Finding Messiah: A Journey into the Jewishness of the Gospel, by Jennifer M. Rosner
Reviewed by Jason F. Moraff
Jen Rosner has gifted us a gem. In Finding Messiah: A Journey into the Jewishness of the Gospel,1 she invites Christians to (re)consider the history that led to the divergence between Judaism and Christianity into discrete traditions and its impacts on understanding the gospel. She introduces her predominantly Christian audience to the recent epochal shifts in Christian theology and Jewish perspectives on familiar theological topics. Rosner’s attention to Messianic Judaism, the “excluded middle,” is unique. Rosner interweaves her personal story, wrestling with what it means to be a Jewish follower of Jesus, with historical, biblical, and theological insights rooted in contemporary scholarship. Her journey guides readers along the historical and theological journey. Rosner thereby calls Christian leaders to consider the Jewish people in their pews who, like her, struggle to navigate these two estranged traditions. Since Rosner tells her story far better than I can, my engagement in this review is limited to her historical, biblical, and theological content.
After Rosner’s introduction frames her aims, chapter one introduces the “parting of the ways” between Judaism and Christianity. This separation, she contends, was likely not anticipated by Jesus’s earliest followers. Instead, the New Testament (NT) describes the reconciliation of Israel and the nations in a community of interdependence and mutual blessing wherein Jews remain Jews and Gentiles remain Gentiles. Subsequent developments resulted in Judaism and Christianity defining themselves as mutually exclusive, resulting in the loss of a distinctly Jewish form of following Jesus.
Chapter two explores being Jewish followers of Jesus. She observes how post-Holocaust movements seeking Jewish-Christian reconciliation often exclude Messianic Jews. In the views of critics such as David Novak, Messianic Judaism is seen as “a syncretistic aberration that undermines and relativizes the integrity of both [Judaism and Christianity].”2 Rosner critiques this perspective by arguing that Judaism and Christianity should not be understood as bounded sets—groups defined by exterior borders—but as centered sets. Centered set models define groups based on shared core commitments rather than external boundaries. This framework, which has historical grounding, allows space for Messianic Jews.
Chapters three and four consider the neglected, misunderstood, or outright denied Jewishness of the NT and Jesus in NT interpretation and translation. The fourth chapter is devoted to ritual purity. Attention to these matters uncovers new depths in Jesus’s ministry to bring about the fullness of life for God’s people, Israel, and the wider gentile world. Rosner declares that the incommensurability of Judaism and Christianity “is not reflected in the New Testament.”3 Challenging this prevailing construal of NT Judaism and Christianity is necessary for Rosner in three ways. First, the posturing of Jesus and Christianity over against Judaism has been used to justify antisemitism. Second, overlooking the embodied Jewish Jesus leads to a neglect of our bodies. Rosner thus exhorts a renewed appreciation of embodiment. The ritual purity discussion is powerful in this regard. Third, the dominant interpretation undermines the unity and coherence of Scripture. To comprehend the gospel’s fullness, Christians must recognize Jesus as the culmination of Israel’s story as outlined in the Bible. Jesus’s Jewishness is essential to understanding the significance of his mission in Israel and the world and affirming God’s faithfulness.
The fifth chapter, I imagine, will be where Rosner will encounter the most pushback. It deals with the importance of the land of Israel. After surveying Jewish commitments to the land and Jerusalem, she notes the NT’s seeming silence about and/or universalizing or spiritualizing of both the land promise and the politics of the modern nation-state of Israel. Rosner observes that, because of the latter, the former is underexplored in reclamations of Jesus’s and the Gospels’ Jewishness. Rosner offers two points about the abiding significance of the land promise. First, its retention affirms consistency between the testaments. I wonder, though, whether more is needed to challenge arguments that the land was always meant to be a “type” or “shadow.” Such arguments claim scriptural continuity. Second, upholding the land promise acknowledges Judaism’s historic—though complex and multifaceted—commitment to this territory as part and parcel of God’s covenantal promises. Here, Rosner reasons, Christians should adopt this Jewish concern as their own since they are comembers of God’s people. She gestures toward the complexity of the present political predicament, but this point merits unpacking and further justification. I suspect unsympathetic readers will notice the absence of the term “Palestine” and Palestinian Christian perspectives.
