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Should Jews Become Christians?

In light of some of the recent discussions of supercessionism, I want to probe one key question that I think pertains to the possibilities and scope of a non-supercessionist Christian theology. This question is whether or not Jews should continue to become Christians, or more accurately, be exhorted to themselves become followers of the Messiah.

Clearly, as John Howard Yoder argues in The Jewish-Christian Schism Revisited, the early Christians did not see themselves as breaking with Judaism in the sense of starting a new religion, rather they saw themselves as standing within Israel and calling all Israelites to become followers of the Messiah, whose apocalypse had inaugurated the promised kingdom of God. The question then remains whether or how those who remain within ethnic and religious Israel continue to be “God’s people” in some sense “alongside” the church in a way that allows us to affirm the place of Israel and the practice of Judaism within God’s salvific economy. The reason this question is so pressing has much to do with the historical relations between the largely Gentile church and the Jewish people in Medieval and Modern history. In light of the devastating effects of theologies of supercession, is there a non-supercessionist theology that Christians can affirm that allows Christians to view Judaism as in some sense, continuing to exist in God’s salvific economy? This is the question that is being probed in many sectors of Christian theology.

The question, however is not whether or not the fallout of the Jewish-Christian schism has produced a situation in which the call to Jews to become followers of the Messiah has become historically complexified and problematized. Clearly it has. The question however, from the standpoint of Christian theology, is that, regardless of this historical contingencies — including radical Christian unfaithfulness and anti-Semitism — that have ensued in the relationship between the Christianity and Judaism is it still appropriate for the church to call on Jews as well as Gentiles to become followers of Jesus the Messiah? Given the testimony of the early Church I cannot see how we can answer in the negative to this question. An essential element of our christological confession is that the salvation of God, God’s presence is located in Jesus and our covenantal union with God and election as God’s people are tied up with whether or not we are followers of this particular Nazarene. If we want to answer the question “Should Jews be called to follow the Messiah?” with a “no” then I think we need a really good theological reason, and I am at an utter loss to find one

27 Comments

  1. J. R. Miller wrote:

    I’m confusedematized by your questimifications. Are you asking for a theological reason why Jews should become followers of Jesus or for the theological reason why they should not become followers of Jesus?

    Friday, October 24, 2008 at 1:34 pm | Permalink
  2. Bobby Grow wrote:

    How about because they/all are sinners? That seems like a pretty good theological reason to me.

    Friday, October 24, 2008 at 1:34 pm | Permalink
  3. Halden wrote:

    Sorry, I scrawled down that last sentence incorrectly. It is edited now to read:

    “If we want to answer the question ‘Should Jews be called to follow the Messiah?’ with a ‘no’ then I think we need a really good theological reason, and I am at an utter loss to find one.”

    What I am questioning is the move on the part of some theologians as seeing “Judaism” and its communities as somehow a vehicle of salvation that participates in God’s kingdom irrespective those communities’ allegiance to the Messiah, Jesus.

    Friday, October 24, 2008 at 1:37 pm | Permalink
  4. Bobby Grow wrote:

    Halden said:

    What I am questioning is the move on the part of some theologians as seeing “Judaism” and its communities as somehow a vehicle of salvation that participates in God’s kingdom irrespective those communities’ allegiance to the Messiah, Jesus.

    You mean like, Classic Dispensationalists?

    Friday, October 24, 2008 at 1:58 pm | Permalink
  5. Halden wrote:

    No, I don’t read those guys. : )

    Though perhaps there is an odd similarity. I’m thinking more of Kendall Soulen’s book on this issue and stuff of that nature.

    Friday, October 24, 2008 at 2:00 pm | Permalink
  6. Bobby Grow wrote:

    Yeah, you’re only surrounded by them all day long, at least 5 days a week, at our esteemed seminary/Bible college (and its faculty) ;-).

    I had a feeling you weren’t dealing in such trivialities.

    Friday, October 24, 2008 at 2:10 pm | Permalink
  7. Ben Myers wrote:

    J. R.: “I’m confusedematized by your questimifications” — now that is a fantastic sentence! Reminds me of this Onion video:
    http://www.theonion.com/content/video/press_secretarys_zumtrel_flooby

    Friday, October 24, 2008 at 2:49 pm | Permalink
  8. Doug Harink wrote:

    Halden,

    An indispensable book on this topic is the recent one by Mark Kinzer, Postmissionary Messianic Judaism (Brazos 2005). Kinzer, a Messianic Jew, argues both that it is right to call Jews to follow Jesus the Messiah, and to “affirm the place of Israel and the practice of Judaism within God’s salvific economy.” Kinzer argues that Messianic Jews remain covenantal Jews, and therefore are obliged to practice Judaism as Jews do, while recognizing the way in which Judaism is fulfilled in Jesus Messiah. That requires Messianic synagogues, rather than the absorption of Messianic Jews (with the attendant loss of Jewish practice) into the Gentile churches. He rejects supersessionism, as well as the aggressive evangelization of Jews by the likes of Jews for Jesus who assume that Jews who do not believe in Jesus are simply lost, like pagans. Kinzer’s is a well-argued and important book.

