Colonna, S. J., Carlo. Gli Ebrei Messianici: Un segno dei tempi. Verona, Italy: Edizioni Fede & Cultura, 2009.

Colonna, S. J., Carlo. Gli Ebrei Messianici: Un segno dei tempi. Verona, Italy: Edizioni Fede & Cultura, 2009.

This is the first book on the Messianic Jewish movement of which I am aware to have been written by a Roman Catholic. The author, Fr Carlo Colonna, is a Jesuit priest serving as spiritual guide to a Catholic charismatic community, the Comunità di Gesù, in Bari, Italy. Under the leadership of Matteo Calisi, this community has in recent years hosted a series of annual conferences, on themes as diverse as ‘Justice and Peace,’ and ‘Praise and Worship.’ In 2004, they launched an annual ‘Dialogue’ between Catholics and Messianic Jews, with invited Messianic speakers, mostly from Israel and the United States. Fr Colonna has been part of all these meetings and in this book he shares what he has learned over the last five years. He is a theologian well versed in Catholic spirituality. This double expertise characterizes his book and gives it a particular value.

As one who has come to know Fr Carlo, I have been aware both of his scholarly gifts and his openness to Messianic Jews, though I have realized that his exposure to the Messianic movement has been limited, almost entirely restricted to the Messianic participants in the Bari meetings. In consequence, the picture given of the Messianic movement is somewhat idealistic, presenting the movement more as it could and maybe ought to become, rather than what it actually is at this point of its development. The major tensions in such issues as Torah observance, gentile membership of Messianic congregations, and different patterns of liturgy and worship are barely mentioned, along with the evident differences between the movement in Israel and in the United States. He does not show much awareness of the spectrum of Messianic theological positions surveyed now in Richard Harvey’s book Mapping Messianic Jewish Theology.1 Too optimistic, for example, are the references to Messianic Jews wishing to be in communion with the whole Christian world including the Catholic Church.

However, for this reviewer these weaknesses do not diminish the real value and contribution of Fr Colonna’s observations and reflections. The reason is that his reflection is primarily theological, and he shows a clear grasp of the essential challenges posed to the churches of the nations by the rise of the Messianic Jewish movement. In consequence, even if his descriptions are too rose-tinted, the challenges he identifies are the deepest challenges that will become even clearer as the Messianic Jewish movement continues to mature and is able to present a more united face to the churches. Being the first serious material available in Italian, his study will be particularly important for the Catholic world, seeing the place of the Italian language in the Vatican. Incidentally, soon after the book’s appearance, an article on the Messianic Jews appeared in a popular Italian magazine written by an archbishop heading a department in the Vatican—an article that was surprisingly sympathetic considering the author thought that Messianic Jews do not believe in the godhead of Jesus.

As a Catholic theologian, Colonna throws interesting light on the much-debated issue of Torah-observance. In a section on “La Questione delle Osservanze nella Storia della Chiesa” (The Question of Observances in the History of the Church), Colonna argues that observances are necessary and inevitable in the life and practice of the Church but that there is always the danger of the ever-greater accumulation of observances that then loses sight of their relationship to the heart of Christian faith in the person and teaching of Jesus. When this danger becomes acute, it gives rise to the radical protest of a Reformer like Luther. But such a protest cannot be the last word, as every faith-community has to offer ways to inter-relate faith, worship, and the conduct of life. Looking then at the Messianic Jewish movement, Colonna sees a threefold function in Messianic Jewish observance of traditional Jewish practices: first, to express their identity as a people once granted their new identity in the Messiah; second, to express their faith in Jesus through the re-interpretation of these observances in the light of the Messiah; and third to give a testimony as to the original charism (“calling”) of Israel as the chosen people.2

Colonna pays most attention to the teaching and writings of David Stern, Benjamin Berger, and Julia Blum, the latter two having taken part in one or more of the Bari conferences. He takes up the insistence of Stern on restoring the Jewishness of the Gospel, seeking to complete Stern’s position with reflections on its universal character. Colonna emphasizes the divine character of the Gospel that alone can impact and win over the hearts of all peoples. However, in his treatment of the relationship of the particular to the universal, the relationship of the Hebraic character of the Gospel to the divine, he is not clear enough on the way God chooses the particular to reach the universal. He clearly affirms the election of Israel. But when he writes: “L’ebraicità del Vangelo è solo l’aspetto umano entro il quale si manifesta la sua divinità” (“The Jewishness or the Hebraic character of the Gospel is only the human aspect through which its divinity is manifested), what concerns me is the “only.”3 This passage reminded me of the book Jesus of Nazareth by Joseph Ratzinger (Pope Benedict XVI) that fully recognizes the Jewish identity of Jesus but wants, I feel, to move too quickly from the particular in Israel and in the life and ministry of Jesus to the universal and catholic character of his teaching and mission.4 Interestingly, a paragraph in The Catechism of the Catholic Church contains this statement:

