Rome Has Spoken

A New Catholic Approach to Judaism

One of the most remarkable historical developments in modern Catholicism is the transformation of the church’s relationship with Judaism. Vatican II’s revolutionary declaration Nostra aetate is the Magna Carta of this change. And the leadership of the papacy, beginning with the initiatives of John XXIII and advancing with the extraordinary example of John Paul II, along with years of patient and responsible work in local and national dialogues—particularly, but not exclusively, in the United States—have furthered this development. In the fall of 2001, the Pontifical Biblical Commission added another milestone to the church’s official teaching on this matter.

Titled "The Jewish People and Their Sacred Scriptures in the Christian Bible," the commission’s statement represents the remarkable maturity of the Catholic-Jewish dialogue. It comes at a time when, reeling from the current crisis over clerical and hierarchical misconduct, the church needs to be reminded of its inherent strengths when it follows its best instincts. While the document’s assertions will not be novel to those immersed in the Catholic-Jewish dialogue or to most biblical scholars, many ordinary Catholics will be startled at the progressive perspectives found in this welcome text. Even in an age when much progress has been made in the dialogue, many Catholics, I suspect, still assume that Christianity has replaced Judaism, and believe that since the coming of Christ, Jewish faith and practice have limited validity at best. Many Catholics assume that the Old Testament is merely a warm-up for the New Testament, and that the prophecies concerning the Messiah were so clear and consistent that those Jews who did not accept or even rejected Jesus and the Christian faith missed the obvious. And while much progress has been made in refuting such a claim, there are still Catholics, I fear, who attribute the sufferings of the Jewish people to God’s punishment for their lingering responsibility for the death of Christ. Anyone who reads the Biblical Commission’s document will find these and many other prejudiced views thoroughly discredited.

The document focuses on the relationship of the Jewish and the Christian Scriptures. As Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, president of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (where the Pontifical Biblical Commission is seated), notes in his laudatory preface, two challenging questions are posed for the church in the post-Shoah age: Can Christians in good conscience still lay claim to the heritage of the Old Testament? and, Does the New Testament itself contribute to hostility toward the Jews?

These two questions are, in fact, the major points addressed in the document. Some early critics of the text were disappointed that it does not thoroughly address the present relationship between Jews and Christians, or have a more pastoral tone. The document deliberately takes a narrower—but still crucial—historical focus. It notes at the outset that the key to understanding the profound, complex relationship between Jews and Christians is to grasp the circumstances of the historical origin of Christianity and its sacred Scriptures. The document quotes the statement of John Paul II, made during his 1980 visit to the synagogue of Mainz, in which he noted that the relationship between Christianity and Judaism is mirrored in the internal relationship between the Old and the New Testaments. "The encounter between the people of God of the Old Covenant, which has never been abrogated by God (see Rom 11:29), and that of the New Covenant is also an internal dialogue in our church, similar to that between the first and second part of the Bible."

The Biblical Commission’s document is substantial (more than two hundred pages in the Editrice Vaticana edition) and covers a great deal of ground. It is divided into four major sections.

• It begins by documenting how the New Testament writings themselves—both implicitly and explicitly—recognize the authority of the Old Testament, which, it emphasizes, constitued "the Scriptures" not only of Judaism but of the early church. In this section it also traces the parallel formation of the Jewish and Christian canons, and notes the debt the New Testament and early Christianity owed to Jewish methods of interpretation.

• A second major section explores the relationship between the Old and the New Testaments by tracing major motifs that run through both: convictions about God, about the nature of the human person, and key concepts such as the election of Israel, the covenant, the Law, messianic expectations, worship, land, temple, and so on. In each instance, the document demonstrates how the relationship between the Jewish Scriptures and the New Testament is marked by continuity—that is, a similarity of content, values, and perspectives; by discontinuity—that is, changes, omissions, and differing emphases, traceable primarily to Christian faith in Jesus; and by what it calls, from the Christian vantage point, progression—that is, development of understanding or fuller meaning given to texts, motifs, or events as now read in the light of Christian faith.

• A third major section concentrates on the portrayal of Jews and Judaism in the New Testament texts. The document first traces the historical context of postexilic Judaism, tracking the different stages in the Roman period and noting the gradually evolving and complex relationship between first-century rabbinic Judaism and Jewish and Hellenistic Christianity. It then surveys each of the New Testament writings and assesses its portrayal of Jews and Judaism.

• The document concludes with final reflections and pastoral implications. It is too rich and too extensive to summarize briefly. But some of its most significant assertions are worth noting.

