MembersHow the Church Became Israel: The History of Replacement Theology

In Part 3 of our look at “The Mystery of the Olive Tree,” we learn how the Church replaced Israel.

By David Lazarus | | Topics: Mystery of the Olive Tree
Replacement Theology has cut the Church off from its roots.
Photo: Doron Horowitz/Flash90

In this series we will publish extracts from a new book by Johannes Fichtenbauer, an Archdeacon and part of the Charismatic Renewal of the Catholic Church.

The Jews separate themselves from the Nazarenes 

In the year 66 AD, about 40 years after the death of Jesus, the Jews revolted against the Roman occupation, unleashing a long and bloody war. Under the command of Titus, the Romans invaded, besieged the city of Jerusalem and then crushed the rebellion in 70 AD and, in doing so, destroyed the Temple. This was in fulfilment of the prophecies of Jesus in Matthew 24 and Luke 21. 

Several decades later, around the year 132 AD, the Jews began a second uprising. A man called Bar Kokhba led the rebellion.  He presented himself before the Jews as the promised Messiah claiming he had been appointed by God to free Judea from Roman oppression. However, the Roman soldiers returned, this time under Emperor Hadrian, and again devastated the entire city of Jerusalem. They expelled the Jews from the city and large parts of Eretz Israel. The Romans uprooted the Jews from the land and left them stateless. Giving a new name to the Land – Palestine (‘land of the Philistines’) – they declared the time of the Jews was over.

As a result of these wars, the Jews began to hate the Romans and their collaborators. And, vice versa, the Romans hated the Jews and wanted to crush this “small tribe” completely. For Jews who believed in Jesus, or Messianic Jews, the situation was even worse as they were in the crossfire. Both parties – the Jews and Romans – hated them. The Jewish side blamed the Messianic Jews for the defeat by the Romans. The Messianic Jews had refused to fight against Rome convinced that this rebellion was not ordered by God but was God’s judgment against the Jewish people for their unbelief.  As a result, nationalistic Jews slaughtered many Messianic Jews.

Around the year 92 A.D, after the destruction of the Temple, a synod was held in Yavne, a city near Jaffa (now part of Tel Aviv) on the Mediterranean Sea. This synod brought together most of the leading Pharisaic rabbis of the time, both from Israel and the Diaspora. The synod ended with a declaration that the Messianic Jews, called “The Nazarenes,” would be removed from the people of Israel. From that time onward, this became the rule. If a Jew believes that Yeshua (Jesus) is the Messiah, he automatically ceases to be Jewish. This principle prevails until this day. If someone with Jewish blood wants to return to the Nation of Israel, the immigration authorities will always ask questions about their faith. If the applicant believes in Buddhism or even declares himself an atheist, this will not be a problem. But if the applicant confesses his faith in Jesus Christ, he will be prevented from entering the state of Israel as a Jewish citizen. With this exclusion from the Jewish people, the Messianic Jews have lost their homeland, their nationality, and their birthright to be regarded as part of the Jewish people.


The First Division in the Church 

The Messianic Jews were left between a rock and a hard place. There was an anti-Jewish climate that had developed throughout the Roman Empire. On one hand, the Romans considered the Messianic Jews as a part of the Jewish people without any differentiation. Like all other Jews, they had to be crushed and scattered throughout the world. On the other hand, they were even more dangerous than the traditional Jews as their faith in the Messiah pushed them into opposition to the Roman Emperor and his almost god-like position. Consequently, because the Messianic Jews were Jewish, it became dangerous for anyone to have any kind of a relationship with them. As a result, the Gentile Christians increasingly avoided mixing with “these Messianic Jews.” The Gentile Christians already had enough problems with the Roman state as persecution of Christians was rampant. Avoiding the Jews eliminated at least one reason for the Romans to persecute the Christians. 

Around 250 A.D., outside of Judea, nearly all Messianic synagogues or congregations ceased to exist. The few groups that remained lived secretly, without any outside influence, and, due to their isolation, many of them developed strange or even sectarian tendencies. 


The drama of Replacement Theology

Around the year 200 A.D., a new theological conviction began to sweep Gentile Christianity. This theological foundation had to rationalize and justify that which was already happening. In later centuries, this theological system was called “Supersessionism” or “Replacement Theology.” According to Replacement Theology, in His anger with the Jews for killing the Messiah, God revoked his covenant with Israel. Since they were no longer the covenant people, the Jews lost their birth right and, as a people, were deprived of Divine Grace. No longer the Chosen People, they had to remain in a state of collective sin under condemnation from God. In their place, there was a new “Chosen People,” the Church, seen as the “New Israel” – replacing “Israel of the flesh.”


Church Fathers turn against Israel

The Letter to Barnabas written around 100 A.D. and not officially part of the Bible, was understood to be inspired by God and considered important document of the apostolic times. The letter speaks about the loss of the Jewish birth right and, because they had killed the Messiah, the Jews were excluded from the people of God and the Church.