Their coming [of the wise men] means that pagans can discover Jesus and worship him as Son of God and Saviour of the world only by turning towards the Jews and receiving from them the messianic promise as contained in the Old Testament. The Epiphany shows that “the full number of the nations” now takes its “place in the family of the patriarchs,” and acquires Israelitica dignitas (is made “worthy of the heritage of Israel”).5

I recall hearing Cardinal Christoph Schonbörn, the Archbishop of Vienna, who earlier in his life served as secretary of the Commission that prepared the Catechism, explain at a Toward Jerusalem Council II consultation that the verb used in this sentence was deliberately expressed in the present not the past tense so that it remains true that “pagans” only discover Jesus by turning toward the Jews and the promises of the Old Testament.

While the first half of the book is primarily descriptive and evaluative, the second half is more visionary. It is here that Fr Colonna treats the Holocaust and the phenomenon of Jewish suffering, the Divine Presence and the Messianic Jews, the fullness of the Church and the contribution of the Messianic Jews and the mystery of Israel today.

Apart from alerting the Catholic Church in Italy to the existence of the Messianic Jewish movement, Colonna’s book could be helpful in correcting some imbalances in Catholic practice today concerning the attitude of the Church to the Jewish people. In practice, the Catholic Church has abandoned all efforts to win Jews to faith in Jesus the Christ. While the Catholic authorities have generally resisted the calls of some theologians to renounce all missions to the Jewish people, there have been no specific pronouncements on the need of the Jewish people for the Gospel message of salvation. In this situation, Colonna’s book is a valuable corrective. Interestingly, his teaching on Jesus as Savior of Israel comes in his section on the Shoah, where he writes: “To speak about the Holocaust in relation to the Messiah is not easy. However I am convinced that the terrible sufferings and the deep wounds inflicted on Israel in the tragic event of the Holocaust can only be understood, accepted and healed when Israel finds her messiah again.”6 He argues that Christians need to develop a “prophetic-sapiential” reading of history in place of the secularized view, so widely accepted today, that asserts that the relationship between Israel and Jesus is irrelevant for seeking an understanding of the Holocaust. For Fr Colonna the death of Jesus on the cross is a holocaust offering in the biblical sense as the total destruction of the victim offered to God in sacrifice. It can be understood in two opposite ways: the first as the work of Satan who sought to destroy the Son of God, and secondly as part of the plan of God for the world’s redemption. In the same way, he suggests, the Holocaust can be interpreted as the culmination of the workings of evil forces, and it can be interpreted by believers in Jesus Christ in the light of his death and resurrection. Colonna does not of course suggest that Israel is saved through the Holocaust, as his suggested reading is totally christocentric:

In the light of Christ, the center and the goal of history, we can say in all certitude that the election of Israel as people of God can only be understood in relationship to her Messiah, Jesus of Nazareth, and that the recognition of Jesus on the part of all Israel is near, that has begun with the phenomenon of the Messianic Jews.7

The blood of Jesus that covers Israel is always a salvific blood. Thus the participation in the sufferings of the Messiah at the time of the Holocaust becomes a salvific moment for Israel.8

There are elements in Fr Colonna’s theological argumentation that I have omitted in the interests of space, e.g., his reflections of the “hour of Jesus” and the intercession of Jesus for Israel, as the intention here is only to give readers of Kesher a basic sense of Fr Colonna’s position.

The section on the Holocaust leads on to an excellent treatment of the severity of God toward both Israel and the nations starting from Rom 11:22, leading to the complementarity of the kindness and the severity of God. Here Fr Colonna gives a thoroughly biblical account of these themes that will be “fully manifested in the world to come.”9 He seeks deliberately to counteract the contemporary tendencies to sentimentalize Christian faith that totally ignore the theme of severity that is so abundantly manifested in both Testaments. He is not afraid to treat here the apostasy of the nations, a theme that is taken up again in the final section on the mystery of Israel today (see below).

