Dialogue between Christians and Jews, between Judaism and Christianity, on both academic and institutional levels, has been in play for decades now. But, ironically, Messianic Jews, who can claim a deep connection to both communities, have been left out of the dialogue. Such exclusion by the wider Jewish world may reflect the tragic history of Jewish Christians at times abandoning or even turning against the Jewish community. It also may reflect a view of Messianic Jews as hypocritical, as converts who have left behind their Judaism and Jewishness but still claim to remain connected for missionary purposes. Some Christian groups have cooperated in excluding Messianic Jews in fear of damaging their relationships with the Jewish people as a whole. Moreover, the long history of Christian supersessionism has helped to invalidate Messianic Judaism as an authentic religious expression.
In recent years, however, Messianic Jews have begun to gain a seat at the table of Jewish-Christian dialogue, including at the highest levels within the Roman Catholic Church. Theologian Mark Kinzer, a frequent contributor to Kesher, has been a pioneer in this whole effort, including playing a major role in the recent Vienna Symposium covered in our last issue. Mark recently met online with Kesher editor Russ Resnik to discuss the background and implications of this current development within the larger arena of Jewish-Christian dialogue.
Kesher: Mark, welcome, and thank you for joining this conversation. Let’s start with an overview of Jewish-Christian dialogue in recent years, and Messianic Jewish-Christian dialogue in particular, including the Vienna Symposium last summer.
Kinzer: Perhaps the best place to start is with the recognition that coming into the 21st century, there was very little Messianic Jewish engagement on an institutional or theological level with the wider Jewish world or the wider Christian world. In the 1990s some preliminary openings appeared on both sides. I think the key development on the Christian side was the appearance of Kendall Soulen’s book, The God of Israel and Christian Theology, published in 1996. Soulen’s book had a big impact on the Christian world by throwing historical light on the problems of supersessionism or replacement theology, and also in opening the door to the significance of Jewish believers in Jesus within the context of battling supersessionism. That was because Kendall was so powerfully influenced by the Jewish scholar Michael Wyschogrod, of blessed memory. For Wyschogrod a great sign that Christians were seriously grappling with the problems of supersessionism would be their insisting that baptized Jews live as Jews. Kendall picked up on that theme and saw a significant place for a Jewish expression of faith in Yeshua. So I think it was significant that Kendall spoke at a UMJC conference soon after his book came out, I think it was in 1998 in Washington, DC.
Another development that was significant on the Jewish side was the appearance of Mark Nanos’s book, The Mystery of Romans, also in 1996. Here you had a Jewish scholar writing a book on the New Testament and arguing that Paul himself was a Torah-observant Jew. He was also arguing against a whole paradigm that was a key factor in the development of Christian supersessionism—namely a reading of Paul that was anti-Torah and anti-Judaism in its perspective. And again it was significant that Mark appeared at Messianic Jewish events in the late 1990s speaking on his book.
Those two publishing events were watersheds both symbolically and instrumentally, in that Soulen was part of a whole network of Christian theologians who had been influenced very much by George Lindbeck and other Christian scholars who were seeking to capture Jewish elements of the life of the church and open up a new kind of relationship with the Jewish people. Soulen developing relationships with many of us in the Messianic Jewish world opened up new doors for us in the Christian world.
Mark Nanos was a pioneer in a new type of New Testament scholarship being done by Jewish scholars. Jewish scholars had been studying the New Testament for a while but a new generation of New Testament scholars was emerging in that period, who approached the New Testament as a Jewish book, reclaiming not only the Gospels but also the letters of Paul as first-century Jewish texts. I think it’s significant that on the Jewish side over the last 25 years the scholars most open to conversation with Messianic Jews have been historians and biblical scholars as opposed to, say, mainstream rabbis.
Kesher: You would include Michael Wyschogrod among the scholars who have been open to conversation with Messianic Jews?
Kinzer: Right, he was not a rabbi, as you know; he was a philosopher and a theologian. Interestingly enough he saw himself as a kind of biblical theologian who took seriously rereading the New Testament. In the 1980s, before Mark Nanos’s book appeared, Wyschogrod was already giving a reading of Paul as a Torah-observant Jew and already opening up a vision of a bilateral ecclesiology within the New Testament.
