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© The Revd Barry Drake M.A. May 2000


The phrase “The People of God” can have many meanings. Taken at the beginning of the biblical creation story, the “People of God” means all the people – God created them, “…. and saw everything that he had made, and behold, it was very good” (Gen 1:31). The meaning might become less clear in the Cain and Abel story, but in spite of his having killed his brother, God does not seem to reject Cain. Cain and his descendants are still among the people of God. In the story of Noah, we do appear to have people who are no longer the “People of God” because they have turned away from Him. We see here that Noah was a “righteous man” and found favour in God’s sight. At this point, Noah and his family alone are the people of God.

Before Israel, then, perhaps we could say that “The Righteous” are the “People of God”, and that the wicked are not His people – not that He has rejected them, but that they have rejected Him in their wickedness. Later, God’s covenant with Abraham is made, and from that time on, the bible speaks of the people of Israel as the people of God, living always among pagan nations who worship other gods. The distinction here is easy: Israel has accepted The Lord as God – the only God – and therefore Israel is the people of God. The nations have rejected God and turned aside to other gods. By that act, they have made themselves no longer His people.

With the coming of Christianity, a definition of “The People of God” becomes far more difficult. Neither Christians nor Jews were of one mind as to who the People of God were, and even in early Christian times, Christians were becoming divided on the same issue. By the present day, the notion of the “People of God” varies from Christian to Christian, and from one Jew to another according to their tradition and background. In this essay, we are looking at two brief passages: one from Isaiah in the Hebrew bible, and the other from Paul’s letter to the Romans. Both of these have been interpreted and re-interpreted many times, and have been used – perhaps even abused – in support of greatly differing views about who the people of God might be.

Today, definitions of “The People of God” would vary from “Those who love the Lord, or who would like to[i].” Through to narrow definitions stating categorically that “the only salvation is through Jesus Christ[ii].” In between these extremes there are a number of other possibilities[iii].

In this essay, I intend to look at Isaiah 54, and Romans 9 – 11, to discover as far as possible the people to whom they were written, and the circumstances that they address. It is my view that both passages have been read by Christians in a manner far from the writers’ original intentions. In my investigation, I will look at writings of the early church, as well as commentaries and exegetical texts from various periods in Christian history. I intend to look closely at a particular Christian viewpoint that sees the Church as having superseded The Jews as “The people of God”, and which is associated strongly with the passages concerned.

Isaiah’s People of God

The passage in chapter 54 of Isaiah deserves to be clear in the way in which it sees the people of God: it very clearly refers to Israel as a people, God’s people. It is written as a word of hope to a people in exile. It is written to the people of God, and if more evidence is required, the following chapter, Isaiah 55, speaks of the gentiles; the nations, and says that God will one day call them to be His people too. The entire chapter is full of comfort, encouragement and promise, and it reminds Israel of the promise from God that its “descendants will possess the nations” (54:3) and calls them “the servants of the Lord”, saying that their vindication will come from God. (54:17). Although the passage does not use the words “people of God”, it is perfectly clear to whom the passage is addressed, and it would be difficult to read anything into the passage as it stands, either in or out of context to suggest that the “People of God” might be understood as anything other than the scattered and downtrodden people of Israel.

It is commonly accepted[iv] that chapters 40 to 55 of Isaiah were written during the Babylonian exile – this would place its authorship in the sixth century BCE. A date between 520 – 516 BCE has been suggested. At that time, the Jews had been exiled from Jerusalem, firstly the nobles and the leading citizens in 597 BCE, and then the ordinary people in 586 BCE apart from some peasants. (See 2 Kings 24:14-16;25:11). The anguish of the exiled Jews is illustrated in Psalm 137. It is into this situation that the words of comfort – and hope – are written.

Chapter 54 begins by comparing Israel (here called “Jerusalem”) to a barren woman. There are echoes here of the sterility of Sarah (Gen 15:2) and of God’s promise fulfilled in Isaac. The promise to His people will be remembered and fulfilled; the Lord, who for a time seems to have abandoned his people, has not forgotten them. The now barren Jerusalem will be rebuilt and repopulated. Verse 6 uses tones reminiscent of the earlier prophet Hosea, when it speaks of Israel as a young wife deserted by her husband – “cast off” by him. Then God speaks – “for a brief moment I forsook you, but with great compassion I will gather you” (54:7). In verse 9, the comparison is made with the Lord’s anger in the time of Noah, but as in the time of Noah, the promise is made, and will be kept.

