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Messiah’s Resurrection and Messianic Jewish Belief

July 4, 2012

Wow, am I behind on this one!… Might you be, too?

I mean the rise of various groups of Messianic Jews in the United States.  It appears there are two major ones, Messianic Jewish Alliance of America and the Union of Messianic Jewish Congregations.  I hadn’t updated much on this from the days when Jews for Jesus was the main organization for Messianic Jews. 

Now I’ve just learned that a fairly high proportion of those in active Messianic Jewish congregations are not racially Jewish (I don’t know specifics of numbers).  They either consider themselves Jewish converts (practicing Jews) who believe Jesus is the promised Messiah or believers who are interested in learning about and following Jewish traditions and beliefs to varying degrees.

In one sense this is not surprising to me, given the little I know of current Judaism and the relatively more I know of ancient Judaism and the beginnings of “rabbinic” Judaism.  The New Testament itself speaks of what other historical data backs up: that Judaism of the first century had many “god-fearers” — Gentiles who attended synagogue and loved much of Judaism but did not desire to fully convert.  There were also full converts, probably in much smaller numbers.  Judaism had several attractive features for even Hellenized non-Jewish peoples  in Palestine and around the Mediterranean Sea (basically everyone). 

While the conquering Romans had great troubles with Israel before and after the major war of 66-70 which included the destruction of Jerusalem and the Temple, anti-semitism as we think of it had not arisen until a bit later.  Nor was the break between emerging Christianity and Judaism any where close to complete by the time of the death of Peter and Paul (ca. 65 CE/AD) — key leaders who had conflicts over issues of theology and practice.  Things were in great theological and organizational flux, to say the least… something that is generally not realized or is glossed over by Christians because of the problems it raises.

What Meaning did the Resurrection have?

Among the various things that the Jerusalem disciples of Jesus (including the 12 Apostles, with Matthias in Judas’ place) shared with Paul, was some kind of firm belief in the resurrection of Jesus.  Just what kind of resurrection they thought it to be is far from clear.  Even more important is the implications (meaning) they saw in it. 

That is where we basically lose track of the Jerusalem Jesus-followers.  We can’t follow what they may have taken from their experiences (appearances of Jesus?) and beliefs about the Resurrection beyond about 70 because the group (of unknown size, but well into the thousands if Acts is to be considered accurate and literal on it, which is very questionable) either fled during the war or many were killed and the movement re-located.  This was perhaps to Pella initially, then mostly in areas north and east (present day Jordan and Syria). 

With this very minimal background let me share parts of a comment I left where this movement and the personal experiences of one of its Rabbis, Crystal Lutton (yes, a woman), is shared on the blog of Rachel Held Evans (.com).  My comments were prompted by my belief that Paul is the real “founder” (or molder) of Christianity as we have it today… basically he invented it by cleverly combining elements from Judaism, the early traditions of Jesus’ followers, Gnosticism and Pagan religions.

He was more a church planter, pastor and evangelist than a systematic thinker, so looking for consistency in his writing is basically futile.  Nevertheless, it is important to understand and respect the implications of his eventual pre-empting (via his influence, especially just prior to the writings of the Gospels) of the message of the Kingdom that Jesus taught. 

 So here I break into a comment I left in reply to Rabbi Crystal’s statements, thought not directly to her, as it wasn’t interactive at that point:

I do wonder about something raised by a few already: whether she does believe in the Trinity in a more-or-less orthodox way (realizing it took several hundred years to reach “orthodoxy,” with much vitriol and sometimes both manipulation and violence getting there). As a Process person, I’m not trinitarian in the orthodox sense myself, but it is an important and fascinating question when it comes to Jewish-Christian relations and other issues of importance, not just abstractions.

 Then, when it comes to her statement about “all those who are saved are saved through him,” I’m wondering about her view of atonement… penal substitutionary or something else? Relative to that is incarnation of course, and virgin birth…. Gets very complicated very quickly. It seems to me impossible to see people as “saved” through Jesus-as-Messiah, individually, from within a first-century Jewish way of understanding Torah and the Prophets. That is, in terms of who Messiah was to be and do (which Jesus appeared loyal to, maybe with minor corrections of interpretation as she referenced in general). He was crucified by the ROMANS (with Saduceean/priestly collaboration) because of the political/nationalist aspect of this — its main feature.   

