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Genesis 22:8 KJV
And Abraham said, “My son, God will provide himself a lamb for a burnt offering; so they went both of them together.
I recall some years ago while studying at Trinity Theological College in Bristol, UK, the librarian, as a way of introduction on the use of the college library, said, “There is no end of books” – (sounding more like ‘boeks’ in his Northern Ireland, Ulster accent).
So why another book of theology and testimony? This is a good question – I feel compelled to share, not only my personal story, but also theological insights that I have gained in the nearly fifty years of walking along this long road that I have trod.
From my personal perspective, over these five decades I have worked in ministry, that includes inter-faith dialogue. I am also an artist, teacher, writer and internet blogger. In addition, I have travelled internationally, with some cross-cultural exposure in the first world, and the majority two-thirds world (the so called “third world”). I am widely read, with an interest in English literature, theology, missiology (science of mission), philosophy, psychology, sociology, history, art and politics. I have particularly focused on Jewish studies that includes Jewish-Christian relations and Holocaust studies. I hope that from my broad life experience I have something worthwhile to contribute to the wider debate about Jesus’ identity as a Jewish first century luminary.
I invite you to join me on this journey of discovery in which, I will not only grapple with the issue of ‘A Quest for the Jewish Jesus,’ but I will also look at many other facets that affect Jewish life and Jewish identity. You will meet the Push-Me-Pull-You [i] brigade along the way – some have attempted to pull Jesus this way and others pushed him that way!
Though Jews and Christians share a common heritage with both looking to Abraham as father, like Ishmael and Isaac and Jacob and Esau, very different paths have helped shape and forge the identities of two distinct people. Mutual mistrust; martyrdom, resulting in alienation, pain and sorrow; have helped separate them. Those Jews who seek to identify with Jesus often find themselves caught in the middle of two opposing forces. This can be a very challenging and uncomfortable place to be, yet it is possible to view it as a creative tension and not as something wholly irreconcilable and undesirable. The third mono-theistic faith of Islam is only briefly mentioned concerning the problems and opposition that both Jews and Moslems face concerning issues such as ritual slaughter and circumcision and the conflict over Israel-Palestine.
We should not forget that in both cases, Ishmael and Esau, as well as Isaac and Jacob, each had their own blessing from their earthly fathers which, in turn, were given by divine sanction. So too, Jews and Christians each have their own path that they follow within the divine scheme of things. A common destiny inextricably links these two faiths in a way that no other faiths do.
Not A Marginal Jew
All too often, those who oppose faith in Jesus as the Messiah of Israel have sought to, not only marginalise him, but equally those Jewish people who identify with him. However, it is my intention to show that to follow Jesus as Lord and Messiah, one is ‘not a marginal Jew,’ but one has become truly a completed and fulfilled Jew: An “Israelite indeed in whom there is no guile” (See John 1.47 – KJV).
“Who do you say that I am” (Matthew 16:15)
Most Jewish and Christian scholars, agree that the historical Jesus of the first century was a Galilean Jew. His mother was Jewish, his Jewish followers called him “Rabbi,” he spoke Aramaic, quoted the Hebrew Scripture in his teachings and he taught in the synagogue in Galilee and the Jewish Temple in ancient Jerusalem. His Hebrew name was Yeshua (God saves). Also, almost all his early followers were Jews. So how did we get from the Jewish Jesus of Nazareth of the first century of the common era to the Gentile Christian Jesus of today? Jewish people say, “look at what they have done to him – We don’t recognise him at all – he does not appear to be a Jewish person.”[ii]
Yet, Rabbi Leo Baeck says, “He was a Jew among Jews; from no other people could a man like him have come forth and in no other people could a man like him work; in no other people could he have found the apostles who believed in him.”[iii]
A Quest for the Jewish Jesus
So, is it possible to discover the Jewish Jesus? This quest is not only something that is personally of great importance to me, but it also has a lot to do with the integrity of the of New Testament account of him; it also has to do with how Jewish people may approach him. Jewish and Christian scholars, in their quest for the historical Jesus, bring with them their own theological outlook and prejudices. We discover that the majority, rather than help resolve who Jesus is, serve to complicate the issues by further obscuring his true identity. While Jewish scholars have helped to reclaim him as a Jew, they universally deny that he is the divine Son of God and the Messiah. Moses Maimonides well illustrates this in his book On Inter-faith Dialogue when he said, “All these activities of Jesus the Christian, and the Ishmaelite (Muhammed) who came after him, are for the purpose of paving the way for the true King Messiah, and preparing the entire world to worship God together…” Equally, many of the nineteenth and early twentieth century Liberal Protestant Christian scholars, while affirming his deity and messiahship, have all too often de-Judaized him. Equally, Catholic scholarship is vexed with a long history of anti-Judaism that has also obscured the Jewish heritage of Jesus, Mary and the early Apostles and disciples.
