Richard Harvey, Paternoster, 2009
reviewed by Derek Leman
For some Jesus Creed readers Messianic Jewish will be a term with a good connotation and for others not so good. The difference depends on many things, not least what experiences you may have had with someone or some group using the label. The fact is, the idea of Jewish Christianity or some variety of return to Jewish or Hebraic roots occurs in many contexts, some of them not at all Jewish.
Why should a Christian know about Messianic Judaism, which Harvey defines broadly as “the religion of Jewish people who believe in Jesus (Yeshua) as the promised Messiah” (pg. 1)?
My answer would be two-fold. First, the gospel is inextricably bound up with the past and the future of the people of Israel. Some would dispute this and many would be unaware of the idea. If you take a holistic approach to the Bible, Israel is not easily dismissed. Second, many Christians are likely to run into Jewish people from a variety of backgrounds, including intermarried Jews or Jews in the church. Israel is not merely a theoretical category, but a particular one you will likely encounter in the face of a Jewish man or woman.
Harvey’s map of the entire field of Messianic Jewish theology is broad, including groups and individuals all the way on the spectrum from Christian-barely-discernible-as-Jewish to practically-Orthodox-Jewish-but-following-Yeshua. He acknowledges that MJT (Messianic Jewish theology) is under-developed and only beginning to find its voice. He says in the book’s conclusion, “Whilst MJT is still at an embryonic and developmental stage, the study has shown that it does exist and must continue to develop if it is to meet the challenges facing Messianic Judaism” (pg. 284).
It is important to learn, as Harvey shows in the opening of the book, that Messianic Judaism developed historically through several important developments. The early MJ movement is to be located in the days of the apostles and the generations soon after. There were some very limited identifications of Jewish faith in Jesus during the long interim of the Middle Ages and into modernity. The modern rebirth began with the Christian Missions to the Jews movements, starting with Joseph Samuel Christian Frey in 1809 (The London Society for the Promotion of Christianity Among the Jews). These movements resulted in a the gathering of Hebrew Christians, as they made themselves known, a new idea that Christians of Jewish descent should not cease their Jewish identity. Perhaps the most famous is Alfred Edersheim whose books are still widely read.
The emergence of MJ continued in the Jesus movements of the 1970’s, the emergence of Israel, and the increase of Jewish faith in Jesus. From this many in Christian missions to Jewish people and pioneers of Messianic Judaism emerged. This was the fertile ground from which Messianic Jewish congregations started forming in the 1970’s and eventually congregational networks such as the Messianic Jewish Alliance and the Union of Messianic Jewish Congregations. At the same time there was a rise in Christian missions to the Jews such as Jews for Jesus and Chosen People Ministries.
Harvey maps the whole spectrum of Messianic Jewish theology from the groups in America and Israel which continue from these 1970’s movements. He cites more than a score of academic papers and doctrinal dissertations studying the phenomenon of MJT.
There are penetrating sociological questions. Are Messianic Jews Christians, Jews, both, something else? There are unique theological challenges. Should MJT accept the historic Christian ways of explaining the natures of Christ and the Trinity, or is there a need to develop the differentiated unity of God along Jewish theological lines and the divinity of Messiah with Jewish traditional categories?
On my own blog, “Messianic Jewish Musings,” you can find a fuller treatment of the book by searching the category “Richard Harvey.”
Questions that might make good discussion for the Jesus Creed community:
What about Messianic Judaism surprises you the most?
Do you see MJ as simply an indigenous Christianity, or is Jewishness something that runs deeper?
Are you comfortable seeing Messianic Jews alongside, in relation to, but separate from other churches?
*Note: I will be online Saturday evening and Sunday morning to respond to comments.