Thursday, 7 November 2013

Advent without the supercessionism

OK, I know I've just put a VERY technical theological term in the title of the post.  But, anyway, for those who aren't scared off by the technical term, here goes.

Supercessionism is a term used by theologians to describe a common (too common, really) attitude held by some Christians towards Judaism. 

The word supercessionism is based on the verb "to supercede".  For example, this year's calendar has superceded last year's calendar.  ... The software in my computer has superceded older versions of the same software. ...  My car has been superceded by the various models of the same car that were built since 1997. ...  And so on.

And, following along from this, supercessionism is the idea, held by far too many Christians, that Christianity has somehow superceded Judaism. 

Supercessionism is the notion that Judaism exists in the past tense, not in the present tense.  Supercessionism is the idea that the purpose of Judaism was to prepare the world for the emergence of Christianity.

Personally, I reject supercessionism.  In fact, I'm even a member of a denomination (the Uniting Church in Australia) that has officially rejected supercessionism.  I believe that Judaism provides its adherents with a viable relationship with the Sacred, just as Christianity provides its adherents with a viable relationship with the Sacred (and as other faiths also provide such a relationship.)  No less than Christianity, Judaism is a living faith for today.

Supercessionism is usually an idea that is strongest among Christians who have very little contact with Jewish people.  For Christians who know Jews, and particularly for Christians who've had a chance to talk about matters of faith with Jews, there is a strong understanding that Judaism is a living faith, that Jews today have a vital relationship with the Divine, a vital relationship with the same sacred Reality with whom Christians relate.  For Christians who know Jews, there is a real sense that there is much in our Jewish neighbours that we as Christians should emulate.

For those of us who reject supercessionism, Advent has its theological difficulties. 
  • Many of the readings from scripture we hear during Advent are passages from the Hebrew Scriptures for which the Christian churches had developed a particularly Christian meaning, without reference to the older, Jewish meaning that these passages have had well before the emergence of Christianity.  For many Christians, passages of scripture written centuries before the time of Jesus are regarded as simply being predictions about Jesus (and including an idea that Judaism was intended as a way of preparing the world for Jesus and for Christianity).  Many don't realise that their Jewish neighbours read the same passages of scripture without interpreting the passages as being about Jesus.
  • Many of the hymns of Advent also convey a sense that the role of Jewish faith and life during the centuries before the time of Jesus was merely a preparation for Jesus.
For many churches, our worship during Advent can be an exercise in supercessionism.

The question for most congregations is, how can we avoid supercessionism at any time, including Advent.

For those of you who are ministers, priests, or pastors, this is a time to make sure that you share with your congregation the information you learned when you were studying theology.  Assume that the members of your congregation are smart enough to deal with this.  Tell them that the prophets of ancient Israel were more about encouraging their people to practice justice than about predicting a future Messiah.  While the Christian church re-interpreted some of the prophets' visions of peace and justice in terms of the life and ministry of Jesus, these visions are also relevant (albeit with a different interpretation) to people whose view of God doesn't include the life and ministry of Jesus.  As Christians, we see God's hope in terms of Jesus, but we also recognise God's hope within other communities of God's people.

If you're a lay member of a congregation, encourage your minister, priest, or pastor to go deeper with this with the congregation, either from the pulpit or in adult teaching opportunities.  If your minister, priest, or pastor is any good at all, she/he will be delighted to have the opportunity.

In any event, whether you are ordained or not, there are a few good recent books you may find helpful.

The First Christmas by Marcus Borg and John Dominic Crossan (HarperOne, 2007) is an attempt by two serious biblical scholars to write a popular book about the origins of the Christian celebration of Christmas.  In speaking of the Jewish context for the emergence of Christianity, they recognise the integrity of Judaism as a faith in its own right, as both Borg and Crossan do in their other books.

Amy-Jill Levine's The Misunderstood Jew (HarperOne, 2006) is a book about Jesus by a practicing Jew, who is also a noted biblical scholar.  She writes with strong sympathy and deep respect for both faiths, with the desire that the mutual relationship among both faiths can develop with deep honesty.

For those who preach, whether occasionally or on a regular basis, Ronald Allen and Clark Williamson's Preaching the Gospels Without Blaming the Jews (Westminster John Knox, 2004) is a resource for each week of the three-year lectionary (including the weeks of Advent each year) which comments on the scripture lessons for each week of the lectionary with particular reference to the need for Christians to avoid caricatures and stereotypes of Jewish faith and practice.

Advent is a time of great joy and hope for Christians.  This joy and hope can be all the greater when we celebrate this season without the supercessionism which seeks to diminish the life of our fellow-members of the people of God.

And, if you'd like some of my reflections on Advent and Christmas sitting on your bookshelf as well as on your computer, you may want to buy my book  Christmas Lost and Christmas Regained from Amazon.


  1. While the cultural setting must be understand first to the Hebrew before applying a prophecy interpretation about the Messiah. Having said that as a Christian there is a need to emulate Christ & the apostles teaching upon the Old Testament as we live in harmony with those of different faith. By our action, our faith is proclaim.

  2. I think it's possible for us to say "only through Jesus" without requiring everyone else to do the same


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