The word “supersessionism” describes the influential idea that Christians (the people of “the new covenant”) have replaced Jews (the people of “the old covenant”) as the people of God. One early example of supersessionism appears in the Epistle of Barnabas, most probably written between the fall of the Second Temple (70 C.E.) and the second Jewish revolt against the Romans (135 C.E.):
These things [the Jewish cult] then he abolished in order that the new law of our Lord Jesus Christ, which is without the yoke of necessity, might have its oblation not made by man. (Epistle of Bar 2:6)
Those who are in favor of this theological interpretation often refer to Jer 31:31-32.
The days are surely coming, says the Lord, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and the house of Judah. It will not be like the covenant that I made with their ancestors when I took them by the hand to bring then out of the land of Egypt—a covenant that they broke, though I was their husband, says the Lord.
This passage is quoted in the New Testament in Heb 8:8-9, which contains a remarkable difference: instead of the phrase “though I was their husband,” it reads, “so I had no concern for them.” These words in Hebrews are a cornerstone of Christian supersessionist theology: the people of Israel no longer find favor with the God of Israel because God has made a new declaration of love to the Christian church.
Heb 8:9 differs significantly from Jer 31:31-32 because it quotes a translation of the Hebrew Bible into Greek. This translation, known as the Septuagint, describes a relationship that has been terminated: God seeks a divorce. In the Hebrew text, God wants to continue the relationship. Both the Septuagint and Hebrews use the Greek verb amelein, meaning “to ignore,” “not to care about,” “to abandon.” In the Hebrew Bible, however, the verb is ba‘al, which can be translated as “to be a husband,” “to be faithful,” “to be the Lord.”
The best explanation of the difference between the Hebrew and Greek texts is that either the translators of the Septuagint were translating from a Hebrew manuscript that contained a different word or that the translators misread the manuscript that they were reading—the translator might have misread ba‘al as the word ga‘al (“to despise,” “to abandon”).
If Hebrews is based on ga‘al, then those who use Heb 8:9 as a cornerstone of their theology are silently claiming that the Hebrew text in Jer 31:31-32 is inferior to the text of the Septuagint. It is not a question of being “biblical” or “unbiblical” but rather a choice between two biblical manuscript traditions. Hence, readers should ask themselves whether ba‘al (“to be faithful”) or ga‘al (“to despise”) best represents how the God of Israel is described in the biblical texts in general and in Jeremiah in particular.
After the end of the Second World War, a number of Christian churches began to question and to some extent even denounce supersessionism. One of the most famous examples is the Roman Catholic document Nostra Aetate. Published on October 28, 1965, this is arguably the most important text on Jewish-Christian relations since Paul’s letter to the Romans. The fourth paragraph of this declaration on the relationship between the Roman Catholic Church and non-Christian religions states:
It is true that the Church is the new people of God, yet the Jews should not be spoken of as rejected or accursed as if this followed from Holy Scripture.
To a remarkable degree, this single sentence highlights the tension between the Roman Catholic Church’s eagerness to retain the language of being the “people of God” and its desire to refute the idea of supersessionism.