The Before and Afterlife of “Manifest Destiny”: Colonizing Jesus, Judaism, and Native America

By Simon J. Joseph
Dept. of Religion
California Lutheran University
August 2015

In recent years, biblical scholarship has increasingly come to be influenced by postcolonial studies,[1] an approach that looks at issues of empire and colonial power. Like postmodernist readings which emphasize “other” voices, particularly those of marginalized and oppressed peoples, postcolonial and ideological criticism illustrate and underscore how social location and politics inform every interpretation of text and/or history.[2] Since postcolonial criticism analyzes how dominating powers appropriate the resources, identity, cultural, and intellectual property of an “other,” it is an approach that can be applied to any power-relationship in which a colonizer subjugates a “colonized” people, declaring them inferior, primitive, or, simply, the “losers.” It is not necessary to limit the utility and insights of postcolonial critique simply to the relations between modern European nations and their “colonies.” A postcolonial approach to ancient Jewish/Christian relations could also be useful in so far as the residual effects of Christianity’s cultural “colonization” of Judaism can be identified. A postcolonial critique of early Jewish/Christian relations would identify Jews as the “other” in early Christian identity formation, the “victims” of an “imperializing” appropriation of tradition. And just as the systemic, underlying forces, stereotypes, and assumptions which underlie European colonialism are still active in our society, so, too, are the thought-forms, prejudices, and biases that were brought against Judaism still operational, as for example, in the constructed antithesis of Judaism and Christianity embedded in generations of biblical scholarship.[3] Early Christian texts inscribed social processes of identity-formation and biblical scholarship simply re-inscribed many of those processes in contemporary contexts of interpretation and re-interpretation.

It is one of the ironies of history that Christianity’s long and disturbing legacy of theological supersessionism was based on and inspired by Second Temple Jewish sectarian worldviews. First-century Judaism provided the literary, theological, historical, and intellectual “resources” with which to construct a new social, political, and religious “Christian” identity. During the Second Temple period, the self-identification of the Children of Israel as God’s favorite people – challenged by historical circumstances, political misfortunes, and divided loyalties – developed into Jewish sectarianism, with community-groups like the Qumran “sect” believing that they (and they alone) represented the special “elect” or eschatological “remnant” of Israel. Jewish sectarianism informed early Christians’ self-concept as the new Chosen People, the “third race,” along with Jews and Gentiles, that now alone received God’s favor. This legacy of supersessionism can be understood as fulfillment-theology and/or replacement-theology. For example, while the early Jesus movement seems to have understood itself as a movement within Judaism that included Gentiles and so fulfilled (their) “Judaism,” the later Gentile appropriation and incorporation of “new covenant” language (e.g., Jer 31:30-33) was used both to form a new identity and to replace Judaism (Heb 8:13; Rom 9:1-7; Matt 21:42-46).

The dominant model of Christian theology envisions a transfer of the Covenant from Jews to Christians. “Christians,” in other words, represent the new “Chosen People,” with “Christianity” replacing “Judaism” as “true Israel.” This can be illustrated quite simply by highlighting the major themes and traditions of Judaism:

(1) God: the God of the Jews is now the God of Jesus and the Church.
(2) Messiah: the Jewish messiah is now Jesus, the Suffering Servant/Son of God.
(3) Torah: the Torah is now either (partially) “abrogated” or “fulfilled” in Christ.
(4) Prophets: the biblical Prophets foreshadowed the advent of Christ.
(5) Temple: the Temple is now understood as the body of Christ and the Church.
(6) Salvation: now through Jesus’ atoning death, not through “works” of Torah.

This brief sketch illustrates the great reversal of divine fortune which amounts to nothing less than a transference of resources from one people to another. This is not to deny that some Jewish followers of Jesus may have self-identified as “Christian” or that some early Gentile Christians co-existed peacefully and respectfully with Jews and found value in Jewish traditions. Nor is it to deny the centuries of mutual distrust, antagonism, and hostility between Jews and Christians.

