Tag Archives: Jewish identity

Passover, Messianic Judaism, and Mutual Inclusiveness

Jewish wealth is not houses and gold. The everlasting Jewish wealth is: Being Jews who keep Torah and Mitzvot, and bringing into the world children and grandchildren who keep Torah and Mitzvot.

-from “Today’s Day” for Nissan 9 5703
Compiled and arranged by the Lubavitcher Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, of righteous memory, in 5703 (1943) from the talks and letters of the sixth Chabad Rebbe, Rabbi Yosef Yitzchak Schneersohn, of righteous memory.
Chabad.org

“The older I get, the more I realize how different it is to be a Jew in a Jewish place as opposed to a Jew in a non-Jewish place. It’s definitely a different feeling in terms of how freely you can be yourself and celebrate your culture and religion.”

-Natalie Portman

I have tried to pull back from my formerly self-imposed obligation of writing and posting a “morning meditation” each day (except for Shabbos). I typically plan to write only one or two blog posts each week. But I realize that, perhaps below the level of conscious thought, I’m actually leaving room in my schedule for those things I write spontaneously when I come across a compelling topic…

…like Jewish identity.

Jewish identity and the approach of Pesach (Passover). What do they have in common besides the obvious?

Our Sages assert that the Israelites in Egypt were on the lowest level of spiritual impurity. They worshipped idols. They were debauched and dissolute. So how did they merit the grand and miraculous redemption?

They had only three things going for them: They kept their Hebrew names, their Hebrew language, and their distinctive Hebrew dress. In other words, they retained their Jewish identity.

Wait a second! Didn’t you cringe when you found out that the biggest Ponzi scheme in history had been perpetuated by someone with a distinctly Jewish name? Wouldn’t we have preferred that instead of retaining his Jewish identity he had changed his name to Christopher Johnson?

What is the redemptive value of Jewish identity?

-Sara Yoheved Rigler
“Jewish Identity: Are You In or Out?”
Aish.com

In Christianity, one is redeemed by God due to faith in Jesus Christ. It’s not who we are, for Christ accepts everyone, regardless of heritage, background, nationality, language, walk of life, and so on. You aren’t saved by who you are but by what you believe, almost regardless of what you do about it (though to be fair, I know Christians who expect believers to live a transformed life in response to their faith).

But what Sara Yoheved Rigler is suggesting, is that Jews are redeemed by who they are, particularly in their outward appearance. What redeemed the ancient Israelites (according to the Sages) is that, regardless of worshiping idols and being enslaved, they retained an obvious Jewish identity.

Seems crazy, huh?

But according to Ms. Rigler, this isn’t just an issue for the Jews of antiquity, but it is a critical question for modern Judaism.

The question assumes particular importance in our generation. Indeed, the rates of adultery, domestic violence, addiction to drugs and porn, and murder for reasons as trifling as being cut off in traffic have skyrocketed in this generation. An objective look at our moral standing would produce a grim assessment.

Judaism promulgates a teleological worldview – that history is moving toward a specific goal, namely, the Redemption, or the Messianic era. So how can a generation as dissolute as ours be redeemed?

jewish-davening-by-waterI’ve written before about the necessity of a Jewish community for Messianic Jews and that one of the critical purposes of Jewish community for Jews in Messiah is to prevent them from being cut off from the world-wide community of Jews. But no matter how much or how well I think I’ve made my point, it’s one that is difficult for many others, including some Messianic Jews, to accept.

What many people read and hear is that I’m replacing Messiah with Judaism, as if Messiah and Judaism are mutually exclusive terms. Certainly the Chabad don’t think that, although they’d certainly disagree with me about the identity, function, and to a degree, purpose of the Messiah. On the other hand, they certainly expect him to arrive and don’t consider the desire for the coming of Messiah to eliminate their Jewish identity.

So where do we get the idea that Jews must stop being Jewish and stop having community with other Jews when they come to faith in Yeshua of Nazareth as Messiah?

From Christianity and Judaism, historically.

For nearly two-thousand years, any Jew who has realized that Jesus (Yeshua) is indeed the Messiah and desired to worship him and honor him has been required, by the Church (in its many and various forms) to renounce Jewish identity and Jewish practices and convert to (Gentile) Christianity. In its darkest days, the Church has resorted to various sanctions, torture, and even the threat of death to “convert” Jews to Christians. For Christianity, being Jewish and being a Christian are mutually exclusive terms.

To be fair, this is also considered true by most Jewish people. I’ve heard stories that in Orthodox Judaism, a friend or family member is mourned as if they died if they should become a Christian (I don’t know how true this is but I can see the point). Messianic Jews, that is, halachically Jewish people who come to faith in Yeshua as Messiah and yet retain their Jewish identity, continue to perform the mitzvot, and in all other ways, live a completely consistent Jewish life are still thought of as “Jews for Jesus” and tend to be shunned by secular and religious Jews alike.

