Christian Conversion of Jews?

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The Times of the Gentiles

The following is a fair use extract of a section of chapter two, "Jesus' Eschatological Discourse," in Benedict XVI's Jesus of Nazareth, Part Two, Holy Week: from the entrance into Jerusalem to the Resurrection  This excerpt, entitled "The Time of the Gentiles," is from pp. 41-45 of the book. In the final four paragraphs, Benedict discusses whether there should today be Christian conversionary missions aimed at Jews and answers in the negative.

2. The Times of the Gentiles


A superficial reading or hearing of Jesus' eschatological discourse would give the impression that Jesus linked the end of Jerusalem chronologically to the end of the world, especially when we read in Matthew: "Immediately after the tribulation of those days the sun will be darkened ...; then will appear the sign of the Son of man in heaven ..." (24:29-30). This direct chronological connection between the end of Jerusalem and the end of the whole world seems to be further confirmed when we come across these words a few verses later: "Truly, I say to you, this generation will not pass away till all these things take place .,." (24:34).

On first glance, it seems that Luke was the only one to downplay this connection. In his account we read: "They will fall by the edge of the sword, and be led captive among all nations; and Jerusalem will be trodden down by the Gentiles, until the times of the Gentiles are fulfilled" (21:24). Between the destruction of Jerusalem and the end of the world, "the times of the Gentiles" are here inserted. Luke has been accused of thereby shifting the temporal axis of the Gospels and of Jesus' original message, recasting the end of time as the intermediate time and, thus, inventing the time of the Church as a new phase of salvation history. But if we look closely, we find that these "times of the Gentiles" are also foretold, in different terms and at a different point, in the versions of Jesus' discourse recounted by Matthew and Mark.

Matthew quotes the following saying of Jesus: "And this gospel of the kingdom will be preached throughout the whole world, as a testimony to all nations; and then the end will come" (24:14). And in Mark we read: "The gospel must first be preached to all nations" (13:10).

We see at once how much care is needed when making connections within this discourse of Jesus; the text is woven together from individual strands of tradition that do not present a straightforward linear argument but that must, as it were, be read in the light of one another. In the third section of this chapter ("Prophecy and Apocalyptic"), we will look in more detail at this redactional question, which is of great significance for a correct understanding of the text.

From the content, it is clear that all three Synoptic Gospels recognize a time of the Gentiles: the end of time can come only when the Gospel has been brought to all peoples. The time of the Gentiles — the time of the Church made up of all the peoples of the world — is not an invention of Saint Luke: it is the common patrimony of all the Gospels. 

At this point we encounter once again the connection between the Gospel tradition and the basic elements of Pauline theology. If Jesus says in the eschatological discourse that the Gospel must first be proclaimed to the Gentiles and only then can the end come, we find exactly the same thing in Paul's Letter to the Romans: "A hardening has come upon part of Israel, until the full number of the Gentiles come in, and so all Israel will be saved" (11:25-26). The full number of the Gentiles and all Israel: in this formula we see the universalism of the divine salvific will. For our purposes, though, the important point is that Paul, too, recognizes an age of the Gentiles, which is the present and which must be fulfilled if God's plan is to attain its goal.

The fact that the early Church was unable to assess the chronological duration of these kairoi ("times") of the Gentiles and that it was generally assumed they would be fairly short is ultimately a secondary consideration. The essential point is that these times were both asserted and foretold and that, above all else and prior to any calculation of their duration, they had to be understood and were understood by the disciples in terms of a mission: to accomplish now what had been proclaimed and demanded — by bringing the Gospel to all peoples.

The restlessness with which Paul journeyed to the nations, so as to bring the message to all and, if possible, to fulfill the mission within his own lifetime — this restlessness can only be explained if one is aware of the historical and eschatological significance of his exclamation: "Necessity is laid upon me. Woe to me if I do not preach the gospel!" (i Cor 9:16).

In this sense, the urgency of evangelization in the apostolic era was predicated not so much on the necessity for each individual to acquire knowledge of the Gospel in order to attain salvation, but rather on this grand conception of history: if the world was to arrive at its destiny, the Gospel had to be brought to all nations. At many stages in history, this sense of urgency has been markedly attenuated, but it has always revived, generating new dynamism for evangelization.

In this regard, the question of Israel's mission has always been present in the background. We realize today with horror how many misunderstandings with grave consequences have weighed down our history. Yet a new reflection can acknowledge that the beginnings of a correct understanding have always been there, waiting to be rediscovered, however deep the shadows.

Here I should like to recall the advice given by Bernard of Clairvaux to his pupil Pope Eugene III on this matter. He reminds the Pope that his duty of care extends not only to Christians, but: "You also have obligations toward unbelievers, whether Jew, Greek, or Gentile" (De Consideratione III/i, 2). Then he immediately corrects himself and observes more accurately: "Granted, with regard to the Jews, time excuses you; for them a determined point in time has been fixed, which cannot be anticipated. The full number of the Gentiles must come in first. But what do you say about these Gentiles?... Why did it seem good to the Fathers ... to suspend the word of faith while unbelief was obdurate? Why do we suppose the word that runs swiftly stopped short?" (De Consideratione III/i, 3).

Hildegard Brem comments on this passage as follows: "In the light of Romans 11:25, the Church must not concern herself with the conversion of the Jews, since she must wait for the time fixed for this by God, 'until the full number of the Gentiles come in' (Rom 11:25). On the contrary, the Jews themselves are a living homily to which the Church must draw attention, since they call to mind the Lord's suffering (cf. Ep 363) ..." (quoted in Sämtliche Werke, ed. Winkler, I, p. 834).

The prophecy of the time of the Gentiles and the corresponding mission is a core element of Jesus' eschatological message. The special mission to evangelize the Gentiles, which Paul received from the risen Lord, is firmly anchored in the message given by Jesus to his disciples before his Passion. The time of the Gentiles — "the time of the Church" — which, as we have seen, is proclaimed in all the Gospels, constitutes an essential element of Jesus' eschatological message.