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Saturday, 22 August 2009

Richard Briggs Review - Part 4


This sense in which scriptural categories are projected forward from their original appearances to help shape the discussion of later scripture is picked up in the Christian New Testament too: creation is taken up in new creation, exodus in new exodus, covenant in new covenant, and all of these were announced long ago in Jewish scripture (Isaiah 65, Jeremiah 31 ...). In this sense, the Christian New Testament simply progresses the hope of newness into a Christological shape, articulated around the person and work of Jesus Christ. Here is a model profoundly based in continuity. But as Chris Seitz has pointed out, there is a difference between von Rad’s notion of tradition-history sustaining the canonical development of the Old Testament scriptures and the separate claim being made that this is what the New Testament simply continues: the difference lies in the various points of rupture introduced into the trajectories of creation, exodus, covenant, and other categories. As Seitz and others have suggested, the links between the testaments are best understood ‘typologically’ or ‘figurally’. It is always well to remember the reaction of Jesus’ disciples in coming across the empty tomb: bewilderment, despair, a genuine sense of not understanding how the story they thought they were following could come to this. Thus somehow the ‘fulfilment’ of all scripture which Jesus announced as taking place in himself (Luke 24: 25-27) cannot simply have been read off the events, or indeed the texts which would go on to witness to the events. Here, then, is discontinuity: ways in which the New Testament suggests that God has now done something ‘new’, although importantly, as the von Rad quote makes clear, it is not ‘newness’ itself which is the significant theological category. The opening verses of Hebrews put the point most forcefully with respect to the category of revelation: ‘Long ago God spoke to our ancestors in many and various ways by the prophets, but in these last days he has spoken to us by a Son’ (Hebrews 1:1-2), and of course the rest of Hebrews treads no less lightly through a series of other category comparisons.

The key to holding all this together, it seems to me, is to recognise that the continuity is primarily discernible retrospectively, since there are many ways in principle that a narrative (or indeed a salvation-history) could be carried forward, and only one way in fact in which the New Testament does end up carrying it forward. Arguably theoretical notions of what counts as continuity count for little in the face of the onward particularistic march of history. Continuity then has to be construed in and around (or ‘figured’ into) the events and texts which continue to unfold. In short, the New Testament, in itself, is neither continuous with nor discontinuous with the Old, but degrees of continuity are discerned by people who come to see that the God of the story has not changed. These points of continuity are themselves handled differently by different New Testament authors: so (to over-simplify for a moment) Matthew tells us the story of Moses but tells it about Jesus, while John tells us the story of Genesis, but it is about Jesus, and Luke tells us the story of all the Law and the Prophets, but it is about ... Jesus.

Increasingly it seems to me that the New Testament perhaps introduces very few new theological categories at all. Christology, or at least most articulations of it, might be an exception. But Christian ethics wrestles with its own versions of law and grace just as Israel always wrestled with Torah. The Holy Spirit is poured out at Pentecost (and surely plays a key role in facilitating the retrospective discernment of continuity), but was long since known in Israel and anticipated in prophecies quoted on the day of Pentecost. Atonement theology draws its categories from Leviticus and elsewhere in the Old Testament. None of it makes its intended sense without understanding it in continuity with the Old Testament.

To sum up: the New Testament could not have been anticipated as the telos of the Old, but in retrospect, continuity can be discerned between the two witnesses, and arguably the New Testament cannot be rightly understood without the Old. The familiar question, then, of whether in some sense it replaces the Old is badly put, or, we might say, replacement is the wrong metaphor for grasping the relationship between the two. But the Old is of course changed in some sense by its (new) relationship with the New.

The question which strikes me most forcefully, then, after reading MMJT concerns the extent to which MJT already has to hand the conceptuality it needs for its task in the scriptures of the New Testament. Undeniably these have been appropriated and interpreted in frameworks uncongenial (and sometimes downright hostile) to Jewish thought, and I found myself wondering whether part of the problem perceived here is to do with the particular Christian theological frameworks in play in the discussion rather than with the notion of Christian theological frameworks per se. I am not saying that the New Testament is the answer to the questions surveyed in MMJT, rather that it would be a profoundly constructive dialogue partner since it is, in its own time and place, deeply engaged with the project of working out the very questions which occupy MJT. If that dialogue could take place with people working with scriptural categories in a hermeneutically subtle and constructive way, then it seems to me that one might have a very powerful engine both for reading the New Testament and for Messianic Jewish theology.

