Exploring the Fraught History Between Christians and Jews

By Daniel Muth

Two men stood, at different times but in strikingly similar circumstances, in the port city of Joppa, each contemplating the same Divine call: to go to the wealthy, powerful, barbarously unclean, murderously decadent Gentile empire that dominates and persecutes the Jewish people and call them, in the name of the God of Israel, to repent and turn to him. Though their initial responses were strikingly different, both were ultimately spectacularly successful. The first man, of course, was the wayward prophet Jonah, the other his namesake, Peter the Apostle, nee Simon Bar Jonah. Both faced a question that had haunted the

Jewish people from the time of Abraham: what to do about the Gentiles? The question admitted of no easy answers. Our Lord may have dined with harlots and tax collectors, but never once with a Gentile. He never even touched one. It is only in the New Covenant that the Church is sent out to all the nations. Yet even then, there remained the question: what to do with the Gentiles? The question gets a distinctive Christi answer after Peter’s call to Cornelius and Paul’s mission to the Greeks. One of the distinctives of early Christianity over against rabbinic Judaism is her insistence that the Gentiles were to be saved as Gentiles, and not made Jews first.

In short order, matters are reversed. The Jewish question of what to do with the Gentiles has long since become a Christian question of what to do with the Jews. To this there has never been a simple answer. At its heart lies a mystery. The Church herself is Jewish to the core. If much of her flesh is Greek, her bones are Jewish. Remove them and she collapses like a beached squid. Most of the early heresies, particularly Marcionism, involved some form of rejection of the Jewishness of Christianity.

These were roundly rejected. The Jewish Scriptures are also Christian Scriptures, and the New Testament makes no sense apart from the Old. Perhaps the most popular Christian response to the question of an ongoing, non-Christian Judaism is some variant or other on replacement theology: that God’s covenant in Christ replaces the previous ones through Abraham, Moses, and David. In this view, the Church replaces Jews as the chosen people; Talmudic Judaism is faithless and redundant; and God’s only desire for his former chosen people is their convers ion to Christianity. The Church Fathers, by and large writing at a time when Judaism constituted a live threat to the Christian faith, initiated this approach. Augustine recognized the value to the Church of having Jews scattered throughout Christendom. Psalm 59: 10-11 says, “my God will not let me look in triumph on my enemies; Do not kill them; or my people may forget.” Augustine and those who followed saw this as a command to leave the Jews unmolested, albeit not necessarily well treated. St. Bernard quoted this text in his fulminations against the persecution of Jews at the start of the Second Crusade, and it continued to be the standard for understanding the Jewish-Christian relationship throughout the Middle Ages and into the modem period.

The Great Awakenings of late 18th century England and America saw the rise of powerful missionary movements, one of which was the London Society for the Propagation of the Christian Faith Among the Jews, or London Jews Society (LJS), which in 1809 began a two-fold ministry of witnessing to Jews about Jesus as Messiah and agitating for the restoration of the Jews to what was then Turkish Palestine. These Christians also began to look at the relationship of the Christian Church to Judaism in a different way, considering the Abrahamic covenant, by which the Jews were chosen by God to be a blessing to the nations, unaffected by Christ’s sacrifice, while the Mosaic covenant was superseded, at least for the Gentiles. It is with this perspective that evangelical missionaries set about preaching to Jews throughout the world and urging their restoration to their Promised Land.

The story of Anglican Christians’ profound influence on the establishment of Israel and consequent effect on latter-day geopolitics is not widely told. One man who has dedicated many years to telling it is Kelvin Crombie, an Australian who lived for 23 years in Israel and has acted as historian of what is now The Church’s Ministry among Jewish People (CMJ). For the Love of Zion: Christian Witness and the Restoration of Israel (1991) relates the story of CMJ and Christ Church, Jerusalem. It was followed by ANZACS, Empires and Israel’s Restoration (1998), which tells the larger geopolitical story of Israel, with particular emphasis on the role of the Australian New Zealand Army Corps (ANZACS) in the two world wars; A Jewish Bishop in Jerusalem (2006), the life story of Michael Solomon Alexander, the first Jewish bishop in Jerusalem since the second century; and Restoring Israel: 200 Years of the CMJ Story (2009). Three of the books are available through CMJ (www.cmjusa .org/resources.html).

