Mendelssohn and Missionaries

Mendelssohn

By N.S. Palmer

How should we as Jews respond to Christian missionaries?

Many Jews see Christian evangelism as a threat. Even though staunch Christians are our strongest defenders, their motives are obvious. They believe that the return of Jews to Israel presages the second coming of Jesus, whom they wrongly identify as the Jewish Messiah and (in our view) blasphemously identify as God.

Often in our history, our Gentile supporters have assumed that if they were nice to us instead of persecuting us, we’d abandon our faith and convert to Christianity. We got that treatment a lot in 18th and 19th-century Poland, Austria, and Russia.

The German Jewish philosopher Moses Mendelssohn (1729 -1786), hailed as “the Socrates of Berlin,” had the same problem. On two occasions, well-meaning Gentiles who admired his writing publicly challenged him either to refute their Christian arguments or convert.

Mendelssohn felt he had to respond to the challenges, lest his silence be taken as agreement. He replied by changing the subject, since he wanted to avoid criticizing Christian beliefs and antagonizing the non-Jewish majority.

Most relevant to our situation, he also saw that even incorrect beliefs could have good results, supporting moral behavior and social tolerance. He argued that we should not attack such beliefs if we can avoid it:

“Whoever cares more for the welfare of mankind than for his own renown will keep a rein on his opinions concerning prejudices of this sort … I am obliged to remain silent if these [religious] errors … are accidentally connected to promotion of the good.” 1

Christian missionaries can be annoying, but they mean well and are misinformed about Judaism. In particular, they misunderstand the idea of the Jewish Messiah and early Christianity’s relation to Judaism. Early Christians fell into three groups:

  1. Those who saw Christianity as a Jewish sect like the Essenes. This group of Christians believed that to be Christian, you had to be Jewish and had to follow the Jewish law.
  2. Those who saw Christianity as opposed to Judaism, even to the extent of having a different God. Marcion of Sinope and his followers were in this group. They wanted to have nothing to do with Judaism.
  3. Those who saw Christianity as the universalistic successor to Judaism. They wanted to establish their historical credentials by finding Jewish antecedents for their faith. Claiming that Jesus was the Jewish Messiah fulfilled that wish.2

However, Jews thought of the Messiah as a human leader who would restore their possession of the land of Israel and make peace with the nations of the world. A few Jews thought he might work miracles, but the idea that he was Divine would never have entered their minds.

The Christian Messiah concept starts with the Jewish idea, but then overlays the pagan idea of a god who comes to earth and dies for the sins of humankind.

That was a common myth in Biblical times: a notable example was Hercules, who in Seneca‘s play “Hercules Oetaeus,” suffers and dies for humanity. In his last moment, he cries out “Consummatum est!” (It is finished!) — the same words that the Gospel writer later put into the mouth of the dying Jesus.

Missionaries are often annoying and usually misinformed. We should not be taken in by their specious arguments. At the same time, however, we should recognize that they are often good people who draw moral and spiritual support from their beliefs. Our complaint is that they want to take away our faith: we should avoid trying to do the same to them.

Take a tip from Moses Mendelssohn: Don’t engage missionaries’ arguments. Be nice, be respectful, and wish them well. Then wish them goodbye.

Works Cited

Gottlieb, M. editor (2011), Moses Mendelssohn: Writings on Judaism, Christianity, and the Bible. Brandeis University Press, Waltham, MA.

Footnotes


  1. Gottlieb, M. (2011), p. 12. 
  2. Another motivation was that the Romans respected ancient institutions. One  reason that Jews were persecuted less than Christians was that Judaism was much older than Christianity. For practical reasons, early Christians might have wanted to adopt Jewish history as their own. 

