Jesus and the Land: The New Testament Challenge to ‘Holy Land’ Theology by Gary M. Burge

It’s a nightmare that never ends. A nightmare of rape, murder, of unspeakable evil to the young, to the old, to pregnant women and babies. A nightmare that is all too real. What does the Bible say about the Israel-Palestine conflict? Or more specifically, what does the New Testament say about the Christian’s posture towards the Holy Land?

Hi, my name is Terence and I’m your host for Reading and Readers, a podcast where I review Christian books for you. Today I review “Jesus and the Land: The New Testament Challenge to ‘Holy Land’ Theology” by Gary M. Burge. 168 pages, published by Baker Academic in April 2010. Available in Amazon Kindle for USD15.99 and was USD3.99 last month, December, in Logos.

Theologian Writing on the Land

Burge is a New Testament scholar who has written, amongst many of his works, extensive commentaries on the Gospel of John and the Epistles of John. I have reviewed his commentary on the Letters of John from the NIV Application Commentary series. So from there I know what to expect of his views on modern day Israel. If you don’t know them, you will certainly know them by the end this review.

This book was published in 2010, but it might as well have been published today. The conflict in Israel-Palestine is still ongoing. The Jewish people and the Palestinians are still making exclusive claims to the land.

In his introduction, Burge writes:

This book asks how Christians should understand these competing land claims. Given our theological framework, what is the relationship between land and theology in the New Testament? What did Jesus and the New Testament writers think about the territorial claims of ancient Israel? Did they retain the view of the sanctity of Jerusalem and its Temple? Were they rethinking the relationship between faith and locale? Or were they confident that a sacred place was still to be held for believers?

Old Testament in Brief

Burge starts the book, in the Old Testament, in the time when God promises Abraham, “To your descendants I give this land…” This land, this promise, Burge charts the relationship of the children of Abraham to the land, from the Promise to the Conquest, from the Warning of Exile to the Return from Exile.

We see that the Old Testament doesn’t portray the Holy Land as prime real estate. Burge writes:

While it will be a good land, it will not be an easy land. This will be a land that demands faith. Far from being paradise, this is a land that will hone a people. For instance, without a central river system, agriculture must rely on God, who supplies the land with water through rainfall. Culturally the land will not be empty but will be filled with Canaanites (and others) who will tempt Israel to compromise its unique commitment to God. And politically, armies moving from Egypt to Mesopotamia will run through this land as if it were a highway and Israel will be forced to decide whether its security will be found in local treaties and alliances or in God, who promises to sustain its welfare.

Throughout the book, Burge makes his points from Scripture. For example, I quote:

Before Israel enters the land under Joshua’s leadership, Deuteronomy records Moses’ final words of encouragement and warning to the people.
(Deuteronomy 4:25-27)
When you have had children and children’s children, and become complacent in the land, if you act corruptly by making an idol in the form of anything, thus doing what is evil in the sight of the Lord your God, and provoking him to anger, I call heaven and earth to witness against you today that you will soon utterly perish from the land that you are crossing the Jordan to occupy; you will not live long on it, but will be utterly destroyed. The Lord will scatter you among the peoples; only a few of you will be left among the nations where the Lord will lead you.

Burge comments:

The severity of these words is stunning. This land is not simply a gift the giver has forgotten. It is a gift that has expectations for covenant holiness and justice. God is watching this land. He has personal expectations for this land. It is a land that should evoke memories of his own holiness.

Diaspora Jews

Burge covers the whole Old Testament in one chapter. Before he goes into the New Testament, Burge describes the world of the Diaspora Jews through the writings of Philo and Josephus. What happened during this time?

For one thing:

More Jews were living outside the holy Land than they were living in it. And this brought major implications to Jewish thinking and perspective.

What surprised me is that the Jewish people, before Christians came to the scene, were already moving the theological focus away from the land.

The Jews who were born outside of Israel, who married, did business and made a life outside, were still Jews in their customs and relationships. They were still making pilgrimages to Jerusalem, still paying the Temple tax and many wanted to be buried in the Holy Land, but many did not believe that to be a good Jew meant to rebel against the Romans, retake the Temple and reconstitute the Kingdom of Israel.

Jesus and the Land

This brings us to Chapter 3: “Jesus and the Land” and Chapter 4: “The Fourth Gospel and the Land”. Burge is a Johannine scholar so it makes sense for him to dedicate an entire chapter for the Fourth Gospel.

In these two chapters, Burge makes an incredibly persuasive case for how Jesus of the Gospels must have thought of territorial theology.

