Thursday, April 28, 2005

Jewish roots

I’ve been asked the following question:
“Do you see similar root causes or underlying problems within Messianic Judaism, or alternately the Hebraic Roots movement, and the New Perspective on Paul?

For example, the emphasis on Paul's supposed Shammaite background (despite the fact that Paul tells us that he was educated under the feet of Gamaliel, himself a disciple of Hillel); the trend toward focusing on outward signs such as…keeping certain aspects of the Law as proofs that one belongs to the covenant community, sealed in ‘justification’; the tendency to elevate outside material to the level of Scripture (the Oral Torah, a certain take on Second Temple era history and culture, etc.), and so on?”

By way of reply:

1. I’ve written a review of Wright’s book, What St. Paul Really Said. This is posted on the blog, in the book review section, under the title “Reinventing Paul.”

2. Let us begin with a very rough-hewn distinction: on the face of it, the new perspective goes from Christianity to Judaism while the Jewish Roots movement (hereafter JRM) goes from Judaism to Christianity. Put another way, the new perspective approaches Judaism from the outside, via Christianity, while JRM approaches Christianity from the inside, via Judaism.

3. JRM is a loose-leaf theological movement that ranges along a continuum. At the evangelical end of the spectrum are Messianic Jews who affirm traditional historic Christian theology (although they have problems with supercessionism), but want to retain their Jewish identity, and encourage Christians to become better informed about the Jewish roots of Christianity.

At the other end of the spectrum are representatives with a classic cultic view of church history, according to which the church went totally apostate after the 1C, corrupting the “pure,” primitive Gospel with pagan philosophical speculations like the Trinity. This is throwback to the old Ebionite heresy.

Near the same end of the spectrum are representatives who repristinate the view of the Judaizers (a la Galatians), according to which a gentile must convert to Judaism and be an observant Jew before he can convert to Christianity and be a true Christian. This assumes that Jews are still in covenant with God, that the Mosaic covenant remains in force, such that salvation is through incorporation into the Mosaic covenant.

There are other eccentricities such as a belief in the end-time restoration of the lost tribes of Israel, as well as a rejection of the Greek Gospels in favor of hypothetical Hebrew originals.

Whether we include these aberrations under the rubric of Messianic Judaism is a matter of definition. But they are certainly sub-Christian. And if we define Messianic Judaism by NT standards, then it is clearly at odds with NT theology.

As with most any heresy, there is a grain of truth to this. There are two extremes to be avoided: one is the uncritical rejection of tradition, the other an uncritical acceptance of tradition.

Messianic Jews are welcome to reopen and reexamine old theological debates. But a preemptory and wholesale rejection of two thousands years of historical theology betrays an unscriptural disrespect for the role of the church in the plan of God.

In addition, the Talmud and customs of Eastern European Jewry are several steps removed from the 1C Judaism and the NT church. This is not the root, but a branch.

4. I’ve said that, superficially speaking, JRM represents the insider’s perspective. But upon closer examination that is a gross oversimplification.

21C Jews are not 1C Jews. They have no more direct contact with the roots of Judaism than do Gentiles. They can go back to the primary sources, but so can Gentiles. They are, at most, rediscovering their roots. So they really aren’t insiders after all. Rather, they come to Judaism through study, and then employ their Judaic studies as a prism through which to view the Christian faith.

5. This all goes back to the ancient problem of Jewish identity. Who’s a Jew?

Under the Mosaic law, the terms of membership were clear. But even then, there was the temptation to assimilate with the surrounding cultures.

Under Roman rule, the identity crisis became more pronounced, and there were various strategies to retain their distinctive identity. At one extreme were the Zealots who wanted to expel the alien occupation force from the Holy Land. Rather less extreme were the Essenes and other separatists who tried to put literal distance between themselves and the foreign element. Still less extreme were the Pharisees who tried to put ritual distance between themselves and the foreign element.

After the fall of Jerusalem, the identity crisis reached a peak, and for two reasons:
i) Without the Temple, it was no longer possible to be a fully observant Jew.
ii) Having rejected the Messianic claims of Jesus, the very idea of a Messianic expectation become problematic. How could they accept the Messianic hope while they rejected Jesus? What better claimant was there to that title?

As such, modern Judaism lacks a positive identity and fixed frame of reference. It tends to define itself--on the one hand--by what it is not—by its anti-Christian character, while--on the other hand—by looking to ethnicity or culture, tradition or creed, to supply a positive definition. But, of course, these are fluid criteria, subject to a multiplicity of interpretations and variations.

6. Now the new perspectives also lays claim to unearthing the Jewish roots of Christianity. And this is very much a gentile enterprise, conducted by outsiders like Sanders, Wright, Dunn, Esler and the like.

At the same time, they then position themselves as spokesmen for Judaism, lecturing Protestants on the true character of Pharisaic theology.

Ironically, one of the harshest critics of the new perspective has been Jacob Neusner, the world’s leading authority on Rabbinical Judaism.

7. As my questioner rightly points out, there is a certain affinity between the two schools of thought inasmuch as both are apt to locate Jewish identity in certain externals of observance and group membership.

And this sets them in common opposition to sola fide, where Christian identity is not situated in outward boundary-markers, but in the objective work of Christ, applied to the sinner on condition of faith—condition which is, itself, effected by the grace of God through regeneration.

As he also notes, there is a common opposition to sola Scriptura, where the Talmud and other Jewish source materials become both the filter through which Scripture is viewed, and the standard by which it is judged.

Likewise, neither JRM nor the new perspective regard the New Covenant as a break with the Mosaic Covenant.

8. In general, Messianic Jews are very Christocentric inasmuch as that is what sets them apart from their fellow Jews. But when they convert to Christianity, they must also decide where to position themselves between the church and the synagogue. And there is a range of opinion on that subject. Cf. L. Goldberg, ed., How Jewish is Christianity? (Zondervan 2003).

9. How Messianic Jews react to the new perspective is difficult to ascertain, for Messianic Judaism lacks a unified tradition. In his multivolume work (three volumes and counting), which sets the present-day standard in Messianic apologetics, Michael Brown has only a few passing references to the new perspective, and his own position inconclusive. Cf. Answering Jewish Objections to Jesus (Baker 2000), 160-63; 230; 244.

Anyone who happens to know more than me is welcome to pipe in at this point.


I received the following answer to my inquiry:

Dear Mr. Hays,

Thank you for contacting us with your question.

After asking Dr. Brown what he thought, he answered with this, "There are lots of different approaches to the "New Perspective" on Paul, and there are just as many different views within Messianic Judaism. A good book to read on this as a starting point would be How Jewish Is Christianity, ed. by Louis Goldberg and published by Zondervan."

I hope this will help you.

In Him,

Assistant to Dr. Michael L. Brown

ICN Ministries
P.O. Box 1446
Harrisburg, NC 28075

From: Hays
Sent: Thursday, April 28, 2005 10:28 AM
Subject: The new perspective on Paul

I was wondering to what extent the New Perspective on Paul, a la Sanders, Dunn, Wright, has had an impact on Messianic Judaism. Does Dr. Brown have an answer to that question?

Steve Hays


  1. Just wanted to quickly say thanks very much for answering my question. Much appreciated, sir. :-)

  2. Here is a good book review of Wright's What St. Paul Really Said.

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