The following e-mail exchange began after Rabbi Yehiel E. Poupko, Judaic Scholar at the Jewish Federation of Metropolitan Chicago, read Stan Guthrie's "Foolish Things" column, "Why Evangelize the Jews? God's chosen people need Jesus as much as we do." Rabbi Poupko sent his initial response to David Neff, editor in chief of the CT media group.

On March 28 The New York Times published a statement entitled "The Gospel and the Jewish People: An Evangelical Statement," in an advertisement sponsored by the World Evangelical Alliance. The statement expresses respect for Jewish people, condemns anti-Semitism, and affirms Jewish evangelism and specialized ministries to Jews that are done without deception or coercion. Dozens of evangelical leaders signed the statement, including Stan Guthrie, who is managing editor of special projects for CT. The ad will also appear in CT, Charisma , and World.

Today, the second part of the exchange between Poupko and Guthrie is posted.

Poupko 1 | Guthrie 1 | Poupko 2 | Guthrie 2 | Poupko 3 | Postscript

Rabbi Yehiel Poupko's Response to Guthrie's Column

This article creates a teachable moment. The Jewish-evangelical relationship is in its nascent period. We are still learning how to talk with each other and how to engage in respectful, friendly conversation about ultimate matters. The purpose of this conversation is not agreement. The basis of interfaith conversation must be mutual sacred rejection, a clear understanding of the irreconcilable differences between the faith communities. As a Jew faithful to the covenant made by God with my fathers and mothers at Mount Sinai, I reject what is most sacred to the Christian. I am prepared to die for it, as have my ancestors before me. The Christian rejects what is most sacred to me, and is likewise prepared to die for it. Only after respectful mutual sacred rejection, can we identify those beliefs that we share in common. There is aught but the One God; God has created all of humanity in God's image; God has revealed the ways of justice, righteousness, holiness, and purity.

Christianity, as understood by the Roman Catholic Church and evangelical Christianity, believes that all humanity needs Christ. I don't agree with that belief, but I am not going to instruct Christians on what to believe. The life of the Jewish community speaks for itself as witness. I don't want Christians to instruct me on what to believe. Nor do I have a problem with the Christian formulation, "All humanity needs Christ." Included in all humanity are Muslims, Buddhists, Hindus, Jews, Taoists, Confucians, secularists, and many more. However, for Stan Guthrie the Jews are not part of this formulation. We are singled out for particular treatment based on Romans 1:16:

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For I am not ashamed of the gospel, it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who has faith, to the Jew first, and also to the Gentile.

And therein lies the dilemma. "To the Jew first": first for the Good News, and first for the bad news. First for the gospel, and because of that, first for persecution and suffering. That is what "to the Jew first" has meant for 2,000 years.

"To the Jew first" has a career, like every biblical verse. It developed into the Christian belief that the Jews are lower in God's economy than any other people. We Jews who knew the Father first at Sinai should have been the first to acknowledge the "son" at Calvary. We out of whose very flesh came Jesus have been the lowest in God's economy amongst those who deny Jesus of Nazareth, because we should have been the first to affirm him. This is the essence of the 2,000-year-old adversos Iudaeos tradition, the classic Christian teaching of contempt for Judaism and the Jewish people that culminated in Auschwitz. I hasten to add, the Holocaust is too great an event to be attributed exclusively to Christianity. Yet the Holocaust would have been impossible without the 2,000-year Christian teaching of contempt for Judaism. It is not enough for Guthrie to declare:

Certainly the Holocaust and the church's horrific anti-Semitism have changed the context for evangelism. We have much for which to apologize. But we cannot apologize for the gospel.

Guthrie has no need of apologizing to the Jewish people. He is not guilty of mistreating us. However, when Guthrie identifies as a Christian he becomes heir to the entire received Christian tradition. As such, he must measure his use of the gospel with the way in which the gospel has been used in the past, and that of course means not to repeat the sins of the past.

