More than fifty years ago, Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz Even-Israel took it upon himself to make the Talmud, the central text of Jewish life, available to all. In 1965, he began translating the 37 tractates of the Talmud from ancient Aramaic into Modern Hebrew, with an English translation published in the Koren Talmud Bavli Noé Edition. Ninety […]
The Curious Case of Kartli
No, this isn’t about Messianic Jews in Georgia, USA.This is about Georgia, somewhere north of the terrible fighting now going on in Syria and Iraq, and south of Russia. This is about Messianic Jews over 1500 years ago, hundreds of years after the earliest ‘Jesus Movement’ among the Jews of Jerusalem and beyond. Ancient accounts published in recent decades tell an amazing story of how Jews far northeast of Jerusalem came to faith in Yeshua (Jesus) as the Messiah, and how they became the foundation for the later Christian church in their region.
In the early fourth century, expansion to the Jewish communities in Georgia, between the Black and Caspian Seas is recorded in the accounts of St. Nino. Tamila Mgaloblishvili and Iulion Gagoshidze record that St Nino, “co-equal of the Apostles and the Illuminatrix of Georgia” was sent on a mission to Kartli by her uncle Iovenalius, Patriarch of Jerusalem.’ Arriving in the town of Urbnisi,
…she tarried a whole month staying with local Jews. Thence she proceeded to Mtskheta, the capital of the kingdom, and once there, she also established closer relations with local Jews to whom she eventually began to preach Christianity. Those who listened to her and accepted what she said were also Jews – the first followers of Christ in Georgia. 
While it is not believed that St. Nino was Jewish herself, her familial connection with Iovenalius in Jerusalem suggests that she would have been familiar with the Palestinian Jewish Christian community, or NMJM which was spread throughout the region of Syria. This is corroborated by her strategy which was to first stay with Jews, suggesting her familiarity and comfort with the Jewish people.
In fact, it is hard to be certain of the accuracy of Moktsevai kartlisai (The Conversion of Kartli) from which our information comes. That makes the story all the more interesting for our purposes. “The first missionaries to arrive in Kartli were most probably adherents to the ancient Palestinian Christian tradition, and the archetype of the life of St Nino, the Illuminatrix of Georgia, ought to be regarded as having been evolved and recorded in the community of the Judaeo-Christian residents of Mtskheta.” So we can see – as it were – a continuation of the Pauline policy of going to the Jewish community first, and we can see that in the eyes of St. Nino, or at least in the eyes of those whose work she is credited with, the Jesus Movement had its natural home among the Jewish people.
Once again, themes that emerged in the book of Acts emerge in the Georgian account. Just as in Acts 8:1 some of the community were dispersed from Jerusalem resulting in the spread of the Gospel, so it was a few years later during the Jewish Revolts, resulting in a field for the Gospel to spread to two centuries later.
…an analysis of the archaeological and written sources currently at our disposal gives us sufficient grounds to make the following conclusions: Firstly, a fairly large group of Jewish immigrants penetrated into Georgia after the Jewish Wars, …. Secondly, among the Jews who came to settle in Kartli in the first-second centuries there were originally also Judaeo-Christians who had broken from the Jews in the fourth century, …. And finally, Hellenistic Christianity was established in Kartli under King Mirian (at the end of the third decade of the fourth century), yet despite this, considerable traces of the ancient Judaeo-Christian tradition still survived, lingering both in everyday life and reflected in the written monuments of ancient Georgia. 
This meant that centuries later, the Jewish origins of Christianity in Georgia had left their discernible imprint, even on the liturgy of the Georgian church. Knowing that liturgy, Mgaloblishvili and Gagoshidze state “We know that the Judaic oral tradition – the so-called aggada (‘haggadah’) occupied a place of conspicuous prominence in Early Christian divine service.” The evidence from Kartli, then, is of a NMJM that operated as a community. Not much is known of its strategy in terms of spreading its message, and nothing is known regarding its outward proclamation, but it left significant archeological remains which have been found in the modern era. It may be that in the waning years of the Roman empire its strategy was merely to persevere and survive, a specifically community-centric approach.
