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When we speak of Messianic Judaism in antiquity and in the modern era, we are referring to a religious tradition in which Jews have claimed to follow Yeshua (Jesus) as the Messiah of Israel while continuing to live within the orbit of Judaism. Communities of such Jews existed in the first four centuries of the Common Era and then reappeared in the eighteenth century. The aim of this essay is to survey this history up until the present day.
Messianic Judaism in the New Testament Period
During the New Testament period, Messianic Judaism existed in the Land of Israel, Syria, and beyond. Here I will focus on two communities that practiced Messianic Judaism: Matthew's community and the Jerusalem community.
In his published dissertation Community, Law and Mission in Matthew's Gospel, Paul Foster describes an emerging "new consensus" in New Testament studies concerning the social identity of Matthew's community. An increasing number of scholars are now identifying Matthew's community as a "deviant movement operating within the orbit of Judaism." The case for this view is made by Anthony Saldarini, J. Andrew Overman, Phillip Sigal, Daniel Harrington, Joel Willitts, and Anders Runesson, among others. Roland Deines, who disagrees with this perspective, nonetheless acknowledges the existence of a new consensus emerging over three points:
1. The Matthean community in the last third of the first century CE is composed of mainly Jewish believers in Christ.
2. These Christian Jews see no reason to break with their mother religion just because they believe that Jesus is the Messiah, although they are experiencing some pressure in this direction from mainstream Judaism.
3. These Christian Jews live according to the Law of Moses and its valid halakhic interpretations of their time, with some alterations, softenings, or modifications based on the teachings of Jesus. Jesus is seen as a Law-observant Jew, who offered his own individual points of view on some matters and gave his specific interpretations of disputed halakhic rules, but they remained—as Markus Bockmuehl points out—"conversant with contemporary Jewish legal debate and readily accommodated on the spectrum of 'mainstream' first-century Jewish opinion." The Law-critical aspects in the Jesus tradition have to be interpreted within this frame.
It is now commonly recognized that Matthew viewed his community as a reformist Messianic movement within first-century Judaism.
Similarly, New Testament scholars have long held that the Jerusalem community headed by Ya'akov/James was (1) primarily composed of Yeshua-believing Jews who (2) remained within the bounds of Second Temple Judaism and (3) lived strictly according to the Torah (Acts 15:4–5; 21:20–21). Michael Fuller, Richard Bauckham, Craig Hill, Darrell Bock, Robert Tannehill, and Jacob Jervell are among the many Luke-Acts scholars who maintain that the Jerusalem congregation viewed itself as the nucleus of a restored Israel, led by twelve apostles representing the twelve tribes of Israel (Acts 1:6–7, 26; 3:19–21). Their mission, these scholars contend, was to spark a Jewish renewal movement for Yeshua the Son of David within the house of Israel (Gal 2:7–10; Acts 21:17–26).
The Jerusalem congregation functioned as a center of halakhic/ecclesiastical authority, and its leaders, headed by James, resolved disputes for the international community of Yeshua believers by issuing council decisions of the kind we see in Acts 15. Here Luke writes that the Jerusalem Council exempted Yeshua-believing Gentiles from proselyte circumcision and full Torah observance. While the significance of the Jerusalem Council decision for Yeshua-believing Gentiles has long been recognized in New Testament studies, the implications for Yeshua-believing Jews has only recently come to the forefront of Acts scholarship. As F. Scott Spencer points out, "The representatives at the Jerusalem conference—including Paul—agreed only to release Gentile believers from the obligation of circumcision; the possibility of nullifying this covenantal duty for Jewish disciples was never considered." If the Jerusalem leadership had viewed circumcision as optional for Yeshua-believing Jews, there would have been no point in debating the question of exemption for Yeshua-believing Gentiles or delivering a letter specifically addressed to these Gentiles. Michael Wyschogrod rightly notes that "both sides agreed that Jewish believers in Jesus remained obligated to circumcision and the Mosaic Law. The verdict of the first Jerusalem Council then is that the Church is to consist of two segments, united by their faith in Jesus."
