Hebrews 8: “The Old Covenant is Obsolete”

In Hebrews 8:13, the writer says that “In speaking of a new covenant [through Jeremiah the prophet], he [the Lord] makes the first one obsolete.”

That seems clear enough. But which covenant is the writer referring to: the one with Abraham or at Sinai? Clearly, according to verse 9, the covenant made at Sinai. So nothing in this passage abrogates the covenant with Abraham, and the promises made to Abraham’s descendants.

Verse 9 also points out that it wasn’t God who broke faith with the covenant, but the house of Israel/Judah. God declares how he is going to fix this. He is going to make a new covenant specifically “with the House of Israel and with the House of Judah”. So the New Covenant is clearly seen as the way in which God will remain faithful to his Old Covenant promises. The Old Covenant may be “obsolete” (because the human party broke their side of the deal), but God remains faithful to his promises and keeps his side of the deal – specifically in instituting the new and more perfect covenant based on the faithfulness of Jesus Christ. But note carefully that Jeremiah doesn’t say God is making this new covenant with the Nations/Gentiles – he is making it with the House of Israel in order to perpetuate his Covenant faithfulness with them.

Here I think the discussion in paragraph 18 of the Vatican document “The Gifts and the Calling of God…” points us in the right direction. Hebrews 8 never implies or states that the “obscelesence” of the First/Old Covenant means that God has rejected his promise of election and faithfulness to his people Israel. Rather the statement that “the first covenant is obsolete” arises in the context of a comparison of the two priesthoods – the priesthood of Aaron and the priesthood of Jesus Christ.

We don’t know whether Hebrews was written before or after the destruction of the Jerusalem temple, but it was obviously written fairly close to the event, and it provides a fascinating snapshop from a moment in time when everything was in violent flux for the Jews – both Christian and non-Christian. The writer wishes to demonstrate beyond doubt that the priesthood of Christ surpasses that of Aaron in the same way that the original thing surpasses a copy or image of it. The Real Thing has come, so the copy or image no longer serves any purpose. It is “obsolete”. Curiously, (most) modern day Jews would agree that the Aaronic priesthood is “obsolete”. For them, since the destruction of the 2nd Temple, the cult of the first covenant has been replaced with the calling to study and live by the Torah.

But nothing in Hebrews 8 suggests that the promises of God to his people Israel – of everlasting love and election – have been “annulled” along with the “obselesence” of the Aaronic cult. On the basis of Romans 9-11, I don’t think it is possible to teach any such thing.

At the start of Romans 9, Paul says that “the adoption, the glory, the covenants, the giving of the law, the worship, and the promises” etc “belong” to “Israel according to the flesh”. I think that the genitive of the relative pronoun (wn) used here repeatedly to convey the idea of “belonging” must carry a present tense idea – ie. Paul is not saying that these things “once belonged” to Israel, such that they are now are in the past. For him, they are very much in the present (even the priesthood, although that isn’t specifically mentioned – he does use the term latria “the worship” which might be intended to encompass the temple and the priesthood). There are many other interesting elements in his list – including a reference to plural “covenants”, which according to Paul still belong to Israel.

In the rest of chapter nine, Paul aims to show that although these promises are made to “Israel according to the flesh”, they are not restricted to the descendants of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, nor indeed are all who are “Israel according to the flesh” heirs to the promise. Nevertheless, if Paul thought that “fleshly” Israel had simply been replaced holus bolus in God’s estimation with “spiritual” Israel (ie. the Church), why would he bother with all the angst and worry covered in next two chapters of his letter about the destiny of “Israel according to the flesh”?

Chapter 10 of Romans then says that “Christ is the end of the Law”. Not “end” in the sense of finished and thrown away, but in the sense of “goal” – Christ is the Telos of the Law. This fits perfectly with Jesus’ own saying that he came to fulfill the law, not abolish it (Matt 5:17). Now, I take “Law” in Romans as pretty well always to refer to “Torah” (rather than some Lutheran idea of the demands of good works as opposed to the Gospel of faith without works). The Law is not the same thing as the Covenant (in Chapter 9, Paul lists them separately). So here we need to ask what the relationship between Christ and the Torah is. Hebrews 8 was not about the Torah, but about the Priesthood. We no longer have a group of people who practice the old covenant priesthood, but we do have a group of people who are very attached to the Torah, ie. the modern Jews.  “The Gifts and the Calling of God…” asks this question and suggests a few ideas (not all of them satisfactory) – but the document does firmly reject the idea that there are “two paths” – one via Torah, and one via Christ.

