Abstract: In this essay, Gerald McDermott explores the notion of supersessionism in Christian theology, which suggests the promises made to the Jewish people in the Old Testament, including the land promise, have been superseded by the Christian church. He contends this view has dominated Christian interpretation since the fourth century, leading to the marginalization of the New Testament’s references to the land promise. McDermott posits evidence in the New Testament that contradicts supersessionism, and he argues that recognizing the ongoing significance of the land promise is vital for understanding God’s trustworthiness and the fulfillment of his promises.
Is the land promise to Abraham and his descendants also in the New Testament? Does it matter?
For most Christians and Jews since the fourth century, the answer has been no and no. No major interpreters found such a promise there, and it wouldn’t matter anyway. For what determined doctrine toward the people and land of Israel was tradition’s interpretation of biblical texts, not the texts themselves.
The tradition had developed a way of reading the New Testament text called “supersessionism,” the notion that in God’s plan, the Jewish people of Israel have been superseded by the new people (both Jew and Gentile) of the Christian church.
One implication of this theology relates to God’s promises about the land of Israel. The logic goes like this: Before the first century, God had established his kingdom on and through the land of Israel—that little strip on the eastern edge of the Mediterranean the size of New Jersey—but since the departure of Jesus from the top of the Mount of Olives, God’s attention had been diverted from that little land to the whole world. As Jesus said in one of his Beatitudes, “Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth” (Matt. 5.5).
Let me explain the logic of supersessionism vis-á-vis the land. According to Christian supersessionists, that is the majority of Christian interpreters since the fourth century, Jesus universalized the particular—transferring the promise of a land for the Jews in the Old Testament (the particular) to a promise of the whole world to his followers (the universal).
This logic made sense to me for several decades after I became a serious reader of the Greek New Testament in my 20s. New Testament Jesus scholars said the land promise is missing from this part of the Bible. Pauline scholars wrote that Paul abandoned Second Temple Judaism and recognized the land promise as obsolete now that Jesus had come to be Messiah for the whole world.
But one day, several decades ago, I realized a veil had been cast over my eyes, closing them to evidence of the land promise on the surface of the text of the New Testament, right in front of my eyes. How could I have been so blind?
Seeing the Land Promise
Back in college at the University of Chicago, I’d read Thomas Kuhn’s The Structure of Scientific Revolutions (1961), which showed that at the beginning of every scientific revolution (think of Galileo, Newton, Einstein) elite scientists already had evidence for the new theory. But they couldn’t see the evidence because the existing scientific paradigm had cast a veil over their eyes.
I realized this might have happened to biblical scholars and theologians for centuries. They weren’t able to see the land promise in the New Testament because they’d been trained not to see it.
For example, four times in the New Testament, Jerusalem is called the “holy city.” The Devil took Jesus to “the holy city” to tempt him to jump off the top of the temple (Matt. 4:5). After the death of Jesus, many bodies of the saints were raised and walked around “the holy city” and appeared to many (27:53). The Gentiles will trample “the holy city” for 42 months (Rev. 11:2), and God will bring down from heaven “the holy city Jerusalem” (21:10).
What’s more, three times the New Testament refers explicitly to the land promise. The author of Hebrews says God led Abraham to a place to receive as an inheritance and that Isaac and Jacob were “heirs with him of the same promise” (11:9). Before his martyrdom, Stephen said God promised to give Abraham this land “as a possession and to his offspring after him” (Acts 7:4–5). Paul told the synagogue at Antioch of Pisidia that the God of this people Israel chose our fathers, and “after destroying seven nations in the land of Canaan, he gave them their land as an inheritance” (13:17–19).
One might ask why there are only these three explicit mentions of the land promise. Two answers are likely. First, the land promise was assumed because, for the New Testament authors, their Bible (the Tanakh) already repeated the land promise a thousand times (I’ve counted them and tabulated these references in The New Christian Zionism and Israel Matters). Second, the New Testament authors lived in the land. It was acknowledged as Judea—the land of the Jews—so there seemed no need to repeat or defend the promise.
Jesus and the Land Promise
Jesus referred to the future of the land of Israel many times. I’ll provide five instances. In Acts, the disciples asked the resurrected Messiah if he would “restore the kingdom to Israel” (Acts 1:6). He didn’t dismiss this as a silly or unspiritual question (as scholars have often claimed) but said the Father has set times and seasons for that, and they weren’t to know them yet. Isaac Oliver, a Jewish New Testament scholar, argues in Luke’s Jewish Eschatology that Jesus had an earthly—if eschatological—kingdom in mind.
In Luke 13, Jesus said that one day the residents of Jerusalem will welcome him (v. 35), and in chapter 21 he prophesies Jerusalem will be trampled on by Gentiles until the times of the Gentiles are completed (v. 24).
The cessation of Gentiles trampling on Jerusalem means the beginning of Jewish sovereignty over Jerusalem. This means Jesus predicted a time when Jews would have political control over their capital. It wouldn’t be too much of a stretch to say the beginning of Jewish sovereignty over Jerusalem—in 1967, almost 2,000 years after Jews lost it in 63 BC to Pompey—could be seen as a fulfillment of prophecy by the New Testament Jesus.
Jesus predicted a time when Jews would have political control over their capital. It wouldn’t be too much of a stretch to say the beginning of Jewish sovereignty over Jerusalem could be seen as a fulfillment of prophecy by the New Testament Jesus.
This isn’t the same as saying the Jewish state is a direct fulfillment of prophecy. Or that the current Jewish state is beyond criticism. Or that this is the last Jewish state before the eschaton.
