The Fathers and the Return of the Jews


The Fathers and the Return of the Jews

After reading the dialogue John Pacheco and Robert Sungenis were having on the Old Covenant Never Being Revoked, fellow traditionalist Mark Cameron decided to do a little research about what the patristic witness on this issue really is. The evidence might surprise you.

Part 2


Apparently, you do not find my quotes from the Catholic Encyclopedia, Augustine, or Chrysostom to be persuasive, saying “quoting Augustine and Chrysostom as referring to some future conversion of Jews, especially when in other places Augustine says something quite the opposite of what appears to be said above, hardly forms a ‘consensus’ of Patristic witness to support your contention. There were over a hundred fathers worthy of note, and hardly any of them predict a future conversion of the Jews, let alone a massive conversion.”

Actually, the quotes I found were the best I could do in an hour or two of fiddling around on the Internet.  But your challenge drove me to do a bit more research in my own books and the local Catholic seminary library.  I come away more persuaded than ever that there was a broad Patristic, Medieval, and Counter-Reformation consensus about a final conversion of the Jews.


Let’s start with recent (but orthodox, pre-Vatican II) authorities.  You note that the Catholic Encyclopedia article has no authority beyond that of its author.  But my point was that he makes this assertion as common knowledge of what the Fathers taught, just as Augustine calls the idea of a final conversion “a familiar theme in the conversation and heart of the faithful.”


Other recent authorities have also repeated the same belief as representing a common consensus.  Ludwig Ott lists “the conversion of the Jews” as one of the “Signs of the Second Coming” (Fundamentals of Catholic Dogma, 1952, p. 486-487), citing Romans 11:25-32 as his authority.


The Catholic Commentary on Holy Scripture, edited by Dom Bernard Orchard, 1953, says of Romans 11:25-32: “From the present, (verses) 1-24, St. Paul turns his attention to the future.  The time will come when the present problem of Israel’s exclusion from the salvation of the Messias will cease to exist because of her conversion, which will follow the conversion of the Gentiles.  The final conversion of Israel could not be known to St. Paul from any natural source.”  It then goes on to argue that St. Paul deduces the “final conversion of Israel” from the permanence of God’s promises and prophecies, which promise the eventual salvation of Israel.


Now, granted that the Catholic Encyclopedia, Ott, and Orchard’s Commentary have no magisterial authority, it must be admitted that all of these orthodox, pre-Vatican II standard sources seem to treat the “final conversion of Israel” as a given.  Why would this be unless there was a considerable consensus of Fathers and Catholic exegetes behind it?


The more I search the Fathers, the broader the consensus seems to be.  To add to the Augustine and Chrysostom quotes I found earlier, here are a few more:


Pope St. Gregory the Great, Moralia in Iob (Preface, X, 20):


“After the loss of Job’s possessions, after all his bereavements, after all the suffering of his wounds, after all his angry debates, it is good that he is consoled by twofold repayment. In just this way does the holy church, while it is still in this world, receive twofold reward for the trials it sustains, when all the gentile nations have been brought into its midst, at the end of time, and the church converts even the hearts of the Jews to its cause.  Thus it is written, ‘Until the fulness of nations enters and so all Israel is saved.'”


St. John Damascene, De Fide Orthodoxa (IV, 26, “Concerning the Antichrist”)

“First, therefore, it is necessary that the Gospel should be preached among all nations: And then shall that wicked one be revealed, even him whose coming is after the working of Satan with all power and signs and lying wonders, with all deceivableness of unrighteousness in them that perish, whom the Lord shall consume with the word of His mouth and shall destroy with the brightness of His coming.

But Enoch and Elias the Thesbite shall be sent and shall ‘turn the hearts of the fathers to the children,’ that is, the synagogue to our Lord Jesus Christ and the preaching of the apostles

Now, before going on the Medievals, I have to note that the statements you made regarding the view of the fathers were quite unequivocal.  “The consensus among the early Fathers is that there is no divinely mandated future glory for national Israel”  I agree that there is no divinely predicted glory for a future state of Israel, but there is assuredly a consensus prediction of the conversion of the Jews.  You say, “There are only a few personalities who even address the issue of Israel in the future,” and quote seven, adding “only two Fathers hold out for any future large restoration of faith in Israel.”  This suggests that you have searched long and hard to see what the Fathers have had to say about this topic, and found only a few quotes, mostly arguing against a future conversion.