Irenaeus (135 – 202 A.D.) strongly emphasized that Christians should avoid any kind of relationship with Jews in order to prevent confusion in their faith. He wanted the Church to be cleansed from all Jewish elements. 

For Ambrose (337 – 397 A.D.) it was not enough to affirm that the Jews were no longer a part of the Church. The Church must also exert the judgment of God upon them. 

Augustine (354 – 430 A.D.) wrote that Christians were not allowed to kill Jews. However, God had to keep the Jews alive to use them as a negative example of divine judgment on a nation that abandons him. Thus, Christians felt authorized to persecute the Jews, without killing them. 

John Chrysostom (344 or 355 – 407 A.D.) hated Jews and preached eight famous sermons full of venom against them. He warned his listeners to have nothing to do with the Jews, neither in their daily contact, nor by visiting their synagogues or participating in religious occasions. For him, it was necessary that Christians avoid any kind of contact with Jews, in order not to get “infected with the Jewish disease.”

All of these theologians had great revelations concerning the Kingdom of God. But concerning the role of the Jews in God’s plan for salvation, they were blind. The devil fomented it, knowing that as long as Christians fail to understand the “mystery of   Israel,” he would remain dominant in the world.


Replacement Theology becomes antisemitic politics

The Replacement Theology of the Church Fathers established principles which guided Christian practice and politics for centuries. Church and State legislation against the Jews followed. From the third century onward, a systematic “cleansing” of the Church from all its Jewish heritage began. From synod to convention, antisemitic legislation became stricter to make sure that nothing of Jewish life remained in the Church.

Emperor Constantine, who stopped all persecution against Christians and began to use the Christian Church as a unifying factor for the Roman Empire, forced all Gentile bishops at the First Council of Nicea (325 A.D.) to “cleanse” the Church from all things Jewish. He ordered (321 A.D.) Sunday instead of Shabbat (Saturday) as the holy day of the week and changed the dates for Easter so that its relationship with Passover would be lost. 

In 365 A.D. the Synod of Laodicea ordered all Christians who still kept Shabbat in their private homes were to be publicly excommunicated from the Church and, in some cases, even sentenced to death.

There were more than 600,000 Jews in Spain and Portugal before 1492 when they were expelled from their countries or forced to convert to Christianity. The Jews who were forced to convert and be baptized were called Marranos. Most lived a double life. Acting as Catholics outwardly, they remained Jews in the privacy of their homes. Terrorized by the Holy Inquisition, they fled in their thousands to the colonies of the Americas in hope of freedom. But the Inquisition followed them to South America and the persecution continued there. Based on the Nicene decision, the Inquisition forced the new converts to deny any link with Judaism.

 Anti-Jewish ideology is also found in almost all streams of Protestantism, beginning with Martin Luther (1483-1546) and his antisemitic rhetoric during the later years of his ministry. Frustrated about the small number of converted Jews after years of biblical preaching and reformation, he finally ordered the persecution of Jews and justified these atrocities in his sermons and writings influencing future Protestant generations. The poison of Replacement Theology is still working in many Protestant denominations.


The end of the Jewish part of the Church and the consequences

It was no longer possible to believe in Christ and remain a Jew. A Jew who believed in Yeshua had to deny all his Jewishness. Replacement Theology, therefore, brought two very tragic consequences: 

• The first was the persecution of the Jews in general. 

• The second consequence was the extinction of the Messianic Jewish presence in the Church. 

This extinction was catastrophic, not only for the Jewish part of the Church, but also for the Gentile part. As a result of this loss, the Gentile Church became disoriented and incomplete. The separation between Jews and Gentiles was the Church’s first division. 

Numerous other divisions followed. This separation worked like a virus and contaminated the Church. It was perpetuated in every following division according to the model of Replacement Theology. Even though it may not be apparent at first sight, this Replacement strategy is a fundamental characteristic operating within every Christian division. There are more than 30,000 different denominations – and in some way all of them believe about themselves that they are “the true Church.”

The loss of the Jewish component not only caused divisions, but also produced many other negative consequences. If it is true that we are now part of the commonwealth of Israel” (Eph.2:12), and if it is true that our identity as Gentile Christians lies in the fact that we have been grafted into the Olive Tree (Rom. 11), Replacement Theology has robbed us of our foundations.


Can Christians understand the Bible without the Jews?

The lack of a Hebraic mindset resulted in misunderstanding and misinterpretation of the Hebrew Scriptures of both Testaments. Although the New Testament scriptures were written in Greek, the original text was construed according to the Hebrew worldview of its original authors. In the following centuries, this fact provoked endless and unresolved debates between theologians. 

As a consequence, many divisions within the Church occurred because each stream had a different mindset when it came to interpret the Scriptures. Like Karl Barth (1886-1968), other theologians of the 20th century stated that the Jewish issue is at the heart of many of the ecumenical problems we face. Unless this first division is addressed and healed, all the efforts to foster unity in the divided Body of Christ will continue to be frustrated.

All articles in this series can be found here: Mystery of the Olive Tree

Extract prepared by Paddy Monaghan, founder of Christian Friends of Israel, Ireland.