I am reminded of the extraordinary story in Acts 18 where Apollos, a Jew of Alexandria, comes to Ephesus and unleashes all his rhetorical glory on the gathered crowds. He was, says Luke, ‘an eloquent man, well-versed in the scriptures ... and he taught accurately (akribōs) the things concerning Jesus, though he knew only the baptism of John’. (Acts 18:24-25) These scriptures are the Tanakh, and his baptism is not a Christian one. Intriguingly, ‘when Priscilla and Aquila heard him, they took him aside and explained the Way of God to him more accurately (akribesteron).’ (v.26) Too often the discussion of Jewish and Christian theological categories supposes that for one to be right the other must be wrong, but perhaps one might suggest that one could be ‘accurate’ and the other ‘more accurate’. Unless, of course, God changed his mind sometime between the two testaments, and there is material discontinuity, but to this many New Testament readers will want to say, with Paul, ‘by no means!’

So I find myself wanting to read further than MMJT takes me, and agreeing with its concluding apologia that it is in fact a prolegomenon to a future development of a MJT. I want to know what a messianic Jewish pneumatology looks like in the light of Joel 3 and Pentecost. I want to understand the categories of messianic Jewish ‘ecclesiology’. I want to see how far messianic Jewish hermeneutics can learn to be indebted both to the rabbis and to all the other ways of reading texts which have flourished over God’s many centuries. And most of all I want to see the New Testament read in a way which taps into its life-blood and brings it alive to those of us who have come late (though gratefully) to the story. Which suggests that Richard Harvey has been more than successful in presenting his map-making exercise to an outsider like me, drawing me in to want to see further and better. Thank you – and may your map help lead us all into exceedingly fertile territory indeed.

Richard Briggs Review - Part 3

The Nature of Messianic Jewish Theology

In this context, a word is appropriate about the evident close relationship between the MJM and conservative evangelicalism, and in particular its specifically American manifestations in various forms of dispensationalist belief or hermeneutics. If it is true, as Harvey says at various points, that much of the MJM grew out of the same milieu which produced works such as Hal Lindsey’s The Late Great Planet Earth and other end-times speculation, then the MJM has a real issue to face in terms of how it sees its own future(s) vis-à-vis the various trajectories currently being mapped out by such Christian movements. Summarising his discussion of Baruch Maoz, Harvey writes ‘If Messianic Judaism disassociates itself from Dispensationalism it would render less dogmatic some of the assertions of the movement, and would open it to a broader range of theological influences within Judaism and Christianity’. (p.257) To which this reader, situated a long way from such dispensational movements, might say: Yes, and a hundred times yes. The disastrous reduction of the books of Daniel and Revelation to end-time charts and maps is just one of the pieces of theological baggage which could be jettisoned in such a move. The patient inclusion in MMJT of diagrams explaining the differences between variant forms of premillennialism, amillennialism and postmillennialism is a tribute to the author’s even-handedness in being faithful to his source material, but it indicates significant problems in the ability of MJT to offer its own engagement with the relevant biblical texts (or indeed most mainstream Christian eschatological traditions and interpretations). Both Daniel and Revelation are profound analyses of the theological shaping of identity under pressure, both drawing upon vivid characterisations of the conflict between good and evil as experienced now and in heaven, and both are profoundly implicated in their originating contexts – the Maccabean crisis on the one hand and the dominance of the Roman Imperial cult on the other. There is plenty of material here for MJT practitioners to ask questions about the nature of God and God’s people, but none if it, frankly, has anything to do with the timing of the millennium. There is even, to give one example, considerable pause for thought in the way that Daniel reads the Maccabean crisis in startlingly different terms from 1 Maccabees’ account, which is deeply characterised by its zeal for Torah observance to the point of violent resistance (e.g. 1 Maccabees 2:15-28). The book of Daniel, instead, offers a resolutely theocentric perspective, even to the point of characterising the Maccabean uprising as ‘a little help’ (11:34). Are there implications here for understanding how to evaluate Torah observance in exile, and indeed what counts as faithfulness in any form in exile? A wide range of scholarship on Daniel suggests that the marginalised position of faith in the God of Israel in today’s world can draw profoundly on this book for its self-understanding, and prevalent trends in the current study of Revelation point the same way. Of course all these readings are contested, as I would be keen to admit, but for what it is worth I suggest that if MJT interacts with this kind of careful and critically respectful scholarship for its eschatological intuitions then it will find itself in a much better place.

