Thursday, March 29, 2018

The "Peace Process" and the dangerous religious supersession doctrine - Dr. Yale M. Zussman

by Dr. Yale M. Zussman

The three revealed religions, Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, have very different strategic positions with regard to supersession.

In an article published earlier this month on Arutz Sheva, I noted that one reason for the continuing failure of the "peace process" was the inability of that process to address the Islamic dimension of the conflict. While the issue of a waqf is at least somewhat known, there is a deeper reason that differentiates the conflict between Israel and her neighbors and Muslim claims to other "lost" territories from Spain to India: Israel and the Jews figure in the theology and eschatology of both Christianity and Islam in ways that make it difficult for some adherents to accept the legitimacy of Jews ruling themselves. The problem is sometimes called "supersession;" it is a very dangerous doctrine.

"Supersession," is the belief that a later revealed religion supersedes, and renders invalid, the revealed religion(s) that came before it. Some Christians call supersession "Replacement Theology" but this concept applies only to the relationship between Christianity and Judaism. Add Islam to the mix and a more general theory is needed.

The problems posed by supersession come at two levels. The first is that the doctrine turns the truth of various prophecies in sacred writings into a series of tests of the legitimacy and validity of the faith that espouses them. The second is that the three revealed faiths have radically different strategic positions relative to this doctrine, which makes accommodation difficult.

Supersession and Prophecy: The Theological Implications

Supersessionary beliefs create a problem for denominations that hold them because for a religion to supersede an earlier one, the earlier religion's prophecies must become null and void. After all, given the centrality of prophecy in revealed religion, if their prophecies remain valid, in what sense can anyone claim the older religion is no longer valid?  Prophecies come in four quite different varieties, two that are very safe and two that are quite dangerous. The safe kinds are:

1. Prophecies of events that have already happened. Because they have already happened, there is no possibility that they won't come true. For example, by the time Moses commits the Torah to writing, the prophecies to Abraham that his descendants would be slaves in Egypt before being redeemed and returned to the land of their forefathers had already happened. The validity of these prophecies is unchallengeable,  and no supersessionary doctrine seeks to deny them. Thus, Christians accept the Jewish Bible as the "Old" Testament, and Muhammad echoes many parts of the Torah narrative within the Quran.

2. Prophecies about events that will happen at some unspecified time in the future or "at the end of time." These are also inherently safe because the only thing one can infer if they fail to come to fruition is that the time has not arrived. "End of time" prophecies are even better; their failure to materialize merely means that time hasn't ended, something one can readily verify by noting whether the sun rises the next morning.

The two dangerous types of prophecy are:

3. Prophecies that a particular event will happen at a particular time, especially one in the near future. These are dangerous because if the time comes, and the prophesied event doesn't happen, the prophecy is wrong. Readers may remember the hapless Harold Camping who predicted the world would end on May 21, 2011, and when May 22 arrived, postponed the end to October 21. That date has also passed, and we're still here. If he offered a third date, the media have not seen fit to report it. This is the fate of specific prophecies that fail to materialize: they discredit their prophet. The Jews understood this concept three thousand years ago as can be discerned from Deuteronomy 18:21-22.

4. Prophecies that a particular event won't happen. These are very dangerous because if the event in question does occur, the prophecy that it won't is wrong and discredits the prophet who offered it, and conceivably his religion as well.

Supersession is a dangerous doctrine because it turns the second kind of prophecy into the fourth: If a "superseded" religion has a prophecy that something will happen some day, the superseding religion must claim that it won't, ever. If that something then comes to pass, the superseding religion is discredited and its adherents will undoubtedly become quite angry.

Strategic Aspect

The three revealed religions, Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, have very different strategic positions with regard to supersession:

By virtue of being the oldest of the three, supersession poses a political but not a theological problem for Judaism. Judaism rejects the notion that any later revelation cancels the validity of the covenants appearing in the Torah. This view has caused great anger among adherents of those later revelations, and thus the political threat -- it is connected to the persecution of Jews in Christian and Muslim lands throughout the centuries -- but it is logically sound as a defense against the claims of those other revelations. Judaism need not, and does not, deny that there might be revelations to other peoples, just that any revelation to another people has no relevance for Judaism or Jews.

Apart from its disappearance, which would render the issue moot in any event, the only negative prophecy in Judaism is the absence of a second flood, so Judaism is uniquely immune from being discredited by history.

By virtue of being the last of the three, Islam's position is likewise logically clear: It asserts that supersession is a valid principle and thus any people that has received an earlier revelation has an obligation to abandon it in favor of Islam. There are some complications however:

Islam must rule out the possibility of future revelations since once it has committed to the validity of supersession in principle, it would have no basis for rejecting a new revelation that might claim to supersede Islam. That was achieved by asserting that Muhammad is the final prophet; by rejecting, in advance, the possibility of a new revelation, Islam can denounce any future revelation as necessarily false.

