Good News in Jewish-Christian Relations
Are Christian Zionists destroying Jewish-Christian relations? Are they imposing their own political agendas on delicate political negotiations between Jews and Palestinians in Israel and undermining them in the process? Are they causing a new nadir in Jewish relations with Christians?
In a recent Tablet article, Yehuda Kutzer worries that when Christians use theology to advance political agendas in Israel, they produce a caricature rather than understanding. And their allyships on both the Left and the Right often do more harm than good to Jews and Palestinians trying to seek a just peace together.
Kutzer has some valid objections. But he misses the bigger picture. And the bigger picture is better for Jewish interests than he imagines.
While Christians outside Israel should do more inquiring and less pronouncing—as Kutzer suggests—recent Christian attempts to understand the land of Israel and Zionist claims are producing better fruit than Kutzer imagines. We are witnessing not an “erosion” of progress in Jewish-Christian relations but new Christian networks that are promoting a deeper understanding of both communities.
Kutzer sees erosion because he is looking at dying mainline Protestant churches in the Global North rather than the burgeoning churches of the Global South. He laments recent meetings of The Episcopal Church (TEC) where resolutions condemned the Jewish state and suggested that Jesus’ teachings are opposed to Israeli policy. One speaker alleged that “Israel” in the Bible is a metaphor and not a land.
These are nothing new. TEC has been producing anti-Israel resolutions for the last half-century. So has the biggest Presbyterian denomination, the Presbyterian Church of the United States of America (PCUSA). But these two dinosaurs, both of which long ago replaced historic theology with progressive politics, are dying—and more rapidly than ever before. They are losing members precipitously, are dominated by baby boomers with white hair, and have younger members who are not having babies. These platforms for Protestant anti-Israel activism are increasingly irrelevant.
Meanwhile, a philosemitism largely free of partisan politics is rising in the Global South. Rather than proffering kindness to Jews as a means to “enact divine promises” eschatologically, which Kutzer sees in some Christian Zionists, African and Latin American Zionists tend to see the return of the Jews to the land as the fulfillment of a divine promise. There is plenty of prosperity theology in Africa, as Kutzer suggests, and Global South Zionists believe their own nations will be blessed by supporting Israel. But Christians in Latin America, China, Korea, and Africa believe the Jews are God’s chosen people not in order to obtain prosperity but simply because they know from their Bibles that the Jews are God’s chosen people. For many of these Christians, especially Africans, the books of Tanach are just as important as those of the New Testament.
Much has been made of the decline of evangelical support for Israel among evangelical millennials. It is true that these evangelicals question what their parents have taught them. But basic support for Jews as God’s people and Israel as a land of promise remains. A major academic survey of evangelicals conducted less than a year ago found that 58 percent of evangelicals under 30 still believe “God’s covenant with the Jewish people remains intact today,” and 64 percent think “the Jewish people today have the right to the land of Israel by virtue of the covenant God made with Abraham.”
Besides this hopeful news, there is a New Christian Zionism quite different from the ones that Kutzer laments. It is new because it rejects the old Christian Zionism that tended to give blanket support to every Israeli political policy. This New Christian Zionism believes that the massive return of Jews to the land over the last two centuries was a fulfillment of biblical prophecy but is agnostic about eschatology, refusing to endorse the end-times scenarios popular with older Christian Zionisms.
Kutzer is right that Christian Zionists have too often projected their theologies and politics on Jews and have failed to ask in humility what Jews—especially Israeli Jews—think about Zionism and Judaism. We Christians need to listen and learn. But we also ask our Jewish friends to listen to what the New Christian Zionism is saying. Namely, that Jesus and the New Testament are radically different from what Episcopalians and Presbyterians have been telling Kutzer.
Consider, for instance, the Episcopalian claim that Israel in the Bible was a mere metaphor and that the Gospel message is contrary to what the state of Israel stands for. The New Christian Zionism says what millions of Christians in the Global South would affirm, that Jesus looked forward to a restored Jerusalem.
