The Jewish Bishop in Jerusalem: A history of Messianic Jews in Israel, Part 7

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Michael Solomon Alexander

In the previous six articles, we have followed the Protestant and Anglican missionaries’ endeavors in Israel in general, and in Jerusalem specifically, from 1818 until 1842. The chief organization propelling this is the Anglican LJS, the London Jews Society. So far, very few Jews have come to faith, but the missionaries have brought doctors and provided free healthcare to the Jews, and they are establishing themselves more and more. Danish rev John Nicolayson is spearheading and leading the operation.

Before we continue, let’s pause for a moment and ask ourselves – why the protestants? Why haven’t any other church tried to reach the Jews with the gospel before them? There are a few reasons. First of all, the Jews reject any kind of bowing down to statues, which makes it a lot harder for Catholics and Orthodox Christians to convince them. Second of all, they didn’t really try. Only lately, a few Hebrew-speaking Catholic and Orthodox churches have formed in Israel, but they are exceedingly small. Third of all, since the Protestants reject church tradition (or at least state that it is not binding) they are more likely to believe that the Jews are the chosen people, based on the Word of God alone.

We can see this clearly in the LJS’s decision, when they resolved to build their church in Jerusalem. They stated that “the establishment of a Protestant Church in which service shall be conducted according to the order of the Church of England is essential in order to exhibit practically what Christianity is, as distinguished from the corruptions of Roman, Greek and Armenian Churches, which are so peculiarly offensive to the Jews, and which confirm their prejudices against Christianity, as an idolatrous and unscriptural system.”

The Anglican Church was at this time in a “competition” with Rome, trying to show that their clergy was just as legitimate as the Catholics. The Anglicans were divided between those who wanted closer ties to the Catholics and be accepted by Rome, and the so called “Evangelical Anglicans” who wanted to break free from Rome forever and form stronger ties to the Prussian Lutherans and Reformed Protestants. Why is this important? Because it was the latter who rejoiced when a Jewish bishop became ordained to Jerusalem in a joint English-Prussian bishopric. “Who is more legitimate as the leader of worldwide Christianity? That pope in Rome, or our Jewish bishop in Jerusalem?” Eschatological hopes ensued. Now, the Jews would come to Jerusalem and be saved. There would be a Christian Protestant Jewish State of Israel, based in Jerusalem, that would rule all the other churches.

It didn’t go exactly that way.

Michael Solomon Alexander arrived in Jerusalem in 1842 and established the first ever Hebrew-speaking congregation in Jerusalem since the time of the apostles. Sure, today we can look at it and say they probably met on Sundays and celebrated Christian holidays rather than Jewish. They probably baptized babies. They did all these things we today perceive as “churchy” and not very “Messianic.” But for its time, it was an amazing ground-breaking initiative. One can only imagine what would have been accomplished if Alexander had lived longer. But after Alexander’s sudden death in 1845, the “other side” in the Anglican church had the upper hand, and his replacement was less focused on the Jewish people.

Kelvin Crombie has written an excellent book on Alexander, “A Jewish Bishop in Jerusalem,” published by Christ Church in 2006, which goes through Alexander’s life, how he came to faith, and his work in Jerusalem. I will here try to summarize Alexander’s early life in a few paragraphs, until he arrives in Jerusalem, and in the next article, we will follow his work in Jerusalem from 1842. I am giving him this extra attention specifically because of how important he was for the idea of Jewish believers in Israel. After his death, our focus will go more broadly, as our focus is on the Jewish believers, and the LJS shifted its focus a bit after the death of Alexander.

Michael Solomon Alexander was born in 1799 in Prussia as the son of a rabbi. At the age of 18, after his father died, he questioned the authority of the Talmud and eventually moved to England, where he became a private tutor in a Jewish family. When he saw an LJS advertisement, his employer told him that those were Christians preying on Jewish souls, and that “every Jew should read the New Testament, in order to be more convinced in his own religion.”

In Alexander’s own words: “I was greatly struck with the first chapter of St. Matthew and had no idea that Christians knew anything of our patriarchs; – I was still more struck with the character of Christ, and the excellent morals which he taught; but having gone no further than merely to admire them, it produced no particular effect upon my mind, though it considerably lessened my prejudices.”

In 1822, Alexander became a rabbi in Norwich. Due to the proximity of the synagogue to the church, he met more and more Christians who, to his astonishment, were very well versed in the Old Testament prophecies concerning the restoration of the Jewish people. His reading in the New Testament intensified, and he examined the Old Testament prophecies, which the New Testament claimed Jesus fulfilled. He later wrote about this period that this perplexed, confused, and disoriented him.

After moving to Plymoth to work in the local synagogue there, where he also met his wife Deborah, he gave Hebrew lessons to a local reverend. As part of the teaching, he had to look closer at the prophecies of the Messiah in the Old Testament. It was a process of many years in which he and his wife both came to faith. The young couple was baptized in 1825, and moved to Exeter, away from the stir and tumult caused by his conversion.

