What is “Messianic Judaism”?

WHAT IS “MESSIANIC JUDAISM”?  I want to begin discussing this movement by examining the original Judaism side of “the Messianic Bridge.”

messianic-bridge

But contrary to what many have defined or believed to begun with Christianity, actually pre-dates Christianity by about two centuries.

THE ORIGINAL MOVEMENT

The original movement began in about 28 – 30 C.E., by a young Orthodox Jewish proto-rabbi by the name of Joshua ben Joseph (Heb. Yeshua bar Yosef) of Nazareth, whose story would later by translated into Greek, then Latin, and then into English and other languages around the world.   Today most people know Him from their translation of the Greek New Testament, and in our English Bibles, His name is “Jesus Christ” or “Jesus of Nazareth.” For example, in Chaim Potok’s book, Wanderings: Chaim Potok’s History of the Jews, he writes,

The name of the founder of Christianity was Joshua son of Joseph.  In the Galilean Hebrew dialect of that day his name was probably pronounced Jeshua.  Jesus is the ordinary Greek form of the Hebrew name Jesus.  (371)

This is also seen in Paul Johnson’s book, A History of the Jews, when he says, “Jesus was the Greek form of the Hebrew Joshua” (126), and even in the introduction to the book of Joshua, in the Key Word Study Bible, it acknowledges that “The Greek form of his [Johua’s] name is Jesus” (290).  Yeshua is the Aramaic and post-Babylonian Hebrew form of Joshua.  For instance, Yeshua is used in the post-Babylonian writings of Ezra and Nehemiah, and I Chronicles and II Chronicles, as well as throughout the Aramaic New Testament, known as the Peshitta.  Therefore, in contradiction to many American pastors, Bible teachers, and TV evangelists, the name Yeshua is, indeed, used in the New Testament.

And now for those in the Messianic Jewish Movement, who point out the name Yeshua was the Messiah’s original name, it should be stated that both Joshua (Heb. Y’hoshua) and Jeshua (Heb. Yeshua) were translated into Greek with the same name Iesous by Jewish scholars 250-300 years before Joshua’s (Yeshua’s/Jesus’) birth, not just Yeshua; so consequently, then, it’s clearly evident that these Jewish scholars considered “Y’hoshua” (Joshua) and “Yeshua” to be equal, interchangeable forms of the same name.

The movement Joshua (Yeshua/Jesus) originally founded with 82 disciples and women, and probably children, rather than with just 12 disciples, was a KINGDOM Movement, NOT a religious movement.  The gospel (or “good news”) He proclaimed focused on the announcement that God was going to begin the process of restoring the two kingdoms of Israel into one kingdom as prophesied by the ancient Hebrew prophets. Of course, the disciples all expected this to happen all at once, rather than a slow process over time, but the focus was on bringing Israel back into a theocratic Kingdom state, rather than the religious state that the Pharisees and religious leaders were trying to mold and shape Israel into.

THE ORIGINAL MOVEMENT DIVIDES IN HALF

However, after Joshua’s (Yeshua’s/Jesus’) death and resurrection, and then ascension to the right hand of the Father, this original Kingdom Movement was then divided into two branches:  Nazarenes (the Jewish Branch, see Acts 24:5) and Christians (the non-Jewish Branch, see Acts 11:26).   There were continual frictions between these two groups because the Gentiles (or non-Jews) of the empire were normally syncretic when it came to matters of religion.  But as long as the Apostle Paul and James were alive, they were able to keep things somewhat in check.

However, after James’ and Paul’s death, and the destruction of Jerusalem and the Temple system in 70 C.E., there was no one to keep the Christian branch in check.  They began adding pagan elements to their faith, and the Nazarenes would often conflict with them about this.  However, with Jerusalem and the Temple destroyed, there were few Nazarenes left; consequently, the Christians began to dominate the movement, until in the 4th century, the Christians told the Nazarenes to either conform to the Christian expression of the faith or be cast out or killed.  By the 6th century, C.E., the Nazarenes became lost to history.

CHRISTIANITY BREAKS OFF TO START ITS OWN RELIGION

With the destruction of Jerusalem and the Temple, the Christian branch began to see itself as a replacement of the original Jewish branch.  As such, it not only began to see itself as a religion in its own right, but it began to teach what is called REPLACEMENT THEOLOGY, the idea that the Christian Church has replaced Israel as the people of God, and to support this idea further, they taught that the New Testament (representing the church) had replaced the Old Testament (representing Israel).

