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Critics of Christian Zionism usually dismiss it for one or more of three reasons: (1) They say it makes mincemeat of the New Testament, where (it is alleged) the Old Testament focus on a particular land is replaced by the vision of a whole world; (2) They think it is the exclusive concern of premillennial dispensationalists, whose theology supposedly uses Jews to advance its own role in presumptuous schedules of End Time events; (3) It is said to be more political than theological, attached to right-wing American and Israeli political parties that wrongly identify the current Israeli state with the eschaton.

Scholars at a recent conference at Georgetown made the case for a “new” Christian Zionism that takes a fresh approach to all three of these problems.

Zionism in the New Testament

Anti-Zionists concede that the Old Testament prophets, usually writing from exile, predicted a return to the land. But they say these prophecies of return were fulfilled when some of the Babylonian exiles returned to rebuild Jerusalem toward the end of the sixth century BC. Yet three New Testament scholars at the conference (Joel Willetts, David Rudolph, and Mark Kinzer) argued that Jesus and the apostles gave evidence that they were still expecting a future return.

For example, when Jesus quoted Isaiah’s prediction that the temple would become “a house of prayer for all nations” (Mark 11.17; Is. 56.1), he seemed to concur, as Richard Hays suggests in his recent Reading Backwards, with Isaiah’s vision of “an eschatologically restored Jerusalem” where foreigners would come to God’s holy mountain to join the “outcasts of Israel” whom God has “gathered” (Is 56.7-8). Hays adds that John’s figural reading of Jesus’ body as the new temple (John 2.21) “should be read neither as flatly supersessionist nor as hostile to continuity with Israel.” It does not deny the literal sense of Israel’s Scriptures—that the temple was God’s house—“but completes it by linking it typologically with the narrative of Jesus and disclosing a deeper prefigurative truth within the literal historical sense.” That the apostles saw the temple as both God’s continuing house and also a figure for Jesus’ body is shown by their participation in temple liturgies even after the Temple’s leaders had helped put their messiah to death (Acts 2.46).

These scholars pointed to other evidence that Jesus looked to a future return of Jews and a restored Jerusalem. Matthew related in chapter 24 that when the Son of Man returns, “all the tribes of the land will mourn,” quoting Zechariah’s prophecy about the inhabitants of Jerusalem mourning when “the LORD will give salvation to the tents of Judah” (Zech 12.7, 10). Then in Matthew 19 Jesus tells his disciples that “in the new world, when the Son of Man shall sit on his glorious throne, you who have followed me will also sit on twelve thrones, judging the twelve tribes of Israel” (v. 28). James Sanders has observed that these repeated references to the twelve tribes imply restoration of Israel, particularly in Jerusalem.

Luke records Anna speaking of the baby Jesus “to all who were waiting for the redemption of Jerusalem” (Luke 2.38), and Jesus’ expectation that when he returns Israel will welcome him: “You will not see me again until you say, ‘Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord’” (Lk 13.34-35; Matt 23.37-39). Luke suggests that the return will be in Jerusalem (Lk 21.24-28). When his disciples asked Jesus just before his ascension, “Lord, are you at this time going to restore the kingdom to Israel?” (Ac 1.6), Jesus did not challenge their assumption that one day the kingdom would be restored to physical Israel. He simply said the Father had set the date, and they did not need to know it yet. It was these sorts of indications in the gospels and Acts that caused Marcus Bockmuehl to write that “the early Jesus movement evidently continued to focus upon the restoration of Israel’s twelve tribes in a new messianic kingdom.”

Paul, Peter, and the writer of the book of Revelation had similar expectations. Paul uses Isaiah’s prophecy of restoration in Is. 59 to declare that “The deliverer will come from Zion, he will banish ungodliness from Jacob” (Rom 11.26). In Acts 3 Peter looks forward to “the times of restoration of all things which God spoke through the mouth of his holy prophets from ancient time” (Ac 3.21). The word Peter uses for “restoration”is the same word (apokatastasis) used in the Septuagint (which the early church used as its Bible) for God’s future return of Jews from all over the world to Israel. In Revelation the Lamb draws his followers to Zion in the final stage of history (12.1), and the new earth is centered in Jerusalem, which has twelve gates named after “the twelve tribes of the sons of Israel” (Rev 21.2, 12).

Long Before Dispensationalism

Other scholars at the conference argued that the history of Christian Zionism is as old as Christianity itself. Many in the early church—such as Justin Martyr, Irenaeus, Tertullian, and bishops in third-century Egypt—believed the end of history would be centered in Jerusalem, even if the Church was going to replace Israel and its covenant. The land of Israel still had a future as a particular land, and the people of Israel still had a future, even if they were going to be subsumed by the gentile Church. But this early church Zionism came screeching to a halt with Origen (184-254), who regarded the relationship between the Jewish messiah and the promise of the land as a zero-sum game. Either one or the other could be fulfilled, not both. As Robert Wilken has put it, “If Jesus of Nazareth was the Messiah, the prophecies about the messianic age had already been fulfilled, and it was the task of biblical interpreters to discover what the spiritual promises meant in light of this new ‘fact.’” So Jerusalem did “not designate a future political center but a spiritual vision of heavenly bliss.”