If he is not a Jew, then…
My quest for the Jewish Jesus, though related to “The Jesus Quest” of the nineteenth and twentieth century, follows a different line of enquiry and reasoning. I am not only concerned with discovering the Jesus of history, but more importantly, he must equally be the Jesus of faith. There can be no division between these dual aspects of his being. If he is not a Jew, and not the Jewish Messiah, then I can have nothing to do with him or the faith that he and subsequently his disciples proclaimed, because he would not be the Jesus who was anticipated and revealed in the Scriptures. This quest poses numerous challenges for the genuine enquirer. I have used the name Jesus and his Hebrew name Yeshua interchangeably. It is my sincere hope that you will discover the answer to the question posed by the subtitle of this book, “Who do you say that I am?”
1 — My Background
I am of British Jewish parents who emigrated to South
Africa in 1947, and I was born in Johannesburg in the
second half of 1948. They were among the 688 British Jews that came to South Africa in 1947.[iv] I was raised in a traditional English-speaking Jewish home. We regularly attended our local synagogue and I received Hebrew instruction in preparation for my Bar-mitzvah.
I recall my Torah portion: – Shabbat Shuva שבת שובה or “Sabbath [of] Return” – which refers to the Shabbat that occurs during the Ten Days of Repentance (Days of Awe), between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur[v]. This Shabbat is named after the first word of the Haftorah (Hosea 14:2-10) and literally means “Return!” It is perhaps a play on shuvah, but not to be confused with Teshuvah – תשובה. This is the word for repentance. My journey to faith has been one of both return and repentance towards the God of Israel.
I was an active member of the Habonim (The Builders) Zionist Youth Movement (aligned to the Histadrut – Labour movement in Israel) – a secular Jewish Zionist organisation that not only encouraged Aliyah, immigration to Israel, but also included scouting and outdoor activities.
It was intellectually stimulating, but also tremendous fun. On the one hand, debates, discussions, Israeli cultural and political insights; on the other hand, camping, hiking and boating were just some of our activities. I was in the movement for ten years from the ages of 7 to 17 years old. I must express my gratitude to our very talented leadership, names like Simon Kuiper, Lee Flax, and David Gordon who were our group leaders, together with the Mendelsohn brothers (they became very important in Israeli Labour politics). Lee Flax introduced us to Franz Kafka, an existentialist writer and philosopher whose books, Metamorphosis, The Trial and The Castle had a significant influence on my young mind. I still personally consider Kafka’s writing of importance and make reference to it in Chapter 31. We also considered the writing of Jean-Paul Sartre’s books including Nausea and his book on Anti-Semitism and the Jew.
In my final year of high school in Johannesburg, South Africa, I became an active member of the debating society at Theodore Roosevelt High School, Roosevelt Park, Johannesburg. There were three subject that were off limits, namely, sex, politics and religion. As a consequence, we rebelled when a group of us established an informal forum that we called ‘The Conversation Club’ and our meetings took place off school property at friends’ homes and our only agenda was sex, politics and religion.
Personally, there was an important link between the Conversation Club of students from Roosevelt High, and the influence of Habonim that included four of our members who were also involved in the Zionist youth movement as well as our local synagogue. We were young free-thinking liberals. I recall that we regularly invited guest speakers who were experts in their subject – a Jehovah’s Witness, a Moslem, a left-wing trade unionist and a gynaecologist were just some of those whose ideas were considered. Discussions about sex, politics and religion helped to broaden our outlook and not to stay confined to the political and social conservatism that good South African girls and boys were expected to adhere to. These endeavours contributed to our intellectual development and helped me to also question my own religious and spiritual thinking. At one level, I found my Jewish faith fulfilling. However, at another level, I had a growing sense of a spiritual void in my life. This is sometimes referred to as ‘a God-shaped hole or void.’
When the Rolling Stones said, “I can’t get no satisfaction,” they hit the nail on the head. Keith Richards and Mick Jagger expressed the places we often seek satisfaction – sex, drugs, rock ‘n roll and consumerism fail to satisfy the longing in the human soul. We try to satisfy our appetites for creature comforts, and yet we still feel unsatisfied.
I recall asking two deep existential questions:
Where do we come from? Where are we going? These lie at the heart of humankind’s quest for meaning that goes beyond the bounds of our material existence.
