Historically, both Jews and Christians have claimed to be “Israel,” God’s chosen people, although the claims occupy different places in the self-understanding of the two communities. The Jewish people’s claim to be “Israel” stands at the core of its sense of collective identity and is commonly articulated without reference to Christianity or any other religious community. In contrast, “Israel” is but one of Christianity’s many historic self-designations, and is often paired with adjectives selected to trump Judaism’s rival claim. According to such formulas, the church is the “new,” “spiritual,” or “true” Israel, in contrast to the Jewish people, which is the “old” and “fleshly” Israel, or, indeed, perhaps not Israel at all. The existential importance of the name to Jews, and the frequently polemical character of Christianity’s claim to it, have combined to make the name “Israel” a historic flashpoint of Jewish-Christian relations. At the same time, the fact that the two communities have traditionally claimed the name in different ways has afforded room for change in the modern era. In recent decades, many Christian communions have gone on record ceding the name “Israel” to the Jewish people, while embracing other ways of expressing the church’s historic sense of connection to the God of Israel and the people whom he chose.
“Israel” is, with one exception, the most frequently occurring proper name in the Hebrew Bible, appearing there some 2500 times. By comparison, “David” appears less than half as often, “Moses” less than a third as often, while “Abraham,” “Isaac,” and “Jacob” occur just a few hundred times each. The prevalence of the name is in part a reflection of the fact that it refers to at least five distinct though interrelated entities: a) the last of the three great patriarchs, who received the name Israel (“he wrestled with God”) after struggling with the divine messenger (cf. Gen 32:28), b) the people descended from Jacob/Israel and his twelve sons, c) the land promised to them by God, d) the united kingdom of Saul, David, and Solomon, and e) the northern kingdom alone. More basically, though, the frequency of the name reflects the degree to which the literature of the Hebrew Bible is dominated by the tumultuous history of a single complex relationship, namely, that between YHWH and his chosen people, the descendants of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. As the creator of all things and ruler of all peoples, YHWH (whose name is far and away the most frequently attested proper noun in the Hebrew Bible) is unique and without compare. But so too in a derivative way is the people whom YHWH calls to be his “treasured possession” (Ex 19:5). Significantly, “Israel” does not name a people that first exists and is then subsequently chosen by YHWH, but the other way around. The patriarchal narratives make clear that it is YHWH’s supervening action in human affairs that gives rise to the chosen lineage in the first place, whose status as “my people” is reaffirmed in the exodus and solemnized at Mt. Sinai. Early on, YHWH expressly entertains the idea of wiping out Israel because of its sin and creating another people in its place, only to relent in the face of Moses’ intercession (Ex 32). Thereafter, Israel learns to endure even the most dire catastrophe in the hopeful expectation that ultimately YHWH will vindicate his people, even if only for the sake of YHWH’s own name (cf. Ezek 20). The possibility that YHWH’s faithfulness toward Israel will also benefit the nations is affirmed in several prophetic texts, in continuity with God’s inaugural promise to Abraham (Gen 12:1-4). But even this happy outcome is typically imagined in ways that assume some sort of enduring distinction between Israel and the other peoples of the world (Isa 19:25).
