The purpose of this article is to introduce Adventist and Jewish theologians to the Jewish component of the Adventist faith and eventually draw from this association specific lessons in regard to Adventist identity and to Jewish-Adventist relations.
In a first step, I will try to disclose and track the Jewish connection with Adventism that is of a character not found elsewhere in other Christian traditions— one that instead constitutes an essential character of the Jewish identity. In a second step, I will analyze the various responses that have usually surfaced among Adventists in view of this particular Jewish component of their religious identity.
The Jewish Connection
Adventist identity holds a remarkable number of specific features that are an important part of what also characterizes the Jewish identity. Adventists’ theology of the Law, their respect for the Torah of Moses, their high regard for the Hebrew Scriptures, their keen interest in ancient Israelite institutions such as the Levitical sanctuary and in the theological significance of the Jewish Kippur, their lifestyle and even their eating habits, and, more importantly, their keeping of the same seventh-day Sabbath have not only singled them out within Christianity, but have also drawn them theologically and even sociologically closer to the Jews.
In this article, my observations of the Jewish character in Adventism will focus on the Sabbath, not only because it is the most important Jewish feature in Adventism—the most distinctive and the most visible one—but also because from the Sabbath we may derive the main contours of Seventh-day Adventist theology as they parallel those of Jewish theology.
The Jewish-Christian Separation
By keeping the same seventhday Sabbath as the Jews—not just as a principle as with other Christian faiths but in actual reality, from Friday night to Saturday night—Seventh-day Adventists have made a historic statement regarding the Jewish-Christian separation. The Sabbath had played an important, if not a decisive, role in the Jewish-Christian separation. Christians separated from the Jews because of the Sabbath; they chose another day and rejected the Jewish Sabbath precisely in order to disassociate themselves from the Jews. This motivation is already explicitly stated by Marcion in the second century: “Because it is the rest of the God of the Jews, . . . we fast on that day in order not to accomplish on that day what was ordained by the God of the Jews.”1 It is repeated and made official in the imperial councils of the fourth century: “Christians must not Judaize by resting on the Sabbath, but must work on that day, honoring rather the Lord’s day by resting, if possible, as Christians. However, if any should be found Judaizing, let them be anathema from Christ.”2
The history of the Christian Mission to the Jews shows that the initial mass movement of Jewish “conversion” ceased abruptly in the fourth century3 precisely in relation to the Christian rejection of the Torah and, more specifically, of the Sabbath. As historian Jules Isaac writes: “The Jewish rejection of Christ was triggered by the Christian rejection of the Law.”4 Or in the words of Christian theologian Marvin Wilson, “This move to Sunday worship made it exceedingly difficult, if not virtually impossible, for the Jew to give any serious consideration to the Christian message. . . . In short, to become a Christian was considered as leaving behind the Jewishness of one’s past, hardly a live option for any faithful Jew to consider.”5 Contrary to what one would expect, it was on the Law and not on the messianic controversy that Jews and Christians departed from each other. It is significant, indeed, that so many Jews had accepted Jesus as their Messiah as long as they did not have to reject the Law. It is also significant that Jewish tradition and Jewish history attest to a great number of messianic views and experiences where the borders between Jews and Christians are blurred and even crossed—messianic views that at times are bolder than their Christian counterpart.
By returning to the Jewish Sabbath, Seventh-day Adventists were not only returning to the same seventh day; they were not simply reacting to the traditional Christian current on the question of a day. By keeping the seventh-day Sabbath, they were also bound to be affected on a deeper level in the content of their theology.
Creation Versus Redemption
The “Jewish” Sabbath, as already recorded in the fourth commandment (Exod 20:11) and in the conclusion of the Genesis Creation Story (Gen 2:2), carries a positive reference to Creation—the earth, nature, human body, etc.—versus the “Christian” Sabbath which in reference to Jesus’ resurrection exalts spiritual redemption and deliverance from the concrete flesh of this Creation. This dualistic paradigm originated in the Marcionite “Antithesis” and found its way into traditional Christianity where redemption from the body and the spiritual domain is valued over the material and physical domain—so much so that the biblical act of Creation itself was interpreted as a mere illustration serving the spiritual truth of redemption. In Jewish tradition, the Sabbath, because of its reference to Creation, became the epitome of the affirmation and enjoyment of the whole of life (involving the body and the senses). On Sabbath, one is not only allowed but is required to enjoy life. By returning to the seventh-day Sabbath, Seventh-day Adventists rejected the Marcionite paradigm and emphasized instead the importance of Creation, thus giving special attention to the body—the eating and drinking (health message), and the physical welfare of humankind (Adventist Development and Relief Agency). It is noteworthy that this approach concurs with the Jewish way of life where the concrete body and eating and drinking are an inherent part of religion as well as the Jewish principle “eyn kemah eyn torah” (no flour, no Torah) that makes spirituality depend on physical existence.