A good beginning would be to read "The Chosen People Puzzle," published by Christianity Today, by Richard J. Mouw. Richard Mouw understands the ambiguities inherent in Romans 11. Guthrie, on the other hand seeks to shape daily events so they will have an impact on a larger, divine plan. He lays claim to the unknowable.

Can Guthrie explain why he is so sure that he and his fellow evangelicals will be the first Christians in 2,000 years, who when they say and practice "to the Jews first," will bring no harm to the Jewish people? There is a social, cultural, and psychological consequence "to the Jews first." Why cannot Guthrie look back at 2,000 years of Christian oppression of Judaism and the Jewish people, culminating in Auschwitz; and then ask a different set of questions: Why are the Jewish people still here? We know why the Christians are still here. That makes sense. For nearly two millennia Christianity wielded the sword of Constantine. It was one and the same with the great empires of Western civilization. It possessed temporal power. So Christianity has endured for perfectly obvious reasons. But why are the Jewish people still here? Why is Judaism still here? Indeed that is the miracle; that a homeless, tormented, exiled, wandering people, who in the year 1500 were reduced to a population of no more than 800,000 people, are still here. Had we, through our faithfulness, not witnessed to the One God through 2,000 years of suffering and into the inexpressible hell that was Auschwitz, Christianity itself would have disappeared. When Christendom engaged in apostasy, to pagan Nazism, it was we, the Jewish people alone, who gave witness in our very flesh to the One God.

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So today maybe Guthrie should first pray, "Thank You, O Lord, for not allowing us to kill all the Jews. Thank You, O Lord, for giving us the Jewish people as witness to You, the One God."

Dear Stan: There are 1.2 billion Christians in this world. There are approximately 12 million Jews. We are the smallest of all those peoples whom you seek to bring to Christ. Hold onto your belief that all humanity needs Christ; through it many will come to know the One God. That is good. Continue your work with atheists, and all types of other religious groups. Give us a break for a few centuries. When you have succeeded with the others, come back to us; perhaps we'll talk then.


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Stan Guthrie's Reply

Thank you for honoring me with your refreshingly honest and thoughtful response. No columnist could ask for more. I agree that true dialogue can only proceed after we have made clear our differences. Like you, I am ready to die for my beliefs; and like you, I am in no way prepared to kill for them. But I hope you will understand that an integral element of my Christian belief is the command given by Jesus himself to make disciples of all nations, starting in Jerusalem.

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And indeed I believe that the gospel of Jesus Christ is Good News for Jewish people, too. When we say (quoting Paul, a Hebrew of Hebrews) that the gospel is "first for the Jew," we mean it as an honor to Jewish people, who, after all, were the first followers of Jesus. I have never seen in this wording an implied threat. The Jewish people are not lowest in God's economy; I see them as special, chosen people, worthy of honor and precious to God. As Paul said, you are the "natural branches."

I apologize for not writing about the Holocaust and the church's historic anti-Semitism with tears in my eyes. While I have an intellectual grasp of the horrors done at times in the name of Christ, my understanding comes at a distance and from a position of cultural power generally for Christians. Your understanding is much more personal and comes from a minority group that in some way sees itself as at least potentially vulnerable to future outbreaks of hatred. I wish I felt this as keenly as you do, but I promise you, I do feel shame and remorse for the actions of Christians in the past.

I would like to tell you that evangelical Christians today love the Jewish people, whether or not you receive Jesus as your Savior. I believe this to be so; I know this respect and admiration are true of my own attitude. Certainly in the past it has not always been so of evangelical Christians. In today's world, however, I believe we are Israel's best friends, for several reasons. But I can understand why you might await further evidence. Sadly, human beings have shown a propensity to abuse power in the name of religion, or irreligion, and far too rarely have we Christians fought against that universal tendency. You are right to ask for deeds that match our professions of repentance, and I believe we are up to the task, by God's grace.

I believe both Jews and Christians are here by God's gracious hand. We have much to learn from one another, and I trust we will continue to do so. I hope also that you will forgive us if we take a tentative step beyond "sacred rejection" and share what is most precious to us with you, our honored Jewish friends.

