Jewish Evangelism: the Lessons of History

Finally in our dialogue with our Jewish neighbours we look to the patterns and lessons from Jewish history as interpreted by the Hebrew Scriptures. Thinking about the catastrophe that befell Israel in 70 A.D. when the Temple was destroyed and the people of Judea scattered through all the world, I would like to make two points.

The first point involves the promises of God made to Israel through the prophets. The promise was made over and over again that God would bring Israel back from the lands of their captivity after the disaster of 586 B.C., and would raise up the Davidic Messiah under whom they would finally find peace and security. Thus Isaiah 51:11f: “The ransomed of Yahweh shall return and come to Zion with singing; everlasting joy shall be upon their heads; they shall obtain joy and gladness, and sorrow and sighing shall flee away…Behold, I have taken from your hand the cup of staggering; the bowl of My wrath you shall drink no more, and I will put it into the hand your tormentors”. Thus Isaiah 60:9f: “The coastlands shall wait for Me, the ships of Tarshish first, to bring your sons from far, their silver and gold with them, for the Name of Yahweh your God, and for the Holy One of Israel, for He has glorified you. Foreigners shall build up your walls, and their kings shall serve you, for in My wrath I smote you, but in My favour I have had mercy on you.” Thus Jeremiah 3:14f: “Return, O faithless children, says Yahweh, for I am your master. I will take you, one from a city and two from a family, and I will bring you to Zion. And I will give you a shepherd after My own heart who will feed you with knowledge and understanding. At that time Jerusalem shall be called the throne of Yahweh, and all nations shall gather to it”. Thus Jeremiah 30:3f: “Behold, days are coming, says Yahweh, when I will restore the fortunes of My people Israel and Judah, and I will bring them back to the land which I gave to their fathers, and they shall take possession of it. Strangers shall no more make servants of them, but they shall serve Yahweh their God and David their king whom I will raise up for them”. Thus Ezekiel 37:21: “Thus says the Lord Yahweh: Behold I will take the people of Israel from the nations among which they have gone and will gather them from all sides and bring them to their own land and one king shall be king over them all…My servant David shall be king over them, and they shall all have one shepherd…They shall dwell in the land where your fathers dwelt that I gave to my servant Jacob; they and they and their children and their children’s children shall dwell there forever, and David My servant shall be their prince forever”.

The promise, plan, and progression are clear—after the return from the Babylonian exile Israel is regathered to the Promised Land, where the Davidic King Messiah reigns over them, and under his rule Israel is finally safe from future threat. Note: the return from the Babylonian exile forms the background for this regathering and Messianic safety. If Jesus was the promised Messiah and if the Kingdom of God was not of this world (as He taught), then all was fulfilled as the prophets foretold: after the Babylonian exile, Israel returned to their land, the Messiah came on time, and established a Kingdom of transcendent spiritual peace. But if Jesus was not the Messiah—if the Messiah is still yet to come—then the words of the prophets proved false, for the Messiah did not come on time after the Babylonian exile. After the Babylonian exile, Israel was indeed regathered after the catastrophe of 586 B.C. but then yet was again scattered after the even greater catastrophe of 70 A.D. This post-70 A.D. thus represents the terminus ad quem for the coming of the Messiah. For the prophets did not simply promise that God would send the Messiah, but them He would send the Messiah after the return from the Babylonian captivity.

The second point involves the cause of the catastrophe of 70 A.D. when the Temple was razed, Jewish nationhood lost, and its people led captive to all nations (Luke 21:23-24). The Law of Moses contains God’s covenant with Israel, and in this covenant God promised to bless His people with prosperity, security, victory, and peace if they would obey Him (Deuteronomy 28:1-14). He also promised that if they disobeyed Him and broke His covenant, He would curse them, sending upon them drought, famine, pestilence, and defeat, culminating in the scattering of the nation to the four corners of the earth (Deuteronomy 28:15-68)—indeed, God would “scatter them among all peoples, from one end of the earth to the other” (v. 64). This theme and threat was the constant theme of the prophets: obedience would bring prosperity and security, while disobedience would bring disaster and exile.

The events of 586 B.C. proved the truth of the prophets’ words and the reality of the divine threat. Israel disobeyed God, filling the land with injustice and turning from God to idols, and for these sins God allowed the Babylonians to destroy the Temple, destroy their nation, and take the majority of the people into exile. This exile lasted until 538 B.C., when under Cyrus the Persian as many as wanted to could return home to begin to rebuild the shattered nation and its Temple.

Given this covenant with its cause-and-effect of obedience leading to victory, and disobedience leading to defeat the question arises regarding the cause of the unprecedented defeat of 70 A.D.—specifically what disobedience, rebellion, and sin could have caused that catastrophic defeat. A view of history which excludes the cause-and-effect promised in the Mosaic covenant will not seek any spiritual cause at all, but will root the disaster solely in political and military concerns. But as we have seen, Israel was not like the other nations, and its fortunes were determined by their obedience or disobedience to their covenant Lord. So, the question remains: what disobedience in Israel prior to 70 A.D. could have caused that disaster?