The Life of St. Nino leaves us a fascinating account of outreach among the Jewish people by one (or ones – possibly NM Jews) who came from a society similar to their own. Their method appears to have been one of participation in Jewish life on the basis of belonging to, or at least a comfort within, the Jewish community. It was from within the community that the preaching of Yeshua began, and the first “converts” were people in that same milieu.
 Tamila Mgaloblishvili and Iulion Gagoshidze, “The Jewish Diaspora and Early Christianity in Georgia,” in Ancient Christianity in the Caucasus, ed. Tamila Mgaloblishvili, Caucasus World (Richmond: Curzon, 1998), 40.
 The Moktsevai Kartlisai is one of a number of documents discovered in St. Catherine’s Monastery in Sinai, in 1975. It is “one of the main components of the Georgian historical chronicle Kartlis tskhovreba (The Annals of Georgia).” Antony Eastmond, “”Local” Saints, Art, and Regional Identity in the Orthodox World after the Fourth Crusade,” Speculum 78, no. 3: 707.
 Mgaloblishvili and Gagoshidze, “The Jewish Diaspora and Early Christianity in Georgia,” 46.
 Ibid., 58.
 Ibid., 46.
Anyone familiar with Jewish believers in Yeshua, and in particular with the Messianic Jewish Movement (which I call the Re-nascent Messianic Judaism, in distinction to the Nascent Messianic Judaism of the first to sixth centuries) is probably familiar with the persecution complex that plagues it.
One of the pillars of this (often unjustified) persecution complex is the belief that the benediction of the shemoneh esrei which deals with heretics was originally composed as a birkat ha-minim, a ‘blessing’ (rather a curse) against heretics, in particular against those Jews who believed that Yeshua is the Messiah. This is what I was raised with, and yet over the past few decades this idea has been widely discredited. Rightly so. Last week, I came across a few paragraphs in a book by Andreas Köstenberger called A Theology of John’s Gospel and Letters (2009), pp. 56-57 that summarises the recent trends in scholarship on what is an important issue not only to Jews but Christians. I am reproducing it here because I think this literature review is so concise and well presented that it deserves to be noted:
‘In 1982, Shaye Cohen wrote an essay to the effect that the Yavneh sages had a remarkably inclusive spirit, cursing only those unwilling to commit to ideological pluralism. The same year saw the publication of William Horbury’s influential study on the textual development of the Twelfth Benediction that demonstrated the insecure textual foundation of the Martyn view. In 1983, Jacob Neusner showed that the Yavneh sage Eliezer ben Hyrcanus displayed a remarkably irenic spirit toward other groups within Judaism, even toward Samaritans. In 1984, Steven Katz strongly opposed the view that Yavneh launched an official attack /57/ on Jewish Christians. In 1985, Wayne Meeks declared (later echoed by Graham Stanton in 1992) that the birkat ha-minim constitutes a “red herring in Johannine [sic] research.”
More recently, Philip Alexander has maintained that the existence of the birkat ha-minim can be traced back “with some confidence to the first half of the second [but not necessarily the first] century C.E.” According to him, labeling someone as a min identified that person, not necessarily as a Christian, but as one who did not accept the authority of the rabbis, who in effect condemned all those who were not of their party, “setting themselves up as the custodians of orthodoxy.” The curses rather than singling out messianic Christians, were introduced to “establish Albinism as orthodoxy within the synagogue.”‘
What do you think?
As Messianic Jews, there is much of interest here.
Ten Years after the Publication of Mark Kinzer’s seminal work Post-Missionary Messianic Judaism, the work has received significant attention from the National (as in USA, I suppose) Professors of Hebrew in a special session dedicated to the cause at the 2015 Society of Biblical Literature annual meeting in Atlanta.
