In my last posting I mentioned how in Jewish life the term “four questions” has a long pedigree. I also suggested four question about Messianic Jewish identity which all revolve around one central concern: “With respect to the wider Jewish community, who should we Messianic Jews consider ourselves to be?”
I supplied four alternatives. Today I want to briefly address each of them.
Should Jewish believers in Yeshua see ourselves as members of that faithful remnant drawn from out of Israel?
I see two big negatives in seeing ourselves in this manner.
- First, this paradigm positions us outside of our people–it is a paradigm of before/after, of us/them.
- Second, if we see ourselves as the faithful remnant drawn from out of Israel, we immediately classify all other Jews as one down, as less faithful, we stigmatize even the brightest, most morally admirable, and learned of Israel, many of whom devote all aspects of their lives to kiddush HaShem (the sanctification of God’s Name through worthy living) as one down to us. That surely seems to do violence to the truth and certainly to any relationship we might have with our people.
Should we see ourselves to be the new Israel, as part of that new Israel which is the Church?
- This establishes even a greater distance from our people, Israel. Here we are part of another community, while consigning our people to an extinct status.
Should we see ourselves to be the prior Israel, viewing ourselves to be more “bibilical” and less “rabbinic” and therefore having a greater claim on authenticity and on the love of God than that people Israel which has existed for millennia and which exists now, but which somehow departed from the truth when Yeshua came?
- Although not usually labeled as the “prior” Israel, this is, sadly, a position widely assumed, but not generally articulated so baldly as I do here. In some circles, Rabbinic Judaism is stigmatized as “unbiblical” while those who hold to this position view themselves to be more (strictly) biblical and therefore more legitimate and more pleasing to God. This is of course to blithely impose Protestant categories onto the Bible, onto Judaism, and onto reality as a whole. The fact remains that there never was a group of Jews that practiced “biblical Judaism,” that is, there has never been a Jewish community that did not discuss among themselves “How do we do this?” “What comes first?” “What if X, Y, or Z happens?” In other words there has always inevitably been some sort of “Oral Torah” as there is in every religious community that must make decisions as to the what, when, how, and what first of religious practice. No one operates solely from the Bible, nor has anyone ever done so! To label ourselves the “prior” Israel or the “biblical Israel” is an exercise in ignorance, credulity and conceit. In fact, examining the Bible we can see that oral tradition must have preceded written tradition. Moses spoke to the people the words God gave him before the written record was provided!
- This view is wrong also for postulating a vacating, diverting, or lessening of God’s love for his people Israel. We should never forget that it is God who temporarily and partially blinded Israel to who Yeshua is as a means of bringing salvation to the nations. A careful reading of Paul in Romans 9-11 shows the falsity of any paradigm that postulates a lessening, or, God forbid, a nullifying of God’s love for his people Israel. As Paul sums up his argument, “as regards election, they are beloved for the sake of their forefathers. For the gifts and the calling of God are irrevocable” (Romans 11:28-29).
Should we see ourselves to be part of the faithful Yeshua-believing remnant within the people Israel?
I would suggest definitely yes! This paradigm allows and encourages us to exercise our function as agents of renewal within Israel rather than separatist critics. We are faithful to Yeshua as we have known him, yes, but this does not mean that we discount the religious faithfulness of wider Israel. This is a positive stance that enables us to be true to our calling without negating the calling and dignity of our people.
Astute readers will object that this paradigm leaves unstated and perhaps unsupported any link between Jewish believers in Yeshua and the Church from among the nations. This objection is well answered if one adopts what Mark Kinzer has taught us to call “a bilateral ecclesiology” by which it is only through the community/communities of Jewish Yeshua believers living as Jews within Israel that we can serve as a living link to the Church from among the nations so that these may become an on the ground part of the commonwealth of Israel, linked in a flesh and blood manner with a flesh and blood people in the midst of time.
Kinzer points out how the great David Noel Friedman wistfully spoke of this as far back as 1969. Speaking of Paul’s one new man in Ephesians, he said this:
Paul’s ingenious and effective exegesis created a single citizenship in the Christian commonwealth; it was divided into two classes, equal but separate: Jews and Gentiles. Jews who became Christians would continue to be Jews, while Gentiles would become Christians without also becoming Jews. All would share the same promises and perquisites, receive the same status and rights, but each community would order its own polity and practice.
Thus, a two-house theory of Christianity emerged from the first generation experience, a provisional solution to an immediate problem. In principle and ultimately in fact there was no distinction between Jew and Gentile in the Church, but there was in practice, for it was at least as important to maintain the integrity and continuity of the Jewish group as to establish the freedom and autonomy of the Gentile community. As a result, the Jewish Christians were able to have active and effective relations with Gentile Christians and at the same time retain operating status in the non-Christian Jewish community. Thus a link was forged, however tenuous, between Christianity and Judaism, and it persisted as long as the Jewish Christian community continued to exist. This halfway house with conduits to both sides could serve as meeting place and mediator, communication center and symbol of the continuity to which both enterprises belonged.
- David N. Freedman, “An Essay on Jewish Christianity” (1969), reprinted in Divine Commitment and Human Obligation: Selected Writings of David Noel Freedman, vol. 1, Ancient Israelite History and Religion (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1997), 246–47.
This is certainly something to think about from one of the very best biblical scholars!