 Any way one approaches this area — the “saving work of Christ” — one has to admit to a radical direction-change, shown both biblically and historically.  And the major influence toward that change can only be Paul, who quite literally and apparently single-handedly “invented” Christianity, in terms of a muddled (not consistent theologically or actually tied well to the Hebrew Scriptures) mixture of Jewish, Gnostic and Pagan (“mystery”) beliefs. (I know many think Gnosticism was post-New Testament, but I see stronger evidence it was at least contemporaneous with Paul and the “Jerusalem Church”.)  Jumping from Jewish Messiah to Paul’s kind of cosmic (more than just multi-ethnic) Savior requires a true “leap of faith.”  And the only authority for that, at bottom, is Paul’s own claim to divine revelation and his mainly self-asserted authority to explain how things “came down” (literally a divine descent as in Gnosticism, with his own spin, of course.)

I’ve titled this as about the Resurrection, which is just one part of a complex of beliefs… but let’s return and end there… What similarities or differences do you see in Paul’s Resurrection statements and beliefs and those of the early Jerusalem Jesus-followers?

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11 Comments leave one →
  1. July 4, 2012 8:04 pm

    I’d like to learn more about today’s Messianic churches! We have a Messianic New Testament that you might appreciate. We also have two books that you might enjoy — very difficult to describe them, but they are supposedly “channeled” from Hannah/Anna, the grandmother of Jesus, through a contemporary woman. The books are quite interesting, somewhat hard to grasp for someone like me who was raised in a traditional Paulian Christianity, and with my own understandings about Judaism. But they definitely bring up some very, very radical ideas, and talk a lot about Essene communities, Egyptian mystery schools, etc. When you come down to visit our new center, perhaps you’d like to pick them up!

    • July 4, 2012 9:58 pm

      Thanks for the comment! I would appreciate seeing both the Messianic New Testament and the other books you mention. As I think you know, I have reservations about channeled-type books, but as long as taken for their limitations, I think they can have helpful or inspiring stuff in them. Information about the Essenes and Egyptian mystery schools would be very interesting. Our historical knowledge about the Essenes is mostly through their own (apparent) writings in the Dead Sea Scrolls, without contextual explanation or historical notes, etc.

      As to learning more about Messianic churches, you can find Crystal’s blog, I’m sure either via Google or a link from rachelheldevans.com. Her church, Shema, in Goodyear, AZ, also has a website. One of the commenters on Rachel’s blog is very involved and informed also, which I didn’t mention. He says you can Google either organization I mentioned and get a lot on them also.

  2. July 4, 2012 8:04 pm

    The books lso have a VERY interesting take on the resurrection and “virgin” births!!!

  3. July 4, 2012 8:05 pm

    *also

  4. July 18, 2012 9:15 pm

    Greetings–came across your blog via your insightful comment to Karl over at Rachel Held Evans place.

    Christianity’s origins– fascinating topic. The murkiness of the whole affair started me down the path to my berth in apostasy 🙂 I wouldn’t have it any other way. The Jerusalem Jews, oh, If only we had more info on them. I almost went mad wondering why nobody I knew took the tension between James and Paul seriously. Today, you’ll find a host of “Torah Observant” groups online ( mostly ‘gentile’, some make it very clear they’re not affiliated with any of the main Messianic Jewish denominations in the States).

    Resurrection: I cannot recall any major differences btw Paul and Jerusalem in the NT. I think resurrection forms the crux of the gospel that was preached by both camps of Jesus’ followers. Namely, God had raised up this compelling “man” ( yup, Peter said “man” ) to make him Lord.

    I look forward to reading more of your stuff—mouth watering topics here….

    Cheers.

    • July 19, 2012 10:32 pm

      Thanks Olu!

      First, if Olu is your real name, it makes me curious where you are from and live now. Do you mind sharing?

      A couple responses:
      I have just recently encountered a couple of such groups, one in Israel. And Rachel’s guest of the woman rabbi (forgot her name for now) and the comments there informed me some re. the two main American groups (outside Jews for Jesus).

