Since early October, the world has anxiously watched the terrible events unfolding in the Levant, where the State of Israel’s military efforts in the Gaza Strip are aimed at defeating Hamas, a terrorist political organization which for decades has denied Israel’s right to exist. Apart from the rancorous debates regarding the continuation of the deadly conflict, U.S. military and political support to Israel, and reports of rising anti-Semitism in America, is a reality we don’t reflect on nearly enough: the fact that the Jewish people even do exist. That stubborn fact, I would argue, is itself a supernatural sign that manifests the miraculous action of God above natural causes, or what are otherwise called motives of credibility.
Most Americans are generally familiar with the long history of the plight of the Jewish people, who have suffered persecution since biblical times. The book of Esther, for example, tells the story of Persian court official Haman, who attempted to destroy the people of Israel. We read in Esther 3:8-9:
Then Haman said to King Ahasu-e’rus, “There is a certain people scattered abroad and dispersed among the peoples in all the provinces of your kingdom; their laws are different from those of every other people, and they do not keep the king’s laws, so that it is not for the king’s profit to tolerate them. If it please the king, let it be decreed that they be destroyed, and I will pay ten thousand talents of silver into the hands of those who have charge of the king’s business, that they may put it into the king’s treasuries.”
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It was only through the virtue and cunning of Esther, the Persian king’s Jewish queen, that an act of genocide was avoided and the Jewish people were preserved.
Yet that is only one example from biblical times. Centuries after the story of Esther, Greek king Antiochus IV Epiphanes, in the second century B.C., issued decrees forbidding Jewish practices and began a campaign of persecution against devout Jews, including provocatively sacrificing swine in the Jewish temple. In his attempt to stamp out the Jewish religion, Antiochus IV forced Jews to eat pork and ordered that the Jewish Scriptures be sprinkled with pigs’ broth. A violent Jewish revolt, described in 1 and 2 Maccabees, reasserted Israel’s independence from the Greeks.
But not long after, the Romans conquered Israel. Though the Romans permitted the Jews to practice their religion, periodic uprisings elicited violent imperial responses up to the life of Christ. In the final days of His earthly ministry, Jesus Himself warned about the Jewish temple: “You see all these, do you not? Truly, I say to you, there will not be left here one stone upon another, that will not be thrown down” (Matthew 24:2). Later in that same chapter, Jesus ominously warns: “Let those who are in Judea flee to the mountains” (Matthew 24:16).
Sure enough, only a generation after the birth of the Church, another Jewish revolt led the Romans to besiege Jerusalem in A.D. 70. Jewish historian Josephus describes the Roman general Titus ravaging the city and destroying the Jewish temple, fulfilling Christ’s prophecy. A Roman military camp was established on the site, and Jews were forbidden to live there. Though the Jewish diaspora began centuries earlier when Babylon defeated and enslaved the last Davidic king of Judah—with large Jewish communities in Egypt, Arabia, and even Rome—the Romans ended any hope of the Jews reestablishing the ancient kingdom of Israel.
For almost two thousand years since, the Jews wandered the earth as strangers, establishing communities not only across the Middle East, but in Africa, Asia, and Europe. Often, they were unwanted and suffered further violent persecution or even expulsion, as happened in various Muslim and Christian kingdoms throughout the Middle Ages. And, of course, that persecution reached its climax in the twentieth century, when the Nazis sought to systematically eradicate the Jewish people from Europe, killing approximately two-thirds of the continent’s self-identifying Jewish population—and about one-third of the world’s.
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And yet, the Jews remain. There are many other people groups who have vanished from history, destroyed or fully assimilated into other conquering cultures: Hittites, Phrygians, Lycians, Lydians, Cuitlatec, Koningo, Ware, Qauqaut. Somehow, the Jews have survived this fate, despite unprecedented efforts to eliminate them that spawned a new word: anti-Semitism. “While all the peoples of the ancient world have long disappeared, the Jewish people continue to live and have lived for two thousand years without a homeland, dispersed over most of the globe,” writes Jewish theologian Michael Wyschogrod. They have not only survived but thrived, both in the United States, where more than a third of self-identifying Jews reside, and in many European countries.
Apart from survival, their unique ethno-religious identity also sets Jews apart. Though there are other groups that link ethnicity and religion (e.g., Sikhs, Parsis), I can think of no group on the planet that has so powerfully wed and maintained both identity markers, so much so that even atheist and agnostic Jews often still celebrate their holy days. Jews seem incapable of escaping their idiosyncratic ethno-religious identity. Indeed, according to the Jewish religion, Jews are barred from renouncing their status as Jews precisely because they are the chosen people of God. “They are Israelites, and to them belong the sonship, the glory, the covenants, the giving of the law, the worship, and the promises,” writes St. Paul (Romans 9:4).
It is that apparent chosenness that serves as a motive of credibility that manifests the miraculous power of God in the world, beginning with the truth of the Mosaic Revelation on Mt. Sinai. Catholic theologian (and convert from Judaism) Lawrence Feingold explains this in The Mystery of Israel and the Church, Vol 1: Figure and Fulfillment, writing: “Israel is a mystery as the Church is a mystery: the mystery of God’s intervention in human history to form a people for Himself.”
Feingold cites two crucial facts that the special role of the Jewish people remains today: “God’s fidelity, and the fact that the Jewish people continue to be a privileged witness to Christ’s coming.” And that remains true even for Jews today who deny Christ, because their sacred books, Law, traditions, liturgy, and history all serve as a witness to Jesus’ coming. For, as St. Paul teaches: “To them belong the patriarchs, and of their race, according to the flesh, is the Christ, who is God over all, blessed for ever. Amen” (Romans 9:5).