Mark Kinzer has recently authored a very important book on Messianic Judaism. The book is clearly and logically presented and persuasive, however, I do have some disagreements.
A HERMENEUTIC OF LOVE
The first chapter of Kinzer’s book provides us with a very helpful hermeneutic. When the teaching of Scripture is clear, we are to be submitted to this teaching. Sometimes texts are capable of different overall interpretations. When this is the case, we should choose a probable interpretation that is more loving. This is the one that will have good consequences.
Christian history, with some notable exceptions, shows the terrible consequences of replacement theology (supersessionism). This teaches that the church has replaced Israel. Kinzer shows that while some texts may be so construed, it is not necessary to interpret them in this way. Other texts clearly repudiate replacement theology. When one sees the consequences of replacement theology in history, we have the responsibility to interpret texts graciously and in keeping with respect for Israel and world Jewry. This is a persuasive argument.
JEWISH CALLING AND PRACTICE
In addition, unless Jews who embrace Yeshua maintain their identity and connection to the Jewish community, replacement theology will still be found lurking in the background. If Yeshua-believing Jews assimilate into the larger Christian world, the Jewish people are diminished. Do some Christians and Jewish Christians unwittingly give themselves to an orientation, which if fully successful, would lead to the disappearance of the Jewish people? Jews who primarily identify with Christian churches as now constituted do not raise their children with an adequate Jewish identity. The historical evidence for this is more than overwhelming. This has led Michael Wyschogrod to assert that the church will not have fully repudiated replacement theology until it teaches baptized Jews in its midst that they are responsible to maintain Jewish life according to Torah.
Kinzer’s very powerful conclusion is the necessity of a bilateral ecclesiology. What does Kinzer mean by this phrase? It is that Yeshua-believers are to express themselves in two distinct movements yet still show they are one. One movement consists of Jews in Messianic Jewish congregations with Gentiles who have a special call to be part of these congregations. Their faith is expressed in a context of Jewish practice and culture. The second movement is of those from the nations who form congregations that reflect their cultures while maintaining loving unity with the Jewish ekklesia. The ekklesia of the Jewish Yeshua-believers should have their own institutions and government. Their members should also, as much as possible, be part of the larger Jewish community.
I am in agreement with the basic thrust of this argument. It was the position I took in Jewish Roots: A Foundation of Biblical Theology.1 Kinzer’s book adds weight and bolsters the arguments I presented there.
Kinzer surveys the New Testament to see if it supports his position. I am happy to say that the exegesis and scholarly support is very strong. Unlike much of liberal scholarship, Kinzer takes the book of Acts seriously. The picture of Paul as a practicing Jew becomes an interpretive key to Paul’s letters. In addition, there is more than enough evidence in Rom 9-11 to show that the picture in Acts is no fabrication.
His examination of the Synoptic Gospels and John shows that nothing in them counts against the calling of Jewish life for Jewish Yeshua/Believers. The four Gospels support this calling. We are all familiar with texts that show this support (Matt 5:17-19). Kinzer does a masterful job of dealing with texts that support Jewish life but are not so obvious. He also deals with texts that seem to undercut the continued importance of Jewish life in the New Covenant (e.g., declaring all foods clean in Mark 7 and John’s apparent distancing from the Jewish community).
The greatest exegetical weakness in Kinzer’s argument is the idea that bilateral ecclesiology prevailed in the Diaspora. It does not seem that Paul planted two types of congregations in the Diaspora. This need not undercut Kinzer’s thrust. The expectation of the final apocalyptic events reduced the concern to prepare future generations. In addition, the early communities of Paul were still very rooted in Jerusalem. Unity with Jerusalem was a large concern of the great shaliach. Yeshua-believers saw themselves as still a part of their people. The thesis of Mark Nanos bolsters this argument which Kinzer credits. According to Nanos, the Roman congregation consisted of Jewish Yeshua-believers and Gentile Yeshua-believers who were counseled to act in deference to weaker-faith persons, understood as Jews who have not yet embraced Yeshua. At any rate, both the history of Judaism and Christianity and an extended historical perspective does lead us to a bilateral ecclesiology as the primary structure for maintaining the unity of the new humanity and the identity of Jewish Yeshua-believers. Thus, Kinzer rightly sees that Jewish identity is not an individualistic matter but a communal matter.
Kinzer’s argument is rooted in Moses appointing judges for Israel. The rabbis legitimately claimed to inherit that function. Their authority provides practices and traditions that are an important part of Jewish life and identity. There can be no significant Judaism that is not rooted in rabbinic Judaism. This authority is qualified however: rabbinic teaching and practice must be consistent with Scripture.
I do not think that Kinzer adequately deals with the superceding authority of the apostles (Matt 16, 21). Binding and loosing is given to the apostles and their successors. So we find ourselves dealing with a dual authority structure. In addition, the problem is not just specific rabbinic enactments that contradict Scripture. Those enactments, which are not in accord with the larger thrust of the spirit of the New Covenant, are not to be followed. The New Covenant presents a covenantal nomism that eschews the legalism of multiplied detail, which dominated later rabbinic orthodoxy. The revisions of Conservative and Reform Judaism transcend this legalism in a helpful way. So my approach to rabbinic Judaism is a yes and a no; it honors our fathers and mothers, yet also seeks to discern that which is not in accord with the spirit of the New Covenant.
