Jeremiah 31:31-34; 1 Corinthians 11:23-26
During the lockdown I enrolled in an online class offered through EdX, taught by a Harvard professor named Shaye Cohen. The class was called “Judaism Through Its Scriptures,” and it covered not just the Hebrew Bible but the Talmud and various other rabbinic commentaries that have been accepted and used by Jews for Bible study for centuries. Many students were nominally-observant Jews (a person can be ethnically Jewish but not necessarily religiously observant), but there were also a few folks in the process of converting, some Christians, and even a couple Muslims. There were people from all over the world in the class.
One of the first questions we were called on to consider was whether it’s right to say the Christian “Old Testament” and the Jewish, or Hebrew, Bible are the same thing. A secondary question on that topic was whether it was appropriate for Christians to call the first 39 books of our Bible the “Hebrew Scriptures,” as has become fairly commonplace in mainline seminaries in recent years.
There isn’t a good answer, really.
On the one hand, using the term “Old Testament” implies that the “New Testament” is superior to, or even a replacement for, the Old. But on the other hand, the Hebrew Bible and the Christian Old Testament are not the same: while both contain the same books, they’re arranged differently, and that arrangement is actually a matter of interpretation of what the most important themes in the Bible are. And Christian translations render some of the texts differently from how Jewish translations do, because we generally read them through the lens of Jesus Christ and the ways Paul and other New Testament writers used and interpreted them.
I think Christians who want to call the first part of our Bible the “Hebrew Scriptures” have their hearts in the right place, even if the term isn’t entirely accurate. The term “Old Testament” can be problematic, and there are very good reasons for at least thinking it through before we use it. Like I said, if we call part of the Bible, the part that came to be before Jesus’ time on earth, the “Old” Testament, we’re making a statement about its relationship to the part that is about Jesus and the movement that formed around him. That statement might imply that the “new” is better than the “old,” maybe even that the new replaces the old.
The idea of calling one part old and another part new might not be troublesome, except for the term that comes after those adjectives: testament. Testament is the Latin way of saying “covenant,” so when we divide our Bible into “Old Testament” and “New Testament,” we’re implying a belief that there was a previous covenant, and now there is a new one, and they’re different and maybe even made with different people.
If we carry that out to its logical conclusion, we end up with a Christian belief called “supersessionism,” the notion that God has rejected the people with which he made the covenant at Mount Sinai—the Jewish people—and that we Christians have replaced them as the people with whom God has this special relationship. Supersessionism has, in not just my opinion but that of many historians, as well as Jewish and Christian theologians, caused an awful lot of trouble down through the centuries.
When we read the Gospels through the lens of supersessionism, we hear the disputes between Jesus and the Pharisees—disputes of a sort that is still a common part of Jewish Biblical interpretation—as bitter conflicts between Jesus and a group of “bad guys” who want to thwart him at every turn.
When we read the Gospels through the lens of supersessionism, we miss that the characterization in the Fourth Gospel of all Jews standing in opposition to Jesus is one that comes from one side of a family feud, in which passions run terribly high.
(Obviously not all Jews opposed Jesus; after all, all of his first disciples were fellow Jews, and his life and teaching took place among Jews almost exclusively.)
When we read the Gospels through the lens of supersessionism, we hear the mob’s cry in Matthew’s passion narrative, “His blood be on us and on our children,” as The Word Of God For All Time, a statement that condemns every single Jew that has ever lived since then as “Christ-killers.”
When we read the Gospels, Acts, and the rest of the New Testament through the lens of supersessionism, assuming that we are now the people of the covenant and Jews are not, troubling actions can follow: pogroms, discriminatory laws, even a Holocaust. If there’s anything 1933-1945 should have taught us, it is that supersessionism is dangerous and we really need to think hard before we teach it.
What does the Bible actually say?
It seems like, in addition to the passages I just mentioned from the Gospels, a lot of texts we interpret as supporting the notion of supersessionism come from Paul. But Paul was himself an observant Jew, a Pharisee who was educated under one of the most prominent rabbis of his time. I don’t think Paul ever saw himself as anything other than a Jew who believed that Jesus was the Messiah he and his people had been waiting for. When Paul was sent out to preach the gospel to the Gentiles, he wasn’t coming up with an entirely new story—he was proclaiming that Jesus, whom he believed was the Messiah, was the Lord and Savior not just of the Jewish people but of all people who believe in him.
It broke Paul’s heart that most of his fellow Jews did not also accept Jesus as Messiah. But he never says that this results in their rejection. As a matter of fact, at the beginning of Romans 11 Paul tackles this very topic head-on: “I ask, then, has God rejected his people? By no means! I myself an am Israelite, a descendant of Abraham, a member of the tribe of Benjamin. God has not rejected his people whom he foreknew” (Romans 11:1-2a).
Rather than assuming the Jews were uprooted from God’s olive grove and Gentiles, Christians, planted there, Paul speaks of our being grafted onto the tree that is Israel. And Paul asks Gentiles who might boast that they are now God’s favored people in place of the Jews, “If God did not spare the natural branches”—those who violently fought against the Messiah, but not the whole of the Jewish people— “perhaps he will not spare you” (11:21). In other words, if we believe God rejected the Jews and made a covenant with us in their place, what’s to say God won’t, one day, also reject us and put someone else in our place? But this is a God who not only doesn’t break promises, but over and over and over again renews and remakes the same covenant with them that was once made with Moses and the rest of the Israelites whom God brought out of slavery in Egypt.
We Christians tend to read today’s passage from Jeremiah through a lens that can encourage supersessionism. In this text from what’s often called the “Little Book of Consolation,” God announces a new covenant with the people, to take the place of the old one, to which they were spectacularly unfaithful. This time, instead of being written on tablets of stone or scrolls and kept in one place, the covenant will be inscribed on everyone’s heart; no longer will the people have to be taught about God, because everyone will know God intimately.
But what’s most amazing about this little passage is the content of this new covenant. It’s exactly the same as the old one: “I will be their God, and they shall be my people.”
Many Christians make the connection between Jeremiah 31 and the words of institution that we repeat every Sunday when we gather at the Lord’s Table, and we’re not wrong to do so. In all three of the Gospel accounts, plus the earlier one found in 1 Corinthians 11, Jesus ties the shedding of his blood to the idea of covenant. Only Paul has Jesus say that the cup symbolizes a new covenant; the rest only say “my blood of the covenant,” with no suggestion that there is a different covenant. But given what he says in Romans, Paul cannot be saying that Jesus’ shed blood seals a covenant completely different from the one God previously made with God’s people.
The first Jewish hearers and readers of the Gospels and Paul’s writing would have heard “new covenant” as “renewed covenant,” just as Jeremiah’s first hearers and readers would have heard “new covenant” in Jeremiah 31 as “restored covenant.” Neither is to be considered a replacement covenant.
The covenant is the same; it’s just now been opened up to take us in. Thus God is now our God, too; and we have been welcomed into the family of God’s people.