In a packed out room and to a hushed crowd of scholars, four speakers and their mediator Zev Garber took up the themes raised by Kinzer thoughtfully, respectfully and from a variety of perspectives. David Rudolph, a recent Cambridge graduate, rabbi and faculty member of the Messianic Jewish Theological Institute began by outlining the premises of PMMJ. Underscoring the fact that PMMJ did not (understandably) receive a rapturous welcome from Jewish Missions upon its publications he was able to note that some of the objections (most notably regarding its Soteriology) raised were later addressed. One of these occasions for clarification was at the Borough Park Symposium. In fact, PMMJ has had a significant effect since its publication. In 2005 the Union of Messianic Jewish Congregations adopted a statement on the Messianic Jewish Movement (MJM) incorporating much of Kinzer’s perspective. PMMJ has also irreversibly raised the level of theological discourse within the MJM and among those who write about it. Further, PMMJ has given the MJM something to share with the world at large.
Now David and Mark are friends of course, and the purpose of having David summarise Mark’s work was no doubt partly due to a concern that his work not be dismissed out of hand or held to unfair criticism.
The second respondent however, Peter Ochs, in dealing with PMMJ made salient and helpful observations regarding PMMJ’s interpretation of Scripture. Noting that Kinzer puts exegesis at the forefront of his argument, he showed that Kinzer is selective in choosing interpretations that forward his thesis. Going by memory, I recollect Kinzer explicitly touching on this in PMMJ, pointing out (for example) that if an interpretation of Scripture leads to demonstrably bad results it must be wrong. I.e. if one’s interpretation leads one to commit genocide against the Jews as for some Nazis, then it should be rejected. Pleasantly for a Messianic Jew, Ochs used ‘Yeshua’ rather than the possibly derogative ‘Yeshu’.
Ochs was followed by R. Kendall Soulen who referred to arguments made by Michael Wyschogrod that if a Jew believes in Yeshua he or she is still obligated to keep Torah – God’s covenant with Israel. Soulen argued that Christianity is obligated to see this possibility that Jews should remain in every way Jews upon faith in Yeshua. Looking at the Church fathers, Soulen documented the shift in theology that over a few short centuries made this unacceptable to the Church. For further reading Soulen suggested an articleby Bruce Marshall in a festschrift for John Levinson.
Zev Farber’s (Not Garber, as in the convener of the session) presentation marked a notable shift in tone. His honest and straightforward approach began with a side note: In seminary a bunch of boys could easily spend months discussing laws regarding menstruation and permissible sexual positions, but as soon as a passage on Jesus came up there was a lot of nudge nudge, wink wink…. Jews are very uncomfortable with Jesus. In fact, Farber asserted, the core issue is not really about the Truth, but ‘identity politics’ necessitates rejection of Yeshua. Indeed, ‘to flirt with Jesus is a form of moral adultery’. And ‘as long as Messianic Judaism is a bridge to Christianity it will remain squarely outside Judaism.’ No one was questioning Farber’s rabbinic bona fides after that. My feeling was that this is what I would expect from someone charged with the task of preserving Judaism and the Jewish people. But a response to Farber requires a discussion beyond the scope of this blog.
Finally Mark Kinzer had his chance to respond. Kinzer thoughtfully took a long-term view. He hopes that within 100 or 200 years there might be a change in the church that would allow Jewish Believers in Yeshua to really live as Jews ‘if the church would honour that boundary’.
Mark – do we really have to wait for that?