This turn to the specifics of the biblical text brings me at the last to the major point which anyone in my position is bound to want to engage in a discussion of MJT: the nature and the status of the Christian New Testament with respect to the ‘sources, norms, methods, content and results’ of MJT, along with the hermeneutics appropriate to reading Jewish scripture itself. As a Gentile coming to a reading of the two testament Bible, I find myself confronted with questions of the extent to which there is continuity and discontinuity between the two testaments, testaments which, in the theological structuring of the Christian Bible, are inter-related as ‘old’ and ‘new’. (In passing I note my continued bemusement at the bizarre argument, mainly put forward by young people I suppose, that ‘old’ connotes ‘out of date’ or ‘disrespectful’ in some way - I always wonder what it says about some cultures that they think of ‘old’ in this way rather than in terms of due respect and wisdom, and find it odd that some Christians have thought this was a sufficient argument to overturn the theological point at issue in this terminology, where the ‘Old Testament’ is indeed very much one source of wisdom necessary to understand the New, and is thus to be treated with all – and very considerable – due respect.)
This matter of continuity and discontinuity between old and new is of course very much the subject-matter of both Romans and Galatians, and in a certain sense of perhaps all the New Testament writings. The context in both the main Pauline discussions makes it clear that the question of how to understand the on-going roles of Jew and Gentile are chief presenting questions. I tend to think that Galatians sees Paul arguing against Gentile conversion into Torah observance, an argument he pursues with an almost scornful zeal (wishing those who get circumcised would go all the way and ‘castrate themselves’, 5:12), while Romans sees him looking the other way and wondering what becomes, then, of the Jewish people if his earlier argument is right. But the logic is the same in both cases, and it is an argument conducted in a very tight logical space: what God did in the past was good (and hence the Torah is good, and holy, and just (Romans 7:12)), but what God has done in Jesus is also good, indeed even better, except that this by no means implies that there was anything wrong with what was done before. The resulting tangle which is Romans 7 is answered with ‘Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord’, and the pursuant discussion of Romans 9-11 surely is intended to settle the matter, if only, as one of my own theological teachers put it so clearly, one had the faintest idea what it is Paul actually argues in Romans 9-11. But whatever it is, it ends, notoriously, with his only non-Christological doxology (Romans 11:33-36), one which emphasises the inscrutable mystery of God’s glorious ways. Good and very good: the very good is better, but not in a way which renders the good any less good. Is Romans, I wonder, a putative Messianic Jewish theology? It is, after all, a systematic treatment of the very subject which two thousand years later runs right through the concerns of MJT.

Surprisingly, to me, Romans is not much discussed in MMJT. Galatians gets a brief mention with Tzvi Sadan’s reading of 3:24 where Paul describes the law as a disciplinarian (paidagogos; schoolmaster) who brought us to the Messiah, though Sadan’s point is reported as being that the relationship of believer to Torah is transformed and not terminated (p.164), rather as Romans 10:4 presents Christ as the telos of the nomos, and thus the ‘purpose’ or ‘final destination’ of Torah, with either way of looking at it possible in the text. In fact, in general, the New Testament, the berit chadashah, is not particularly in view in this survey, and the question of hermeneutics does not often manage to escape the gravitational pull of some form of dispensationalist evangelicalism on the rare occasions it does surface. As an outsider, I confess to a sense of unease that the discussions so ably mapped by MMJT appear to proceed with so little dialogue with the New Testament. Let me offer just one or two pointers to theological reasons which underlie my unease.
In my own teaching I organise a course on ‘Biblical Theology’ around the discussion of continuity and discontinuity between the testaments. I have been deeply influenced by Gerhard von Rad’s presentation of the classical prophets:

What engrossed the prophets’ attention was God’s new saving action, whose dawn they had discerned. The reason why they made any use at all of these old traditions in their preaching is that they ascribed to them something like a predictive character. They looked for a new David, a new Exodus, a new covenant, a new city of God: the old had thus become a type of the new and important as pointing forward to it.

