The Historical Origins of Christian Zionism

An analysis of the history of Western Christian attitudes toward the Jews and the Holy Land lies beyond the scope of this study. Others however have done so comprehensively.1 Furthermore the development of non-Jewish Zionism, and especially its early origins in Puritanism and Millenarianism has also already been ably researched.2 This chapter will focus on those specific historical events and theological developments that appear to have been determinative in the rise of contemporary Western Christian Zionism.

Critics as well as proponents of Christian Zionism have traced the movement as far back to the Montanist controversy in the 2nd Century, to the Protestant Reformation, to the Jewish mystical Kabbalist movement and, in particular, the Revivalist, Millennialist and Apocalyptic writings which were popular between the 17th and 19th centuries in Europe and America. Proponents insist, however, that Christian Zionism is mandated in both Old and New Testaments which, they claim, is the source of their motivation.3

It must be acknowledged at the outset that the theological interpretation of historical events, especially those since the founding of the State of Israel in 1948, is made exceedingly complex and controversial since two peoples, Jews and Palestinians, each claim the same land, endowing the same locations with different place names and religious significance, while at the same time promoting rival and contradictory histories of the same events. It is consequently hard to remain neutral and not take sides, especially when visiting the Holy Land as tourists or pilgrims. As Glen Bowman points out,

Most tourists, in accord with the Israel Ministry of Tourism, call the land 'Israel', but in United Nations terminology the land is 'Israel and the Occupied Territories'. This variance in nomenclature reflects a deeper issue of identity; Israel and the area it occupied in the 1967 'Six Day War' constitute a deeply, and violently, divided country.4

Zionists clearly see the founding of the State of Israel in 1948 as highly significant, signalling the end of 2000 years of exile. Christian Zionists and some Jewish religious groups also equate this as another 'Exodus', a return to the 'Promised Land' in fulfilment of biblical prophecy and Divine blessing. Hal Lindsey is regarded as the 'Father of the Modern-Day Bible Prophecy movement'5 and representative of Christian Zionists generally.

Obstacle or no obstacle, it is certain that the Temple will be rebuilt. Prophecy demands it... With the Jewish nation reborn in the land of Palestine, ancient Jerusalem once again under total Jewish control for the first time in 2600 years, and talk of rebuilding the great Temple, the most important sign of Jesus Christ's soon coming is before us... It is like the key piece of a jigsaw puzzle being found... For all those who trust in Jesus Christ, it is a time of electrifying excitement.6

Palestinians, however, regard this traumatic experience rather differently. They see it as the violation of their fundamental human rights to exist autonomously in the land of their birth and forefathers. Since 1948 therefore, each community has disputed the grounds under which the other may remain. Examples of these contested and contradictory histories include those of Palumbo,7 Antoniuss and Said9 who give a Palestinian view point, and Zionist's such as Tuchmamo and Petersn who offer an alternative perspective. The tension is particularly focused on the mutually exclusive claims over Jerusalem. Little has changed since Kenneth Cragg wrote,

Jerusalem... is still bitterly the symbol of confronting defiance and dismay, its centrality to both parties ensuring that the obdurate loyalties it commands continue to forbid the peace to which its name is dedicated. All visions of a federal constitution, a mutual destiny, a bi-communal possession, have thus far been fruitless. The city remains the indivisible, inalienable Jewish symbol Zionism cannot allow itself to share, except in the free access of tourism and the tolerance of religious devotion. It is, therefore, a painful sign of irreconcilability - and steadily more so as the years pass.12

2.1 Early Christian Attitudes toward the Jews

The post-Apostolic Church Fathers believed that the Jews ceased to be God's 'chosen people' when they rejected Jesus Christ. Instead they understood the church to be the new Israel.

Until the close of the New Testament period, the church claimed to be Israel and wrote to the synagogues of the Dispersion accordingly... After circa A. D. 100 there was less of a tendency for Christians to claim to be Israel and more of a tendency to contrast Christianity and Judaism as separate religions.13

...the Church is regarded as the new, authentic Israel which has inherited the promises which God made to the old.14

This commonplace in Christian literature, aimed at demonstrating that the church had now become the new and the true Israel, may well have antedated the Gospels themselves.15

This view finds is basis within the New Testament. Speaking to the Jews shortly before his crucifixion, Jesus pronounced,

"Therefore I tell you that the kingdom of God will be taken away from you and given to a people who will produce its fruit." (Matthew 21:43).

The Apostle Paul, writing what is probably the earliest extant epistle in the New Testament, applies this same promise to a predominantly Gentile church. Confronting the teaching of Jewish legalists Paul offers a radical reinterpretation of the story of Sarah and Hagar.

Tell me, you who want to be under the law, are you not aware of what the law says? For it is written that Abraham had two sons, one by the slave woman and the other by the free woman. His son by the slave woman was born in the ordinary way; but his son by the free woman was born as the result of a promise. These things may be taken figuratively, for the women represent two covenants. One covenant is from Mount Sinai and bears children who are to be slaves: This is Hagar. Now Hagar stands for Mount Sinai in Arabia and corresponds to the present city of Jerusalem, because she is in slavery with her children. But the Jerusalem that is above is free, and she is our mother... Now you, brothers, like Isaac, are children of promise. At that time the son born in the ordinary way persecuted the son born by the power of the Spirit. It is the same now. But what does the Scripture say? "Get rid of the slave woman and her son, for the slave woman's son will never share in the inheritance with the free woman's son." Therefore, brothers, we are not children of the slave woman, but of the free woman. (Galatians 4:21-31)

This typological hermeneutic of taking Old Tovenant promises previously made to Israel and applying them to the Church can be traced systematically through the writings of the post-Apostolic Fathers.16

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