In this book I include autobiographically significant aspects of my journey to faith and beyond. Yet, I do not necessarily follow a chronological sequence. In addition to my quest for discovering the Jewish Jesus, I am also concerned about laying out the case for how Jewish people may encounter him as Yeshua of Nazareth. The personal anecdotes that I include will hopefully contribute to the overall theme. I also explore how a Jewish person who believes in Yeshua is able to not only maintain a Jewish identity, but also give expression to their faith within both the Jewish and Christian world.
In addition, the question of Jews living in a hostile world is something that impacted upon me personally from an early age. I discovered being Jewish placed an additional burden upon me. I experienced the phenomenon of anti-Semitism at a comparatively early age with my first encounter at primary school. I will say more about this in due course. My experience as a Jew is by no means unique for many of diverse backgrounds encounter xenophobia and race hatred early in their existence.
On my quest for the Jewish Jesus
It has been my desire for some time to lay out my faith journey. An equal concern is how Jewish people may reclaim Yeshua as their own. This is not just of academic interest to me, but it has a very personal significance because, as a Messianic Jew, one is caught in a world between the two faiths that sometimes feels a bit like someone trapped in “no-man’s-land.” This is a paradoxical position to find oneself in. I did not embrace Yeshua because I wanted to escape being Jewish, but as a consequence of my quest for life’s meaning.
Fellow Jews say, “you are no longer Jewish,” while many Christians say, “you are one of us now!” This is sometimes said in an almost triumphalist way, as if to say, “We have saved one more lost Jew!” This is both patronizing and hurtful. I was neither fleeing my Jewishness, nor was I seeking assimilation into the wider Gentile Christian society in which I found myself. I am proud of my Jewish heritage and upbringing. I have never stopped enjoying the rich Jewish life-experience which I claim as my own. My reason for embracing belief in Yeshua is a complex one.
Religious life is a very personal thing. Yet one must face numerous challenges in the desire to give expression to one’s new faith as a Messianic Jewish. Also, there are questions that arise about one’s identity. Can one attend synagogue (Orthodox), or temple (Reform) as well as church? Should one only eat kosher food and observe the sabbath and what other aspects of being Jewish should one keep? Does the Torah still have significance? When a Jewish person regularly attends a church service will it not, to all outward appearances, cause one to be identified not as a Jew but a Gentile Christian? Should one get baptised? This issue is viewed by the Jewish world as the cross over point. A Messianic Jewish identity offers a different paradigm to give expression to one’s faith in Yeshua: Christian Jews; Jewish Christian; Hebrew Christian or Messianic Jew. Which one best describes the person you are?
Theological, sociological and psychological issues about personal identity need to be faced. Who are you? Where do you come from? Where are you going and how do you want to be identified. These are just some of the questions to ponder. These and other issues related to my own personal story are intricately woven into the warp and woof of its very fabric.
Theological issues surrounding personal identity help to address the question of how, according to Holy Scripture, we are viewed by God? This is a very important question and it helps to introduce an objectivity outside of ourselves. This adds a frame of reference beyond our narrow group and self-perception.
The sociological implications of becoming a Messianic believer, for someone from a Jewish background, will have profound implications due to the hostility that the majority of Jewish people have towards Messianic Jews who embrace Yeshua as Messiah and Lord. Misunderstanding about what you will call yourself also characterises part of the question about identity that you will have to contend with.
We must not underestimate the psychological impact that we may encounter from those who show hostility. While there may be an emotional struggle at first, I must personally say that my decision to follow Yeshua has given me a sense of determination. I discovered an inner strength that enabled me to overcome any hostility and rejection that I faced. The personal conflict that I am confronted with is far outweighed by a sense of well-being and Godly contentment. This sense of wholeness transcends any human suffering caused by rejection. This is due to the indwelling Ruach HaKodesh (Holy Spirit), that the Scriptures call the Spirit; the ‘Counsellor, Comforter, Guide, Go-between-God, Helper’. Though there is a personal cost to pay for becoming a Messianic Jew, the benefits far outweigh any negative issues that you may experience (see John 14.26). The concept of the activity of the Holy Spirit is not foreign to Judaism, for the work of the Spirit of God is ever present in the lives of the people of Israel. Judges, kings, prophets, prophetesses and priests alike were moved by the prompting of the Ruach HaKodesh (Holy Spirit) to perform and fulfil the work of God. This was not only for the benefit of Israel, but for the other nations as well. When the great outpouring of the Holy Spirit happened on the day of Pentecost, the limited work of the Spirit was then extended to all who yielded their lives to God through his Son Yeshua.
