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Is Palestinian Liberation Theology biblical? Part 2

Updated: Mar 13, 2023



(For most evangelicals, the narrative of the Gospel climaxes in Yeshua’s death and resurrection. “Salvation is found in no one else” (Acts 4:12 NIV). But others see Jesus in a different light—separated from his ultimate task. We tend to re-create Jesus into our own image, while he created us in his image (Gen 1:26). In this series, we are exploring one such "re-creation" - Palestinian Liberation Theology, as popularized by Naim Ateek. If you missed Part 1 last week, you can read it here.)


The Holocaust

Naim Ateek’s words regarding the Holocaust reveal a grave disconnect to the severity of the worst genocide in human history[1]:


By the end of the 1948 war, the dispossessed Palestinians numbered over 750,000. Most people in the West were not aware of this side of the tragedy. The Palestinian Arabs were largely invisible to the eyes of the West. They were overshadowed by the victims of the Holocaust, whose plight received greater significance and publicity.[2]

He states that the Holocaust got more press. That is like saying, what a shame that the Superbowl got more publicity than a high school football state championship. It seems that he equates the issue of 750,000 living Palestinian refugees with the systemic, inhumane murder through gassing, shooting, rape, strangling, freezing, etc., of 6,000,000 Jews. No one did sadistic experiments on the Palestinians like Joseph Mengele did on Jews.

To be clear, I have a heart for the plight of the Palestinians, but Ateek doesn’t seem to understand that the reason that the Holocaust overshadowed the Palestinian refugees’ issue is simply because it was a greater tragedy in every way possible.

And he also fails to even mention the 650,000 or so Jewish refugees who fled their countries (Iraq, Iran, Morocco, Syria, Egypt, Yemen, and more) in the wake of the creation of Israel either by force, discrimination, or simply a desire to be part of the Jewish nation. The Jews of Iraq could only take $140 with them!

In Chapter four, Ateek shows more of a bias, calling the Holocaust “one of the worst holocausts of the 20th century.”[3] That is like saying Noah’s flood was one of the worst floods in ancient history. The Holocaust was the worst in HUMAN HISTORY! “In light of the enormity of the Holocaust, the rights and wishes of over a million Palestinian Arabs in Palestine seemed trivial and insignificant.”[4] He claims that Palestinians were the “scapegoats” and had to “pay the price” with the loss of their homeland. But this is false.


  1. Israel offered peace to the Arabs, and it was rejected over and over again. It is a fact that had the Palestinians accepted peace with Israel in 1947, there would never have been a Palestinian refugees issue.

  2. “Palestine” is the homeland of the Jewish people as well. It is a historical fact that the Jewish people had a kingdom in ancient Israel. If only they had perished like the Hittites, the Jebusites were the Philistines… well, it wasn’t for lack of trying. I wish that Naim Ateek could see the hand of God preserving the Jewish people against 52 attempted genocides.[5]


PLT Theology

In Ateek’s two books on PLT, the theology is lacking. It is very weak in finding texts that proclaim a political liberation. In his first book, Justice and Only Justice, he uses the Ahab/Naboth model, as mentioned in part 1. In A Palestinian Liberation Theology, he looks to Luke.


He claims Luke 4:16-18 has Jesus “call[ing] for activism on behalf of the underdog and the oppressed people of the world.”[6] “Freedom of the prisoners,” Robert Stein says, “is to be understood metaphorically.”[7] How do we know this? Because Jesus, though having the power, did not deliver Israel from Roman occupation. Yet, he did set people free some Satan's dominion and gave them new life in the Spirit. Stein, like most commentators, believes, “‘blind’ refers symbolically to those who are ‘spiritually blind.’”[8] What did he do? He set people free from sin, demon possession, and sickness. He didn’t demonstrate against Rome, but he did encourage going the “extra mile” for Roman soldiers![9]


Widow: Prayer Warrior or Social Justice Warrior?

Ateek misuses the parable of the unjust judge. A woman goes to an unjust judge and demands justice. Her persistence finally convinces the unjust judge to grant her request. Ateek sees this as a call to activism on behalf of the oppressed. This is not about political liberation but prayer. Jesus tells us: “Then Jesus told his disciples a parable to show them that they should always pray and not give up” (Luke 18:1).