With some 80 occurrences, “Israel” is far from being one of the New Testament’s most frequently attested proper names. It appears less often than, for example, “Jews/Judaeans” (195x), “Jerusalem” (144x), or “Peter” (155x), and far less often than “Jesus,” the most common proper name in the New Testament (973x). (The divine name “YHWH” is a special case, because while the NT writers refrain from using it expressly, in keeping with Second Temple custom, their roundabout allusions to it outnumber even instances of the name “Jesus.”) Despite its relatively modest attestation, however, “Israel” continues to be used in ways that are broadly continuous with the Hebrew Bible/ Septuagint. New Testament writers almost always use it as an honorific title for the historic people of God’s choosing, i.e., the genealogical descendants of the patriarchs (cf. Mt 2:6, 15:24), or for the land they inhabit (cf. Mt 2:20). Conversely, they seldom if ever use it to refer to the entire community of those gathered by or in the name of Jesus, which they designate instead by a rich variety of other terms, such as “disciples,” “those who are being saved,” “saints,” “church,” “body of Christ,” “household of God,” “Christian,” and so on (Gal 6:16 and Rom 11:26 are possible exceptions, although this is disputed). The difference in nomenclature permits writers of the New Testament to portray genealogical Israel and the Christ-movement as communities that overlap but do not coincide. Not all of genealogical Israel belongs to the Christ-movement, and not all who belong to the Christ-movement are Jews; some are gentiles. While the resulting tensions and perplexities permeate New Testament literature in a variety of ways, Rom 9-11 is the only text that examines the nexus of issues in an explicit and sustained way. Not coincidentally, the passage is dense with references to “Israel” and scriptural citations of YHWH’s first-person discourse. Paul begins by affirming the dignity of genealogical Israel (9:1-5), and then immediately denies that this dignity derives in any way from genealogy. Rather, it flows from the sovereign choice of God, who is free to harden a part of Israel while showing mercy to the gentiles, just as he is now doing. Paul compares the Christ-movement to a cultivated olive tree from which natural branches have been broken and wild branches grafted in. Significantly, Paul continues to use the honorific name “Israel” for the “natural branches” even after they have been broken, just as he continues to address as “gentiles” the “wild branches” after they have been “grafted in.” Paul warns his gentile audience not to suppose that God’s hardening of a part of Israel is final; it is a temporary expedient designed for the benefit of the nations. Thus, even at the present time, hardened Israel remains the object of God’s special care, because “as regards election they are beloved, for the sake of their ancestors; for the gifts and the calling of God are irrevocable” (11:29).
Throughout the centuries, “Israel” has occupied a place in Jewish self-understanding that mirrors its centrality in the Hebrew Bible. It has been the preeminent term expressive of the Jewish people’s sense of having a collective identity that is unique and untransferable. Indeed, until the modern era, “the children of Israel” (benai yisrael) was the ordinary way in which Jews referred to themselves as a people.
In the classic texts of Rabbinic Judaism, “Israel” is employed ubiquitously to refer both to the Israel of which Scripture spoke and to the contemporaneous Jewish community. The underlying assumption is that these two are in fact one and the same reality, the descendants of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. The Mishnah (ca. 70-300 CE) took shape at a time when Christianity’s claim to be the “true Israel” was already current, but there is scant evidence that the rival claim occupied the attention of the Mishnah’s framers, perhaps because the church was still comparatively uninfluential in the Roman world. In the Mishnah, the external counterpart of Israel is “the nations,” without further differentiation. In contrast, rabbinic writings such as the Talmud and later midrashic collections (ca. 400-600) that were compiled after the Roman empire adopted Christianity suggest engagement with the Christian claim. Rome is singled out from other nations by being represented, on the one hand, as Esau or Edom or Ishmael, and, on the other, as a pig. If the first image suggests that Christian Rome is in some sense a member of Israel’s wider family, the second makes clear that it is nevertheless strictly unkosher (Neusner 1988, 38-50). In no case is Christian Rome “Israel,” whether spiritual or otherwise. In the wake of the first crusades in the Middle Ages (1096-1099), Rabbinic authorities were forced to confront the question of whether Jews who converted to Christianity under duress might later return to the Jewish community. The opinion of the eleventh century Talmudic commentator Rashi (d. 1105) became normative in medieval Ashkenazic society, which permitted such return with minimal obstacles. The passage on which Rashi founded his opinion was “‘Israel sinned’ – even though they have sinned, they are still Israel” (B. Sanhedrin 43b-44a), a judgment that bears remarkable similarity to that of Paul in Romans 11 (Novak 1995, 191).
