It should not be surprising that the mindset and worldview of the Bible, both Old and New Testaments, is Jewish through and through. The first so-called “Christians” and early Church were steeped in Jewish culture, literature, language and thought. After all, Jesus was a Jew, so were his initial followers, and his teachings, like that of his followers, are all rooted in the culture, ethnicity, and language of the Jewish people.
The early Church knew that to live, and think, like the Messiah, was to be enmeshed in the biblical and Jewish worldview.
And yet, so much of Christianity has ignored the crucial rootedness of the biblical faith in Jews and Judaism.
Already by 60 AD, the Apostle Paul warned the incoming Gentiles believers that abandoning their connection with the Jews and Judaism would be a big mistake. He was concerned that the Gentiles would become “arrogant,” thinking they can recreate their own version of the faith in Yeshua (Jesus) detached from its Jewish roots (Rom. 11:25-26).
Paul’s concerns proved true, and indeed Christianity separated itself and developed its own theology, culture and worldview whitewashed and unrecognizable from anything Jewish. This uncalled for historical blunder has had repercussions affecting Christianity until this day, and has left the Church poorer in many respects. Even more worrying, the Church, and her version of the Messiah, became unrecognizable to the Jews, and Paul’s “To the Jew first” was ignored (Rom. 1:6).
That Roman’s Olive Tree
In order to understand Paul’s attempt to explain the importance of staying connected to our Jewish heritage, we must first identify that the roots of the olive tree depicted in Romans 11 describe Israel and the Jewish people. Jeremiah says about Israel, “The Lord called you a thriving olive tree, with fruit in beautiful form” (Jer. 11:16). About Israel, Hosea says, “His splendor will be like an olive tree” (14:6). The Church was to be fed, supported, and sustained in Jewish soil, Paul says, and the destiny and identity of both Jewish and Gentile believers are inseparably bound together forever in one root system.
The apostle calls the Gentile believers wild olive branches, which need to be grafted into a cultivated olive so that they can share in the nourishing sap from the olive root (verses 17, 24).
This unusual type of grafting, taking that which is “wild” (uncircumcised, Paul says elsewhere), and attaching it to a cultured, fruitful tree, emphasizes the point that the Gentiles have nothing to boast about. Without connection to Israel, they will remain wild, separate, and unproductive.
And yet, throughout most of its history, the Church has tended to view itself as independent from Israel and the Jewish people. From Paul’s perspective, described here by the olive tree and in other passages, a church disconnected from Israel is not part of God’s plan, but just another religion.
As my favorite rabbi, Abraham J. Heschel, wrote in his The Insecurity of Freedom, “The vital issue for the Church to decide is whether to look for roots in Judaism and consider itself an extension of Judaism, or to look for roots in pagan Hellenism and consider itself as an antithesis to Judaism” (Schocken Books, 1972, pp. 169-170).