You probably think I’m crazy even asking if Christians practice any form of Judaism. The vast, vast majority of both Christians and Jews would answer a resounding “no.” Only a tiny population of Jews and non-Jews in what is referred to as the Messianic Jewish and Hebrew Roots movements (they overlap somewhat but are hardly the same thing) even ask such a question. Moreover, only some of the people inside of those movements are considering or confused by the answer.
But why even ask such a ridiculous question? First of all, I recently read such a question as it was floating by in the blogoverse and was intrigued by its audacity. One such church-going (non-Jewish) Christian says he regularly tells other people in his church that he practices “Messianic Judaism”. This is just a hair off from his possibly telling other Christians that he’s a “Messianic Jew”. I don’t want to be unfair or inaccurate, and this person did not refer to himself as a Jew, Messianic or any other kind.
But as you know if you’ve been reading my blog for very long, I have a very definite perspective on What is Messianic Judaism. If you click that link, you’ll see that I don’t think it’s possible for a non-Jew and particularly for a Christian to actually “practice Judaism,” but apparently the question requires more attention.
There’s a conversation going on in Facebook currently (you may need to be logged into Facebook to see it) that was started by Boaz Michael, President and Founder of the educational ministry First Fruits of Zion (FFOZ). He asks:
A good benchmark for the Nations? The seven laws of Noach are all things that can be derived from one place or another in the Bible, if not directly from Genesis 9. They form a sort of minimalist approach to ethical monotheism: believe in God, be a decent person, be kind to animals, and settle your disputes in court.
Now to be fair, when I queried Boaz on the differences between how Noahides are viewed in Judaism and the blessings of being a Christian, he replied:
Yes, I think that for believers there are additional standards and expectations. After all, the God-fearing Gentile believers were not just “sons of Noah.” Through Paul’s gospel, they considered themselves co-heirs to the messianic promises and spiritual members of the people of Israel. They fellowshipped with the Jewish believers, shared meals with them, and worshipped in their synagogues. They considered themselves spiritual sons of Abraham.
Which brings us to a relevant point: Did Gentiles ever practice Judaism?
The complete answer would probably turn into a book or at least a doctoral thesis on the subject, neither of which I have time for. The short answer is a kind of “maybe” as I see it (well, not really, but I’ll get to that). It all hinges on whether or not you believe that Gentles imitated literally every behavior of their Jewish mentors when learning to become disciples of the Jewish Messiah, and even if they did, what that behavior meant to both the Jews and non-Jewish believers involved.
We see in Acts 10 that the Roman God-fearer Cornelius (who didn’t become a “Christian” as far as receiving the Spirit and water baptism until the end of the chapter) most likely prayed the daily prayers in the same pattern as the Jew.
…Four days ago, about this hour, I was praying in my house at the ninth hour…
–Acts 10:30 (ESV)
The ninth hour is about 3 p.m. which would be the proper time to pray the mincha or afternoon prayers. As Boaz said, the early non-Jewish disciples also very likely shared meals with their Jewish counterparts, which would have required that they keep a kosher diet, at least during those shared meals, and if, as Boaz said, they also worshipped in Jewish synagogues, then they would have prayed the same prayers (which were said from memory rather than through use of a siddur) and gone through the same “order of service” as the Jews. In fact, it’s likely that significant portions of the lifestyle of an “early Christian” would have been substantially similar to that of a Jewish person (disciples of the Jewish Messiah, or otherwise).
This may have contributed to some of the confusion we see among a number of the Gentles, as recorded both in Galatians, where Paul admonishes the Galatian church goers, saying they do not have to convert to Judaism and keep the full yoke of Torah (see Galatians 5:3) in order to be justified, and in Romans where Paul goes to great lengths (see Romans 11) to explain to the Gentile disciples that their entry into covenant with God did not cause them to supersede the Jewish “branches.”
No wonder now that Jews are rediscovering Jesus as the Jewish Messiah and Christians are rediscovering their “Jewish roots,” that we are also reviving something of that confusion in the present day (I’m speaking with some poetic license, since I don’t know if or to what extent Gentiles in the early church experienced any sort of “identity crisis” the way we see it in certain corners of the modern Hebrew Roots movement). I want to make it clear that many Gentiles in Hebrew Roots do not think they are Jews, nor do they intend on practicing any form of Judaism, so those who are “confused” represent a very small minority in Hebrew Roots.
