Aquinas' View of Israel in the Isaiah Commentary (Joshua Madden, Ph.D.)

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As the commentary on Isaiah is one of the few which St. Thomas composed on the Old Testament, it is worth taking stock of the manner in which he speaks specifically of Israel and the Jews, even if only briefly (1). The first explicit aside which St. Thomas takes to comment on the subject is triggered by his treatment of the very first words uttered by the prophet: “Hear, O heavens, and give ear, O earth, the Lord has spoken, ‘I have brought up children, and exalted them, but they have despised me’” (Isa 1:2). Thomas keys in on Isaiah’s use of the word “children,” and takes the time to lay out three distinct favors which the Lord had bestowed upon them: “The first is filial adoption… Second, the care of education… Third, a unique exaltation” (2). It would be more than fair to say that in these three benefits are summed up the entirety of Israel’s election as God’s special possession: adoptive sonship, the continual guidance of the divine pedagogy, and the status as a people special and holy to the Lord (3).

Another key aspect of Aquinas’ view of Israel is his view of the ceremonial laws. While he affirms that the value of Israel’s sacrifices has passed away because the reality to which they pointed has arrived, he nevertheless speaks positively of them. When asking whether or not the sacrifices of the Old Law had any value, or were pleasing to God, Aquinas states that while the sacrifices were not pleasing in and of themselves (for it is not merely the death of an animal which God desires), they were still pleasing to God because of the one who offered it: “on the part of the one who makes the offering… both ours and theirs [i.e. those of the New Law and the Old Law] are able to be accepted on account of the devotion of the one making the offering” (4). While Aquinas is clear that Israel’s ceremonial precepts enjoyed varying degrees of legitimacy based on the temporal era which the people of God found themselves in (5), and even though he categorizes the sacrificial cult as in some way both punitive and pedagogical (6), he is unafraid to state very simply that Israel’s sacrifices were pleasing to God because of the genuine devotion with which they were offered (7).

In various other places throughout the commentary, St. Thomas seems intent on highlighting the positive aspects of Israel and their relationship to God (8). Aquinas compares the Jews to the stars, “who gleam with the knowledge of God” (9), and who are favored with “the privilege of divine election… the efficacy of prayer… the aid of divine protection… [and] the glory of divine strength” (10). Finally, in a moment of humility and deprecation, St. Thomas identifies himself with all those who have failed in faith. Contemplating the mystery of the suffering servant and the cry of the prophet who laments their failure to recognize him, Aquinas confesses: “thus this is spoken in our persona, we who at that time did not believe, yet afterward were converted” (11). Instead of denigrating the unfaithful of Israel for their failure to recognize the messiah, St. Thomas places himself among those who have been unfaithful and assumes the prophet’s grief as his own. In light of such statements, it is clear that St. Thomas has allowed the witness of Scripture to form his theology of Israel in such a fashion that he can be faithful to Isaiah’s criticisms of the people while, at the same time, holding Israel as a whole in high esteem.  In my estimate, there is much to gain by examining St. Thomas’ theology of Israel and the Church, and this should prove to be a fruitful area of theological investigation in the future.

Footnotes:

1. In recent decades, the topic of St. Thomas’ conception of Judaism, and the relationship between Israel and the Church, has been taken up in various works: Matthew Tapie, Aquinas on Israel and the Church: The Question of Supersessionism in the Theology of Thomas Aquinas (Eugene, OR: Pickwick Publications, 2014); Matthew Levering, Christ’s Fulfillment of Torah and Temple (Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 2002); Michael Wyschogrod. “A Jewish Reading of St. Thomas Aquinas” in Understanding Scripture: Explorations of Jewish and Christian traditions of Interpretation (Mahwah, NJ: Paulist Press, 1987).

2. Super Isaiam, 1.2.

3. These three benefits continue, of course, into the era of the New Law, the age of the Church, in which the benefits  granted in the Old Law are retained (and amplified) in such a way that the Old Law is fulfilled in the New, enacted by the visible missions of the Son and the Holy Spirit. Matthew Levering makes the point well, summarizing the continuity between the peoples of the Old and New laws: “As a messianic people, the people of God gain their full status as the Body of Christ: the latter reality in no way revokes the earlier covenants. Following the biblical witness, Aquinas identifies four ‘states’ in man’s reditus to God: the state before the law, the state of the Old Law, the state of the New Law, and the state of glory. The first three ‘states’ are ordered to the fourth and therefore are intended to prepare human beings for the perfect worship of God.” Christ’s Fulfillment of Torah and Temple: Salvation according to Thomas Aquinas (Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 2002), 110-111.

4. Super Isaiam, 1.3.

5. See the fourfold temporal distinction Aquinas makes in his discussion of sacrifice in Super Isaiam, 1.3.

6. Thomas paraphrases Isa 48:9 by summarizing the words of the Lord as follows: “I have bound you to my ceremonies and praises, lest you be lost in offering sacrifices to idols” (Super Isaiam, 48).

7. Cf. ST I-II, q. 103, a. 2, 4.

8. For an extensive treatment of the Old Law—exploring the moral, ceremonial, and judicial precepts in depth—Aquinas’ mature thought is found in ST I-II, qq. 98-105. In my judgment, there is not a more profound or sympathetic treatment of Israel and the Old Law in any other work of Christian antiquity.

9. Super Isaiam, 14.

10. Super Isaiam, 49.

11. Super Isaiam, 53.