At one point, he notes:

First, Jesus is surprisingly silent with regard to the territorial aspirations and politics of his day. The national ambitions of Judaism under Rome constantly pressed Jewish leadership to respond. Either Judea was capitulating to the occupation or Judea had to organize to defeat it. However, Jesus is oddly silent about the debate. Moreover Jesus is curiously receptive to contact with the occupiers. In Matthew 8:5–13, he responds to the request of a Roman centurion whose valued servant was ill. Here we find no repulsion of the soldier, no condemnation of Gentiles, but rather we find receptivity and welcome. He says of the Roman: “Not even in Israel have I found such faith” (8:10). What emerges is a general impression that Israel’s national ambitions tied to reclaiming the land live on the margin of Jesus’ thinking.

If Christians are to give the land of Israel-Palestine some kind of special treatment (whatever that means), then we should get some cue from Jesus. But if Jesus did not care much for the dirt under his feet, then should we?

Do you remember how the Pharisees and Herodians asked Jesus, “Is it lawful to pay taxes to Caesar, or not?” We hear Jesus give the famous answer, “Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s.” Burge tells us, “We can fairly interpret this as a refusal to support the tax revolt” and later “The kingdom Jesus advocated could not be co-opted by a nationalistic movement that sought to win back the land by force.”

Speculative Points

In one section, Burge prepares a list of seven critical passages. I can’t go through them one by one but I want to share two of them. Not the most persuasive, but the most speculative.

In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus declared, “the meek shall inherit the earth.” The earth can also be translated as the land. And what would a Jew think when the words ‘inherit’ and ‘land’ come up? Well, he would be thinking of the Holy Land. And who does Jesus say will inherit the land? The meek, not the strong.

In Matthew 25:14-30, a rich man entrusts three servants with cash. Two of the servants invest and make a profit. But the third buries the money in the ground. Or as Burge suggests, ground can be translated as land. Is this parable a cautionary tale against territorial theology? Burge himself admits:

Such an interpretation is far from certain since it requires an allegorising of the story that is foreign and arbitrary to the story itself.

When a writer is willing to point out when his point is weak, more credit to him. Too many make too much out of too little. We should call it like it is, not as we hope.

We get the same level of insight and care as Burge gives us a sweeping survey of land theology in Acts, Galatians, Romans, Hebrews and Revelation in chapters 5, 6 and 7.

This excerpt is representative of his conclusions:

At no point do the earliest Christians view the Holy Land as a locus of divine activity to which the people of the Roman empire must be drawn. They do not promote the Holy Land either for the Jew or for the Christian as a vital aspect of faith. No Diaspora Jew or pagan Roman is converted and then reminded of the importance of the Holy Land. The early Christians possessed no territorial theology. Early Christian preaching is utterly uninterested in a Jewish eschatology devoted to the restoration of the land. The kingdom of Christ began in Judea and is historically anchored there but it is not tethered to a political realization of that kingdom in the Holy Land. Echoing the message of the Gospels, the praxis of the Church betrays its theological commitments: Christians will find in Christ what Judaism had sought in the land.

What Burge Does Not Say

As I grow to appreciate from this book, Jerusalem and the surrounding lands are important, Burge does not diminish their importance, but they are important historically, not theologically. Historically because Jerusalem is not Shangri-La. Abraham, David, Mary, Joseph, Jesus, Peter and Paul walked on the same dust Christian tourists walk on. The same dust, I observe, that Israel and Palestine spill blood for.

That’s my observation. As I read Burge’s analysis and conclusion, I marvel not just in what he says, but what he does not say.

He does not say anything about the current Israel-Palestine conflict, when he could easily do so.

For example, when he explains how the meek shall inherit the earth, it would be easy to take a shot at Christian Zionists. “When Israeli settlers take the land, are they meek?”

Burge mentions settlers once in the introduction to describe the relevance of the topic, says nothing about them for seven chapters, and he only mentions them again, and this time extensively, in the last chapter, chapter 8, where he discuses modern day Israel.

This approach to separate biblical interpretation from contemporary application respects the reader.

I don’t need to consider the righteousness of a particular cause, I just need to consider whether his interpretation is right.

I don’t need to wonder if it is correct the way he connects our 21st century concerns with the writings of 1st century Christians. If we interpret properly, we will know that 1st century Christians think a lot about the land. More than we do!They see Romans marching up and down it every day!

The Problem with Those Supporting Holy Land Theology

The absence of the modern day conflict in the earlier chapters does not mean the author is detached. Far from it! It is obvious he has strong passions but he aims to develop his theology first, before applying them to his concerns.

He writes:

Numerous writers have critiqued this movement extensively and found in its bold claims to territory (linked to eschatology) an angry and dangerous synthesis of theology and politics. Engaging their writings directly is difficult because it is a populist movement fueled by preachers who use its schema evangelistically. No carefully argued theological study has come from within its own ranks. No New Testament scholar has written in its defense. Its advocacy groups, such as Christians United for Israel, and Camera, are generally run by political activists. Its books come from the pens of popular television preachers or lobbyists. I have been invited to debate some of their leaders and find myself with people who have no training in theology. How can such a widespread movement in the Church be successful without a thoughtful theological undergirding?