So, I’ll ask it point-blank. Did early Christians practice Judaism? In terms of actual worship and significant lifestyle behaviors, it probably looked that way to an objective observer (though we lack a lot of information about how early Christianity really worked relative to Judaism). They might have been mistaken by some for people undergoing the process of converting to Judaism. The Roman empire recognized Judaism as a valid religion and would allow Jews to cease work during the Shabbat and so forth, but “the Way” as it was practiced among the non-Jewish disciples, was not a legal religion in the empire, and it would have been extremely difficult for diaspora Gentiles to keep Shabbat as did the Jews, and probably observe many of the other obviously Jewish mitzvot as well, such as eating kosher and praying shacharit and mincha, if it meant ceasing work during the morning and afternoon prayers.
Of course, after the destruction of the Temple and the exile of the vast majority of the Jewish population from Israel (renamed “Palestine” by the Romans), the first non-Jewish “bishop of the church” (certainly those exact words weren’t used to define the “office” of the head of the “Jerusalem Council” in those days) had to be elected. That, and many more events, resulted in the non-Jews taking administrative control over “the church of Jesus Christ” and within a few centuries (exactly how many centuries is up for grabs), the schism between what became Christianity and any form of Judaism was complete. At that point, no Christian was practicing any form of Judaism and any Jews who may have still, even secretly, acknowledged Yeshua as Messiah, would have done so as part of a completely Jewish religious life, isolated in the extreme from the Gentile Christian.
As part of the research (such as it is) I did for writing this “extra meditation,” I read articles such as Who is a Jew and Definition of a Jew, but they don’t really respond to the question I’m asking. First of all, there may be a difference between being Jewish and practicing Judaism, though I’m sure the distinction is very fine and difficult to identify. Then there’s the idea that we have post-modern Jews defining themselves without the “benefit” of the New Testament, thus they do not take into account any Apostolic material that might modify such definitions (and please keep in mind that Jews have every right to define who is a Jew and what is Judaism).
I tried to see if there was any way of answering the question, “Do Noahides Practice Judaism,” but other than finding a rather interesting article written by Rabbi Shraga Simmons about his brief interview with Noahide Jim Long, I came up dry. Certainly a Noahide would have no other place to go to worship and find community except a synagogue, thus he would be singing, praying, and worshiping alongside Jews on every Shabbat and holiday, but does that mean gentlemen like Mr. Long, a Gentile Noahide, are “practicing Judaism?”
The Gentiles in Hebrew Roots or worshiping in authentic Messianic Jewish communities seem to think they are the only non-Jews who have been attracted to and captivated by the Torah, but reading some of the comments in Rabbi Simmons’ article, I see that there is a significant number of us who have chosen the Noahide route and set aside Christianity/Hebrew Roots and Messianic Judaism as viable options.
What is Judaism? Since Judaism is a people, a nation, and a religion, it’s difficult to say that just “behaving” like a Jew means you’re practicing Judaism. You, as a non-Jewish Christian or Noahide, may be worshiping alongside Jews in a synagogue setting, sharing their fellowship, and breaking bread with them, but it might be a bit of a stretch to say you are practicing Judaism in precisely the same sense as the Jew davening next to you. If a Jew, for example, were to visit a Christian church (say he was married to a Christian wife but maintained a Jewish cultural, ethnic, and religious identity), and prayed and worshiped God within that context, we wouldn’t say he was “practicing Christianity.” Of course, he wouldn’t be acknowledging Jesus as Messiah and Savior, either.
What about the “Messianic Jew” who maintains a Jewish cultural, ethnic, and religious identity but acknowledges Jesus as Messiah? Does he practice Christianity? Some “Jewish Christians” do, but they have voluntarily left a Jewish religious and (to some degree) cultural context to worship and identify primarily as a Christian, but one of Jewish heritage. If you are a Jew who is Messianic and maintains that Jewish cultural, ethnic, and religious identity, it’s easier and clearer to say that you are “practicing (Messianic) Judaism.” A Messianic Jew in a church isn’t practicing Christianity, but worshiping alongside their Christian brothers and sisters. (Dr. Michael Schhiffman commented about this significantly on his own blog recently)
I suppose on that basis, regardless of how we see those early, ancient Christians and what they were practicing in the synagogue, today, we Christians, even those of us who daven in the presence of our Jewish fellows in a (Messianic) Jewish synagogue, are not practicing Judaism, but worshiping God with the Jewish people who, in this case, have the same God as we do, and know the same Messiah as we do.
I realize my little missive is not perfect, but I think I have made a reasonably good case for my point of view. Last spring during Shavuot, I worshiped in a completely Jewish synagogue context at Beth Immanuel Sabbath Fellowship. But even though the prayers were in Hebrew, even though we davened using a siddur, even though the Torah was read, and even through we all ate kosher meals prepared in a kosher kitchen, that doesn’t mean I was “practicing Judaism.” I was a Christian worshiping with other Christians and a good many Jews in a place where we were all welcome to share fellowship in love and peace, each of us just as who we were created to be by God.