Replacing The Jews in Early Christian Theology

by Ray Pritz

“God gave them the Oral Law, that by this they might be distinguished from the other nations. Hence it was not given in writing, or else the other nations [or Ishmaelites] would falsify it — as they did with the written Torah — and say that they are Israel” (Midrash Numbers XVI 10 [on 7.72]). While the midrash from which this statement comes may date from as late as the 12th century, the situation it describes is the second century ad. Most would agree today that the proscription against writing down the oral traditions remained in effect until about the middle of the third century. This midrash seems to look wistfully back to the time before the oral law had been recorded, before the claim that “we are Israel” was commonly heard in debate with Christian opponents.

There is nothing new about replacement theology. It was well developed before the end of the second century. Of course, those who subscribe to the tenets of replacement theology (and there are many, although few would actually answer yes if asked “Are you a replacement theologian?”) must say that the teaching goes back to the New Testament itself. The purpose of this paper is to see how the subject was presented in about the first hundred years after the completion of the New Testament.

The Process of Replacement

In a study of early church use of Abraham in its arguments against Judaism, Jeffrey Siker defined four stages or generations in the development of the idea that the Church had replaced the Jews:

  • Generation One (ad 30-60): Paul argues that the gentiles are included but the Jews are not excluded.
  • Generation Two (ad 60-90): Matthew, Hebrews and Luke-Acts still argue for the inclusion of gentiles but begin to address the question of Jewish exclusion.
  • Generation Three (ad 90-120): John, Ignatius, and Barnabas assume gentile inclusion but now argue more strongly for Jewish exclusion.
  • Generation Four (ad 120-150): Several works, culminating with Justin Martyr, do not even treat gentile inclusion as an issue and assume Jewish exclusion in their arguments.

While the present author cannot fully agree with Siker’s conclusions regarding some New Testament writings (particularly the Gospel of John), his observation of the progression from gentile inclusion to Jewish exclusion in such a relatively short time provides a convenient starting point for our overview.

Apostolic Fathers

While the writings usually grouped under this heading are not all earlier than other post-New Testament writings, they reflect an early stage in the development of Christian thought after the New Testament. It is not surprising, then, to find that there is very little in them which claims that God has rejected the Jewish people or replaced them with the Church. The Didache and Polycarp, indeed, contain nothing directly relating to the subject. The Shepherd of Hermas approaches what might be called a theology of precedence when he has a vision of the Church as an old lady who “was created the first of all things, and for her sake the world was established.” However, Hermas makes no mention of either Israel or Jews nor indeed of any Old Testament character. With his heavy emphasis on the Church, any inchoate doctrine of replacement would have found a natural place here.

1 Clement

As one reads 1 Clement looking for hints of replacement theology, there is a feeling of innocence and continuity, like the subject has not really come up. Clement refers to “our fathers” (60:4; cf 30:2) and quotes Deuteronomy 3:8-9 (“The Lord’s portion is his people; Jacob is the allotment of his inheritance.”) as if it refers to the Church. But there is no vitriol, no attack, nothing in fact that could not have been written by a rabbinic Jew. God has simply expanded his program: “All the generations from Adam until this day have passed away; but those who were perfected in love by the grace of God have a place among the pious” (50:3).


Writing to the church at Philadelphia in the first decade of the second century, the bishop of Antioch issued this warning: “If anyone interpret Judaism to you, do not listen to him; for it is better to hear Christianity from the circumcised than Judaism from the uncircumcised. But both of them, unless they speak of Jesus Christ, are to me tombstones and sepulchers” (Phil. 6:1). While this does not speak of a new relationship between Judaism and Christianity, it is interesting to note that Ignatius attacks the Jewish religion while not rejecting the institution of circumcision. However, his position is more clearly refined in his famous statement to the Magnesians (10:2-3): “Put aside the evil leaven, which has grown old and sour, and turn to the new leaven, which is Jesus Christ … it is monstrous to talk of Jesus Christ and to practice Judaism. For Christianity did not base its faith on Judaism, but Judaism on Christianity.”

