Introduction to Messianic Judaism: Struggling with the Nemesis

Traffic ConesThe fact that experienced readers of the New Testament come away with diametrically opposed interpretations of the same text is today perhaps one of the few universally recognized results of modern historical critical scholarship.

-Joel Willitts
“Chapter 23: The Bride of Messiah and the Israel-ness of the New Heavens and New Earth” (pg 245)
Introduction to Messianic Judaism: Its Ecclesial Context and Biblical Foundations

Brother, you said a mouthful.

I was pretty frustrated when I went to bed last night (as I write this on Tuesday morning). I had a rather busy day on several of my blog posts with various comments, usually related to something I said about the Rudolph/Willitts book. But as I was reading the above referenced chapter in bed, a number of thoughts came to me that weren’t particularly connected to the material I was perusing. I kept going back to what I said a month ago about the problem with religious people. They always think they’re right, they always think their interpretation of the Bible is the only interpretation of the Bible, and they always think that everyone they talk to and disagree with should immediately see the devastating logic of their arguments and then completely roll over to their point of view.

And when you don’t, they get a little cranky.

So when I read the opening sentence in Willitts’ chapter, it was wonderfully confirming.

But there’s still a problem.

Furthermore, softening the logical link between 5:18a and 5:18b lessens the rhetorical force of the statement. What was likely intended to be a ringing affirmation of the Spirit’s ability to release one from being under law (cf. 5:16) comes out sounding, at least practically speaking, more like a piece of encouraging advice to dispense with the need for law observance. Yet this construal is necessary for the viability of the reading proposed by the majority of Galatians commentators, who must assume the mutual compatibility of the leading of the Spirit and existence “under law”; otherwise the point of Paul’s statement would be altogether lost. For this reading to succeed, then, one must downplay both the implicit logic and the rhetorical force of 5:18.

-Todd A. Wilson
“Chapter 22: The Supersession and Superfluity of the Law? Another Look at Galatians” (pg 239)
Introduction to Messianic Judaism

Ah Galatians, my old nemesis. How I have missed thee…not.

Pastor Randy has been away in Brazil for most of the month of April so naturally, we’ve had to suspend our Wednesday evening meetings until his return. He returned on Tuesday (today, as I write this) but didn’t want to “push it” by trying to return to our regular meetings the day after he got back. He’s got a lot of catch up work to do, so I’ll see him next week, and we’ll pick up where we left off with our discussions on D. Thomas Lancaster’s Galatians book.

I enjoy my conversations with Pastor Randy, but I sometimes anticipate them with some degree of “dread.” As I was trying to puzzle my way through Wilson’s brief analysis of that same epistle with an eye on the Messianic Jewish perspective, I became totally lost. I also became kind of skeptical as a result of being lost. If I can’t understand this and it doesn’t make sense to me, does it make sense at all? Is Wilson trying to push the text too far into a particular viewpoint or interpretive model? Is he pushing Paul into an area where Paul never intended to go? And how can I tell?

One thing Pastor Randy has said to me on numerous occasions is that when studying the Bible, the best place to start is with the literal meaning of the text in its original language and context. In reading Wilson and phrases such as “softening the logical link between 5:18a and 5:18b,” I started wondering what Paul would make of all this and how he would see Wilson’s treatment of his letter.

Galatians by D.T. LancasterOf course, you can’t take Galatians in isolation. You have to look at it within the larger context of Paul’s other writings and the events of the New Testament times in general (not to mention the rest of the Bible). You also have to look at the chronology of these writings, with Galatians being one of Paul’s earlier letters, written even before the events we’ve read in Acts 15.

Justin Hardin’s Chapter 21: Equality in the Church,” was easier to digest, but he took a much smaller portion of Galatians to examine (specifically Galatians 3:28) and was more successful at relating how Paul was not attempting to “support a collapse of ethnicity any more than [he] supports the collapse of the male and female genders.” (pp 224-5). On page 226, Hardin tries to explain that the tutor (pedagogue) function of the Law we find in Galatians 3:23-24 is indeed only one of a number of functions of the Torah for the Jewish people. Only that function went away when Messiah came to show us the perfect model of “Torah living,” but that didn’t eliminate the Jewish requirement to observe Torah for other reasons (national identity, covenant obedience, eschatological linkage to the Messianic age, and so forth).

But how am I supposed to gain an understanding of Galatians that comes anywhere near to Hardin’s or Wilson’s, or even Lancaster’s when I meet Pastor Randy again? I can’t keep these fellows in my pocket and bring them out to present their wares at a critical moment in our dialog, but since Galatians is obviously far more complex than meets the eye, how can I defend a position on this puzzling epistle that I don’t fully understand? (And by the way, like Lancaster, Hardin believes Paul wrote the Galatians letter only to the Gentile population of the churches in that region, not to their Jewish counterparts.)

