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…

Messianic Judaism – Christian or Jewish? (2)

In my previous post I outlined the sad story of the separation of Rabbinic Judaism and Gentile Christianity, and the resulting Christian anti-semitism.

Messianic Judaism revolves around the issue of religious identity. The question “who is a Jew?” has a variety of answers, with both ethnic and religious aspects. Ethnically, Jewish identity may be considered in the same way as other ethnic identities, regardless of religious affiliation. For religious purposes, however, one is a Jew if one has been born to a Jewish mother (fathers alone don’t count here) or has undergone a process of conversion, circumcision (for males, obviously) and reception into the Jewish faith. The process includes instruction in Torah, not just as an intellectual exercise but as a basis for living and making the hundreds of decisions we encounter each day. For universal acceptance, this must be done by a recognised orthodox rabbi – liberal and progressive conversions are not recognised by orthodox Jewish communities or the State of Israel. Those who complete the stages of this process are understood to be included and incorporated into the covenant with God inaugurated through Moses at Mount Sinai.

Christian identity, of course, revolves around following the teaching and example of Jesus of Nazareth, with baptism as the outward sign of initiation, although a few groups, such as the Salvation Army, dispense with this. Christians, too, understand themselves to be covenant people of God – in this instance mediated through the life, death and resurrection of Jesus. Jesus refers to this new covenant at the Last Supper, and the Letter to the Hebrews can be regarded as an attempt to work out the implications of this.

The question then arises as to whether it is possible to be both Jewish AND Christian. The answer to this will depend very much on how one views the identity and purpose of Jesus and on the view one takes of the relationship between the two covenants. What does it mean when we talk about a “new” covenant? Does this imply that the “old” covenant is completely superseded or is there any sense in which it could still be said to be valid?

To be continued…

Messianic Judaism – Christian or Jewish?

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.

Welcome to the Forest

Greetings from the heart of the National Forest in the English Midlands. “A Tree in the Forest” plans to blog on a assortment of topics, but focussed on those related to Christian Life, Mission and Faith in the early twenty-first century. Tree is interested particularly in how new media and technologies will affect our culture and our understanding of the Christian gospel, also in how we relate to the changing society around us, especially those who may have a different faith. Other topics will appear from time to time. I look forward to the conversation.