Richard Briggs Review - Part 2

"A World of Variant Views"

As a mapping exercise, Mapping Messianic Jewish Theology introduces me to a whole world of variant views around the central topics of how the MJM conceives of God, Torah and Israel. I was surprised at first, though I should not have been, by the diversity of viewpoints. But of course, from my own various traditions (currently Anglican, though at other times free-church evangelical), diversity has always been a fact of theological life, and working now in a church which consciously sees itself as part of a Church which is ‘one, holy, catholic and apostolic’, I am aware of how the desire to incorporate as wide a body of believers as possible leads to a certain fuzziness over doctrinal distinctives and theological formulations. So in turn it seems to me inevitable that any gathered body of Messianic Jewish believers will exhibit diversity. The texts of the Torah, the former and latter Prophets, and the Writings are, after all, not a collection of texts which naturally lead one to think that there is only one way of putting matters with the God of Israel. Laws and narratives are repeated, and rarely, if ever, to say the same thing twice. Variant perspectives are enshrined in the canonical text, so that readers are promised that swords will become ploughshares while ploughshares will become swords, rendering complexity into any attempt to discern the ways of God amidst subsequent events. There is little basis, within this canonical collection of inspired texts, to suppose that theological articulation in the centuries which followed should be univocal. One might also point out that, on the evidence of both Jewish and Christian traditions, it has not been so in practice either.

So my first observation is that it suggests perhaps an over-optimistic view of potential theological ‘progress’ to make a statement such as ‘at present there is no normative view of Torah’ (p.144) whether that be true of the MJM as a whole or even, as Harvey’s subsequent survey makes clear, just within either the Torah-positive or Torah-negative streams of it. Such a way of putting the matter suggests that what is needed is ‘further work’ in order to arrive at some kind of normative view. My observation from the wilds of Gentile post-Christendom is that such a thing will not happen this side of the eschaton. Over here the Lutheran tradition wrote off the Torah as an anti-type of the gospel while the Calvinist tradition saw it as the root and foundation of Christian ethics, and both traditions brought forth glorious fruit in season (though not, of course, exclusively glorious), and they presumably cannot both be right, yet God somehow seems to pour out grace in both. It would be surprising to me if the MJM ever resolved this issue univocally. Indeed I find pretty much this point made by David Stern under the ‘Torah positive’ label (p.152), but I don’t think there are any logical reasons why it could not have been made in a Torah-negative framework too. Moreover, as with Torah, so with many of the topics reviewed and mapped herein, until the very last page of the very last map, appropriately on eschatology, where Richard Harvey says more or less exactly this: ‘It remains to be seen whether Messianic thought will cohere around one main view, or continue to develop into separate streams reflecting, as one would expect from the variation and diversity within both Judaism and Christianity on the topic, a confusion of voices which will only be finally resolved at the return of the Messiah himself.’ (p.258) I would place more emphasis on the ‘as one would expect’ than on the ‘it remains to be seen’. In practice it remains to be seen, but all the evidence points one way.
Perhaps this acceptance of diversity is to be understood as a MJM equivalent of what I would call catholic ecclesiology, as I hinted above. From my Anglican perspective, there is great merit in understanding the gathering of God’s people to worship and learn together as disciples in as broad and inclusive a way as possible. Obviously, not all self-consciously evangelical ecclesiologies agree. A resurgent conservatism even within Anglicanism is currently campaigning loudly to return to something more like a ‘pure’ church, and there have been non-conformist branches of the Protestant church for centuries whose avowed goal is to ‘return to the New Testament church’ (a goal which has always struck me as odd in the light of, for example, Jesus’ parable of the talents (Matthew 25:14-30), but that is a point for another day). Such approaches often value doctrinal purity and correctness of theological confession, but whereas more theologically catholic church traditions value this too but manage to hold it together with as inclusive as possible a vision of who should be welcomed into the fellowship of God’s believers, non-conformist ecclesiologies often pursue a visible purity of the body. This is evidenced, for example, in having confessional standards as criteria for ‘membership’, or in the de facto result of the pursuit of doctrinal purity: repeated splitting and new denominations. The history of the Church over twenty centuries suggests that theological thinking is always both determinative of and determined in part by the ecclesiological structures in which it occurs. This give and take of what we might call theological idealism and pragmatism requires a constant interplay of allowing the structure to give voice to those who want to speak truthfully of God and God’s creation at the same time as allowing the structure to be shaped by those who give such voice. This is one of those tensions which it is always easier to collapse one way or the other, as countless examples demonstrate, but when it works it offers the church as a ‘plausibility structure’ for the Christian faith. In the light of this it is interesting to note that there is very little discussion of ‘structure’ in MMJT. I don’t know what the right word would be for a Messianic Jewish equivalent of ‘ecclesiology’, and in this regard it is interesting that the organising rubric of ‘God, Torah and Israel’, (p.36) when it arrives at discussion of Israel, turns out to be a chapter on eschatology and the land. I think what I am looking for is some middle term between Israel and the Messianic Jewish theologian, which relates to the theologian’s socio-theological location. Harvey’s discussion pursues, overall, the ‘sources, norms, methods, contents and results’ of Messianic Jewish theology (p.2), but in spite of the close chronicling of specific views held by specific people, I end up wondering whether something has been missed by not attempting to articulate these sources, norms, methods, contents and results in dialogue with their various social and structural locations. Conscious that I could simply be asking for a different work from the one presented, I want to ask how much of the ‘further work’ which is advertised as desirable at many points throughout is in fact going to have to be the work of showing how particular conceptions and instances of Messianic Jewish congregations serve as plausibility structures for particular ways of construing Messianic Jewish theology (MJT). There is evidence of this concern in the discussion of ‘Torah in practice’, of Passover, for instance, as the ‘locus classicus for the practical outworking of MJT’ (p.213), and in the wise conclusion of this part of the survey, where Harvey writes ‘the dynamics of demographic, generational and geographical changes in the constitution of the Messianic Jewish movement worldwide may influence the movement in the directions of either greater “orthopraxy”, or less concern with observance, or continue the flexibility and diversity of practice that characterise it at present.’ (p.221) This, it seems to me, is not only exactly right, but is also likely to be hugely significant for every other topic discussed herein, and makes me question the claim made a few lines earlier that conformity of practice will only be possible subsequent to progress being made on ‘the theological debates on the nature and authority of Torah’. I would rather suggest that different sorts of claims on that issue will count as progress depending on the demographic, generational and geographical constitution of various streams of the MJM.

