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:
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
Gottlieb, M. editor (2011), Moses Mendelssohn: Writings on Judaism, Christianity, and the Bible. Brandeis University Press, Waltham, MA.
- Gottlieb, M. (2011), p. 12. ↩
- 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. ↩