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…