    Friday, October 24, 2008 at 3:33 pm | Permalink
  9. Matt Marston wrote:

    I think the answer to the question is no, if such a conversion is thought of as dropping the Jewish identity and taking on a “Christian” one. But if the question is it appropriate for Jews to recognize Jesus as Messiah? Yes. But they are still Jews. Mark Kinzer’s book Postmissionary Messianic Judaism makes the case for Torah obervant Jews who believe in Jesus. Are they Christian? In one sense, no, if Christian means Gentile as it mostly does today. But yes, in the sense of belonging to Christ.

    I think the question should be something like “How do/ Should Christians make claims about Jesus to Jews?” To answer the question in the form Halden has it risks putting ourselves the judges of Israel. It seems that Christians are to make Israel “jealous”, not make decisions for Israel.

    In this train of thought, a quote from Eugene Rogers: “Almost all Christians need to learn to see themselves as Gentiles whose baptism washes away their lack of relation to the promises of Israel” (Sexuality and the Christian Body, p. 178). He cites Soulen as the source for this notion.

    Friday, October 24, 2008 at 3:35 pm | Permalink
  10. Matt Marston wrote:

    Sorry, I didn’t see Prof. Harink’s post about Kinzer.

    Friday, October 24, 2008 at 3:36 pm | Permalink
  11. Austin Eisele wrote:

    Halden,

    Would a good theological reason for answering “no” to that question rest on an understanding of covenant? It seems to me the testimony of the continuance and the renewal of the covenant in the exilic prophets does not focus exclusively a notion of messiah, even if that is certainly a voice. Instead, it seems to focus much more on God’s faithfulness to Israel. Early Christians interpret this through the mechanism of messiah, but it does seem to me that even Paul vacillates on this question.

    I’m not sure if that fits a “theological” reason per se, as this might be a problem for a Trinitarian conception of the need for a messiah. In any case, it’s just a thought.

    Friday, October 24, 2008 at 3:36 pm | Permalink
  12. J. R. Miller wrote:

    Halden,
    That makes your post more consistent to what I thought you were saying at first. Thanks for the clarification.

    Ben,
    Glad you saw the humor in how I worditized my post. I have long belived tha the only great power of having a PhD is the ability to make up words and have others embrace it.

    Friday, October 24, 2008 at 4:46 pm | Permalink
  13. J wrote:

    As a Jew, I have never met a fellow Jew who has considered this question nor have I met a Jew that questioned whether or not Christians should become Jews. These are not the type of questions that Jews ponder. Is this a question often considered among Christians?

    Friday, October 24, 2008 at 5:57 pm | Permalink
  14. Halden,

    Have you not read Jenson’s essay on this issue? He gave it as an address at Princeton Seminary’s CTI several years back and it’s been published in CTI’s journal, Reflections. I can send you a copy. He basically says no. But it’s a lot more complex than that.

    Friday, October 24, 2008 at 7:06 pm | Permalink
  15. dcrowe wrote:

    I think this question puts the cart waaaaaaaay before the horse, and I think it’s not a good idea to divorce the history of the question from the question itself. Of course, as Christians, each of us has a responsibility to proclaim that Jesus is Lord. But the history between Jews and Christians is one of deep, deep pain, almost always inflicted in one direction by virtue of political power imbalances. And if we’re honest, we have to admit that the question we’re asking contains more than a trace of insecurity on the part of the Christian.

    I am a Christian, and I think all people should be called to give their loyalty to Christ. But, there is a whole lot of healing that has to happen between Jews and Christians (and a huge amount of repentance and forgiveness) before that conversation becomes anything remotely close to appropriate.

    Friday, October 24, 2008 at 11:00 pm | Permalink
  16. Bobby Grow wrote:

    Oh I get it. I would say the answer is NO, as well. I think Eph. 2 does not allow for a Jew to remain a ‘Jew’, spiritually that is. There is only one Lord, and one people of that Lord. As far as ethnicity and culture, I don’t think those things are necessarily superseded; and insofar as the Jewish culture, functionally exemplifies the particularity of Jesus the Nazarene then I don’t think this must be jettisoned (but these things are not binding for the Gentile, at least this is what Acts 15 says).

