Supersessionism; A More Ethical Acts 15:20

I started Brad Young’s Paul the Jewish Theologian.  I have two items:

1.  On page 3, Young quotes Abraham Joshua Heschel, who talks about Christian supersessionism:

“The Christian message, which in its origins intended to be an affirmation and culmination of Judaism, became very early diverted into a repudiation and negation of Judaism; obsolescence and abrogation of Jewish faith became conviction and doctrine; the new covenant was conceived not as a new phase or disclosure but as abolition and replacement of the ancient one; theological thinking fashioned its terms in a spirit of antithesis to Judaism.  Contrast and contradiction rather than acknowledgement of roots relatedness and indebtedness, became the perspective.  Judaism a religion of law, Christianity a religion of grace; Judaism teaches a God of wrath, Christianity a God of love; Judaism a religion of slavish obedience, Christianity the conviction of free men; Judaism is particularism, Christianity is universalism; Judaism seeks works-righteousness, Christianity preaches faith-righteousness.  The teaching of the old covenant a religion of fear, the gospel of the new covenant a religion of love…”

I thought of this passage when I read John Mayer’s comments on Psalm 78:43-51 in Charles Spurgeon’s Treasury of David:

Moses wrought wonders destructive, Christ wonders preservative: he turned water into blood, Christ water into wine; he brought flies and frogs and locusts and caterpillars, destroying the fruits of the earth, and annoying it; Christ increased a little of these fruits, five loaves and a few fishes, by blessing them, so that he herewith fed five thousand men: Moses smote both men and cattle with hail, and thunder and lightning, that they died, Christ made some alive that were dead, and saved from death the diseased and sick; Moses was an instrument to bring all manner of wrath and evil angels amongst them, Christ cast out devils and did all manner of good, giving sight to the blind, hearing to the deaf, speech to the dumb, limbs to the lame, and cleansing to the leper, and when the sea was tempestuous appeasing it; Moses slew their firstborn, thus causing an horrible cry in all the land of Egypt; Christ saveth all the firstborn, or by saving makes them so; for thus they are called, Hebrews 12:23 .”

Young disagrees with the sentiment that Christianity is better than Judaism or the Old Covenant, at least in the way that Heschel says Christianity has conceptualized the issue.  According to Young, we cannot say that the God of the Hebrew Bible is a God of wrath, whereas the God of the New Testament is a God of love and grace, for there are times when the God of the Hebrew Bible is loving and gracious, and there is a prominent theme of God’s wrath in the New Testament.  I would add that Judaism and the Hebrew Bible contain such concepts as universalism (God’s love for all people), faith, and obeying God out of love (although there is also a strong particularist streak as well as an emphasis on ritual observances).  Young also contends that the New Testament does not promote a lawless sort of faith, for, like elements of Second Temple Judaism, it holds that good works are an expression of faith.

I agree with Young on these points, but I also believe that the New Testament contains the roots for the Christian supersessionism that he criticizes.  Paul, after all, associates the law with wrath and condemnation, while he holds that Jesus Christ has brought in a new age of grace.  John 1:17 says that the law came through Moses, but grace and truth came through Jesus Christ.  I don’t think that Paul and John are like Marcion, who maintained that the God of the Old Testament was cruel whereas the God of the New Testament was loving.  Paul and John probably felt that God had good reason to run things as he did during the old dispensation—-to convict people of sin so that they’d recognize their need for Christ, to regulate their behavior and provide discipline until Christ came, etc.  But now it’s a new dispensation.

2.  Young talks about the Codex Bezae manuscript.  You can read about that here.  This Codex dates to the fifth century, but Young believes that it may contain a more original version of the Jerusalem conference’s decree in Acts 15.  In Acts 15:20, the church decides that the only requirements for Gentile Christians will be for them to refrain from sexual immorality, not to eat meat offered to idols and animals that have been strangled, and to abstain from blood.  The Codex Bexae, however, says “to abstain from pollutions of idols, from fornication, from blood[shed] and whatsoever you would that men should do to you do not to another.”

I happen to like the Codex Bezae’s version.  A problem with the requirements for Gentiles in Acts 15:20 is that so many things are left out.  As Desmond Ford has asked, does Acts 15:20 mean that Gentiles don’t have to honor their parents, since “Honor your father and mother” is not one of the requirements for Gentiles?  It makes more sense, therefore, for the church to have required Gentiles to obey some form of the Golden Rule.

At the same time, I’m not sure if Young is correct that the Codex Bezae has an earlier and more authentic version of the Jerusalem Conference’s decision.  I can understand why a manuscript would give the decision a more ethical orientation, which is what we see in the Codex Bezae.  But why would one take an ethical decision and remove ethical pieces from it, such as the Golden Rule?  It makes more sense to me that the former happened, not the latter.

Another point that I’d like to make is that Young, in his discussion of the Jerusalem Conference, believes that there was some diversity within the New Testament church.  On page 39, Young states:

“Paul would probably view these legal requirements [in the Codex Bezae of Acts 15:20] as a maximum for the non-Jews to observe.  Peter, on the other hand, would tend to view these laws as a minimum.  He would hope that the new believers from pagan backgrounds would adopt more of the Jewish religious observance.”

About jamesbradfordpate

My name is James Pate. This blog is about my journey. I read books. I watch movies and TV shows. I go to church. I try to find meaning. And, when I can’t do that, I just talk about stuff that I find interesting. I have degrees in fields of religious studies. I have an M.Phil. in the History of Biblical Interpretation from Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati, Ohio. I also have an M.A. in Hebrew Bible from Jewish Theological Seminary, an M.Div. from Harvard Divinity School, and a B.A. from DePauw University.
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2 Responses to Supersessionism; A More Ethical Acts 15:20

  1. truthceeker says:

    Consider that Paul’s letters are not interpreted correctly. While the majority of Christendom sets his theology against Jewish ideas, Paul’s views take on a much richer meaning in light of his Jewish background. And the statement about grace and law for instance (John 1:17), most Theologians use this verse to set grace against law, but the point of the matter is understood in context which is that Jesus was the prophet which was foretold by Moses. Moses brought the written Torah but Jesus is the living Torah. Consider the context of the verse. See John 1:14, “And the Word became flesh, and dwelt among us, and we saw His glory, glory as of the only begotten from the Father, full of grace and truth.” In this context the Word is the Torah made flesh.

    And the idea that Jesus ushered in an “Age of Grace” is misunderstood to mean that “Grace” never existed prior to Jesus appearing in the flesh, but the truth is that the Lord has always been gracious toward mankind from all time. Grace is of course not opposed to the Torah. The heart of the Torah (Law) is Graciousness.


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