In Romans 11:1, Paul comes to the point: “Has God rejected his people?” Christians for centuries have answered this question in such a way as to imply “Yes, he has.” Today, I would hope that all Christians can say with Paul an emphatic “me genoito”!! May it never be said! The Old Covenant Priesthood may certainly be obsolete now that a better and far more excellent and incomparable Priesthood has been instituted. The Torah is certainly not, apart from the righteousness of God revealed in Christ, another path of salvation. But even we Christians still hold the Torah in such esteem as to include in in our scripture and call it the “Word of God”. So it hasn’t by any means been “abolished”, let alone made “obsolete” as an historical artifact.

All this being true, what about God’s promises to Israel: Are his love for them and his election of them as his people “obsolete”. Paul’s “May it never happen!” is all the more emphatic because his whole argument in Romans centres on the fact that through Christ, the Gentiles have been grafted onto the olive tree which is the People of the Covenant, ie. Israel (Romans 11:17ff). Paul’s image doesn’t say that the old olive tree is now dead and that God has planted a completely new one. As in the prophecy of Jeremiah in Hebrews 8, the new Covenant is precisely aimed at ensuring that the promises of God to Israel contained in the old Covenant remain firmly in place, while at the same time gathering all the Nations into God’s Covenant with Israel. That is what makes the “new covenant” new – not that it excludes the people of the First Covenant, but rather that it includes with them all the Nations as well.

So in Paul’s words: “God has not rejected his people whom he foreknew” (Romans 11:2), and “do not be arrogant toward the branches – remember it is not you who support the root, but the root that supports you” (Romans 11:18), and finally “the gifts and the calling of God are irrevocable” (Romans 11:29).

So here is the thing: When Saint John Paul II said that the Covenant of God with the Jews was continuing and valid, he was specifically speaking of God’s own promises of commitment to the people of Israel (whom he had no problems identifying with modern day Jews). I could chose a number of different passages, but Avery Dulles chose this one in his First Things essay in November 2005:

Pope John Paul II, whose theology was deeply affected by personalism, spoke of the Jews as a covenant people. In an address in Rome on October 31, 1997, he discussed the act of divine election that brought this people into existence: “This people is assembled and led by Yahweh, creator of heaven and of earth. Its existence is therefore not purely a fact of nature or of culture in the sense that the resourcefulness proper to one’s nature is expressed in culture. It is a supernatural fact. This people perseveres despite everything because it is the people of the covenant, and despite human infidelities, Yahweh is faithful to his covenant. To ignore this most basic principle is to adopt a Marcionism against which the church immediately and vigorously reacted, conscious of a vital link with the Old Testament, without which the New Testament itself is emptied of meaning.”

In saying that God is faithful to his covenant with the Jewish people, Saint John Paul II was not saying that the Old Testament priesthood remained valid, or that Torah was a another path of salvation apart from the Righteousness of God revealed in the faithfulness of Jesus Christ. He was simply making the very point about God’s faithfulness to his covenant that Jeremiah made in his prophecy of the New Covenant, which is: God has not rejected the People with whom he first made his Covenant. The New Covenant in Christ does not exclude the Jews, but allows us Gentiles to enter with Jewish people into God’s continuing Covenant commitment.

I believe that this is not only what John Paul II meant, but also what the Jewish people today mean when they ask us to recognise the continuing validity of God’s covenant with them. They do not use the language of “salvation” that is common among Christians. We may argue about whether the Jews (as Jews) are “saved” or not, but that isn’t their concern. Their worry is that Christians have taught for 2000 years that, because they did not receive Jesus Christ as their Messiah at his coming, God has rejected them, that they are no longer his people, in fact that they are guilty of killing God himself and are therefore themselves condemned to be wretched, homeless wanderers upon the face of the earth, to be marked out like Cain for their guilt.

It is in contrast to this “teaching of contempt”, that the Second Vatican Council, John Paul II, Benedict XVI and now Pope Francis have all affirmed the ongoing validity of God’s covenant with the Jewish people. They mean that God has not rejected his people, but remains faithful to them.

And this is exactly how the Jews interpret the Church’s new stance. Here, for example, is the writing of a Jew, Edward Kessler (on page 30-31 of Jews, Christians and Muslims in Encounter):

As well as acknowledging the Christian contribution to Jewish suffering, institutional statements illustrate a second revolution in Roman Catholic and Protestant attitudes towards Jews and Judaism. They are reawakening to the Jewish origins of Christianity and are reconsidering the meaning of the mission of , and the mission to, Israel.