Chapter six expounds on embodiment. Rosner critiques Christian, particularly evangelical, proclivities toward dualistic anthropology. Judaism (and Scripture) recognizes the importance of human embodiment and the formative nature of physical practices. The NT describes God’s kingdom breaking into this world, that is, the material reality and hopes for bodily resurrection and the renewal of creation. Rosner reminds readers that conforming to and participating in God’s kingdom entails embodied pursuit of individual and communal flourishing and holiness. As a professor at an evangelical institution, I have found many of my students to be unwitting, functional Gnostics, so this corrective was most welcome.
The seventh chapter critiques the common Christian canonical narrative—creation, fall, redemption, new creation. Following Kendall Soulen, Rosner considers this view inherently supersessionist since it ignores the entire story of God and Israel. She proposes recasting a complete canonical narrative from creation to consummation that retains the relationship of Israel’s God to the Jewish people, who maintain their covenant vocation. This canonical conversation allows Rosner to recount ongoing debates about what it means to retain Jewish identity as a Jesus-follower. Here she introduces the reader to various ecumenical organizations of Jewish believers that discuss how Jewish identity might be lived out within the ecclesia.
Exploring identity and embodiment leads smoothly to chapters eight through ten. Eight discusses the sabbath’s formative role in Jewish identity and thought. Rosner outlines the painful movement from a seventh day sabbath to the church’s Sunday commemoration of the Lord’s Day. She skillfully navigates this difficult history while not denigrating the value of the Lord’s Day and the rich traditions that have developed. Chapter nine uses the discussion about the Holy Spirit to discuss bilateral ecclesiology. It describes how the Spirit enables freedom for obedience. In this way, the Spirit concomitantly affirms Israel’s priestly vocation and brings the nations into the realm of God’s holy kingdom. The Holy Spirit’s inhabiting of Jews and Gentiles alike, then, does not erase distinction regarding how each expresses faithfulness.
Chapter ten explores the significance of Jewish sacred days and related symbols. Rosner contends that when the Council of Nicaea severed the ties with Israel’s ritual calendar, significant links in the NT between sacred time and practice with Jesus’s life, death, and resurrection were lost or, at minimum, devalued. In her estimation, the resultant spiritual (over)emphasis weakened Judaism’s bold “confrontation with death” through its holidays and practices.4 This chapter epitomizes Rosner’s adept ability to intertwine history, biblical interpretation, Jewish thought, and theological reflection in ways that encourage embodied faith.
Rosner addresses supersessionism directly in chapter eleven. Her story’s contribution to the theological discussions comes into full view here: supersessionism is an embodied theological issue that impacts human beings. Rosner specifies that supersessionism, regardless of its form or rationale, should be understood as the replacement and displacement of God’s genealogical people, the Jews. Emphasizing the carnality of Israel’s election challenges those who argue that “redefining” or “spiritualizing” God’s people is not supersessionist. Non-supersessionist theology, for Rosner, also cannot erase the Jewish covenantal identity expressed in Torah. Of course, linking Torah-praxis and supersessionism will have its objectors within the Messianic Jewish world. Nevertheless, she reminds readers to consider the relationship between embodiment and supersessionism.
Chapter twelve synthesizes insights about the controversial figure of Paul. Rosner outlines the developments in Pauline scholarship and highlights the recent “Paul within Judaism” school. Paul’s primary concern, this school argues, is about the inclusion of the Gentiles and the unity of the ecclesia. Rosner notes that such inclusion impacts contemporary Jewish-Christian relations since Paul does not separate Jesus-following and adherence to Torah—they are not incommensurate for Paul; should they be for us? Rosner demonstrates that accepting Judaism as a positive backdrop for Pauline thought challenges Christian theology, including how we conceive of his gospel. Still, I was hoping for expanded comments about how “new” perspectives on Judaism funded new perspectives on Paul. Misconceptions about first-century Judaism, while perhaps most visible in Pauline interpretation, distort readings of the entire NT; further comments would have been welcome. Rosner does provide a powerful corrective in her critique of assumptions about “particularistic Judaism” and “universalistic Christianity.”