Like most of the chapters in this book, Willitts’ essay and analysis of “the Bride” imagery (in the aforementioned Chapter 23) in Revelation 19 and 21 is dense with footnotes and scholarly references. In order to present a respectable argument regarding Galatians (or anything else from the Bible), I’d have to be far better read than I am and then somehow have the ability to recall all of that information at a moment’s notice at it is required for a certain topic brought up in my Pastor Randy Galatians discussions.

I need a bigger brain.

With the Scripture as a background, we can now clarify John’s use of the bride imagery in Revelation 19-22. First, since for John the Lamb is divine, it presents little problem for him to correlate Israel’s God with the Lamb — what was attributed to the God of Israel in Isaiah is now associated with the Lamb. Thus, what was once God’s bride is now the bride of Messiah.

The Lamb’s bride is the New Jerusalem, both the people of Israel and the place where God will dwell. Israel, who was unfaithful, now is not. At the end of the age, the Lamb will remarry his bride; he will fulfill his promise. The divine Messiah will redeem his people from captivity and clothe them with righteous deeds because they will be “taught by the Lord” (Isa. 54:13).

-Willitts, pp 252-3

That quote will no doubt shock most Christians and probably more than a few Jewish believers. In the church, I was always taught that “the church” was the bride of Christ, which usually means Gentile Christians. Here, Willitts completely reverses identities, saying that both Israel as a place and as a people/nation are the Divine Messiah’s bride. What I didn’t quote was how Willitts states that the nations (believing Gentile Christians) are the wedding guests! We’re not the bride at all but we are on hand to celebrate at the “wedding reception,” so to speak.

That’s going to ruffle a few feathers.


filtered…but Willitts isn’t presenting the conclusions in his brief article as if they were absolute fact or as if they were the only possible interpretation of the text. He deliberately is framing his interpretation within a Messianic Jewish context in order to show an alternate point of view, a different perspective for his readers, probably to make us think and to help us question our assumptions. I can relate to that, since I often write from that perspective myself.

Now look at this comment made on one of my blog posts in response to my question about whether the commentor thinks Christians sin by not observing the Torah in the same manner as the Jews:

Some Jews may be accepting of Christian Torah observances that make them look Jewish, but in my experience, it can’t be that many. And have you told other Christians you associate with about them being obligated (rather than them having a choice) to Torah observance to a level that will make them look Jewish too?

Yes, I have, I argue for covenant obligation, are you in covenant with God, then you have an obligation

“Zion” is well-meaning and a decent human being, but we often come to loggerheads because he believes that Gentiles in Messiah are directly linked into the covenants rather than receiving them through Israel, and as such, we covenant members are “grafted in” to the full 613 Torah mitzvot and are required to observe them, not in the manner of modern “Rabbinic Jews,” but from a Biblical model (nevermind that we have no idea how to observe the Torah without Rabbinic interpretation).

I disagree and believe we Gentile disciples of the Messiah receive certain blessings from the covenants God made with Israel thanks to the linkage between Abraham’s faith and our faith in Messiah, but that doesn’t include turning us into “Israelites,” nor does it mean we have an identical Torah obligation with the Jewish people.

So we have a difference of opinion. That brings us back to the Willitts quote I inserted at the top of this blog post.

I don’t mind disagreements. I really don’t. I do mind being backed into a corner by folks who believe that it’s their way or the highway. My point of view is one point of view. There are aspects of the Bible I don’t understand. Galatians is a frustrating mystery to me. Even when someone tries to explain it, such as Wilson, the explanation is a frustrating mystery to me. There are days when I want to pack it in and give up on religion. I don’t fit. I don’t understand. I am really annoyed with the dissonance between different Bible interpretations, and I am really, really annoyed with people who think that they and only they (or their group) are the sole possessors of God’s truth about the Bible.

To me, being a believer and studying the Bible is like being an explorer. As a person of faith, I’m on a journey of discovery. Such journeys are rarely straightforward and often involve going in the wrong direction, backtracking, retracing steps, and sometimes using a machete to hack through thick underbrush, like an adventurer-archaeologist on his way to the next big find. But as Dr. Henry Jones Jr. once said, “seventy percent of all archaeology is done in the library.” It requires painstaking, laborious study, not dramatic arguments by people who are all too sure of themselves. Archaeology is also a science of patience. At a dig, you must be slow and deliberate in attempting anything. It might be today, tomorrow, ten years from now, or never, before you uncover anything of even the remotest significance at all.

walking-side-by-sideJesus is like a companion on a long journey who helps to guide us but who will not override our decisions, even if we should take the wrong path. He’ll advise us, prod us, give us hints, and occasionally berate us as we find we’ve stepped into a pool of quicksand, but he won’t just lead us by the hand so we can passively follow where he has gone before us.

