The work of the first Jewish bishop in Jerusalem and his tragic death: A history of Messianic Jews in Israel, Part 9

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Michael Solomon Alexander

The years of Bishop Michael Solomon Alexander 1843 – 1845.

In the last article, we left at the end of 1842 with everyone feeling confident and optimistic about the future. The Jewish bishop in Jerusalem, Michael Solomon Alexander, had arrived and led together with rev. Ewald and rev. Nicolayson, the mission work among the Jews. They were busy building the first protestant church in the Middle East, trusting the license to build would soon arrive from the Sultan’s court. The first ever Hebrew-speaking church in Jerusalem in modern time was meeting every week in their home. The Restorationist Anglicans, who believed in the restoration of Israel, dressed it in harsh anti-catholic words, claiming that Alexander was a more legitimate ruler of the universal church than the pope, as he led a Hebrew-speaking church in the holy city of Jerusalem.

Jews coming to faith was, however, very different in Jerusalem than it was in Europe. In Europe, a Jew who became a believer often did so in order to become a part of the European Christian society and to escape antisemitism. In Jerusalem, it was a very different story. Following Jesus came at a difficult price.

In 1843, three rabbis who had been going back and forth took the final step and joined the church permanently. They were immediately excommunicated by the Jewish community. No one was permitted to speak to them, and in some cases, their wives divorced them. It brought the attention of the Ottoman authorities on what was going on in Jerusalem, and the church construction that had never received any official permission was put to an immediate halt.

Correspondence from this time between the British consul in Beirut and the British foreign minister shows that they suspected the Russians were involved in the project’s halting. Russia was not happy about three Jewish Russian subjects converting to the Anglican rather than the Russian Orthodox Church. This tension among world powers about protecting their subjects and the holy places in Jerusalem eventually erupted into the Crimean war ten years later.

In May, two of these three rabbis were baptized (one had caved and gone back) together with two other Jews who had come to faith. Nicolayson wrote: “Two Jerusalem rabbis have been incorporated into the restored Hebrew Christian Church on Mount Zion.”

In the summer of 1843, the LJS opened a few new stations, which came under Alexander’s supervision. For the one-year anniversary of Alexander’s arrival to Jerusalem, the LJS wrote the following:

“The living Church in the Holy City appears small, and the other cities of Judea are still desolate, but Safet Tiberias and Hebron will soon possess the elements of Christian congregations. The means of making them numerous … exists abundantly in Europe … there is a great multitude of Jewish believers, who, if collected into churches, especially if reunited in their own holy land, would astonish the world by their numbers and convince the Rabbinists that they are not the only Jews in the world. … Believing Jews, scattered through England, Germany, etc, must remember their nation, their country, their promises, and their duty to God and the world, and love them better than worldly ease and comfort.”

What we have here is no less than a Christian Zionist call for Messianic Jews to make Aliyah – in 1843! Anyone who thought that the Christian missionary attempts towards Jews in the 1800s were all about turning them into gentiles and remove them from their Jewish roots can see here that this is a false accusation, at least at this point in time. On the contrary, this text from the LJS turns to Jewish Christians who have assimilated into European Western culture. It tells them to raise up, acknowledge their Jewish heritage, and move to Israel. It doesn’t seem like anyone complied, that we know of. Most Jewish Christians in Europe became Christians to assimilate, not to stay Jewish.

There were still no hospitals in Jerusalem, but Dr. MacGowan, who had arrived with Alexander, treated Jews for free. Sir Moses Montefiore in England had wanted to send Jewish doctors and establish a Jewish hospital in Jerusalem for a long time, but the Jewish religious organization of Amsterdam had opposed it. As they were in charge of the halukah, gathering donations for the Jews in Jerusalem and sending it there, they had the final veto power, and they were afraid that “Western medicine” would corrupt Jerusalem’s Jews into heresy. However, the threat of the dangerous “missionary doctors,” and the news about some Jews who had converted to Christianity, made them change their mind, and in 1843 Montefiore could finally send a doctor to Jerusalem. His name was Dr. Simon Frankel, and he arrived with drugs and equipment, and with the expressed goal to thwart the missionaries’ endeavors and hope to establish a Jewish hospital in Jerusalem (which didn’t occur until 1854 when the Rothschild hospital opened in the Jewish quarter of the Old City).

However, the missionaries were not angry or sad about this development. On the contrary, MacGowan wrote: “I consider his arrival here as a real advantage to the immediate object we have in view, which is to afford medical relief to the poor suffering Jews in Jerusalem.” The LJS expressed a similar sentiment in their update: “We hope that this will lead many to imitate the good example. It is indeed a matter of thankfulness that the Christian Church was permitted to lead the way in administering to the necessities of the afflicted and suffering sons and daughters of Abraham who now reside in the Holy City … it is gratifying to find that the Jews themselves are willing to do something in this respect for their own nation.”