The Christian answer, based on the words of Jesus, is clear: Israel suffered such a disaster because it rejected its Messiah, both at the time of the crucifixion and in the generation following when Israel had a chance to repent of its national repudiation of Christ. The Lord said so plainly: “The days will come upon you when your enemies will cast up a bank about you, and surround you and hem you in on every side, and dash you to the ground, you and your children within you, and they will not leave one stone upon another in you, because you did not know the time of your visitation” (Luke 19:43-44). If this Christian answer is rejected, what other answer is left? The disaster that befell Israel in 70 A.D. was much greater than the disaster of 586 B.C., for after the latter disaster the Temple was rebuilt within a hundred years, while even now the Temple which was destroyed in 70 A.D. has not been rebuilt. Accordingly, the sin which led to the disaster of 70 A.D. must have been much greater than Israel’s pre-exilic idolatry. If one takes seriously the words of the Mosaic Law then one must conclude that Israel did something of unprecedented enormity to warrant such a disaster. Only the Christian answer fits: Israel rejected its Messiah and paid the terrible penalty.

When one situates the disaster of 70 A.D. within the covenantal framework of the Law and the Prophets, the lessons of history are clear: Jesus of Nazareth was the promised Messiah. He came on time as the prophets said, and His rejection caused the greatest disaster ever to befall the Jewish people.

8 comments:

  1. That’s a line of reasoning I’ve never seen before regarding Israel’s destruction in 70 AD. This verse in Isaiah puzzles me, though:

    “And it shall come to pass in that day, that the Lord shall set his hand the second time to possess the remnant of his people, which shall be left from the Assyrians, and from Egypt, and from Phetros, and from Ethiopia, and from Elam, and from Sennaar, and from Emath, and from the islands of the sea.”

    “Second time?” When was the first? Isaiah is really hard to figure out because his concepts seem so jumbled together and nonlinear.

  2. So then is the inverse true? If the Jews had recognized Jesus as Messiah, would they have received earthly blessings and fruitfulness? If not, then why is the converse true?

    I’d also like to point out that this line of reasoning, even if correct, has been used by Christians to justify and encourage intentional persecution of Jews (i.e., it’s our job to keep them down and teach em a lesson).

    1. Such “if” questions are incapable of answer: for example, IF Judas had refused to betray Christ, what would have happened then? God foresaw the free choices that were made, and used these to accomplish His purposes.

  3. Fr. Farley, I would like you to comment on the following line of thought:

    You speak of the Covenant between the Jewish people and God, and essentially say that they have broken the covenant by not accepting the Messiah.

    However, Jews will answer that the Christian life, by definition, would essentially force them to abandon the clear requirements of the covenant, such as sabbath keeping. I’m not talking about what’s in the NT, but rather in the tradition of the Orthodox Church. For example, a canon saying that if a Christian attends a Jewish seder, they are excommunicated (or something to that effect).

    Put in these terms, a Jew is forced to choose between a) following the written terms of the Covenant laid out and passed down meticulously throughout the ages, and b) following the Covenant by accepting the Messiah but then also at the same time jettisoning virtually all the written requirements of the Covenant.

    A Jew will say, if your father says, “hey, I want you to do A, B, and C”, then that means you should do A, B, and C. Christians say, “oh, well so and so did A, B, and C for you, and has fulfilled A, B, and C! Now isn’t that great?! Now you have to do D, E, and F, which are fulfillments of A, B, and C. Don’t you see? So obvious!”

    I’ve personally struggled with this subject for the entire 10 years I’ve been Orthodox. Not trying to be sarcastic – this is how they will see it, and I hope you can comment on this. Thanks!

    1. One must distinguish between what was required and practical in the first century and now. The continuities between Judaism and faith in Yeshua in the first century did not require (for example) abandoning worship at the Temple; the events that have transpired between then and now, both in Judaism and Christianity, brought with them a clearer and starker choice.

    2. It might be better to look at it as Pascha was the aim of “A, B, and C” and all of those ordinances have no meaning without it. The Law had become a kind of earthly system and Jesus preached to remind Israel of its heavenly purpose, ultimately becoming the true Passover Lamb that gave the entire Jewish nation, history, and religion its meaning. Jewish members of the Church in the First Century dealt with this very question of reinterpreting all that they’d believed in the light of Pascha. When the Temple was destroyed, it became very clear that Judaism as they’d known it was never coming back.

      Jews today are looking back at Christ along a Rabbinical line that began after the Temple and the priesthood were destroyed. Even Messianic Jews make this mistake because they know nothing of the Fathers and that line of teaching that has guided the Orthodox Church throughout history. I once had an interest in Messianic Judaism as a prophetic thing, but looking back, I see it as just a circumcised, charismatic Protestantism. They may be making Jews aware of Jesus and trying to fit Jesus into Judaism, but it’s kind of like cutting the ground prong off the plug to get it into an old, two-prong outlet. That fundamental circuit defect will manifest itself at some point. As someone interested in the Jewish roots of Christianity, I was surprised to see how “Jewish” Orthodoxy actually was. The chanting of psalms, the incense, the design of the church, the “menorah” on the altar, the robed and bearded priests carrying books around, etc. Even the little prayer book for home prayer made me think of the very similar book I saw in the home of an Orthodox Jewish family. I wonder if Orthodox Christianity would be as alien to Jews as we would think.

  4. Kevin,

    Yes and no. I think much of what you say is correct.

    I think that part of the problem from a Jewish perspective has to do w Christian readings of OT texts, which often seem forced and which become foundational.

    For example, we are told in the CChurch Fathers that the Israelites were under a curse, bc they were incapable of observing th Law’s commandments perfectly. They therefore needed a redeemer (see various Patristic commentaries in Galatians).

    This whole way of thinking is foreign to Judaism, which sees the Law as a gift, and forgiveness as a free gift requiring only repentance.

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