The final chapter ties together contributions to Jewish-Christian relations—the Holocaust, the emergence of Israel as a nation-state, shifting paradigms in biblical interpretation, and the Messianic Jewish movement. Rosner discusses how Catholics and Protestants have made strides in reassessing the relationship between Judaism and Christianity, laying the groundwork for contemporary Jewish-Christian dialogues. Such dialogues are committed to an interfaith approach. They seek to translate traditions based on deep commonalities for the sake of mutual understanding that still respects the boundaries. Messianic Judaism, for many participants, constitutes a threat to that work. Others view Messianic Judaism as a vital link between the church and the Jewish people. Rosner ultimately rejoices in the shifts that have occurred in the Jewish-Christian relationship. An epilogue on how God’s covenant with the Jewish people and Israel informs our understanding and proclamation of the gospel provides a fitting conclusion.
A few significant contributions of Finding Messiah merit highlighting. For one, Rosner’s story grants firsthand insight to those unfamiliar with the struggles of being a Jewish believer. She powerfully recounts the tensions associated with occupying the excluded middle. Rosner personalizes life between the traditions, restraining attempts to make Messianic Judaism abstract. She also introduces readers to the ecumenical world of Jewish believers. Moreover, Finding Messiah provides a concise overview of the so-called parting of the ways. It highlights (dis)similarities between Jewish and Christian theology and gestures toward ways they might be reconciled. Rosner provides a succinct challenge to prevailing paradigms and helps alleviate Christian ignorance about Jewish thought. She critiques Christian theological assumptions about Judaism by introducing critical developments in post-supersessionist interpretation and theology in clear, simple prose. She also includes discussion questions for each chapter and a helpful glossary of Jewish and Hebrew terminology to facilitate small-group use. In short, Rosner skillfully distills recent scholarly insights on numerous topics with lucid, engaging writing while making her own contributions. Finding Messiah will serve well as an introductory textbook for an array of courses.
Still, three lingering questions arose as I read Finding Messiah. To be clear, I raise them in all sincerity as a fellow sojourner in the excluded middle. These are matters with which I grapple and struggle to find satisfactory answers.
First, I am not sure Rosner sufficiently challenges critics like David Novak who contend that Messianic Judaism is a syncretistic new religion. Here perhaps Rosner (and Messianic Jews generally) should parse out the theological and historical arguments with greater clarity. On the one hand, she presumes that a return to the ecclesial patterns of life outlined in the NT is ideal. This presumption will be reasonable for Protestant readers because, to be frank, it is a Protestant ad fontes, sola scriptura-esque assumption. Of course, nearly two thousand years of history stand between us and the text, and this gap muddies the waters.
