Father James Bernstein

Are we still aware of the vivid relationship between Old and New Testament, of the inheritance of the revelations that we received through the Prophets from the God the Most High? Do we see the direct continuation of the Jewish worship of the Old Testament in the liturgical life of our Church? Do we realize that all this inestimable inheritance of the Revelation, which was granted by God to His chosen people, was fulfilled in Christ and has been passed on to all the mankind through the Apostles, of the same lineage with Him?

A Jewish Christian, Orthodox priest, who was born in a family with roots in the Hasidic tradition and was seeking for many years for the true Messiah with pain and fervor, is the most appropriate hermeneut of this natural continuity between the Old and New Covenants. (Tatiana Petrache)

You have earnestly sought the Church in which the tradition of the Prophets and the Temple cult is continued. How did you find the Orthodox Church?

While living in Berkeley California my wife and I were involved in a Protestant Movement called The New Covenant Apostolic Order which eventually became the Evangelical Orthodox Church. The leadership of this movement were former Campus Crusade for Christ leaders who had become disillusioned with Protestantism. We embarked on a systematic study of what the ancient Church was like, particularly in the first few centuries. Major areas of research included, Worship, Doctrine, Scripture and Church Government. We were all surprised to discover that unlike the churches we were familiar with, the early Church was not non-liturgical and non-sacramental but was both very liturgical and sacramental. They were not non-creedal but had very clear dogma, doctrine, theology and creeds. They didn’t believe in Sola Scriptura ie the Scripture alone as authority but because the Church came first, wrote the New Testament and decided what books would be included – She has authority to interpret Scripture. The early Church was not congregational in form of government but was hierarchical, having deacons, priests and bishops and Apostolic Succession from the earliest age.

“I entered the Old Temple of Jerusalem”

Much of what we had believed and experienced as church was actually from the 16th century Anabaptist radical wing of the Protestant Reformation or from Martin Luther (the Lutherans) and John Calvin (the Presbyterians), not from the early Church. This along with general disillusionment with what we knew and experienced in Protestantism caused us to seriously examine what that ancient Church was like and whether that Church still existed. The 2 churches that seemed most like that Ancient Church were the Roman Catholic Church and the Orthodox Church. As we continued our research and contacts with Roman Catholics and Orthodox – it became clear to us that whereas the Protestants dropped many beliefs and practices of the Early Patristic Church the Roman Catholics added many beliefs and practices that distorted that held by the Church of the first millennium. It became clear that the Orthodox Church is the One Holy Catholic and Apostolic Church that alone is in direct continuity with the Early Church. She alone maintains true authentic Apostolic Faith. My book goes into detail in describing this process in section 2 of 3 entitled “Discovering the Church.”

Concerning your first Orthodox Liturgy you wrote that the church reminded you of the ancient Jewish Temple. You also said that you found the true God of the Jews in the Orthodox Church. Tell us about these things!

A chapter of the book is entitled, Orthodoxy: Jewish and Christian. From that chapter Ancient Faith Press published a booklet with the same title. Indeed, my first encounter with an Orthodox Christian Service swept me away. The moment I walked inside the church I felt a distinct sense of being in the presence of God. It was like stepping back in time with Christ and entering the ancient Jewish Temple in Jerusalem. Everything about the service was centered in the worship of the Most High God.

The music was very different from what I was accustomed to hearing in Protestant churches. It was more subdued and had a mystical quality about it. Visually, the interior of the church reminded me of the ancient Temple—it was stunning. In front stood an altar with a Jewish-looking candelabrum on it. Following the service I went home and found that the sweet aroma of the incense had pervaded my clothes. It was as if I had brought some of the heavenly presence home with me.

As a Jew, I knew that God had established the ancient Temple in Jerusalem, with all its elaborate ritual, to give us a glimpse of that worship which continually goes on in heaven. Moses had been instructed by God to make the tabernacle after the pattern of the heavenly prototype as seen in Exodus 25:9–40 (and later described in Hebrews 8:5; 9:23, 24). This is the background against which the early Jewish-Christian Church understood worship—seeking to reflect the glory of heavenly worship in their worship on earth.

Jewish worship was always physical. The Old Testament people of God worshiped with music, with color, with light and candles, with sweet aroma and incense, with art, with rhythmic chant, with feasts and fasts, with cycles of holy days, and with godly order and liturgy. I came to realize these things were neither pagan in origin nor temporal in character. They were fulfilled in Christ and retained in His Church.

As I attended subsequent Orthodox services, it became clear that the Orthodox Church had inherited, kept, and practiced biblical worship in a way that no other church I knew had—with icons and incense, with multicolored vestments and ringing bells, with flickering candlelight, melodious chant, and processions, with cycles of feast days and fasts. In these services, those on earth mystically join with those in heaven, together lifting up holy hands towards Him who sits on the celestial throne, singing, “Holy, Holy, Holy, Lord God Almighty, heaven and earth are filled with Your glory!” 

“We all betray Christ!”

