A few days ago I became involved in an exchange with clayboy (Doug Chaplin) in which the subject of Messianic Judaism came up. In a comment, he stated
“And I share with most Jews and most Christians the view that most Messianic Judaism that differentiates itself from Christianity is a theological sectarian mistake, over-influenced by American fundamentalism. That sweeping generalisation (to which I certainly think there are some exceptions) is a topic for another post.”
Rather than wait for Doug’s post, I decided to take up his suggestion and offer some of my own thoughts on the subject of Messianic Judaism. However, as I thought more about it, I began to realise that it would be difficult to do justice to this topic in one blog post, nor do I have time to deal with the issue comprehensively at one sitting. So this will be the first of a number of posts.
The first thing to acknowledge is that Doug is right to say that for most Jews and most Christians, Messianic Judaism is regarded as a theological sectarian mistake. As is well known, the history of relations between Rabbinic Judaism and Christianity is, for the most part, not a happy one. From the second generation of the church onwards, Christianity has been a largely Gentile phenomenon, rejected by the vast majority of Jewish people. Since then the church has attempted to exert pressure of various kinds to “encourage” conversion – from the medieval “disputes”, often heavily rigged by Christian rulers to demonstrate the superior claims of Christianity, to the horrors of the Inquisition which threatened torture and death to those who refused to submit. Sometimes conversions happened, but these were frequently either in response to overt pressure just mentioned, or in order to better an individual’s or family’s social, financial or political standing in a Gentile Christian world.
At the heart of much of the Christian response to Judaism has been an assumption of the superiority of Christian faith over against that of Judaism. In this view the life, death and resurrection of Christ abolished almost everything that makes the Jewish faith so distinctive. A supersessionist, or replacement, theology taught that God had now finished with the Jewish people, that the first covenant had effectively been anulled and that the Church had replaced Israel (indeed now WAS Israel) in God’s scheme of things. In such a view, the only way in which Jewish people could have a part in God’s plan of salvation was to renounce their former faith and join the (Gentile) Church. At the Reformation, Martin Luther began with high hopes that the removal of Catholic “errors” would see Jews flocking to a reformed Christianity. When these hopes proved to be unfounded, he then spewed forth some notoriously anti-semitic invective.
With this history, it is hardly surprising that the name of Christ, and almost everything the Christian church stood for, became an object of fear and loathing to Jewish communities and individuals across Europe. As Christian thinking and practice developed, so did that of Judaism, frequently in response to the other. The result of this, almost inevitably, was that an individual converting from one religion to the other (mostly in the Jewish – Christian direction) was ostracised by their original community. The faiths were regarded by both communities as being mutually exclusive. Converting Jews were expected to live in exactly the same way and adopt the same cultural and religious practices as their gentile neighbours.
Having set the scene in this post, I intend in future posts to consider why Messianic Judaism has arisen during the last few decades, what are its influences and to what extent it might or might not have validity in terms of both Judaism and Christianity. I would be interested to hear your thoughts.