Evangelizing the Chosen People

By Yaakov Ariel. Chapel Hill, NC; London: The University of North Carolina Press, 2000. x, 367 pages.

Yaakov Ariel is an Israeli Jew currently teaching at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. He is not a believer in Jesus. But his network of messianic Jewish contacts and several years’ research in missions archives has produced the informative and even-handed Evangelizing the Chosen People. The result will surprise some who do not expect to find much objectivity on this topic from the pen of a mainstream Jewish scholar.

Ariel divides his history into three parts: the “rise” of the Jewish missions movement from 1880-1920; the “years of quiet growth” from 1920-1965; and the “coming of age,” 1965-2000. Each time period coincides roughly with a new generation of Jews in America and new social factors in American Jewish life. The dynamic interplay between Gentile evangelicals, Jewish mission agencies, Jewish believers and their organizations, and anti-missionaries is woven throughout the history.

Concerning its even-handedness and objectivity, as much as possible, Ariel describes the Jewish missions in terms of their own value systems and also in terms of the general Jewish culture of the day. Repeatedly, it is stressed that the motivation of the Jewish missions was theological (for which see below) and sprang from a high regard for the Jewish people as the Chosen People destined to play a glorious role within God’s plan.

Several “myths” (Ariel’s term) about Jewish missions are demolished. For instance, though upholding the notion that Jewish believers, for the 1880-1920 period, come from troubled family backgrounds (“[In accounts from this period], I have not found one that described a person who converted while living with a warm and supportive two-parent family,” p. 41), Ariel goes on to dispel a number of myths related to family and community (“Memoirs of converts reveal that…Jews who embraced Christianity, for the most part, were able to retain their family ties”; “those converts who wished to retain ties with the Jewish community managed to do so”). In fact, the major problems facing Jewish believers were not external but internal: “how to have peace of mind with a choice and an action that they had been brought up to regard as a betrayal of their people and heritage” (pp. 46-47).

Likewise the myth that missionaries paid money for converts is belied by Ariel’s account: “contrary to a common Jewish perception, missionaries were interested in sincere, truly converted people and not in bought ones” (p. 43).

(By the way, the term “converted” and “conversion,” used throughout the book, is likely simply an adoption of the standard language of sociology of religious change, rather than a value judgment on whether or not a Jewish believer in Jesus remains Jewish.)

There are examples of how Ariel prefers to describe even the “dirty laundry” of inter-missionary relations in Jewish cultural terms. For example, commenting on the apparently hostile relationship between Henry Einspruch and Aaron Krelenbaum, who produced rival translations of the New Testament into Yiddish:

“For these rivals, then, Christian tolerance and love were commandments they adhered to in principle but found difficult to carry out in practice. The clash between Einspruch and Krelenbaum showed them to be typical Yiddish writers of their day—jealous, grudging, and self-centered. The Yiddish literary community of the time perceived that it was producing works for a dwindling readership. A large percentage of Yiddish readers perished in the Holocaust; this together with the integration of second-generation immigrants into New World cultures and the emphasis by Zionists on learning modern Hebrew, led to a greater decline in the use of Yiddish. That situation made Yiddish writers feel insecure and bitter. Generosity and indulgence were qualities one could hardly hope to find in their relationships with one another” (p. 92).

Likewise, the difficulty of inter-mission cooperation in this period is explained by the immigrant backgrounds of the mission leaders, who in the ups and downs of a difficult life developed qualities necessary for endurance but not necessarily helpful in learning mutual tolerance (p. 121).

I will leave it to those who might have been present during these rivalries to comment on the accuracy of Ariel’s account. What is noteworthy is that the tensions are depicted as what could naturally be expected of typical Jewish people in their situations.

A similar even-handed treatment is accorded non-Jews in the history: what many would take to be blatantly anti-Semitic stereotyping on the part of Gentile Christians was “often expressed with good intentions and without realizing that Jews might be hurt by such remarks” (p. 176).

One last and significant instance of even-handed treatment: like other writers, Ariel differentiates the early “Hebrew Christian” period from the later “Messianic Jewish” period. But unlike some, Ariel does not take the simplistic path of playing off the difference in terms of assimilation vs. non-assimilation. In fact, he points out that such a simplistic view “tends to ignore the vulnerabilities of Jewish converts during those early years and the circumstances they faced. There were converts who did not care very much about retaining their Jewish roots, but there were others who allowed themselves as much self-assertion as they felt they could afford without losing credibility in their new environment. The remarkable thing about the attitudes of the Jewish Christian activists of the early twentieth century was not their unwillingness to build new modes of Jewish Christian life but rather that they did get together and find the courage to build an organization of their own in which they gave expression to their mutual concerns” (pp. 50-51). Thus the lesser role sometimes given to Jewish behavior and identity in the “Hebrew Christian” period is given a positive interpretation, in contrast so those who have seen it as a marked deficiency.

