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Mapping Messianic Jewish theology : a constructive approach

by Richard Harvey

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MMJT - a Constructive Approach   (2010-01-25)


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by dnessim

This book is a 'buy' for anyone who wants to understand the theology of Messianic Jews. There is nothing like it. The following is a review I wrote for a publication called Mishkan.

The “Map” of Mapping Messianic Jewish Theology

It is greatly satisfying to one who has watched and participated in the modern Messianic movement, to see that after a good forty years, there is today a “terrain” of Messianic Jewish Theology (MJT) that is worthy of “mapping.” Well past are the barren years following the loss of hundreds of thousands of Jewish believers in Yeshua during the Shoah. Before the Shoah, MJT was clearly developing. Centred in Europe, it was informing the thought of Jewish believers around the world. It was never to come to fruition, however. Today, in place of the scholarship that the old world once steadily fed into the new, is a developing body of Theology that increasingly demands to be recognised

The need for “mapping” this theology is clear. MJT is not dominated by any one individual or even one particular school. It traverses the globe and is informed by the full breadth of not only Jewish theological thought, but also Christian. Most streams of Judaism have their counterparts within the Messianic Jewish Movement (MJM). Likewise most Christian denominational and theological perspectives also find representation. Sometimes the Jewish and Christian perspectives appear in very unlikely and surprising combinations. Despite wide disparities, there are definable borders which demarcate Messianic Jewish Theology as a distinct body of thought. In other words, there are definable markers which determine whether a person or body’s theology is Messianic or not.

Richard Harvey’s doctoral dissertation, Mapping Messianic Jewish Theology (MMJT) <a style="mso-footnote-id: ftn1;" name="_ftnref1" href="">[1]</a> addresses the need for a ‘map’ of MJT. Under the supervision of Dr Dan Cohn-Sherbok, himself an authority on Messianic Judaism, and a Reform Rabbi, Harvey has become a theological cartographer.  In a bit over 300 pages, he surveys the terrain, having as his aim “to understand the nature of MJT, identifying its sources, norms, methods, content and results.”<a style="mso-footnote-id: ftn2;" name="_ftnref2" href="">[2]</a> The use of Harvey’s “mapping” terminology comes from constructive theology which uses the organising metaphor of “theological geography”.<a style="mso-footnote-id: ftn3;" name="_ftnref3" href="">[3]</a>  

<h1 style="line-height: 200%; text-indent: 0cm; margin: 12pt 0cm;">I.             Borders</h1>

In order to map Messianic theology, Harvey has of necessity had the job of determining its borders. This is the task of the first chapter of MMJT, titled “Approaching Messianic Jewish Theology.” It is the purpose of this review to focus on that chapter, and to comment on it.

This first chapter of Harvey’s thesis “maps” the boundaries of the terrain from which MJT has risen. For those who have been keeping up with surveys of the MJM, as well as readers of Mishkan to some degree, much will be familiar. However, Harvey has managed to bring together a wider variety of studies than anyone else to date, and much will certainly be new. Harvey surveys Messianic, Jewish and Christian theologians, sociologists and historians. Whether reviewing Maoz or Kinzer, Sobel or Ariel, the full breadth of available scholarship is covered.

In this regard, gaping voids in current research are revealed. This reflects one of the difficulties that MMJT faces. The body of previous research is yet limited. There are almost no studies that have been done in Israel, either in Hebrew or English, on the MJM.<a style="mso-footnote-id: ftn4;" name="_ftnref4" href="">[4]</a> Previous studies of the MJM are therefore almost entirely limited to the English speaking world. This means that Harvey’s survey of the MJM is unavoidably limited. Since the theological map definitely does include and give an appropriately significant place to Messianic theology coming from Israel, this is a real lack which cannot be easily ignored.