At every turn, the statement underscores that Christianity and its Scriptures are inseparably related to Judaism and its Bible. While clearly recognizing that Christians read the Old Testament in a different manner than Jews because of Christian faith in Christ as the "interpretive key," the document insists on the value and validity of the Jewish Scriptures in and of themselves and not just as a preface to or anticipation of the New Testament. "The Old Testament in itself has great value as the Word of God. To read the Old Testament as Christians then does not mean wishing to find everywhere direct reference to Jesus and to Christian realities." It goes on to say, "Although the Christian reader is aware that the internal dynamism of the Old Testament finds its goal in Jesus, this is a retrospective perception whose point of departure is not in the text as such, but in the events of the New Testament proclaimed by the apostolic preaching. It cannot be said, therefore, that Jews do not see what has been proclaimed in the text, but that the Christian in the light of Christ and in the Spirit, discovers in the text an additional meaning that was hidden there." Furthermore, it affirms that "Christians can and ought to admit that the Jewish reading of the Bible is a possible one, in continuity with the Jewish Sacred Scriptures from the Second Temple period, a reading analogous to the Christian reading which developed in parallel fashion. Both readings are bound up with the vision of their respective faiths, of which the readings are the result and expression. Consequently, both are irreducible."

Taking its cue primarily from Paul’s reflections in Romans 9–11, the text also insists that the New Testament never presumed or taught a definitive separation from Israel or that the church substituted for Israel. God’s promises to Israel, including the covenant, remain valid, and the ultimate relationship between Judaism and Christianity will be resolved only in the eschaton. "The New Testament never says that Israel has been rejected. From the earliest times, the church considered the Jews to be important witnesses to the divine economy of salvation. She understands her own existence as a participation in the election of Israel and in a vocation that belongs, in the first place, to Israel, despite the fact that only a small number of Israelites accepted it."

The document returns to this theme in its conclusion: "In the past, the break between the Jewish people and the church of Christ Jesus could sometimes, in certain times and places, give the impression of being complete. In the light of the Scriptures, this should never have occurred. For a complete break between the church and the synagogue contradicts sacred Scripture."

The text also corrects what is a common popular misconception about the messianic expectations of Judaism. The notion of a human agent of future salvation was not fixed or uniform in such a manner that it was the fault of Israel to "miss" the messiah when he appeared in the form of Jesus. As the document notes, "Although messianic hope continued to be part of the traditions of Judaism, it did not appear in all currents as a central and integral theme, even as a special indicator."

The text also asserts (and this section has already caused comment and some controversy) that Jewish messianic expectation is not in vain. This comes in the middle section, where the document traces major themes. It notes that it would "be wrong to consider the prophecies of the Old Testament as some kind of photographic anticipations of future events. All the texts, including those that were later read as messianic prophecies, already had an immediate import and meaning for their contemporaries before attaining a fuller meaning for future hearers. The messiahship of Jesus has a meaning that is new and original." Thus, the original task of the prophets was not to predict future events but to help their contemporaries understand the events and time in which they lived—from God’s viewpoint. "Accordingly," the text concludes, "excessive insistence, characteristic of a certain apologetic, on the probative value attributable to the fulfillment of prophecy must be discarded. This insistence has contributed to harsh judgements by Christians of Jews and their reading of the Old Testament: the more reference to Christ is found in Old Testament texts, the more the incredulity of the Jews is considered inexcusable and obstinate." It is here that the Biblical Commission adds a key comment: "Insistence on discontinuity between both Testaments and going beyond former perspectives should not, however, lead to a one-sided spiritualization. What has already been accomplished in Christ must be accomplished in us and in the world. The definitive fulfillment will be at the end with the resurrection of the dead, a new heaven and a new earth. Jewish messianic expectation is not in vain. It can become for us Christians a powerful stimulant to keep alive the eschatological dimension of our faith. Like them, we too live in expectation. The difference is that for us the One who is to come will have the traits of the Jesus who has already come and is already present and active among us."