Whatever our ethnicity or history, we all need the redemption available only in the Jewish teacher from Nazareth. I thank God for blessing the world with the tenacious presence of the Jewish people, and I thank them for the gift of the Holy Scriptures, and most especially for Jesus.

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Poupko's Second Response

Dear Stan,

Since you are an associate, colleague, and friend of David Neff, please know that I know that you mean only good. The great paradox that we the Jewish people live with today, put quite simply for rhetorical purposes, is that the mainline Protestants are friends of our faith identity in that they don't seek to convert us, and not as much of our national identity as realized in the State of Israel. Evangelicals are friends of our national identity, and not as much of our faith identity. if your conviction comes true then we disappear. David Neff will tell you that I have said in public, to Jewish audiences, on several occasions that the effort to bring the "Good News" to us and to convert us to Christianity over the past 2,000 years was born out of contempt for us. And, as difficult as it is for Jews to hear, the fact is that the evangelical Christian wants to bring us the Good News out of love for us. I know that. But surely every person has a basic right to be loved the way they want to be loved.

I've learned from my friend David Neff that often times evangelicals will turn to Roman Catholics who are, like them, orthodox Christians, in order to seek their thinking and their learning on certain critical issues. Thus, if I'm not mistaken, evangelicals learned certain things about abortion and about stem-cell research from Roman Catholic thinking. There is much scholarship on the meaning of that surely famous verse and phraseto the Jews first." Not only is there much Roman Catholic theology written on the meaning of this verse, there is evangelical scholarship on this verse as well. And not all such scholarship holds that the meaning of this verse is that the first obligation of preaching the "Good News" is to preach the "Good News" to the Jews first. Now we have a problem here. I have read this scholarship and surely when I read it I'm not a disinterested and dispassionate observer. Quite the opposite! Therefore I don't want to cross the line and enter into your faith and tell you what to believe. However, given the career of that verse, I can ask you to take a look at other orthodox Christian ways of reading this verse. On the one hand the church has asserted the primacy of Christ's universal salvific work. On the other hand, not a few thinkers and princes of the church have said and written that there is no need to proselytize the Jews because we have authentic revelation, and in fact that is implicit in the Vatican II documents on the Jews. Now these Catholic theologians have never resolved the inherent contradiction between these two principles. Some Catholic thinkers hold to the following formulation: All humanity needs Christ; the Jews are part of all humanity. But perhaps in the scheduling of priorities, given all that has happened between Christianity and the Jewish people and given the array of tasks that face Christians today, perhaps bringing the Good News to the Jews will take place at a later time, at a time possibly known only to God. The point of all this is that there is much theological ferment in Catholic and some evangelical circles about this issue.

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You want me to trust your love. That is a problem. You are not stapled to your words or your love. Origen, Chrysostom, Eusebius, Augustine, and Aquinas are people who would have never plucked a white hair off the head of an old Jew. They are people who would have walked into the gas chambers with us. But their words did not remain within the province of spiritual and intellectual elites. Now it took some time for bad things to happen, but when you preach and teach over and over again for nearly 2,000 years, "to the Jews first," the message is very clear. So the question is, How can you be so sure so soon after the end of this two-thousand-year period that the audience upon which your writings and words will fall, in the years and decades to come, how can you be so sure that those people will a thousand years from now, be any different from those who heard the words of the Church Fathers?