    I think an interesting corollary to this question is how a reconstructionist might respond to this issue.

    Saturday, October 25, 2008 at 12:51 pm | Permalink
  17. Halden wrote:

    dcrowe, my point was not that we should ignore the history of the question, but rather that, given the historical complexities that exist, is there still a question at all? Does the history of Christian sin vis a vis the Jewish people mean that the call to follow Jesus no longer poses a challenge to Jews?

    I do think there’s a great deal at stake in this question. If, as you say, all people should be called to give their loyalty to Christ, its hard for me to see what would mitigate the centrality of that call. History is rife with Christin abuses of power, missiological imperialism, colonialism — there is no way around those realities. They certainly establish the context and shape within which our missional calls to follow Jesus are formulated, but the idea that our history of complicity and evil could rescind the missional imperative seems in need of more substantive theological justification.

    Saturday, October 25, 2008 at 2:38 pm | Permalink
  18. dcrowe wrote:

    Halden, I don’t think we disagree on the important principle here, namely whether we think the Christian’s evangelism should be universal and that means we think that no one is exempt from the “need” for Christ.

    I suppose what I’m driving at is the particularity of your question. Granted I get where it is coming from in that the church has always struggled with definitive answers to the questions of the relationship between the “old” and “new” covenants, the “old” and “new” testaments, etc. The call to give your loyalty to Jesus is universal. Let the question you’re asking remain universal. Rather than ask “Should Jews Become Christians?” we should ask “Should Everyone Become Christians?” I think it’s important to avoid the cultural/ethnocentrism of your question not just due to the fact that “there is no Jew or Greek” any longer in some kind of salvific gradation, but also because of dismal history of condescension and persecution on the part of Christians directed at Jews for rejecting “their” Messiah. Jesus call was particular to Israel as a people at one point. That point has passed, and the door is open to all. There’s no reason to (and good reasons not to) frame the question in this way now. All are called to the narrow path; there’s no need to focus on demographics.
    (I realize this post probably reads as angry or an attack…chalk it up to the difficulties in communicating in text. I intend the tone to be friendly.)

    Saturday, October 25, 2008 at 3:06 pm | Permalink
  19. Halden wrote:

    I agree with you I think. Also I do not think that the way I framed this question is meant to somehow set the tone for what any sort of potential evangelical encounter with a Jewish person should look like. Rather, I was trying to address a concern that is internal to Christian theology itself, namely should Christians think that non-Messianic Judaism is a vehicle of salvation in itself?

    The question is one of Christianity’s own understanding of Judaism within God’s economy, which, while a very precarious endeavour, is somewhat unavoidable given the way in which the church’s story is founded in and upon that of Israel.

    Saturday, October 25, 2008 at 3:16 pm | Permalink
  20. Bobby Grow wrote:

    Halden,

    to be honest I have been at a loss to understand what you’re talking about in this post; which only points to my ineptness. Just to clarify, you’re getting at what T. F. Torrance was emphasizing in his Mediation of Christ, right? You’re underscoring the fact that Christianity through the centuries has been anglosized to the point of breaking off its necessary ‘Jewish’ dependence (given Yahweh’s choosing of the nation of Israel to be The mediator of the Messiah to the nations) (so that we have nativity scenes, esp. popular in medieval and even contemporary Europe, that place the manger of Christ in a village in the Italin Alps, instead of its ‘Jewish setting’ in Bethlehem), right?

    And now in light of this style of Christianity, you’re asking what if any place does “Jewishness” play in the shape of the “Christian message”? Am I finally tracking with you?

    Saturday, October 25, 2008 at 3:54 pm | Permalink
  21. Halden wrote:

    No Bobby, I am not talking about “Jewishness” but the Jewish people and their practice of Judaism (i.e. the “world religion” of Judaism as we know it today).

    If you want to get more of a sense of what I’m talking about, check out the article by Robert Jenson that David cites above (though I don’t know that I share Jenson’s colcusions).

    http://www.ctinquiry.org/publications/reflections_volume_3/jenson1.htm

    Saturday, October 25, 2008 at 4:16 pm | Permalink
  22. Bobby Grow wrote:

    Thank you Halden. I’ll have to check out that article, then; thanks for the link.

    Saturday, October 25, 2008 at 4:37 pm | Permalink
  23. Chris Donato wrote:

    I’m not even sure how to answer this question, given what Judaism has become over the centuries. If it’s argued that modern Judaism embodies what life in exile is supposed to look like, well, then I’d argue that they’re called to live like the return from exile as at least begun. And that would necessarily entail the inclusion of Gentiles into the fold, not to mention a decent list of other redefinitions that would need to be taken into account.