Augustine was willing to call soil taken from Israel “holy land,” but he spiritualized the promises of land in a way similar to Origen. Once Augustine’s amillennial eschatology became accepted in the medieval church, with its assertion that the millennium is simply the rule of Christ through the existing Church, few medieval thinkers saw a future for the people or land of Israel. All Old Testament prophecies of future Israel were interpreted to be predictions of the Christian Church that came after the resurrection of Christ.

It took the Reformation’s return to the plain sense of the biblical text to restore confidence that there could be a future role for a particular Israel, both as a people and a land, even while Christian salvation was offered to a whole world. Pietists and Puritans in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries became convinced from Old Testament prophecies and Paul’s writings that Jews would return to their land, and would eventually be converted to Christian faith. Long before the rise of dispensationalism in the nineteenth century, Protestants in a variety of churches foresaw a role for a particular Zion in times before the End. Then after the Holocaust and the establishment of Israel in 1948 both Catholic and Protestant theologians recognized from Romans 11 that the rise of the Church did not end God’s continuing covenant with Israel. As theologians brought new focus on that covenant, many came to see that the land was integral to it.

Karl Barth (1886-1968) was among those who were convinced of God’s continuing covenant with Israel, and also saw the significance of the land. Barth rejected nearly every distinctive teaching of dispensationalism. For example, he repudiated the notion that the End of Days was yet to come, insisting that it started with the coming of Jesus in the first century. He also refused the interpretation of biblical prophecies as straightforward predictions in a literalistic sense, such as the idea that a literal Great Tribulation was to be expected, or a military battle between particular nations and Israel.

But at the same time Barth thought that these eschatological errors were “errors in the right direction.” He respected millenarian attempts to take seriously God’s sovereignty over world events, including the appearance of Israel as a nation-state in 1948. This was a “secular parable,” as was the rise of socialism in modern history. The sudden reappearance of Israel was a type of resurrection and the Kingdom of God. It was a “little light” that bore witness to the Light of the World in Jesus Christ. The modern history of Israel “even now hurries relentlessly” toward the future of God’s redemptive purposes. According to Barth, biblical revelation points to a threefold parousia of Jesus—the Incarnation, Pentecost, and Christ’s eschatological coming in Israel and the church. This last coming is the meaning of a long string of Old Testament prophecies that speak of the return of Jews to the land, a time when Gentiles shall come to Israel to learn Torah.

But it is not only Protestant theologians who are coming to a new sort of Christian Zionism. Gary A. Anderson, the distinguished Catholic Old Testament scholar at Notre Dame, has argued in these pages for “the biblical claim that the land of Canaan was given by God to the people Israel.” The promise “is both irrevocable and unfulfilled.” It is irrevocable because it is a promise made by God. As Paul says, even Israel’s apostasy cannot erase the promises: “Let God be true though every man be false!” (Rom 3.4).

Nevertheless, says Anderson, the promise is unfulfilled. At the end of Tanach, there is still the exhortation, “Whoever is among you of all his people . . . let him go up [to Jerusalem]!” (2 Chron 36.23) Besides, the land vomits out whoever is not worthy of it (Lev 18.24-30). “Israel’s right to the land, though the result of a divine grant, is not without its restrictions.” Only in the messianic age, according to Tanach, will Israel’s settlement in the land be secure.

Anderson concludes that we should avoid “a false messianism” by remembering that the land is always “given conditionally.” Yet we should also remind ourselves that “the miraculous appearance of the Israeli state just after the darkest moment in Jewish history is hard to interpret outside of a theological framework.”

Neither Perfect Nor the Last

Scholars at the conference also suggested that while they think the emergence of Israel in 1948 was a partial fulfillment of biblical prophecy, they have to be more reticent about the eschatological status of the current nation-state. As one scholar introducing the conference put it, “We do not mean that [Israel today] is a perfect polity. Or that it should not be criticized for its failures. Or that it is necessarily the last Jewish polity we will see before the eschaton. Or that we know the particular timetable or political schema that will come before or in the eschaton.”

Speakers made not only theological but also prudential arguments. Israel, it was noted, is an island of democracy and freedom in a sea of authoritarian and despotic regimes. It deserves support, especially as anti-semitism rises precipitously around the world. But the purpose of these prudential arguments—political and legal and moral—was to undergird a new theological argument that the people of Israel continue to be significant for the history of redemption, and that the land of Israel, which is at the heart of the covenantal promises, continues to be critical to God’s providential purposes.

Gerald McDermott has recently been appointed to the Anglican Chair of Divinity at Beeson Divinity School. He is the editor of People of the Land: A 21st-century Case for Christian Zionism (InterVarsity Press, forthcoming).

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