Yet with just a little bit of searching around, I have found four more quotes you had missed. (Indeed, I found several others, but not as directly pertinent as the ones I have given).  Furthermore, in my own research, I realized that six of the seven quotes you adduce and all the citations are from one source: the Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture volume on Romans.  This hardly justifies your unequivocal statements about what the Fathers thought on this issue.

And even from this one source, you have been selective.  You quote Theodoret as saying “all Israel” means “all those who believe,” but another quote from the very same homily, also quoted in the ACCS, says this:

“Paul insists that only a part of Israel has been hardened, for many of them believe.  He thus encourages them not to despair that others will be saved as well.  After the Gentiles accepted the gospel, the Jews would believe, when the great Elijah would come to them and bring them the doctrine of the faith.  The Lord himself said as much: ‘Elijah will come and will restore all things.’

So, even if Theodoret understands “all Israel” as meaning “all the faithful,” he still believes that there will be a future conversion of the Jews to be grafted back into the true spiritual Israel of the Church.  I would suggest that this also applies to Augustine, who may recognize the Church as the true Israel, but also foresees a conversion of the Jews (indeed, the quote I produced from The City of God was a much more important source to future Church teaching than the quote in ACCS from one of Augustine’s many letters.)

I also find that you have shortened the St. John Chrysostom quote in a way that reduces any suggestion of a future conversion (“does not apply it to some distant event in the future”).  You quote Chrysostom as saying: “God’s covenant will be fulfilled not when they are circumcised…but when they obtain the forgiveness of sins…it will certainly come to pass.” 

But the full quote is this: “God’s covenant will be fulfilled not when they are circumcised, nor when they do other deeds of the law, but when they obtain the forgiveness of sins.  If this has been promised but has not yet happened in their case, nor have they enjoyed the forgiveness of sins in baptism, it will certainly come to pass.”  This language of fulfillment of the covenant that “has been promised but has not yet happened in their case” (which you omitted) sounds more like “a distant event in the future.”

So what do we have?  Of the seven you cite, Cyril of Alexandria, Theodoret, Augustine, Chrysostom, and Jerome (the last three among the most important of all the Fathers) all believe in a future salvation of the Jews (although some in various places talk of the Church, not the Jews, as the true Israel).  Origen is mystified, saying says “only God knows” what “all Israel” and “the fullness of the Gentiles” is supposed to mean.   Only the heretical Pelagius overtly denies that the salvation of Israel is an event in the future.  Furthermore, I have found several other Fathers, including St. Gregory the Great and St. John Damascene, who predict a future conversion of the Jews.  That makes seven Fathers for a future conversion, Origen neutral, and one heretic against.  To me, that sounds like a consensus of the Fathers for a future conversion of the Jews.

Now, let’s see how this matter was treated by the Medievals.

The Venerable Bede says in his Explanation of the Apocalypse, “it is well believed that the wicked Jews will be deceived as well as deceive, but that others will understand the law spiritually through the instruction of the great prophet Elijah, and will be incorporated among the members of the Church, and bravely overcome the enemy.” 

In a letter to his Abbot Eusebius about his Explanatio, Bede also writes:

“He has foretold that the Jews are to be made subject to the Church, and that there is to be a trial of the world at large, and that He Himself will come quickly.”

The 10th century French Abbot Adso wrote a treatise of the Antichrist that became very influential in the Middle Ages.  In it he wrote:

“Lest the Antichrist come suddenly and without warning and deceive and destroy the whole human race by his error, before his arrival the two great prophets Enoch and Elijah will be sent into the world. They will defend God’s faithful against the attack of the Antichrist with divine arms and will instruct, comfort, and prepare the elect for battle with three and a half years teaching and preaching. These two very great prophets and teachers will convert the sons of Israel who will live in that time to the faith, and they will make their belief unconquerable among the elect in the face of the affliction of so great a storm. At that time what scripture says will be fulfilled ‘If the number of sons of Israel be like the sand of the sea, their remnant will be saved’.”

