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Nascent Messianic Judaism and the Birkat Haminim



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.

4 Responses

  1. Does this suggest that Edersheim was wrong?!

    • It suggests rather that Edersheim was reflecting common misconceptions in his era.

      It was noted by B.S.Jacobson in his work on the Siddur that there have existed varied texts for this prayer, some of which include an additional phrase to suggest the hope that these sectarians (“minim”) or slanderers (malshinim”) would soon return to the Torah. These variations, taken together, clarify that their focus was not merely on the Jewish disciples of Rav Yeshua, but on all the factions that were deemed responsible for divisively tearing apart the Jewish unity defined by the Torah covenant and thus responsible for the Hurban. Thus it would apply to Sadducees, Essenes, and Zealots, just as much as toward messianists and even toward other Pharisean sects who would not join together with those at Yavneh who were trying to formulate a unified Jewish response to the then-current national situation.

      Since the Amidah prayer in some form may be traced to before the first century, and the later formulation of the “birkat haminim” in the late first- or early second-century was described as re-formulated by someone trying to remember something previously known, maybe an earlier version was applied toward Samaritans or toward the early Essenes, or perhaps even by the Essenes toward the corrupt priestly system from which they were withdrawing.

    • Thank you PL!

    • You’re quite welcome, gefilte. By the bye, while I thoroughly appreciate Edersheim’s depth of scholarship, I have not infrequently been irritated by Hebrew-Christian attitudes that he expressed — though I continually remind myself to consider, with an equal measure of compassion, the constraints of his era under which he labored. Jewish messianists of the present day have much for which we may be grateful, such as a restored sovereign state of Israel, a philosophic paradigm for Jewish Rav-Yeshua messianism that is independent of prior gentile approaches to the apostolic writings, and a growing body of scholarly literature that recognizes the value of their ancient Jewish context. Thus we are afforded opportunities to surpass what pioneers like Edersheim or Levertov or even Lichtenstein could barely dream. We can build onto their notions and knowledge where they were correct, and we can correct and improve where they could not. And may it be that our next generation (if not this one) may have the opportunity to elaborate their messianism in a world where the Temple has been restored to operation and their appreciation of the metaphorical and symbolic aspects of sacrifice in Rav Yeshua’s martyrdom must be re-integrated into the experience of physical sacrifices, so that earthly and heavenly sanctuaries may be perceived to operate again in tandem. Oh, the challenges that await us in these exciting times!

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