The Christian Hope and Christian Dialogue with Jews (2013)

The Christian Hope and Christian Dialogue with Jews                                                                   

A Paper for the Annual Conference of the Australian Council of Christians and Jews

Tuesday 1st October, 2013

By David Schütz (Delivered through kind favour by Dr Russell Briese in the author’s absence)

A. The Core Christian Hope of Redemption through Jesus Christ is “the irreconcilable difference” between Jews and Christians

In September 10th, 2000, four Jewish scholars published an article in the New York Times called “Dabru Emet”, concerning relations between Jews and Christians. The document attracted some controversy within the Jewish community at the time; nevertheless over 200 other rabbis and Jewish scholars have since attached their signature to the document. “Dabru Emet” (which means “Speak the Truth”) addressed a number of points at issue in Jewish-Christian dialogue from the Jewish point of view. The eight affirmations of “Dabru Emet” are as follows:

1) Jews and Christians worship the same God

2) Jews and Christians seek authority from the same book

3) Christians can respect the claim of the Jewish people upon the land of Israel

4) Jews and Christians together accept the moral principles of the Torah

5) Nazism was not a Christian phenomenon [i]

6) The humanly irreconcilable difference between Jews and Christians will not be settled until God redeems the entire world as promised in scripture

7) A new relationship between Jews and Christians will not weaken Jewish practice

8) Jews and Christians must work together for justice and peace

Each of those statements are worthy of discussion in themselves. It is the sixth affirmation that interests me in this paper, which claims that there is an “irreconcilable difference between Christians and Jews” which “will not be settled until God redeems the entire world as promised in scripture”. The “irreconcilable difference” concerns precisely what we believe concerning how God will “redeem the entire world”. From a Christian point of view, this is the “irreconcilable difference” between Jews and Christians, and it may be summed up in a single word: The Gospel.

What do Christians mean by “the Gospel”? English translations of the New Testament have traditionally used the Old English word “Gospel” (meaning “good news”) to translate the Greek word “euangelion”. In the ancient world an “euangelion” was an announcement – usually from a royal authority – of an event or a triumph (such as the birth of a royal heir, the accession to the throne of a new king, or a victory in a crucial battle). For instance, the start of the reign of Caesar Augustus was announced throughout the empire as a “gospel”. The result of this “gospel” was to be peace and prosperity for all his subjects. The earliest Christians used this word – “euangelion”/”gospel” – to describe the special proclamation that they believed God had commissioned them to announce to the world: that Jesus of Nazareth has risen from the dead, that God has therefore shown him to be the long awaited Messiah of the Jews, that this message now is not just for Jews but for the entire world, that Jesus is coming to establish his reign as the Universal Lord and King.

From the very beginning it was this proclamation which separated Christians from the traditional Jewish cult and practice. This remained so throughout all the changes of the centuries and remains so today. I don’t think it is saying too much to say that all differences in theology and practice between Judaism and Christianity stem from this core belief. All other differences, including “the Incarnation and the Trinity”[ii], stem from this basic Christian hope: that God’s plan to redeem the entire world is through the Gospel of Jesus Christ.

This core Christian belief is “irreconcilable” with Judaism because Judaism, as it has developed over the last two thousand years, would not be “Judaism” if it accepted this belief, and Christianity, as it has been from the very beginning, would not be “Christianity” if it abandoned it. This is well stated by David Novak in his book “Talking with Christians: Musings of a Jewish Theologian” (2005):

The commonality between Judaism and Christianity can be affirmed and developed only in those areas where our respective traditions do indeed overlap. But on the whole question of who Jesus is, they do not overlap. All our divergences pale in comparison to this one fundamental difference. Many Jews – I among them – and many Christians now believe that this fundamental difference will remain until God’s final redemption of the world at the end of history. [iii]

As he goes on to point out, this “irreconcilable difference” “simply means” that, despite everything we have in common, the Church “does not regard Judaism to be a legitimate type of Christianity” and Judaism “does not regard Christianity to be a legitimate type of Judaism”[iv].