The reference to the Law is implied in the Sabbath commandment from two perspectives. It is found first from the perspective of Creation. By calling attention to the concrete domain of physical existence, the reference to Creation implies a specific concern for ethics and justice in real life. From that perspective, spiritual and sentimental elaborations, love, and intellectual beliefs are not enough. Concrete justice, the need for righteousness, has become an important ingredient of religion. This dimension is a distinctive feature of Jewish identity.
Also, the adoption of the seventh-day Sabbath of biblical revelation over against the day of human tradition implies a recognition of the transcendence and of the vertical aspect of religion and thus encourages a renewed interest in the dimension of Torah in the Adventist theology of covenant. There are still problems in the observance of the Law. For instance, in spite of the biblical injunctions (Gen 2:4; Acts 15:20), Adventists are not clear on the issue of the consumption of blood. To be sure, the vegetarian ideal promoted by Adventists avoids that issue, but the question of the consumption of blood has not been settled. The reference to the Law plays a specific role in Adventist theology, thus drawing Adventists near to the Jews. It is, among other factors, this recognition of the Law that accounts for the respect for other Jewish laws such as the dietary laws and the tithe, and more importantly for closer attention to ethical principles and a greater interest in the religious dimension of justice and righteousness.
Another important dimension of the Sabbath that brings Seventh-day Adventists closer to the Jews concerns the lesson of hope and expectation that is associated with the seventh-day Sabbath. In Jewish tradition, the Sabbath has not only been interpreted as a foretaste of the ‘olam haba’, the kingdom of God, and, therefore, as a sign of hope for perfect harmony and peace; it has also been identified as a time of hope in itself. For as the seventh day, the time of the Sabbath embodies the very structure of hope, the experience of the “not yet.”
In Seventh-day Adventist “tradition,” as in Jewish tradition the seventh day is associated with the future Advent. Through this association, Seventh-day Adventists are in tune with the Jews; they affirm with them the importance of the future component of salvation and attest to the same lucidity toward present evil on earth.
As a seventh day, the Sabbath is also the day that marks the completion of all (kol) creation of heaven and earth (Gen 2:1- 3), thereby being a cosmic sign that prerequires the end of this world for the creation of a new world. One of the lessons of the seventh-day Sabbath is to affirm the necessarily cosmic character of salvation. The Jewish theology of Kippur, the Day of Atonement, would be in that respect particularly relevant for the Adventist reflection on the sanctuary and is worth noting in this reflection. In the Bible, as well as in Jewish tradition, the building of the sanctuary has been related to the cosmic Creation (Ps 78:69), and the “function of these correspondences is to underscore the depiction of the sanctuary as a world.”6 In that perspective, the Day of Atonement that prescribes the cleansing of the sanctuary is supposed to prefigure the cleansing, the re-creation of the world, calling once again for the need of a re-creation as the only valuable redemptive response or solution to our human condition.
The same connection is also suggested in the rabbinic legislation of the Sabbath that relates typologically the 39 works that are not allowed on Sabbath to the 39 works of the building of the Sanctuary.7 Each Sabbath the Orthodox Jew is thus supposed to remember the relationship between the Sanctuary and the Sabbath, a theological lesson not insignificant in Adventist theology.8
As we can see, the Adventist identity offers a great number of interesting parallels with the Jewish identity. I have given just a few of the most important ones. Though not all Adventists are familiar with the profound significance of these connections, even on a superficial level, the connections are clear enough to make any Adventist aware of the special theological and religious relations with the Jews.
The Adventist Response
To that particular connection with Judaism, Adventists have responded in a variety of ways ranging from the most positive to the most negative and often in an ambivalent manner.
The Positive Response
It is quite understandable that the adoption of the Sabbath and other distinctive features of Judaism has encouraged among many Adventists great sympathy toward the Jews. How often I have heard Seventh-day Adventists expressing positive feelings at observing the Jews going to the synagogue on Sabbath morning while they are themselves heading for church. Because of their keeping of the Sabbath, Seventh-day Adventists have often been and still are identified as Jews and as such have sometimes been the object of suspicion and hardships (as is the case of Seventhday Adventists in some African and Arabic countries). Similar dietary choices have even associated Jews and Adventists in the market place, as Adventists have often been caught standing next to the Jews at the Kosher counter. The Adventist curiosity for Jewish interpretations and religious experiences is well attested not only among lay members but also among Adventist theologians (see, for instance, the importance of the reference to Abraham Heschel in the Adventist reflection on the Sabbath). These common sufferings and similarities of experience and of beliefs have naturally incited very positive sentiments on the part of Adventists toward the Jews.
