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Lauren F. Winner

To the Jews First

Jewish evangelization from the heyday of dispensationalism to the rise of Messianic Judaism.

This is the final installment in a five-part series.

Part 1 [November/December 2000], "Living by Law, Looking for Intimacy," explored what Christians can learn from the debates that divide American Jews, taking as a point of departure Samuel G. Freedman's book, Jew vs. Jew: The Struggle for the Soul of American Jewry.

Part 2 [January/February 2001], "God of Abraham—and Saint Paul," focused on the pathbreaking "Jewish Statement on Christians and Christianity" published last fall in the New York Times and the book of essays it occasioned, Christianity in Jewish Terms, edited by Tikva Frymer-Kensky, David Novak, Peter Ochs, David Fox Sandmel, and Michael A. Signer.

Part 3 considered medieval anti-Semitism and the Eucharist (via Miri Rubin's Gentile Tales).

Part 4 discussed German Jews, Edith Stein in particular.

Evangelizing the Chosen People

Evangelizing the Chosen People

Evangelizing the Chosen People:
Missions to the Jews in America, 1880-2000

by Yaakov Ariel
Univ. of North Carolina Press, 2000
367 pp.; $19.95

The evangelization of Jews was back in the headlines last May, when moderate Baptist pastor Steve Jones and the congregation of Southside Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama, opened their sanctuary to the Jews of Temple Emanu-El, a Reform synagogue whose building will be unusable during a 14-month renovation. In an article in the Birmingham News, Jones commented on Baptist-Jewish relations. "My approach to mission is not to save people," he said. "I don't like this 'win-them-at-all-costs' attitude. … The whole mindset—that Jews are lost and we need to convert them—it's a very condescending relationship." More conservative Baptists were shocked and outraged. Was Jones a universalist? If his mission wasn't to save people, what exactly was it?

Every few years, reporters turn their attention to Christian efforts to spread the gospel to Jews. Usually, though, we don't find Baptists sparring with Baptists; we find Jews sparring with evangelicals or fundamentalists over some denominational pronouncement about Jewish mission. It's fair to say that evangelism is the great bugaboo of interfaith conversations; it's the topic most likely to bring Jewish-Christian dialogue to a screeching halt (or to transform it into a screaming match). When Southern Baptists announced an effort to evangelize Jews several years ago, Conrad Giles, president-elect of the Council of Jewish Federations, said, "It is very disturbing to be targeted by any group for what is basically elimination. While the elimination is not quite in the same manner as during the Holocaust, the end point is the same."

Evangelicals respond that the imperative to share the gospel is a tenet of their faith; Christians are eager to sit at the dialogue table, but not if it means checking their Christianity at the door. We mean no harm, they say, occasionally bewildered by the vehemence with which Jews react to evangelistic efforts; we're spreading the gospel because we care about our neighbor. As the SBC's Phil Roberts put it in 1996, "All we're talking about here is. … sharing of our faith in a loving way with those around us. … Let's say you've found a cure for cancer or discovered the fountain of youth. The right thing to do would be to share it with others."

Whether Christians should evangelize Jews is a theological question. But like so many theological questions, it can be illuminated by history. This spring, just in time for the Alabama Baptists' squabble, the University of North Carolina Press published Yaakov Ariel's Evangelizing the Chosen People, a ground-breaking account of American Christians' missions to the Jews from the late nineteenth century to the present. Anyone who has read Ariel's 1991 book, On Behalf of Israel: American Fundamentalist Attitudes Towards Jews, Judaism, and Zionism 1865-1945, will know that he is a scholar with a rare understanding of both Judaism and Christianity, a deep knowledge of American religious history, and a judicious respect for the people about whom he writes. Jews and Christians alike will find Ariel's new offering informative and challenging.

Although missions to the Jews in America began early in the nineteenth century—indeed, Jonathan Sarna has argued that many of the characteristic institutions of American Judaism emerged during the middle decades of the century directly in response to Christian proselytizing—it wasn't until the 1880s and 1890s that such efforts began to be conducted on a large scale. Between 1880 and 1919, by Ariel's count, the number of organizations devoted to evangelizing Jews increased from one to forty-five.

From the time of its founding in the 1880s, Moody Bible Institute was particularly active in promoting missions to Jews, attracting Jewish converts who sought training to more effectively reach their own people as well as others preparing for Jewish evangelization. In 1923, Moody established a department expressly for this purpose. "Although the program in Jewish studies had the pragmatic purpose of training missionaries to the Jews," Ariel writes,

and although the Jewish religion was not studied from an intrinsically Jewish perspective, the fact that the Moody Bible Institute offered a special program in Jewish studies in its curriculum was in some ways remarkable. It was certainly unique among Christian institutions of higher education in America at the time. Ironically, it was a conservative institute that was the first to introduce a course of Jewish studies rather than a liberal one.

What inspired the sudden, enthusiastic interest in Jewish conversion? Ariel's answer is unequivocal: premillennial dispensationalism. John Nelson Darby's urgent eschatology pushed British Christians to evangelize Jews, and when dispensationalism took hold in the United States, American evangelicals started witnessing to Jews with a vigor that put their transatlantic counterparts to shame. Their zeal was fueled by a new understanding of Jews' unique place in salvation history. In the Darbyite scheme, Jews would rebuild a political state in Palestine before the Second Coming, and Jews would be primed to embrace Jesus when he finally returned. The widely used Scofield Reference Bible and popular works such as James Brookes's 1874 bestseller Maranatha spelled out "the role of the Jewish people in the events of the End Times and in the millennial kingdom."