The limits of the map being drawn are not only geographical, but chronological. The MJM is young. While it has its roots in the late nineteenth century, its contemporary connection to those roots is tenuous, having been almost completely severed in the Shoah. Since there has been very little to survey, very few surveys exist past the last two decades.  The earliest significant study is Sobel’s landmark work of 1974,<a style="mso-footnote-id: ftn5;" name="_ftnref5" href="">[5]</a> which while antagonistic to Hebrew Christianity, was in its day “the only book-length sociological analysis of Hebrew Christianity.”<a style="mso-footnote-id: ftn6;" name="_ftnref6" href="">[6]</a>

This brings up a third limitation, that of the availability of secondary sources. Harvey specifically notes this.<a style="mso-footnote-id: ftn7;" name="_ftnref7" href="">[7]</a> It is this very limitation that MMJT helps to solve. Future theological work in the MJM should be helped by its existence, and the wide terrain that it covers.

<h1 style="line-height: 200%; text-indent: 0cm; margin: 12pt 0cm;">II.            Terrain</h1>

Working with these limitations, MMJT’s first chapter comes up with a cohesive description of the terrain within the boundaries of Messianic Judaism. A clear picture, a collage, of Messianic Judaism emerges and its commonalities become evident. In this first chapter of MMJT Harvey does not identify many leading participants and practitioners. That is the task to be taken up later, when actually mapping the theology of the MJM. In this chapter it is the MJM itself that is being mapped, and for the purposes of his study, Harvey defines Messianic Judaism using an inclusive definition.<a style="mso-footnote-id: ftn8;" name="_ftnref8" href="">[8]</a>

Here, Messianic Judaism is viewed from the vantage point of various anthropological studies, sociological studies, and historico-theological studies. It is viewed through studies by participants in Messianic Judaism, whether writing as observers, advocates, or actual practitioners. Each study is shown to have a particular contribution to make to the description of Messianic Judaism, from which MJT springs. Thus Messianic Judaism is viewed from various vantage points, some at ground level, up close, others from high altitude, taking in grand vistas. These various studies of Messianic Jewish congregations and the movement as a whole occupy the bulk of MMJT’s first chapter. They are categorised in the main divisions.

Firstly, anthropological studies, following the methodology and ethos of anthropological research, describe the movement in terms of its development, history, identity and place in the religious world. These studies do not evaluate the belief system or theology of Messianic Jews. Especially in recent times, they have been viewed positively by Jewish believers in Yeshua, for whom being the subject of published analysis has contributed a degree of legitimacy.

The second category of studies dealt with is that of Social-Psychological analyses. The main subject of this category is the social psychological study of Elliot Cohen on Jews for Jesus in 2004.<a style="mso-footnote-id: ftn9;" name="_ftnref9" href="">[9]</a> Interestingly, as a Jewish Buddhist (JUBU) his approach is non-committal in terms of the theology of Messianic Judaism.<a style="mso-footnote-id: ftn10;" name="_ftnref10" href="">[10]</a>

A third category, that of historico-theological approaches, hits closest to home. It has the most overlap with the mapping of MJT that are the topic of the dissertation. Here Harvey presents studies that evaluate not only the social and historical aspects of Messianic Judaism, but also its theology. In this category are many who engage with the MJM and its theology either from the outside or from within, as practitioners. Studies by those who have significantly different visions of what Messianic Judaism is or should become are described along with an assessment of their significance. It’s worth noting that in this category many of the “[e]ngaged Messianic Jewish Practitioners”<a style="mso-footnote-id: ftn11;" name="_ftnref11" href="">[11]</a> turn out to be the very same people engaged in the development of MJT. What emerges is a picture of a reflective, self-analytical, yet forward thinking body of scholarship. It is by no means a dispassionate body of scholars. As such this body of scholarship is especially affected by its own scholar’s convictions, beliefs, and situations. Nevertheless, in this MMJT is most instructive, as it informs the reader of the loci from which come the different theological opinions to be described later in Harvey’s thesis.