St. Thomas Aquinas wrote a Commentary on Epistle to the Romans, in which he wrote:

“The blindness of the Jews will endure until the fullness of the gentiles have accepted the faith.  And this is in accord with what the Apostle says below about the salvation of the Jews, namely, that after the fullness of the nations have entered, ‘all Israel will be saved’, not individually as at present, but universally.”

He goes on to make it clear that he is referring here to “the conversion of the Jews at the end of the world.

Moving on to the Counter Reformation era, the great Jesuit apologist St. Robert Bellarmine writes in De Summo Pontifice (I, 3) about “the coming of Enoch and Elias, who live even now and shall live until they come to oppose Antichrist himself, and to preserve the elect in the faith of Christ, and in the end shall convert the Jews, and it is certain that this is not yet fulfilled.

The great exegete Cornelius a Lapide has a commentary on Romans, but I could only find it in Latin.  My Latin is rusty, but he seems to say that “all Israel” can be understood either spiritually as meaning all the elect – whether Jew or gentile – or literally as meaning all the Jews who will be converted at the end of time, quoting various Fathers and Doctors on both sides.

However, in his commentary on Matthew, which I did find in English, he teaches clearly about the conversion of the Jews at the end of time.  Writing on Matthew 17:11-12 (“Elijah does come, and he is to restore all things; but I tell you that Elijah has already come, and they did not know him, but did to him whatever they pleased. So also the Son of man will suffer at their hands.”), Lapide says that Elias will: “Restore all things: that is, convert the Jews to Christ as the Messiah promised to themselves and there forefathers.”

He goes on to say that: “Falsely do the Calvinists refer all these things to the first Advent of Christ, and explain both mentions of Elias – viz., in verses 11 and 12 – to mean John the Baptist.  For they think that Elias, whom Malachi predicted shall come as the precursor of Christ (Mal. 4:5), is John the Baptist, and there is no other who shall come with Enoch before Christ’s second Advent.”

Writing on Matthew 23:37-39 (“O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, killing the prophets and stoning those who are sent to you! How often would I have gathered your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you would not!  Behold, your house is forsaken and desolate. For I tell you, you will not see me again, until you say, ‘Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord.'”), Lapide writes:

“It is possible that this passage may be understood of the Jews, who about the end of the world shall be converted to Christ by the preaching of Elias, and who, when He shall presently come to judgment, will acknowledge Him to be the Messiah, the Blessed of the Lord.

In summary, it looks to me like the vast majority of the Fathers, the Medievals the and Counter-Reformation doctors, and recent pre-Vatican II exegetes are all in agreement about a conversion of the Jews before the end of the world (possibly converted by the preaching of Elijah and Enoch as prophesied in Malachi and Revelations) as a sign of Christ’s coming.

With St. Augustine, St. Jerome, Pope St. Gregory the Great, St. John Chrysostom, the Venerable Bede, St. Thomas Aquinas, St. Robert Bellarmine, and Cornelius a Lapide on my side of the argument, and having shown that all but one of your quotes are from one modern source that gives only snippets of the Fathers, I think the onus of showing that the Fathers and Doctors did not believe in a future mass conversion of the Jews now falls on you.

My other question is, given the broad consensus I have found in Catholic sources saying that there will be such a future conversion of Jews to the faith, some from sources that you must have seen before in your wide reading, why are you so keen to deny this teaching?  I do not claim that belief in the future conversion of the Jews, or a future coming of Elijah before the Second Coming, for that matter, are de fide teaching.  But they certainly seem to represent the consensus of two millennia of Catholic exegesis.  What is the purpose in trying to deny this? 

I can understand the desire to refute Protestant fundamentalist “dispensationalist” theology, or Catholic modernists like Cardinal Kasper who suggest that the Jewish covenant remains salvific.  But these teachings, while they certainly try to use Romans 9-11 to establish their erroneous theology, go far beyond the standard, orthodox Catholic teaching of an eventual conversion of the Jews in the last times.  This does not imply a millennial Jewish kingdom or the ongoing salvific validity of the Old Covenant – simply that the Jewish people who were pruned off of the olive tree due to their infidelity at the time of Christ will at the last, in God’s mercy, be engrafted back on.  I fear that in your desire to refute certain wrong elements of modern theology you are running the risk of throwing the baby out with the bathwater.