A growing number of New Testament scholars now concur with Wyschogrod that an important implication of the Jerusalem Council decision is that Yeshua-believing Jews were to remain practicing Jews. To put it another way, the Jerusalem Council validated Messianic Judaism as the normative way of life for Jewish followers of Yeshua. In Acts 21:17–26—the mirror text of Acts 15—this validation is made explicit by Paul's example. At the request of James, Paul sets the record straight before thousands of Torah-observant Messianic Jews in Jerusalem that he remained within the bounds of Judaism. He testifies in the holy Temple that (1) the rumours about him are false—he teaches Diaspora Jews not to assimilate but to remain faithful Jews—and (2) he observes the Torah (present active tense) like the "zealous for the Torah" members of the Jerusalem Messianic Jewish community. Paul's testimony is fully consistent with his "rule in all the congregations" that Jews are to remain practicing Jews (1 Cor 7:17–24), a probable Pauline restatement of the Jerusalem Council decision.
Messianic Judaism and the Parting of the Ways between Judaism and Christianity
For centuries, scholars have taught that a decisive parting of the ways took place between Judaism and Christianity during the New Testament period. Today this narrative is widely disputed. In their book The Ways That Never Parted, Adam Becker and Annette Yoshiko Reed document the history of this reassessment and demonstrate that the evidence supports a "variety of different 'Partings' at different times in different places." Becker and Reed concur with Daniel Boyarin, Paula Fredriksen, Philip Alexander, John Gager, Judith Lieu, John Howard Yoder, Edwin Broadhead, and a growing number of scholars who have concluded, based on textual and archaeological evidence, that "the fourth century CE is a far more plausible candidate for a decisive turning point than any date in the earlier period." This reassessment is strengthened by the recognition that communities of Yeshua-believing Jews who practiced Judaism existed as late as 375 CE. Epiphanius, the fourth-century church father, describes the Messianic Judaism of his day:
[They] did not call themselves Christians, but Nazarenes.... [T]hey remained wholly Jewish and nothing else. For they use not only the New Testament but also the Old like the Jews.... [They] live according to the preaching of the Law as among the Jews.... They have a good mastery of the Hebrew language. For the entire Law and the Prophets and what is called the Scriptures, I mention the poetical books, Kings, Chronicles and Esther and all the others are read in Hebrew by them as that is the case with the Jews of course. Only in this respect they differ from the Jews and Christians: with the Jews they do not agree because of their belief in Christ, with the Christians because they are trained in the Law, in circumcision, the Sabbath and the other things.
In his essay "Jewish Believers in Early Rabbinic Literature (2d to 5th Centuries)," Philip Alexander notes that Messianic Jews who lived in Galilee during the Tannaitic period remained within the orbit of Judaism:
They lived like other Jews. Their houses were indistinguishable from the houses of other Jews. They probably observed as much of the Torah as did other Jews (though they would doubtless have rejected, as many others did, the distinctively rabbinic interpretations of the misvot). They studied Torah and developed their own interpretations of it, and, following the practice of the Apostles, they continued to perform a ministry of healing in the name of Jesus.... [T]hey seem to have continued to attend their local synagogues on Sabbath. They may have attempted to influence the service of the synagogue, even to the extent of trying to introduce into it the Paternoster [the Lord's Prayer], or readings from Christian Gospels, or they may have preached sermons which offered Christian readings of the Torah. The rabbis countered with a program which thoroughly "rabbinized" the service of the synagogue and ensured that it reflected the core rabbinic values.
Direct evidence of Jews who practiced Messianic Judaism after the First Council of Nicaea is scanty. This is because the view that Jews could not become Christians and remain Jews was backed by canon law and Constantine's sword. The Second Council of Nicaea in 787 was the first ecumenical council to ban Messianic Jews from the church. Messianic Jews were required to renounce all ties to Judaism through professions of faith like the one from the Church of Constantinople ("I renounce absolutely everything Jewish, every law, rite and custom"). From the fourth century until the modern period, millions of Jews converted to Christianity and left behind their Jewish identity.
Messianic Judaism and the Moravian Judenkehille in the Eighteenth Century
The earliest known post-Nicene attempt to restore Messianic Judaism was undertaken by the Moravian Brethren in Herrnhut, Germany (1735). Count Nikolaus Ludwig von Zinzendorf established in the Brüdergemeine (the Brethren community) a congregation in which Yeshua-believing Jews were encouraged to live out Jewish life and identity. He called this congregation a Judenkehille (Jewish community):
Soon the program of "gathering firstlings" emerged. The program aimed at integrating individual Jews into the Brüdergemeine without encouraging them to abandon their identity. To this end, several liturgical innovations were implemented. These included the celebration of the Day of Atonement and, later on, the Sabbath Rest and the intercession for Israel within the services on Sundays. A christianized Jewish marriage ceremony for the "firstlings" was created. The new converts were intended to be gathered in a Jewish-Christian congregation within the Brüdergemeine, the Judenkehille ("Jews' Qehillah," the latter part of the word being derived from the Hebrew word for "community").
