PAUL’S DISCOURSE TO THE JEWS IN JERUSALEM
Paul spoke to the people in the Hebrew language, an indication that it was still understood (though probably with Aramaic variants), and chose not to make a theological discourse, as he did on other occasions (13:14ff), but to give his testimony. It began with a «Brothers and fathers […] I am a Jew» (vv. 1-3). He does not say that ‘I was a Jew’, because for Paul to accept Jesus as Messiah was to remain a Jew in all aspects and, if anything, it was others who were no longer in line with the Jewish faith.
And so, are Christians «the true Jews», as many claim on the basis of Philippians 3:3? Yes and no and, as usual, half-truths are very devastating. However, we postpone the matter to the Further Insight n. 13 below.
In his speech, Paul described a Christian faith entirely internal to Judaism, because it was communicated to him by an Ananias who was a «devout man according to the law» (v. 12) and who brought him a message from the «God of our fathers» (v. 14). The bystanders remained to listen to Paul even when he told of a vision of Jesus, which he had while in a trance in the Temple (v. 17), but what they could not bear was that Jesus had told Paul that he would send him not to them, but « far away to the Gentiles» (v. 21).
As the resurrection was inadmissible for the philosophers of Athens, so for the Pharisees the coming of a Messiah who would not place Israel above other peoples was inconceivable: the Pharisees had emerged and were characterised precisely by their resistance to enemies who were of Greek language, in expectation of a new Moses-David, through whom God would treat their Greek-Roman enemies as he had treated Pharaoh and the Philistines. They therefore immediately ceased to listen to Paul and wished him to be killed, but the soldiers protected him by taking him to prison, where Paul was treated well because he declared to be a Roman citizen (vv. 25-29).
The next day, the tribune brought him before the Sanhedrin to try to understand why he was hated so much, but this is reported in the next chapter.
Further Insight 13
ARE CHRISTIANS THE “TRUE JEWS”
AND THE “REMNANT OF ISRAEL”?
Peter and Paul could say, «We are the [true] circumcision» (Phil 3:3), but certainly not Cornelius, nor the “Cornelian” Christianity of today. Certainly, Cornelius’ faith in Christ was more important than circumcision, but this did not nullify the ETERNAL COVENANT made by God with Abraham and which implied circumcision. For God said to Abraham, «This is my covenant […] let every male among you be circumcised […] I will establish my covenant with him [Isaac], AS AN EVERLASTING COVENANT FOR HIS OFFSPRING AFTER HIM» (Gen 17:19b). Cornelius, in the figurative sense, could also be considered a “true circumcised”, but the offspring of Isaac, who inherits the eternal covenant, must also be genetic (although, this is not enough to ensure blessing and salvation). Certainly it is Christ, as part of this offspring, to “take upon himself” the burden of a final fulfilment of what was promised to Abraham (Gal 3:16), as Joseph took it for his brothers; whereas I do not believe that Christ, as Abraham’s offspring, “took for himself” the inheritance expropriating effectively all his “brothers in Abraham”.
To be circumcised and to be Abraham’s descendants, then, is not the same, for the circumcision of Abraham’s slaves (Gen 17:27) associated them with Abraham, but certainly did not make them direct heirs of the promise (meaning ancestors of the Messiah). For this reason, it was necessary to have been born of Abraham (Gen 15:4).
A “true Jew” in the strict sense, then, has to evidently be at least a Jew, as a preliminary condition; if, instead, it is a “non-Jew” to define himself as a “true Jew” it is clear that we are dealing here with a “false Jew”.
Another definition that Christianity makes its own, based on Romans 9:27-29 and 11:5, is to be the “remnant of Israel” (that “good” part that remains and is saved, after eliminating the “false” part). The image comes from agriculture: when sheaves are beaten in the threshing floor, a pile of chaff and grains of wheat is formed, on which the wind acts: being light, the chaff flies away, leaving the precious grain as a residue.
The twelve tribes of Israel began to deteriorate, so God worked a “scattering”, then returning to the Promised Land “a remnant”. Many Christians claim that the Church would be the new “remnant”, comprised of that people of God that continues to follow the Word of God, while the other Jews, without value, were dispersed by the Romans. It must be recognised that this framework has its own logic, but since it seems to be in contrast with other passages of Scriptures, we will seek its weaknesses first, and then propose another biblical framework that we consider more appropriate.