2 — Personal experiences of anti-Semitism,
When at Franklin D. Roosevelt Primary School, Roosevelt Park, Johannesburg at the age of nine or ten years old, a fellow pupil from a Czechoslovakian background verbally abused me for being Jewish. Subsequently, this incident has caused me to ponder as to whether his father was a fascist who had collaborated with the Nazis during the Holocaust and then found his way to South Africa after the war? While this is conjecture on my part, having studied about the way that many Europeans under Nazi occupation collaborated with them during WWII, there is a reasonable possibility that his father could have been an active collaborator. What is clear, is that he harboured an anti-Semitic attitude and brought this with him to his new life in South Africa, influencing his son to be negative towards Jews.
“Hate speech” and physical assault
This incident was deeply distressing, and when I came home, I related it to my mother. She told me that during WWII in England, while doing war work in an ammunition’s factory, one of the supervisors had verbally abused her for being Jewish saying, “You Jews need to go back to Palestine, because you don’t belong here!” She discovered that he was a member of the Blackshirts who were fascists and members of the British Union of Fascists who held a pro-Nazi outlook and who actively practised anti-Semitism.
In addition, my maternal grandfather Isaac had been blinded in one eye when a brick was thrown at him during the fascist unrest in the East-End of London during the 1930’s, with him sustaining a detached retina. That was the side of his body that was struck by the bus that killed him during the blackouts during WWII. Therefore, I can hold the fascists indirectly responsible for his death.
Similarly, my father Thomas and his cousin Cyril lived and grew up in Birmingham. Their journey to school took them through an area of the city where anti-Semitic attacks regularly took place during the 1930’s. My grandfather Hyman fashioned a whip for my father to use to fend off attacks from boys inspired by fascists to harass Jews. This begs the question as to whether Jewish people are safe anywhere? The phenomenon of anti-Semitism appears to be a universal problem.
I recall that while living in the Cape, South Africa, I was invited to share a word of testimony at an Afrikaans Reformed Church in the Cape Peninsula. The minister preached from a passage in the Gospels in which Jesus and the Pharisees locked swords. During his sermon he ranted against the Pharisees.
After his sermon, he invited me to come to the front and share a word of testimony of how I had come to faith. I felt insulted by his negative attitude. Had the minister deliberately preached that sermon for my benefit or was that part of his normal preaching? Whatever his motive, his theology was an appalling travesty and caricature of Judaism and if not deliberately anti-Semitic, it certainly reeked of anti-Judaism of the worst kind. It appeared that he had no understanding of the meaning and deep significance of what I had experienced as a Jew who has come to faith in Yeshua. Neither did he show any empathy or insight into what a Jewish person faces in their sense of self-identity. He had missed the fact that many Pharisees became followers of Yeshua. The inheritor of the Pharisaic tradition is Rabbinic Judaism. Certainly, it has failures, but equally it also has great strengths and laid the foundation of Judaism.
The attitude of this minister of the Christian Reformed Church is not an isolated phenomenon but is symptomatic of a deeper malady within Christian theology and its outlook towards Judaism. This problem will be more fully explored and addressed in my journey of faith. Negative as well as positive influences help to shape what we believe. My response is always to look beyond the particular experience, whether good or bad, and ask the question as to why someone holds a particular viewpoint or attitude and not to simply reject out of hand what they represent.
Anti-Zionism, while not directly linked to the question of whether God has rejected the Jewish people [Israel], helps to contribute to an antipathy towards Jews, Judaism and Israel. Anti-Zionism is increasingly having a negative impact upon the Evangelical Christian church. I have personally encountered this phenomenon when people discover that I am a Messianic Jew, and also someone who declares his love for Israel. I have been accused of being a ‘Christian Zionist’ (as if that is a crime), and of holding racist attitudes because I stand for Israel’s sovereign right to exist as a nation. Many wrongly think that, if you support Israel, then you must be anti-Palestinian or anti-Arab. This accusation cannot be further from the truth. I have a number of Arab and Palestinian friends and I continue to seek ways to foster understanding and love between these two peoples whose destiny is inter-linked. (Visit my blog: http://www.hotrodronisblog.com).
