Messianic Judaism – Christian or Jewish? (3)

The question whether one can be both Christian and Jewish (posed at the end of my last post) is one that would have had early Christians puzzled. As E.P. Sanders, Geza Vermes, Tom Wright and many others have reminded us, the Gospels present a picture of Jesus who, for all his re-interpretation of the Hebrew Scriptures, lived as a Torah-observant Jew, though many questioned some of the company he kept. For the disciples in the post-Pentecost church, the issue was whether one had first to convert to Judaism (with all that implied) before joining the Christian community. The book of Acts narrates some of the story of how Gentiles began to become part of the Church without being circumcised and becoming Torah-observant. That this acceptance continued to be a cause of dispute is evidenced by Pauls Letter to the Galatians and other NT epistles.

Of course, pressure from both Christian and more orthodox Jewish communities began to tell as increasing numbers of Gentiles joined the church. By the mid-second century CE, Justin Martyr’s Dialogue with Trypho, a Jew illustrates how each community’s view of the Hebrew scripture was being formed and developed in opposition to the other. This was a process which would continue and sharpen the divide between an almost exclusively Gentile church and Rabbinic Judaism, which now felt the need to commit their oral traditions to writing in order to face life in a new exile from the Temple and the  Holy Land.

As noted before, throughout history there has been a small trickle of Jewish people who have converted to Christianity, for a variety of reasons. For the most part this has been achieved by individuals leaving the Jewish community (often at great personal cost) and joining the various Gentile traditions of the Christian Church. And until fairly recently it has been assumed by all that this is “as it should be.”

So why, at the end of the twentieth century, and the beginning of the twenty-first, should the phenomenon of “Messianic Judaism” have arisen? Is it a “theological sectarian mistake”? What, if anything, does it owe to American fundamentalism? How should the Christian church regard it, and does it have anything to teach us?

To be continued…