To be continued:

Wednesday, 19 August 2009

Review of Mapping Messianic Jewish Theology by Richard Briggs

A Continuous Probing of Discontinuity:
A Grateful Outsider Reads Richard Harvey’s Mapping Messianic Jewish Theology

Richard S. Briggs


Over twenty years ago my own easy-going and untroubled atheism – a very English kind of civil disinterest – was confronted by the claims of Jesus Christ. I had no desperate problems to deal with, no guilty past to lay to rest, and no sense of longing for something more profound, but nevertheless, within a few weeks of arriving at University as an undergraduate and encountering Christian believers who lived zealously and joyfully for their God, I signed up. And in profound discontinuity, my world was turned upside down. I plunged into long and mostly happy years of mission, church work, evangelism, theological study, and even church leadership. I drifted towards theological education. And thus it was that I eventually arrived at being a New Testament lecturer at a Christian college, raising my eyes from the narrow pages of doctoral intensity to survey a room full of young people eager to know what it was all about. At which point I began to realise, yet again, how little I understood what it was all about. I had my own frameworks and favourites: parables that I had found personally life-changing; verses which summarised key truths; and the book of Romans which, I had been taught, supported the great Reformation edifice of justification by faith. But somewhere between trying to offer an overview of Paul’s letter to the Galatians to fresh-faced undergraduates in ‘Introduction to New Testament’, and teaching an introductory class on Romans, it finally dawned on me that one of the great driving engines of the New Testament was the vexed question of how to understand God’s new action in Jesus amongst the Gentiles in terms of the frameworks handed down from God’s familiar action amongst the chosen people: the Jewish believers who had been centre-stage from the very beginning. At which point, the New Testament came alive in my hands as a book of engaged and identity-shaping theology, a discovery which remains with me in my present context teaching the Old Testament to Christian ministers in training.
I recount this story by way of introduction to my own reading of Richard Harvey’s Mapping Messianic Jewish Theology, in part to make it as clear as I can that I come to his work from far afield. Where he writes as a participant-observer, I am an observer only, albeit an observer whose day job involves serious and persistent attention to the very same texts which make up the Tanakh. Where his own identity is deeply implicated in the issues and themes he explores, my own identity has been forged in a very different world: believer against atheist; Protestant against Catholic; evangelical against liberal - all these have been at various times identity-shaping issues for me (though less so now in some cases), but I have always been Gentile, and I teach the scriptural text mainly to Gentiles who will minister to Gentiles, for many of whom, indeed, there is no awareness of the Messianic Jewish Movement (MJM) at all. My own awareness is indebted to Richard Harvey himself: it was my privilege to be his colleague as I first taught those New Testament classes, first stumbled through Romans, first found myself pausing over ‘what advantage has the Jew? ... Much in every way’ (Rom 3:1). I have learned much from him, even and perhaps especially in the midst of disagreement, but always profoundly challenged to think better, more seriously, and more determinedly for the glory of the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. So I am an outsider to this discussion, but an immensely grateful one, and I shall mark my outsider status here in small but significant ways such as maintaining the terminology of my own traditions: reference to ‘Jesus Christ’, for example, when talking of Messiah Yeshua, or the labels ‘Old Testament’ and ‘New Testament’, which I retain in spite of long years debating this issue with Richard, for theological reasons to which I shall come towards the end.