Ignatius did not expand on this last statement, but it has all the earmarks of what we have called a theology of precedence or pre-existence: the Church has existed since the foundation of the world and is not to be seen as something subsequent to Judaism. This idea is expanded somewhat in the so-called Second Epistle of Clement: “If we do the will of our Father, God, we shall belong to the first church, the spiritual one which was created before the sun and moon … The Church belongs not to the present, but has existed from the beginning; for she was spiritual, as also was our Jesus, but she was made manifest in the last days that she might save us” (14:1-2). We will discuss this idea further below.

The Epistle to Diognetus is known for its designation of the Christians as a “new race” (1). However, while the writer (4) ridicules Jewish practices such as food laws, Sabbath, circumcision, and the calendar, there is no hint that Judaism or the Jewish people is finished. Indeed, his very reason for writing to Diognetus is to convince him to join the Christians and not the Jews.


Of all of the writings of the Apostolic Fathers, none speaks so directly against Judaism as the epistle which bears the name of Barnabas. Interestingly, scholarly opinion has varied widely when interpreting this letter’s relationship to Judaism. R.S. MacLennan argues that Barnabas was not in fact attacking Judaism as such. He posits a group of extremists (around the time of the Quietus revolt, ad 115-117). These, he suggests, were trying to stir up a “messianic frenzy” which Barnabas tries to moderate. Those who are being replaced are these fanatics, who may have included both Jews and Christians. “The Epistle of Barnabas is evangelistic and apologetic — not anti-Jewish. It seeks to clarify and define Christianity as a moderate messianic form of Judaism rather than to degrade Jews.”

On the other end of the scale is the declaration of James Parkes that “the whole of the epistle of Barnabas is an exposition of the Church as the true Israel.” In support of this claim, Parkes quotes in part from Barnabas 4, which warns the readers against

heaping up your sins and saying that the covenant is both theirs and ours. It is ours: but in this way did they finally lose it when Moses had just received it, for the Scripture says: “And Moses was in the mount fasting forty days and forty nights, and he received the covenant from the Lord, tables of stone written with the finger of the hand of the Lord” (Exod 34:28). But they turned to idols and lost it … And Moses understood and cast the two tables out of his hands, and their covenant was broken, in order that the covenant of Jesus the Beloved should be sealed in our hearts in hope of his faith. (Barn. 4:6-8)

Elsewhere Barnabas compares conversion to the Law as “shipwreck” (3:6) and declares that circumcision has been abolished (9:4; cf 13:7). While acknowledging that Jesus loved Israel (5:8), Barnabas states that they were abandoned after seeing signs and wonders (4:14), and Jesus has now prepared for himself “the new people” (5:7) who are now the “heirs of the covenant of the Lord” (6:19; cf 13:1). In this light it is perhaps surprising that he does not make more of the destruction of the Temple. This may be because it was being rebuilt while he was writing (16:3ff). It was safer to spiritualize things, saying that the heart of the Christian is the real Temple (16:6-10).

Barnabas does not quite say that the Church is Israel, a statement which will not be made in writing for another 40 years or so. However, the basic elements of replacement theology are there, stronger than in any prior Christian writings. Rejection of the Law and circumcision greatly weaken MacLennan’s claim that Barnabas was keeping it all in the family. As we shall note later, the phenomenon of one Jewish party claiming against others that it is the “real Israel” is not unusual. However, the “real Israel” (meaning continuity) does not claim to abrogate the Law, which distinguishes Israel; that claim can only be made by a “new Israel” with a new Law.

Melito of Sardis

Writing in about ad 160-170, Melito did everything but call the Church “Israel”: “… your Sovereign, who formed you, who made you, who honored you, who called you ‘Israel’. But you did not turn out to be ‘Israel’; you did not ‘see God’, you did not recognize the Lord.” However, he seems to assume Israel’’s replacement when he calls “the people” a “model” and a “preliminary sketch” and says that the Law was only a parable whose fulfillment came in the gospel. The reality, he says, is to be found in the Church. “When the church arose and the gospel took precedence, the model was made void, conceding its power to the reality … the people was made void when the church arose.”