In the Fall 2013 issue of Messiah Journal, Rabbi Stuart Dauermann wrote an impassioned plea that all Jews in Messiah must consider the Jewish people as Us, not Them, meaning that faith in Messiah should not and must not stand in between a Jew and all other Jews.

And many centuries ago, another Jew made a similar plea:

I am telling the truth in Christ, I am not lying, my conscience testifies with me in the Holy Spirit, that I have great sorrow and unceasing grief in my heart. For I could wish that I myself were accursed, separated from Christ for the sake of my brethren, my kinsmen according to the flesh, who are Israelites, to whom belongs the adoption as sons, and the glory and the covenants and the giving of the Law and the temple service and the promises, whose are the fathers, and from whom is the Christ according to the flesh, who is over all, God blessed forever. Amen.

Romans 9:1-5 (NASB)

The Jewish PaulIn his faith in Messiah, Paul did not see himself as separated from the larger Jewish world or from other religious streams of Judaism. In fact, his love for his fellow (unbelieving) Jews was so great that he would have willingly become accursed and separated from the Messiah for the sake of other Jewish people, that they might see and accept Messiah as Paul did.

For Paul, the Jewish people, all of them, were “us” not “them.” Jewish identity and faith in Messiah were never at odds for Paul. Faith in Messiah was the natural extension of his being a ”Hebrew of Hebrews; as to the Law, a Pharisee…as to the righteousness which is in the Law, found blameless” (Philippians 3:5-6). It’s thought by many Christians that Paul was talking about his past, before “conversion,” since he mentioned his persecuting the church, yet he was speaking in the present tense when he said:

I am a Jew, born in Tarsus of Cilicia, but brought up in this city, educated under Gamaliel, strictly according to the law of our fathers, being zealous for God just as you all are today.

Acts 22:3 (NASB)

”Being zealous for God just as you all are today.” Paul was talking to a crowd of Jewish people. True, they were calling for his death, but that wasn’t because Paul surrendered his Jewish identity and was encouraging other Jews to do likewise, as the false allegations suggested. He remained a devout and faithful Jew and zealous for the Torah. His only “crime” was his fervent desire to also include Gentiles among the community of the redeemed.

Maimonides, in his code of Jewish Law, makes a startling pronouncement. He writes that a Jew who lives in isolation from the Jewish community, even if he keeps all the commandments, is considered a kofer b’ikar, a heretic. The implication is that identifying with the Jewish community is a basic value that underlies all the commandments.

Living among so many Gentiles for so much of his life must have taken a toll on Paul. I don’t know if the concept of kofer b’ikar existed in first century Judaism, but if it did, it may have been another reason the Jewish crowds in Acts 21-22 were so angry at Paul. He was a Jew who, because of his unique mission as an emissary to the Gentiles, didn’t spend a great deal of time in Jewish community. Yes, he went first to the Jew and then also to the Greek, but by the end of his third missionary journey, many Jewish communities in the diaspora were incensed with Paul because of the issue of the Gentiles.

This is a huge issue in Messianic Judaism today. This is one of the vital reasons why Messianic Jews must consider themselves as part of a larger Jewish community, not just a Messianic Jewish synagogue, but the overarching world of Jewry and affiliation and allegiance to national Israel. Even if a Messianic Jew is scrupulous in observing the Torah and faultless in performance of the mitzvot, outside of Jewish community, or more to the point, buried neck-deep in a community of Gentile believers, whether Messianic Gentiles or Evangelical Christians, the very real threat of kofer b’ikar and kareth exists.

Sara Yocheved Rigler
Sara Yocheved Rigler

I’m not suggesting that all Messianic Jews abandon their relationship with non-Jewish believers or stop associating with non-Jews in Messianic Jewish religious spaces, but first and foremost, a Messianic Jew must continually grasp tightly to the fact that he or she is a Jew and part of the Jewish people, all of them, everywhere.

In her article, Ms. Rigler goes on to describe the different critical points in history when Jews could and often did renounce their Jewish identity through forced or voluntary conversion to Christianity or to blend in with American culture when emigrating to this country.

That’s why alarm bells rang a couple years ago when a study revealed that 50% of American Jews under the age of 35 would not consider it “a personal tragedy if the State of Israel ceased to exist.” Two months ago an American Congresswoman declared that the Jews of America had sold out Israel in their support of Obama’s diplomatic surrender to Iran’s nuclear program.

Today, the community of Jews in the diaspora and particularly in western nations, could easily be extinguished through assimilation. I don’t believe that’s what God wants but I do believe it’s what most Christians want as long as said-assimilated Jews assimilated into the Church.