The first objection follows what has already been said: only those who are already Israel can be a “remnant of Israel”: that is, Peter and Paul, but not Cornelius. The objection that «there is no longer any Jew or Greek» by being «one in Christ» (Gal 3:28) is not valid, because being «one in Christ» does not eliminate the differences, otherwise there would not even be male and female, therefore Christ establishes a common ground on which two distinct people groups meet and remain distinct. Among other things, the verse of Galatians says «there is neither Jew nor Greek [here]», making it even clearer that there is no difference in the method of salvation. It is true that, immediately after (Gal 3:29), Paul states that «if you are Christ’s, then you are Abraham’s offspring, heirs according to promise», but this must be understood in the context of all the Word of God. In the time of Joshua, when Abraham’s descendants took possession of the Promised Land, each family of the 12 tribes was assigned a portion of it, considered inalienable. When Cornelius received the forgiveness of sins through Jesus, he became, yes, “son of Abraham”, but adopted son and, therefore, he could certainly not go to the elders of Israel to claim a piece of land, because his inheritance was another.
God has brought forth for two millennia a project with Abraham focused also (though not only) on the Promised Land: we do not believe that he then closed everything by making a New Covenant that cancels the previous one. If God did not, and will not, carry out the “ancient covenant” with Abraham and the “old” one on Sinai, how can we hope that it will bring to completion the New Covenant without replacing it “during the work” with a “new covenant”?
After describing, in the first eight chapters of the Epistle to the Romans, the plan of salvation in Christ, both for the Gentiles and for the Jews, Paul goes on to specifically state that the participation of foreigners in the promises of Abraham will not lead to the exclusion of Abraham’s descendants, but to the salvation of all Israel, that is, of Israel as a nation (Chap. 9-11). Certainly, the details of how God will carry out His plans are not revealed to us, but those who believe in the Bible cannot help but believe that God will carry out ALL His covenants and ALL His promises.
The second objection is more specific: if the remnant is what remains, then the Jews who believed in Christ lack the fundamental characteristic, because they are not the ones who remained in Jerusalem; those were the other Jews, who first killed Jesus and then cast out his disciples. Even in the synagogues of the diaspora, as Acts shows, those who accepted the Messiah Jesus were a minority that had to leave; for this reason, already in Acts the term ‘Jews’ is understood as referring to those who did not accept the Gospel. On the biblical level, the matter presents some problems, because Paul states: «So too at the present time there is a remnant, chosen by grace» (Rom 11:5), unequivocally identifying the “remnant” with the Jews who accepted Jesus. Immediately after, however, it is written: «Israel failed to obtain what it was seeking. The elect obtained it» (11:7), where “Israel” means those who did not accept Jesus. For two thousand years, as a matter of fact, ‘Jews’ means those who did not accept Jesus as Messiah because, since the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 A.D. onwards, the others have increasingly lived “as gentiles”, ending up being assimilated.
The Church, in other words, having been formed on the “faithful remnant”, could also be called “true Israel”, but this does not take away that “Israel” is then the other; similarly, Cornelius can also be regarded as a “true circumcised”, but then as “circumcised” one also continues to mean the others.
Today there is still a Jewish people that remains the holder of the territorial promises made to Abraham and that has already partly returned to the Promised Land, regaining control of Jerusalem. The embassies of the various States of the world are all in Tel Aviv, because no one wants to consider Jerusalem as the “eternal capital of the State of Israel”. Then, precisely to show their support for the State of Israel and to recognise Jerusalem as the capital of the Promised Land, a “Christian Embassy” was founded in Jerusalem, to which Christians from all over the world adhere.
One way to show the State of Israel the affection shared by many Christians for it is to participate in the annual Feast of Tabernacles, when thousands of Christians from all over the world (Koreans, Brazilians, Africans, Italians and others) parade through the streets of Jerusalem as a sign of solidarity with that people.
We Christians feel descendants of those who have been killed (Jesus, Stephen) or expelled from Jerusalem, but we do not want to return to it by force. we recognise, however, that this is our origin, without which we lack something. Let us therefore stretch our arms to the people of Israel as it is, unconditionally, assured that sooner or later it will be God Himself who will bring about in them a change of heart that will lead them to dissociate from those who killed Jesus and Stephen.
We wait for the prophecy of Zechariah (12:10) to be fulfilled: «They [will] look on me, on him whom they have pierced». We wait for the plea anticipated by Jesus, who told her: «you will not see me until you say, ‘Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord!’» (Luke 13:35).
In conclusion, the Church without Israel is without a true identity, while for an Israel without Christ a future of blessings cannot be opened.