Now let's take this a step further. The predictions made by Christianity about the Jews in the past 2,000 years have not come true. In Judaism we distinguish between normative and narrative texts in the Torah. What are the criteria that you use to separate perfectly regular New Testament language from that which is normative? Furthermore, why to the Jews first? Furthermore, why to the Jews first now? If the apostles and then Paul and then the early church regularly changed tactics, strategies, and convictions as they sought to bring the Good News in the first, second, and third centuries to Jews, Gentiles, Greco-Roman pagans, Greco-Roman cultural pagans, and to a whole host of people belonging to an array of mystery and Eastern religions, why aren't you able, after 2,000 years of experience with "the Jews first," to rethink, not fundamental belief, but tactics and scheduling? Or, to put it another way, as I said in my initial note to you, it is the Jewish endurance over the past 2,000 years that testifies to the One God. What lessons might that contain for you? What lessons about our sanctity, our enduring sanctity as a people, do you derive from the German murder of 6 million Jews in the bosom of Christendom? Learned lessons must go beyond apologies. Indeed no apology is needed from you. You never hurt a Jewish person. You would never hurt a Jewish person. If they ever came to get my grandchildren and me, I know I could call you on the phone and at peril to your own family life you would give me refuge. The challenge for the Christian is what are the faith lessons to be derived from this?

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I look forward to your response.

All good to you,


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Guthrie's Second Response

Rabbi Poupko,

First, I must disagree with you that evangelicals are opposed to your faith identity, that we want to make you "Christians." I believe that while this may have been true among some of us at various times in the past, there is a growing recognition among us that Christianity is Jewish, and many Jewish people who choose to follow the teacher from Nazareth make a perfectly valid decision to continue identifying as Jews. Personally, I believe Jewish people who believe in Jesus remain Jewish and should be considered Jews in good standing by the Jewish community. It is tragic that they often are not.

You talked in another e-mail about your joy in being a grandfather. I look forward to this joy one day! You love your grandson for who he is, of course. But if he were on the wrong track concerning a particular but critical aspect of his life and you wanted to correct him and put him on the right path, I doubt seriously that you would simply accept his protest that he has a right to be loved the way he wants to be loved. No, your love would compel you to tell him the truth because he is hurting himself. Such is our love for the Jewish people. We do love you for who you are, but love sometimes compels us to say uncomfortable but necessary things. Yes, it would be easier for all concerned for us to keep our mouths shut on evangelism, but we love you too much for that.

Concerning other historical uses of Romans 1:16 beyond its obvious evangelistic intent I must sadly claim ignorance. That's how I meant it, and how evangelicals mean it today. Yes, words often are twisted, in a variety of contexts, and not just in Jewish-Christian relations. I would welcome your directing me to some of these historical examples.

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While the Jewish history of suffering is unique, Christians know something of being persecuted too in many parts of the world. We don't take your suffering lightly. This is an important issue, and we want to do the right thing. We try to use our words with care. But we cannot always know how history will take what we have said, for good or ill. All we can do is prayerfully attempt our best, be clear, ask for forgiveness, and keep going. Should persecution again visit the Jews, I think it is safe to assume we will stand beside you, as I know you will us.

As a student of world missions, I believe sometimes we Christians must change our tactics to fit conditions. Flexibility is a virtue in missions, and this includes how we approach Jews. But flexibility cannot trump core convictions, one of which is that all people groups need Jesus.

I find in the Jewish people an illustration of God's love for them and the world. Their presence, through many trials, strengthens and encourages my faith. It makes me stand in awe of God's grace in the face of evil, and I am humbled by the resilience of the human spirit as exhibited so clearly by Jewish people. As I said, we have much to learn from you.

I could say more, but I don't wish to debate a renowned Jewish theologian and look foolish. If I have said anything offensive, please forgive me. I am ignorant of many things. May God continue to guide and encourage you in the days ahead. Just to let you know, my friendship with you (if I may be so bold as to call you a friend) is not based on your turning to Jesus, though of course I hope one day you do.


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Poupko's Third Response

Dear Stan,

Good to hear from you. Thank you for your kind words. Since we last exchanged notes our sacred calendars have given us the gift of sacred times. You have celebrated Good Friday and Easter. We the Jewish people have celebrated Purim. Your personal compliment is appreciated. However, to paraphrase Amos, I am neither a "renowned Jewish theologian," nor the son of one, just a Jew who studies Torah, the son of generations of Jewish believers who have studied Torah.

