This week we wrapped up our sermon series on the Book of Jeremiah with Jer 31:27-34, in which Jeremiah speaks of a “new covenant” God will make with Israel and Judah. Together with last week’s message on Jer 29:4-14, we rounded out Jeremiah’s message of judgment due to the broken covenant with two glimpses of hope beyond exile. The ratio of 2/3 judgment, 1/3 restoration is in keeping with Jeremiah’s commission to “dig up and pull down, to destroy and demolish, to build and plant” (Jer 1:10). Jeremiah 31:28 recalls this commission, indicating that the time of judgment is about to give way to the time of restoration.
Reading Jeremiah within the dual contexts of the Hebrew Bible/Old Testament and the Christian canon, one important interpretive question is what exactly the “new covenant” Jeremiah envisions is and when it was (or will be?) established. Since Jer 29:10 established 70 years as the duration of Judah’s exile, the most natural reading would be that the new covenant coincides with the completion of the second temple in 516 BC–70 years after the first one was destroyed. Thus, the new covenant would refer to the Judaism of the Second Temple Period. But the New Testament complicates this reading, since the emergence of Christianity implies something deficient in Second Temple Judaism, which Christ must “fulfill.” In fact, the Epistle to the Hebrews identifies Jeremiah’s “new covenant” with the atoning work of Christ (Heb 8:6-13; 9:15-28).
Judaism and Christianity share a common history. They stem from a single “trunk.” But that trunk splits into two major branches in the 1st century AD, leading to eschatological tension. Which branch is the fulfillment of the trunk? In which does its destiny lie? Did Jeremiah’s new covenant find realization in the 6th century BC or the 1st century AD? Was Second Temple Judaism a “fallen” religion–a continuation of exile, in spirit if not in the flesh? Christian Old Testament theologians have wrestled with this dilemma for centuries. We tend to be Hebraio-philes, so it is hard for us to agree with the conclusion that Judaism is, at best, a “torso” (as Walther Eichrodt infamously put it). Moreover, since WWII the specter of Christian theological anti-Judaism and its role in the Holocaust looms over our heads as an ever-present reminder of the seriousness of our task.
Is there a solution to the dilemma? Perhaps. The Old Testament itself wrestles with the degree to which the return from exile fulfilled the prophetic hope for Israel’s future. In Daniel 9, Daniel takes note of Jeremiah’s prophecy that Jerusalem would lay desolate for 70 years. Daniel 9:1 dates Daniel’s pondering of Jeremiah in the first year of Darius the Mede, but there are numerous challenges to determining exactly when this might have been. Though the third king in the Persian Achaemenid Empire was Darius I, whose reign began in 521 BC, he was not a Mede. Some scholars suggest that Darius was a governor of Babylonia during the early years of Cyrus’ reign–perhaps another name for Gubaru, a general who led the conquest of Babylon in 539 BC–but ultimately there is simply not enough external evidence to clarify who this Darius was or when he ruled Babylon. To make matters worse, the vast majority of scholars have concluded that the Book of Daniel (or at least the apocalyptic visions in Daniel 7-12) was not actually written until the mid-2nd century BC, around the time of the Maccabean revolt. But within the narrative setting of the book, Daniel’s prayer, inspired by his reading of Jeremiah, suggests that the 70 years had either been completed or were about to be completed shortly. In response to Daniel’s prayer, God sends the angel Gabriel to “interpret” Jeremiah’s prophecy for Daniel. According to the angel, the 70 years are actually 70 “weeks” of years–thus 490 years! Thus, within some Jewish circles, perhaps as late as the 2nd century BC, there were those who believed the end of the exile and the establishment of the new covenant still lay in the future.
The style of interpretation we see in Daniel 9 is what is known as pesher. It was popular among apocalyptic sects, like the Qumran Essenes. It is a style of interpretation in which a prophecy that originally referred to some event in the past is re-interpreted to apply directly to something in the interpreter’s own time. By most modern standards of exegesis, it is highly suspect. But not only groups like the Essenes did it; so did the writers of the New Testament. The Gospel of Matthew, especially, engages in pesher-style interpretation of Old Testament prophecies, such as Isaiah 7:14 (cf. Matt 1:23), Hos 11:1 (cf. Matt 2:15), and Jer 31:15 (cf. Matt 2:18). Specifically, the style of interpretation we see in Matthew and other New Testament texts could be called Christological pesher–that is, Old Testament prophecies, though they may have found immediate fulfillment in earlier, more immediate historical contexts, find a greater fulfillment in the person and work of Jesus. Personally, I think of it not so much as these Old Testament prophecies remaining unfulfilled (even in a partial sense) until Jesus, but rather that the life of Jesus was a dramatic re-enacting of the story of Israel. Each of the Gospels picks up on ways in which Jesus echoes or embodies different aspects of the story of Israel in the Old Testament. Likewise, when Hebrews sees in Jesus the fulfillment of the Priestly sacrificial system, the figure of Melchizedek, and Jeremiah’s new covenant, it may not be that these pieces of the Old Testament were without meaning before Jesus, but instead that Jesus takes them up and infuses them with a deeper meaning, through his personal, incarnational re-living of Israel’s story.
Certainly this does not completely solve the problem of the relationship between Judaism and Christianity and the degree to which Second Temple Judaism (much less contemporary Judaism) can be regarded as the fulfillment of the “new covenant” Jeremiah spoke about. But it does, perhaps, provide a starting point for how Christians might be able to affirm Second Temple Judaism as a divine restoration of Israel in fulfillment of Jeremiah’s prophecy, while also seeing Jesus as having fulfilled Jeremiah’s new covenant in another, greater sense.
Peter Enns, Inspiration and Incarnation: Evangelicals and the Problem of the Old Testament. Grand Rapids: Baker, 2005.
William Klein, Craig Blomberg, and Robert Hubbard, Introduction to Biblical Interpretation. 3rd edition. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2017.
Michael Wyschogrod, Abraham’s Promise: Judaism and Jewish-Christian Relations. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2004.