He then continues with a scathing critique which I can only give you the headings without the detail:

  1. They fail to point out the indisputable biblical motif that land promise is strictly tied to covenant fidelity.
  2. They use the prophets to build their worldview, but they fail to hear what else the prophets had to say.
  3. They need to call Israel to live by biblical standards of life. The alien and sojourner should be protected because Israel was an alien and sojourner in Egypt.
  4. They are naive in applying the historic text of Israel’s ancient history to modern Israel.
  5. They fail to think Christianly about the subject of theology and the land. A scholar was able to affirm Zionism from the Old Testament, but Burge points out how he neglected to bring the New Testament to bear.

Explain The OT to Me

This brings me to my critique on the book as a whole.

The subtitle of the book is, “The New Testament Challenge to ‘Holy Land’ Theology”, but if one wants to make a deathblow to Holy Land Theology, we need as rigorous an interpretation of the Old Testament as well. We need an OT scholar writing alongside the NT scholar. The book would be thicker. Right now, it’s easy to read at 168 pages.

But one chapter for the Old Testament is too short. It’s not enough to convince supporters of ‘Holy Land’ theology who quote the OT.

Burge’s critique that territorial theology does not consider the New Testament is valid. But Christians at the pulpit and the pew, need help to make sense of the Old Testament text. It’s not enough to just say what the New Testament text says. As it is, it can look as if the OT and NT are shouting over each other.

Can a Two-State Solution Exist?

My second criticism is only a criticism because he did not address the question that emerged in my mind as I read his conclusions. Basically, Burge tells us that territorial theology is wrong because Jesus, Paul and all the New Testament writer has shifted the attention away from the land beneath their feet to the kingdom of God.

But is it possible that it’s a matter of timing? For example, Jesus said he was sent only to the lost children of Israel and with some exceptions, he kept to a tight area. Jesus did not preach in Athens, heal in Malta, or die in Rome. If we only had the Gospels, and didn’t have Acts or the epistles, we could conclude that the Gospel is limited to where Jesus worked.

“Ah hah!”, someone says, “That’s why we have Acts and the epistles.”

Which is my point, perhaps there is something in the Old Testament that would support some form of Holy Land theology.

Or consider how John the Baptist had to ask Jesus, “Are you the one, or should we expect another one?” He asked that because Jesus did not fulfil many of the prophecies expected of the Messiah.

Maybe the remaining Old Testament prophecies will be fulfilled in a time or manner that we do not expect?

In short, what I am asking is does Burge’s interpretation necessarily exclude territorial theology? Can both exist alongside just in different periods?

Based on my reading of this book, I think I know what Burge’s answer would be, but I would have liked to know definitively if a Two-State Solution can exist?

So Good, It’s Scary

Because, I’ll tip my hand now, I am as convinced as I can be that Burge’s approach, exposition, analysis and conclusion is right.

I always wished I had the time and ability to study the theological framework behind the Israel-Palestine conflict, and if I had half the ability of Burge, I would have attempted what he did, just go through Scripture, expound it and arrive at a conclusion that informs us on how we are to understand the world today.

I found myself agreeing so much with everything he writes that I questioned myself, “Am I living in the same echo-chamber as Gary Burge?” So near the end of the book, I told myself that if I wanted to make sure that my position here is stress-tested, I need to read a good book that argues the opposite.

And what do you know, Burge gives us a long list of books for further readings.

One list is for theological books. He introduces them:

There have been a limited number of treatments of the land motif in the Bible. Many work directly on the problem of land conflict in Israel-Palestine and then provide theological reflection as a feature of the ethical discussion. Others—Jewish and Palestinian writers—inevitably express their own narratives within the struggle.

Another list is on the modern day conflict itself. He recommends books from both sides of the debate written by ex-American President Jimmy Carter, current Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, a Palestinian Lutheran pastor and more.

In conclusion, to the Christian who has an opinion on the Israel-Palestinian conflict, I won’t say you must read this book, but I would say you must have a theological underpinning for your opinion. Your opinion needs to be informed by both the Old Testament and the New Testament. And if you want to be as well-informed as you can be on this issue that is often played on Christian sentiments, then I would recommend “Jesus and the Land: The New Testament Challenge to ‘Holy Land’ Theology”. It’s just as relevant as it was the day it was published 14 years ago, which is one of the rare cases where the writer must wish his book was less relevant today.


This is a Reading and Reader’s review of “Jesus and the Land” by Gary M. Burge. 168 pages, published by Baker Academic in April 2010. Available in Amazon Kindle for USD15.99 and was USD3.99 last month, December, in Logos.

I am currently reading the Logos free book for January. What better way to start the new year than to read “The Legacy of John Calvin: His Influence on the Modern World” by David W. Hall. If you are predestined to listen to it, I’ll see you then. Thank you for listening. Bye bye.

Book List

  • “Jesus and the Land” by Gary M. Burge. Amazon. Logos.