The significance of this must not be underplayed for the Jewish-Christian dialogue. The fact of the matter is that the core Christian hope – the Gospel of Jesus Christ – will necessarily appear as anti-Jewish whenever it is articulated, even when it is expressed without any intention of polemics or proselytisation. I do not say it is “anti-semitic” – we will get to that. But we must recognise that it is a proclamation and a hope that necessarily sets Christianity against Judaism, because it is a proclamation and hope that Jews cannot possibly accept and still remain in a meaningful religious sense a member of the Jewish community.

B. Is Christian prayer that the Jewish People will come to share in this hope “Anti-Semitic”?

1. The March 2013 Editorial of “Christian and Jewish Scene”

What I have said thus far is really a preamble to topic which I wish to address, which is this: Is it an anti-semitic act for Christians to pray that “Israel” (or “the Jewish people”) will come to share in the redemption that Christians believe God is bringing to the entire world through the Gospel of Jesus Christ? This is what Kate Mannix asserted in her editorial in the “Christian and Jewish Scene” of March 2013. In that article she asserted that Pope Benedict XVI’s 2008 decision to allow for a freer use of the liturgy of the 1962 Roman Missal was an act “perilously close to anti-semitism” because it contained the following prayer (for use once a year on Good Friday):

Let us also pray for the Jews: that our God and Lord may illuminate their hearts, that they acknowledge that Jesus Christ is the Saviour of all men.

Her full argument is as follows:

It is incomprehensible that any Catholic as well educated as Benedict could fail to understand that this prayer is explicitly supersessionist. Supersessionism is the justification for the teaching of contempt. The teaching of contempt leads to the death of Jews. Scene concludes Benedict’s action is thus perilously close to anti-semitism. [v]

As the starting point of her argument, Mannix claims that this prayer is “explicitly supersessionist”. Although the matter is more complex than I can deal with here, the doctrine of “supersessionism” is a particular interpretation of the Christian tradition that the Church is “the new Israel”. It is particular (and peculiar) in that it draws from this tradition the conclusion that if the Church is the “new Israel”, “old Israel” (or “Israel according to the flesh” as the New Testament itself refers to the Jewish people) is obsolete, and has no further significance in God’s plan. In recent decades, the doctrine of “supersessionism” has generally been acknowledged by Christian theologians (including all the recent popes) to be illegitimate. Although the doctrine of the Church as “the New Israel” remains part of the Christian tradition, Christian theologians in general have agreed that the core Christian hope of redemption in the Gospel of Jesus Christ does not in any sense imply that the covenant of God with Israel has been superseded by that Gospel. [vi]

This was most recently expressed in Pope Francis’ letter to the founding editor of the Italian newspaper, La Reppublica, in which he wrote:

What I can say to you, with the Apostle Paul, is that God’s fidelity to the close covenant with Israel never failed and that, through the terrible trials of these centuries, the Jews have kept their faith in God. And for this, we shall never be sufficiently grateful to them as Church, but also as humanity. [vii]

The doctrine of supersessionism has, as Mannix correctly points out, been the justification over many centuries of its companion, the “teaching of contempt”. This refers to the contempt that supersessionist Christianity came to have toward the Jewish people, now thought to be obsolete and superseded. And yes, there is a direct connecting line between this “teaching of contempt” and the many pogroms against Jews over the centuries at the hands of people who called themselves “Christians”. Although “Dabru Emet” asserts (in its fifth affirmation) that “Nazism was not a Christian phenomenon”, yet it also acknowledges that “too many Christians participated in, or were sympathetic to, Nazi atrocities against Jews” because they held the Jewish people in contempt. As Mannix states in her editorial “the teaching of contempt leads to the death of Jews.” No argument there.

But does this all this mean, as Kate Mannix concluded in her editorial, that Pope Benedict XVI acted in a way that was “perilously close to anti-semitism” when he authorised a liturgy which contained a prayer that the Jewish people might “acknowledge that Jesus Christ is the Saviour of all men”?

2. Christian prayer for the Jews as an expression of the Christian hope in the Gospel

The key question then is whether the Good Friday prayer for Jews in the 1962 Roman Missal is, in fact, supersessionist. I want to propose a different way of understanding the prayer, and all other prayers like it. I wish to propose that it is an expression of the core Christian hope in the Gospel that God will redeem the entire world through Jesus Christ. This hope, as we have recognised, is necessarily antithetical to the beliefs and claims of Judaism, but it does not follow that it is, for that reason, “supersessionist” or “anti-semitic”.