The idea that “God” authorizes His Chosen People to occupy, colonize, and claim “dominion” over a piece of land is a central theme in the biblical tradition. This story informs the Mosaic Torah, the Abrahamic covenant, the Conquest narrative, the Deuteronomistic History, the Davidic messiah tradition, the Revolts against Rome, and continues to exacerbate the Israeli/Palestinian conflict.

The concept of a Chosen People, however, has had a dangerous “afterlife.” It can be traced both back to its pre-Christian Jewish roots as well as forward to our post-Christian world, where the biblical warrant to occupy, colonize, and dominate the “Promised Land” was transferred to North America in the post-Columbian period as “Manifest Destiny.” This distinctively American re-interpretation of the “Promised Land” concept envisioned the Americas – and its Edenic resources – as God’s gift to European Christendom. The military conquest and colonization of North America appealed to the biblical Conquest and occupation of the Promised Land. Just as Christians turned Jews into the Other and disinherited them of their covenantal rights, so too did the United States Government break its Treaties and disinherit the Native peoples in the Great North American Land-Grab. And just as the Christian appropriation of Judaism gave birth to a “new” People, so too did the European appropriation of Native America give birth to a “new” “American” People. In both cases, the creation of something “new” required the appropriation, disinheritance, and re-distribution of anothers’ material and intellectual resources.

In an earlier op-ed, I have suggested that the scholarly re-examination of the Jewish origins of Christianity sometimes reflects and highlights a Christian “anxiety of influence” regarding its origins within Judaism. Although this “anxiety” is a relatively mild form of the kind of fear, guilt, and shame that leads to prejudice, discrimination, and violence, it springs from the same dark reservoirs. The origins of anti-Judaism in the ancient world are complex, but the theological legacy of Christian anti-Judaism originated in sibling rivlarly and abuse. In America, racism against Native Americans can also be understood as a sub- or unconscious reaction to the fact that “Indians” remind us of our dark past, creating an “anxiety of influence” that expresses itself in denial, ambivalence, avoidance, hostility, and violence. It is another one of the bitter ironies of history that the Jews of Europe and the Natives of North America both suffered their own “Holocausts” of genocide and extermination at the hands of European Christians, and that the Nazi “concentration camp” seems to have been modeled, in part, on the American “reservation.”


[1] See, for example, Homi K. Bhabha, “The Postcolonial Critic,” Arena 96 (1991): 47-63. For critics of postcolonial theory, see Chandra Talpade Mohanty, “Under Western Eyes: Feminist Scholarship and Colonial Discourse,” Boundary 2 (1984): 71-92; Benita Parry, “Problems in Current Theories of Colonial Discourse,” OLR 9 (1987): 27-58; Aijaz Ahmad, In Theory: Classes, Nations, Literatures (London: Verso, 1992).

[2] Hayden White, “Afterword” in Victoria E. Bonnell & Lynn Hunt, eds., Beyond the Cultural Turn: New Directions in the Study of Society and Culture (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1999), 315-324, esp. 324. See also Hans-Georg Gadamer, “On the Scope and Function of Hermeneutical Reflection,” in Philosophical Hermeneutics (ed. David E. Linge; Berkeley: University of California Press 1976), 28.

[3] E. P. Sanders, Paul and Palestinian Judaism: A Comparison of Patterns in Religion (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1977), 2.

Comments (1)

There is something about the tone of this'd article that disturbs me. Perhaps I deserve to be disturbed in this respect. I sense that I am encountering a sort of 'scholarship of anger'.
It seems as if the evolution of a new identity out of the resources of an older culture is presented as a surprising and ironical twist and as if the Christian interpretation of scripture as a scandal, when surely events of this kind are a normal occurrence in the buzzing, blooming confusion that is the history of ideas.

#1 - Martin Hughes - 08/21/2015 - 22:03

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