The second half of the chapter speaks of the city of Jerusalem rebuilt – and rebuilt in far greater splendour than ever before. It ends with the promise that the Lord Himself will be Jerusalem’s protector and vindicator. The whole chapter is a prophetic statement that the promises, which God made to the fathers, are still valid: God keeps His promises, and will continue to do so. The election of Israel as the people of God is a reality, and is permanent. The prophet uses overtones of God’s earlier promises to His covenant-people to affirm, and to guarantee the everlasting covenant that is His promise to Israel – forever.

Most present day whole-bible Christian commentators seem to agree with the above analysis. How then, could there be any possibility of a different interpretation of this chapter, especially one that might show a different understanding of the “people of God”?

Potential problems for Jewish-Christian relations begin to show when the references to Isaiah 54 in Paul’s letter to the Galatians and in John’s Gospel are considered. John (6:45) has Jesus quoting Isaiah 54:13 “All your sons will be taught by the Lord” in a way that seems to mean that everyone who has listened to the Lord will come to Jesus. This in itself provides some difficulty, but Paul’s letter to the Galatians quotes Isaiah 54:1, and uses this reference to suggest that Israel (here called Jerusalem) is in slavery, and that Christians “are children of the promise”, “born according to the Spirit”, “not children of the slave, but of the free woman”. Whatever Paul actually meant by this, and we will look more closely at Paul and his thinking later on, that quotation, and others from the same letter have been used by Christians in anti-Jewish polemic through the ages.

Having stated that most present day commentators make no mention of specifically Christian interpretations for Isaiah 54, the same is not true of earlier scholars. The passage follows immediately after the “Servant Songs” which are well referenced both in the Gospels and the church fathers, who understand the Servant to be a “type” of Jesus, and they continue to follow the same typology in chapter 54, the passage in question. John Wesley, in his “Notes”[v] makes the following statement commenting on Isaiah 54:

“The prophet having largely discoursed of the sufferings of Christ, and of the blessed fruits thereof, and here foreseeing that glorious state of the church, he breaks forth into this song of triumph. And as the foregoing chapter literally speaks of Christ, so doth this of the church of Christ. This church, consisting at first of the Jews, and afterwards of the Gentiles, had been barren, ’till the coming of Christ. The desolate – The church of the Gentiles, which in the times of the Old Testament was desolate, does now bring forth to God a more numerous posterity than that of the Jews.”

Wesley goes on to say, referring to verse 10 of Isaiah 54:

“God will not cast off his Christian church, as he cast off the church of the Jews, the New Covenant is established upon better and surer promises than the Old.”

The understanding here is clearly one of supersession. That is to say, the Jews were the People of God only until the death of Jesus, after which the Christians have superseded the Jews. Christians are then seen as the “New People of God”. Only in commentaries of this century do we begin to find a different attitude taken towards Isaiah, and towards this passage, and it is only in some of the most recent commentaries that the People of Israel, to whom Isaiah is clearly speaking, are allowed to own this passage once more!

Having said that, the purpose of most modern general commentaries is to offer explanation rather than interpretation. It is simply not within the remit of these commentaries to offer the kind of comment that Wesley offered. The situation is not the same in up-to-date specialised commentaries on Isaiah. On the one hand, we see commentators such as Paul Hanson[vi] who are anxious to show both Jewish and Christian interpretative viewpoints. On the other hand, there is a school of commentators such as Alec Motyer[vii], who continue the traditional Christian treatment of the Bible in which the Jews are superseded by the new “People of God” – the church. In his introduction to Isa 54, Motyer says:

“The picture is that of the normative state of the community of the redeemed, the people of God, the church. They have been brought into being by supernatural birth, designed for growth and are secure in the loving care of the Lord.”

There is a view within both Jewish and Christian traditions that prophecy is a living thing: that is to say it has the same relevance in later situations that it had when first given. This view states that all prophecy is spoken by God, through the lips of the prophet, and is therefore a ‘word’ that stands outside time. Whatever their position with regard to the Jews, all Christians identify themselves as a part of the people of God. Taking the view that all prophecy is for the people of God for all time, then it follows that Isaiah 54 might be said to include Christians and modern-day Jews alongside the Jews to whom it was originally written.

It seems, then, that the answer to the question “Who are the people of God with reference to Isaiah 54?” is not a simple one. It depends entirely upon whom you ask!

Paul’s Letter to the Romans, 9-11

In the passages in question, Paul seems to be in the midst of a difficult personal struggle. Verse 2 of chapter 9 is explicit about this. Paul reminds the reader that he himself is a Jew. His letter tells us that he is writing to Jewish Christians as well as to Gentiles. Scholars vary in their opinions as to the background, but perhaps the most widely held opinion[viii] is that the church in Rome was originally composed of Jewish and Gentile Christians. In 49 CE, Claudius expelled the Jews from Rome. When they were allowed to return in 54 CE, it was to a church that had moved a long way from its previous tradition which was closer to that of the Palestinian Jews. The suggestion here is that Paul is aware that Paul, writing around 57 or 58 CE, is aware that he is addressing a church torn apart by the resulting tension between Jewish and Gentile Christians.

