What is Messianic Judaism?
[EDITOR’S NOTE: AP auxiliary writer Dr. Rogers is the Director of the Graduate school of Theology and Associate Professor of Bible at Freed-Hardeman University. He holds an M.A. in New Testament from Freed-Hardeman University as well as an M.Phil. and Ph.D. in Hebraic, Judaic, and Cognate Studies from Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion.]
“They wish to be both Jews and Christians, but are neither Jews nor Christians.” This is how the church father Jerome (ca. A.D. 345-430) characterized the “Nazareans,” one of the early Jewish-Christian groups that observed the Law of Moses while claiming faith in Jesus.1 The writings of the church fathers, in fact, regularly featured comments about early Christian sects who continued to observe the Mosaic Law. The existence of these groups should not surprise us since the New Testament already contests those who seek to impose the Mosaic Law on Christians. For example, Paul writes to the Galatians, “You are severed from Christ, you who would be justified by the law; you have fallen away from grace” (Galatians 5:4, ESV).
The tendency of some Christians to adopt the Mosaic Law, in part or in totality, has not faded with the passage of time. A modern movement, known as Messianic Judaism, seeks to return to these ancient ways. Although there is great variety in the beliefs and practices of Messianic Jews, this article shall attempt an overview of at least the key tenets of this movement.
The Attraction of Messianic Judaism
Messianic Judaism has attracted a great deal of attention in recent years. The reasons for its appeal are many. First, the atrocities of the Holocaust made the Western world in general more sympathetic to Jews and Judaism. This is exemplified by the Nostra Aetate declaration of Pope Paul VI which erases some of the most censorious anti-Semitic statements in Catholic tradition.2 Second, the appeal of Messianic Judaism is its seeming authenticity. Jesus was a Jew and lived a perfect life under the Law of Moses (Galatians 4:4).3 If we are to be like Jesus, does it not stand to reason that we too should live as He did? Would this not mean accepting the Law of Moses, adopting Jewish customs and beliefs, and speaking as He spoke?
Third, the New Testament reveals that the earliest Christians were Jewish and lived in accord with the Mosaic Law. James refers to the church as a “synagogue” (James 2:2, ASV), and it is clear that the observance of circumcision and Levitical dietary restrictions presented no problem until Peter’s vision (Acts 10:9-16). Even after the admission of the Gentiles into the church certain Jewish restrictions were still imposed (Acts 15:19-21). Fourth, Messianic Judaism is appealing because it is different. People are always interested in something new (Acts 17:21), and the novelty factor of Messianic Judaism is significant to most Christians. To some it is attractive to speak of Yeshua‘ hammeshîach (“Jesus the Messiah”) rather than “Jesus Christ”; of habberîth hachadāshāh rather than the “new covenant”; of their “rabbi” rather than their “minister.”
Fifth, Messianic Judaism is appealing because it is similar to Christianity. Most of the converts to Messianic Judaism are not Jews but Christians. Therefore, it is in the best interest of Messianic Jewish congregations to stress their similarities with mainline or evangelical Christianity. As a result, those who “convert” to Messianic Judaism do not feel as though they are abandoning one religion for another. Sixth, the premillennialist strand of evangelical Christianity insists the Jews continue to be God’s chosen people. They believe Jesus will someday establish an earthly kingdom based in Jerusalem, leading them to advocate Zionism (the political position that the state of Israel belongs exclusively to the Jewish people), which aligns their political beliefs with those of many North American Jews.
Seventh, many Protestant denominations embrace or even promote Messianic Judaism. One newsworthy example was the Avodath Yisrael congregation in suburban Philadelphia which was partially funded by the Presbyterian church of America.4 Messianic Judaism is designed in many places, then, to look simply like a more ancient and authentic Christianity. Many Christians feel they can turn to Messianic Judaism, sacrificing nothing while gaining a more genuine and biblical form of faith.
What Messianic Jews Believe
To summarize the beliefs of any religious group is a dangerous proposition. Imagine if someone were asked, “What do Christians believe?” The answers are not easy to give. Christians are incredibly diverse in what they believe and teach. While most of us recognize the problematic nature of diversity among our own religious groups, we do not apply the same perception to other faiths. For example, Christians in mostly monoreligious contexts (such as the American South) tend to think all Jews and Muslims believe and practice the same things. They do not. Attempting to characterize any movement in monolithic terms is unfair.
So we must admit that, when we study the Messianic Jewish movement, we find great diversity of belief and practice. Some Messianic Jews, for example, are unapologetically Christian, while some insist on being Jewish followers of Jesus, rejecting the “Christian” label. Some conduct worship services that feature Hebrew liturgies, while others toss in a few Hebrew terms (e.g., “rabbi,” “Yeshua”). Some accept the authority of rabbinic Jewish tradition, while others believe their authority ends with the New Testament. In other words, all Messianic Jews blend Jewish and Christian terms, traditions, and teachings, but the ratio of these elements differs greatly from one congregation to another. Nevertheless, we shall attempt to paint in broad strokes, and if the reader’s local version of Messianic Judaism happens to be different, perhaps we can be forgiven.