But it isn’t beyond imagining that on the basis of this remarkable prophecy by Jesus, we can say the rise of Jewish sovereignty over its capital after two millennia could be a “sign of the times,” the sort Jesus rebuked some Jewish leaders for not recognizing (Matt. 16:3).
Matthew has Jesus saying that in the paliggenesia, or renewal of all things, his apostles would rule over the 12 tribes of Israel, evoking not only the land of Israel but also the reconstitution of the 10 northern tribes (19:28).
As we’ve already seen, Jesus refers to the land in a verse that’s almost universally mistranslated. It should be “Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the land” (Matt. 5:5, author’s translation). More and more scholars are recognizing that Jesus is quoting Psalm 37:11 word for word. Five times this psalm uses the phrase “inherit the land,” and each time the Hebrew word eretz refers unmistakably to the land of Israel, not the whole earth.
Jesus might have been referring to Isaiah’s prophecy that when the earth is renewed “all the Gentiles shall flow to the mountain of the house of the LORD . . . that he might teach [them] his ways” (Isa. 2:2–3).
Many object that John’s Gospel overrules these expectations of a future for the land because John’s Jesus says his body is the new temple, and true worship would no longer be restricted to Jerusalem but would be wherever there is “worship in spirit and in truth” (John 2:21; 4:21–24).
The New Testament scholar Richard Hays doesn’t think John is supersessionist on the land promise but that we should think of the Gospels as speaking on different levels. For, he points out, Mark’s Jesus declares of the temple, “My house shall be called a house of prayer for all the nations” (Mark 11:17), affirming Isaiah’s vision of an eschatologically restored Jerusalem and temple. In Matthew, Jesus surprises Christians (most have never seen this) by saying God still “dwells in” the temple of his day (23:21). So the New Testament’s composite picture of Jesus on the temple is that it’s both God’s house and also the symbol of Jesus’s body as God’s house. True worship, for Jesus, will be everywhere in spirit and in truth and centered in Jerusalem in the eschaton.
True worship, for Jesus, will be everywhere in spirit and in truth and centered in Jerusalem in the eschaton.
If Jesus clearly referred to the future of the land of Israel, so did Peter. In his second speech in Jerusalem, delivered after Jesus’s resurrection, Peter says there’s still to come a future apokatastasis, using the Greek word in the Septuagint for the return of Jews to the land from the four corners of the earth (Acts 3:21). So, for Peter, the return from exile in Babylon did not fulfill the Tanakh’s prophecies of return. Nor did Jesus’s resurrection. There was a future return to come. And we know this didn’t happen for another 1,800 years.
We’ve already seen from Acts that Paul made clear he held to the land promise. There’s further evidence in Romans. Paul says the “gifts . . . of God” are “irrevocable” (Rom. 11:29). There’s little doubt that for Paul, the land was one of these gifts, for in the writings of prominent first-century Jews—Philo, Josephus, and Ezekiel the Tragedian—the land was God’s principal gift to the Jewish people.
The early church saw it this way. According to Robert Wilken in The Land Called Holy, early Christians interpreted the angel’s promise to Mary that her baby would be given “the throne of his father David” and that he would “reign over the house of Jacob forever” (Luke 1:32–33) as indications of “the restoration and establishment of the kingdom in Jerusalem.”
The book of Revelation is replete with references to the future of the land of Israel. The two witnesses will be killed in Jerusalem (11:8); the battle of Armageddon will take place in a valley in northern Israel (16:16); the gates of the New Jerusalem (which, notably, isn’t the New Rome or New Constantinople) are inscribed with “the names of the twelve tribes of the sons of Israel” (21:12); the 144,000 with the names of the Lamb and the Father on their foreheads stand on Mount Zion in Jerusalem (14:1); Gog and Magog will march over the “broad plain of the land” of Israel and surround the saints and “the beloved city” of Jerusalem before they’re consumed by heavenly fire (20:9). The renewed earth will be centered in Jerusalem (11:2; 21:10).
For the author of Revelation, then, the land of Israel was holy not simply because Israel and Jesus lived there but also because it would be the scene of crucial future events in the history of redemption.
In sum, there’s an abundance of evidence in the Gospels, Acts, the Epistles, and Revelation for (1) the land promise, (2) the holiness of Jerusalem, and (3) the theological significance of the land of Israel in the future and in the eschaton.
Why the Land Promises Matter
Does this matter? Yes, it does, for three reasons.
First, if the land promise was ended with the coming of Jesus, then God is not trustworthy. For he promised to Abraham and his seed that the land would be theirs for an everlasting possession (Gen 17:8).
Second, if the land promise to Israel is broken, then so might be God’s promise to renew and restore the heavens and the earth. The land promise’s partial fulfillment—by bringing Jews from the four corners of the earth back to the land starting in the eighteenth century–is down payment on the promise of a new heaven and a new earth.
Third, it is a deep theological reason why we should support Israel in this new war against the new Nazism. Jews have more title to the land than any other people. God called them to share the land in justice, and they have shown time and again that they are willing. Today 2 million Arabs are full citizens in Israel enjoying political freedoms and world-class education and health care—far more than Arabs enjoy anywhere else in the Arab world.
Like Hitler’s Nazis, Hamas is conducting genocide, the attempted elimination of a whole people, the Jews. If we Christians thought it was right to destroy Nazism in Word War II, then we should support Israel’s efforts to destroy Hamas, a new Nazism.