Ateek completely changes Jesus’ meaning claiming, “The judge represented empire and people of power, hence the injustice and oppression. The widow represented the vulnerable, the poor, and the oppressed.”[10] In context, the judge represents God. Jesus is saying that if an unjust judge will respond to requests, how much more will a loving God answer prayer. “[T]his parable shows that if even an evil man can be made to deal justly by a persistent woman, how much more would God, who loves his people, care for their requests.”[11] It is the classic Jewish hermeneutical methodology called kal v’chomer (how much more). We see it in Luke 11 when Jesus says that if evil earthly fathers will give good things to their children, kal v’chomer will God give us his Spirit! And the widow represents any believer, regardless of class, crying out to God.


Jesus could heal the sick, raise the dead, and command the weather. When they came to arrest him, they fell down as he said, “I am he”[12] (John 18:6). He could have led a revolution. Michael Brown says, “A Messiah who establishes peace on earth without first establishing peace in our hearts is really no Messiah at all.”[13] The Jews wanted a Savior like PLT adherents imagine, but they got something better. “They pictured their Messiah as a conqueror who would free them from Rome. Instead, Jesus was a conqueror who would free them from sin.”[14]


This goes back to Ateek’s misinterpretation of Luke 4. “When quoting Isaiah, he stops in midsentence and refuses to call on God’s vengeance against non-Jews.”[15] Ateek sees Jesus critiquing Isaiah’s racial superiority. Barton expresses the traditional view: “The next phrase in Isaiah 61:2, however, is ‘and the day of vengeance of our God.’ This will not be fulfilled until Jesus returns to earth again. We are now under God’s favor; his wrath is yet to come.”[16]


The Hebrew scriptures, many of which Ateek doesn’t receive, predict Messiah coming back as a warrior to defend Israel.[17] However, Luke 4, focuses on the mission of his first coming.

Palestinian Jesus

One of the most confusing claims from PLT is that the Palestinian Christians are the ancestors of the first Christians. Mitri Raheb is from Bethlehem and is also an authority on PLT.


Being born just across the street from where Jesus was born, I always loved to say that most probably one of my great, great, great-grandmas used to babysit for Jesus. Actually, the Palestinian Christians are the only ones in the world that, when they speak about their forefathers and foremothers, they mean both: their actual foreparents, as well as the very patriarchs and matriarchs of the faith.[18]

The New Testament tells a different story. Bethlehem was not a “Palestinian” city but “the town of David” (Luke 2:11), who was the king of Israel. Raheb’s great-grandmother could’ve babysat Jesus—if she was Jewish, not Palestinian, as the first believers were Jewish.


Ateek writes, “The Palestinian people are the offspring of all the ancient tribes that inhabited Canaan … from time immemorial.”[19] He is saying that Palestinians predate Abraham. DNA proves that both Jews and Palestinians (like other Arabs in the region) can trace their roots back to the ancient Canaanites,[20] but there are no ancient Palestinian people—politically or culturally.


Ateek admits that the region only became officially known as Palestine in the 2nd century[21] when the Romans changed it from Judea. Even then, it had nothing to do with a Palestinian ethnicity. Until Israel was rebirthed, everyone in the region identified as Palestinian. The Jerusalem Post used to be “The Palestine Post.” The Jordanian daily paper was called Falastin,[22] showing that Palestine was a large multi-ethnic region but never a country or ethnicity. It is only since Israel became a nation that they suddenly became a distinct people. This is why Newt Gingrich said, "I think that we've had an invented Palestinian people who are in fact Arabs and who were historically part of the Arab community." When the UN offered to partition Palestine, they called for a Jewish state and an Arab state, not a Palestinian state.[23] The table of contents of the Peel Commission lists “The Jews in Palestine” and “the Arabs in Palestine.”


But like Linda Sarsour, Arafat, and Mahmoud Abbas,[24] Ateek claims, “Jesus Christ was a Palestinian.”[25] Jesus was a Jew at a time when no one identified as a Palestinian. This is a form of ethnic cleansing of the New Testament’s Jewish narrative.

Listing the occupations of Palestine, Rehab writes it began “with the Assyrians (722 BC), the Babylonians (587 BC), and the Persians (538 BC), followed by the Greeks (333 BC), the Romans (63 BC), the Byzantines (326), the Arabs (637), the Tartars (1040), the Crusaders (1099), the Mongols (1401), the Ottomans (1516), the British (1917), and the Israelis (1948/67), ….”[26]


  1. Notice, Israel is missing! Israel ruled the region from the late 1200s BCE until 586 BCE and then again during the Hasmonean dynasty.

  2. He leaves out the Jordan occupation of the West Bank, where they did not seek a Palestinian state (1948-1967). If Palestinians were ethnically different from Jordanians, they would have created a Palestinian nation in 1949.