The prayer for the Jews appears as one of the “Bidding Prayers” in the Good Friday liturgy. These prayers are one of the most primitive features of this ancient liturgy, and follow a pattern which goes back to the early centuries of the Church. In the liturgy following the reforms of the Second Vatican Council, the prayers take place in a particular order:

  1. For Holy Church
  2. For the Pope
  3. For all orders and degrees of the faithful
  4. For catechumens (those preparing for baptism)
  5. For the unity of Christians
  6. For the Jewish people
  7. For those who do not believe in Christ
  8. For those who do not believe in God
  9. For those in public office
  10. For those in tribulation

There is a definite logic to this order, which reveals something about the way in which the Church regards the Jewish people. The prayer for the Jewish people follows directly after the prayer for Christians outside the unity of the Catholic Church, and is clearly distinguished from the following categories of those who do not believe “in Christ” and those who do not believe “in God”. In this way, the Good Friday liturgy actually recognises and enshrines in Catholic prayer the Church’s conviction that the Jewish people are not to be classed as “infidels”, as the pre-Vatican II liturgy named those who were “unfaithful” or “unbelieving”, but rather in their own way “fideli” or “faithful”.

This distinction is important, because it is at the heart of the issue of the current texts of the prayer for the Jews in the Good Friday liturgy. The text of the prayer itself has been through many changes in the last 60 years or so. Prior to 1962, the prayer (which was only ever prayed in Latin) was entitled “Pro Conversione Iudaeorum” – for the “conversion of the Jews”. The call to prayer then read (in rough translation):

Let us pray for the unbelieving [latin: infidelis] Jews: that our God and Lord would remove the veil from their hearts [viii] that they themselves may acknowledge Jesus Christ our Lord.

The first change to this prayer was made by Pope John XXIII before the publication of the 1962 missal: he removed the word “infidelis” as being an inappropriate way for the Church to regard the Jewish people, who had kept their faith in God over countless centuries. Despite the fact that Jews do not acknowledge “Jesus Christ our Lord”, this does not mean that they are “unbelieving” or “unfaithful” to God.

In the 1962 missal, the actual prayer following the bid to prayer, read (again in Latin only):

Almighty and eternal God, who even now do not exclude the Jews from your mercy: hear our prayers for that people’s deprivation of sight[ix]; that acknowledging the light of your truth, which is Christ, they may be delivered from their darkness.

The prayer in this form was used for less than 10 years, as it was changed once again in the post-Vatican II reformed liturgy with a very different prayer. The reformed prayer reflected the Council’s declarations in “Nostra Aetate”, and completes what could be described as an 180o change in the Church’s attitude toward the Jewish people – from “faithless” (because they do not believe in Jesus) to “faithful” because they have remained faithful to God’s covenant. The most recent translation of this prayer – the one currently in use – in the 2010 Roman Missal reads:

Let us pray also for the Jewish people, to whom the Lord our God spoke first, that he may grant them to advance in love of his name and in faithfulness to his covenant.
Almighty ever-living God, who bestowed your promises on Abraham and his descendants, graciously hear the prayer of your Church that the people you first made your own may attain the fullness of redemption

Note that this prayer also still prays that the Jewish people “may attain the fullness of redemption”, which, according to the faith of the Catholic Church, will be for the entire world through Jesus Christ; this fact is simply not stated explicitly. But that fact does not contradict the ongoing faithfulness of God to his covenant with the children of Abraham.

This might have been the final chapter to the story, but in 2008, in response to requests from small groups of Catholics attached to the older, pre-Vatican II liturgy of the mass, Pope Benedict granted generous permission to priests throughout the world to use the old form of the Missal when celebrating the mass for such groups. Only after this permission was granted was it pointed out that the form of the Good Friday prayer contained in the older form of the missal was no longer considered appropriate for use today in the light of the teaching of the Council. In response to this concern, Pope Benedict himself re-wrote the old prayer, and authorised the following prayer – to be used only within the context of the celebration of the Good Friday liturgy in the older form of the mass:

Let us also pray for the Jews: That our God and Lord may illuminate their hearts, that they acknowledge Jesus Christ is the Saviour of all men.