That the church is the “true” or “spiritual” Israel is a claim that appears frequently in patristic theology, although with telling variations in form and tone. For Justin Martyr, the second century apologist who first advanced the thesis in his sprawling work Dialogue with Trypho the Jew (ca. 165 CE), it is a matter of the highest importance to establish that the church is also entitled to the name Israel, alongside the Jews. Writing at a time when the Hebrew Bible/ Septuagint still constituted the principal scripture of Christian worship, Justin assumes that the Jews are Israel, since they are “descendants of Jacob according to the flesh” (Dial. 125.5). Still, with an air almost of hurt feelings, he chastises Trypho and his fellow Jews for “imagining that you alone are the people of Israel, and for cursing the people whom God has blessed” (Dial. 123.6). The name “Israel,” Justin explains, refers most properly to Jesus Christ, and to Christians because of their derivation from him. “As Christ is called Israel and Jacob, so we, hewn out of the side of Christ, are the true people of Israel” (Dial. 135.3; cf. Dial. 11.5). In contrast, Augustine, who writes after the Christianization of the empire, treats the Jewish claim to be Israel as an object of elaborate mockery. “When the Jews hear the following words from the psalm [“Hear, O my people, and I will speak to you: O Israel” (Ps 50:7)], they answer with their heads held high: ‘We are they; the psalm is about us; it is said to us. We are Israel, the people of God; we recognize ourselves in the words of the speaker!’” (Against the Jews, 7.9). In reality, Augustine jeers, “You are so blind that you say you are what you are not, and do not recognize yourselves for what you really are” (Against the Jews 7.10). Augustine can speak at times of two different Israels existing on different planes, a “spiritual Israel” comprised of people from “all the nations” and defined by “newness of grace,” and a “carnal Israel” comprised of “one nation” and defined by “descent” (On Christian Doctrine, III.34.48-49). At other times, however, Augustine can affirm that “the Christian people” alone is Israel, and, in a statement that mirrors the contemporary counterclaim of Judaism, declare that the “multitude of Jews” belong “more to Esau than to Jacob” (On the Psalms 113.1.2). With a similar air of triumphalism, the fourth century writer Hilary of Poitiers affirms that God compelled the Jews “to surrender” the name of Israel to the church. “What is Israel today? They who walk in the law of Christ.” At the same time, it is evident that Hilary does not attach the same existential importance to the name “Israel” that Justin Martyr did a few generations before. In fact, Hilary celebrates the fact that God has given a “new name” to the church that surpasses “Israel” in luster, a notion that would have been inconceivable to Justin Martyr. “And what is this new name for the religion that shall be blessed upon the earth? [...] [It is] the blessedness of the Christian name [...] [which is] our reward on earth” (The Trinity, 5.28, 29).
The Modern Period
In recent centuries, Christianity’s historic claim to be “Israel” has enjoyed varied fortunes, waxing and waning in relation to broader trends in European culture as much as to Jewish-Christian relations in the strict sense. Until the 16th cent., Christian writers often took Solomon as the paradigm of the wise political ruler. After the Reformation and the fracturing of Christendom, however, thinkers increasingly looked to Moses and the people Israel at Mt. Sinai for inspiration in constructing political ideals. In this way, the church’s ancient self-identification with biblical Israel became a core ingredient in the formation of modern national identities, not least in North America and South Africa (Hammill 2011). The 19th cent. movement known as British Israelitism is a late blooming and extreme expression of this phenomenon, and a direct ancestor of the virulently antisemitic Christian Identity movement of today (Barkun 2014). In contrast, Christian thinkers influenced by Enlightenment ideals of universal reason and natural law deemphasized or rejected the idea that the church is the “new Israel,” or indeed that Christianity stood in any sort of constitutive relation to Jews or Judaism at all. Liberal Protestant theologians such as Friederich Schleiermacher (1768-1834), Albrecht Ritschl (1822-1899), and Adolf von Harnack (1851-1930) restrict the application of the word “Israel” to the sphere of biblical literature, and seldom if ever employ it to refer to contemporary communities of Christians or Jews. In the wake of the First World War, thinkers such as Franz Rosenzweig (1886-1929) and Karl Barth (1886-1968) forcefully rejected 19th cent. liberalism’s embargo on the word “Israel,” and reclaimed it as a contemporary designation for the Jewish people. In his The Star of Redemption (1921), Rosenzweig writes, “Whether Christ is more than an idea—no Christian can know. But that Israel is more than an idea, he knows it and sees it. For we are living. We are eternal, not as an idea may be eternal, but [...] in full reality.” While Barth initially treated the name Israel as a cipher for humankind’s propensity to seek self-justification through religion, he increasingly used it to refer to the Jewish people alone as an honorific title signifying their election by God. In his Doctrine of Election of 1943, Barth affirmed that Israel is, together with the church, the one elect people of God, not only in the past, but also in the present and future. At the same time, Barth severely blunts the tradition-critical power of his thesis by maintaining that Israel’s special calling within the one people of God is to represent humankind perishing beneath the weight of God’s “No” against sin, while the role of the church is to represent humankind made alive again by God’s gracious and life-giving “Yes” (On Barth and Rosenzweig’s understanding of election, see Rosner 2016).