  3. At no place in his list is there an independent Palestine.

If you walk into the Davidson Center in Israel's old city, there is a timeline of every entity that has ruled the land we call Israel. The one name that is not on that timeline is Palestine.


The Kingdom of Israel

Like Calvin,[27] Raheb does not have the Jewish mindset of the disciples, as he discusses Acts 1:6.


[T]he first question the disciples ask Jesus after the resurrection is, “Lord, when are you going to restore the kingdom?” As if this kingdom was ever functional! The Bible tells us that it was all failure, total failure and the disciples, after three years with Jesus, didn’t have any other question except this. What a disaster. And what is the answer of Jesus? “You will receive power when you receive the Holy Spirit and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in Judea, in Samaria and to the ends of the world.”[28]

Jews in the first century knew that Messiah comes to build an international kingdom from Jerusalem. It is all throughout the prophets. This wasn’t a stupid question, and Jesus doesn’t rebuke them—nor does he respond as Raheb says. Raheb forgets the crucial verse 7. “It is not for you to know the times or dates the Father has set by his own authority” (Acts 1:7). In other words, God will do it in his timing, but for now, spread the gospel.


Canceling the canon

Ateek concludes his book with a startling statement. “[W]e can no longer say simply that the Bible is the word of God.” He has spent the previous pages carving out which scriptures are valid and which ones aren’t. He claims Jesus did not uphold Numbers, Joshua, or Judges.[29] Anything that promises the land of Israel to the Jewish people is “tribal” and outdated.[30] Ezra and Nehemiah are not heroes but fanatics. “Nehemiah’s words disregarded the fact that Jerusalem, according to the biblical account, was not a town of Judah but was conquered by David by force against the will of its indigenous Jebusite (Canaanite) inhabitants (2 Sam 5:6–9).”[31] The Bible refers to Jerusalem as the City of David.[32] Ateek says passages that are exclusive or Zionistic “do not contain any word from God for us.”[33]


Conclusion

Liberation theology isn’t a biblical theology. It is a manipulation of the mission of Jesus, usurped for nationalistic purposes. Should we be concerned about the Palestinian plight? Absolutely! The Bible speaks about justice, and we should continue to look for a just solution for Palestinians.


Though I maintain that they’re not an ancient ethnicity, they have grouped together and become one. Though I believe that God has promised the land of Israel to Abraham’s seed, he also expects us to act humanely. But PLT blames Israel alone. There is no mention of the racist treatment Palestinians endure from other Arab countries, who, despite massive wealth, have done little to liberate Palestinians from refugee camps. Israel absorbed about the same number of refugees and immigrants in its first few years without such capital.


PLT deals unrighteously with sacred texts. Ateek even says much of the scripture is not the word of God. PLT denies God the right to continue to work through Israel in this present age. This is an anti-Semitic theology, as it ignores other injustices and occupations outside of Israel.


Ateek is silent on Hamas. Does he think that if Israel disappeared today, there’d be a functioning government in Palestine tomorrow? Yasser Arafat died a billionaire, stealing from his own people. Hamas terrorizes the people of Gaza. If they want to see the liberation of the Palestinian people, they must look beyond Israel. They must look inwardly.


Asher Intrater sums it up well.


The living conditions for many of the Palestinians are far below standards, and often tragic. We as Messianic Jews need to address the situation with great compassion; without any sense of racial or religious superiority; and with a special degree of honor and respect. At the same time, we need to address their sense of anger and revenge against Israel and the Jewish people by asking the question as to what has been the primary cause of their difficult living situation. How much has been caused by Israeli injustice against them, and how much has been caused by a militant Jihadist worldview? There have been disastrous situations across the Middle East because of Jihadi extremism in Iraq, Syria, Iran, Lebanon, and Northern Africa. Those situations had little or nothing to do with Israeli policy. Is it possible that with a more constructive attitude about cooperation between Israelis and Palestinians, the current disastrous situation could be improved?[34]

Final word: For 2,000 years, Jews were treated horribly, everywhere. Jews were falsely accused of poisoning wells, host desecration (that means torturing consecrated communion wafers—I am not joking!), re-crucifying Jesus, kidnapping children for Passover blood rituals, and more. For this, Jews were hunted down, persecuted, and killed. Like sheep to the slaughter, 6,000,000 were slain by Hitler. After the Holocaust, a new Jew emerged, who understood that the world would never treat the Jewish people fairly and had to look to self-determination. They took their destiny into their own hands and said, “no more.” This posture has produced the Jewish state, a home, and refuge for the Jewish people. However, this, too, has caused controversy. This writer in no way rejoices over the difficult plight of Palestinian Arabs but understands that to capitulate to extremists in Hamas or the PLO is an existential threat to the state of Israel.