Almighty and eternal God, who want that all men be saved and come to the recognition of the truth, propitiously grant that even as the fullness of the gentiles [x] enters your Church [xi], all Israel be saved.

This is the prayer as it currently stands in the old rite of the Good Friday liturgy. Several things must be stressed.

1)      It is hardly ever used except in those very few parishes around the world that use only the older form of the mass. Out of the hundreds of thousands of parishes around the world, only a handful would use it.

2)      When the prayer of Pope Benedict is used, it is used only in Latin. It is never prayed in the vernacular.

3)      The prayer in the new form of the Mass – which focuses on the faithfulness of the Jewish people to the Covenant with Abraham – remains the standard Good Friday prayer around the world.

4)      Like the reformed prayer, this prayer also prays for the salvation of the Jewish people, but explicitly speaks the Christian hope of redemption in Jesus Christ.

5)      Finally, and most importantly, the new prayer is NOT calling Catholics to launch a new campaign to convert Jews to Christianity.

This last point is something I want to stress, and it is the point on which I wish to conclude this paper.

There appears to be a confusion about what it means for Catholics to pray that Jews might “acknowledge Jesus Christ as Saviour” and that “all Israel be saved”. The prayer is the expression of the fundamental Christian hope. It is the Church’s hope for the Jewish people in as much as it is a hope for all people of every race. As the prayer itself says, we truly believe that Jesus is the “Saviour of all men” [xii].

The prayer is in fact based on a text from St Paul’s Letter to the Romans, the same passage in which he says that the promises of God to Israel are irrevocable. Paul writes of a “mystery”, which is that when “the fullness of the Gentiles has come in” to God’s Kingdom, then “in this way all Israel will be saved” (Rom 11:25-26). Clearly what is envisaged here is an eschatological – an “end times” – event. It is, as “Dabru Emet” says, about what God will do when he “redeems the entire world as promised in scripture”. At that time, and only at that time, will the “humanly irreconcilable difference” between Christians and Jews concerning the way in which God is redeeming the world be finally reconciled. God himself will bring about this reconciliation, not us.

In the mean time, the redemption of the world through Jesus Christ remains the central and identifying hope of all Christians. Since liturgical prayer is an expression of faith and hope, we ought not be surprised that Christian prayers express the universal hope of the Christian Gospel. However, by speaking this hope as a prayer, we it place in the hands of God; our prayers do not express our own agenda for what we will achieve by our own programs.

Interestingly, and as an aside, I have recently discovered that there is another prayer, much like the Good Friday prayer for the Jews, in Evening Prayer for Sundays in Weeks 3 and 5 of Easter. This prayer is used throughout the world and in every language by every Catholic priest and religious, and many lay people.

This prayer reads (in English):

Let Israel recognise in you her longed-for Messiah – and the whole earth be filled with the knowledge of your glory.

I stress that this prayer is in the post-Vatican II liturgy and that it has been used for the last 40 years without anyone – Christian or Jewish – making any comment about it or raising any objection to it. This prayer also is a perfectly clear expression of the Christian hope in relation to the Jewish people. It is completely consistent with “Nostra Aetate”. No one has objected that the prayer is “supersessionist”. There is no evidence that it has led Catholics to regard Jews with contempt, and there is nothing to show that it has been in any way linked with violence against Jews. On the contrary, for the whole of the forty years that the priests, religious and people of the Church has been praying this prayer, the Church has been making a concerted effort to reach out to the Jewish people to form bonds of respect and brotherhood.

C. The Christian Hope and Christian Dialogue with Jews

In this paper, it has been my contention that there is a “humanly irreconcilable difference” between Christians and Jews and that this difference is fundamental to our respective identities. That difference is the core hope of the Christian faith that God will “redeem the entire world” through Jesus Christ. The announcement of God’s plan to redeem the world in Jesus Christ is our “Gospel”, and we believe it is the Church’s fundamental raison d’être.

I have argued that the prayers for the Jews in the Catholic liturgy are an expression of the core Christian hope in this Gospel. I have acknowledged that, since this hope is irreconcilable with the beliefs and claims of Judaism, such prayers will always appear antithetical to the Jewish faith. But, by my argument, it does not follow these prayers are, for that reason, either “supersessionist” or “anti-semitic”.