The first indication of this is found in the book The Apostolic Fathers, 2nd ed., translated by J.B. Lightfoot and J.R. Harmer.  In their book, one of the writings included was the “Letters of Ignatius, Bishop of Antioch,” dated between 98 – 117 C.E.  In one of his letters, addressed “To the Magnesians,” Ignatius writes,

For if we continue to live in accordance with Judaism, we admit that we have not received grace. (95)

If, then, those who had lived in antiquated practices came to newness of hope, no longer keeping the Sabbath but living in accordance with the Lord’s day, on which our life also arose through Him and His death… (95)

It is utterly absurd to profess Jesus Christ and to practice Judaism.  For Christianity did not believe in Judaism, but Judaism in Christianity, in which “every tongue” believed and “was brought together” to God. (96)

It should be noted that Ignatius lived and wrote about 30 years after Paul’s death and about 26 years after the destruction of Jerusalem and the Temple, during the time that Christianity was pulling away from Judaism, including the Jewish Nazarene believers.  This was about the same time, or shortly after, when the Apostle John, the last living Apostle, was on the island of Patmos, receiving his series of visions that would become the book of Revelation.  But in spite of this, Christianity continued to pull away, until there was a major divide between these two groups, and then as I said, in the 6th century, the Nazarenes dropped out of history, so that all that remained was the Christian branch.

THE HEBREW CHRISTIAN MOVEMENT

In the 1800’s God begins to restore the Jewish branch of the early movement.  For example, the following events happened,

  • In 1813, the first congregation, comprised of Jews who had converted to Christianity, was established.
  • In 1885, the First Hebrew Christian Church was established in New York.
  • In 1890’s, immigrant Jews who had converted to Christianity founded the Hope of Israel in New York, while retaining their Jewish rites and customs.
  • In 1895, the group, Hope of Israel, released their magazine, Our Hope, but Christians missionary groups started accused them of being Judaizers once they read their magazines subtitle: “A monthly devoted to the study of Prophecy and to Messianic Judaism.”

Therefore, the concept of “Messianic Judaism” pre-existed the actual birth of the movement “Messianic Judaism” in 1967.  But then, in the beginning years of the 20th century, there was the founding of the “Hebrew Christian Alliance of America.”

THE BIRTH OF MESSIANIC JUDAISM

But then, in the late 1960s and throughout the 1970s, as more and more Jews were coming to faith in Yeshua (Jesus) due to the “Jesus People Movement,” and the Jewish believers were beginning to realize that they did not have to leave Judaism to believe in Yeshua (Jesus) since Yeshua (Jesus) Himself lived an Orthodox Jewish life with Orthodox Jewish disciples in the land of the Jews, Israel.  This new awareness resulted in the name of the movement being changed to reflect this new revelation, from “Hebrew Christianity” to “Messianic Judaism.”

SOME DEFINITIONS OF MESSIANIC JUDAISM

After more than forty years since the beginning of the “Messianic Jewish Movement,” it is still defined as a “religious movement” among the Jewish people.   For example, on the Messianic Jewish Alliance of America (MJAA) website, “Messianic Judaism” is defined as,

Messianic Judaism is a Biblically based movement of people who, as committed Jews, believe in Yeshua (Jesus) as the Jewish Messiah of Israel of whom the Jewish Law and Prophets spoke.

Another major Messianic Jewish organization, called the Union of Messianic Jewish Congregations (UMJC), defines “Messianic Judaism” as,

a movement of Jewish congregations and congregationlike groupings committed to Yeshua the Messiah that embrace the covenantal responsibility of Jewish life and identity rooted in Torah, expressed in tradition, renewed and applied in the context of the New Covenant.

David Chernoff, in his article “What is Messianic Judaism?” on the Shema Yisrael Congregation website, writes,

Messianic Judaism is a movement of Jewish people who believe that Yeshua (Jesus’ original name in Hebrew) is the Messiah of Israel and the Savior of the world.

Yeshua is the most Jewish of Jews. Yeshua was a descendant of both Abraham and King David, was raised in a Jewish home and went to synagogue. He perfectly kept the entire Torah (see Galatians 4:4). He taught that He came to fulfill, not set aside, the Torah (see Matthew 5:17-19). He was a rabbi who performed unparalleled miracles, bringing great blessing to the nation of Israel. All His early disciples also lived very Jewish lives. The Messianic movement was entirely Jewish at its inception, and it continued to exist as an authentic Jewish movement for 700 years after Yeshua’s death and resurrection.

Messianic Jews have not stopped being Jewish. On the contrary, we remain strongly Jewish in our identity and lifestyle! The Tenach (the Old Testament Scriptures) provides the foundation of our Jewish faith, and the New Covenant Scriptures (which were also written by Jews) the completion of our Jewish faith. In fact, the Hebrew Scriptures themselves affirm that they are not complete, but that God was going to make a New Covenant with the Jewish people (Jeremiah 31:31-34).

We believe that the Sinai covenant, upon which much of traditional (Rabbinic) Judaism is based, is a broken covenant. There is no Temple and there are no sacrifices by which we can be brought near to God and experience genuine atonement. Non-Messianic Judaism is based on this broken covenant, which cannot save us.

In contrast, we believe that God already established this New Covenant by means of Yeshua’s death and resurrection. He died and rose again to atone for our sins, so that we can enter into this New Covenant relationship with God. We believe that Yeshua ascended to the right hand of God the Father and is coming back to Earth to reign from Jerusalem over Israel and all the nations of the world.  At that time the fullness of the New Covenant will be realized.

