Hurtado, Wright, and the Significance of Israel

In this posting I query another of Tom Wright’s major emphases in his mammoth new work, Paul and the Faithfulness of God. This concerns his emphatic view that in Paul’s view ”Israel” becomes effectively the church, or more specifically becomes simply all those who put faith in Jesus.

-Larry Hurtado
“‘Israel’ and the People of God: Wright & Response”
from Larry Hurtado’s Blog

For those of you who don’t know, Larry Hurtado is a scholar of the New Testament and Christian origins with quite a number of published works to his name. I follow his blog because I find his research and insights into the early church to be interesting and informative.

How Hurtado started commenting on Wright’s latest book is as follows:

Late in 2013 I was asked by the journal, “Theology,” to review N.T. (Tom) Wright’s then-forthcoming book on Paul. As I am committed to preparing an essay on Paul for a conference in Rome in June this year, I agreed. A few days later a huge parcel arrived for me, and upon opening it I found that I had agreed to read/review a work of two volumes comprising over 1600 pages! I’ve sent off the review now, and it’s been accepted for publication in due course. But, even with the special generosity of the editors, I had to confine the review to 1800 words, which required brevity and a selection of things to mention. I have more to say about the work, however, and so in this and subsequent postings will give some further observations and thoughts beyond what I was able to include in the “Theology” review.

Hurtado has written a small series of blog posts thus far, reviewing different aspects of Wright’s tome (and at 1600 pages, it can correctly be referred to as a tome).

This morning, Derek Leman wrote a brief blog post regarding “Hurtado’s critique of Wright’s low view of the Jewish people,” but I felt there were a few more things that could be said.

The first is that N.T. Wright is a well-known and read scholar and author, and I find his perpetuating Christian supersessionism (also known as “replacement theology” or “fulfillment theology”) by replacing Israel with “the Church” to be at least disturbing if not completely offensive. Not that Wright is trying to be offensive. He’s being honest within the context of his understanding and convictions. I just happen to believe he’s wrong and I’m gratified that a scholar of Hurtado’s stature is willing to challenge Wright’s low view of Judaism on his blog.

But Hurtado said something else in last Sunday’s blog post:

But (as I see it) Paul did continue to see the family of Abraham, the full company of the redeemed, as comprised of believing Jews (such as himself) who remained Jews, and gentiles who remained gentiles. To be sure, their respective identities were to have no negative impact upon accepting one another, for they were all “one in Christ Jesus” (Gal. 3:28). But along with that oneness there remained (for Paul) the significance of “Israel” as fellow Jews, who were (as he saw it) heirs of divine promises (Rom 9:4-5). Although at present, most of his fellow Jews were “enemies” (so far as concerns the gospel), they were, nevertheless, “beloved” by God, whose gifts and calling were irrevocable (11:28-29).

I hope you read that quote carefully. In the realm of Messianic Judaism in its various expressions, it is generally affirmed that Jews and Gentiles in Messiah are united and yet remain distinct identities, each possessing unique (though somewhat overlapping) responsibilities to God. Jews in Messiah are still Jews and Gentiles in Messiah are still Gentiles, though all are “one” in God’s love, in the promises of salvation, and participation in the Messianic Kingdom.

Larry Hurtado
Larry Hurtado

Larry Hurtado is a Christian scholar of early Christianity, not a “Messianic”. And yet we see him stating something that is quite familiar to those of us who are affiliated with or otherwise “friends” of the Messianic Jewish movement. And this isn’t the first time. I’ve mentioned before, primarily in Larry Hurtado on ‘A Muslim Reads Galatians’ and Jewish Identity in the Way, that Hurtado is associated with supporting the continuation of Jewish identity and Torah observance among the early Jewish disciples of Jesus.

Today, the typical “Christian on the street” (so to speak) takes it completely for granted that when Jews came to Christ, they stopped being Jewish (or at least stopped behaving “Jewish”) and converted to Christianity. I don’t doubt that the vast majority of Evangelicals truly believe Paul preached a “Law-free” gospel of Christ and that the Jewish believers were no longer “under the Law.”

But the Christian on the street, that is, the average man or women in a church pew on Sunday morning, most likely doesn’t keep up with current Christian scholarship, nor are they aware that there are bodies of Christian scholars who disagree with each other and strongly debate key principles of Christian theology and doctrine. It is more comforting for traditional church goers to believe that everything is settled and has been for many centuries. Christianity is what it is. All the questions have long since been answered. There are no mysteries. Sunday school is merely to discuss what everybody already knows (except perhaps the “baby Christian” who has just come to faith). Even seasoned Pastors tend to believe that, though their knowledge base is usually much broader than that possessed by their flocks.