Whatever the situation, and whatever subsequent commentators have made of Paul’s writings[ix], Paul is quite clear as to who the people of God are. At the beginning of Chapter 11, he says, speaking of the people of Israel: “Has God rejected His people“, and he goes on to declare that God has not rejected them. The people of Israel remain for Paul, the people of God. What then of the Gentiles? It is in this connection that Paul presents a well-developed view of how he sees Jew and Gentile together as God’s people.

Let us now turn back to Paul’s struggle at the beginning of Romans 9 in which he speaks of his great sorrow and anguish of heart. Paul’s anguish is about his own people, the Jews. It seems clear that Paul would far rather have the Jews accept Jesus as the Messiah than endure the situation in which he finds himself: effectively cut off from his own people who are rejecting Paul’s claim that Jesus is “The Messiah”. We can be sure that by this time, Paul is truly immersed in tension between Jews and Christians to the extent that he is aware of his own imminent rejection by the Jews. He could almost wish that the situation were reversed, and that he were “cut off from Christ” in order to remain at one with his own people (Rom 9:3). Paul then presents a great deal of difficult argument, and at times it is far from clear just what he is saying. This lack of clarity in some of Paul’s writing has been well noted from the very early days of the church. In the second letter of Peter, the writer seems to imply that Paul’s letters are not easy, and that his words were being used in some kind of undesirable polemic even at that time. The passage referred to says: “So also our beloved brother Paul wrote to you according to the wisdom given him, speaking of this as he does in all his letters. There are some things in them hard to understand, which the ignorant and unstable twist to their own destruction, as they do the other scriptures”. (2 Peter 3:15-16[x])


Paul uses the example of Isaac’s birth, reminding the reader that his birth came about only as the result of a promise from God. He uses this idea of Isaac as a gift from God to say that the children of Isaac, that is, “The children of Israel”, are children of grace, children of a promise, gifts from God, rather than natural children born of a purely human series of relationships. As James Dunn writes:

“That which he [Paul] describes as the covenanted status of the descendants of Abraham is their status before God. It is a status which the natural descendants of Abraham cannot assume for themselves by virtue of being the natural descendants of Abraham. The ground of filial relationship to God is not simply filial relationship to Abraham.[xi]

Paul continues his argument to attempt to show that God can call whomsoever He wishes to be “children of the promise” in whatever way He wills. The end of the argument states that God has called his people “not from the Jews only, but also from the Gentiles”. (Rom 9:24)

Paul’s argument in Romans 9 and 10 is difficult, tortuous and full of bible references with which the reader is expected to be familiar. Perhaps because it lacks clarity, and is therefore easy to “twist”, and perhaps also because of growing hostility between many Jews, especially Palestinian Jews, and the early church, we find Paul’s words referenced a great deal in anti-Jewish polemic. Much has been written about the tension that existed within the Judaism of Paul’s day between Jews from the land that we now call Israel, and Jews of the Diaspora, the Greek-speaking Jews. There was considerable pressure among the Hellenistic Jews for a more progressive form of Judaism, and many of the Levitical prohibitions were being brought into question. Rosemary Ruether[xii] holds that this tension – between the Greek Jew: the Jew of the diaspora, and the Palestinian Jew – plays a large part in the tensions between early church and synagogue. Whatever the cause of the use, or abuse of Paul’s words in polemical texts, it seems clear from the text itself that Paul holds the Gentile Christians to be part of the people of God, together with the Jews, whom God has not rejected.

In chapter 9, Paul refers to the Torah, here called the Law (Gk Nomos). “Israel, who pursued the righteousness which is based on the Law did not succeed in fulfilling that Law”. (Rom 9-31). James Dunn, in his “Theology of Paul[xiii]” is clear that Paul does not see Torah as an impossible burden – “Israel’s pursuit (of righteousness) …. Has failed not because the Law was the wrong goal but because they had pursued it in the wrong way”. Dunn sees the main thrust of Paul’s argument in chapters 9-11 as being to the effect that God can accept Gentiles as well as Jews. Dunn argues that Paul is seeking to claim a place for the Gentiles, alongside the Jews by faith, rather than the works of Torah. It is as though for the Gentiles, Torah is being “replaced” by faith in Jesus Christ, but it is also a question of election – of God’s choice. God can choose whomsoever He wishes – as illustrated by His choice of Jacob over Esau. Dunn tells us that Paul is calling on Israel to recognise the place of faith apart from, or alongside Torah. Paul believes the Jews to be wrong in their rejection of his message – but does not see them as being outside God’s plan because of this. He really longs for his people to be with him, accepting the Christian way as the new Judaism. He has realised though, that this is not happening, and in part is trying to understand the situation himself. It is Paul’s conclusion here that God must have His purpose, otherwise the Jews would hear the message, and would follow it. One part of the answer he finds by quoting Deuteronomy “I will provoke you to jealousy by a nation that is not a nation; by a nation of fools I will make my people angry.” Deut 32:21), suggesting that it is by Israel becoming jealous of the success of Christianity that it will itself turn to the teachings which he is offering. The second part of the answer, Paul sees as being the need to allow the Gentiles to become the people of God through the gospel. Here Dunn comments:

