How Jewish Should Messianic Jews Be?
By Derek Leman, Member of LCJE's Coordinating
A review of How Jewish is Christianity? by Louis Goldberg,
ed., Zondervan, 2003
I was reminded while reading How Jewish Is Christianity?
of the value of hashing out opposing positions on subjects of great
importance. The place of Messianic congregations and the role of
Torah and tradition in our congregational life is a subject dear
to me. My own opinions and preferences seemed firmly set.
What a breath of fresh air it was, then, to read William Varner,
the late Louis Goldberg (of blessed memory), Arnold Fruchtenbaum,
John Fischer, and Gershon Nerel discuss these very subjects. I was
reminded that over time unquestioned assertions can become fossils.
Part of the Counterpoint series, books that pit varying theological
positions in a dialogue with one another, How Jewish Is Christianity?
stands out as one of the best in the series. Whereas some volumes
in the series fail to really bring out systematic distinctives between
theological positions, this volume does so quite well.
With the risk of oversimplifying, the various positions are: (1)
William Varner against separate congregations of Jewish believers,
(2) Arnold Fruchtenbaum for Messianic congregations as long as Torah
and tradition are optional, (3) Gershon Nerel for Messianic congregations
that emphasize Torah and Jewish continuity but not rabbinic tradition,
(4) Louis Goldberg for Messianic congregations that observe Torah
and tradition while recognizing that neither are authoritative,
and (5) John Fischer for Messianic congregations that are Torah
and tradition observant without making rabbinic tradition equal
Particularly helpful are the introduction and concluding essay of
the book. Louis Goldberg has written a helpful summary of Messianic
Jewish presence through the centuries as an introduction. David
Stern, emerging from a writing hiatus, has written a helpful projection
into the future of Messianic Judaism.
A large part of the value of the book for me was reading the positions
least like my own. William
Varner’s warning that separating Jewish believers into Messianic
Congregations can lead to division was a welcome caution for me.
Arnold Fruchtenbaum’s challenge that many who hold to the
continuing validity of the Torah are inconsistent was also a wise
I also found new ways of presenting truths dear to me. Gershon Nerel
stirred something in me when he spoke of Jewish believers as a threat
to Christians throughout history as long as Christians imagined
themselves to be the true Israel. John Fischer taught me some new
ways to explain some of the convictions that I hold dear. Louis
Goldberg made a concise case for allowing Jewish believers freedom
to practice traditions.
The title of the book is somewhat misleading. Anyone who picks up
this slim volume (208 pages) hoping to find a discussion of Jewish
themes and practices in Christian traditions will be disappointed.
A more accurate title would have been, How Jewish Can Messianic
Jews Be? Perhaps the title chosen will draw more people to read
the book and reflect thoughtfully on the role of Jewish believers
amongst the people of God.
Regardless of the reader’s preferences and positions regarding
Jewish believers and their place amongst the people of God this
book is useful. Jewish mission leaders who are not strong on the
need for indigenous Jewish congregations will find much food for
thought here. Messianic leaders who have no developed philosophy
of adaptation of Jewish tradition will find concise and helpful
arguments for several different positions. Everyone will benefit
from Louis Goldberg’s 14-page summary of the history of Messianic
Jews and David Stern’s advice for the future of work in the
Perhaps this book will lead readers to follow David Stern’s
wise advice at the close of the book:
We should develop and ecclesiology that takes into account three
groups of people corresponding to the olive tree analogy of Romans
11:17-26: the cut off natural branches grafted back into their own
cultivated olive tree (Messianic Jews), the branches of the wild
olive tree grafted into the cultivated tree (Gentile Christians),
and the cut off natural branches that have not yet been grafted
back in (non-Messianic Jews).
Amen, and may all God’s people be of one mind and one purpose
as we await the return of Yeshua, brother-Messiah for Israel and
friend-Messiah for the nations!