And now let me come to the heart of it. As I read it in your last note, the Jewish people are here to serve your faith purposes. That is the only way that you understand us. Like you, I too am created in the image of God. Like you, I have a God-given obligation to believe and to choose how to believe. But you it seems are capable of understanding me only in your terms. It seems that you are capable of loving and appreciating the Jewish people, only to the extent that they fit into your faith. What is it that made John Paul II one of the greatest witnesses to Christianity since World War II? What made him, in some measure, responsible for bringing about the collapse of Bolshevism and the Soviet Union? It was that he taught and lived a very great lesson, a lesson that he taught to all of Christendom. What he said to Christendom was, before you can witness to Christ, you have to witness to the human dignity of every individual.

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Stan, your belief that it is tragic that we do not consider Jews who believe in Jesus to be Jews in good standing is quite problematic. Only you a Christian can define what it means to be a Christian. Only I a Jew can define what it means to be Jewish. For a Jew to come to Christ is to cease to be a member of the Jewish community. That is the decision of the Jewish people and the Jewish community. A Jew who decides to believe in Christ has rejected the most fundamental principles of the Torah, especially:

The Lord spoke to you out of the fire; you heard the sound of words but perceived no shape — nothing but a voice. He declared to you the covenant that He commanded you to observe, the Ten Commandments; and He inscribed them on two tablets of stone. At the same time the Lord commanded me to impart to you laws and rules for you to observe in the land that you are about to cross into and occupy. For your own sake, therefore, be most careful — since you saw no image when the Lord your God spoke to you at Horeb out of the fire. (Deuteronomy 4:12-15)

In addition, he or she has betrayed his and her very own flesh, father, mother, brother, and sister. They cannot be considered Jews in good standing by the Jewish community. Is it acceptable for us to call it tragic that many Christians do not deem Unitarian Universalists to be Christian, even if they want the rubric, but do not accept the divinity of Jesus? In the main, we have achieved understanding with some evangelicals about proselytizing, but your statement about Jews who have become Christians complicates the issue. Proselytizing is part of the exercise of free speech in this country. The marketplace of ideas can surely deal with it. We the Jewish people object to aggressive and deceptive proselytizing. Quite simply, it is deceptive to represent a Christian congregation as Jewish. That is bearing false witness. We must both live by that Golden Rule: "Do unto others as you would have them do unto you." Just as only you can define what it means to be a Christian, only the Jewish community can define what it means to be a Jew.

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Based on the principle, "Do unto others as you would have them do unto you," I turn now to your second paragraph, especially its last sentence: "Yes, it would be easier for all concerned for us to keep our mouths shut on evangelism, but we love you too much for that." Tell me how this Jewish rewrite of that sentence sounds to you:

It would be much easier for all concerned Jews to keep our mouths shut on the truth and purity of monotheism, but we love you Christians who are struggling to know the One God, too much, just too much, to remain silent. You are "on the wrong track," and you are "hurting" yourselves. Come join us and live the life of mitzvot so that you may know the One God as we of the Sinai Covenant do in full relationship without any intermediary.

How would this sound to you? How would you think and how would you feel? And is this something that advances evangelical-Jewish relations?

As I write these lines, I have before me a picture of my eight grandchildren: Shmuel Meir, who is nine, his twin sisters, Ayelet and Atara, who are six; Amitai, five years old, his brothers, Erez, three, and Gadi, sixteen months; Sarah, eighteen months, and their youngest cousin, Ayelet, thirteen months.

Let's please continue our conversation. Indeed we had several good conversations this morning on the phone, which tells me that we will get to know each other ever better. I am sure that we will soon meet. But whatever you do, and whatever you say about Judaism and about the Jewish people, I ask you this: Please make sure that your words bring no harm to these grandchildren of mine, and to their children's children who like their grandparents, and great-grandparents before them are believers, children of generations of believers, and soon with God's help to be parents of generations of believers. Please make sure you do them no harm.