“As we might say, Israel’s early election had given historic Israel such an advantage in the pursuit of righteousness (9:30) that, had Israel smoothly taken to the new phase of the pursuit (through faith in Christ), Gentiles might have been wholly put off, and missed out”.

In other words, Paul sees God to be allowing His “stubborn” people to stay as they are – the people of Israel, the people of God, until the full number of the nations are given the opportunity to hear the gospel that Paul is preaching.

In chapter 11, Paul develops his argument further. He offers a vivid illustration. He compares Israel to a cultivated olive tree, and the Gentiles to a wild olive. He suggests that some of the branches of the cultivated olive have been broken off because of their unbelief. Paul suggests that God has allowed a branch of the wild olive to be “grafted in” to the cultivated olive in order that the Gentiles may share the same root. Of particular note for later consideration is the fact that Paul never suggests that all of the branches have been broken off, but only some. Paul goes on to challenge any pride that Gentile Christians might have in the “breaking off” of Jewish branches to make way for them. He assures them that they can just as easily be “broken off” themselves, and if God so wills, the Jewish branches grafted back in to the root that is Israel. The Gentiles are there by faith and by God’s mercy alone – but in a sense, so are the Jews.

Paul implies that his Messianic claim for Jesus has become a “Stumbling block” for the Jews (Rom 9:32-33), but in chapter 11, he goes on to assert that the “Stumbling” of the Jews has brought salvation to the Gentiles (Rom 11:11). An important point here is that the Jews only “stumble”, they do not fall. Once again, it is God’s providence that allows this to happen, in order to give the nations a fighting chance. The final point that Paul makes towards the end of chapter 11 clarifies his position a great deal, both with regard to the Jews and the Gentiles:

“So that you may not claim to be wiser than you are, brothers and sisters, I want you to understand this mystery: a hardening has come upon part of Israel, until the full number of the Gentiles has come in. And so all Israel will be saved; as it is written, “Out of Zion will come the Deliverer; he will banish ungodliness from Jacob.” “And this is my covenant with them, when I take away their sins.” As regards the gospel they are enemies of God for your sake; but as regards election they are beloved, for the sake of their ancestors; for the gifts and the calling of God are irrevocable”. (Rom 11:25-29)

This last passage seems to make it quite clear that the Jews are still the people of God because of God’s promise. God has “hardened their hearts” for a while[xiv], once again for the sake of the nations. Dunn points us to a fresh interpretation -a linguistic technicality – here. He says that the “hardening” should be correctly understood as a partial hardening, or blindness, rather than the accepted translation that suggests only “part of Israel” is hardened.

Beker makes three important points concerning Rom 11:25-28. They are:

“1) There will be no final eschatological deliverance for the world without the salvation of all of Israel. (Rom 11:25-26)

2) The church of the gentiles has no authenticity or identity unless it realises that it is “grafted contrary to nature onto a cultivated olive tree” ie into Israel, “beloved for the sake of the forefathers” (Rom 11:24,28

3) The promises of God for the Gentiles become null and void unless God’s promises to all Israel become realised.[xv]

Whether the Jews have, or have not rejected the Christian gospel, God has not rejected them, simply blinded them to the truth as Paul sees it.

Overall, it is clear that Paul was writing to a divided church, and was attempting to show a kind of middle way. Dunn sees him as walking a tightrope, and refusing an easy solution that would allow the two opposite errors that he sees the church (and the Jews) falling into. Precisely what each party to the argument was saying cannot now be seen clearly. Most scholars suggest that on the one hand, Gentile Christians are arguing that the church has superseded Israel as the people of God, and on the other hand, Jews and Jewish Christians are claiming that they alone are the true people of God – perhaps allowing that “Righteous Gentiles” may be included[xvi]. For this reason, Paul is attempting to show that God makes “no distinction between Jew and Greek” (Rom 10:12).