      As to resurrection: it is still a fascinating mystery to me on at least 2 levels: What did “they” actually experience directly (vs. by tradition), and what actually DID happen… an empty tomb? And if so, was it necessarily a “physical” resurrection? I do think the evidence is indirect and thin for an empty tomb, and for the “hands-in-my-side” or Jesus-eating-fish kind of physicality. But it does seem that something unusual and inspiring happened and it doesn’t fit any clear category such as “illusion” or “group hallucination”, etc. All details as described in the Gospels have to be taken as neither precise nor “accurate reporting” because there are too many differences, conflicts and evident agendas present. (Even many Evangelicals have real trouble believing the “zombie saints” aspect of Matthew’s account.)

      As to Paul in relation to the Jerusalem group on the resurrection itself, I don’t think we know or probably can know what they even claimed to experience exactly, but they do seem to share the same broad claim as Paul. However, the Gospels do present the idea of physicality/empty tomb that Paul either never thought or heard of, or had, but thought his own visual/auditory experience was equally “real” and authoritative. All in all, I think its safe to assume that if Jesus made himself apparent in some visual/quasi-physical way, the interpretation of it was not made clear and Paul ran one way with it while the Jerusalem folks ran another.

      As to info on the Jerusalem believers and James in particular, have you read either of Robert Eisenmann’s books (one on James specifically and the other on the Dead Sea Scrolls with some overlapping stuff on James)? He is often said to be the preeminent scholar of these issues, but I confess to not plowing through that much of his intense detail and analysis.

      • Olu permalink
        July 23, 2012 10:29 pm

        I replied earlier. Hope it came through..

        • July 24, 2012 5:24 pm

          Hi Again Olu,

          No, I’m sorry your earlier reply must not have come through. This is all I’ve seen after my reply to your earlier post… I did find your blog and looked it over briefly… then had to move on. I’m also hoping to get back to posting more but am pushing on finishing a book on spiritual growth stages and issues.

  5. Anonymous permalink
    July 26, 2012 3:42 pm

    No problem. The blog is a work in progress–mostly a purposefully random selection of tumblrs 🙂 My earlier comment here:

    Thank you Howard.

    I linked my blog to my name in the comment–it *should* have taken you to my page . Even I can’t seem to reach my blog with that link ( instead, I get this contest winner ad thingy ! Any thoughts to resolve this ?)

    Olu is Yoruba ( soutwestern Nigeria, it can mean “my lord–or the principal child–is here”). I live in the States now.

    Re: Torah observant group. A link here : http://www.rootsoffaith.net
    /profile/Ross Nichols.

    I have come across Eisenman–bought his book on the DSS. I use it mainly for reference though, he’s more striking and entertaining on you-tube. Another more accessible scholar of early Christianity is James Tabor ( you may have come across him on Discovery Channel specials ). Tabor and his friend, Ross Nichols( linked above) practice an intriguing form for Torah-for-the gentiles spirituality : http://genesis2000.org/

    Another book on James is by one Jeffrey Butz: “The Brother of Jesus and the Lost Teachings of Christianity”

    Re: resurrection. So many questions to be resolved. Ironic that one can only begin to wrestle with all these issues honestly when you step off the gospels as “divinely dictated” soapbox. Thanks for pointing out the empty-tomb divergence btw Jerusalem and Paul–I had missed that key details.

    Been really enjoying the blog archives !

  6. July 27, 2012 12:13 am

    Thanks… Glad you’ve enjoyed it and learned something! I appreciate your mention of these people and resources. I have read at least one book by Tabor… “The Jesus Dynasty” I believe. That was before many of my more recent studies, but I think he and Eisenman might line up pretty well. I’ve not encountered Butz.

    As to your last paragraph… You hit it on the head that the key issue as to a view that is anywhere close to objective can only come if one does not assume a “revealed” and “authoritative”–as in divinely so (even if not inerrant) status for the Bible, including the Gospels/Acts. This I still see as the “great divide” that is hard to communicate across, but which seemingly more and more of us have leaped across, after gradually seeing that only human dynamics at work can account for what we have in the NT docs (as OT also).

    That being said, there IS still a lot we have in common and can discuss and work from on both “sides” of such a divide, and I try to work that as much as helping people get freed from trying to systematize and “simplify” what ultimately does not fit into any consistent system. Someone I read recently attributed this to Einstein (good point regardless of its source): “Make things a simple as possible. But not simpler!” Put another way… one often has to go through a lot of complexity (i.e., biblical study, in this case) to get to the simplicity of “each group created its own unique theology around the general conviction that Jesus had somehow been raised/elevated by God and was the expected Messiah.”

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