Two Thousand Years of Jewish Evangelism

After all the hype and the celebrations, the third millennium is (officially, though not technically) on us and in this, the first Herald of the third millennium, John Ross looks back on the first two millennia of Jewish mission.

After the ascension of Jesus the witness of the apostles was marked with outstanding success. In only one day, Pentecost, three thousand were baptised, and each day following "the Lord added to the church daily" until over five thousand men believed, not counting women and children. No section of the Jewish community lay outside the reach of the gospel, even "a great many of the priests were obedient to the faith" and with the conversion of the Sanhedrin's leading hit-man, Saul of Tarsus, first century Judaism was shaken to its core.

It was a miracle that Jews who believed in Jesus and Jews who did not could co-exist in the synagogue throughout the terrible years of Titus' vengeance during which the Temple was destroyed and Jerusalem razed to the ground. That there were serious tensions in the synagogue is evident from the New Testament epistles but they did not become terminal until after the attempt to overthrow Roman power in 132 AD by Bar Kochba, who was hailed by Rabbi Akiva as the Messiah. Because they would not serve in the army of a false messiah, Jewish Christians were viewed as traitors and deserters. A series of "benedictions" condemning "heretics" (which in reality were thinly veiled curses on Jewish believers) was introduced into the worship of the synagogue. From then on witness could only be conducted from outside the community, for no believer in Jesus could attend a synagogue where maledictions against the Messiah and his people were part of the liturgy.

As the gospel was welcomed by more and more Gentiles in the wider Roman empire so the Church became less Jewish. Greek philosophical tradition became the framework for Christian thinking and the Hebrew Scriptures were increasingly marginalised.

From the second to the sixth century dialogue with the Jewish people was often carried on in a bitter spirit and there emerged a whole body of writings entitled Adversus Judaeos (Against the Jews). Justin Martyr in his Dialogue with Trypho the Jew (c. 160 AD) was a little softer than most but others, like John Chrysostom, sought, often with deplorable arguments, to justify the suffering that had befallen the Jewish nation. It became increasingly difficult to find an authentic but gracious presentation of the Good News to Jewish people. Augustine of Hippo was almost a lone voice when he called the Church to preach with great love for the Jews: "Let us not proudly glory against the broken branches; let us rather reflect by whose grace it is, and by how much mercy, and upon what root we have been grafted."

The Middle Ages

The Middle Ages were a time when Jews found their lives were held in disregard and many perished in the Crusades. Isidore of Seville wrote his treatise Against the Jews and Raymond of Martini contributed his Muzzle for the Jews. There was little respect for the integrity of the Jewish people and, under duress, large numbers of Jews became nominal Christians. However, coercion cannot account for all who turned to Christ. In twelfth century England so many Jews professed Christianity that William II, probably for economic reasons, endeavoured, unsuccessfully, to turn them back to Judaism. Under Henry II centres were opened for the care of those who had been ejected from their ghettos because they had embraced Christianity. In 1290, through a cynical measure calculated to raise the standing of the king, the Jews were expelled from England and all debts owed to them were cancelled.

The Reformation and the Puritans

During the early part of the Reformation Martin Luther entertained the hope that the Jews, who had endured mistreatment at the hands of the medieval papacy, would join him in working for religious reform. To win them for the Reformation he wrote a tract entitled That Christ was born a Jew. When the Jews rebuffed his overtures, Luther adopted a hostile attitude towards them thus preparing the way for future anti-Semitism. However, preaching within a few hours of his death, Luther more or less returned to his former position, telling his congregation, "We have to...bring them to the Christian faith that they may receive the true Messiah who is their flesh and blood."

John Calvin had a more benevolent view of the Jews, though at times his remarks could be laced with medieval bitterness. However, he had little doubt that the Bible indicated that in time Israel would be restored by coming to faith in the Messiah.

Among Jews who came to believe in Jesus during the second wave of the Reformation was John Immanuel Tremellius (1510-1580) who became Professor of Old Testament in Heidelberg and one of the compilers of the Heidelberg Catechism. Following Calvin many theologians, such as Voetius (1588 -1676) in Holland and the Puritans in England, emphasised the biblical prophecies of Israel's restoration and encouraged prayer for the conversion of the Jews.