Best wishes,


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A Postscript from Mr. Stan Guthrie and Rabbi Yehiel E. Poupko:

Dear Reader,

Thank you for taking the time to immerse yourself in our several exchanges. The issues that we discuss are of ultimate importance. The two of us have just begun to get to know each other. Indeed, our relationship is not that much younger than the Jewish-evangelical relationship in America. We view our exchange as a positive one. We have enjoyed talking with each other on the phone and exchanging e-mails. We look forward to meeting and to getting to know each other better. It is not always easy to get to know someone, especially when the context is faith and the very purpose of being itself. The expression of our faith commitments has been stated in precise and faithful language. Our differences are clear and at times stark. However, we emerge from this correspondence in friendship, and no one should mistake our engagement as being anything other than that. Indeed the two of us encourage Jews and evangelicals to continue to have such open exchanges. At times, in order to become friends, it is necessary to say firm things.

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God's blessings to all of you.

YEP and SG

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Related Elsewhere:

Previous articles about evangelism to the Jewish people include:

Interview with a Pharisee—and a Christian | How two believers of two faiths talk to one another with conviction and civility. (October 12, 2007)
Kosher Cooperation | Jewish elites broker new relations with evangelicals. (October 1, 2003)
Editor's Bookshelf: The Church's Hidden Jewishness | In the Shadow of the Temple illumines Hebrew thinking in a Greek world (Sept. 15, 2003)
Editor's Bookshelf: 'Normalizing' Jewish Believers | How should Christianity's Jewish heritage change how Gentiles relate to their faith? An interview with Oskar Skarsaune (Sept. 15, 2003)
Christ via Judaism | Lauren Winner's spiritual journey is an invaluable—and, to some, unsettling—reminder of where we came from (July 7, 2003)
Weblog: Messianic Jews in Canada Lose Appeal to Use Menorah Logo (June 26, 2003)
A Christian Studies Torah | Athol Dickson's The Gospel According to Moses encourages exploration of Jewish roots (May 14, 2003)
Weblog: Christian Seders Accused of Being Anti-Jewish | We're waiting for Elijah, not Jesus, say Jews (Apr. 28, 2003)
Do Jews Really Need Jesus? | What evangelicals believe about evangelization of the Jews—and whether the Holocaust makes a difference in that task (Oct. 8, 1990, reposted Aug. 16, 2002)
The Chosen People Puzzle | When it comes to relating to the Jewish people, should we dialogue, cooperate, or evangelize? (Mar 5, 2001)
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Is Evangelism Possible Without Targeting? | The founder of Jews for Jesus responds to Rabbi Yechiel Eckstein (Jan. 14, 2000)
Can I Get a Witness? | Southern Baptists rebuff critics of Chicago evangelism plan. (Jan. 14, 2000)
Witnessing vs. Proselytizing | A rabbi's perspective on evangelism targeting Jews, and his alternative (Dec. 3, 1999)
To the Jew First? | Southern Baptists defend new outreach effort (Nov. 15, 1999)
How Evangelicals Became Israel's Best Friend | The amazing story of Christian efforts to create and sustain the modern nation of Israel. (Oct. 5, 1998)
The Return of the Jewish Church | In 1967, there were no Messianic Jewish congregations in the world. Today there are 350. Who are these believers? (Sept. 7, 1998)
Mapping the Messianic Jewish World (Sept. 7, 1998)
Did Christianity Cause the Holocaust? | No, despite what a biased film at the tax-supported Holocaust Museum implies (Apr. 27, 1998)
Is Jewish-Christian a Contradiction in Terms? (April 7, 1997)
Jews Oppose Baptist Outreach (Nov. 11, 1996)
Christmas and the Modern Jew | Christians often seem to lack both good missionary strategies toward Jews and sensitivity to their situation in life (Dec. 8, 1958)
Graham Feted By American Jewish Committee | In 1977, Graham walked a fine line between in his work 'to proclaim the Gospel to Jew and Gentile.' (Nov. 18, 1977)
To the Jew First | Witnessing to the Jews is nonnegotiable. (Aug. 11, 1997)
Billy Graham: 'I have never felt called to single out the Jews' | The evangelist discusses targeted evangelism in one of his most quoted statements (March 16, 1973)