“Abraham’s Offspring, Heirs According to the Promise” – The Quaker Way and the Gift of the Jewish People

This essay was first published in The Friends Quarterly (Issue four, 2015).


The development of Western civilisation has been significantly influenced by two quite distinct but often overlapping world views: that of the Hebrews and that of the Greeks. While the dominant forms of Western Christianity have been largely Greek in orientation, the Quaker way and, by implication, the dissenting peace church traditions generally, have been mainly Hebrew in their world view. In the first part of this essay, I will draw out some of the points of connection between Judaism and Quakerism by engaging with rabbi Jonathan Sacks’ classic introduction to Jewish identity, Radical Then, Radical Now: On Being Jewish.[1] In the second part of the essay, I will consider the sensitive issue of supersessionism, the idea that, as a result of the life, death and resurrection of Jesus, Christians have replaced the Jews as God’s chosen people.[2] I suggest that the early Quaker understanding of the ‘new covenant’, while not avoiding the problem of supercessionism entirely, offers a very different and more positive vision of the relationship between Judaism and Christianity than the traditional view. Indeed, the early Quaker position implies that, with the new covenant, all people and all nations have received a priceless gift that has been delivered through the Jewish people.

The Greek and Hebrew world views

In sum, the Greek view is that God can be known only by the flight of the soul from the world and history; the Hebrew view is that God can be known because he invades history to meet men in historical experience.[3]

In his book, Sacks, who is a philosopher and until 2013, the Chief Rabbi of the United Kingdom, outlines some of the basic differences between the Greek and Hebrew world views. Firstly, he argues that while the Greek view has tended to focus on a world characterised by disorder and dominated by impersonal and indifferent forces, the Jewish world view has emphasised order and God’s positive relationship with the creation. He suggests that truth in Greek philosophy is thought, whereas in Judaism it is lived. Similarly, the Greek view promotes reason over emotion, whereas the Jewish view emphasises relationship and emotional expression.[4] He notes that, in Greek tragedy, fate is portrayed as inexorable, whereas in Judaism, fate has no inevitability because humans have a degree of freedom and choice. Finally, Sacks asserts that whereas in Greek thought, power and the state tend to be regarded as good in themselves, in Jewish thought they are merely tolerated as a necessary evil. In addition, it is important to recognise the influence of dualistic thinking within Greek philosophy, particularly in the tradition of Plato, where the spiritual realm is regarded as both separate from and superior to the material realm. Judaism, on the other hand, has tended to be non-dualistic, seeing only one world which is simultaneously material and spiritual.[5] In the Greek view, therefore, the purpose of the religious life is to escape from the inferior physical realm and enter the superior spiritual realm. In the Jewish view, however, the purpose of the religious life is for God’s kingdom to be fully realised in this world, where heaven and earth are seamlessly interconnected and in harmony.

My sense is that, in relation to all these basic distinctions, more often than not Quakerism has reflected the Hebrew rather than the Greek view. The Quaker way has tended to emphasise order over chaos, God’s active involvement in the creation over indifferent and impersonal forces, lived truth over thought truth, human choice over fate, and God’s sovereignty over all human power. Finally, rather than seeking to escape from the physical world in order to find an other-worldly spiritual reality, Quakers have demonstrated a strong witness to the non-dualistic vision of heaven on earth in which the spirit indwells the physical world, transforming and perfecting it.[6] This clearly has significant implications, for example, for our response to the growing ecological crisis and our relationship to other animals. This preference for the Hebrew view over that of the Greek is shown again and again in a number of apparent connections between Jewish and Quaker spirituality.

A God known in experience

Surely the Lord is in this place – and I did not know it. (Gen. 28:16)

Both traditions, while recognising God’s transcendence (being beyond the physical world), have given greater attention to divine immanence (being active within the physical world). Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel defined spirituality as “life lived in the continuous presence of the divine”. In Jewish and Quaker spirituality, humans are seen to suffer from a certain hardening of the heart that gets in the way of them seeing God’s presence in the world. A key objective of the religious life, therefore, is to work to remove all barriers between God and humanity. However, although God may be experienced, God can never be fully comprehended.