Since World War II, Christian communions have issued scores of declarations on Jewish-Christian relations, testifying to a remarkable change in ecclesial self-understanding on the topic since the patristic era. Some statements, chiefly Lutheran and Orthodox, continue to affirm that the church is the “new Israel,” while characterizing the Jewish people as the “old Israel” or the “original Israel,” but these are a small minority (see for example “The Church and Jewish People,” Lutheran World Federation 1964, and “To Recognize Christ in His People” 2007. These and scores of other statements are anthologized in Sherman 2011, 2014. Many statements are also accessible through the Dialogika section of the website of the Council of Centers of Jewish-Christian Relations). Vastly more common is the practice of using the terms “Israel” and “the Church” to refer to adherents of Judaism and Christianity respectively, a practice that effectively yields the name “Israel” to the Jewish people alone.
The challenging question that remains is how to articulate the relation of the two communities, and here approaches differ. A United Methodist statement of 1972 speaks of two different covenants, “the covenant of God with Israel and the covenant made in Jesus Christ” (Sherman 2011, 94), leaving open how or even whether the covenants are related. A more common approach is that taken by the Presbyterian Church (USA) in a statement of 1987, which emphasizes the connection of the traditions by drawing on Paul’s metaphor of the olive tree in Romans 11. After expressly rejecting the teaching that the church is “new” or “spiritual” Israel, the statement affirms that “the church, being made up primarily of those who were once aliens and strangers to the covenants of promise, has been engrafted into the people of God by the covenant with Abraham” (Sherman 2014, 54). An evocative formulation of the Roman Catholic Church implies that the church’s relation to Israel is internal rather than external and hence essential for the church’s own self-understanding: “The problem of Jewish-Christian relations concerns the Church as such, since it is when ‘pondering her own mystery’ that she encounters the mystery of Israel” (Guidelines for Catholic-Jewish Relations, Bishops' Committee for Ecumenical and Interreligious Affairs, May 7, 1985; Sherman 2011, 200). Turning to individual theologians, the Lutheran ecumenist George Lindbeck has proposed that while the church is not Israel it is “Israel-like,” and suggests that it is possible for Christians to “appropriate” the identity of Israel without “expropriating” it (Lindbeck 2002, 106-113, 357-366). A more common approach differentiates more sharply between church and Israel, and speaks of gentile Christians as “guests in the house of Israel” (Williamson, 1993), or of the church as “God’s elect people with Israel” (Bader-Saye 1999, 148), or of Israel as “the first-chosen People of God” and the church as “the also-chosen ecumenical People of God from all the nations” (Klappert 2000, 203-234). Meanwhile, an underexamined and highly sensitive issue remains the theological significance of individuals and communities that claim membership in both the Jewish people and the body of Christ. Important statements on the topic include Wyschogrod 2004, 202-210, Kinzer 2005, Novak 2005, 218-228.
Jews have also issued statements acknowledging and reciprocating recent changes in Christian teaching. One such statement, issued by orthodox rabbis in 2015, includes a citation of the words of a nineteenth century Lithuanian rabbi, who wrote hopefully of a future day when Jews and Christians would be loving partners:
In the future when the children of Esau are moved by pure spirit to recognize the people of Israel and their virtues, then we will also be moved to recognize that Esau is our brother.” The statement strongly suggests that what the nineteenth century rabbi hoped for has begun to come to pass, declaring “Now that the Catholic Church has acknowledged the eternal Covenant between G-d and Israel, we Jews can acknowledge the ongoing constructive validity of Christianity as our partner in world redemption [...]. Neither of us can achieve G-d’s mission in this world alone (Orthodox Rabbinic Statement on Christianity, 2015).
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