Richard S. Briggs is the Director of Biblical Studies and Hermeneutics at Cranmer Hall, St John’s College, Durham University, where he teaches the Old Testament to those training for Anglican ministry.

Saturday, 15 August 2009


‘This is a seminal study of Messianic Jewish theology and required reading

for anyone who seeks to understand the history and influence of Messianic


Dan Cohn-Sherbok, Rabbi and Professor of Judaism, University of Wales

‘Richard Harvey’s book fills a gap by not only explaining and analyzing the

broad spectrum of theological views within the Messianic Jewish movement

but doing so fairly. No seminary or study program focusing on Messianic

Judaism should be without it.’

David Stern, translator ofThe Jewish New TestamentandThe Complete

Jewish Bible; and author ofThe Jewish New Testament Commentary

‘I think that Richard Harvey’s important and eminently fair book is the most

accurate description of the theological views and practical philosophical

underpinnings put forth by leaders of the Messianic Jewish movement. This

is the right book to read to gain a broad understanding of the issues.’

Daniel Juster, Director of Tikkun International and Professor at the Messianic

Jewish Bible Institute, The King’s Seminary, Los Angeles

‘In this pioneering study Richard Harvey provides a lucid, accurate, and

comprehensive survey of Messianic Jewish thought at the beginning of the

21st Century. His work will be of enormous value for those outside the

movement who seek an orientation to its theological development, and also

for those within who look for guidance in charting a path for the future.’

Mark Kinzer, President of Messianic Jewish Theological Institute, based in

Los Angeles and author ofPostmissionary Messianic Judaism

‘Richard Harvey richly repays the promise of his many years of research in

this field with a long-awaited book that does exactly what it says –

providing a map of the complex territory of Messianic Jewish theology. The

clarity and detail of Harvey’s masterly analysis of the breadth of views on

the most significant issues is enlightening and dispels simplistic stereotypes.

This is a landmark survey of the movement’s theology that builds a platform

for its own ongoing theological development, and also provides a richly

informative resource for those of us who, as Gentile believers, seek a

scripturally critical engagement in the bonds of fellowship with our Jewish

sisters and brothers in the Messiah.’

Christopher J. H. Wright, International Director, Langham Partership


‘To know and appreciate the game, you need to know the rules the players

play by, the players and their tendencies. Mapping Messianic Judaismis such a

theological scorecard. It reflects the history of discussion about the messianic

movement, showing its diversity and vibrancy. It is a superb introduction

into an often neglected sphere of the body of Christ. Well done and highly


Darrell Bock, Research Professor of NT Studies, Dallas Theological Seminary,



This blog is for discussion of my book, "Mapping Messianic Jewish Theology: A Constructive Approach" published by Paternoster/Authentic Media, 2009.

The blog is for reviews, discussion and questions on all aspects of Messianic Jewish Theology, including the subjects covered in the book, the methods and the results of MJT.