An American Jew in Rome: reflections on the doctrine of Supercessionism

The journal “Ecumenical Trends” is not available online. Which is a great pity, because it has marvellous material in it from the good folks at Graymoor. The latest edition to arrive on our desk contains a short reflection by Ernest H. Rubenstein, entitled: “The Folly of Supercession: Lessons from a First-Time Visit to Rome”. Is it significant that Mr Rubenstein uses the term “supercession” rather than the term “supercessionism”? We will see.

For those of you who are not up on the discussion, Supercessionism is the big question of the new millennium in Jewish Christian relations. The Wikpedia article on Supercessionism defines it as “the traditional Christian belief that Christianity is the fulfillment of Old Testament Judaism, and therefore that Jews who deny that Jesus is the Messiah fall short of their calling as God’s chosen people.” In fact, strict supercessionism embodies the idea that Christianity not only supercedes biblical Judaism, but in fact is the only valid successor. Rubenstein picks up on this point, as we shall see.

Nostra Aetate and repeated declarations of the Magisterium (especially JPII) have made it fairly clear that the Catholic Church no longer accepts the doctrine of strict supercessionism. This does not mean, however, that it does not claim to be “a” or even “the” legitimate successor of the Jewish tradition before Christ. (cf. Nostra Aetate §4 “Althought 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”.)

In this light, Mr Rubenstein’s reflections on his three day stay in Rome are interesting. He says that he went to Rome expecting to experience the “imperialism” of that ancient city—not least, the imperialism of the Christian claim to that which was rightly Jewish. “Supercession”, he says, “is a theological translation of the idea of empire.” He goes on immediately to acknowledge that “Christianity is not alone in having practiced it”, for, although it is now an historical fact, it was not an historical necessity that Rabbinic Judaism should have become the sole Jewish successor to the biblical religion. He cites the case of the Alexandrian tradition as a possible alternative.

Rubenstein then defines “to supercede” as “to willfully silence alternative continuations of what came before”. I would call that “supercessionism”. I don’t think the idea of supercession necessarily implies the idea of exclusive supercession. Something may legitimately be said to have “superceded” something else, without denying that there may be other superceders .

But perhaps here is where Rubenstein makes his most valuable contribution, as he suggests that it would be better to speak of “succeeding” rather than “superceding”. He writes: “Succession does not necessarily entail supercession. The church may understand itself to succeed, or follow on ancient Judaism, without canceling out the possibility of alternative, living successions.” He suggests, in other words, that there are at least two historical “successors” (rather than “superceders”) of biblical Judaism: Christianity and Rabbinical Judaism.

Commenting on the artistic juxtaposition of the Hebrew Genesis 1:1 and the Greek John 1:1 in the Anglican Church in Rome, he says: “The church seems to be saying: what we understood to have been with God at the beginning of creation, through which he created, is Christ. But it says so without precluding alternatives.” Or at least, I would say, without precluding that others may have alternative interpretations.

And I was most pleased to read the following good common sense, so often missing in the “politically correct” Jewish Christian dialogue. Rubenstein writes:

“In Christian settings, I find references to “Hebrew scripture” or, according to the preferred language of Judaism, “Tanak”, artificial and misleading, however well intentioned. For they obscure what the church must do if it is not to become Marcionite, namely read the New Testament as a fulfillment of the Old.”

He then makes the perfectly obvious, but often missed point that “The Old Testament and Tanak can share the space of the same words, without either superceding the other’s reading of them.”

He makes the interesting observation that this distinction would perhaps be supported if different languages were to be used for the same texts, suggesting the Jews use the Hebrew and the Christians the Latin. He would be closer to the mark if he had suggested that the Christians should take the Greek Septuagint as the standard for their Old Testament, since the Septuagint was the “bible” of the early church (as is reflected in the different books contained in the traditional Christian OT and the Tanak) but the point is interesting. Nevertheless, the fact that St Jerome translated the Vulgate from Hebrew as much as from the Greek would question this suggestion.

There is much to chew on in this reflection. I will try to secure permission to reprint the article on the Commission website.
In the mean time, I find myself wondering along these lines:

If we accept JPII’s terminology in which Christianity can legitimately call modern day Judaism our “elder brother” (ie. in which both can acknowledge eachother as legitimate offspring of biblical Judaism), what remains is to ask “Which offspring is the legitimate heir?”

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