The theological perspective is consistent throughout. Israel from its very beginning is the Land between Empires. From the dawn of recorded history, a kingdom (Egypt) at the south ern end of the Fertile Crescent has been in a state of continual hostility with a kingdom (Mesopotamia, Babylonia, Assyria, Persia) to the north, with lands between, including Israel, acting as a coveted outpost of one or the other. The pattern continued as the Seleucids were pitted against the Ptolemies and the Romans against the Parthians (our Lord lived in an important part of the Empire and not the backwater that is often portrayed).

In the Christian era, there was continual hostility between the North African Monophysites and the Orthodox in Asia Minor, which rivalry contributed to the ease of the Muslim conquest, following which the Egypt-based Fatimids fought the Seljuks and later the Mamluks struggled against the Mongols and Ottomans. Even the age of the Western Empires saw the land of Israel used as a pawn in the rivalry between the French in Egypt and the Ottoman-allied Germans and English. And so throughout history, the land promised by God to his chosen people has been a focus of worldwide political ambitions as an imperial buffer zone and, not inconsequentially, as the terminus of the silk and spice trade routes. In the 20th century, the rivalries of the European powers eventually gave way to a new map of the Levant, with the Jewish state of Israel as one of its more significant features.

In the midst of this, or so Crombie’s view reasonably maintains, God’s sovereign purposes are accomplished despite — and often by means of — the raging of the nations. And it is in this respect that the 18th century Evangelical inclination to regard the Mosaic and Abrahamic covenants separately comes to be of great significance. God has promised this Land between Empires to his chosen people and never rescinded that covenant. His intention all along has been for his people to know the Son as Messiah. King of the Jews he was crowned on the cross and King of the Jews he remains, whether his people recognize him as such or not. Yet so much richer their joy, and so much the deeper their understanding of their own faith and scriptures, when they know Jesus — Yeshua — as Messiah. The conviction of early LJS missionaries and a hope of CMJ workers to this day is that God would restore his people to their land and then they would come to know Jesus Christ as Messiah. The simultaneous focus of this particular ministry has always been both to witness to Jewish people about their messiah and to support their restoration to the land of Israel.

It is true that many in the Evangelical fold, particularly those not directly involved in work with Jewish people, have tended to focus unhealthy attention on the possibility of the Lord’s apocalyptic return following the restoration of Israel. For the LJS and its CMJ successor, this obviously problematic theology has never been of central interest. Rather, their approach has been to emphasize the validity of God’s covenant with the Jewish people (hence the importance of their restoration to the land), the Jewishness of the Christian Church, and the proclamation of the Gospel of Jesus the Messiah to the Jewish people. For 200 years now, CMJ has pursued these goals the world over.

This is the story Crombie tells in his richly illustrated Restoring Israel, published in commemoration of CMJ’s 200th anniversary in 2009. In 1796, the nonconformist London Missionary Society took notice of the lack of a Christian mission to the Jews. By 1809, Joseph Frey — a young German-bom Jewish believer in Jesus — was instrumental in establishing LJS as a separate missionary entity. In short order, the LJS membership was a Who’s Who of London society: William Wilberforce, Charles Simeon, Lewis Way, the Duke of Devonshire, the Earls of Bessborough, Crawford, and Lindsay, and Lords Calthorpe, Dundas and Erskine. In 1813, the Episcopal Jews’ Chapel was established in London; the Duke of Kent, Queen Victoria’s father, laid the foundation stone. Beginning with the work of the Rev. A. S.. Thelwell in Amsterdam, missionaries were soon witnessing to Jews worldwide about the Jewish Messiah. Bavarian-born Joseph Wolff and Irishman Alexander McCaul were particularly energetic, the latter concentrating in Central Europe, particularly Warsaw, and the former traversing the Middle East.

In the 1820s, John Nicolayson began a ministry in Malta oriented toward eventual work in Jerusalem. Meanwhile, the well-connected Lewis Way and later the more influential Lord Shaftesbury began to press political power levers. In 1838, a British Consulate was established in Jerusalem and in 1845 a firman was received (after much pressure from the British government) from the Ottoman Sultan to allow the building of what would become Christ Church as a chapel to the British consul. By this time, an Anglican/Lutheran bishopric had been established in Jerusalem. This had been a dream of King Frederick Wilhelm IV of Prussia as the start of a worldwide Protestant union. An Anglican bishop would be followed by a Lutheran (ordained into the Anglican priesthood), and then another Anglican, and so on.