Zionism bolstered dispensationalists' confidence that the eschaton was at hand, and that Jews—and Jewish evangelism—would play a key role in ushering in the kingdom of God. Missionaries saw the Jewish resettlement of Palestine as proof that "they were working to evangelize a nation that was in the process of recovering its position as God's chosen people. … No cause could be more worthy." The Balfour Declaration was added assurance that "the current era was ending and the events of the End Times were to begin very soon." The creation of the state of Israel in 1948, not surprisingly, was heralded as only the most dramatic in a long series of signs of the times. By mid-century, Ariel shows, evangelicals were pouring unprecedented amounts of time and money into the evangelization of Jews.

But even as conservative evangelical support for evangelistic efforts grew, mainliners had begun to criticize Jewish missions. Beginning in the 1920s, Reinhold Niebuhr "pioneered an approach that accepted the legitimacy of a separate Jewish existence outside the church and the idea that Jews, holding a valid religious tradition of their own, did not have to convert." Taking their cues from Niebuhr, theologians like Paul Van Buren and Franklin Littell "recognized the merits of rabbinical Judaism as a rich religious tradition. … [and insisted] that there was no need for Jews to turn to Christianity." Some mainliners eschewed Jewish evangelism on theological grounds: Jews already know the God of Israel, so they don't need saving. Others argued that friendly interfaith relations are more important than evangelism. By 1970, mainliners were almost unanimously opposed to Jewish missions.

The absence of mainliners wasn't the only change in the evangelistic dramatis personae. Before 1960, Gentile Protestants spearheaded many of the missions to Jews; thereafter, Jewish Christians themselves began to take bold evangelistic steps. Inspired by the counterculture and, in particular, by California Jesus freaks, Moishe Rosen founded what is today the most visible and controversial arm of Jewish Christian evangelistic efforts: Jews for Jesus. Coming to faith in Christ, said Rosen, did not mean abandoning Judaism. Jewish converts could continue to worship in Hebrew, worship on Jewish holidays, and cook traditional Jewish cuisine. Rosen mounted an aggressive evangelistic campaign that emphasized the continuities between Judaism and Christianity, underscoring especially Jesus' (or Yeshua's) Jewish roots. Rosen's missionaries had particular success on college campuses, where young seekers were attracted by the Jews for Jesus' daring hippie garb and persuaded by their evangelistic literature (two favorite tracts were Corn Beef, Knishes, and Christ, and You Bring the Bagels, I'll Bring the Gospel). [1]

Three decades later, Jews for Jesus and other Jewish Christian missions continue to thrive. "At the turn of the new century," writes Ariel, "the missionary movement is at the peak of its self-confidence, looking forward to a bright future." Today, "the number of converts swells to perhaps the largest voluntary movement of Jewish converts to Christianity in the history of Jewish-Christian contact."

Ariel's study is not flawless. The Israeli-born scholar's English is stilted; his prose would have benefited from heavier-handed editing. He rides the dispensationalist theme relentlessly, to the neglect of other factors. (Given the enormous increase in Jewish immigration between 1881 and 1921, an upsurge in Jewish evangelization was predictable apart from the vogue for premillennial dispensationalism.) And there are relevant topics that he skims or neglects altogether. Readers will want to know more, for example, about the impact of the Holocaust, which is strangely absent from this monograph: Did it influence Christian approaches to mission? Did it shape Jewish responses to evangelism?

Nevertheless, Ariel has produced an indispensable book. His respectful investigation of evangelicals' missionary motives may temper Jewish leaders' rhetoric; few could come away from Evangelizing the Chosen People thinking that missions to the Jews are a Christian plot to annihilate Jews, comparable to the Holocaust in its ultimate intention. And Ariel's history lesson might inspire Christians to think more subtly about Jewish evangelism.

Especially noteworthy is Ariel's extensive and even-handed treatment of Messianic Judaism. His book is one of several recent studies that mark a seismic shift in attitude toward this movement within the Jewish community, which began with ridicule—in the early days of the movement, most Jews who were aware of it saw it as a bizarre aberration, a bad joke rather than a threat—and shifted to unremitting hostility as the number of converts grew. Seen in this light, Messianic Jews are no longer Jews; theirs is the ultimate betrayal. Carol Harris-Shapiro, a rabbi and professor of religion, challenged this consensus with a thoughtful and sympathetic ethnographic study, Messianic Judaism: A Rabbi's Journey Through Religious Change in America (1999). "Given the large variation within what is generally accepted in the community as 'Jewish' and 'Judaism,'" Harris-Shapiro concludes, "is it possible to find a single definition of either that includes all groups considered normative in American Jewish life but excludes Messianic Judaism?"

Dan Cohn-Sherbok, a rabbi and a scholar who has published dozens of books on Judaism, arrives at a similar conclusion in his book Messianic Judaism (2000), which covers the history of the movement (here there is some overlap with Ariel), its practices, and its theology. Arguing for "Jewish pluralism," he proposes the image of a seven-branched menorah, each branch of which represents one of the current expressions of Judaism. In Cohn-Sherbok's illustration, the center candle represents Reform Judaism, bracketed by Conservative Judaism, Orthodox Judaism, and Hasidism on one hand and Reconstructionist Judaism, Humanistic Judaism, and Messianic Judaism on the other.

Of course Harris-Shapiro, Cohn-Sherbok, and others who share their outlook are far from constituting a new consensus. Still, the increasing credibility of such views within the Jewish community is both a hopeful sign for Jewish-Christian relations and a challenge to Christians to respond with equal sympathy and understanding. Such was the spirit that informed—not consistently, but at their best—the missions whose history Ariel so usefully recounts.

—This is the final installment in a five-part series.

Lauren Winner is a doctoral candidate in the history of American religion at Columbia University.


1. For a book-length account, see Ruth A. Tucker, Not Ashamed: The Story of Jews for Jesus (Multnomah, 1999).

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