“Supersessionism” (from the Latin “supersede,” meaning “sitting at the place of ”) is an old Christian ideology9 that was first advocated in ecclesiastical terms in the fourth-century Catholic Church (the church as the city of God, the new Israel, has replaced the synagogue, the old Israel) and in theological terms in continental Protestantism (the spiritual Israel with the grace of the Gospel has replaced the Israel of the flesh with the Law of Moses).
This last supersessionism may look more elegant and more sophisticated than the former one, but it carries the same potential damage: “If I am the true Israel and you are not, you do not deserve to live as Israel.” This is why supersessionism has been diagnosed as “a spiritual Holocaust” preparing for the physical one. Franklin Littell notes: “the cornerstone of Christian antisemitism, the superseding and displacement myth . . . rings with a genocidal note.”10
Supersessionist ideas were and still are taught by Adventists who inherited them, among other grains of dust, from the traditional church (Catholic and Protestant). Yet considering Adventism’s late arrival on the scene of religions and its special connection with the Jews, supersessionism is inconsistent with Adventist theology.
Indeed, Adventists cannot claim as can the Catholic Church that they had replaced the historical Israel of the Old Testament (ecclesiastical supersessionism), because they came much later after the separation. Nor can they argue that the Jewish Sabbath or the Torah had been replaced by another Christian sabbath or by grace (theological supersessionism), for they had embraced together in tension the theology of the Sabbath and the Law with the theology of grace.
Yet, along the lines of ecclesiastical supersessionism, Adventist supersessionism emphasized the idea of a spiritual remnant, as the spiritual Israel—the Israel of God—which replaced the physical Israel. These Adventists often identify themselves as the chosen remnant and the claim is sometimes heard with some nationalistic overtones.
Also, along the lines of theological supersessionism, some Adventists maintain that they understand and live the Sabbath and the Torah in a superior and more spiritual way than the Jews who are legalistic. In contrast to the “Jewish” Sabbath, the “Adventist” Sabbath is called a Sabbath “touched by the Gospel,”11 or, in comparison to the Jewish Sabbath of Joe Lieberman, the Sabbath of “Joe Adventist.”12 Note in the context of this journal the moving testimony of May-Ellen Colon who gratefully acknowledges her existential and theological debt to the Jewish Sabbath and the recommendation by John Graz: “We still have many lessons to learn from them.”13
It is significant, however, that these presentations of the socalled “Adventist” Sabbath are not in contradiction with a Jewish understanding of the Sabbath. It is also ironical that in order to set up the specific Adventist character of the Sabbath many of these Adventist authors have often resorted to and extensively referred to Jewish authorities such as Abraham Heschel.14 This insistence in marking the difference between the Jewish Sabbath and the Adventist Sabbath is, therefore, somewhat suspect. In the light of history, it is reminiscent of the old Christian anti-Semitic fear, as well as the very motivation that precipitated the first “apostasy” of the Church.
The Christian idea of the rejection of the Jews, although not supported by the Scriptures (see Rom 11:1), is a corollary to the idea of supersessionism. Both ideas belong together. Supersessionism implies rejection. But it is still possible to hold the idea of rejection without having to resort to the idea of supersessionism. It is enough to say that Israel has been rejected and thus lost her status as a chosen people or a witness. On that premise, the Jewish heritage of Christianity and here of Adventism will be denied, and more palatable alternatives will be proposed.
A perfect illustration of this reaction can be found precisely in relation to the Sabbath. Adventists who refuse to assume the Jewish connection of the Sabbath have suggested instead a number of options: the Sabbath has come to them, not from the Jews, but from a “spiritual remnant” which survived throughout the ages; Adventists who consider themselves as the heirs of this remnant do not owe the Sabbath to the “rejected” Jews but rather to these faithful Christians. Unfortunately, this remnant is essentially an abstract idea and does not carry serious historical weight; also, this thesis ignores the historical fact that these Christians who adopted the seventh-day Sabbath often did so under a significant Jewish influence. Yet only the Jews as a historic and visible group have formerly witnessed to the Sabbath. Others prefer to find the Sabbath in their own culture (“the African connection”). Here also the connection is not established, and, even if it were, the cases are rare and do not attest to a historical testimony of the Sabbath. In fact, the only serious African evidence of the biblical Sabbath is found in Ethiopian tradition that has itself originated in the Jewish soil.
Others finally will respond that the Sabbath is neither Jewish, African, nor Adventist: it comes from God. This argument sounds highly spiritual and undisputable (who would want to compete with God?). And yet, this apparently humble and spiritual argument hides pride and in a subtle manner may disguise the anti-Semitic repulsion to the idea that they could have something to do with the Jews. Some have gone so far in that line of reasoning that they have claimed that the Jewish Sabbath, beginning on Friday night, was not in fact the true Sabbath revealed by God, but was rather a Jewish distortion of the divine one which is supposed to start on Saturday morning (note that the pre-Nazi theological discussion on the nature of Jesus, who could not be a Jew since he was God or of an Aryan origin, is of the same vein). To be sure, the Sabbath comes from God. It was initiated and created by God. But how can we know so? Only through the testimony of a human witness.