Although the definitions for “Messianic Judaism” vary from source to source, it is generally viewed as A RESTORATION MOVEMENT WITHIN JUDAISM, where Jews are re-discovering that Yeshua (Jesus) and His early disciples were Orthodox Jews, who lived their lives observing the Torah, attending synagogue, keeping kosher, and keeping the Sabbath and the other biblical feasts, as well as the other mitzvoth (commandments) given by God to Mosheh (Moses).  Therefore, since Yeshua and His disciples lived their lives as Orthodox Jews, keeping the commandments,  Jewish believers today in the movement maintain that they should likewise follow their example and keep the commandments as well.

BUT “HOUSTON, WE HAVE A PROBLEM!”

Although this was the original intent of the Messianic Jewish Movement, formed about 1967, the movement has grown beyond its own self-definition.   The problem is the same problem that the early disciples of Yeshua (Jesus) had: What to do with all these Gentiles?  In Acts 15, the disciples gathered to come up with a solution; however, those leading the Messianic Jewish Movement have chosen merely to ignore the problem.

In examining articles and definitions published by Jewish leaders in the Messianic movement, it is clear that there is a growing awareness to the problematic limitation of its current definitions.  In fact, the Messianic Jewish movement has grown so beyond its current definitions that the term “Messianic” no longer has any real meaning.  For example, in Rich Richardson’s online article, “The Challenge of our Messianic Movement: Part One,” he notes,

So then, the term “messianic” encompasses a broad spectrum from inclusive to exclusive.  In effect it can either mean nothing, or whatever a particular person or group decides that it means.

Richardson readily acknowledges here in his article that because the meaning of the term “Messianic” has not expanded along with the movement, the original definition no longer fits.  Consequently, the term is being applied in “whatever [way] a particular person or group decides what it means.”

Richardson, though, by far is not the only one who is aware that the term “Messianic” does not have an accepted standard definition.  This is also brought out by Rabbi Tzahi Shapira, the founding rabbi of the international organization Ahavat Ammi Ministries, and the author of Return of the Kosher Pig,  who pointed out near the beginning of his teaching “Shuvu! Be Restored! A Jewish Cry in a Gentile World” at the 2014 MJAA Heartland Conference in Grapevine, Texas,

Can you define for me what it means to be “Messianic”?  No, there’s no definition. What does it mean to be “Messianic”?  It is not something concrete.  I don’t know exactly what’s the difference even between somebody who is “Messianic” and somebody who’s a “Christian,” per se.  The distinction is not so clear to the point of saying, “This one is ‘Messianic’ and this is somebody who just believes in the Messiah.”

These and others point out that there is no clear, set standard definition for the term “Messianic.”  Consequently, calling oneself “Messianic” within the movement is an arbitrary title.

On the other hand, there are organizations, such as the Messianic Jewish Alliance of America (MJAA), whose definition reflects the limited perspective of the “Messianic movement” as a  “religious awakening” of Jews to the Messiahship of Yeshua/Jesus.  For example, the following definition of “Messianic Judaism” was taken from their website:

Messianic Judaism is a Biblically based movement of people who, as committed Jews, believe in Yeshua (Jesus) as the Jewish Messiah of Israel of whom the Jewish Law and Prophets spoke.

This definition is largely limited in that it only acknowledges the “committed Jews” who make up the movement, and it totally disregards the non-Jewish believers who make up most of the MJAA.  Another organization, the Union of Messianic Jewish Congregations (UMJC), again only defines the Messianic movement only in terms of the religious movement, Messianic Judaism,

a movement of Jewish congregations and congregationlike groupings committed to Yeshua the Messiah that embrace the covenantal responsibility of Jewish life and identity rooted in Torah, expressed in tradition, renewed and applied in the context of the New Covenant.

Although the UMJC’s definition is much more inclusive than the MJAA’s, in that it roots its definition in the description of the congregation and what it is committed to, rather than the type of people who participate in the movement, it is a definition which still has its short-comings.  For example, as Robinson points out in his article, the UMJC’s definition does not include the following groups of Jewish believers in the Messiah Yeshua/Jesus,

It seems to exclude Jewish believers in Jesus who are part of the First Lutheran or First Baptist Church, who value their Jewish identity and heritage but do not feel compelled to 1. consider themselves apart from their Gentile brothers and sisters, or 2. keep the Torah, aside from the basic moral commandments or 3. regard extra-biblical traditions and rabbinical interpretations of Scripture as a necessary part of their lives.  It also seems to exclude Jewish believers in Jesus who belong to messianic congregations that do not regard extra-biblical traditions and rabbinical interpretations of Scripture as a necessary part of their lives.

In addition to the problem here as described by Robinson, I also believe that the UMJC’s, along with the MJAA’s, definitions falls short in that they do not distinguish between the overall Messianic movement and Messianic Judaism.  I believe the movement has grown so large that it is time that these two interdependent entities were independently defined.

NEXT SECTION

In the third section of this series, I would like to address the questions, “What is a ‘Messianic Christian’?”  And how do they differ from mainstream Christianity?”

 

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