Kesher: And that would be in addition to what you’ve said, that he later was open to conversation with Messianic Jewish leaders.
Kinzer: Right, it wasn’t just a theoretical construct for Wyschogrod. Also, Mark Nanos attended several Hashivenu Forums, as well as the being at one or two larger Messianic Jewish conferences. He didn’t only come when he was invited to speak; he came just to attend and watch and see what was happening. He said we were for him like a laboratory where he was seeing played out in our midst the same kind of issues he was studying as a historian in his work on Paul. So those events in the 90s were important milestones and it’s really since then that these things have begun to bear fruit in the 21st century, gathering steam in particular, I would say, in the last 15 years.
One sign of this progress was the birth in 2018 of the Society for Post-Supersessionist Theology (www. ), an initiative that came largely through Kendall Soulen and David Rudolph and myself. We came up with the idea, and its purpose was not to put Messianic Judaism or Jewish believers in Jesus in the center of everything; the purpose was to stir up and stimulate streams of post-supersessionist Christian theology. But the idea was also to legitimize the voice of Messianic Jews in general in these circles among Christians concerned about Jewish Christian relations. Messianic Jews are often seen as personae non-grata, because the wider Jewish world in general does not want us present in the dialogue and therefore we are an embarrassment to many Christians. So it was significant to have an academic organization that was determined to allow the voice of Messianic Jews and of Jewish Catholics to be heard and be part of the conversation. That really was a significant development.
Kesher: I would think that your book Postmissionary Messianic Judaism had a real part to play in bringing us to the table of dialogue.
Kinzer: Yes, I think it really did. On the Jewish end for example, my first encounters with Amy-Jill Levine came after a friend of mine reported to me something she had said about PMJ publicly in a radio broadcast, I think, or perhaps just in a personal conversation. She had been asked the question, “Is there a possibility at some point in the future that Messianic Jews will be accorded a legitimate place within the wider Jewish world?” She replied that she didn’t foresee that happening anytime soon but, if it ever did happen, it would be some form of postmissionary Messianic Judaism. In that context she gave a plug for the book. So I contacted her afterwards and a friendship grew up out of that. She, like Michael Wyschogrod and Mark Nanos, has friendships with Messianic Jewish thinkers and scholars.
It was significant that it was also PMJ that opened up a friendship for me with Wyschogrod. I gave him a copy of the book right after it appeared. I was at a conference of the Society for Biblical Literature/American Academy of Religion and there was a session devoted to his work that Kendall Soulen was chairing. After the session, I handed Michael a copy of the book, told him I thought this was something he might really be interested in, and gave him my email address. It was just a couple months afterwards that he wrote to me, maybe on a Sunday, and said, “I need to talk to you soon.” He gave me his phone number and I called that day and he said that he loved the book and thought it was very significant. That opened up an opportunity for us to spend time together and develop a relationship of real affection and mutual respect.
A number of prominent Christian theologians also read the book and believed that this was opening a new door. One of them was one of the most important theologians in the mainstream Protestant world, Robert Jenson, a Lutheran theologian who passed away in 2017. He ended up providing an endorsement for PMJ. Another scholar was Wolfhart Pannenberg¸ one of the most significant German Protestant theologians of the late 20th century. After PMJ appeared, I was talking about it with a prominent mainstream Jewish scholar who was a friend of Pannenberg. He told me that I really needed to send a copy to Pannenberg and tell him that this Jewish scholar had recommended that I do so. Pannenberg wrote me a letter back that was extremely positive about the book. And so, yes, I think this was part of a new kind of conversation that included a Messianic Jewish theological voice.
Perhaps the most significant thing about PMJ was that it really was the first serious theological work about Messianic Judaism from a Messianic Jew. There had been more popular presentations of Messianic Jewish teaching that had solid theological components to them, like David Stern’s work Messianic Jewish Manifesto and his New Testament commentary, and Daniel Juster’s book Jewish Roots, but their genre was more of a popular study and not academic theology.
Kesher: So, to get to the table of dialogue, a table that is represented by this recent Vienna Symposium, there had to be more solid theological academic grounding in place?