About N.S. Palmer

N.S. Palmer is an American mathematician.
This entry was posted in Christianity, Jewish Philosophy, Judaism and tagged , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

3 Responses to Mendelssohn and Missionaries

  1. Travis Perry says:

    I find your article interesting. I do dispute some of your points: “Even though staunch Christians are our strongest defenders, their motives are obvious. They believe that the return of Jews to Israel presages the second coming of Jesus.” While this is true, this is not the ONLY reason Evangelical Christians are in general pro-Israel. Another responsible factor is a doctrinal shift in much of Protestant Christianity called “Dispensationalism” (that’s only a few hundred years old) that states among other things that a version of Temple Judaism (one with a Christian flair to be certain) will be restored in the end times. This changes the entire flavor of Jewish-Christian relations. Judaism is the Christian past and to a certain degree of the Christian future. How can we be hostile to those who we see as so closely related? Plus many Christians believe God will bless or curse nations based on how they treat Israel. Yes, being pro-Israel is a form of enlightened self-interest in that case. But since when is enlightened self-interest a horrible motivation?

    Your 3 Early Christian reactions are essentially correct. Though your #2 should be listed last. A total separation of Gentile Christians from Judaism was a drive over a hundred years later than the other two in Christian history–and had to be, because all the earliest Christians were all Jewish!

    The concept that Christianity overlays Pagan notions over onto Judaism was the rage of skeptical thought (skeptical about Christian origins, that is) in the 1800s. However, the discovery of the Dead Seas Scrolls in the 20th Century has shown Messianic expectations in 1st Century Judaism went much further than you seem to think. IN many ways, 1st Century Judaism was more like Christianity than subsequent Rabbinical Judaism became. This in part seems to be because of a Rabbinical reaction AGAINST Christianity–as opposed to the two religions being as separated from the beginning as you seem to imagine.

    As a Christian with some understanding of Jewish thought, I should add I understand very well how Jews in general, for very legitimate historical reasons, are very hardened against any form of Christian missionary activity (while Jews becoming, say, atheists or Buddhists is not seen as any particular big deal). So it just isn’t smart from my point of view to try to be a Christian missionary to Jews. Certainly not as a Gentile–Jews, no matter how politely they react, will only see that as offensive.

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  2. N.S. Palmer says:

    Travis, thank you for your thoughtful and informative comment.

    I had heard of “dispensationalism” but didn’t know anything about it, and now I do. However, I do want to correct one false impression I might have conveyed. Especially since I come from an inter-faith family, I have never considered Christian motivation for missionary efforts to be “horrible.” The Christian missionaries whom I have known usually believe that salvation depends on subscribing to certain articles of Christian faith, and though I disagree with them, they are trying to do something they think is good for people with whom they share their faith. That is laudable.

    You might know the Dead Sea Scrolls better than I do. Their idea of a “Teacher of Righteousness” more closely resembles the Christian saviour than does the Jewish Messiah. But I do not know of any suggestion by the Essenes (correct me if I am wrong) that the Teacher of Righteousness would be Divine. That is a big sticking point between Christianity and Judaism, because in Jewish eyes, it is blasphemy to say that a man is God. Ironically, of course, many early Christians seem to have held the same view: Jesus’ Divinity was a hotly contested issue.

    As you and I have discussed privately (though I think not confidentially or I wouldn’t mention it), it is not easy to know what one could mean by a statement like “Jesus is God.” I tend to think that a lot of doctrinal disagreements are simply dueling metaphors. Of course, in the case of Judaism, we are not only a faith but also a people, so we are loath to have our people leave the fold for other faiths.

    As Bat Zion-Sacks pointed out in an article yesterday, the idea of Jesus being God seems like an attempt to solve an almost insuperable problem: How can finite beings relate to an infinite and transcendent God? In Christian doctrine, God becomes comprehensible because He walked on earth as a human being; but it seems to me that it only pushes the problem back a step, since we still don’t know how Jesus is related to God, at least in any way that makes sense to us. I fully grant that a lot of reality might not make sense to us, but if it doesn’t, it’s risky to claim it as knowledge. So Christianity and Judaism still have the same problem, along with everything else they share.

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