Five Broken Cameras is an anti-Israeli propaganda film that was shot over a 5-year period, 2005-2009, by Palestinian Emad Burnat. It records the protests against the construction of a security barrier through the West Bank village of Bil’in. Burnat uses the destruction of his five cameras as a motif and connects the narrative to the development of his growing family. The film constructs a story that portrays the Palestinians as innocent, childlike victims fighting for land that has purportedly been stolen from them. Israelis are portrayed as cold-faced, heartless brutes. The Israelis are presented as acting only to cause suffering to the residents of Bil’in. This kind of one-sided accusation is becoming more frequent from Christians who follow the media and its constant negative reporting of Israel. The majority of these Christians have little, if any, first-hand contact with Israel or Israelis. They base their assertions on what they glean from an often-biased media.
What is the reason for Israel erecting the security barrier which is often referred to as the “apartheid wall?” It was built not to exclude Palestinians from Israel, but to protect its citizens from regular terrorist attacks. People conveniently choose to forget the deadly attacks that were a regular occurrence inside Israel. With the building of the barrier there has been a drastic decline of such attacks. In addition, there is another aspect of the conflict that is hardly ever reported by the mainstream media: “Rioters hurl rocks, Molotov cocktails and burning tires at the defence force and the security fence … Since the beginning of 2008, about 170 members of the defence force have been injured in these villages.”[vi]
A new face of anti-Semitism
Julie Burchill in The Sunday Telegraph, Sunday 3 February, 2019 (p 18), discusses a report by the Institute for Jewish Policy Research into the link between anti-Zionism and anti-Semitism, concluding that those who are active in attacking Israel are more likely than not to be anti-Semitic. She has considered why the hard left in British politics is inherently anti-Semitic. Some claim to be anti-racist on the one hand, yet on the other hand happily believe “that the Jews asked for it.” Burchill calls this trend “Fresh ‘N’ Funky Anti-Semitism.” Alas, this type of jumbled thinking and activism is dangerous. When Jewish politicians challenge their colleagues in the British Labour Party about their anti-Semitic attitudes, instead of being taken seriously they are accused of overreacting. The victim is blamed for the actions of the victimiser. This is both perverse and a sign of a great sickness within the body politic. It is like blaming the actions of the Nazis upon their victims. “Jews had it coming to them!”
Labour movement in Britain
Historically, the Labour movement in Britain was the natural home of many British Jews, with the Israeli Labour Party closely aligned to her sister movement in the UK. However, this is not the case anymore. British Jews are increasingly feeling insecure about their place in the Labour party and its future in Britain. This change has taken place due to the rise of anti-Semitism that has manifested itself within the Labour party. This is driven by those on the hard-left whose anti-Zionism has led to increased anti-Semitic attitudes being expressed towards Jewish Labour MP’s. These attacks include hate-speech, hate-mail and death threats. “Debates over alleged antisemitism in the Labour Party may have sparked an increase in hate incidents against Jews in the UK, a report has found. The Community Security Trust (CST) recorded a record high of 1,652 incidents in 2018, an increase of 16 per cent on the previous year.” Alas, many of the front bench Labour leadership have been slow in tackling the problems of anti-Semitism within the party.[vii]
This trend that British Labour is manifesting is of personal significance to me due to my background in the Habonim movement with its close alignment to the Histadrut – the Labour movement in Israel (see p 5). As someone whose political inclination is of the centre-left, the hard-left’s anti-Semitic shift of British Labour’s current leadership is a source of deep concern. Together with many other fellow British Jews what is taking place at this present time within the Labour movement, is causing a deep sense of disquiet. Historically anti-Semitism found its home only in fringe hard-right fascist movements. However, with the UK’s main opposition party having become the home of so many people who hold anti-Semitic ideas, it has become main-stream. I too have begun to feel unsafe in Britain. Some political commentators are now openly saying that “Labour is a racist party.” With the election of the new Labour leader, Sir Keir Starmer (2020), he has attempted to repair the damage done during the Jeremy Corbyn years. Yet there is still a long way to go in healing the relationship with the Jewish community in Britain, and particularly those former disaffected members who left the Labour Party.
[i] Push-Me-Pull-You – is a sports game for 2–4 players who are joined at the waist, you and your partner share a single worm-like body as you wrestle your opponent for control of the ball – It’s a bit like a big hug, or playing soccer with your small intestines. With every action affecting both you and your partner (and mandatory shouting) PMPY combines the best parts of co-op multiplayer with the worst parts of your last breakup. https://pmpygame.com
[iii] Ben-Chorin, Shalom, The Image of Jesus in Modern Judaism , Journal of Ecumenical Studies 11, no. 3 – Summer 1974:408; also see p. 26
[iv] Sharon, Gustav & Hotz, Louis; The Jews in South Africa, A History ; 1955:381