The above understanding of Romans 9-11 is well supported by the text itself, and by some of the modern commentators[xvii] and theologians. Krister Stendahl, for example, argues with great sensitivity that Paul never sees himself as being converted to Christianity, but rather obeys a call from God to preach the Christian message as a Jew, and to the Jews. When the majority of Jews reject his teaching, he continues his work among the gentiles, and is finally rejected by the Jews. Stendahl asserts that Paul never rejects his own Judaism[xviii], and continues to regard the Jews as being the people of God alongside Christians. He adds that: “The central issue claiming Paul’s attention is that of the inclusion both of Gentiles and Jews[xix].” Stendahl feels strongly that the text itself is not read today as it ought to be. There is a great deal of “handed down” interpretation – much of which he sees as being wrong. He says: “What has happened to Christianity is that instead of having free access to the original, we have lived in a sort of chain reaction – Augustine touching up Paul, and with Pelagius discussing and turning these things around, the medievalists pushing one way or another, and then further reactions, moving away from the original”

The view outlined above is not the only view that is held however. When looking at the Isaiah text earlier, we saw that there was a strongly held view that the Church had superseded the Jews as “the people of God”. In taking this view, John Wesley was among the orthodox of his day, and was reflecting a view that had existed since the church fathers. This view that the church has superseded Israel has been supported by texts from Paul – particularly from Galatians and Romans. How, then, has Romans 9-11 been understood?

In Romans 9:6, Paul says, “not all who are descended from Israel belong to Israel”, and in 11:5, he speaks of the “faithful remnant” of Israel. The view has been taken that only Jews who convert to Christianity are part of this “remnant”. The rest of Israel is then understood to be outside the new people of God, which is the church, until the end times, when the full number of Gentiles have become Christian. After that, there will be a sudden conversion, in which all the Jews will become Christian. The old standard, “Ellicott’s Commentary” says: “The reconversion of the Jews will be a signal to inaugurate that reign of eternal life which will be ushered in by the resurrection of the dead.” This understanding of Paul seems to be a very common one within Christianity

Taken out of context, and with scant reference to Romans 11:25-29, the texts at 9:6-7 and 11:4-10 could be read as references to Jews who converted to Christianity. Is this what Paul intended? Paul is speaking as a Pharisee. At the time he is writing, the Pharisees were deeply concerned that most of Israel had lost its commitment to the Torah. The more extreme sects among the Jews were claiming, according to Ruether, that: “the Judaism of the temple and of ordinary believers was to be ranked with the “nations” and counted among the hosts of Belial”[xx]. It is most likely that Paul the Pharisee is referring to lack of faith, lack of Torah observance, and general spiritual malaise among Jews when he declares that “not all who are descended from Israel belong to Israel”, and speaks of the faithful remnant of Israel that remains true in its observance, and its faith in God.

The kind of exegesis which claims to prove that the Church has superseded the Jews does not end there. It uses Paul’s illustration of the olive tree (Rom11:17) as though it is saying that all the branches had been broken off. It takes Paul’s statements about lack of faith among Jews to include all the Jews who have not converted to Christianity. Paul’s illustrations are regarded as absolutes that the text simply does not support. The one statement in Rom 11 – the one earlier referred to as making it quite clear that the Jews are still the people of God because of God’s promise, that is 11:28, ought to present a severe problem to the supersessionist. It is abundantly clear from the text that the Jews still remain the people of God because of election (the promise) and that they are still beloved by God. The text bears no other interpretation. The Greek is unambiguous – the phrase “κατα δε την εκλογην αγαπητοι δια τους πατερας

[xxi]” literally, “but concerning the election, they are loved through (or on account of) the fathers”, cannot be understood to mean anything other than that the Jews are still God’s chosen people because of God’s promise to the Patriarchs. In spite of this, Wesley, who, as we have seen was a convinced supersessionist, offers the following: “They are now enemies – To the gospel, to God, and to themselves, which God permits. For your sake: but as for the election – That part of them who believe, they are beloved”. It is clear from the context that by “that part of them who believe”, Wesley means only those who have become Christian. This is hardly justified by the text itself. Many of the older commentaries

[xxii] follow a similar method, by reading into the text such an unsupported comment.

It is not only the older commentators and theologians who offer supersessionist doctrines. A number of modern writers also take the traditional view. “The New Jerome Commentary” of 1989 follows this approach, and presents it as the current Catholic teaching of the time. “New Jerome” seems to take the traditional view that we have just seen concerning the place of Israel, even though Karl Barth, whose views do not entirely support supersessionism, is cited. Jerome’s stance seems surprising in the light of the Vatican declaration “Nostra Aetate” – 1965. This document offers the following:

“Although the Church is the new People of God, the Jews should not be presented as rejected or accursed by God, as if this followed from the Holy Scriptures. Consequently, all must take care, lest in catechising or in preaching the Word of God, they teach anything which is not in accord with the truth of the Gospel message or the spirit of Christ”.

