I will make you a light to the nations,
That my salvation may reach to the ends of the earth
William Norman Ewer (1885–1976) was a writer for the London Daily Herald and during the 1920s a part-time spy for the Soviet Union whose fame rests significantly on his couplet “How odd of God to choose the Jews.” Clever in itself, perhaps these words would not have grown memorable had they not evoked consent in western imagination. November 1917 saw the publication of the declaration, ever after to bear the name of its author Arthur James Balfour, that committed His Majesty’s government to “view favorably” the establishing of a Jewish national homeland in Palestine, opening a new chapter in which the corporate existence of the Jewish people would trouble the politics of the Mediterranean world. George V, in whose name the Balfour Declaration was issued, is reported to have said, “Fools, gave away somebody else’s country.”
Just whose country it was would be an issue troubling Mediterranean politics into the twenty-first century. Jerusalem and the surrounding territory had been the geography of a Jewish state since the conquest of Canaan BC 1200. Conquered and deported in 589, the Jews returned to an unsettled national existence a half-century later. Swept up in the conquest of Alexander, they would then live as a client state of the Seleucids who ruled from Antioch. Against this rule they rebelled in 164 only to become in BC 64 subjects of the Romans, against whom they would likewise rebel, finally being disbursed, their city destroyed, in 70 AD, thus fulfilling Jesus’ prophecy that not one stone would be left standing upon another (Matthew 24:2).
The Jewish people, then scattered across what would soon become a Christian empire, somewhat protected, often harassed, sometimes persecuted to death, destined to live outside the culture because it was the principle of their existence that the promised Messiah had not come, that Jesus was not the Son of God, which faith was the single proposition at the heart of Christian Europe. Judaism when Christ was born was theocratic and in a sense historicist. Although it would survive in dispersion, possession of the land and the government of the king or High Priest under the Law of Moses was considered the divinely appointed order, which is why rebellion against rule by the Gentiles always simmered.
The history of the Jews in Christendom is complicated and controversial, requiring attention to what actually happened in dozens of cultural situations across fifteen centuries. The recent chapter is better-known, the shameful attempt to destroy European Jewry, based partly on theological error, partly on historical grievance, partly on the ever-present suspicion of an episodically powerful, clannish, talented minority, fed partly by a renaissance literature that began with Luther’s The Jews and Their Lies (1543), which urged their persecution, as perfected by the nineteenth-century Protocols of Zion, effected by the finest science and most effective industrial organization. Surely it was the guilt, still not fully assimilated to the world’s conscience, that belongs to both perpetrators and bystanders, which made possible the attempt to establish a Jewish state in 1947.
But this people, this people is the light to the nations that the salvation of God may reach to the ends of the earth. In this they were unwittingly successful. Their book is the literature not only of Judaism disbursed but of the Christian world. The Christian Messiah was their rabbi, and the first Christian generation were sons of Abraham. That Christianity is from a Jewish point of view a blasphemous mistake is not hard to understand, for it was the vocation of the Messiah to bring peace, plenty, and national success. In this Jesus of Nazareth was a failure, and if one is persuaded that the prophets promised a messiah who would bring not the peace secured through the gift of His Spirit and the sure and certain hope of His return at a date known only to God but rather with His coming would bring a kingdom of peace and plenty on earth; if this was the expectation, the rejection of the Jesus was inevitable.
In the long run what would separate Jews and Christians across two thousand years was nothing less than the meaning of the Hebrew Scriptures. For example, modern Biblical scholars sometimes join Jewish exegetes in reading “A virgin shall conceive and bear a son” as the promise of an heir for the royal house. Characteristically, the prophecies are multivalent, and that reading, understood as the proper or exhaustive meaning of Isaiah 7:14, is wrong only in the light of the gift of the Holy Spirit, for Christians, thus inspired, beginning with the knowledge of the resurrection, relying on the Lord’s own words that He was the fulfillment of prophecy, were convinced that this text prophesied the birth of Christ the savior, in Bethlehem as foretold by the prophet Micah (5:2). When, as the fires of the Holy Spirit appeared over the multitude at Pentecost Peter boldly proclaimed, “This is what was spoken of by the prophet Joel,” the Hebrew Scriptures became the Old Testament of Christianity (Acts 2:16-21).
And it was this that Jews considered blasphemy. Paul, a zealous agent of what would become orthodox Judaism, held the coats of those who stoned Stephen because he said that Jesus fulfilled the destiny of Israel, calling his fellow citizens “a stiff-necked people, uncircumcised of heart and ears, you always resist the Holy Spirit. As your fathers did so do you. Which of the prophets did your fathers not persecute? And they killed those who announced beforehand the coming of the Righteous One, whom you have now betrayed and murdered. You who received the law as delivered by angels have not kept it” (Acts 7:52–53)
To righteous Jews like Paul, Stephen deserved death as a misinterpreter of the Scriptures. But when Paul was on his way to Antioch to persecute the Church Peter had established there (Acts 9:4), Jesus appeared to him with the question, “Why do you persecute me?” And ever after Paul would be Jesus’s apostle, going first to the very synagogues whose orthodoxy he had long defended and then to the Greeks, establishing the Gospel with power in the cities we know and surely others now unknown. It was no wonder that years later in Churches established by other apostles, Paul’s advent would be viewed with suspicion (Galatians 1:23); “Was this not the famous persecutor of those who followed the Christian way? “
At the heart of Paul’s conversion was the sprit-inspired testimony of Peter and Stephen that Jesus was the one foretold by the prophets. Throughout the first two Christian centuries, the apostolic mission would consider the greatest public proof of the truth of the Gospel, as distinct from the Lord’s appearance to believers and the heart-changing experience of Pentecost, Jesus’ fulfilling of the prophecies. Paul, always a hero in Christian tradition, with John one of the two great theologians of the early Church, would in Jewish scholarship always be considered a bad exegete, traitorous in his reading of the Hebrew Scriptures.
The controversy will continue, but it was that Spirit-inspired reading that made Israel a light to the nations. Paul, having quoted the prophecies that predicted the blindness of the Jewish people with regard to this one great thing wrote: “So I ask, have they stumbled so as to fall? By no means. But through their trespass salvation has come to the Gentiles so as to make Israel jealous. Now if their alienation means riches for the world and if their failure means riches for the Gentiles, how much greater is their fulfilment to be. . . . If their delay means the reconciliation of the world, what will their acceptance mean but life from the dead?”
Israel, writes Paul, is like an olive tree, and unbelieving Israel is like a branch broken from that tree. The Church of the Gentiles is “a wild olive shoot” grafted into the tree in the place of those failed branches in order to share in the richness of the olive tree. “It is not you, the gentiles, who support the root, but the root that supports you” (Romans 11:13–24).
The Church, the engrafted branch that is the light to the nations, has no history apart from the history of Israel, no story apart from the revealed literature of Israel, and no power apart from the of the prophecies of Jeremiah and Ezekiel and Joel that God would give a new covenant to a people on whom He would pour out His Spirit.