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“Also known as replacement theology, this idea developed early on in the history of Christianity, and for obvious reasons. If the New Covenant, through Jesus Christ, meant that Christians were God’s new chosen people, what, then, was to be done about the chosen people of old, the Jews?
To some fathers of the church, it wasn’t a particularly difficult question to answer. By rejecting Christ, they reasoned, the Jews had forfeited their right to their special status, had broken their covenant with God, and were worthy of nothing but wrath. That was certainly the opinion of Origen: Born around 184 CE in Alexandria, he hoped to martyr himself as a Christian when he was 16, but his mother, panicked, hid all his clothes: He refused to leave the house and turn himself in to the Roman soldiers naked. Instead, he became an ascetic, giving up meat and drink and, reportedly, paying a surgeon to have himself castrated so that he may transcend the temptations of the flesh. He composed thousands of theological treatises, but he hit his stride, it seems, when writing about the Jews. “And we say with confidence,” he wrote, “that they will never be restored to their former condition. For they committed a crime of the most unhallowed kind.” Writing around the same time, Hippolytus of Rome, one of the most important early Christian theologians, was even more prescriptive: The Jews, he thundered, “have been darkened in the eyes of your soul with a darkness utter and everlasting. … Furthermore, hear this yet more serious word: ‘And their back do you bend always.’ This means, in order that they may be slaves to the nations, not four hundred and thirty years as in Egypt, nor seventy as in Babylon, but bend them to servitude, he says, ‘always.’”
There were, of course, better answers to the question of how to think about the Jews, and, of course, it was Augustine who alighted on them. While not abandoning the supersessionist claim altogether, the early Christian theologian was, as ever, the smartest person around, and he offered his fellow Christians a better alternative. The Jews, he argued, were Christianity’s witnesses: “But the Jews who slew Him,” he wrote, referring, naturally, to Jesus, “are thus by their own Scriptures a testimony to us that we have not forged the prophecies about Christ.” See things this way and the Jews are no longer worthy of eternal servitude. Instead, they become intimates of their Christian brothers and sisters. “For in the Jewish people was figured the Christian people,” Augustine wrote. “There a figure, here the truth; there a shadow, here the body.””
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