In contrast to the way in which the writer in Jerome understands him, Barth seems to be struggling with the question of the Jews. He sees the “faithful remnant” in Romans 11:15 as Jewish Christians, but softens the implication of this by seeing the rest of Israel somehow as “secret Christians”. He says: “There is always – there was then and there is now – the Church from and in Israel too, and all Israel secretly lives – lived then and lives now – in her. The remnant of Israel, kept by the election of grace, however large or small it may be, is in God’s sight all Israel.

[xxiii]” Writers in the Tübingen school – represented here by Käsemann generally follow a supersessionist understanding. Commenting on Romans 11:28

[xxiv] he cites Schrank:

“Israel is simultaneously loved and rejected because it received a promise and did not accept the gospel. But it has the possibility of conversion so long as the word goes out to it”.

Surprisingly, Rosemary Ruether, who presents a great deal of information concerning Paul’s background, and a clear picture of the Judaism of his day, comes down heavily on the side of Paul being anti-Torah, and anti-Jew

[xxv]. In essence than, supersessionists are clear that Christians are seen as part of a new covenant, and that unconverted Jews are no longer the people of God, but remain in some sort of limbo until the parousia, whereupon they will all convert to Christianity by an act of God.

As we have already seen when considering Isaiah 54, the answer to the question “Who are the people of God?” is not a simple one. This is true also of in Paul’s letter to the Romans. The answer depends once again upon whom you ask.

Looking at the Problem

A major problem for Jewish-Christian relations is a brand of supersessionism that gives no place among the people of God to the Jews. This has been highlighted in the study of Isaiah 54, and Romans 9-11 above. Jacob Neusner

[xxvi] sees supersessionism as the major stumbling block in Jewish Christian relations today. The problem seems to begin in the very early church. We have seen already that it was precisely this kind of attitude that Paul sought to avoid in his letter to the Romans. Within a few years of Paul’s letter to the Romans, the church fathers were writing strongly supersessionist anti-Jewish polemic, and referring to the Jews as Christ Killers

[xxvii]. Dunn, when looking at this problem, states categorically that Paul’s attempt (to re-define Israel as “the called of God”, both Jew and Christian) has failed

[xxviii]. The idea that Jews are no longer the people of God strengthened during the first three or four centuries of Christianity and beyond. Neusner sees the problem as having intensified and taken on an even more serious character at the hands of the Christian reformers and today it represents not only the view of some modern theologians, but for the most part, the popular understanding among ordinary Christians. Following a recent trip to Israel, I sent a questionnaire to my fellow participants to obtain a list of their favourite and least favourite places. One response, to the question “Which site did you find the most moving?” reads as follows: “The Wailing Wall on the Jewish Sabbath. Praying and weeping …… for the Peace of Jerusalem that Jews and Gentiles will acknowledge Jesus Christ as their Messiah

[xxix]“. From what has been said to me by Christians from time to time I feel sure that this attitude – that Jews need to be “saved” by becoming Christians – is the majority Christian response.

I would like to extend this messianic notion just a little. Paul quotes Isaiah 59:20-21 in Romans 11:26. “The Deliverer will come from Zion, he will banish ungodliness from Jacob”. Perhaps the most central area of common ground for both Jew and Christian is the expectation that the Messiah will come, and will usher in the eternal kingdom of God. Dunn suggests that Paul’s lack of identification in 11:26 of the Messiah with Jesus is a deliberate one. If Paul makes the identification in his own mind, in his writing, he leaves the question open, allowing both Christian and Jew to continue to expect Messiah’s coming each in his own way. We have much to learn from that simple point made by Paul, in Jewish Christian relations today.


In summary, it seems that not only has Christianity effectively hijacked large sections of the Hebrew Bible and claimed them as though they are Christian texts, but it has also abused some of them beyond reasonable bounds. The idea that the Church is the new Jerusalem, and that the Jews have been rejected is something that has permeated Christian teaching since the beginning, and as we have seen, this is contrary to the teaching of the Apostle Paul. The answer to the original question ought to be a simple one: in Isaiah 54, we ought to be able to say clearly that the people of God as seen in that passage are the people of Israel, and that by adoption, the prophecy may later be applied to Christians. In a similar way, referring to the passages from Paul, we ought to be able to say categorically that Paul sees the people of God as Jews and Christians together, and that this applies whether or not the Jews have become Christians. We can see from the above study that this is not the case. The waters have become very muddy indeed.