R. Sungenis: There is something interesting you need to know about Chrysostom’s interpretation of Malachi 4:5. He makes a blatant error in basing his conclusion of the supposition that it reads “Elijah the Tishbite.” This is not correct.
Not knowing Hebrew, Chrysostom and Augustine often end up in unsupported exegesis by relying only on the LXX. Jerome, who knew Hebrew, did not translate Malachi 4:5 as “the Tishbite.”
Neither the original Hebrew, nor the Latin Vulgate, had “the Tishbite” added to Elijah. The Hebrew reads ELIYAH HANABIYA (that is, “Elijah the prophet”). The Latin Vulgate reads “Heliam prophetam,” while the Douay-Rheims reads “Elias the prophet.” There are no Hebrew textual variants with any other reading. Chrysostom is getting his reading from the LXX which has “Elion ton Thesbiten,” but this is obviously a mere Jewish interpretation of the passage, not the inspired text. In fact, this may have been the reason the Jews were confused regarding the real nature of Elijah’s appearance, and missed his identity being fulfilled in John the Baptist (cf., Matt 16:14; 17:10). Obviously, if they were looking for the “Tishbite” instead of John the Baptist, they would have been mislead by their own translation of the Hebrew text, and apparently so was Chrysostom. If he can make such an error with the text, then we certainly can’t put much stock in is conclusions about anything else regarding Elijah’s appearance.   M. Cameron  Just as a P.S. to my previous reply, I want to address this specific issue.  Chrysostom and Augsutine were not “confused” about the return of Elijah because of their reliance on the LXX.  They looked for a return of Elijah in the flesh because Jewish tradition had long predicted it.  Elijah (and Enoch) never physically died, but were assumed into heaven bodily.  Thus, many predicted their return.  The “two witnesses” of Revelations 11 have traditionally been understood to be Enoch and Elijah.  Our Lord implies in Matthew 17:11-12 that there will be two comings of Elijah – a coming of the actual at the end of time to “restore all things”, but a figurative coming of Elijah in spirit in the form of John the Baptist.  Cornelius a Lapide calls it a “Calvinist error” to believe that verses 11 and 12 both refer to John the Baptist.   Furthermore, awareness of the Hebrew text is no proof of accuracy.  The LXX has an older textual tradition than the Masoretic text and many of the earlier Hebrew texts.  The Church has always recognized the value of the Septuagint.  It remains the official Old Testament text of the Greek Church, and the oldest Latin text, the vetus Itala, was a direct translation of the Septuagint.  Jerome’s Vulgate borrowed from Hebrew texts to correct some errors in the Vetus Itala, but in other cases it was the Hebrew texts that were in error.   A most important example is the LXX use of “parthenos” (virgin) in Isaiah 7:14 where the hebrew texts have “almah” (young woman).  Was St. Matthew, writing under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, wrong when he quoted the “inaccurate” Septuagint rather than the “accurate” Hebrew in applying this prophecy to the virgin birth of Our Lord?   The point I am trying to make is that, regardless of whether Malachi originally wrote “Elijah the Tishbite” or “Elijah the prophet”, the Holy Spirit has often used the LX translations and the interpretive traditions of the Church to draw deeper meaning out of the passages than a clinical, literal analysis of the texts would suggest.  If we are to really understand what this passage, or any other passage of Scripture, means in a prophetic sense, we have to go beyond parsing the Greek and Hebrew and study how the text has been received and understood in the tradition of the Church.    This is a general difficulty I have with your exegesis of Romans 11:25-27: you are very keen to show that the grammatical structure of the passage could support your interpretation of the text as denying that it refers to future end times events.  But the question is not simply what the grammatical structure of the Greek suggests, but how the text is understood according to the analogia fidei.  When read in the context of passages like Matthew 17:11 (the future coming of Elijah), Matthew 23:39 (future recognition of the crucified Christ by the Jews), Revelations 11 (the two witnesses, hinting at Elijah and Enoch), and in the context of the Church’s understanding of the passage, it has clearly been understood prophetically to refer to a future conversion of the Jews.   That is why I put more “stock” in St. Augustine and St. John Chrysostom’s exegesis according to the Church’s traditional understanding than I do in your exegesis based on strict attention to the Greek text.


Mark Cameron

Mark Cameron’s Blogspot

April 5, 2003

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