JEWISH REDEMPTIVE SUFFERING
Kinzer presents us with a very high view of Judaism and Jewish history. Jewish suffering is seen as parallel to Yeshua. The redemptive value of Jewish suffering is not an uncommon idea in contemporary theology and Jewish-Christian dialogue. How shall we evaluate this? My view of Judaism is not as high as Kinzer’s, though I believe my view is properly respectful. Both Judaism and Jewish history show both suffering for faithfulness and suffering due to the trajectory set by the Sanhedrin in the first century when our leaders failed to embrace the apostolic witness. This failure provided a great temptation to the Gentile Yeshua-believers. Sadly, they fully fell into that temptation. Kinzer and many theologians wrestle with the dimension of God’s predestination in Israel’s partial hardening for the benefit of the Gentiles and with the matter of culpable responsibility. Both are involved in proportions we cannot measure. We live with an awesome paradox.
POSTMISSIONARY MESSIANIC JUDAISM
Kinzer’s high regard for Judaism and Jewish peoplehood, and the sad history of a good part of the church lead him to posit a postmissionary Messianic Judaism. Postmissionary includes eschewing all forms of missionary work which lead to the assimilation of Jews and a diminishing of the Jewish community. This has been the effect of missions. In my view, postmissionary Messianic Judaism does include witness; for it is the goal that Israel embraces Yeshua, our eschatological hope. This is a key motive for Paul’s mission to the Gentiles because their fullness will lead to Israel’s salvation.
However, I have other questions for this thesis. Do individual Jews need to embrace Yeshua to be saved, or to have everlasting life? Is the matter only about moving history toward the eschaton? Is Judaism so good, true, beautiful and adequate? Is it true to say that, while embracing Yeshua in a Jewish context may be best, nevertheless, traditional Judaism, in a way unawares, connects one to Yeshua too? If we believe this, our approach to our people will change. Messianic Jews and Christians will love, serve and still hope for some Jews to embrace Yeshua. They will hope for the great change at the end of this age. However, the motive of gospel urgency for salvation will be eliminated.
I believe we should not make ultimate judgments about the destiny of individuals as I argued in Jewish Roots. The grace of God is available to Jews through Judaism as it was in the pre-Yeshua period. I also argued that an adequate response to God’s grace is exceptional. I do not think that Scripture supports Kinzer’s more happy analysis of the condition of religious Jews or such a high view of the adequacy of post-Yeshua Judaism.
This leaves us with some questions. How can we account for the biblical statements in John which passionately call for Jews to make a life and death existential decision for Yeshua? How do we understand the preaching of Paul, and the pattern in Acts? Would Paul wish himself to be personally accursed so that Jews would have a richer faith than their already adequate but weaker faith? Or does Paul perceive a tragic condition of his people, though paradoxically still a chosen people? For Jews as well as Gentiles, the positive response to the gospel is presented in the New Covenant Scriptures: the way to enter the kingdom of God, the kingdom that has already come, but is still not yet.
I believe that this aspect of post-missionary Messianic Judaism will not help us grow in numbers of Jewish adherents but will blunt a key motive of witness. Most Messianic Jews have come to New Covenant faith because they believed they needed to make an explicit decision for Yeshua “to be saved.” By “saved” I include the benefits of the kingdom now and forever. A postmissionary Messianic Judaism that does not see this level of need will, I believe, produce a shrinking Messianic Judaism.
In addition, most Messianic Jews came to Yeshua through the instrumentality of Christians. Are we sawing off the limb on which we sit? I share Kinzer’s concern for assimilation and dearly want the churches to accept a theology that directs Jewish believers to Jewish life as part of their covenantal responsibility. However, I wonder if there is an undisclosed scale of value involved in this presentation? Is it better to be a committed religious Jew, than a Christianized Jew? I believe that it is better to be a committed Jewish Christian than a committed traditional Jew in spite of assimilation. Such is my valuation of explicit Yeshua faith. I would not, because of the assimilation problem, discourage Christians from seeking to lead Jews to Yeshua. I would rather seek to educate these Christians so that their witness would not lead to assimilation. The very Christians who would be sympathetic to Kinzer’s concern about assimilation and would cease their “evangelism” would be excellent instruments to bring our people to the Messiah. Without such Christian involvement, we will have a much smaller and less effective movement.
Christians who show a reality of life in Yeshua attract Jews to churches. I see Jewish Christians as a great field for Messianic Jewish efforts. We should call them to their Jewish covenantal responsibilities. We hardly have any outreach for such people. We have almost no literature and no program for them.
Most of our people today can be rightly described as, “The lost sheep of the house of Israel.” As one who has lived in New York, Chicago, Washington and now Israel, my general sense is that non-messianic Jews who profess to have a love relationship with God are a small number. Israelis in many ways have abandoned the Torah. Most have little interest in a return to Orthodoxy. In my view, Yeshua is the way for our people to return to God and Judaism. So I agree with the idea of postmissionary only in some senses and not in others, especially that Jewish life is a covenantal responsibility not an evangelistic method.
Overall, however, I do want to say how much I appreciated this book. It is a book that will greatly strengthen our confidence in the Messianic Jewish congregational orientation.
- Daniel C. Juster, Jewish Roots: A Foundation of Biblical Theology (Shippensburg, Penn.: Destiny Image Publishers, 1995).
Daniel C. Juster, Th.D., is executive director of Tikkun International and is on the faculty of Messianic Jewish Theological Institute. He has authored numerous books, including The Biblical World View: An Apologetic and Jewish Roots: A Foundation of Biblical Theology.