A God beyond comprehension
… no-one can fathom what God has done from beginning to end. (Eccl. 3:11)
Both traditions have accepted that, while God is immanent and can be known in experience, all human images and all language about God are inevitably deficient because, ultimately, God is beyond comprehension. This has meant that Jews and Quakers have tended to avoid the construction of systematic theologies, and have tried to avoid rationalist and literalist approaches to the Scriptures. Heschel argued that we should approach the Bible as a Midrash in which interpretation moves beyond the superficial surface to a deeper meaning hidden within the text. It is important to recognise human finitude and accept that God is always being revealed through the filter of human concepts and language, with all the limitations that this implies. The humility which comes from acknowledging that God is ultimately beyond human comprehension may lead us to the silence of worship as the most appropriate response to our awareness of the divine presence.

A God in covenant relationship

Both traditions have witnessed in their experience to a personal God who lives in a dynamic, and ever-changing relationship with people. This is shown in particular by the centrality for Jews and for early Quakers of what is called a ‘covenant relationship’ and the importance of building a society around such a relationship.[7] Everything distinctive about the Quaker way originally emerged out of a very particular understanding of God’s covenantal relationship with all people. This has two crucial implications. First, people are defined primarily by their relationship to God, rather than their place in a human hierarchy. Second, if God is ‘Echad’ (the one and only), we must grant this God our exclusive loyalty. Ultimately, from this position, loyalty to divine authority must over-ride all human authority. We see this reflected in Margaret Fell’s words at her trial at Lancaster in 1664:

I own allegiance to the King, as he is the King of England, but Christ Jesus is King of my conscience… I would rather choose prison for obeying God, than my liberty for obeying men, contrary to my conscience.[8]

A lived faith

Be patterns, be examples in all countries, places, islands, nations, wherever you come, that your carriage and life may preach among all sorts of people, and to them; then you will come to walk cheerfully over the world, answering that of God in every one.[9]

Both traditions have sought to demonstrate that faith is essentially lived rather than thought, that the truth of faith is made real by how we live our lives. Jews and Quakers have no dogma, creed or catalogue of essential beliefs. Instead, each faith is focused primarily on deeds, so that through ordinary, everyday actions, holiness is revealed in the world, and the divine presence is brought to earth in the structures of social life. This suggests that, since the divine is spirit and not corporeal, God works and acts through us. Judaism has spread its message by simply living as a witness to God; such a commitment to ‘lifestyle evangelism’ is shared by the Quaker movement. Judaism and Quakerism have tended to be much more oriented to this life and world. The afterlife is of relatively minor importance in both faiths. The key concern is living God’s way here and now.

A peculiar people

And now, as for you, that are the children of God’s people, a great concern is upon my spirit for your good: and often are my knees bowed to the God of your fathers for you, that you may come to be partakers of the same divine life and power, that has been the glory of this day; that a generation you may be to God, an holy nation, and a peculiar people, zealous of good works, when all our heads are laid in the dust.[10]

Both communities have regarded themselves as a peculiar people, called out of the ways of the world in order to live in a different way, seeking to rise above the domination of material and social forces and to be “strangers and aliens” in society as it is currently ordered . This has produced two distinct peoples with strong communal identities (p.46) who have had a significant impact on the world despite their small numbers. Sacks notes Nietzsche’s view that Judaism was wrong because it inverted all natural instincts and that Hitler claimed that conscience was a Jewish invention. However, as a peculiar people, both Jews and Quakers have constantly had to grapple with the danger of assimilation into the wider culture, which can undermine the group’s distinctiveness and identity.

A vision of a better world

True godliness doesn’t turn men out of the world but enables them to live better in it and excites their endeavours to mend it.[11]

Both traditions have sought to provide a vision of a better world. Jews and Quakers have found that God’s revelation reflects the reality of the world as it is, but also impels the dynamic leading to the world as it might be yet. Evil is regarded as a consequence of human freedom and God’s ordered creation sits in tension with humanity’s disordered society. However, since the world has an order and a moral purpose, evil is not omnipotent. We can change the world because we can change ourselves. The Jewish concept of ‘tikkun olam’, which is a Hebrew phrase that means "repairing the world" indicates that God and humans are partners in this task. Neil Gillman has suggested that the responsibility to mend the world lies with God’s people by way of the ‘mitzvoth’ (God’s commandments). Every act of obedience is an act of repairing the world. Our faiths have taken a linear view of history, the belief that it is going somewhere. This means that we refuse to accept the world as it is. In particular, the Hebrew concept of shalom and the prophetic vision of the peaceable kingdom have had a crucial influence on the faith and practice of Quakers and the other peace church traditions.[12]