They have renounced many of the triumphalist doctrines, most significantly the renunciation of the teaching of the divine rejection of the Jewish people since the time of Jesus – in other words, the divine covenant with the Jewish people is now no longer viewed as having been annulled. According to the 1980 Evangelical Church of the Rhineland statement:

“We believe the permanent election of the Jewish people as the people of God and realize that through Jesus Christ the church is into the covenant of God with his people.”

For its part, Nostra Aetate taught Christians that “the Jews remain most dear to God” who “does not repent of the gifts he makes nor of the calls he issues”. John Paul II spell it out in the early years of his pontificate as follows: God’s covenant with the Jewish people had never been broken, retains eternal validity; God does not renege on his promises (cf. Romans 11:29). If Jews were not rejected, then Judaism was not a fossilized faith, as had been taught previously, but a living, authentic religion.

Note that there is nothing in any of his claims about the old testament priesthood or about salvation. None of that concerns today’s Jews. What concerns them is that the Church now recognises that God has not rejected his people, that they remain most dear to him, and that they should not be molested or obstructed in the exercise of what they hold to be their religious obligations as a people.

I think we can in fact go further than that and say a great deal more, but surely we can at least admit that much, even if, on the basis of Hebrews 8, a Christian might still find himself compelled to say that “the old covenant is obsolete”.

About Schütz

I am a PhD candidate & sessional academic at Australian Catholic University in Melbourne, Australia. After almost 10 years in ministry as a Lutheran pastor, I was received into the Catholic Church in 2003. I worked for the Archdiocese of Melbourne for 18 years in Ecumenism and Interfaith Relations. I have been editor of Gesher for the Council of Christians & Jews and am guest editor of the historical journal “Footprints”. I have a passion for pilgrimage and pioneered the MacKillop Woods Way.
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3 Responses to Hebrews 8: “The Old Covenant is Obsolete”

  1. Schütz says:

    A friend emailed the following response to me:

    Dear David

    What you have written is, indeed, cogent and (as far as I can tell) consonant with the meaning of Scripture. It also is consonant with the CCC:

    God chooses Abraham

    CCC 59 In order to gather together scattered humanity God calls Abram from his country, his kindred and his father’s house (Gen 12:1), and makes him Abraham, that is, “the father of a multitude of nations.” “In you all the nations of the earth shall be blessed” (Gen 17:5; 12:3 (LXX); cf. Gal 3:8).

    CCC 60 The people descended from Abraham would be the trustee of the promise made to the patriarchs, the chosen people, called to prepare for that day when God would gather all his children into the unity of the Church (Cf. Rom 11:28; Jn 11:52; 10:16). They would be the root onto which the Gentiles would be grafted, once they came to believe (Cf. Rom 11:17 18, 24).

    CCC 61 The patriarchs, prophets and certain other Old Testament figures have been and always will be honored as saints in all the Church’s liturgical traditions.

    I think where the matter has become confused is what you make clear in your opening gambit in your piece. There are five main OT covenants. But what is being referred to in your submission is the Abrahamic Covenant. The Roman document confuses the issue and not least because of the way in which it deals with the obsolescence of the Aaronic priesthood and covenant.

    You have given me much to think about, and to adjust and revise my own thinking.

    Thank you for taking the trouble to help me with this.

    • Schütz says:

      This was my reply:

      Thanks, Fr, for your reaction. There was a time when I thought we could simply say that it was the Abrahamic covenant that perdures (q it certainly does), whereas the Sinai covenant does not. I’m not sure it is so straightforward as that any more. I think it is a matter of what aspect of the Sinai covenant is obsolete and what perdures. Even as a Lutheran, I was taught that while the cultic code is no longer pertinent to the church we are bound by the moral code contained in the old law. I am wondering if there are other aspects that perdure – such as exodus 6:7 “you shall be my people” (which interestingly Jeremiah also prophesied in a couple of passages closely connected to his new covenant prophecy: 30:22 and 32:38).

  2. matthias says:

    i have come across TRADITIONALISTS who believe that God has rejected the Abrahamic Covenant which is why there is an undercurrent of anti semitism parading as an interpretation of what is the Old Covenant. Did not GOD tell ABRAHAM that his descendants would be numbered as the stars?

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