Kinzer: Precisely, and this is why, after PMJ, the work of people like David Rudolph and Richard Harvey and Jen Rosner is so significant. They’ve done work that is serious theological scholarship respected in the scholarly world and so now there’s a sense that there is a voice out there to be taken more seriously. Without that I don’t think any of these other developments, such as the Society for Postsupersessionist Theology or the Vienna Symposium, really would have been possible.
Kesher: Before we get to details of the Vienna Symposium, would you want to mention the dialogue that’s ongoing with Roman Catholic leaders and scholars?
Kinzer: Yes, this is another significant component of everything that’s going on and again it had its roots in that late 1990s. It began with some encounters of Messianic Jewish leaders with Pope John Paul II and Cardinal Ratzinger, who became Pope Benedict, and Cardinal Lustiger, the Jewish Archbishop of Paris, and Cardinal Christoph Schönborn, Archbishop of Vienna. It began to take a concrete form in the year 2000, when an informal dialogue began between some influential Catholic leaders and a group of Messianic Jewish leaders.
Initially it was quiet and confidential but it was initiated under the authority of Pope John Paul II with his blessing and also with the blessing and representation of people connected with these other figures, Cardinals Lustiger, Ratzinger, and Schönborn. So we had a very high level blessing but there was a sense of “let’s keep this among ourselves.” I think the difference here is that the dialogue had the blessing of people who had extremely important positions within the Catholic Church, but it didn’t have an official blessing because it was operating outside of the normal bureaucratic machinery of the Vatican. Maybe for a parallel that would not be such a happy one for many of us, especially because of the results, one can think of the Oslo process, as a back-channel initiative that bypassed the normal channels of diplomacy. That’s the kind of thing that was going on here and it allowed for trust to build over many years. And then when PMJ came out, the whole group read it together and had a couple of sessions to discuss it.
All this was part of a process going on more widely, and it opened up new channels of conversation in Europe and at the highest levels of the Catholic Church. This Vienna conference was not possible without those openings taking place and it’s significant that the Vienna conference took place under the authority of the Archbishop of Vienna, Cardinal Schönborn, who had been part of that process and had taken over immediate responsibility for the Catholic part of it, I believe, in 2008.
Kesher: But the Vienna Symposium wasn’t strictly a Messianic Jewish-Catholic dialogue, or was it?
Kinzer: It wasn’t, but in another sense it was. It took place at the University of Vienna, which is a Catholic university, and apart from the Messianic Jewish presenters I think all of the people presenting the main papers from the Christian side were Catholics. But you also had a significant number of Protestant scholars and theologians who were brought in or invited to participate as well, usually through providing response papers. So it was ecumenical, but the primary construction of the event came about in connection with Catholic leaders and theologians. But the thing that was so striking at the event was that there wasn’t a sense that this was Catholic, because the kinds of issues that were being addressed and the type of responses that people gave and the kind of wrestling that everyone had to do was really not very different between the Protestants and the Catholics.
Kesher: Could you give us some examples of those issues?
Kinzer: Some of it is wrestling with how to understand what it means that Yeshua is the king of the Jews and the Messiah of Israel. What does that mean in terms of how the Risen Yeshua continues to relate to the Jewish people? With a question like that, whether one is speaking to a Lutheran theologian or a Catholic or Baptist theologian is really immaterial. Another example is in questions of bilateral ecclesiology, which was quite interesting to me and I think again showed the impact of PMJ. I mean, one of the things that PMJ is most known for is that term itself and it appeared in lots of papers in Vienna and was more or less taken for granted. Bilateral ecclesiology wasn’t controversial, but was taken seriously as a challenge to how Christians understood themselves and what the church was. Whether it was Catholics or Protestants, it’s the same kind of challenge to both of them. So whether it was a Christology in terms of Jesus as King of the Jews or ecclesiology in terms of the challenge of a bilateral understanding of the body of the Messiah with a Jewish corporate expression, in either case there wasn’t a clear distinction between the Catholics approaching it one way and the Protestants approaching it another way. For both parties it was a challenge.