The significance of Exodus

The narrative of Exodus has always been foundational for the Jewish people. However, it was also a significant image in the life of the early Quaker movement. Neil Gillman has argued that Exodus is the original ‘good news’ of redemption and salvation. The Exodus story shows us that God is a liberator, an advocate of freedom and human dignity and on the side of the weak rather than the powerful. This is an important aspect of the Jewish and Quaker visions of a better world.

God as teacher

As Friends we commit ourselves to a way of worship which allows God to teach and transform us.[13]

Both traditions have a strong sense of God as a teacher. Gillman suggests that the importance of God as ‘teacher’ is a striking and unique Jewish image, but the role of God as ‘Inward Teacher’ is equally important for Quakers. Jews and Quakers emphasise the centrality of God’s revelation to humans. Faith is regarded as a willingness to listen to a voice that is not our own. God’s voice speaks continuously, but we cannot hear it due to the noise and distractions around us. Silence helps us hear. Jews have the Torah as God’s teaching, Quakers have the Light as an inward teacher (a Torah of the heart). Both are available to everyone. In each community, divine commandments or leadings are followed because we hear a personal calling to do them that comes from God.

Rabbinic Judaism

The destruction of the Second Temple in Jerusalem in 70CE saw the end of the nationalist and priestly form of Judaism. In the context of the diaspora, the rabbis developed a quite different Jewish faith and practice. Christians have often held a rather distorted and inadequate understanding of Judaism, failing to take proper account of these rabbinic developments. A number of key aspects of the rabbinic form of Judaism should have a real resonance for Quakers. Firstly, it assumes that all humans have a direct relationship with God in which God’s dwelling place is the human heart as the new Holy of Holies. This is reflected in the Talmudic concept of the ‘shekhinah’, representing God's dwelling and immanence in human lives and in the created world. Secondly, it asserts that every Jew in prayer is a priest and that every Jew in politics is a prophet. Thirdly, the synagogue is regarded as a place of worship which can be formed by worshipers gathering at any time and in any place in God’s world. Finally, it gives great importance to education and to ‘wrestling with God’ as an on-going practice of interpretation and discernment. These characteristics seem very close to the Quaker emphases on a direct relationship with God, divine indwelling, the priesthood of all believers, the prophetic nature of political engagement, the potentially sacramental nature of all times and places and the importance of discernment as a spiritual discipline.

Diaspora Judaism within Christendom

But seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the Lord on its behalf, for in its welfare you will find your welfare. (Jer.29:7)

It seems that, within Medieval Western Christendom, the groups whose members most faithfully lived the way of Jesus were the Jews of the diaspora and the dissenting Christian sects such as the Anabaptists and the Quakers. It is no coincidence that both these groups were ruthlessly persecuted by the Christendom authorities of the time. Kushner has noted that Judaism is not a world-conquering tradition because, in Jewish terms, success is measured by living according to God’s way, rather than by increasing numbers. Mennonite theologian John Howard Yoder asserted that Medieval Judaism demonstrated the viability of living the way of Jesus, and that for these Jews, the crude, violent, semi-pagan, tribal culture of their ‘Christian’ oppressors was living proof of the moral superiority of Judaism.[14] This shows that a strong affinity exists between the Jewish world view and the witness of the historic peace churches.

Quakers, the ‘new covenant’ and the problem of supercessionism

There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus. And if you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham’s offspring, heirs according to the promise. (Gal. 3:28-29)

Prompted by the work of E P Sanders, many Christian theologians and Bible scholars have begun to reassess the meaning of the New Testament writings and the nature of the early church by adopting a more sophisticated and sensitive understanding of their Jewish root and context.[15] In addition, the development of post-liberal Christian theology has been associated with serious attempts by Christian theologians to overcome supercessionism and engage in positive dialogue with Jewish scholars.[16] In the following section I will outline the early Quaker understanding of the new covenant and consider how it relates to the problem of Christian supercessionism. I will suggest that, although this understanding appears to have strong elements of supercessionism within it, ultimately, it offers an inclusive vision which, rather than excluding the Jewish people, regards their status as God’s chosen people as a gift that is offered to all people and all nations.