I’m nearly done reading the articles in Rudolph’s and Willitts’ book. I’m hoping to get through all of them and finish taking my notes before I have to return the book to the library. But once I have, I’ll move on to another book. While I’ve found Introduction to Messianic Judaism to be an excellent survey of the perspectives on different aspects of theology and doctrine from a Messianic Jewish perspective, it’s still only one book. To the degree that the twenty-six contributors reference countless other sources, then countless other sources are required to help understand the Bible and thus a life of faith.

I can’t stop now, though one day, I may completely withdraw from the public realm and conduct my search privately, but a life of encountering God requires a lifetime. I can’t simply accept one religious person’s statement that they’re “right” and blindly consume their declarations.

I’ve got to keep going. Will I ever arrive at a destination? Probably not this side of paradise.

153 days.

16 thoughts on “Introduction to Messianic Judaism: Struggling with the Nemesis”

  1. Hopefully our convo yesterday didn’t leave you frustrated bro.

    I’m curious about Hardin’s take on the image of the “paidagōgos” in Galatians 3. I take it he emphasizes the tutoring or educating function that an ancient pedagogue or tutor would have had in the first century? It’s a difficult image, primarily because it’s difficult to tell how his audience in Galatia would have received it — was a paidagōgos a warm, friendly image of a kindly teacher, stooping down to instruct her children? Or was a paidagōgos a fearful image — someone who laid down the rules, and then was tasked with punishing children when the broke them?

    I’ve seen it interpreted both ways — I take it Lancaster & Hardin understand the paidagōgos more along the lines of the former (that Paul is emphasizing the paidagōgos’ educational/instructional function)? I’ve been personally leaning more towards the later understanding, as it seems to jive better with the gospel message and the New Covenant promises (God’s people loving his Torah as He writes it on His people’s hearts, as opposed to them only keeping it out of fear of punishment — i.e. from a paidagōgos). I don’t have my commentaries in front of me, but I believe Tim Hegg & J.K. McKee interpret it this way in their Galatians commentaries, but I might be mistaken.

  2. “Zion” is well-meaning and a decent human being, but we often come to loggerheads because he believes that Gentiles in Messiah are directly linked into the covenants rather than receiving them through Israel, and as such, we covenant members are “grafted in” to the full 613 Torah mitzvot and are required to observe them, not in the manner of modern “Rabbinic Jews,” but from a Biblical model (nevermind that we have no idea how to observe the Torah without Rabbinic interpretation).

    James, thank you for the kind words. Also note of disagreements, I hope you continue to post even among our disagreements, I think it is only in the questions and the shaking of our beliefs that make us stronger, and at times helps us to reshape our thinking.

    I do want to make a few points here, I think it is in Messiah, that we are covenant members and not in Israel, in fact, I have no relation to Israel unless I am in the Messiah… I know you are a ‘BE’ fan, but I don’t see how I received my status before God because of Israel, but because of the Messiah.

    Note on Rabbinic interpretation, I am not opposed to Rabbinic interpretation, in fact, my understanding of majority of the commandments follow after what has been taught in Rabbinic interpretation, I just do not give Rabbinic interpretation the authority over scripture, I find great wisdom in those who came before us, at the same time, I respect that they can be right or wrong, just as I do not give Christian scholars the authority over understanding the “New Testament”, I do find wisdom in some of their understanding as well, as many do. With that said, stating God never intended for His scriptures to be understood, unless a community of people get together and make up the understanding. It is like you said in your post today, we all have a million ways to understand something, how can this be true then? The moment people disagree, they will form another community, which is exactly what we have today, it can be seen in Christianity and Judaism.

    I read something the other day, about understanding of scripture from a poster on your blog and the gist, was that scripture should be understood only within the context of the community of people who came before us, thus Rabbinic interpretation. If this were accepted at face value, I would have to believe that replacement theology is correct, because that has been believed by the Christian community for over a 1000 years. Thankfully I do not put traditional interpretation over the scriptures or I could not deny replacement theology.

  3. Ahh, James, thanks for this post! I too get frustrated with the my way or the highway pov. If the doctrines we think are so rock solid, there’d be no argument to begin with for it’d be obvious.

    That said, there are those folks who deliberately twist scripture to make it fit their agenda, but my feeling is that God wants us engaged with His Word and ways, and to constantly search Him out.