The Eighteenth and Nineteenth Centuries

During the eighteenth century the first tentative steps were taken to establish an organised witness to the Jewish people. David Brainerd was employed to evangelise the native Americans who — bizarre though it may seem to us today — were believed to be descended from the ten lost tribes of Israel. Brainerd's mentor, Jonathan Edwards, and William M'Culloch, a Scottish minister from Cambuslang, entered into a trans-Atlantic prayer pact for missions generally and the conversion of the Jews in particular.

Today's missions to the Jews have their roots in the revivals of the eighteenth century. In 1742, under George Whitefield's ministry, there was a revival at Cambuslang near Glasgow and one of the converts was the grandfather of Claudius Buchanan, an early missionary to India. As a young man Buchanan ran away from home but was converted in London after which he went to Cambridge where he became a protégé of the influential evangelical leader Charles Simeon and, later, a curate to John Newton. As a chaplain to the East India company he visited the Bene Israel Jewish community around Bombay, collecting Hebrew manuscripts and witnessing to them of their Messiah. Claudius Buchanan thus became possibly the first British missionary to the Jews. He was highly influential in both England and Scotland, contributing directly to the establishment in 1809 of the London Society for the Propagation of the Gospel among the Jews and thus, indirectly, to what is now CWI.

Meanwhile, on the continent Moravian missionaries made an impact on the Jews of Saxony who "accustomed to bitter treatment, expressed their amazement at the kindness shown to them by the Moravians". In 1728 in Halle, under Professor John Henry Callenberg, the Institutum Judaicum was established for the instruction of Jewish converts and the training of missionaries to the Jews. Two graduates of the Institutum, Midman and Monitus, made the first recorded attempt to reach Hungarian Jews with the gospel.

The first half of the nineteenth century saw the establishment of Jewish missions in Britain, Germany, Switzerland, and Norway and by the end of the century Jewish missions were at the very centre of the Church's missionary activity. Missionary leaders who were called to labour in other fields still had the Jews on their hearts. At the beginning of each year Hudson Taylor sent a cheque to the Mildmay Mission to the Jews, inscribed on the back of which were the words of Romans 1:16, "To the Jew first".

The Twentieth Century

A great harvest resulted from the Jewish missionary work of the nineteenth century, earning it the reputation of being "the most fruitful of all missionary work". By the early twentieth century, in Hungary alone it was estimated that there were over 100,000 Christians of Jewish descent. Austria had 17,000 "Jesus-believing Jews", Poland 37,000, Russia 60,000 and the United States 20,000.

All across Europe, throughout the 1920s and 30s, Jewish people attended church services, listened to talks and discussed the gospel with missionaries. When the Nazis implemented their "Final Solution" in the forties, over six million Jewish men, women and children were wiped from the face of the earth. But when the transports streamed into the death camps with their cargoes devoted to destruction, along with Orthodox and assimilated Jews were those who believed in Jesus. Even in Auschwitz, it seems, the Lord did not leave himself without witnesses.

In the wake of the Holocaust, with unprecedented bitterness Jewish leaders began to misrepresent mission to Jews as an act of hostility which aimed to destroy the very community Christians sought to save. Some missionary societies began to feel intimidated by the charge and as a result their methods became rather restrained and low-key. Suddenly, at the end of the sixties a group of young American Jews, rebelling against tradition as did all young people in that decade, opened their minds and hearts to the gospel. Their innovative but authentically Jewish approach to evangelism was used to bring many other Jewish people to faith and served to revive some of the older societies.

At the beginning of the third millennium, both in Israel and the Diaspora, there exists a community of Jewish people who have discovered in Jesus the fulfilment of all that the Hebrew prophets spoke concerning the Messiah. The impact made by such believers on the wider Jewish community has been great. Though the leaders of the community deny the right of Jewish Christians and Messianic believers to view themselves as authentically Jewish, the community is unable to ignore their voice. As one rabbi writing to The Jerusalem Report lamented, "We have little hope of stemming what is fast becoming a 'Jewish Christian' reality". Hallelujah!

This article originally appeared in the CWI Herald Spring 2000.

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