Alexander soon became involved in the LJS, and went on speaking tours in England and Ireland, where he also met the eccentric Joseph Wolff, who we met in the third article. At a speaking tour in 1826, Wolff lived with the couple, which proved to be an unforgettable experience (this was before Wolff was married). Deborah wrote in her autobiography that they needed to put a lock on their bedroom, since Wolff was in the habit of intruding upon their privacy in the very early morning, informing them he wanted to read them accounts from his journal.

By 1830, Alexander lived in London and was an ordained minister, and an accomplished LJS missionary who had preached the gospel to Jews in both England, Prussia, and Poland. In 1832, he was offered the position of Professor of Hebrew and Rabbinic Literature in the newly established King’s College, which he accepted while still working for the LJS. Between 1834 – 1837, he presided over the revision of the Hebrew translation of the New Testament, and a translation of the Anglican Church’s Book of Common Prayer to Hebrew. Regular service in Hebrew was established in 1837 at the Episcopal Jews Chapel. The LJS wrote: “A little band of Hebrew Christians joined with Gentiles in worshipping the Redeemer of Israel, in the language and words of their forefathers.”

At the same time, some influential people starting thinking about the idea of having a Jewish bishop in Jerusalem. In the war of 1840, Great Britain assisted the Ottomans in regaining control of Jerusalem from the Egyptian Ali Pascha. Due to a Jewish idea that the Messiah would come in the year 5600, which occurred in 1840, some in Britain believed it would be possible to convince the Jews to move to Israel. They wanted to pressure the Sultan to issue an edict to grant free access to Jews to arrive in Palestine, similar to the Cyrus declaration in the Bible. The President of the LJS, Lord Shaftesbury, convinced Lord Palmerston, the Minister of Foreign Affairs, in political and economic terms why this would be beneficial – a Jewish buffer between Syria and Egypt would serve the British interests in the region, and rich European Jews would develop the country. He was only a hundred years early…

Can we call this Christian Zionism? Because it sure sounds like Zionism. It’s just twenty years before Theodor Herzl was even born.

These plans didn’t happen because the other European powers didn’t agree (and honestly – the Jews didn’t want to move to Israel, and even if they did, the Sultan wouldn’t let them). But the idea of a Jewish Protestant Bishop in Jerusalem came up through a man named Christian Carl Josias Bunsen, from Prussia. He was a strong believer and pushed for a joint Prussian-English bishopric in Jerusalem, talking to both the King of Prussia and Queen Victoria. Many years later, Bunsen’s grandson would chair a committee that led to the Balfour Declaration in 1917. The position was offered to Michael Solomon Alexander.

The agreement between the British Anglicans and the Prussian Lutherans is interesting, especially because of one paragraph. The paragraph defined the Archbishop of Canterbury to be the metropolitan of the new see “until the restoration of a Christian Jewish church.” The Christians who phrased this anticipated a future in which the world would be ruled from a Christian Jewish church in Jerusalem and not from Canterbury.

The plan had opposition, both within the Anglican Church and in the British parliament. This plan was upsetting the existing status quo and interfered with the jurisdiction of ancient churches. Politicians worried it would upset Russia, Austria and France. Some church people were angry about the idea of appointing a Jew to this position. Others opposed the cooperation with the Prussian Church, the “foreign reformation.”

Among the evangelical Anglicans in general, and within LJS in particular, there was a great enthusiasm. “The appointment of a son of Abraham as Bishop … at Jerusalem forms a new era in the history of the missionary labours among the Jews.” Someone called it “the blessed beginning of a restoration of Israel.”

Queen Victoria granted the license on November 6, 1841 at Buckingham Palace and authorized the Archbishop of Canterbury to consecrate Rev. Michael Solomon Alexander to be bishop over “Syria, Chaldea, Egypt and Abyssinia.” The LJS called it “The bishopric of the church of St. James at Jerusalem” in a statement, and wrote that this was “a sign that the time, the set time, to favour Zion is come.” Alexander was consecrated the following day, on November 7th, and they read from Acts 20:22 “Now behold, I go bound in the spirit unto Jerusalem, not knowing the things that shall befall me there.”

On December 7th Alexander departed on a ship to Jerusalem together with his pregnant wife and six children plus servants, chaplains, a doctor and a nurse. Rev. Ewald, also a Jewish believer, joined the Alexanders together with his wife and child. They stopped in Lisbon, Gibraltar, Malta and Beirut, and were received honorably by the British governor or consul in each location.

They arrived in Jaffa in January 1842. They met the British consul, the Turkish governor and the Muslim Kadi. As they left Jaffa headed to Jerusalem, Nicolayson came to meet them and they spent the night in Ramle. The following day, they arrived in Jerusalem.

In the next article, we will look at the first Hebrew-speaking congregation in Jerusalem, established in the location of what is now Christ Church, in 1842. Even though we have little historic evidence, the people I’ve spoken to insist that this small Hebrew-speaking congregation existed uninterrupted until the Jordanian occupation of east Jerusalem in 1948.