A second issue is that supersession exists within Islam in two forms.  The first is the doctrine of abrogation. Muslim scholars have known since the earliest days that some revelations in the Quran contradict others, resulting in the need to determine which revelation will prevail. The rule is that a later revelation trumps an earlier one, which is a fair statement of what supersession is about.

The second is that the ongoing conflict between Sunnis and Shi'ites can be understood as a form of internal supersession. While its origins are mainly political, the two sides have attached theological significance to it with the Shi'ites effectively claiming to have superseded the Sunnis.

Synergies between these complications make it difficult for Islam to adapt to new conditions: Since no new revelation can occur superseding Islam as it was originally conceived, supposedly nothing of substance can change.

That Christianity's strategic position would be rather difficult follows from its position in the middle. Christianity has long endorsed "Replacement Theology" as part of its brief against Judaism, so abandoning supersession would mean that Christian persecution of Jews throughout the centuries has been invalid even from a Christian perspective. However, if it accepts that supersession is valid, the only logical basis Christianity has for rejecting the Muslim demand that Christians convert to Islam is to assert that Islam is a false religion. In the Muslim world, that has fatal consequences.

The Catholic Church has faced up to the problem of supersession’s implications better than most other Christian groups. Concerned that its theology may have played a role in bringing about the Holocaust, which the clergy recognize as a clear evil, the Church sought a mechanism by which it could accept the continued validity of Judaism without having to conclude that Christianity itself was invalid. Pope John Paul's concept of an "older brother-younger brother" relationship abandons supersession with a formula that both faiths can accept.

The Protestant Reformation may be understood as an expression of supersession within Christianity, so for the mainline denominations, whose origins lie closer to the Reformation, abandoning the concept is more difficult as they would then also have to consider whether their split with the Catholic Church was legitimate. It should be possible for them to embrace the "parallel revelations" concept that is the basis for John Paul's formula, certainly with regard to the rest of Christianity, but then they would have to decide whether to apply it to their relations with Judaism as well.

Supersession and Attitudes Toward Israel

These considerations have a direct bearing on how the various religious denominations regard Israel and its claim to having Jerusalem as its capital. I need take no position on whether the modern State of Israel represents a fulfillment of the prophecy that the Jews would one day return to their homeland and re-establish their state, but because of the central role of the Jews, and their state, in the eschatologies of all three revealed faiths, it should be obvious why the mere existence of a Jewish state, and fortiori recognition that its capital is Jerusalem, is regarded as an egregious sin by any religion whose beliefs include that this will never happen.

The relationship between several Protestant groups and Judaism has been colored by the interaction between their theology and recent history. Most of the mainline Protestant denominations that are currently so active in the various anti-Israel efforts espoused "Christian Zionism" in the Nineteenth Century. The idea then was that what was preventing the Second Coming of Jesus, and the arrival of the Messianic era, was that the Jews had to return to their homeland, where they would embrace Christianity, enabling the "end-times" to commence.

This notion should have been regarded as a category two prophecy, but was treated as a category three, with serious consequences. The Jews returned to their homeland, with Christian help, but failed to convert and we haven't arrived in Messianic times. Rather than consider that their idea may not have been valid to start with, many in these groups have turned against Israel; by virtue of its having disproved their notion of what prophecy demanded, its very existence was regarded as the cause of continued violence.

For Muslims, Jewish sovereignty within the Muslim world poses a direct challenge to the belief that Islam’s reach can only grow. That it might also demonstrate that supersession is invalid as a concept undermines the Muslim perception of where Muslims stand in the world and their ability to assert supersessionary claims against both Jews and Christians.

The rejection of the legitimacy of the current State of Israel by certain Jewish groups, like the Neturei Karta, is based on their belief that the reestablishment of a Jewish state cannot, note the negative, take place except by Divine action. If the current state is the one envisioned in Scripture, their belief is wrong, just like those held by other faiths that accept supersession. This is why members of this group are visible in the anti-Israel effort.


Much as a geocentric solar system was never essential to Christianity, supersession isn't either, so Christians of all denominations should embrace John Paul's concept as a way out of the supersessionist trap. It remains to be seen whether the leaders of the various denominations that espouse supersession will have the wisdom to do so.

In theory, Islam could also embrace the "parallel revelations" model in its relations with Jews and Christians, but that would still leave internal supersession: the model doesn't address the political problems involved. These issues require a lot more attention than can be given here and I leave them to the future.

Dr. Yale M. Zussman holds a Doctorate in Political Science from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology


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