    Surely if we learn anything from early Christian Jews within the borders of the Promised Land (an important, if not often overlooked point), it’s that it is important to continue practicing torah, insofar as it’s understood as being redefined around the crucified and risen Messiah.

    Saturday, October 25, 2008 at 5:27 pm | Permalink
  24. Mike Bull wrote:

    Before God destroyed the centre of the world’s mediatorial worship – Solomon’s Temple – He established a new temporary worship “outside the city” in exile. Once this new worship was mature, it descended upon the mountain of God as Nehemiah’s new Jerusalem. Then it plundered the known world (in the book of Esther).

    Before Jesus destroyed Herod’s Temple, He did the same. It was called Christianity. Treating Judaism as anything remotely like “acceptable worship” is nuts. Supercessionism is a constant pattern throughout the Old Testament. Every time a covenant “waxed old,” it died, and was resurrected in a more glorious form by nothing other than God’s miraculous power. But God always opened a new scroll and proclaimed liberty before He rolled up the old one.

    Since AD70, Jews are neither special enemies nor distant brothers. They are a mission field like any other people, and nothing more. I agree with Yoder’s quote, but your post seems to boil down to whether or not the dead branches that were broken off should be encouraged to be grafted back in. Like Ruth, it was wild branches grafted back in that actually brought new life and fruit to the barren tree (Matthew 21:43).

    Saturday, October 25, 2008 at 8:58 pm | Permalink
  25. Nate Kerr wrote:

    A quote from Yoder’s Jewish-Christian Schism Revisited which I find interesting in relation to this question and which I comment upon in the last chapter of my book is this:

    “‘Fulfillment’ is a permanently open border before what went before and what comes next. Whenever a Jew says that the Messianic age has not yet come, he or she is saying as well that it might come. That means that such a Jew can never say a priori that anyone’s statement that the Messianic age has come is unthinkable, but only that it is not yet demonstrated. Fulfillment must also be an open border from ‘this side’. Christians must continue to be claiming as Paul did that Jesus whom they follow is to be interpreted to Jews as the one to whom they still look forward” (186).

    As Scott Bader-Saye reminds us in another very good book on this question Church and Israel After Christendom: The Politics of Election, the Jewish question “Where is this Christ whom you say has come?” must yet remain, in this time of penultimacy, as live as it ever was.

    Saturday, October 25, 2008 at 9:11 pm | Permalink
  26. Bobby Grow wrote:

    Halden,

    you said dispensationalists might oddly relate to this discussion, but after I read the lecture by Jenson, I would say there is certainly similarity (albeit more sophisticated, since this is Jenson and not Ryrie, after all). Here is an example of what I mean, Jenson said:

    What will constitute the great transformation? Any full attempt to answer that question must include a great deal of revisionary metaphysics and even more poetry. But part of the answer is communal. That even after his Resurrection the Lord is present to faith and not to sight, constitutes the church’s character as an eschatological detour; it is because the Lord has come but nevertheless is yet to come that the church’s life is sacramental, by faith and not by sight. The Lord’s return will restore his people to the main road, ending the detour. But that is to say, his return will terminate the separation between the church and Israel according to the flesh.

    Unlike you, I have read dispensationalists quite extensively, and apart from (the controversy, in some circles) the chialist question, Jenson’s thoughts on this sound like something a dispensationalist would say amen to. In fact it is his language of eschatological detour, and two detours, for God’s people, both Jew and Gentile, that fits conceptually with dispensational thought (albeit motivated by other questions and agendas). For dispensationalists, instead of using the language of “detour”, they have used language such as parenthesis for the time of the ‘Church’ and ‘Gentiles’.

    Another interesting parallel between Jenson and Dispensationalists is the apparent Nestorian tendency. They both seem to correlate the church to the Logos’ universal divine person, and Jewish side to His particular temporally historic person. The difference between dispensationalists and Jenson, is that he sees these two sides inseparably related as one, eschatologically; while classic dispys live with an eternal cleavage between the two.

    Anyway, I won’t belabor this any longer . . . thanks for the link, that was enlightening. I’m not sure that I agree with Jenson either.

    Sunday, October 26, 2008 at 12:31 am | Permalink
  27. daniel imburgia wrote:

    May I suggest Franz Rosenzwieg’s “Star of Redemption.” He was a Jew in Germany wrestling with becoming a Catholic. ‘Star’ was written in the mid twenties i believe. This is my first visit to your site so forgive me if my comments are redundant. I haven’t noticed any comments that the terms “jew” and “Christian” are far from universally stabilized. Certainly in the Jewish communities I am familiar with, here and in Israel, these terms are hotly debated (both politically and theologically) shalom, Daniel

    Monday, October 27, 2008 at 1:36 pm | Permalink

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