Christian support for the Zionist cause – the return of the Jewish people to their ancient homeland of Israel and the resumption of Jewish sovereignty in that land – is built on a historic and theological foundation that is as old as Christianity itself.
This foundation includes a belief in the biblical history of Israel and the prophetic promises concerning the return of the Jewish people to their land; an understanding of the historic and spiritual connection between Jews and the land; and agreement with the right of Jews to self-determination in the reestablished State of Israel.
Christians who do not believe in the right of Jews to self-determination in their historic homeland, or who do not believe the modern Jewish state has any historic or theological connection to biblical Israel, often allege that Christian Zionism began with, and is based on, relatively recent End Time theology. However, this is simply not true.
The theological expectation of a restored nation of Israel and Jewish sovereignty over Jerusalem has a history that goes back to Jesus and first-century Christians.
In Mark 11:17 in the New Testament, Jesus quoted Isaiah’s prophesy concerning a restored Jerusalem. In Acts 3:21, the apostle Peter speaks about the restoration of all things spoken of by the Hebrew prophets, using language that explicitly refers to the return of Jews to Israel. And in Revelation 21, it is clear that Jerusalem and the twelve tribes of Israel are at the center of End Time events that revolve around the reestablishment of Israel.
The expectation of a future return of the Jewish people to the land and the restoration of the nation of Israel was fairly common in the early church as well. Tertullian, a third-century leader, provides one example. He said: “It will be fitting for the Christian to rejoice, and not to grieve, at the restoration of Israel, if it be true, as it is, that the whole of our hope is intimately united with the remaining expectation of Israel.”
Medieval theologians also believed in a future return of the Jewish people to their historic land, as did a number of leaders of the 16th-century Protestant Reformation.
In the same time period as the Reformation, Zionism was developing in Britain. Beginning in the 17th century, English Puritan leaders promoted beliefs such as: Jews were “God’s chosen nation”; Christians “must acknowledge ourselves debtors to the Jews”; and “the dispersed Jews would be restored into their own country, and would rebuild Jerusalem.”
Puritan leaders who came to North America also believed that the nation of Israel would be restored, as evidenced by the writings of John Cotton and Increase Mather of the Massachusetts Bay Colony. In 1642, Cotton wrote that gentiles needed to prove their faithfulness by actively helping Jews return, and should be willing “to convey the Jews into their own country with chariots, horses and dromedaries.” And in his comprehensive 1669 work on the restoration of Israel, titled “The Mystery of Israel’s Salvation,” Mather wrote, “the Israelites shall again possess … the Land promised unto their Father Abraham.”
Jonathan Edwards, an influential British theologian of the early 18th century, wrote that Israel would again be a distinct nation, and Christians would have free access to Jerusalem because Jews would look on Christians as their brethren. It is significant that, since 1948, Edwards’ words have indeed been fulfilled.
By the 19th century, the Evangelical movement within Christianity, both in England and the U.S., was quite strong, and Evangelicals to this day continue to be the most significant contingent of Christians who support the Zionist cause.
Twentieth-century proponents of Christian Zionism include Lord Arthur Balfour, the author of the 1917 Balfour Declaration; Col. John Patterson, the commander of the Jewish Legion during World War I; and Gen. Orde Wingate, the British officer who, in the 1930s, advocated for the establishment of a Jewish homeland on religious and moral grounds.
As this brief survey demonstrates, Christian expectation of a restored nation of Israel, including Jewish sovereignty over Jerusalem, is based on a theological foundation that goes back to Jesus himself. Christian Zionism, as adhered to by millions and millions of Christians, is simply the modern version of the historic belief that the Jewish people would return to their homeland, just as the Hebrew prophets promised.
TRICIA MILLER is senior research analyst with CAMERA, the Committee for Accuracy in Middle East Reporting in America. She spoke recently at a program at Congregation Beth Sholom, in Providence, sponsored by CAMERA with local assistance from StopIranNow-RI (firstname.lastname@example.org)