Last week, I had the opportunity to represent FFOZ at the Society of Biblical Literature (SBL) national conference in Atlanta.
At SBL, thousands of Biblical scholars from around the world gathered to discuss topics ranging from archaeology to Egyptology to Paul within Judaism and, yes, an entire session was even devoted to the topic of Messianic Judaism! While attending sessions and interacting with some of the world’s top biblical scholars, I was thrilled to discuss the work of FFOZ. Various scholars expressed appreciation for our work and enjoyed hearing about the practical affect that their work is having in Messianic Judaism. I’d like to share with you some highlights from my time.
Meeting with Scholars
On Sunday morning, I had the opportunity to listen to and meet Dr. Amy-Jill Levine, professor of New Testament and Jewish Studies at Vanderbilt University. If you don’t know who AJ Levine is, you need to. Dr. Levine is the editor of the Annotated Jewish New Testament as well as the author of numerous books and papers. After one of her sessions, I introduced myself to AJ and shared with her how much her work is appreciated in the Messianic Jewish movement. She expressed her respect for our movement and also her sympathy for the challenges that we face. AJ shared a personal story with me of a Messianic Jewish acquaintance who wanted to send their kids to Jewish school but couldn’t do so because of their faith in Yeshua. She said to me, “There needs to be more dialog between not only Christians and Messianic Jews but between traditional Jews and Messianic Jews.” I appreciated these words very much.
On Sunday evening, while walking through the Marriott Marquis, I looked to my right and realized that I was walking next to Magnus and Karin Zetterholm. The Zetterholms are professors at Lund University in Sweden. Magnus co-edited the book Paul within Judaism along with Mark Nanos. I introduced myself to them and shared about my work with FFOZ and my involvement in a Messianic Jewish synagogue in Atlanta. The Zetterholms asked me question after question and momentarily we became oblivious to the fact that we were slightly blocking traffic in front of the sky bridge to the Hyatt!
Magnus and Karin were deeply interested in hearing about how their work affected people in Messianic Judaism on a practical level. They were curious for me to share some examples of how Gentiles function in Messianic Jewish synagogues today. Specifically, we discussed the concept of Gentiles living Jewishly without becoming Jewish in a Messianic Jewish context. I’m not sure that they had ever had a conversation like this before. At one point, Magnus looked at me and said, “I think that this was what Paul envisioned.” Coming from someone who understands Paul so well, that was powerful for me to hear. The Zetterholms expressed their appreciation and support for Messianic Judaism. When we parted, Magnus gave me his card and said he wanted to keep in touch.
Discussion and Dialogue
On Sunday evening, I attended a review of Mark Kinzer’s book Postmissionary Messianic Judaism (PMJ). Dr. Kinzer’s watershed book has been around for ten years now. SBL devoted an entire 2.5 hour session to discussing the impact that this book has had on Messianic Judaism. I enjoyed all of the sessions that I attended, but this was my favorite.
I am one of many Messianic Jews who was deeply impacted by reading PMJ. The panel discussion included a Messianic Jewish scholar, a Christian theologian, and an Orthodox Jewish Rabbi. Dr. Kinzer also had the opportunity to respond to the panel. The highlight of the session for me was when Christian theologian R. Kendall Soulen asked the question, “Did God want Jesus to be the last Jew?” The room went silent. Dr. Soulen utilized this question to launch into an explanation of how deeply “anti-Judaism” is imbedded in Christian theology. Dr. Soulen’s answer to his question was, “No, God did not want Jesus to be the last Jew and when we tell Jews to turn away from Judaism as Jesus’ followers we are forcing them to make a choice that God has not presented to them.” It was so good to hear a highly regarded Christian theologian to “get it” when it comes to Torah and Jesus. Truly, I was ready to start high fiving some of my colleagues at various points in this session!
On Monday morning, I attended the “Paul within Judaism” session, which featured Mark Nanos and Larry Hurtado. The theme of this session was “For Paul, Do Jews Have to Become Christians to be Saved?” To say the least, this was a spirited discussion. Each scholar brought perspectives that were helpful to the conversation. One of the highlights for me was the opportunity to spend some time with one of my favorite scholars, Dr. Mark Nanos. Dr. Nanos is the author of various books and papers on Paul. His work has had a significant impact in shaping my view of understanding Paul as a faithful, Torah-observant Jew as a disciple of Yeshua. I actually invited Dr. Nanos to join a group of us for Shabbat dinner, but he was unable to come.
Opportunites to Serve
While spending time with Dr. Nanos before and after the session, he shared that one of his colleagues at SBL had to be hospitalized. Dr. Nanos asked me if my congregation could be on stand-by to help if needed. We told him that we would be glad to help. Dr. Nanos and I continued to communicate over the next couple of days, and thankfully his friend recovered and was able to go home. I was reminded that you never know when God may present us with an opportunity to serve Him in unexpected ways and places.
I was thankful for the opportunity to represent FFOZ at SBL. The biggest “take away” for me was that I observed that the platform for Messianic Judaism is continuing to expand. The legitimacy of our movement is not dependent upon a “hechsher” from academia and biblical scholars. But as more and more scholars, both Jewish and Christian, interact with our movement and give us a chair at the table, it furthers our cause. My wheels are already turning as to how FFOZ can expand our presence at SBL and other similar events. I am grateful for the progress that we can observe, but there is still much work to be done in expanding the presence and visibility of both Messianic Judaism and the work of FFOZ.