So what was behind their decision to engage with the challenge instead of keeping it at arm’s length? What motivated them I think was largely the impact of writings from people like David Rudolph and Richard Harvey and myself along with some of the Jewish Catholics who have been speaking into these matters such as Antoine Levy and David Neuhaus, who also both spoke at the Vienna Symposium.
This reminds me of another avenue of influence and significance, the Helsinki consultation, which began in the year 2010 and was another legitimating force, because it put Messianic Jews into relationship with Jews from these other communities, particularly Catholics but also some Protestants and Jews from the Orthodox Church. It widened the sense of the ramifications and implications here and all this has had a kind of snowball effect. Now there is a set of scholars who take Messianic Judaism and the presence of committed Jews within Christian denominations very seriously. I think it’s a new generation of scholars too; there were several folks at the consultation who are younger scholars, or at least younger than our generation, you and me, right? More the generation of David Rudolph and Jennifer Rosner and Jonathan Kaplan and also some younger folks in their 20s or early 30s who are beginning to do doctoral work and write dissertations on these things.
Kesher: How does this sort of dialogue, which can sound pretty lofty, pretty exalted, and esoteric even, how does it have impact for ordinary Messianic Jews, ordinary Jewish Catholics, and other Jewish followers of Yeshua in our ongoing lives?
Kinzer: Well, I think in normal daily living not much, and we have to be honest about that. I think the greatest impact is really long-term. I’m convinced that within 25 or 30 years, probably after you and I have already entered into a different mode of existence, one will be able to look back and say that these the things that are happening now on this higher academic level of dialogue have filtered down and changed things in significant ways for ordinary Messianic Jews or Jewish believers in Jesus. I think it’s going to take a while for that, but what we can see already is the production of serious theological writings from Messianic Jews and Jewish Catholics, along with the serious work of Christian theologians like Kendall Soulen who are opening up these areas of Christian theology in a way that makes room for us.
Also with the work of Jewish scholars like Michael Wyschogrod or Mark Nanos or Amy-Jill Levine or Daniel Boyarin or Isaac Oliver there’s a cumulative effect in creating among clergy in particular and educated lay people a sense that with this whole Jews-living-for-Jesus thing there’s more to it than first appeared. I think perhaps the biggest impact in terms of our lives would be for our own younger people who are somewhat more academically inclined than in the past. You know, before the year 2000, if a young Messianic Jew was in high school or going to college and starting to take some of classes in history or New Testament or biblical studies, it was hard. There weren’t a lot of books you could give them on a serious scholarly level to help them grapple with the questions that they would face. I’m not talking so much about challenges to their basic faith in God or Yeshua, but more in their sense of commitment to a Messianic Jewish vision, whereas now there’s a whole host of books coming out on Paul within Judaism and Matthew within Judaism and John within Judaism. There’s now a whole stream of scholarship that is reinterpreting the New Testament in Jewish terms and as Jewish books. There are works of Christian theology like the work of Soulen that are trying to recapture the significance of the tetragrammaton, the yud-hay-vav-hay, the name of God, and how its loss impoverished Christian theology.
For our young people, even if they’re not going to become professional theologians or clergy, if they’re wrestling with their faith we have material now that we can give them that we didn’t have 20 or 25 years ago. This has come about in part because of this kind of engagement that has been taking place.
Kesher: It sounds like you could summarize that impact as helping Messianic Jews to have more of a sense of confidence and solidity in their identity as Jewish followers of Yeshua. It’s not something that we have to continually defend or massage but it has become grounded in a way that is new.
Kinzer: Yes, exactly; this is the case and it makes a makes a real difference. Again, for some Messianic Jews this is not important in their daily lives, but for many it is. And some for whom it isn’t important may suddenly find that for their children as they’re growing up it is important. So this is really where the rubber hits the road right now, but I’m convinced that we have to take a long-term perspective on these things. Some things one has to invest in knowing that the fruit they will bear may not be visible until decades later. For me, this is what investment in this Catholic-Messianic Jewish dialogue was about. I mean, as I said, we started in the year 2000 and what I’m seeing now is just the beginnings of really significant fruit. I’m convinced that in that setting in particular within ten years we will see developments that will have a big impact on the Christian world and the Jewish world as well.