As the years passed, Zinzendorf reassessed his approach and concluded that it would be better for Judenkehille congregations to exist autonomously within the Jewish community rather than within Gentile Christian churches. He thus redirected German Pietist efforts toward this end:
In the early 1750s, Zinzendorf reacted by modifying the project of the Judenkehille to the effect that he now aimed at establishing it within the Jewish communities. The converted Jews should, as an autonomous community, remain in their Jewish environment and form a sort of nucleus of the converted Israel. By this time Zinzendorf had moved to London to apply himself to the organization of the local branch of the Brüdergemeine. At that point, the new Judenkehille was also intended to be based in London and to be supervised by Lieberkühn and the convert Benjamin David Kirchhof (1716–1784).
As late as the 1770s, the Moravian Brethren were facilitating the establishment of fully autonomous Judenkehille congregations in Germany, England, and Switzerland.
Messianic Judaism and Jewish Missionary Societies in the Nineteenth and Early Twentieth Century
With nineteenth-century Protestant missionary societies promoting cross-cultural evangelism, it became increasingly acceptable for Christians of Jewish descent to identify as "Hebrew Christians" and to form missionary societies to bring the gospel to their own people. These early Jewish mission agencies included the London Society for Promoting Christianity Amongst the Jews (1809), the Episcopal Jews' Chapel Abrahamic Society (1835), the Hebrew Christian Alliance (1867), the Hebrew Christian Prayer Union (1882), the British Hebrew Christian Alliance (1888), the Hebrew Christian Alliance of America (1915), and the International Hebrew Christian Alliance (1925).
It is important to recognize that Jewish mission agencies did not promote Messianic Judaism. They facilitated Jewish evangelism and encouraged "converted Jews" to join Protestant churches, which assimilated these Jews into Gentile Christianity. Hebrew Christians who were employed by Jewish missionary societies did not typically live within the orbit of Judaism or identify as Torah-faithful Jews. Most were fully at home in the symbolic universe of Gentile Christianity.
Despite (or perhaps because of) this Gentile Christian context, some Jewish believers in Yeshua who came to faith through Jewish mission agencies refused to assimilate into Gentile churches. They wanted to continue to live as Jews. These individuals called themselves "Messianic Jews" to distinguish themselves from the majority of Hebrew Christians who saw little to no value in Judaism, and who thought it was backsliding or heresy for Hebrew Christians to practice Judaism as a matter of covenant, calling, or national duty before God.
Prominent Messianic Jews in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries included Joseph Rabinowitz in Russia, Rabbi Isaac Lichtenstein in Hungary, Mark John Levy in the United States, Philip Cohen in South Africa, and Hayyim Yedidyah Pollak (Lucky) in Galicia. Other leaders included Moshe Imanuel Ben-Meir and Hyman Jacobs in Jerusalem, Paul Levertoff (who held the chair of Hebrew and Rabbinics at the Institutum Judaicum in Leipzig), Paulus Grun in Hamburg, Alex Waldmann, Israel Pick, Jechiel Tsvi Lichtenstein-Herschensohn, and John Zacker (who founded the Hebrew Christian Synagogue of Philadelphia in 1922).
Messianic Jews referred to their religious tradition as "Messianic Judaism," a term that implicitly called into question the traditional narrative of a first-century parting of the ways between Judaism and "Christianity." It is important to recognize that Messianic Judaism challenged fundamental theological assumptions about the nature of the ecclesia and argued on the basis of New Testament texts—primarily Acts 15; 21:17–26; and 1 Corinthians 7:17–24—that Yeshua-believing Jews had a continuing responsibility before God to live as Jews. Messianic Judaism took exception to eighteen hundred years of Gentile Christian theology and exegesis that precluded reading the New Testament in this way. Most Jewish mission agencies did not want to be identified with this new perspective and distanced themselves from Messianic Jews and Messianic Judaism.
In December 1910, the first volume of The Messianic Jew was published by Philip Cohen's organization, the Jewish Messianic Movement. The journal promoted the importance of Yeshua-believing Jews living within the orbit of Judaism and embracing a Torah-observant life.
Excerpted from Introduction to Messianic Judaism Copyright © 2013 by David Rudolph and Joel Willitts. Excerpted by permission of ZONDERVAN. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Posted March 13, 2013
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