The ‘new covenant’

A key aspect of the early Quaker vision is the belief that, as a result of the Incarnation, a new covenant has been established in which the immediate presence of Christ in Spirit has fulfilled all the outwardly mediated ways in which God related to humanity in the old covenant. In the old covenant, God’s presence was to be found in a temple made of stone (the Temple in Jerusalem) and access to God was mediated through a human priesthood (the Aaronic priesthood). The people of God were led by human leaders (e.g. Moses) and God’s law (the Ten Commandments) was written on tablets of stone. In the new covenant, Christ is the inward and spiritual substance of all these outward and mediated forms. He is the one to whom the old covenant pointed. Christ is the eternal high priest, who offers everyone access to God. As a result, God may now dwell in a temple made of living stone (human hearts), Christ has become the inward and spiritual leader of God’s people and he writes God’s law on their hearts.[17] This is seen to be the fulfilment of the message of the Hebrew prophets. In particular, the apostle Peter states that the prophet Joel’s vision of the pouring out of the Holy Spirit on all flesh was fulfilled at Pentecost (Acts 2:1-21):

And it shall come to pass afterward, that I will pour out my spirit upon all flesh; and your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, your old men shall dream dreams, your young men shall see visions: and also upon the servants and upon the handmaids in those days will I pour out my spirit. (Jl. 2:28-29)

This then establishes the new covenant described by the prophet Jeremiah:

The days are surely coming, says the Lord, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and the house of Judah.  It will not be like the covenant that I made with their ancestors when I took them by the hand to bring them out of the land of Egypt—a covenant that they broke, though I was their husband, says the Lord. But this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, says the Lord: I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts; and I will be their God, and they shall be my people. No longer shall they teach one another, or say to each other, ‘Know the Lord’, for they shall all know me, from the least of them to the greatest, says the Lord; for I will forgive their iniquity, and remember their sin no more. (Jer. 31:31-34)

The Quaker vision of the new covenant is supercessionist in the sense that it asserts that the outward Jewish Law and its associated practices have been replaced by a single inward dependence on the Spirit of Christ. Such a claim touches on extremely sensitive issues and clearly presents potential challenges for Jewish-Quaker relations. However, the Quaker position is not supercessionist in a straightforward way. Firstly, early Friends did not single the Jews out for special condemnation. They were critical of any group that was focused on outward forms, including all the other Christian churches, because they believed that this was the way of the old covenant. Secondly, their vision involved an inclusive expansion of God’s covenant, not the replacement of one chosen people by another. George Fox argued that, while the old covenant was for Jews only, the new covenant was for Jews, Gentiles and all nations.[18] It was no longer restricted only to the ‘outward Jews’, or the house of Israel, but had been opened instead to all people, since everyone could now become ‘Jews in spirit’ as part of a universal spiritual Israel.[19] In his recent study of early Quaker encounters with Islam, Justin Meggitt argued that this distinctive early Quaker position “removed any particular preferential place for Christians, moving the locus of faith from a response to propositional knowledge of the Christian gospel to a response to an experiential dispensation that they believed was available to all people”.[20] In this sense, Margaret Fell’s interest in engaging with the Jewish community in Amsterdam was an expression of her apocalyptic vision.[21] Her purpose was not to convert the Jews to Christianity, but rather to turn them to their Inward Teacher (the Torah of the Heart). This suggests a real connection between the Quaker understanding of the new covenant and the characteristics of Rabbinic Judaism outlined earlier.

Conclusion – The Gift of the Jewish People

…in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed. (Gen. 12:3)

I have suggested that, in a number of important ways, the Quaker tradition is strongly Hebrew in its orientation and world view. Given that this seems to be a characteristic of the dissenting peace church groups within Christendom, I sense that mainstream Christianity lost something vital as it moved away from its Hebrew roots. In the circumstances of Post-Christendom, many Christian theologians and Bible scholars are finding new ways to understand the early church and interpret the New Testament writings by locating both within their Jewish context. We tend to forget that virtually all the early church leaders and New Testament writers were Jewish.

