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The Oxford Handbook of Biblical Studies Provides a comprehensive survey of Biblical scholarship in a variety of disciplines.

The People of God

The other most distinctive feature of OT theology is the belief in the God of Israel. Not that such a belief was strange in the ancient Near East: belief that each nation had its own god was a standard religious prescription. What made Israel's belief stand out is that it was precisely belief that the one God is Israel's God. Whether this was originally little more than chauvinist triumphalism, or defiant faith in the face of catastrophe, or exceptional revelation granted to Israel's prophets, need not distract us now. More to the point is the fact that Israel's election was at the heart of its peculiar faith, and so also of OT theology. YHWH, the God over all, had chosen Israel to be his own. In the classic words of the song of Moses, the Most High had allotted the nations their inheritance, but had kept Israel for himself (Deut. 32: 8–9).

This fundamental conviction created a tension within OT theology, particularly with respect to the relationship between Israel and the (other) nations (Gentiles). On the one hand, we read of horrific slaughter visited on the other peoples of the land, as in Gen. 34: 25; Josh. 6: 21; and 1 Sam. 15: 3, apparently with YHWH's approval. Set-apartness to God was seen to require set-apartness from the peoples, a separateness marked by the laws of clean and unclean, with the implication that the other peoples as such were themselves unclean and a threat to Israel's holiness (Lev. 20: 22–6). A strand of Israel's expectation for the future entertained no doubt that the lot of the nations, Israel's enemies, was destruction and devastation at the hand of the Lord (e.g. Ps. 2: 8–9; Isa. 47: 3; Zeph. 2: 9). On the other hand, Abraham was offered the prospect of being a blessing to the nations (Gen. 12: 3). Israel's provision for the resident alien and stranger was a striking feature of its social legislation (e.g. Deut. 10: 19; 14: 29; 24: 14). Again, the Servant of YHWH, Israel itself (Isa. 49: 3), was commissioned to be a light to the nations (49: 6). Jonah was sent unwillingly to bring a message of hope to pagan Nineveh. And the stronger hope for the future was that Gentiles would come in pilgrimage to Zion (‘eschatological proselytes’) to pay tribute or to worship God there (e.g. Ps. 22: 27–8; Isa. 2: 2–4; 45: 14; Zeph. 3: 9–10; Hag. 2: 7–9).

NT theology finds itself caught in a similar tension. On the one hand, no one could think to dispute on the basis of the NT accounts that Jesus himself was other than a Jew. He is remembered as pursuing a mission limited to Israel: ‘I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel’ (Matt. 15: 4; similarly 10: 5–6). A characteristically Jewish attitude dismissive of Gentiles is echoed not only in Matthew (‘Gentile and taxcollector’—18: 17), but also in Paul (‘Gentile sinners’—Gal. 2: 15) and Ephesians (‘having no hope, without God in the world’—Eph. 2: 12). And it is little surprise that Babylon, responsible for Israel's faith-threatening exile, is still the image of demonic and cosmic opposition to God in Rev. 17: 5 and ch. 18.

At the same time, a totally astonishing new contrast is readily apparent in the NT—astonishing for anyone coming to it from an OT or Jewish perspective. For the NT contrast to Jewish hostility to Gentiles is not just Jewish openness to and concern for Gentiles, but Gentile hostility to Jews: most notably in the tendency of the Gospel writers to put the blame for Jesus' death primarily, it would seem, on the heads of the Jewish participants in the events leading up to the execution of Jesus (by the Romans). All the people accept the responsibility: ‘His blood be on us and on our children’ (Matt. 27: 25). The charge is clearest in Luke's account of the earliest Christian preaching: ‘you crucified and killed him’ (Acts 2: 23; 3: 14–15; 10: 39); and through the latter half of Acts ‘the Jews’ feature regularly as closed-minded opponents of the gospel (13: 45; 14: 19; 17: 5; 18: 12; etc.). In John's Gospel the antithesis is still sharper: ‘the Jews’ are implacably opposed to Jesus and seek to kill him during his ministry (John 5: 16–18; 7: 1; 10: 31); and Jesus returns the compliment with apparently equal venom—offspring of the devil (8: 44; similarly Rev. 2: 9—‘synagogue of Satan’). Even Paul (see below) speaks in not dissimilar vein, when he attributes the death of Jesus to the Jews and consigns them to the wrath of God (1 Thess. 2: 14–16).