How did you integrate into the Christian Orthodox community? You make a very touching confession that: “the Orthodox Church has an extraordinary worship, a true doctrine, apostolic succession, everything we’ve been looking for. Only one thing was lacking: hospitable and devoted members”. How did you overcome the weaknesses of the people?

I have held for very many years the principle: I believe in Christ and converted to Christianity not because I was impressed with Christians but in spite of them. Also: I became an Orthodox Christian not because I was impressed with Orthodox Christians but in spite of them. Regardless of how Orthodox Christians live I believe that the Orthodox Church is the only One, Holy Catholic and Apostolic Church. We all – including myself, betray Christ and the Church daily by not living as if we really believe in Him and His Church. So I came to understand that the Orthodox Church is truly Holy in her faith/beliefs/doctrines/theology, her practice/morality, her worship, her hierarchical/apostolic government, her Holy Traditions, in the lives of the Saints even if we are not as individuals holy.

The point is this: the official Scriptures, theology, dogmas, doctrines, worship, morality, holy tradition, spirituality etc of the Church are true and holy even if her people are not. When we as individual members stray, deviate from her life, spirituality we betray Christ and His Church. The Church remains on earth and in eternity the same – true, perfect, in a sense unchanging. We change, not the Church. It helps to understand that what we see here of the Church is but a miniscule part of the total Church. Using the imagery of an iceberg, what we experience is like the tip of an immense iceberg. The Church in eternity is for us invisible, outside of fallen time, vast beyond comprehension. We here are but a tiny part of it. This understanding helps me keep a proper spiritual perspective on who and what we are here. I keep in mind that it is the unseen iceberg below the water’s surface that moves the tiny iceberg’s tip. Not the visible tiny tip of the iceberg above the water that moves the vast invisible iceberg below. When I was first received by a Russian Orthodox priest in 1981 into the Church he jokingly said of the Church “She is the right Church – with the wrong people.” I suppose what he said sums it up! Really, none of us are worthy of the Church, most of all I.

It is important to understand that the Church is truly Holy both within and outside of time – both now and also in eternity. This is true because we distinguish the Church’s Holiness from the holiness of her individual members. Unfortunately there are now some Orthodox (even prominent) that are saying that the Church is NOT Holy in time. Not holy now. And that she is also not One in time. Not One now. This false understanding energizes their desire to view the Church as being much more than the Orthodox Church, as a Church divided in time. A Church having 2 lungs (Roman Catholic and Orthodox) and fragmented into multiple denominations – that all together comprise the One Church. Because I was very early able to distinguish the Church from her individual members – I was able to rise above what ever conflicts, insults or even attacks that I might experience or see others experience from Orthodox Christians. And still by God’s grace remain faithful to Orthodoxy.

In search of the Nazarenes”

After your conversion, you searched for the Jewish roots of Orthodoxy. What was the destiny of the Jew Christians from ancient Jerusalem?

What Became of the Apostolic Jewish Christian Church is the title of chapter 13 in my book. As a convert from Judaism to Christianity, I had always been troubled by the fact that every race and ethnic group had its niche within Christianity except the Jews. There are Greek, Russian, Arabic, Oriental, African, and Indian churches. There are Italian, Irish, Spanish, German, Swedish, Filipino, Ethiopian, Egyptian, Korean, and Persian churches. All have deep roots with many years of history. As I researched the early Church, I discovered that scholars have tended to assume the main body of postapostolic Jewish Christians branched away from the mainstream Gentile Church into heretical movements, including the Ebionites and Gnostics, that denied the divinity of Christ.

The Hebrew term “Nazarene” was the earliest designation for those who followed Christ. St. Paul was accused of being “a ringleader of the sect of the Nazarenes” There is reason to believe that the word “Christian” came to be used to describe Gentile converts to Christianity, whereas Jewish believers, in the earliest sources, came to be called “Nazarenes.” St Epiphanius (4th cent.) was born in Judea of Jewish parents. He said of the Nazarene group that they “took its beginning after the exodus from Jerusalem when all the disciples went to live in Pella because Christ had told them to leave Jerusalem and to go away since it would undergo a siege. Because of this advice they lived in Perea after having moved” (29,7,8). Pella was a city south of the Sea of Galilee and east of the Jordan River. Perea was a larger geographical area on the east bank of the Jordan River, between the Sea of Galilee and the Dead Sea, in present-day Jordan.

Both Epiphanius and Jerome mention the Nazarenes living in Beroea of Coele Syria, which is modern-day Aleppo in northwestern Syria. St. Jerome, unlike most fathers of the Church, had substantial personal contact with the Nazarenes while in the vicinity of Beroea. About AD 404 he wrote to St. Augustine concerning the Nazarenes, “They believe in Christ, the Son of God, born of Mary the Virgin” (Ep. 112,13). He understood them to have believed in the divinity of Jesus. He also states that they had a Gospel in Hebrew and lived in Beroea “and in all the Synagogues of the East.” According to St. Jerome, “The Nazarenes accept Christ in such a way that they do not cease to observe the old Law” If Jerome is correct, the Nazarenes survived into the early fifth century.