In Matthew 24, Jesus says that when he returns “all the tribes of the land will mourn,” quoting Zechariah’s prophecy about the inhabitants of Jerusalem mourning when “the LORD will give salvation to the tents of Judah” (Zech 12:7, 10). Then in Matthew 19:28, Jesus tells his disciples that “in the new world… you who have followed me will also sit on twelve thrones, judging the twelve tribes of Israel.” James Sanders observed in Jesus and Judaism that these repeated references to the twelve tribes imply restoration of Israel, particularly in Jerusalem. Luke records Anna speaking of the baby Jesus “to all who were waiting for the redemption of Jerusalem” (Luke 2:38), and Jesus’ expectation that when he returns Israel will welcome him: “You will not see me again until you say, ‘Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord’” (Luke 13:34-35). Luke suggests that the return will be in Jerusalem (Luke 21:24-28).
When Jesus’ disciples asked Jesus just before his ascension, “Lord, are you at this time going to restore the kingdom to Israel?” (Acts 1:6), Jesus did not challenge their assumption that one day the kingdom would be restored to physical Israel. He simply said the Father had set the date, and they did not need to know it yet. It was these sorts of indications in the Gospels and Acts that caused Oxford historian Markus Bockmuehl to write that “the early Jesus movement evidently continued to focus upon the restoration of Israel’s twelve tribes in a new messianic kingdom.”
For Jesus, then, Israel and its capital were real places. And his reverence for Tanach strongly implies that he accepted Joshua’s settlement of the tribes in Canaan. He warned his disciples, “Don’t think that I came to do away with Torah or the prophets. I came not to do away with them but to fulfill them” (Matt 5:17). “Torah and the prophets” was first-century code for Tanach, which refers to God’s gift of the land to Abraham and his progeny one thousand times.
To further reinforce the permanent validity of Torah and its repeated affirmation of the land promise, Jesus added that “until the heaven and the earth pass away, not an iota (the smallest Greek letter) or a horn (the smallest Hebrew stroke of the pen) will pass away from Torah until everything is accomplished” (Matt 5:18). He went even further to say that the lightest of Torah’s mitzvot was binding on his disciples: “Whoever breaks one of the least of these commandments and teaches men to do likewise, will be called least in the Kingdom of Heaven. But whoever observes and teaches them, he will be called great in the Kingdom of Heaven” (Matt 5:19).
Jesus’ disciple Paul also believed in the land promise. He told the synagogue in Antioch of Pisidia that “the God of this people Israel chose our fathers and… after destroying seven nations in the land of Canaan, he gave them their land as an inheritance” (Acts 13: 17-19).
New networks of Christians and Jews are having deep discussions of Jewish and Christian differences at conferences and programs sponsored by the Philos Project and the Tikvah Fund. In April 2022, leaders of the World Evangelical Alliance serving hundreds of millions of Protestants visited Israel to accept the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA) definition of antisemitism at Yad Vashem and meet with the president of Israel. That same month Catholic and Jewish scholars met in Rome to discuss religious and practical attitudes to the state and land of Israel. In May, the Philos Project held conferences in New York and Washington, DC, to celebrate the publication of a landmark book on Catholic approaches to the land and state of Israel.
The new Society for Post-Supersessionist Theology at the American Academy of Religion and the Society for Biblical Literature is attracting Jewish and Christian scholars from a wide range of scholarly disciplines. Christians from diverse denominations are putting out books like The New Christian Zionism and Israel Matters. Catholics are taking the land promise seriously in books like Catholic Doctrines on the Jewish People after Vatican II,and Jewish and Christian scholars recently collaborated on Understanding the Jewish Roots of Christianity.
In sum, there are new collaborations among Christians and Jews that take differences seriously and probe far below the surface of superficial commonalities. They are trying to listen to one another, and while taking the land promise seriously, they are chary of attaching their theologies to political chariots. Many of these are below the radar of popular media, where progressive activists are noisy.
So Mr. Kutzer and Jews generally need not be so pessimistic about the state of Jewish-Christian relations. Prospects for the future are better than they might have imagined.