The suggestion that we do not need the human other to have access to the divine revelation reflects a philosophical/Greek type of thinking. It overlooks the biblical Hebrew principle of incarnation that requires human testimony for the quest of the divine truth. “God needs man.” It ignores not only the evidence of salvation history, but also the unambiguous statement by Paul that to the Israelites pertain “the adoption, the glory, the covenants, the giving of the law [including the Sabbath], the service of God, and the promises” (Rom 9:4)
Conclusion: Challenges and Hopes.
For years, I have been able to observe and endure disturbing reactions on the part of some Adventists to the Jewish presence among them. To quote just a few: the reluctance to involve Jews in the ministry of Jewish evangelism or in the theological discussion about Israel; the difficulty in recognizing and confronting anti-Semitic incidents (often dismissed as “sensitivity” or “victimization”); the omission of any reference to anti-Semitism in the discussion of racism or the virtual absence of theological reflection on the Holocaust.
Paradoxically, however, in the last few years things have dramatically changed in these matters. More and more Adventist Jews affirm their Jewish identity and are heartily welcomed as such. We have now for the first time an Institute of Jewish-Christian Studies at the Seventh-day Adventist Theological Seminary (Andrews University). We also have held, for the first time, a Holocaust Symposium with a special section on Adventist theology after Auschwitz. Also, for the first time, we have a Jew as president of the Israel Field and at the head of the “World Jewish Friendship Committee.” But above all, for the first time in Adventist history, Hebrew Adventist worship services have emerged all over the world, not only allowing Adventist Jews to worship according to their culture and sensitivity, but also enriching the worship experience and the spirituality of the Adventist community and even the Jewish and Christian communities at large. All of these could not have been imagined even a few years ago. Indeed, the Jewish-Adventist connection is growing stronger.
I sometimes wonder whether this movement is not in fact fulfilling the words of the last Hebrew prophet Malachi who saw another coming of Elijah which would “turn the hearts of the fathers to the children and the hearts of the children to their fathers” (Mal 4:6). The refreshing of the Jewish component of the Adventist faith may well enrich and deepen this faith, drawing Adventists closer to Jews. It may also, in these times when so many Christians are interested in renewing their Jewish roots, bring Adventists closer to the larger Christian community and the world as well.
In the beginning of the Christian era, the Church separated itself from its Jewish roots in order to gain the world. Could it be that, at the end of its course, the Church will gain the world by coming back (teshuva) to the Jewish face of its identity?
1 Tertullian, Against Marcion, 4.12.7.
2 Canon 29 of the Council of Laodicea.
3 See on that matter the work by sociologist Rodney Stark, The Rise of Christianity: A Sociologist Reconsiders History (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1996).
5 Marvin R. Wilson, Our Father Abraham: Jewish Roots of the Christian Faith (Grand Rapids, MI: W. B. Eerdmans, 1989), 80.
6 Jon D. Levenson, Creation and the Persistence of Evil: The Jewish Drama of Divine Omnipotence (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1994), 86.
7 Shabbat VII.2.
8 See Uriah Smith, “The Sanctuary and the Sabbath are Inseparably Connected” (The Advent Review, 25 July 1854, 196); cf. Raymond F. Cottrell, “The Sabbath in the New World,” in The Sabbath in Scripture and History, ed. Kenneth A. Strand (Washington, DC: Review and Herald Publishing Assoc., 1982), 257-259.
9 For a summary of the history of this doctrine, see John Pawlikowski, Jesus and the Theology of Israel (Wilmington, DE: Michael Glazier, 1989), 10-11.
10 Franklin H. Littell, The Crucifixion of the Jews (Macon, GA: Mercer University Press, 1986), 2. See also p. 1 where Littell speaks of “the red thread that ties a Justin Martyr or a Chrysostom to Auschwitz and Treblinka” and p. 30 where he describes the “final solution” as a “logical extension of Christian theology of supersessionism.”
11 Fritz Guy, Thinking Theologically: Adventist Christianity and the Interpretation of Faith (Berrien Springs, MI: Andrews University Press, 1999), 237.
12 E. Edward Zinke, “Is There One Sabbath for Joe Lieberman and Another for Joe Adventist?” Perspective Digest 5, no. 4 (2000): 19 ff.
13 John Graz, “Still Lessons to Learn,” Perspective Digest 5, no. 4 (2000): 17.