More Jews were coming to faith in small numbers, but they were immediately under attack from the rabbis. In one case, when a family joined the church out of free will with no compulsion, the rabbis still tried to persuade the wife to separate from her husband. After she told the rabbis that she freely believed in Yeshua and therefore followed her husband, they told her she was lost, that she wouldn’t be buried in a Jewish burial ground, and that she would cause her late parents to be driven out from Paradise, but she didn’t listen. Until this day, Israeli historians still teach that the English missionaries caused heart-breaking family splits, but that’s only one half of the story.

Any Jew who chose to believe in Jesus was put under enormous economic and personal pressure. Despite this, one of the main accusations against them was that they were opportunists seeking a better life, hoping that adopting the Protestant faith would open doors for them in the Western world. It is true that they became immediately depending on the church for their livelihood, but that was because they had previously lived from the halukah, which was now denied them. In order to prove the accusations wrong, and also to weed out insincere converts, Alexander opened “the inquirers’ home,” which provided training and observation. Those who were deemed sincere could, after graduation, either enroll in the Hebrew College or the School of Industry. The Hebrew college taught divinity, English, German, Hebrew, arithmetic, music and translation from English to Hebrew. The School of Industry taught carpentry, joinery, and repairs. That school would eventually be more famous a few years later, when the German craftsman, archaeologist and architect Conrad Schick became its supervisor.

In 1844, Alexander wrote in his letter to the LJS: “The attendance at the daily morning Hebrew service, of converts and inquirers, is truly encouraging. At the monthly celebration of the Lord’s Supper, there are not infrequently upwards of twenty Hebrew communicants, who, together with their Gentile brethren, partake of that blessed ordinance; thus testifying on the hill of Zion, that through him, who, in this very place, broke down the partition wall, having abolished in his flesh the enmity, that he might reconcile both unto God.”

As we have focused on Jewish believers, we might have forgotten the American missionaries in Jerusalem from the ABCFM organization. They were still there during this whole time, and had a good relation with the British – until 1842, that is. From the establishment of the bishopric, the relations seem to have gone downhill, and there are different versions as to why. The Americans left Jerusalem in 1844, and established their missionary work in Beirut instead. That was the end of American evangelical organizations in Jerusalem until C&MA arrived in the 1890s.

In summer 1844, the first book depot opened in Jerusalem, with Bibles and New Testaments in Hebrew, Arabic, Greek, French, German, Italian and Spanish. The rabbis saw this as a great provocation and warned people not to enter the bookshop. The shop manager was a rabbi who had come to faith, named Judah Levi. The LJS set up another similar book shop in Jaffa.

In December 1844, Dr. Macgowan opened the first hospital in Jerusalem, and when the first death of a Jewish person occurred in that hospital, some rabbis threatened not to bury her, to set an example and warn people not to use that hospital. The threat was not put into effect.

We can see at this point in history that if a Jew in Jerusalem became interested in Jesus, he would go to the Anglicans. They were the ones who offered books in Hebrew, had Jewish clergy well acquainted with synagogue life, and could better explain the gospel from a Jewish perspective. Indeed, the little congregation that didn’t yet have a church was led by Jews, had services in Hebrew, and half of the members were Jews. Since the visit of the first Protestant missionary in Jerusalem in 1818, the presence of Hebrew Christians had increased significantly and was now well established. A lot of it was thanks to Bishop Alexander, who, by his mere existence, embodied the hopes and aspirations of this Jewish church.

And then he died.

In early 1845 he wrote: “Our enemies are numerous and various and also Powerful. I cannot but mention that in a paper which the Jews (I ought to say the Rabbis, for the people are differently minded) have lately printed for general circulation among their Brethren throughout Europe they actually call upon their European Brothers’ who have influence with the Governments to use every effort to get us removed.”

In January another Jew died at the hospital, and this time the Rabbis enacted the threat and refused him a Jewish burial. They were forced to bury the Jew in the British Christian cemetery, but they did so according to the Jewish customs. Shortly after, the rabbis issued a cherem, a ban, against anyone using the Christian hospital, and sent letters to Europe casting a very negative light on the activities of the mission.

A visitor in Jerusalem wrote later about the accusations that Alexander and LJS used the hospitals and other institutions to proselytize: “Both in the Hospital and in the House of Industry plenty of New Testaments in the Hebrew tongue are laid on the tables. But … there is nothing like compulsion, or any indication that the conversion of the inmates is the sole but disguised object of these institutions. On the contrary, everything is done, so far as the funds will admit it, for the benefit of the Jews in Palestine.”