The conclusions reached in the above essay suggest that there is a great deal of work to be done. If Paul’s intention in his letter to the Romans has been correctly understood by Dunn, Stendahl and others, then the church has lived with a malignant error – one might say a heresy – since its earliest days

[xxx]. Rabbi Jonathan Magonet illustrates the fact that the way any of us reads the Bible is influenced strongly, often mindlessly, by the baggage that each of us brings to our reading of it

[xxxi]. This baggage is educational, cultural and religious, and the stark reality of it begins to be seen in the light of joint study by Jews and Christians together. Jews and Christians working together are each able to challenge, and sometimes to correct the other.

Dr. Edward Kessler sees one answer to problems in Jewish-Christian dialogue as an intense programme of education

[xxxii] – for both Christians and Jews. His assertion that the teaching must be made to filter right down through all levels is an evident, but challenging one; any misconception that has been supported and reinforced for two millennia, as has the ‘doctrine’ of supersession, will be a hard one to overturn. The work is urgent – and vitally important. Where is the witness to the rest of the world if God’s own people can’t be seen to live and work in harmony with one another? The sins of our forebears may be handed down through the generations – but there comes a time when, with the help of God, and end must be made. I fancy that this will be a glorious end indeed.


Barth, Karl – Shorter Commentary on Romans – SCM – 1959

Bettenson, Henry – Documents of the Christian Church – OUP – 1943 to 1954

Beker, J. Christiaan – The New Testament View of Judaism – an essay in “Jews and Christians”, edited by J. H. Charlesworth – Crossroads NY – 1990

Bultmann, Rudolf – Theology of the New Testament – SCM – 1952

Dunn, James D. G. – The Theology of Paul the Apostle – Clark (under license from Eerdmans) – 1998

Dunn, James D. G. – 38B Word Biblical Commentary – Word publishing – 1991

Dunn, James D. G. – The Parting of the Ways – SCM 1991

Ellicott, Chas. J. (Ed.) – A Bible Commentary for English readers – Cassell – Undated Ca. 1910

Hanson, Paul D – Interpretation – Isaiah 40-66 – John Knox press – 1995

Hunter, A. M. – The Epistle to the Romans (Torch series) – SCM – 1955

Käsemann, Ernst – Commentary on Romans – SCM 1973, 1980

Magonet, Jonathan – “A Rabbi’s Bible” – SCM – 1991

Motyer, Alec – The Prophecy of Isaiah – IVP – 1993

Moule, H. C. G – The Epistle to the Romans – Pickering and Inglis – 1928, 1975

Neusner, Jacob – Jews and Christians – The Myth of a Common Tradition – SCM – 1991

Roetzel, Calvin J. – The Letters of Paul – SCM – 1975, 1982

Ruether, Rosemary R. – Faith and Fratricide – Seabury (NY) – 1974

Stendahl, Krister – Paul among Jews and Gentiles – Fortress (Pa) – 1976 to 1979

General Commentaries and references:

Encyclopaedia Judaica

Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church – OUP

Peake’s Commentary on the Bible – Thomas Nelson – 1962

The Interpreter’s one volume Commentary on the Bible – Abingdon 1971,1992

The New Jerome Biblical Commentary – Geoffrey Chapman – 1989


Online Bible Deluxe Edition – published by Online Bible, Canada 1999 Use made of the Jamieson Fawcett Brown commentary

Wesleyan Heritage Library – published by Wesleyan Heritage, USA – 1997

Use made of John Wesley’s Sermons, and Notes on the Bible (Ca. 1740?)

From the internet:

Early Church Fathers – edition by Philip Schlaff downloaded from http://ccel.org/fathers2/

Nostra Aetate – downloaded from the Vatican web site

Kessler, Edward – Jewish Christian Relations – the next generation – downloaded from the CJCR web site

[i] A broad definition used to my knowledge by some of the more liberal members of the United Reformed Church, including myself. It may well be a definition worth pursuing in dialogue between Jews and Christians.

[ii] There are many Conservative Evangelical Christians today who insist that the only salvation is through Jesus Christ, and would take that to mean that the only people of God are those who have become Christians.

[iii] One possibility would include only those who have been through some kind of ritual initiation – some Cristians would cite baptism, others baptism by immersion, as believers. Perhaps there are Jews who would cite circumcision.

[iv] An increasing number of conservative Christian scholars assert that the whole of Isaiah dates from the eight century BCE. This is not the place to discuss that particular issue, but the dating will not, in any case affect my argument.

[v] Wesley, John – Notes on the Bible – Ca. 1740? (Computer edition, Wesleyan Heritage Publications 1998 – CD ROM)

[vi] Paul Hanson – Interpretation Isaiah 40-66

[vii] Alec Motyer – The prophecy of Isaiah

[viii] A number of the most recent commentators take this view, including Roetzel and the Pauline contributor to the New Jerome commentary.