The implication of Hurtado’s statements upon Messianic Judaism is interesting and encouraging. In Messianic Judaism and the somewhat related movement of Hebrew Roots, we talk to ourselves all of the time about the Torah not being “dead” or “nailed to the cross” with Jesus. We talk (and sometimes argue) about Jewish distinctiveness and uniqueness of obligation within the wider Messianic body.

But having a conversation with yourself isn’t very illuminating and that dialogue most often stays within our particular silos, rarely escaping into normative Christianity (or Judaism), at least in a form that can be heard or accepted by those groups.

So when a Christian and not Messianic scholar and author such as Hurtado can independently study the Bible and arrive at a conclusion which states “Jews who remained Jews, and gentiles who remained gentiles” and yet “they were all ‘one in Christ Jesus'”, it is remarkable. The significance of Israel as Israel remained in the Apostolic Era, and even unbelieving Jews were considered beloved by God and possessing gifts and a calling that are irrevocable.

One Caveat to consider is that Hurtado is defining Paul’s perspective not necessarily his own. But if this is indeed how Paul saw things (and I think it likely), then Paul, the author of much of what we think of as early Christian theology and doctrine, was setting the pattern for how we Christian (Gentile) believers should understand ourselves in relation to the Jewish people and Israel.

It’s pretty hard to ignore Paul and still call yourself a Christian.


8 thoughts on “Hurtado, Wright, and the Significance of Israel”

  1. I think I might have posted this before. A friend of ours at our congregation who isn’t Jewish said Messianic Judaism was a ‘reverse church’ in his opinion when I ask him why he attends a Messianic Jewish synagogue and not a Christian church. What he meant was that there is a ekklesia which Yeshua said He will build. This ekklesia is something new yet not new. What’s not new is Israel always constituted the people of God. In other words to put it in layman terms Israel= ekklesia. What’s new is it incorporates the in gathering of the elect from the nations something that couldn’t occur until the consummation.

    However the ekklesia is composed of the redeemed, both Jew and gentile. So the ekklesia is a Jewish ekklesia which is composed of Jew and gentile.

  2. You have said that before and yes, I agree. The ekklesia is the assembly of Israel and what is new is that through Messiah, people of the nations can come alongside Israel and join the body of Moshiach.

  3. That was refreshing! It is good to see that someone understands that Paul taught that if you believe in Messiah as a Gentile you remain a Gentile, as Jew, you remain a Jew. Rightly divide the word of Truth. Paul declared he was the apostle to the uncircumcised just as Peter was the apostle to the circumcised. Our division is one of function, not salvation. Gentiles are called to be ambassadors of the Kingdom, and as Peter addressed the circumcision, they are a royal priesthood.
    Even among the Hebrew Roots there seems to be a misunderstanding concerning these things.
    It is rather lonely out here. Among the Baptist or another group, Right -Division, I am attempting to be Jewish just because I am learning the Feasts of the L-rd and seeing the significance of teaching these things. Alas, has it always been only a remnant?

  4. @ Cynthia just because Paul was the apostle to the Gentiles doesn’t mean he wasn’t apostle to the Jews. Paul first visited the synagogue before he went to the Gentiles in a region. Paul’s message was one of Gentiles being part of the commonwealth of Israel, meaning Israel in the Spirit(redeemed)not legal Israel in the flesh. If you’re part of the commonwealth of Israel you’re also part of it’s polity.

  5. There seems to be a lively discussion over at Hurtado’s blog post and Hurtado himself makes statements that seem to support Paul not replacing Israel with the Church but “reworking” the definition of “Israel” to (more or less) mean “the Church.” Not as happy an ending as I might wish for.

    Stuart Dauermann and Lois Tverberg among others have participated in the conversation. See for yourself:

  6. You can argue theology until the cows come home and leave cow pies everywhere. The reality is that the one new man first canabalizes the Jews in their midst, and then goes out to hunt them down and slaughter them.

    I recall your previous article about Sabbatarian Christians who were persecuted by the established church of their countries. While this couldn’t happen in the US now, imagine if the dominionists took over and created a, “Christian nation,” like they want so bad. Can you imagine MacArthur, Sproul, Ken Ham, and others having political power?

  7. I wrote this blog post, both to illustrate the disagreement within the community of Christian scholars about the role of Israel and the Jewish people in past and future history and to show that some Christians (Hurtado, for example) aren’t supersessionist and believe that Bible actually speaks positively of a Jewish future in God’s plan. I think Hurtado stops short at see the centrality of God’s promises to Israel and the continuance of the Torah in Jewish lives, but that’s better than Wright’s point of view.

    I’ve heard of the Christian Dominionist folks and nothing good. The Bible doesn’t command Christianity or the Church to take over the Government, any Government, or to form its own nation. The only nation that has been or will be directly ruled by God is Israel.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.