Was it judgement? In 70 C.E. the then general Titus captured Jerusalem. Although Josephus (possibly disingenuously) disclaimed Titus’ responsibility, the Temple was destroyed and burned to the ground. In witnessing the event Josephus recalled:
the roar of the flames streaming far and wide mingled with the groans of the falling victims; and, owing to the height of the hill and the mass of the burning pile, one would have thought that the whole city was ablaze. And then the din–nothing more deafening or appalling could be conceived than that. There were the war-cries of the Roman legions sweeping onward in mass, the howls of the rebels encircled by fire and sword, the rush of the people who, cut off above, fled panic-stricken- (Jewish War 6.272-3)
Titus was the general in who took the city and was responsible for these events. His father, who had been charged with putting down the revolt had gone to Rome, having been elected as Emperor. Nine years later, Titus would take his father’s place. It would be 79 C.E. when Titus became Emperor himself. In exquisite irony, it would be that very same year that Vesuvius would erupt, engulfing Pompeii in burning ash, extinguishing the vast portion of the population of that great yet decadent city. Titus, while visiting Pompeii to assess the damage would get yet further bad news. Back in Rome, the great fire of 80 C.E. had broken out. While less destructive than that of Nero’s day, this fire would result in an equal loss of life and the destruction of many great structures – notably on Capitoline Hill, the Temple of Jupiter, the Pantheon, and the theatre of Pompeii.
Could it not have been noted in that day, what the comforter Eliphaz said: As I have observed, those who plough evil and those who sow trouble reap it (Job 4:8).
Maybe Hashem was saying something.
Our daily prayer is May it be your will, Hashem our God and the God of our forefathers, that the Holy Temple be rebuilt, speedily in our days. Grant us our share in Your torah, and may we serve You there with reverence as in days of old and in former years. Then the offering of Judah and Jerusalem will be pleasing to Hashem, as in days of old and in former years.
On Friday, at 6:16 pm London time, the Day of Atonement begins. We have already symbolically cast our sins into ‘living’ water in the ceremony of tashlich. Now the Day of Atonement is a time for sober reflection, teshuvah (repentance), and prayer. Throughout, there is the plea to be written in the Sefer Chaim – the Book of Life.
Our God is all about Chaim – Life. After all, He is the Creator, Source, and Sustainer of all life that is. In Gan Eden, the Garden of Eden, He planted a Tree of Life. This Etz Chaim was there as a blessing, and it was through the ‘Fall’ that humanity lost access to it. All was not lost. He provided us the Torah, which is a Tree of Life (Proverbs 3:18). He provides Living Water (Psalm 1, John 7:38), and keeps a ‘Book of Life’, references to which are too numerous to list.
As Messianic Jews, we rejoice in the fact that our Messiah has promised that we will be listed in the Book of Life (Rev 21:27). In fact, it is not just for we Jews, but for the multitudes of all nations, for it is too small a thing for the Servant-Messiah to be merely given rule the tribes of Jacob (Isaiah 49:6)!
In every Torah service we sing ‘etz chaim hi lemachazikim bach’ which means ‘it is a Tree of Life to those who take hold of it’. It is no surprise then that our Messiah is called the ‘Word’ of God (John 1:1).
This Yom Kippur, we fast – yet rejoice in Him!
It was a tale of two cities… Two centuries ago, Britain was a place awash with apocalyptic expectation. Napoleon’s armies were bringing the Enlightenment across Europe, feudalism was collapsing, and the Jewish people were experiencing emancipation from the ghetto and their own enlightenment, the Haskalah.
Fast forward to the present, and the opposite seems to be the case. The famous British reserve has given rise to a general abhorrence of the speculative and extreme. Sadly, in many cases, this has meant that what the Bible has to say theologically about the future has fallen into disregard and disrepute. In some quarters there is a fear of the extremes of the past, but is this justified? Does the Scripture have anything relevant to say about our current situation and God’s plans for our world?
I am really thrilled to be part of Thy Kingdom Come: A Conference on the Bible, Theology and the Future, which brings together leading Bible scholars from the UK and USA to explore what the Bible says about our world. With human rights abuses, the environment, and the threat of war, terrorism and weapons of mass destruction constantly in the news, what is our hope as Christians and what does the Bible say about what the future holds? Surveying a broad cross-section of biblical passages, the Thy Kingdom Come conference seeks to equip believers with the tools to discern properly what the Scriptures teach about the world and the future.
Information is available at http://www.thykingdomcome.org.uk. Maybe I’ll see you there – at Emmanuel Centre in Westminster, 17-18 October!