“Perhaps even what Jesus called �signs of the times.�
Is the land promise to Abraham and his descendants in the New Testament? Does it matter?
For most Christians and Jews since the fourth century AD the answer has been No and No. No major interpreters found such a promise there, and it wouldn�t matter anyway. For what determined doctrine toward the people and land of Israel was tradition�s interpretation of biblical texts not the texts themselves.
After the eighteenth century modern Jews and Christians were increasingly skeptical of the historicity and authenticity of NT documents. That made putative claims to the land promise doubly suspicious.
In the first week of May Jewish and Catholic scholars met in both New York and Washington DC to discuss a new book, Contemporary Catholic Approaches to the People, Land, and State of Israel (Catholic University Press). While the Jewish and Catholic speakers at the conferences continued to focus on the rabbinic tradition and the Catholic magisterium rather than biblical texts in isolation, there was a new interest in the possibility that Christians might have been missing an important theme in the NT for much of its interpretive history.
Christian scholars have routinely said that Jesus universalized the particular�transferring the promise of a land for the Jews from the OT to a promise of the whole world to his followers. This is best put, it is often said, in Matt 5:5: Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth.
I believed this for several decades after I became a serious reader of the Greek NT in my twenties. But then several decades ago I realized that a veil had been cast over my eyes, closing them to evidence of the land promise all over the NT. Thomas Kuhn showed in his Structure of Scientific Revolutions (1961) that at the beginning of every scientific revolution (think of Galileo, Newton, Einstein) elite scientists had evidence for the new theory right in front of their eyes. But they could not see the evidence because the existing scientific paradigm had cast a veil over their eyes. They could not see the new evidence.
I realized this might have happened to biblical scholars and theologians for centuries. They were not able to see the land promise in the NT because they had been trained not to see it.
For example, three times in the NT Jerusalem is called the holy city. The devil took Jesus to the holy city to tempt him to jump off the top of the temple (Matt 4:5). The gentiles will trample the holy city for 42 months (Rev 11: 2), and God will bring down from heaven the holy city Jerusalem (Rev 21:10).
Three times the NT refers explicitly to the land promise. The author of Hebrews says God led Abraham to a place to receive as an inheritance, and that Isaac and Jacob were heirs with him of the same promise (Heb 11:9). Before his martyrdom deacon Stephen said God promised to give Abraham this land as a possession and to his offspring after him (Acts 7:4-5). Paul told the synagogue at Antioch of Pisidia that the God of this people Israel chose our fathers, and after destroying seven nations in the land of Canaan, he gave them their land as an inheritance (Acts 13.17-19).
One might ask why there are only these three explicit mentions of the land promise. Two answers are likely. First, the land promise was assumed because for the NT authors their Bible (the OT) already repeated the land promise one thousand times. Second, the NT authors lived in the land, it was acknowledged as Judea, the land of the Jews, and so there seemed no need to repeat or defend the promise.
Jesus referred to the future of the land of Israel many times. I will provide five. In Acts the disciples asked the resurrected Messiah if he would restore the kingdom to Israel (Acts 1:6). He did not dismiss this as a silly or unspiritual question (as scholars have often claimed) but said the Father has set times and seasons for that, and they were not to know them yet. Isaac Oliver, a Jewish NT scholar, argues in his new Luke�s Jewish Eschatology (Oxford University Press) that Jesus had an earthly�if eschatological�kingdom in mind.
In Luke 13, Jesus said that one day the residents of Jerusalem will welcome him (v. 35), and in chapter 21 prophesies that Jerusalem will be trampled upon by gentiles until the times of the gentiles are completed (v 24).
The cessation of gentile trampling on Jerusalem means the beginning of Jewish sovereignty over Jerusalem, which in turn means that Jesus predicted a time when Jews would have political control over their capital. It would not be too much of a stretch to say that the beginning of Jewish sovereignty two thousand years after Jews lost it in 63 BC to Pompey could be seen as a fulfillment of prophecy by the NT Jesus.
This is not the same as saying that the Jewish state is a direct fulfillment of prophecy. Or that the current Jewish state is beyond criticism. Or that this is the last Jewish state before the eschaton.
But it is not beyond imagining that on the basis of this remarkable prophecy by the NT Jesus that we can say that the rise of Jewish sovereignty over its capital after two millennia could be a �sign of the times,� the sort that Jesus rebuked fellow Jews for not recognizing (Matt 16:3).