The early Quaker vision suggests that all people and all nations have become potential heirs to the promise made to Abraham. This is a promise of shalom or heaven on earth. It is God’s gift to the world that has come to us through the Jewish people, by way of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Moses, the prophets and, ultimately, Jesus himself. This raises two important questions: was the Jewish-Christian schism inevitable and could it ever be reversed?[22] My sense is that traditional Quaker insights, drawing on the radically Christ-centred but universalist-inclusive vision of early Friends, could make a positive and fruitful contribution to respectful dialogue and exploration in this area.

It is not opinion, or speculation, or notions of what is true, or assent to or the subscription of articles or propositions, though never so soundly worded, that … makes a man a true believer or a true Christian. But it is a conformity of mind and practice to the will of God, in all holiness of conversation, according to the dictates of this Divine principle of Light and Life in the soul which denotes a person truly a child of God.[23]

[1] Sacks, Jonathan (2001) Radical Then, Radical Now: On Being Jewish (Continuum)
[2] The idea of Christian supercessionism has been used to justify the violent persecution of Jews, Muslims and other non-Christians for at least a thousand years.
[3] Ladd, George Eldon (1968) The Pattern of New Testament Truth (Wm. B. Eerdmans), p.40.
[4] Gillman, Neil (2003) The Jewish Approach to God: A Brief Introduction for Christians (Jewish Lights Publishing), p.50.
[5] Kushner, Lawrence (2008) Jewish Spirituality: A Brief Introduction for Christians (Jewish Lights Publishing), p.10.
[6] See, Dandelion, Ben Pink, Gwyn, Douglas & Peat, Timothy (1998) Heaven on Earth: Quakers and the Second Coming (Curlew Productions)
[7] A covenant is a personal but non-contractual relationship between God and a people that involves certain mutual commitments and obligations.
[8] Kunze, Bonnelyn (1994) Margaret Fell and the Rise of Quakerism (Stanford University Press), p.171.
[9] George Fox, 1656, quoted in Quaker Faith & Practice, Fourth Edition, 2009, 1.02.
[10] William Penn, 1694 quoted in Quaker Faith & Practice, Fourth Edition, 2009, 19.59.
[11] William Penn, 1682 quoted in Quaker Faith & Practice, Fourth Edition, 2009, 23.02.
[12] See, Yoder, Perry B. (1987) Shalom: The Bible’s Word for Salvation, Justice and Peace (Evangel Publishing)
[13] Quaker Faith & Practice, Fourth Edition, 2009, 1.02.
[14] Yoder, John Howard (2009) Christian Attitudes to War, Peace and Revolution (Brazos Press), pp.140-142
[15] See, Sanders, E.P. (1977) Paul and Palestinian Judaism: A Comparison of Patterns of Religion (Fotress Press)
[16] See for example, Ochs, Peter (2011) Another Reformation: Post-Liberal Christianity and the Jews (Baker Academic)
[17] See, Wilcox, Catherine, M (1995) Theology and Women’s Ministry in Seventeenth English Quakerism (Edwin Mellen Press), pp.35-43.
[18] Wilcox, Catherine, M (1995) op. cit. p.36.
[19] Ibid, p.37.
[20] Meggitt, Justin, J (2013) Early Quakers and Islam: Slavery, Apocalyptic and Christian-Muslim Encounters in the Seventeenth Century (Swedish Science Press), p.57.
[21] Bruyneel, Sally (2010) Margaret Fell and the End of Time: The Theology of the Mother of Quakerism (Baylor University Press), p.17.
[22] Cartwright, Michael, J. and Ochs, Peter (2003) The Jewish-Christian Schism Revisited (SCM Press), p.231.
[23] William Penn, 1692, quoted in Quaker Faith & Practice, Fourth Edition, 2009, 26.78.


  1. Thank you for this piece, and its 23 references. I feel that I have rediscovered a kindred spirit. When Friends do share their thought and experiences on Facebook they often do it in unreferenced ways. This makes their contributions like everyonelses and consequently ephemeral.

  2. Thank you Christopher! I try and offer references when I can. This particular piece was originally published in the Friends Quarterly so I was careful about the references. Shalom, Stuart.


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