In light of this, surely one of the most difficult New Testament concepts to interpret in this light is that of "fulfillment." Traditionally, the notion that Christianity "fulfilled" Judaism meant that Christianity succeeded Judaism and, in effect, made it obsolete and superfluous. The document refuses to understand the notion of fulfillment in this supersessionist manner. While it affirms Christian faith in Jesus as the Son of God and as God’s Messiah-a fundamental Christian doctrine that, on one level, implies a completion of and a progression in the promises made to Israel—the document insists that even this type of progression or development finds a parallel in developments within the Old Testament itself. There, earlier notions and symbols are given new interpretations—and even new refinement—in later periods of Jewish history as reflected in the Bible. For example, covenant is a key concept for both the Jewish Scriptures and the Christian Bible. Within the Old Testament, the notion of covenant evolved through a series of covenants, from Noah to David, with recurring patterns of infidelity and restoration. With Jeremiah, and in a similar fashion in Ezekiel, there emerges the notion of a "new covenant." For the New Testament, also, the notion of covenant is important, but it is now interpreted in the light of Christ’s death and Resurrection. The document notes that there is a "progressive fundamental continuity," a continuity in that the covenant between God and Israel is not broken but extended to the Christian community as well. There is also a discontinuity, in that certain institutions which expressed the covenant relationship for Israel are not taken up or are changed by Christianity. There is also "fulfillment" or progression from the vantage point of Christian faith, in that the New Covenant in Christ is deepened and broadened. Even though a Christian reading of the Old Testament finds there a "fuller meaning" because of faith in Christ, this does not mean that the Old Testament texts have value only because of their potential meaning for Christian faith, or that the Jews who first encountered these texts would be expected to find there a pointing to Christ.

In its review of the New Testament’s portrayal of Jews and Judaism, the document thus takes a more optimistic view than do some modern interpreters. The New Testament view of Jews and Judaism, it asserts, is fundamentally positive. Both the teaching of Jesus and most of the theologies of the New Testament writings assume the validity of Israel’s relationship with God, its unique historical role, and the value of its ethical teaching and corporate structures (much of which the early church adopted as its own). While there are negative portrayals of the Jewish religious leaders or Jewish practice, such references are to be interpreted in the light of historical context in which the texts were formed and do not apply to Jews of all times. It is worth quoting the document at length here:

Real anti-Jewish feeling, that is, an attitude of contempt, hostility, and persecution of the Jews as Jews, is not found in any New Testament text and is incompatible with its teaching. What are found are reproaches addressed to certain categories of Jews for religious reasons, as well as polemical texts to defend the Christian apostolate against Jews who oppose it. But it must be admitted that many of these passages are capable of providing a pretext for anti-Jewish sentiment and have in fact been used in this way. To avoid mistakes of this kind, it must be kept in mind that the New Testament polemical texts, even those expressed in general terms, have to do with concrete historical contexts and are never meant to be applied to Jews of all times and places merely because they are Jews. The tendency to speak in general terms, to accentuate the adversaries’ negative side, and to pass over the positive in silence, failure to consider their motivations and their ultimate good faith, these are characteristics of all polemical language throughout antiquity, and are no less evident in Judaism and primitive Christianity against all kinds of dissidents.

The document ends on a frank and important note that I take as a sign of the growing maturity of the Catholic Jewish dialogue. Again, I quote from the text:

The fact that the New Testament is essentially a proclamation of the fulfillment of God’s plan in Jesus Christ, puts it in serious disagreement with the vast majority of the Jewish people who do not accept this fulfillment. The New Testament then expresses at one and the same time its attachment to the Old Testament revelation and its disagreement with the synagogue. This discord is not be taken as "anti-Jewish sentiment," for it is disagreement at the level of faith, the source of religious controversy between two human groups that take their point of departure from the same Old Testament faith basis, but are in disagreement on how to conceive the final development of that faith. Although profound, such disagreement in no way implies reciprocal hostility. The example of Paul in Romans 9–11 shows that, on the contrary, an attitude of respect, esteem, and love for the Jewish people is the only truly Christian attitude in a situation which is mysteriously part of the beneficent and positive plan of God.

I think it is important to note again that this remarkable document does not pretend to be a detached, religiously neutral assessment of the historical relationship between Judaism and Christianity. It is an official teaching document of the Catholic Church and obviously and clearly represents the faith stance of the church. Its title is significant: "The Jewish People and Their Scriptures in the Christian Bible"—"in the Christian Bible" is the vantage point of the document. However imperfect or incomplete the document may be, I think it is an extraordinary resource for Catholic catechetics and religious education. In an official and permanent Vatican text, the church has vigorously refuted toxic biblical interpretations that have fed anti-Jewish sentiment for centuries. Just as important, this new document illustrates for the worldwide Catholic Christian community the extraordinary and inseparable bonds between Judaism and Christianity and the inherent respect that Christianity owes Judaism. 


This article is based on a presentation to the Catholic Biblical Association of America.

Published in the 2003-01-31 issue: 

Donald Senior, CP, is president of the Catholic Theological Union at Chicago. He was appointed by Pope John Paul II to the Pontifical Biblical Commission.

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