<h1 style="line-height: 200%; text-indent: 0cm; margin: 12pt 0cm;">III.          Approach</h1>

It must have been an entertaining task to compare the theological perspectives and beliefs of Fruchtenbaum and Juster, and others with divergent approaches, in the covers of the same dissertation. In undertaking such a task, one’s own presuppositions are certainly relevant. Harvey declares his own approach in treating his subject matter, categorising it according to the “traditional subject divisions found in Jewish theology, of ‘God, Torah, and Israel’.”<a style="mso-footnote-id: ftn12;" name="_ftnref12" href="">[12]</a> This significantly demonstrates that MJT is being treated within the framework of a Jewish mindset. This is a Jewish review of MJT, specifically a Messianic Jewish review. As such, it marks a milestone on the landscape that it itself describes. Hitherto has the Lord helped us.<a style="mso-footnote-id: ftn13;" name="_ftnref13" href="">[13]</a>

Harvey’s approach is also definably British. Like the Jewish world, the MJM is overwhelmingly influenced by two centres of Jewish population and influence, that of North America and that of Israel. In England, standing at a vantage point between the two Messianic poles of North America and Israel, both are equally distant and equally accessible. Both are fairly represented and given their due weight. A second British characteristic is the willingness to be inclusive, to moderate between opposing views. This has resulted in the widest possible range of contributors being included in the landscape of MMJT. Thus Maoz, who one might assume would not describe himself as a Messianic Jewish theologian, is included. Harvey footnotes his correspondence with Maoz, who is tellingly willing to identify himself as such.<a style="mso-footnote-id: ftn14;" name="_ftnref14" href="">[14]</a> 

Thirdly, Harvey’s approach is open ended. It is not a concluding study on a fossilised or monolithic theology. Rather, as this chapter shows through its survey of surveys, the movement is in a phase of development. At one point it may have been reasonable to propose that MJT was largely a variation of North American Fundamentalism, as Rausch concluded in 1982.<a style="mso-footnote-id: ftn15;" name="_ftnref15" href="">[15]</a> If Rausch’s conclusions were still correct today, then the whole exercise that Harvey has embarked upon would be questionable. The terrain mapped would not be so much that of Messianic Judaism, but that of the brand of Christianity within which Messianic Judaism most often finds its home. MMJT has bravely forged into the fray, and fortunately for Harvey, it has been evident to his examiners that he is right, there is a definable MJT that is worth writing on!

<h1 style="line-height: 200%; text-indent: 0cm; margin: 12pt 0cm;">IV.          Where we go from here</h1>

Two major trends are today bearing fruit in the MJM. They are relevant to the mapping of MJT. The first trend is in Israel. In the 1980’s, Messianic pastors faced agonising choices and dilemmas regarding the use of Hebrew in their congregations. Happily, they were courageous, and as they increasingly used Hebrew as their primary language, their congregations became increasing representative of the Israeli population.<a style="mso-footnote-id: ftn16;" name="_ftnref16" href="">[16]</a> Today, Israeli congregations continue to be increasingly indigenous in composition, with expatriates less often in the lead. This is a key factor in their increasing relevance to the Israeli public, and a key factor in the increasing number of Israelis coming to realise that Yeshua is their Messiah and Saviour. From this growing body, theologically astute leaders are bound to emerge and make their mark not only in Israel, but for the MJM as a whole.

The second major trend is the increasing theological maturity of leaders in the Diaspora. Theological debates that abound now between Messianic Jews are a sign not of weakness but of independent thinking and strength. Events such as the Borough Park Symposium of 2007 demonstrate that the movement can entertain a healthy and vigorous dialogue in a far more academic fashion than would have been possible two decades ago. Extrapolating forward, it is reasonable to expect MJT to converse at an ever more sophisticated level both with itself and with Jewish and Christian theology in the future.

Harvey’s dissertation marks another milestone in the development of Messianic thought. It is of great encouragement to me that such milestones are passing with ever greater frequency within the nascent Messianic movement. There is no doubt in my mind that this work will provide an excellent ‘snapshot in time’ for future historians, theologians, and sociologists in reference to the movement that it pictures.