On the other hand, in Rosner’s view, the parting of the ways challenges the categories and borderlines constructed by Judaism and Christianity because Jewish-believing communities have existed throughout history. This viewpoint reveals the boundaries to be artificial and formed for “the express purpose of defining who’s in and who’s out.”5 However, the parting of the ways says more about historical development than about justifying Messianic Judaism. Simply because there is precedence for Jewish forms of Jesus-following does not mean they are necessarily viable now. By and large, Judaism and Christianity today define themselves as incommensurate. They may have emerged from the common center-set model of early Judaism, but since then, they have arguably constructed themselves as bounded sets in relation to each other. Why, then, should they reframe themselves as a center-set model—at least vis-à-vis one another—when such a model was apparently abandoned? Why not see Messianic Judaism as syncretistic and promulgating a new (or revived) religion? In short, I wonder if our historical arguments for Messianic Judaism based on the parting of the ways often fall into the genealogical fallacy: Historical origins simply do not determine present meaning.6
To be clear, I am not challenging the historical precedence for Messianic Judaism, let alone its scriptural foundation. I am simply stating that, in my estimation, such historical arguments based on the complexity of the parting of the ways, which I have often seen put forth as seemingly primary, are weaker ones for Messianic Judaism’s existence. Indeed, the biblical and theological reasons provide firmer ground. Yet, Rosner’s emphasis on the parting of the ways risks conflating theological and historical claims. For example, she states that “if Paul never left Judaism behind, if Judaism and Christianity as we now know them didn’t even exist as separate traditions until several centuries later, Novak’s assertions [that they are incommensurate] are called into question.”7 Phrased as such, this is a historical claim. What Paul did as a historical person is not prescriptive for the present. His writings are for Christians and Messianic Jews, though. The stronger argument for Messianic Judaism is that the Scriptures, not merely history, endorse the existence of Jesus-following within Judaism and the reconciliation of Jews and Gentiles into one body. Of course, Scripture and theology do not erase the problem of the developments that led to Judaism and Christianity’s seeming incommensurability. Rosner makes these theological arguments well, to be sure, but they are often connected to the movement of history (and, in many ways, necessarily so). My point is that greater clarity is needed if we are to explain why we are not a syncretistic third religion.
Second, what do Messianic Jews offer Jewish-Christian dialogue? People who define Judaism and Christianity in contradistinction are building bridges, so what is the need for Messianic Jews? I am not sure Rosner puts forth a satisfactory answer in this volume. I suspect she might point to Michael Wyschogrod’s statement that the litmus test for Christian supersessionism is how the church treats baptized Jews. This does not require Messianic Jews, however. Jews in churches suffice. Neither is addressing problematic teaching about supersessionism, Jews, and Judaism a uniquely Messianic Jewish contribution. Post-supersessionist-minded Christians or Jewish believers in churches could provide the correctives. Further, with an increasing number of Jewish NT scholars, there are growing resources for Jews interested in learning about the NT and Christianity from a historical perspective. What, then, can Messianic Jews offer in conversations between Jews and Christians? Perhaps more fundamentally, I wonder if we can (or should?) assuage concerns that evangelism is not a reason for our participation in Jewish-Christian dialogue.
Third, Rosner’s emphasis on the land might alienate certain readers, including the post-supersessionist inclined. This, of course, does not mean her point should not be made. Rather, given the land’s centrality in Jewish and Rosner’s experiences, more work seems needed to tease out how to navigate acknowledging the land promise and supporting the modern nation-state. Rosner states that “a Christian affirmation of the ongoing significance of the land of Israel is part and parcel of a Christian commitment to solidarity with the Jewish people.”8 What does “affirmation” entail? Christian Zionism? Acknowledgment of Jewish national autonomy? Simply not adhering to BDS? To what extent can one advocate for Palestinians and still embody solidarity with the Jewish people? In short, how would Rosner suggest readers navigate these complex dynamics between Scripture and geopolitical reality? Such questions are well beyond her scope, and she gestures toward the complexity of the present political predicament. This issue merits further unpacking and justification, nevertheless.
In the end, questions are the response Rosner hopes to elicit.9 And since provoking thought, disturbing paradigms, and fostering conversation are Rosner’s intent, Finding Messiah will accomplish her goal. Her text provides an excellent entry point—several actually—into complex historical, scriptural, and theological conversations. For this, we should be grateful.
1 Jennifer M. Rosner, Finding Messiah: A Journey into the Jewishness of the Gospel (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 2022).
2 Rosner, 33.
3 Rosner, 43; emphasis original.
4 Rosner, 140.
5 Rosner, 35.
6 Indeed, Messianic Judaism’s general emergence from Protestant, specifically evangelical and charismatic, Christianity, and its desire to be a form of Judaism belies a tacit rejection—or perhaps an inconsistency—of genealogical arguments for defining the nature of the movement.
7 Rosner, 169.
8 Rosner, 72.
9 Rosner, 192.