Kesher: A lot of the dialogue we’re talking about today is Messianic Jewish–Roman Catholic dialogue. Why the Roman Catholic dialogue in particular? Is it just because of a special openness there, or was there some other strategic element involved in this?
Kinzer: I think it was divinely strategic rather than humanly strategic. It’s not like any of us sat around and strategized; we were simply responding to a door that opened up. But I think there is a divine strategy here because for one thing it’s the largest Christian church body in the world, and it is able to take action as one body. It doesn’t do so quickly; it does so very slowly. It’s a huge boat that turns very, very slowly but it’s capable of taking an action that has an impact on all of its members in a way that’s not always the case for other church bodies.
It’s probably the one Christian body that, when it does take an action that is new and striking, draws the attention of the entire Christian world in a way that wouldn’t be the case for any of the Protestant churches or the Orthodox churches. It’s also the one Christian body that, if it takes any kind of action that in any way relates to Jews and Judaism, the organized Jewish community pays close attention. You will find all of the main Jewish forms of media and Jewish organizations that are concerned about engagement with other religious communities will be right there and they’ll be paying close attention.
The fact is that the Catholic Church has been at the forefront of pioneering a positive relationship with the Jewish community and the Jewish people and is really far ahead of almost any of the other Christian churches on this front. For all of these reasons I believe it’s providential for us that we have invested there, but it wasn’t because we strategically looked at it and said, “Wow this is really the place to start.” So if there’s some sense from Catholic officials that Messianic Jews are part of the dialogue, then the rest of the Jewish community is going to have to accept that; they’ll be compelled to accept that in a sense. You know, I don’t mean to use harsh language but, yes, it makes it more difficult for the Jewish world to entirely delegitimize us if the Catholic Church is taking us seriously.
Maybe I can state this a little differently. I think the main strategy of the wider Jewish community as an organized body in dealing with us has not been one of taking any kind of offensive action against us or even taking a clearly mounted defense against us. It’s really the policy of ignoring us and simply being silent about us. Whenever any kind of mention of us does appear it’s usually in a way that’s almost mocking, as when there’s something weird that can be associated with Messianic Jews and it will appear in the Jewish press. But there’s not a felt need to seriously engage with our scholars and spokespeople. So I think that the main development I would look for in the 21st century is for the wider Jewish community or at least significant segments of it to begin to talk with us, to begin even to argue with us, and that in itself is to show a level of respect that hasn’t been the case.
Kesher: How does last year’s Vienna Symposium fit into this big picture of the whole new reality of Messianic Jewish-Christian dialogue? Is there anything further to say about the Vienna Symposium to clarify its place within that big picture?
Kinzer: I think it really was another one of those milestones because I’m not aware of any other event like it. What you had was a conference taking place at a major university in Europe that was presided over by one of the faculty members from the theology department of that university with major academics from all over Europe and representation from both the Catholic and Protestant worlds. The focus of the entire event was on this question of the significance of Messianic Judaism, Messianic Jews, and more broadly Jewish believers in Jesus, including Jewish Catholics and Jewish Christianity in general. I’m just not aware of anything like this that has ever occurred, both in its breadth and in its ecumenical nature and in its posture, as I mentioned earlier, of by and large taking seriously a kind of bilateral ecclesiology. By bilateral ecclesiology I’m not primarily now talking about the theology of Mark Kinzer. I’m talking about this sense that the church is incomplete without a visible corporate Jewish expression within it, and that’s revolutionary, you know.
So maybe the final component for me is the sense that there were younger scholars there, which gave the sense that this is the beginning of something rather than a one-off event. I’m just convinced that something is beginning here that over the next two or three decades is going to bear enormous fruit.
1 James Patrick, “Turning the Tide of Replacement Theology in Europe,” Kesher: A Journal of Messianic Judaism 42 (2023): 89–104. See also the review of Jesus, King of the Jews! Messianic Judaism, Jewish Christians, and Theology Beyond Supersessionism, ed. James Earle Patrick, in the same issue.
2 Mark S. Kinzer, Postmissionary Messianic Judaism: Redefining Christian Engagement with the Jewish People (Grand Rapids: Brazos, 2005); henceforth PMJ.