OTS’s Hertog Center for Jewish-Christian Understanding and Cooperation (CJCUC) launched a new Christian Academic Initiative in partnership with The Philos Project. The pilot program brought to Israel 13 professors of Bible, Theology and Preaching , in an effort to help them incorporate an understanding of modern day Israel into their general curricula.
“The 1,900-year-old teaching that the Church is the ‘new Israel’ that replaced the Jewish people continues to be taught in the Christian classroom, making it difficult for many Christians to view the State of Israel as a fulfillment of biblical prophecies as foretold in the Tanakh,” remarked David Nekrutman, CJCUC’s Executive Director. He added, “The idea behind the Christian Academic Initiative is to introduce the notion that the return of the Jewish people to a sovereign state and its fulfillment of their mandate to be a light unto other nations in all aspects of civil society has religious relevance for a Christian.”
The group of academics on the pilot trip teach students who go into ministry work immediately after graduation. They came from various Christian mainline movements such as Lutheran, Methodist, Anglican and Southern Baptist, and represented such institutions as Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, Asbury Theological Seminary, Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary, Oklahoma Baptist University, Dallas Theological Seminary, Dakota Wesleyan University, Baylor University’s George W. Truett Seminary and The Center for Pastors Theologians.
In addition to visiting sites sacred to both Judaism and Christianity, the group interfaced with spiritual leaders such as Rabbi Dr. Natan Slifkin, Rabbi Dr. Joshua Berman, and Pastor Naim Khoury as well as leading archaeologists such as Dr. Gabriel Barkay and Dr. Ronny Reich. Session topics included ‘Fusing Faith and Academic Excellence,’ ‘The Culture of Ancient Near East in Understanding of the Bible,’ ‘The Effects of Cultural Context in Translating the Bible’ and ‘Being Christian in Palestinian Controlled Bethlehem.’ The trip also included a visit to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, where head of the Bureau for World Jewish Affairs and World Religions, Akiva Tor, briefed the group on the effects of the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement as well as providing them with an update on the situation in Gaza.
The single most meaningful aspect of the trip, echoed by all the participants, was the building of open and candid relationships with Orthodox Jews who understand Christianity. “One cannot walk away from a visit from Israel untouched and unchanged,” remarked Dr. Heath Thomas, Dean of the College of Theology and Ministry at Oklahoma Baptist University. He added, “I have led many trips to Israel, but this is the first time I have come here with scholars from different disciplines and that I have engaged with Orthodox Jewish scholars. This is the type of encounter that I can bring back and share with members of my department and network, and show them how meetings such as these can enrich our discipline.”
Dr. Glenn Kreider, Professor of Theological Studies at Dallas Theological Seminary, also expressed how “walking in this sacred place in open honest dialogue with both Christians and Jews was a profound experience. I am now enriched with the newfound relationships established on this trip.”
The launch the Christian Academic Initiative took over four years to plan. “Through our research, we understood that many Christian professors of Bible and Theology never visit Israel because of financial constraints,” explained Rabbi Pesach Wolicki, CJCUC’s Associate Director. “But in addition to securing the funding for the pilot, the CJCUC had to meet rigorous academic standards in order for the academic professors to partake in the program. A key factor in ensuring the academic integrity of the program was assembling an board headed by Dr. Gerald McDermott, author of Israel Matters: Why Christians Must Think Differently about the People and the Land.”
With the pilot behind them, the CJCUC staff is currently assembling the next group of visiting academics, as well as campus tours for the Israeli speakers who interfaced with the group.