Like a flower, MJT is the fruit of the Messianic Jewish Movement, now beginning to unfurl its petals. While Sobel might have sceptically witnessed the unfurling of its first leaves, Harvey has captured the opening of MJT’s first buds. His work will therefore be of enduring interest to sociologists, historians, and not least theologians.

<div style="mso-element: footnote-list;">

<div id="ftn1" style="mso-element: footnote;">

<a style="mso-footnote-id: ftn1;" name="_ftn1" href="">[1]</a> Richard Harvey, Mapping Messianic Jewish Theology (Lampeter: U. of Wales, 2008).

</div> <div id="ftn2" style="mso-element: footnote;">

<a style="mso-footnote-id: ftn2;" name="_ftn2" href="">[2]</a> Ibid., p. 2.

</div> <div id="ftn3" style="mso-element: footnote;">

<a style="mso-footnote-id: ftn3;" name="_ftn3" href="">[3]</a> Ibid., p. 34.

</div> <div id="ftn4" style="mso-element: footnote;">

<a style="mso-footnote-id: ftn4;" name="_ftn4" href="">[4]</a> The notable exception is Kai Kjær-Hansen and Bodil Skjøtt, Facts and Myths about the Messianic Congregations in Israel 1998-1999, Mishkan, double issue 30-31 (Jerusalem: UCCI/Caspari Centre, 1999).

</div> <div id="ftn5" style="mso-element: footnote;">

<a style="mso-footnote-id: ftn5;" name="_ftn5" href="">[5]</a> B. Z. Sobel, Hebrew Christianity: The Thirteenth Tribe, (New York: John Wiley and Sons, 1974).

</div> <div id="ftn6" style="mso-element: footnote;">

<a style="mso-footnote-id: ftn6;" name="_ftn6" href="">[6]</a> Ibid., front flyleaf of dustcover.

</div> <div id="ftn7" style="mso-element: footnote;">

<a style="mso-footnote-id: ftn7;" name="_ftn7" href="">[7]</a> Harvey, op. cit., p. 36.

</div> <div id="ftn8" style="mso-element: footnote;">

<a style="mso-footnote-id: ftn8;" name="_ftn8" href="">[8]</a> Ibid., p. 32.

</div> <div id="ftn9" style="mso-element: footnote;">

<a style="mso-footnote-id: ftn9;" name="_ftn9" href="">[9]</a> Ibid., p. 40, Harvey refers to Eliot Marc Cohen, ‘Brother or Other: Jews for Jesus’ (PhD diss., Manchester Metropolitan University, 2004).

</div> <div id="ftn10" style="mso-element: footnote;">

<a style="mso-footnote-id: ftn10;" name="_ftn10" href="">[10]</a> Ibid., p. 14.

</div> <div id="ftn11" style="mso-element: footnote;">

<a style="mso-footnote-id: ftn11;" name="_ftn11" href="">[11]</a> Ibid., p. 23.

</div> <div id="ftn12" style="mso-element: footnote;">

<a style="mso-footnote-id: ftn12;" name="_ftn12" href="">[12]</a> Ibid., p. 36.

</div> <div id="ftn13" style="mso-element: footnote;">

<a style="mso-footnote-id: ftn13;" name="_ftn13" href="">[13]</a> 1 Samuel 7:12

</div> <div id="ftn14" style="mso-element: footnote;">

<a style="mso-footnote-id: ftn14;" name="_ftn14" href="">[14]</a> Harvey, op. cit., note 201, p. 46.

</div> <div id="ftn15" style="mso-element: footnote;">

<a style="mso-footnote-id: ftn15;" name="_ftn15" href="">[15]</a> Ibid., p. 15.

</div> <div id="ftn16" style="mso-element: footnote;">

<a style="mso-footnote-id: ftn16;" name="_ftn16" href="">[16]</a> Facts and Myths, op. cit., pp. 76-79 shows in a chart the number of Israeli congregations speaking Hebrew in 1999, being approximately half. This trend continues.

</div> </div>

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