Some might think of Christianity as a breakaway movement that developed out of Judaism. Not the earliest Christians. The earliest Christians—all of Jewish background—saw the events of Jesus as the fulfillment of all that Hebrew scripture had told them to look for. In other words, they saw themselves not as a breakaway religion but as the continuation of the religion handed down for generations. Even the addition of Gentiles was seen as the fulfillment of promises they had waited to see fulfilled.
In fact, if there was any “breakaway” happening in first-century Judaism, Paul saw those who refused to acknowledge Jesus as Messiah as those who had broken away. In Romans 11:17-21 Paul described himself and other Jews who embraced Jesus’ messianic claims as the original olive tree. He went on to describe Gentile believers as wild olive shoots grafted into the original space where unbelieving Israelites had broken away.
Far from being an anti-Jewish concept, NT Wright points out how consistent to Judaism it would have been for Paul to distinguish some of his countrymen as truly Jewish while others had missed what God was up to. In his massive 1700-page work, Paul and the Faithfulness of God, Wright draws parallels between Paul’s claims that Jesus was/is the Messiah and the claims of other Jewish movements immediately before and after Paul’s day. “If Paul really did believe that Jesus was Israel’s Messiah,” Wright says, “then it is impossible to imagine him, or any second-Temple Jews in a comparable position, supposing that this Messiah could have his followers while ‘Israel’ could carry on as though nothing had happened” (985).
Wright acknowledges that “there is the strongly would-be ‘pro-Jewish’ post-holocaust reading of Paul” where “anything short of a two-covenant solution, in which God is happy for gentiles to be Christians but would prefer Jews to remain Jews–and in which Paul endorses this point of view–is regarded as suspicious and probably…’supercessionist.’” But “for the first Christians, the point was…about coming to terms with the fact that if Jesus really was Israel’s Messiah, as they believed the resurrection had demonstrated him to be, then in some sense or other the narrative and identity of Israel had not been ‘replaced’ but fulfilled–fulfilled by him in person, and therefore fulfilled in and for all his people. When Akiba hailed bar-Kochba as Messiah, and some of his colleagues objected, would they, or indeed he, have said that Akiba was ‘replacing’ something called ‘Judaism’ with something different? Clearly not” (pages 1129-30).
To be sure, “Debates will no doubt continue over whether Paul was in fact a good or a loyal Jew….Much the same question was raised in the first century, by no means only about Paul: many Jewish groups and teachers asked it of one another, and this came to a height first in the Roman/Jewish war of AD 66-70 and then in the bar-Kochba revolt in the 130s. Was bar-Kochba the Messiah, or was he leading Israel astray? Akiba, the noblest of rabbis, believed that bar-Kochba was the Messiah, and he suffered for it. Paul, apostle to the pagans, believed that the crucified Jesus was the Messiah, and he suffered for it. But of Paul’s intention to be a good, loyal member of Abraham’s family there should be no doubt. What, after all, was a loyal Jew supposed to do if he believed he had discovered (or, better, that God had revealed) the Messiah?” (pages 1261-62)
In his lengthiest treatment of this subject, Wright says:
“Take the movements a century or more either side of Paul. Think of Qumran, where the scrolls bear witness to a sect which saw itself as ‘Israel’ while ‘Israel’ as a whole was apostate. The covenant had been renewed! This was what the prophets had foretold…! All that, uncontroversially, is what the leaders and members of the sect believed. What this ‘replacement theology’? Was it ‘substitution’? Was it even ‘supercession’? One could use words like that, but that was not of course how the sect saw itself….The whole point, for the Damascus Document, 4QMMT and many other scrolls, was that the long narrative of Israel’s strange and often tragic history had reached its appointed goal. Torah and prophets had foretold a coming time of renewal, a righteous remnant….Was it unJewish, or anti-Jewish, to claim that this was now happening? Of course not. It might be wrong. It might be a false hope. Time would tell. But it was not, in any sense we should consider meaningful today, ‘supersessionist.’ How could claiming that Israel’s God had finally kept his promises be anything other than a cause for Jewish celebration?
“Or consider the rise of bar-Kochba, a century after Paul’s day. Once again, the dark forces of paganism closed in. The new emperor forbade Jewish practices and threatened to obliterate the nation and its historic, theologically central capital. What was a loyal Jew to do? Some were calculating that the renewed ‘exile’ following Jerusalem’s destruction (starting with AD 70) had lasted nearly seventy years. Perhaps this, after all, would be the fulfillment of Jeremiah’s well-known prophecy? [Jer. 25.11] Some believed that the emerging young leader, Simeon ben-Kosiba, really was Israel’s Messiah, the son of the star. Others sharply disagreed, either because their calculations were different or because they had already decided, following the earlier disaster, that piety was now superseding politics. What was to be done? Those who, like Akiba himself, seen by many as the greatest rabbi of the time or perhaps ever, believed that ben-Kosiba was the Messiah, had no choice. They had to follow him and try to make the revolution happen—facing down the skeptics and scoffers with the challenge to faith and hope and military revolt. If Israel’s God was at last sending his promised deliverer, it would hardly be ‘supersessionist’ to rally to his cause and to scorn the Hillelite rabbis who now wanted to study Torah rather than work for the kingdom. This was not a matter of ‘replacing’ or ‘displacing’ something called ‘Israel’ and substituting something else. If ben-Kosiba was the Messiah, then his followers constituted the renewed Israel. That was Akiba’s position, and he died for it.
“Paul belongs exactly on this map. He believed that Israel’s God had renewed the covenant through the Messiah, Jesus. He might, of course, had been wrong. He would no doubt have said that the Qumran sectarians had been wrong to suppose that covenant renewal was taking place with them. The post-135 rabbis declared that Akiba and his colleagues had been wrong to back bar-Kochba. They all might have been wrong; but not unJewish, or anti-Jewish.”
“Ah but, say the self-styled anti-supercessionists: Paul’s message was different. He was bringing in uncircumcised gentiles, so by creating a non-Jewish ‘church’ he was doing something no other Jewish groups had done. Neither Qumran, nor Akiba, nor anyone in between, had envisaged a ‘renewed covenant’ which would include non-Jews and thereby displace Jews. Paul…says—and he is careful always to ground this in some of the most fundamental biblical texts—is that Israel’s God always intended and promised that when he fulfilled his promises to Israel then the rest of the world would be renewed as well, and that this is what was now happening through the gentile mission. The extension to non-Jews of renewed-covenant membership was itself, Paul insisted, one part of deep-rooted Jewish eschatology” (pp 1415-17).