[ix] Passages from Paul’s writings in the letter to the Romans are quoted as proof texts in early Christian anti-Jewish polemic. We can see some of this in the many references to Paul in ‘adversos Judaeos’ passages in the church fathers.

[x] This passage may be referring to Galatians. Certainly the writer seems to imply not only that Paul is difficult to understand, but also that there is already controversial teaching in the church, possibly anti-Jewish, that “twists Paul’s words”.

[xi] “38B Word Biblical Commentary” – JDG Dunn

[xii] She makes reference to this situation in “Faith and Fratricide”, and regards it as formative in the Jewish-Christian split.

[xiii] J D G Dunn – The theology of Paul the Apostle

[xiv] A comparison is used here from Exodus: God hardened the heart of the Pharaoh so that Israel might be saved.

[xv] Beker’s essay “The new testament view of Judaism” in “Jews and Christians”

[xvi] Rosemary Ruether writes: “The doctrine of the Noachian laws gave Judaism a rationale for accepting the “righteous pagan” as a child of God who had a place in the promised Kingdom”. She says that this was an accepted teaching among Hellenistic Jews well before the destruction of the Temple in 70 CE. “Faith and Fratricide”

[xvii] James Dunn is one of several commentators who are clear that Paul sees non-Christian Jews as a part of the people of God.

[xviii] In this, James Dunn agrees with Stendahl. Writing in “The Partings of the Ways”, Dunn states “Paul would by no means have regarded himself as outside Israel looking in. Outside Judaism perhaps; but Judaism as defined by his Pharisaic contemporaries; Paul an Israelite still”.

[xix] In his third chapter, “Justification rather than forgiveness”, Stendahl takes a refreshing look at Paul and his background and point of view. Krister Stendahl -“Paul among Jews and Gentiles”

[xx] Ruether produces much evidence to show that the Judaism of Paul’s day was degenerate, most of the people had lost faith in God, and especially among the Hellenistic Jews, the people were becoming more and more secular in their outlook. “Faith and Fratricide” – R. Ruether – 1974

[xxi] Technical note: I have transliterated the Greek here, as “kata de thn ekloghn agaphtoi dia touV pateraV” (Romans 11:28) may not transmit electronically to resemble the original. Greek computer fonts seem a bit variable in the way they work.

[xxii] The text is unavoidable here, but some commentators who are insisting on the supersession of the church get around the problem by suggesting that the Jews are still loved by God, even though being excluded from His people. From Jamieson Fawcett Brown commentary – Rom 11:28. As concerning the Gospel they are enemies for your sakes–that is, they are regarded and treated as enemies (in a state of exclusion through unbelief, from the family of God) for the benefit of you Gentiles; in the sense of #Ro 11:11,15. but as touching, the election–of Abraham and his seed — they are beloved–even in their state of exclusion for the fathers’ sakes.

[xxiii] Karl Barth’s Shorter Commentary on Romans. This book is especially interesting as Barth gave the work originally as a series of lectures during the Second World War. This work was not published until 1956, and I find it surprising that Barth did not feel a need to add some later thoughts from a post war situation – in the light of the destruction of six million Jews.

[xxiv] Käsemann’s “Commentary on Romans”

[xxv] Ruether is demonstrating that anti-Semitism has deeply Christian roots. Maybe she feels that this view of Paul strengthens her argument. I feel strongly that the text itself does not support her argument here. . “Faith and Fratricide” – R. Ruether – 1974

[xxvi] Neusner – “Jews and Christians, the Myth of a Common Tradition”

[xxvii] One of the earliest of the fathers to write in this manner is St. Ignatius. By that time (late first century) it has become clear that the church, or at least part of the church, is strongly anti-Jew, classing Jews along with ‘the heathen’.

[xxviii] Chapter 6 of “The Theology of Paul the Apostle”

[xxix] I am sure that many people, Jew and Christian alike, are moved to pray at the Western Wall that the Messiah will come. It is the implication here that the Jews have been rejected by God and need to accept the Christian Messiah, Jesus, before he can come again as Messiah that I find problematical.

[xxx] One might also wonder as to what other errors are lurking, yet to be discovered, in our handed down theologies.

[xxxi] “How a donkey reads the Bible” – a chapter in “A Rabbi’s Bible”.

[xxxii] Hugo Gryn Memorial Lecture: “Jewish-Christian Relations – the next generation”.


Author: Barry Drake

Retired URC minister. Very involved in Colwick Village and its affairs. In retirement, I have the privilege of being a visiting preacher at a number of churches, and I act as a tutor on groups aimed at deepening spirituality. See: http://www.barrydrake.webspace.virginmedia.com/ Some of my writings are at: http://www.barrydrake.webspace.virginmedia.com/minister/index.html

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