Eschatology is not as prominent in this book as the subject warrants, but it is not entirely absent. It enters in particular through a reflection on the divine presence in Israel that Fr Colonna addresses through the theme of the spousal love between God and Israel. The reply of Jesus in Matt 9:15 shows clearly that “Jesus, the Messiah, is the Spouse of Israel and that his coming indicates that the time of celebrating the nuptials between God and Israel has finally arrived.”10 Through Israel’s rejection of Jesus, the union can only be celebrated with those who form the remnant. Thus “The great phenomenon of the spiritual marriage between God and ‘all Israel’ implies the return of the Divine Presence to the midst of Israel.”11 “Can we say that the return of the DIVINE PRESENCE among the Messianic Jews signifies the start of its return to the midst of all Israel and in a particular way to Israel’s capital, Jerusalem?”12 Here Colonna takes up Isaiah 60 and referring to Matt 23:39 concludes: “When Jesus will be welcomed by ‘all Israel’, then the DIVINE PRESENCE will fill Jerusalem again and the glory of the Lord will shine upon her.”13

Fr Colonna is a committed advocate of Christian unity, and it was from this ecumenical background that he approached his first contacts with Messianic Jews. He had no idea that a Church without a Jewish component was lacking an essential element needed to complete the unity and the catholicity of the Body of Christ. When he encountered the Messianic Jews, Colonna quickly grasped the key character of the “one new man” passage in Ephesians 2, and so he sees the Messianic movement as a divinely sent gift for the unity of the whole body. It is here that he says again: “Because of the current Dialogue between the Catholic Church and the Jews a kind of silence has been created over the public prayer of Catholics for the conversion of the Jews to Christ. But Catholics cannot not pray for the fullness of the Church.”14 The ecumenical task of the Messianic Jews is twofold: first, toward “all Israel,” secondly, toward the nations. The Jewish rejection of Messiah separated the two Testaments that belong together and the Gentile rejection of Israel weakened their connection, so that a first task for the Messianic Jews is to bring this separation to an end. But this bringing together requires that the Messianic Jews must “assimilate [maybe not the happiest word!] all the riches of the New Testament that have been hidden from them for centuries.”15 Three particular ecumenical contributions need to come from the Messianic Jews: First, to show forth in a new way the element that is most important for the unity of Christians. This is the new birth that truly makes the authentic believer the image of Christ. Second, to bring back to the center of all work for unity the “holy root of Israel” through which the union between Jewish and Gentile believers is “the first and most fundamental form of ecclesial unity.”16 Third is to bring “all Israel” into the Church. Fr Colonna shows an awareness of the heavy Catholic history in relation to the Jewish people but clearly has less experience of the great difficulty that many Messianic Jews have in relating positively to the Catholic Church. It is a pity here that he does not discuss the necessity for a full and humble Catholic confession of the sins of history that alone can remove these barriers.

In the final section, Colonna identifies four stages in the relationship between Israel and the nations: first, from the birth of Israel to the coming to earth of Jesus Christ; second, the time from the first coming of Jesus to the point of separation between Israel and the nations with the Church becoming in effect the Church of the Gentiles; the third is the period of the Jewish Diaspora, during which Israel is in exile bearing the marks of her rejection of the Messiah; during this period,

The sin of the Jews has also been perpetrated by the nations of the earth. Today the true believers in Jesus the Messiah have become a ‘remnant’ in the midst of the unbelief of the nations just as at the beginning the Jewish believers formed a remnant in relation to the whole of unbelieving Israel.17

In the fourth period, which has now begun, Israel has politically recovered her own land and it becomes essential for Israel to recover her full dignity as the people of God born from divine and not merely human roots.

This new mission of Israel is finally to restore a divine soul to the nations of the earth that have become pagan again, but this cannot happen without Israel returning en masse to the Messiah, to her Messiah . . . The same God of the origins is the God of the end and the end will see the nations of the earth and Israel united in the worship of the one God of his Messiah.18

While this book is unlikely to be translated into other languages, it can be useful for Messianic leaders to be aware of it when they are in contact with Catholic bishops and priests (to be recommended), many of whom know Italian.

Fr Peter Hocken is a Catholic scholar resident in Vienna, Austria.

  1. Richard Harvey, Mapping Messianic Jewish Theology: A Constructive Approach (Milton Keynes: Paternoster, 2009).
  2. Colonna, Gli Ebrei Messianici, 83–85.
  3. Ibid., 57.
  4. Joseph Ratzinger, Jesus of Nazareth (New York: Doubleday, 2007).
  5. The Catechism of the Catholic Church (2d ed.; revised in accordance with the official Latin text promulgated by Pope John Paul II; New York: Doubleday, 1995), para. 528.
  6. Colonna, Gli Ebrei Messianici, 124.
  7. Ibid., 131.
  8. Ibid., 132.
  9. Ibid., 145.
  10. 10. Ibid., 147.
  11. 11. Ibid., 148
  12. 12. Ibid., 151.
  13. 13. Ibid., 152.
  14. 14. Ibid., 158–59.
  15. 15. Ibid., 161.
  16. 16. Ibid., 163.
  17. 17. Ibid., 171–72.
  18. 18. Ibid., 173.
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