The Roots of Replacement Theology
The true spiritual Israel, and descendants of Judah, Jacob, Isaac, and Abraham…are we who have been led to God through this crucified Christ.1
That erroneous statement was written by a Christian who addressed himself to a Jewish man as they debated about Christianity. He later added, “We who have been quarried out from the bowels of Christ are the true Israelitic race.”2
The debate occurred almost 1,900 years ago (A.D. 155) between Justin Martyr and his Jewish opponent, Trypho. In a mere 50 years after the last book of the New Testament was written, Gentile Christians had already come to believe that their church had replaced the Jewish people in God’s program and that the only thing the Jewish nation could look forward to was condemnation.
Unfortunately, the roots of Replacement Theology, also known as “supersessionism,” run deep in Christian history.
Why did such a theology develop? After all, the first generation of Christians was Jewish and centered in Jerusalem. Jewish believers in Jesus participated in Temple worship, sharing common ground with other Jews (Acts 21:26; 22:17; 24:18). The city of Jerusalem maintained its Jewish leadership for one generation, while the message of faith in Jesus the Messiah moved out from Judea to synagogues across the Roman Empire.
However, as the apostle Paul took the gospel to his Jewish brethren, he found that Gentiles responded as well. The expanding church soon contained more Gentiles than Jews. In addition, the character of Jewish-led Jerusalem changed when Rome destroyed the Jewish Temple in A.D. 70 (the First Jewish Revolt) and all Jews, including Jewish Christians, were forced to flee. The church’s new leadership came from its other centers in Antioch and, eventually, Rome—both Gentile cities.
Another event propelled Gentiles into church leadership. The Jewish people organized another revolt against Rome, hoping to regain the freedom they lost in A.D. 70. Their leader was Simon bar Kokhba, who had been proclaimed messiah by Rabbi Akiva, the most highly esteemed rabbi of that generation. Bar Kokhba considered Christians his enemies, since they rejected his revolt and messianic claims. When Rome crushed this rebellion in A.D. 135, Christians believed they saw God’s hand of judgment against the Jews, reinforcing their claim that they had become the “new Israel.”
The early church, now with a Gentile majority, defended itself against Roman paganism and Judaism. Its attack against paganism revealed the clear differences between the two; but its opposition to Judaism created complications, since both Christianity and Judaism shared the same Scriptures as well as other common beliefs.
In an attempt to define themselves as the true inheritors of Israel’s relationship with God, Gentile Christians eradicated the Jewish people from God’s plans, substituting themselves instead. The Gentile church claimed to displace the Jews as God’s people from that time on and forevermore and blamed the Jews for rejecting Jesus, which the church said led God to reject them.
How could the early Christians read the promises that God had made to Israel and justify this substitution? They found that they could do so only by spiritualizing the promises. This method of interpretation allowed them to replace Israel as the beneficiary of God’s unfulfilled promises. The words of these early Christian leaders reveal their theology of replacement.
Here is a sample of writings from the first 300 years of the church. The Epistle of Barnabas, written around A.D. 100, states that the Jews have no further claim to God’s promises:
Take heed now to yourselves, and not to be like some, adding largely to your sins, and saying, “The covenant is both theirs and ours.” But they thus finally lost it.3
Irenaeus, writing around A.D. 180, said, “They who boast themselves as being the house of Jacob and the people of Israel, are disinherited from the grace of God.”4
Origen, the most prolific writer of the early church (c. A.D. 250), grounded his Replacement Theology in allegorical interpretation. For instance, when explaining that Jesus was sent to the “lost sheep of the house of Israel” (Mt. 15:24), he argued that the lost sheep are not Jews, who are “carnal” Israel, but Christians, who are “heavenly” Israel.5
John Chrysostom preached such a message in the capital city of the Roman Empire in A.D. 387:
It is because you killed Christ….It is because you shed the precious blood, that there is now no restoration, no mercy anymore and no defense….You have committed the ultimate transgression. This is why you are being punished worse now than in the past….If this were not the case God would not have turned his back on you so completely.6
Although some Old Testament promises are fulfilled by the New Testament church, others will be fulfilled by Israel. For example, Jesus Christ taught that Israel has a future in God’s plan:
Assuredly I say to you, that in the regeneration, when the Son of Man sits on the throne of His glory, you who have followed Me will also sit on twelve thrones, judging the twelve tribes of Israel (Mt. 19:28).
Jesus spoke of the time when the entire earth will be regenerated and the Kingdom of God will come to Earth with Jesus as King. At that time Jesus will reign, along with the 12 apostles who will judge Israel’s 12 tribes.
Shortly before Jesus’ ascension, His disciples asked Him, “Lord, will You at this time restore the kingdom to Israel?” (Acts 1:6). These disciples had been with Jesus for 40 days, during which time He had taught them about God’s Kingdom (v. 3). Surely they would have known enough from those six weeks to ask an appropriate question about God’s Kingdom and Israel’s relation to it.
Jesus did not correct their view of a literal Israelite Kingdom; He left that untouched. He simply told them that the time of that Kingdom’s arrival is known only by the Father (v. 7). In this brief passage, Jesus affirmed a future Jewish Kingdom. Israel had not been replaced by the church.
In fact, in Romans 11 the Jewish apostle Paul warned Gentile Christians against being proud of their position. He declared that God intends for Gentiles to make Israel envious of the church’s relationship with the God of Abraham (v. 11). Sadly, Christian anti-Semitism has led to the opposite of God’s intent.
Paul stated that Gentiles are merely wild olive branches who have been grafted into the tree, which carries the rich sap of the promises God made to Abraham (vv. 17–19). He condemned the attitude of superiority that had already begun to rear its head against Jewish people who did not believe in Jesus (vv. 20–24). And he revealed the amazing truth that all the people of Israel living at the end of the age will be redeemed when their Messiah Jesus returns to forgive them (vv. 25–27).
Notice his conclusion: “Concerning the gospel they are enemies for your sake, but concerning the election they are beloved for the sake of the fathers” (v. 28). One day “all Israel will be saved” (v. 26).
Moses told the Israelites,
The Lᴏʀᴅ did not set His love on you nor choose you because you were more in number than any other people, for you were the least of all peoples; but because the Lᴏʀᴅ loves you, and because He would keep the oath which He swore to your fathers (Dt. 7:7–8).
And though Israel rejects the gospel today, it still remains chosen and deeply loved by God because of His promises to Abraham.
- Justin Martyr, “Dialogue With Trypho, a Jew,” The Anti-Nicene Fathers, A. Roberts and J. Donaldson, vol. 1 (1885; reprint, Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1993), chap. 11.
- , chap. 135.
- “The Epistle of Barnabas,” The Anti-Nicene Fathers, A. Roberts and J. Donaldson, vol. 1 (1885; reprint, Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1993), chap. 4.
- Irenaeus, “Against Heresies,” The Anti-Nicene Fathers, A. Roberts and J. Donaldson, vol. 1 (1885; reprint, Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1993), 3.21.1.
- Origen, “De Principiis,” The Anti-Nicene Fathers, A. Roberts and J. Donaldson, vol. 4 (1885; reprint, Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1994), 4.1.22.
- Quoted in Rosemary Ruether, Faith and Fratricide: The Theological Roots of Anti-Semitism (Eugene, OR: Wipf & Stock, 1995), 146–47.