It is precisely at this point that NT theology cannot claim to be merely descriptive (without responsibility for the way in which the description is heard) or as straightforwardly prescriptive (the NT tells Christians how to regard the Jews). For such NT texts—Matt. 27: 25 and John 8: 44 in particular—have resonated down through the history of Christianity and been used to justify countless pogroms and persecutions of Jews. The question posed to NT theology cannot, dare not, be ignored: ‘Does the NT provide any warrant for anti-Judaism or anti-Semitism?’ At which point it becomes imperative that such texts are not read as though they were timeless dogmas, a situationless word applicable to all situations. NT theology must insist that its subject-matter (the NT) is read historically. The particular situation of a new, still small (Christian) sect in the face of a dominant national and state-recognized religion has to be appreciated, as also the fierceness of rhetoric and vituperation which characterized mutual hostility and polemic between groups in those days, not to mention the sharp critique and rebuke of the OT prophet directed against his own people. A New Testament theology which disregards historical context is a recipe for bigotry and intolerant sectarianism.

The main thrust of the NT writings drives between the two extremes. Matthew brings his Gospel to its resounding climax with ‘the great commission’ to ‘Go and make disciples of all nations’ (Matt. 28: 19). Luke, in one of the canticles which was soon to become permanently lodged in Christian liturgy, already strikes the balance which is to characterize his description of the early Christian mission: a salvation ‘prepared in the presence of all peoples, a light for revelation to the Gentiles and for glory to your people Israel’ (Luke 2: 30–2). To the same effect, the text which more than any other points to the resolution of the Jew/Gentile tensions afflicting the earliest mission, where James speaking in the Jerusalem Council quotes Amos 9: 11–12: ‘After this I will return, and I will rebuild the dwelling of David which has fallen … and I will set it up, so that all other peoples may seek the Lord—even all the Gentiles over whom my name has been called’ (Acts 15: 16–17). And Paul, it is clear, saw his mission not as a turning his back on his people, but as a fulfilment of Israel's own commission as the Servant of YHWH to be a light to the nations (Gal. 1: 15, echoing Isa. 49: 1, 6), his gospel as fulfilling the promise that Abraham would be a blessing to the Gentiles (Gal. 3: 8).

The issue which this thrust of NT theology poses to Christianity has not been sufficiently acknowledged or resolved inadequately. The issue is the identity of Israel and the continuity of the Church with Israel. The fact that the very term ‘church’ (ekklēsia), used for the Christian assembly already in Matt. 16: 18 and 18: 15–17, but consistently from Acts onwards, is evidently influenced by the use of the same term in the Greek OT for the assembly of Israel, ‘the church of God’ (as in Gal. 1: 13), calls for more attention than it has received. What does James imply when he writes his letter to Christians as ‘the twelve tribes in the Diaspora’ (Jas. 1: 1), or Peter similarly to ‘the exiles of the Diaspora’ (1 Pet. 1: 1)? And what is the full force of Paul's image of the olive-tree (Israel) from which branches (unbelieving Israel) have been broken off and wild branches (believing Gentiles) grafted in, with the prospect of the broken branches being restored (Rom. 11: 17–24)? An image not of the old tree uprooted and replaced by another. In all these cases there is a sense of Israel redefined, not in ethnic terms but in terms of God's call (Rom. 9: 6–9), an Israel which includes not Jews only but also Gentiles (9: 24–6). This more nuanced understanding of Israel does not give warrant to traditional Christian supersessionism, but what it means for Christian self-understanding and for Christian relationships with Jews becomes a major item for a Christian theology in which NT theology reflects the complexity of the issue but ultimately proffers to serve as a moderator and arbiter. Who are the people of God? If the OT demonstrates that Gentiles posed troubling questions to the identity of Israel, we should not be surprised if the NT demonstrates that Jews pose not dissimilar questions to the identity of Christians. Such is the grist which provides the grain of NT theology.

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