Despite the difficulties, things started to look bright. A permit was given for the construction of the church. Young, the British consul in Jerusalem, who had been making trouble for both Nicolayson and Alexander, resigned. In his place, a man named Finn, was appointed. Finn was an LJS committee member, an old friend of Alexander, and an author of several books on Jewish subjects. Just like Alexander, he was a restorationist and committed to the Jewish cause.

Too bad that Alexander only had a few months left to live and never got a chance to serve alongside Finn.

In November 1845, Alexander left Jerusalem together with his wife to visit Egypt, where he was to visit the missionary station of the CMS (Church Missionary Society) in Cairo, and then sail for Britain before going back home to Jerusalem.

But he never reached Cairo.

En route to Cairo, in the tiny village Ras elWadi on the eastern branch of the Nile, Alexander went to sleep, feeling well, but never woke up. Mrs. Lieder in Cairo later described in a letter what the doctors said after the autopsy: “The immediate cause of death was the rupture of one of the largest blood-vessels near the heart; but the whole of the lungs, liver, and heart, were found in an exceedingly diseased state; and had been so for a length of time … the accelerating cause, doubtless, was great and continued anxiety – such as the Bishopric of Jerusalem and its cares can best account for. I heard it said on this occasion that had his Lordship not come into the East, he might possibly have lived to a good old age; but the mitre of Jerusalem, like the wreath of our beloved blessed Lord, has been to him a crown of thorns.”

Alexander’s wife continued to England while his body was transported back to Jerusalem for burial. Alexander’s grave is still at the Protestant Cemetery on Mount Zion, today accessible through the premises of the Jerusalem University College. His grave bears inscriptions in both Hebrew and English.

“We now indeed all feel like orphans, yet we continue to pursue our work, as far as possible, in all respects as before,” Nicolayson wrote.

Given how unpopular the idea behind his mission was with the Rabbinic Jews, the Muslims, the Historic churches, even with the anti-Jewish Anglicans, it is hard not to suspect that he was killed by some sort of conspiracy or poisoning. On the other hand, his duties did indeed deliver a lot of stress. The idea that a death must be in proportion to a character’s importance is an idea confined to books and movies, not real life. If a mosquito could kill Alexander the Great, then stress and anxiety could have killed Alexander the bishop.

The small congregation of around thirty Jewish believers in Jerusalem wrote a letter to his widow, stating: “He was a burning and shining light; and when he was raised to the highest dignity in the Church, he conferred the most conspicuous honor on our whole nation, but especially on the little band of Jewish believers. With him captive Judah’s brightest earthly star has set, and the top-stone has been taken away from the raising Hebrew Church.”

Lord Shaftesbury in England, the head of the LJS, was in shock as well and wrote the following: “Have we run counter to the will of God? Have we conceived a merely human project, and then imagined it to be a decree of the Almighty, when we erected a bishopric in Jerusalem, and appointed a Hebrew to exercise the functions? Have we vainly and presumptuously attempted to define ‘the times and seasons which the Father hath put in His own power?’ God, who knows our hearts, alone can tell. … And yet, … all this may be merely a means to a speedier and ampler glory.”

It took a number of months before they found a replacement. While the position was vacant, one of the people there wrote that Alexander had “acted as a connected link between Jew and Gentile. Since that event [death of Alexander], I am sorry to say, everything here has assumed a form of isolation and separation, every one seeking his own.”

The hopes of the restorationist Christians had been for the Jews to come to faith in Jesus and for the establishment of a worldwide Protestant Union, with Jerusalem as its center. These dreams seemed to die with Alexander.

Or did they?

Alexander had established an actual congregation with over thirty Jews who believed in Jesus for the first time in over a thousand years. Maybe just thirty, but that’s more than double what was there before him. Even though his successor, Bishop Samuel Gobat, didn’t share the same heart for the Jewish people, there was now an established base to work on.

Alexander’s death was, however, a major setback for the Jewish believers. From this moment and for a little over a hundred years, Jewish believers in Jesus were generally expected to be subjected to a Gentile leader and to assimilate into the mainstream church. Expressing Jewish cultural identities and characteristics were frowned upon and seen as “Judaizing.” Yet, a remnant of Hebrew-speaking Jewish believers remained in Jerusalem.

In 1846, Consul Finn and the new Bishop, Gobat, arrived in Jerusalem, and thus a new chapter of the Jewish believers in Jerusalem started. From now on, the focus of these articles will no longer be on the British mission in Israel, as they shifted their focus away from the Jews. Instead, we will focus on the specific Jewish facets of their work, and of other missionary organizations arriving in Israel.

Just as many chapters of the Bible are devoted to David and Solomon, and then just a few verses for each of the following kings, so these articles will now pick up chronological speed. We have devoted many articles to Nicolayson and to bishop Alexander, because they are our David and Solomon. Next time, we will move more quickly through the history of Jewish believers, trying to cover the era between Alexander’s death in 1845 to the arrival of the first Zionists in 1882 in just one article.