While some forms of Christianity have opened toward Jews and Judaism since the Holocaust, even viewing the two religions as compatible, Judaism itself has been more reluctant to sacrifice its distinctiveness. It is true that liberal strands of Judaism, such as the Reform movement, have been more open to the inclusion of Messianic Judaism than other Jewish groups,5 but no Jewish denomination has so far extended “the right hand of fellowship” to Messianic Jews. Shapiro states, “all four major denominations [Orthodox, Conservative, Reform, and Reconstructionist] agree that Messianic Jews are not acceptably Jewish, and that Jewishness is utterly incompatible with belief in the divinity of Jesus Christ.”6
This brings us to the first significant difference between Messianic Judaism and Christianity. Messianic Jews not only affirm Jesus as the Messiah, but also believe He is the Son of God. One of the oldest creedal assertions of Judaism is the Shema, which states the fundamental principle that “God is one” (Deuteronomy 6:4). Although Christians do not view the passage as contradicting the notion of “God-in-three-persons,” Jews have always used the passage to defend absolute monotheism, ruling out the divinity of Jesus. Jews generally acknowledge that Jesus was a great prophet, but definitely not the Son of God. To admit otherwise is to deny one of the fundamental confessions of Jewish faith.
Another major difference is that Messianic Jews believe the Messiah has come in the form of Jesus of Nazareth whereas traditional Jews believe the Messiah is yet to come. A seat is still reserved at the traditional Passover celebration for Elijah, who is to herald the coming of the Messiah (Malachi 4:5). Jews take seriously that the “age to come” is still future. A third difference is the authority of the New Testament. While Jews will admit Jesus into the ranks of Jewish prophets or traditional sages, they will not extend the same privilege to the apostles. They generally believe, along with much of New Testament scholarship, that Paul in particular corrupted the religion of Jesus, creating a hybrid faith that was eventually responsible for extracting the Jewish elements from Christianity. Messianic Jews, by contrast, continue to follow the teachings of the apostles.
David Stern, one of the primary voices within the tradition, insists that Messianic Jews are both fully Jewish and fully Christian.7 This might be possible if all the word “Jew” refers to is an ethnic identity. But the majority of Messianic Jews in the United States are not ethnically Jewish. That means these non-Jewish members of Messianic Judaism must believe they are Jewish in another way. As Ariel puts it,
Ironically, while advocating mostly conservative views on political, social, and cultural issues, this evangelical-Jewish movement is an avant-garde form of post-modern realities, in which individuals and communities exercise their freedom to carry a series of identities and struggle to negotiate between them. Such hybrids have become prevalent in contemporary Christian and Jewish communities, which, since the 1960s, often tended toward innovation and amalgamation of different traditions and practices.8
Messianic Judaism seeks a path between two faiths that have been historically opposed to one another. This is commendable in principle. Christians and Jews should engage in meaningful dialogue to learn from one another and to avoid many of the atrocities of the past.
That said, Messianic Judaism suffers from the same mistake that the ancient Christian-Jewish heresies committed. By seeking to be both Jews and Christians, they end up being neither. It is instructive that, although the four modern divisions of Judaism disagree on exactly what constitutes Jewishness, they seem united in the belief that Messianic Jews are not authentically Jewish. It is mostly the Christian world that has created and sustained Messianic Judaism, and the greatest growth has come primarily from the evangelical Christian population.
Paul understood Christ to be the “end” of the Law (Romans 10:4), and Christianity to erase the distinctions between “Jew” and “Greek” (Galatians 3:28). The author of Hebrews understood the “new covenant” to mark a different era under which the Mosaic covenant would be obsolete (Hebrews 8:7-13). For Christians who accept the authority of the New Testament, these statements leave little room for Judaism. Christianity is the great equalizer, but all must turn to Christ, for “there is salvation in no one else” (Acts 4:12). Judaism cannot accept the Messianic Jewish movement as an authentic expression of Judaism, and it seems the apostles could not accept the movement as an authentic version of Christianity. So what is Messianic Judaism?
1 Jerome, Epistle 112.13 (translation mine).
3 The title of Geza Vermes’ 1973 monograph, Jesus the Jew, hardly raises an eyebrow today, but was quite controversial in its time. The book, among other works of New Testament scholarship, provoked the so-called “third quest of the historical Jesus,” a movement to situate Jesus properly within his first-century Jewish context. It is no accident that Messianic Judaism was born anew in the 1970s. See Geza Vermes (1973), Jesus the Jew: A Historian’s Reading of the Gospels (London: Collins).
4 Jason Byassee (2005), “Can a Jew be a Christian? The Challenge of Messianic Judaism,” Christian Century, 3:22-27, May.
5 E.g., Dan Cohn-Sherbock, and Fran Samuelson (2007), Messianic Jews (London: Palgrave Macmillan).
6 Faydra Shapiro (2012), “Jews for Jesus: The Unique Problem of Messianic Judaism,” Journal of Religion and Society, 14:2.
7 David Stern (1988), Messianic Jewish Manifesto (Jerusalem/Gaithersburg, MD: Jewish New Testament Publications), p. 4.
8 Yaakov Ariel (2012), “A Different Kind of Dialogue? Messianic Judaism and Jewish-Christian Relations,” CrossCurrents, 62:326.
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