All records make it clear that the Jewish Christians sought to maintain their identity as they migrated first eastward to Pella, then northward to Aleppo. As the indigenous people of the area in which the Nazarenes lived converted to Christianity, and the number of Gentiles within the Church multiplied, it can be assumed that intermarriage also increased. As the number of Jewish converts to Christianity steadily decreased, it became increasingly difficult for the Nazarenes to maintain their identity. In time they became assimilated into the ever rising tide of Gentile believers.

“Aramaic Dialect is still spoken in Maalula”

The subsequent history of the indigenous Christians of north-west Syria provides some clues indicating that their heritage can in part be traced back to the Nazarenes. At least two facts indicate that the imprint of the ancient Nazarene Jewish Christians is to be found within the predominantly Arabic Orthodox Christian Church of that region. First, Aramaic, the language of Christ, the apostles, and early Jewish Christians, is still spoken among Christians in and around Maalula and has been used in the worship services of the Syrian Orthodox Christian Church. Western Aramaic is used nowhere else in the world. Second, the region where most of the Syrian Orthodox Christians live today is east of Laodicea (Latakiya) near the river Orontes and below the coastal mountain range known as Jabel al-Nusayriya (Arabic for Nazarene), in what is today known as the Valley of the Nazarenes.

These Christians have historically been under the administration of the Orthodox Christian patriarch of Antioch, who since the fourteenth century has resided in Damascus. Strange as it may seem, the spiritual descendants, and in part physical descendants, of the ancient Nazarene Jewish Christian Church of Jerusalem are the present-day Semitic Antiochian Orthodox Christians living in and around the Valley of the Nazarenes. What happened to the ancient Jewish 

Christian Church? Where did it go? Does it exist today? When asked these questions, I now feel comfortable responding that its soul lives within the Orthodox Church, rooted in the heritage of Antioch and the Valley of the Nazarenes.

Is there any real interest by contemporary Jews in Christian Orthodoxy? Are there any Jewish Christian Orthodox communities in Israel?

Unfortunately as far as I know contemporary Jews have very little interest in Orthodox Christianity. What Jews that do convert do so to typically Evangelical Protestant Christianity, to Charismatic Pentecostal forms, to Independent Protestant forms or convert to non-church related private forms. The reasons are:. First, because of past persecutions of Jews by Orthodox Christians (and also the Roman Catholic Church). Second, because of the hostility that the Orthodox Church has to the nation of Israel as opposed to many heterodox. . Third, because these denominations hold that in God’s Divine Providence Jews still have a positive place and are still specially chosen of God whereas most Orthodox don’t believe that. Fourth, as an independent Christian the Jewish believer can have freedom to interpret Scripture with few restrictions. Fifth, as an independent Christian the Jew does not have to be associated with a historic Christian tradition that is viewed as being hostile even anti-Semitic.

So you can see there are many reasons. Probably some reasons more as well! How was I able to do it? Only by the Grace of God! As I have mentioned before there are quite a number of Jews in the West that are converting to heterodox forms of Christianity, such as in Jews for Jesus and Messianic Jewish movements, but won’t go beyond that to the Orthodox Church.

“Both Jews and Orthodox Christians”

Regarding whether there are Orthodox Jewish Christian communities in the State of Israel. What ever exists there is not indigenous. Rather there was a huge influx of Jews from the former Soviet Union countries after the fall of Communism. Many had inter-married while in those countries to spouses that were Orthodox Christian (many in secret). When they emigrated to Israel they were able to become Israeli citizens based on the “law of return” stating that they were Jews. Many were actually Orthodox Christians but because they wanted to flee their countries of origin emigrated to Israel as Jews and hid that they believed in Christ. The numbers were actually huge. In the tens of thousands. Perhaps even hundreds of thousands!

Unfortunately they entered a country and region of the world that is not Orthodox Christian friendly and in fact is often hostile to our Faith. Only 2% of the population of Israel is Christian and Orthodox are perhaps only 1%. The expressions of Orthodox Christianity that do exist there were and are VERY ethnic, either Greek or Arabic. So there were very few Orthodox Churches that exist wanting to receive them. And the immigrants did not have the funds, or the support of the government or in many cases a deep desire to establish Orthodox Churches. In time most assimilated or are in the process of assimilating, having lost their unique Orthodox identity.

Nevertheless, some have formed where they live together small Orthodox Churches. There does exist communities of Orthodox Christians of Jewish origin that view themselves as being Jews but also Orthodox Christians. They are fully Israeli and even serve in the Israeli military. Whether or not these communities and churches have a future there and can actually grow – only God knows. They have so many forces working against them. My personal opinion from afar is that it would take special grace from God for them to survive and grow. With God – all things are possible!

The article can be found translated in Romanian in July 2019 edition of the Orthodox Family Magazine 

IULIE 2019