The first in this line was Bishop Michael Solomon Alexander, the subject of Crombie’s A Jewish Bishop in Jerusalem. The entire plan was vehemently opposed by the emerging Anglo-Catholic wing of the English Church (and was one of the reasons for Newman’s conversion to Roman Catholicism), as well as the Christian Churches in the Holy Land. Under a status quo in effect since the early 1700s, Muslims ruled at the top of society, followed by the Eastern Orthodox, Roman Catholics, Armenians, and eventually the Jews at the very bottom.

No non-Roman Western churches had been recognized at all. The establishment of Christ Church upset the status quo and, by building modern schools and hospitals, provoked Jews, particularly Montefiore and Rothschild, to jealousy. A number of Jewish hospitals and schools began to appear so as to keep the needy away from the despised missionaries. Thus were material conditions in Jerusalem greatly improved following the arrival of the LJS. The first British Consul in Jerusalem, James Finn, and his wife were instrumental in establishing the new sections of Jerusalem, outside the 16th-century walls of the Old City.

CMJ missionaries never ceased to press for the return of the Jews to their homeland. This, of course, was eventually accomplished and the ministry of CMJ to Jews in the Holy Land continues to this day. By now, Palestinian Christians, including some converts from Islam (though they must be quiet to avoid persecution by members of their former faith), are also an increasingly strong part of the ministry.

Messianic Jews present an interesting ecclesiological challenge. While the tenets of the Christian faith, its liturgies, scriptures, and intellectual tradition are indisputably Jewish, its adherents are indisputably Gentile. Both the continuity of the Catholic faith and its universal scope are somewhat challenged by Jews who maintain obedience to the laws of Moses as well as faith in Jesus Christ. And yet, this adherence to the Mosaic covenant is not seen by Messianic Jews as a means for justification, but rather as an acknowledgement of the validity of the unbroken covenant with God’s Chosen People. Simplistic dismissals of Messianic Jewish practices as “syncretistic” (a claim made by some rabbis) simply, from a Christian standpoint, will not do. There is some very interesting work regarding the proper relationship of Messianic Jewry to the Catholic faith.

Something must be said about the modem nation state of Israel. Crombie, while understandably rejoicing in the restoration of the Jews to their traditional homeland, does not dwell on the particular events surrounding its establishment in 1948. Political questions regarding the establishment, ongoing prospects, and governmental wisdom of the secular state of Israel are of interest, but it is not faithless to leave them to the side when considering the theology and history of CMJ, which presently supports Jewish restoration but is not particularly wedded to Israeli politics. Crombie’s oeuvre consists of history, not advocacy.

And it is a history which challenges Anglo-Catholics, who for understandable — but were they sufficient? — reasons opposed one of the more significant developments (the Anglican/Lutheran Jerusalem bishopric) in the history of the CMJ. The 20th century has seen the Roman Church make tremendous moves, particularly in light of the horrors visited mid-century on the Jews, toward a renewed understanding of the Jewishness of the Christian faith. During the lead-up to World War II, theologian Jacques Maritain was particularly perspicacious, clubbing Christian anti-Semitism a form of self-hating suicide. Vatican II produced Nostra Aetate‘s ringing rejection of supercessionism, which the Catechism of 1994 developed further. The rapprochement of orthodox Christianity with modem biblical scholarship has seen a new emphasis on the Jewishness of the Church. In many ways, the central wisdom of these developments was anticipated by the 18th-century Evangelical Anglicans who spearheaded ministry to Jews.

The breaking up of an ossified and theologically stagnant status quo, the return of a Jewish homeland where it had been first promised, and CMJ’s preparation work both in Israel and abroad in preparation for this event contributed in significant ways to the current theological position of the Church Catholic with respect to her Jewish elder brother. Attention paid to the fascinating history of these events and the Christians who took part in them can only enhance the theological efforts underway, work to which Catholic Anglicans have a positive duty to contribute.

Like Jonah and his namesake, we stand at the quay in Joppa, but we face the other direction and look toward a Jewish Jerusalem. We bear both the joy of the New Covenant cut with the Messiah’s blood and an unavoidable connection to that murderously decadent empire that persecutes the Jews. We cannot love our Lord without loving his people, and by them we bless ourselves. What, we must ask ourselves, of the Jews?

Daniel Muth lives in St. Leonard, Md., and is a frequent contributor to The Living Church.  This article was first published in the March 21, 2010 issue of The Living Church.