Justin Martyr

The definitive formulation of early replacement theology is to be found at great length in the writings of Justin Martyr, especially in his Dialogue with Trypho the Jew. P. Richardson notes that Justin, writing in about ad 160, is the first Christian writer to make explicit the transference of the title “Israel” to the Church: “For the true spiritual Israel, and descendants of Judah, Jacob, Isaac, and Abraham, … are we who have been led to God through this crucified Christ” (Dial. 11,5). When Trypho reacts to a long speech by Justin with the surprised question “What then? Are you Israel? and speaks He such things to you?” Justin does not answer directly but rather quotes Isaiah 42:1-4 and adds

As therefore from the one man Jacob, who was surnamed Israel, all your nation has been called Jacob and Israel; so we from Christ, who begat us unto God, like Jacob, and Israel, and Judah, and Joseph, and David, are called and are the true sons of God, and keep the commandments of Christ (123,9).

Justin is significant not only for his pronouncement that the Church is Israel, but also because of the large volume of Old Testament exegesis which he brings is support of this claim. Most of the latter half of Isaiah is quoted in chunks of a chapter or more in the Dialogue, while New Testament quotations are relatively infrequent and short and almost exclusively from the gospels. Skarsaune notes frequent parallels between Justin’s sources and Barnabas. It should not be thought that later Church Fathers all base themselves on Justin or will find no new ways of expressing or supporting replacement theology. However, with Justin the plateau has been reached; from now on it will be assumed that the Church has replaced the Jews in God’s salvation program.

Some Observations on the Early Development of Replacement Theology

A. The rejection of the Jews is normally connected to their role in the killing of Jesus. If some tried to argue that if his death was ordained by God, then the Jews should not be blamed, the reply was that they should have refused to carry out such a negative deed.

B.  In light of Paul’s use in Galatians 6:16 of the phrase “the Israel of God,” it is especially noteworthy that the claim “the Church is Israel” comes so late. Evidently the early Church writers did not understand it to refer to the Church. Even Justin, in his repeated declaration that the Church is now Israel, does not refer to Galatians 6.16 as proof, nor does he even use Paul”s exact phrase.

C. Richardson has pointed out that the claim to be “Israel” was a common feature in debates between streams of Judaism. After reviewing 1 Maccabees, the Psalms of Solomon, 1 Enoch, the Testimonies of the Twelve Patriarchs, and the Assumption of Moses, he concludes: “In each case where one party’s opinion is set over against the rest of Judaism, it tends to claim that it is Israel, though there are many variations in the measure of exclusiveness and of the hope for others’’ salvation.”

D. One wonders if an external religio-political factor might have led to the later spread of the Church’s claim to be Israel. With Roman insistence that its non-Jewish subjects offer sacrifice as a show of loyalty, the believers from among the gentiles were faced with several choices. They could refuse and take whatever consequences were being handed down; they could sacrifice and hope God understood that they did not really mean it; or perhaps in some circumstances they could try to convince the officer that they were Jewish and hence exempt. All of these short-term options would have been seen as undesirable. A long-term solution to the problem would be to convince the authorities that the religio licita status enjoyed by Judaism, with its concomitant exemption from all pagan activities, actually belonged to the Christians.


The New Testament makes no direct claim that the Jewish people have been supplanted by the Church as the new Israel or the new people of God. However, it did not take Christian thought long to arrive at that conclusion. Many factors probably contributed to this conclusion, and only a few of them have been covered in this article. These factors may include Old Testament remnant theology as developed in the New Testament; the normal psychological tendency of a religious movement to claim that it is the “last word,” the one which makes all its predecessors obsolete; the socio-ethnic shift in the Church from mostly Jewish to mostly gentile; the hesitancy of both Judaism and Christianity to be identified too closly with the other when dealing with the Roman authorities.

These last two factors point to a reality which is far too often overlooked: the influence which environmental pressures have on the development of doctrine. The success of this distortion is aided by the ease of finding selective support for almost any preconceived idea from a book as large as the Bible. A bias, a concordance, and bad exegesis are the ingredients for proving almost anything you want. Replacement theologians (as well as those of us who think a lot about Jewish evangelism) should be careful not to mix too many non-biblical factors in with theology.