[1] “List of Genocides,” Wikipedia, accessed March 1, 2023, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_genocides [2] Ateek, A Palestinian Theology of Liberation, introduction, Kindle. [3] Ateek, A Palestinian Theology of Liberation, chap. 4, Kindle. [4] Ateek, A Palestinian Theology of Liberation, chap. 4, Kindle. [5] In conversation with Israeli Tour Guide Hannah ben Haim, who received this from Yad Hashem Museum. [6] Ateek, A Palestinian Theology of Liberation, chap. 5, Kindle. [7] Robert H. Stein, Luke, vol. 24, The New American Commentary (Nashville: Broadman & Holman Publishers, 1992), 156. [8] Stein, Luke, 156. [9] Matt. 5:41. “This is an allusion to the forced labor that soldiers could demand of ordinary citizens, commandeering them to carry their loads a certain distance (one mile, the term for one thousand paces). The Jews hated this law because it forced them to show their subjection to Rome. Yet Jesus said to take the load and willingly go two miles. Jesus called for a serving attitude (as he himself exemplified throughout his life and especially at the cross).” Bruce B. Barton, Matthew, Life Application Bible Commentary (Wheaton, IL: Tyndale House Publishers, 1996), 103–104. [10] Ateek, A Palestinian Theology of Liberation, chap. 5, Kindle. [11] Bruce B. Barton, Luke, Life Application Bible Commentary (Wheaton, IL: Tyndale House Publishers, 1997), 410. [12] With these words, he declared his deity (as in 8:58). Bruce B. Barton, John, Life Application Bible Commentary (Wheaton, IL: Tyndale House, 1993), 353. [13] Michael Brown, Jesus/Yeshua: Who is He? (Self-published, Michael Brown, 1985) [14] Barton, Luke, 95. [15] Ateek, A Palestinian Theology of Liberation, chap. 7, Kindle. [16] Barton, Luke, 94. [17] Ps 2, Zech 12, 14, Rev 19:11ff. [18] Mitri Raheb, “Contextual Palestinian Theology as it Deals with Realities on the Ground,” in Christ at the Checkpoint: Theology in the Service of Justice and Peace, ed. Paul N. Alexander (Eugene: Pickwick Publications, 2012), 173-178. [19] Ateek, A Palestinian Theology of Liberation, chap. 2, Kindle. [20] “The origin of Palestinians and their genetic relatedness with other Mediterranean populations,” National Institutes of Health, October 2001, https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/11543891. [21] Ateek, A Palestinian Theology of Liberation, chap. 2, Kindle. [22] There is no P sound in Arabic, so F/Ph is used. Falastin is Palestine. [23] See map of Partition plan: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/United_Nations_Partition_Plan_for_Palestine#/media/File:UN_Palestine_Partition_Versions_1947.jpg [24] David Parsons, “No truth to the Palestinian Jesus,” Jerusalem Post, July 11, 2019, https://www.jpost.com/opinion/no-truth-to-the-palestinian-jesus-595393. (Parsons is the vice president and senior spokesman for the International Christian Embassy in Jerusalem.) [25] Ateek, A Palestinian Theology of Liberation, chap. 4, Kindle. [26] Mitri Raheb, Faith in the Face of Empire: The Bible through Palestinian Eyes (Maryknoll: Orbis Books, 2014), Introduction. [27]Calvin said, “There are as many errors in this question as words.” John Calvin, “Calvin's Commentaries,” Vol. 36: Acts, Part I, tr. by John King, [1847-50], Sacred Texts, accessed on February 22, 2023, https://www.sacred-texts.com/chr/calvin/cc36/cc36010.htm. [28] Raheb, “Contextual Palestinian Theology as it Deals with Realities on the Ground,” 177. [29] Ateek, A Palestinian Theology of Liberation, chap. 6, Kindle. [30] Ateek, A Palestinian Theology of Liberation, chap. 6, Kindle. [31] Ateek, A Palestinian Theology of Liberation, chap. 6, Kindle. [32] Isaiah 22:9, Nehemiah 3:15, 12:37, to name few. [33] Ateek, A Palestinian Theology of Liberation, chap. 10, Kindle. [34] Asher Intrater, email to author, February 23, 2023. Intrater is in regular dialogue with Palestinian Christian leaders.

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