  4. Zion, first of all thank you for correcting the mistakes I made about your point of view. I agree we can’t depend on everyone else’s interpretation of the Bible, either Jewish or Christian, but then again, that applies to you and me as well. That’s why we study not only the Bible but the sages and scholars who study the Bible. Like I said, “I need a bigger brain.”

    While these little debates have their merit, they also are very tiring. When will they ever end? When will be start looking at what we have in common rather than what makes us different? The struggle in the Rudolph and Willitts book is to take two differing populations and find ways to recognize they actually occupy a single container and must learn to interact with each other for the ways of peace. That’s the merit of their book and of Messianic Judaism. It’s not just a journey for Jewish disciples of Messiah to discover themselves but to reunite with their Gentile Christian brothers without compromising who Jews and Gentiles are.

    I hope by now that you realize I have absolutely no desire to “replace” the Jewish people with anything that I am. But somehow you believe that my viewpoint makes me want to do such a thing. You will live your life and believe as you will, and I’ll do the same thing. Our “worlds” interact only on the periphery of each other, though ostensibly we hold the same basic beliefs about God, the Messiah, and the Bible.

    In some ways, I can see myself interacting more successfully with a Messianic Jewish group at this point than a Hebrew Roots group, based on the debates that have occurred on my blog over the past ten days or so.

    Except for Friday morning, which I reserve for my “Torah commentary,” such as it is, I have enough material in my “queue” on Rudolph’s and Willitts’ book to post morning meditations on it through Monday (I take Shabbat off from posting blogs). After that, maybe I’ll turn to topics that inspire less controversy, and the rest of the Messianic Jewish and Hebrew Roots world can go back to ignoring my “morning meditation” and find the next battlefield and the next engagement.

    And when that happens, I’m going to go looking for this “Messiah of Peace” I’ve heard so much about.

  5. Thanks, Ruth. To be fair, each “side” accuses the other of “twisting scripture” to fit their requirements. Why don’t we require that we all seek God for the sake of His Name and the ways of peace?

  6. What happened to interpreting Scriptures according to their exegetical, grammatical and historical points? Isn’t that better than running from group to group?

  7. Let them duke it between themselves…LOL!

    BTW, You said you are tired…Here is an advice: ” If you cannot take the heat……” You know the rest….

  8. Dear Dan,

    In the clearing stands a boxer
    And a fighter by his trade
    And he carries the reminders
    Of ev’ry glove that layed him down
    Or cut him till he cried out
    In his anger and his shame
    “I am leaving, I am leaving”
    But the fighter still remains…

    -Paul Simon
    “The Boxer”

    Sincerely, me.

    Oh, and Dan, if you’re kicking me out, how is that different than your opinion of certain Messianic Jewish perspectives who you claim also want to kick “me” out?

  9. James,

    I agree that Wilson’s essay was among the more intellectually challenging to read. You wrote: “In reading Wilson and phrases such as ‘softening the logical link between 5:18a and 5:18b,’ I started wondering what Paul would make of all this and how he would see Wilson’s treatment of his letter.” Just a clarification for your readers; I believe Wilson was describing the dominant historical reading of Galatians as “softening the logical link between 5:18a and 5:18b”; he sees his reading as stronger because it embraces Paul’s logic at this point in the letter rather than (in his opinion) straining it.

  10. How in the world could his audience hope to understand such subtleties in Paul’s writing? If the letter was so comprehensible to them, why is it so hard for us?

  11. James,

    It is a great question and one not easily answered. Two thoughts come to mind:

    (1) Maybe it wasn’t so comprehensible to them…maybe they had to wrestle with his letters too?

    (2) Since Paul delivered his letters via envoy (what, you thought he used USPS or email?), surely he would have discussed the contents of the letter with the person(s) bearing it. Perhaps they could offer additional words of explanation/clarification. (This is not my own idea; I most recently heard it from Beverly Roberts Gaventa in a lecture she gave as part of a series on Paul and women.)

  12. It seems to me that if Paul knew his audience that he wouldn’t make his message too hard from them to understand. While he knew he was composing theological missives, he probably didn’t know they would be read and translated over and over again for the next two-thousand years.

    One envoy carried the letter to all the churches in Galatia? It must be an interesting story unto itself if that were the sole reason for this unknown person to make such a dangerous and expensive trip. On the other hand, maybe the envoy was going in that direction anyway and only delivered the letter to the first Galatian church and then, after it was read, it was sent by a local to the next church (presumably with the envoys explanation) and so on.

    That could mean that without the envoy’s accompanying description of Paul’s letter, the meaning is lost in transmission, at least as far as the critical subtleties go.

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