Yaakov Ariel, Evangelizing the Chosen People: Missions to the Jews in America, 1880-2000. (2000)

Yaakov Ariel’s Evangelizing the Chosen People dances through a minefield. Examining missions to Jewish people in (and from) American Christians, Ariel sensitively renders both sides of a history more accustomed to harsh polemics. On the one side, he examines the institutional histories and theological motivations of Christian missions to the Jews. On the other, he attends to the Jewish responses to those missions—which were far more varied than many people might like to admit. Ariel’s book advances two important theses: 1) dispensational premillennialism provided the fuel in the engine for American evangelical missions to the Jews, 2) in surprising ways, missions have shaped Jewish-Christian relations in America. In Ariel’s estimation, dispensational premillennialism was the primary motivator of American missions to the Jews: it offered frameworks for Christian understandings of Judaism and Jewish people, and instilled in many Christians an urge to convert “Israel.” In dispensational theology, the Jewish nation has an important role to play in earth’s Last Days: those who remain alive after the Great Tribulation will convert en masse to Christianity and usher in Christ’s millennial kingdom. Thus, Jews hold an ambiguous place in dispensationalism: they need to convert to Christianity, but they are fundamentally different from all other people and have a special role to play in God’s future plans. This twin emphasis on specialness and difference, Ariel argues, has created a number of paradoxes in Jewish-Christian relations. The Christians who worked the hardest to convert Jews often became ardent supporters of Zionism and nationalist projects in Israel. Because they thought Israel had a special past and future, missionaries learned much about Jewish life and became ambassadors to other Christians on behalf of Jewish culture and religion. Such missions have made it possible for Christian groups like Jews for Jesus and Messianic Judaism to emerge and to be welcomed into the evangelical fold. Because of the dispensationalist character of missions to the Jews, Ariel argues, today in America there are Christian congregations who celebrate Jewish ethnic heritage, churches where teenagers read the New Testament at their bar mitzvahs.

This book is heavy going. Ariel builds his case by carefully tracing the histories of many important missionary institutions, moments in mission history, Jewish responses to Christian missions, and twists in the story of Jewish-Christian relations. Most non-specialists will probably have a hard time appreciating the significance of this work—some sections seemed repetitive and dull, piling detail after detail about dispensationalist missionary organizations. But for those willing to move at Ariel’s pace, the book proves rewarding. Careful and sensitive, this book takes its subjects very seriously even as Ariel’s sense of humor shines through: “If the association between evangelical missionaries and Jewish Orthodox scholars was amazing, the encounter between the Southern Baptist missionaries and the Canaanites was almost in the realm of the unthinkable” (151). This encounter “in the realm of the unthinkable” connected a conservative Southern Baptist missionary with the hippest edge of the Israeli avant-garde on the issue of the separation of synagogue and state. Though his interactions with Israel’s cultural elite, that missionary helped to forge a new language for Christianity: converts started calling themselves meshichi (“messianic”) instead of the more familiar term notzri (“Christian”) (155). Later in the book, Ariel carefully shows how this language became central to the self-understandings of Jews for Jesus and Messianic Judaism in America. Though he calls them “new religious movements” (222), Ariel notes that adherents think of themselves as “ur-Christians,” having special affinity with Jesus and his disciples. Reversing a long history of responses to missions, these groups see conversion to Christianity as a way of connecting with their Jewish roots, of finding “authentic” Judaism and Christianity (198). The chapters on Jews for Jesus and Messianic Judaism would make for great discussion in an upper-level undergraduate class.