The book is sprinkled with some surprising gems. For instance, there is the account of Amos Dushaw, a Jewish Christian novelist “who gave voice in his novels to the struggles and dilemmas of converted Jews” (p. 51). Comparing his writings to those of the famous Yiddish novelist Abraham Cahan, Ariel notes that Dushaw was somewhat unconventional but that nevertheless, he served as the Hebrew Christian Alliance’s representative to Palestine beginning in 1920.

Alongside much that can be commended, there are also some shortcomings in the book. In seeking to understand Jewish missions on their own terms, Ariel makes continual reference to “dispensational premillennialism” as the formative and shaping theological factor in Jewish missions. He is right that in America this school of theology had a major, perhaps the major, influence on Jewish missions and still continues to. Nevertheless, it would seem that by emphasizing its influence, other formative factors are neglected.

For one thing, Ariel does not mention the role of such non-dispensational denominations as the Christian Reformed Church and devotes very little to the Lutheran Church. Since in Europe the Lutheran Church was very much involved in Jewish missions, one wants to ask what factors led the Lutheran Church in Europe to engage in that work to the extent it did. It would seem that factors other than dispensational premillennialism need to be addressed: theological factors (i.e. what did the non-dispensationalist groups who were active in Jewish missions say about the place of the Jewish people in God’s plan?), missiological (the issue of contextualization in general missions is not addressed vis-a-vis the increased emphasis on Jewish identity among converts in the modern period), and sociological (could the simple fact of Jewish immigration and the subsequent increased visibility of Jews in America have contributed to the rise in support for Jewish missions from 1880 on?).

Furthermore, sometimes theological doctrines held in common by all Christians are described as though they were distinctives of dispensational premillennialism alone: “a message that emphasized the dispensationalist premillennialist missionary interpretation of history, namely, that there is a new covenant between God and his people” (p. 90); “the dispensationalist idea that the Church equals the body of the true Christian believers and that Christians were defined by their acceptance of Jesus as their personal Savior…” (p. 223) These mis-steps in describing this branch of theology suggests that wider theological factors may well have been at work.

I would not belabor this point were it not for the fact that “dispensational premillennialism” becomes the constant theological refrain throughout the book that tends to push aside other contributing elements.

The third section (1965-2000) is perhaps the most problematic. Ariel gives a glimpse of the energy and enthusiasm, as well as the growing pains, that characterize this period. Of course, it is always difficult to write with perspective when one is describing still-developing events. The two key chapters are on “Jews for Jesus” and “Messianic Judaism,” the latter phrase generally used synonymously with the messianic congregational movement.

Perhaps the most debatable assertion here will be that the messianic congregations have come into their own as “effective” vehicles for evangelism. Ariel posits that the impetus in evangelism has swung from the established missions to the messianic congregations. Notably missing from the bibliography is Jeffrey Wasserman’s important study Messianic Jewish Congregations: Who Sold This Business to the Gentiles? which argues that most members and leaders of the 200 or so North American messianic Jewish congregations are Gentiles, and that evangelism is not at all their strong point (in contrast to the congregational situation in Israel; perhaps this different situation influenced Ariel’s conclusions).

In fact, apart from the chapter on Jews for Jesus, one would get the overall impression that the landscape of the messianic Jewish movement today is largely congregational and not at all missional. Ultimately, though, the congregational movement in America may turn out to be more significant as a chapter in how Christians relate to Jewishness than in either how mission work is carried on, or in how messianic Jews express their faith (there are 50,000 to 75,000 Jewish believers in traditional churches in America vs. 5,000 to 6,000 in messianic congregations, according to Wasserman, p. 155).

Some possible errors of fact: on p. 83 Albert Huisjen is identified as Lutheran, but his books and articles were under the auspices of the Christian Reformed Church. On p. 86, read “confession,” not “confusion,” in the quote from Hanson. I suspect that the name of the missionary journal The Mediator was not intended to symbolize mediation between Protestant Christians and Jews (p. 89), but to identify Jesus as the mediator between man and God as described in the New Testament (Hebrews 9:15). In the final chapter, which discusses missionary activity in Israel (and its relation to the American scene), the adoption of new terminology in place of “convert” and similar terms. is described as internalizing Jewish identity and as more effective in evangelism—but missing is the goal of communicating more clearly and accurately in an appropriate language. Again, a look at contextualization issues in terms of overall missiology would have been of benefit. It is hoped that a second edition might address some of the concerns raised here, especially with regard to the third period.

Despite these criticisms, Evangelizing the Chosen People is a noteworthy accomplishment and a must-read for all in Jewish missions. Indeed, it should be on the shelf of every missions library; it will certainly be on the shelves of many Jewish libraries. As the most recent and comprehensive treatment of American Jewish missions, it will be adopted as a textbook for courses in Jewish missions history. An extensive bibliography and index add to its usefulness.