Matthew has Jesus saying that in the paliggenesia or renewal of all things his apostles would rule over the twelve tribes of Israel, evoking not only the land of Israel but also the reconstitution of the ten northern tribes (19:28).
Jesus also refers to the land in a verse that it almost universally mistranslated: Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the land (Matt 5:5). More and more scholars are recognizing that Jesus is quoting word-for-word Ps 37:11. Five times this psalm uses the phrase inherit the land, and each time the Hebrew word eretz refers unmistakably to the land of Israel, not the whole earth.
Jesus might have been referring to Isaiah�s prophecy that when the earth is renewed all the gentiles shall flow to the mountain of the house of the LORD . . . that he might teach [them] his ways (Is 2:2-3).
Many object that John�s gospel overrules these expectations of a future for the land because John�s Jesus says his body is the new temple, and true worship would no longer be restricted to Jerusalem but be wherever there is worship in spirit and in truth (John 2:21; 4:21).
The NT scholar Richard Hays does not think John is supersessionist on the land promise, but that we should think of the gospels as speaking on different levels. For, he points out, Mark�s Jesus declares of the temple, My house shall be a house of prayer for all the nations (Mark 11:17), affirming Isaiah�s vision of an eschatologically restored Jerusalem and temple. In Matthew Jesus surprises Christians by saying that God still dwells in the temple of his day (Matt 23:21). So the NT composite picture of Jesus on the temple is that it is both God�s house and the symbol of Jesus� body as God�s house. True worship, for Jesus, will be everywhere in spirit and in truth and centered in Jerusalem in the eschaton.
If Jesus clearly referred to the future of the land of Israel, so did Peter. In his second speech in Jerusalem, delivered after Jesus� resurrection, Peter says there will be a future apokatastasis, using the Greek word in the Septuagint for the return of Jews to the land from the four corners of the earth (Acts 3:21). So for Peter, the return from exile in Babylon did not fulfill the OT prophecies of return. Nor did Jesus� resurrection. There was a future return to come. And we know this did not happen for another eighteen hundred years.
We have already seen from Acts that Paul made clear that he held to the land promise. In Romans there is further evidence. Paul says the gifts of God are irrevocable (Rom 11:29). There is little doubt that for Paul the land was one of these gifts, for in the writings of the most prominent first-century Jews�Philo, Josephus, and Ezekiel the Tragedian�the land was God�s principal gift to the Jewish people.
The early church saw it this way. According to Robert Wilken in his The Land Called Holy, early Christians interpreted the angel�s promise to Mary that her baby would be given the throne of David and that he would reign over the house of Jacob forever (Luke 1:32-33) as indications of �the restoration and establishment of the kingdom in Jerusalem.�
The book of Revelation is replete with references to the future of the land of Israel. The two witnesses will be killed in Jerusalem (11:8), the battle of Armageddon will take place in a valley in northern Israel (16:16), the gates of the New Jerusalem (which, notably, is not the New Rome or New Alexandria) are inscribed with the names of the twelve tribes of the sons of Israel (21:12), the 144,000 with the names of the Lamb and the Father on their foreheads stand on Mt. Zion in Jerusalem (14:1), Gog and Magog will march over the broad plain of the land of Israel and surround the saints and the beloved city of Jerusalembefore they are consumed by heavenly fire (20:9). The renewed earth will be centered in Jerusalem (11:2; 21:10).
For the author of Revelation, then, the land of Israel was holy not simply because Israel and Jesus lived there but also because it would be the scene of crucial future events in the history of redemption.
In sum, there is an abundance of evidence in the gospels, Acts, the epistles, and Revelation for the land promise, the holiness of Jerusalem, and the theological significance of the land of Israel in the future and in the eschaton.
Does this matter? In a time when Catholic theology is taking more seriously the theological significance of the land, the answer is Yes. The magisterium has already recognized in Nostra Aetate the eternality of God�s covenant with the Jewish people, and English Catholic theologian Gavin D�Costa has made a case for �minimal Catholic Zionism� in his new Catholic Doctrines on the Jewish People after Vatican II (Oxford). Catholics believe the magisterium is the Spirit-guided interpretation of the apostolic witness, so the apostolic documents matter.
Jews of course do not recognize the authority of the apostles. But if there are new recognitions of the land promise in scriptures that might affect Catholic and other Christian approaches to the land and state of Israel, they might be encouraged in this time of rising antisemitism. More Christians might be ready to recognize the return of Jews to the land and the establishment of their state as theologically significant events. Perhaps even what Jesus called �signs of the times.