In light of this, I feel that I must close with some comment on a passage in the July 2009 ICCJ Berlin Document, “A time for recommitment”[xiii]. It reads as follows:

We are learning to better appreciate the different memories and agendas that Christians and Jews bring to their exchanges. We are convinced that authentic dialogue never seeks to persuade the other of one’s own truth claims, but rather to change one’s own heart by understanding others on their own terms, to whatever degree possible. In fact, interreligious dialogue in the fullest sense of the term is impossible if any of the parties harbor desires to convert the other. [xiv]

This statement is remarkable because, unlike “Dabru Emet”, it completely fails to acknowledge that a “humanly irreconcilable difference” exists between Judaism and Christianity. Judaism, as it exists today, is not a missionary religion. Christianity, because of the Gospel of Jesus Christ, fundamentally is. Judaism does not actively seek converts; Christianity absolutely does. These are fundamental differences between Judaism and Christianity, but it is a difference which the Berlin Document suggests would make dialogue impossible.

I wish to plead the case that the Church’s evangelical commitment is a core feature of her identity. For a Christian to give this up would be an act of infidelity. As Fr Richard John Neuhaus once in an article entitled “Salvation is from the Jews”: “[i]t is not Christian imperialism but fidelity to revealed truth that requires Christians to say that Christ is Lord of all or he is not ‘Lord at all’.” [xv]

There is an irony at the heart of the Berlin Document’s prohibition of harbouring desires to convert the other. If this statement requires Christians to give up their hope and prayer that in God’s own time and God’s own way the people of his Covenant might come to accept the Gospel of Jesus Christ, is it not already desiring to change the “Christian other” as a prerequisite for dialogue, even before the dialogue itself has even begun?

This is simply not how a dialogue relationship runs. We meet one another as we are. We talk frankly to one another from the authenticity of our own tradition and identity. We share our hopes and dreams with one another without fear, even if the other cannot share our hopes and dreams with us. We accept how the other believes and prays, even if that is not our way of believing or praying. We celebrate what we have in common, we seek understanding where we differ, and when differences are ultimately “humanly irreconcilable”, we hand them over to God, who will settle them once and for all when he redeems the entire world according to his promise.


[i] This was perhaps the most controversial affirmation of the statement. Many Jewish leaders declined to sign the document on the basis of this affirmation and its accompanying section.

[ii] cited by David Novak in ” Talking with Christians: Musings of a Jewish Theologian” (2005) as “the real issue that now separates Jews and Christians”, p222

[iii] Ibid, p224

[iv] Ibid, p226

[v] Christian and Jewish Scene, no. 80, p2

[vi] As a parallel example, Christians call their scriptures “the New Testament”, although this in no way makes the Hebrew Scriptures, which they call the “Old Testament” obsolete or without any purpose in the redemptive plan of God. Quite the contrary.

[vii] Zenit, September 11, 2013

[viii] A reference to St Paul’s 2nd letter to the Corinthians 3:13-16.

[ix] Probably a more charitable way of putting it than the usual translation “blindness”.

[x] Or “nations”.

[xi] A reference to St Paul’s letter to the Romans 11:25: “25Lest you be wise in your own sight, I do not want you to be unaware of this mystery, brothers: a partial hardening has come upon Israel, until the fullness of the Gentiles has come in. 26 And in this way all Israel will be saved, as it is written, ‘The Deliverer will come from Zion, he will banish ungodliness from Jacob; 27and this will be my covenant with them, when I take away their sins.’”

[xii] Please excuse the gendered language.

[xiii] Accessed September 2013 at

[xiv] “The story of the transformation of a relationship”, in A time for recommitment: Jewish Christian Dialogue 70 years after war and Shoah. (Berlin: Konrad-Adenauer-Stiftung, 2009). Page 37

[xv] “Salvation is from the Jews”, in Carl E. Braaten and Robert W. Jenson, Jews and Christians: People of God. (William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2003) p68.

2 Responses to The Christian Hope and Christian Dialogue with Jews (2013)

  1. Stephen K says:

    Thank you, David. It is a very clearly written and concise essay, as well as lucid and informative.

  2. Marita Quinn says:

    Great article David.

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