But unlike why I, or rather Ms. Rigler said above, it’s not just about appearing Jewish:

Let’s be clear here. God wants the maximum from us Jews: love your neighbor as yourself; keep Shabbos; don’t speak lashon hara; keep kosher – the whole nine yards. But the minimum requirement to be redeemed is to identify as a Jew.

Jewish identity is where you start, not where you finish. Particularly for Jews in Messiah, it must be abundantly clear to all other Jews as well as to everyone else, that the Jewish person in Messiah is Jewish. That’s why it’s (in my opinion) not optional for a Jew in Messiah to observe the mitzvot. While the minimum requirement to identify as a Jew is good, it is much better to go the whole nine yards, so to speak, and to live a life indistinguishable from other religious Jews, regardless if the standard of observance is Orthodox, Conservative, or Reform.

Jewish identity is what prompted Kirk Douglas to fast every Yom Kippur. As he proudly stated, “I might be making a film, but I fasted.”

Jewish identity is what prompted Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg to post a large silver mezuzah on the doorpost of her Supreme Court chambers.

Jewish identity is what prompted movie star Scarlet Johansson to stand up for Israel at the cost of her prestige as an Oxfam ambassador.

schiffman
R. Michael Schiffman

This morning, Rabbi Michael Schiffman, who grew up in Jericho, NY in a traditional Jewish family, wrote a simple and heartwarming blog post called Finding Yeshua. No, being a Jewish believer and living a life consistent with Judaism, Jewish identity, and affiliation with Jewish community does not replace or reduce Messiah. It simply puts everything in perspective.

Ms. Rigler ends her article this way:

The Passover Seder speaks about four sons. Only one of them is cast as “wicked.” As the Hagaddah states: “The wicked son, what does he say? ‘What is this service to you?’ ‘To you,’ but not to him. Because he excludes himself from the community, he is a heretic. … Say to him, ‘Because of what God did for me when I went out of Egypt.’ For me, but not for him, because if he would have been there, he would not have been redeemed.”

The first Passover marked the birth of the Jewish nation. Every Passover since poses the challenge to every Jew: Are you in or are you out?

If you are Jewish and you are a believer, how do you answer this question? Since I’m not Jewish, it’s not a question directed at me, but as a Messianic Gentile, I believe it is my duty to encourage believing Jews to answer “in.”

Jews on the Wrong Side of the Cross

crossAngela Buchdahl was born to an Ashkenazi, Reform Jewish father and a Korean Buddhist mother, yet on her path to the rabbinate did not take the time to convert to Judaism.

-Yori Yanover
“It’s Official: You Can Be a Non-Jewish Rabbi”
Published: August 14th, 2013 Latest update: August 15th, 2013
JewishPress.com

Now that’s an odd story. I was having coffee with my friend Tom last Sunday afternoon when he mentioned this news item. Today, he sent me the link via Facebook. But Reform Rabbi Angela Buchdahl’s tale isn’t quite as it appears.

Exactly 30 years ago, in 1983, the Reform movement in America adopted the bilineal policy: “The Central Conference of American Rabbis declares that the child of one Jewish parent is under the presumption of Jewish descent. This presumption of the Jewish status of the offspring of any mixed marriage is to be established through appropriate and timely public and formal acts of identification with the Jewish faith and people. The performance of these mitzvot serves to commit those who participate in them, both parent and child, to Jewish life.”

It should be noted that outside the U.S. the Reform movement is yet to adopt the sweeping “presumption of Jewish descent” doctrine, but they do, by and large, offer “accelerated conversions” to children of a Jewish father.

In the Hebrew Roots and Messianic Jewish movements (and their various branches), Jewish identity is an important issue. Who is Jewish and who isn’t directly relates to the roles and responsibilities of individuals within Messianic Judaism and great efforts are made to maintain such distinctions, particularly since Messianic Jewish congregations contain (typically) a minority of halachically Jewish members and a majority of Gentile believers who choose to worship within a Jewish context.

Yori Yanover, in his article says that Reform Rabbi Buchdahl’s synagogue on the Lower East Side of Manhattan can be seen to have a number of African and Hispanic attendees and that, as far as diversity goes, Yanover would “beam with pride” over “gentiles who embrace the Jewish faith and who go through the grueling process of converting to Judaism.” But that presupposes conversion to Judaism and adoption of Jewish identity.

Yet outside of Reform Judaism, especially the United States expression of it, Rabbi Buchdahl would be considered a non-Jew and the lines defining Jewish identity have gone beyond being blurred to being eradicated. A non-Jewish Rabbi and Cantor?

Indeed, the more the Reform movement is reinventing itself, the closer it gets to Christianity. She’s been active, among other things, at Auburn Theological Seminary, “an interfaith platform to address global issues and build bridges across religious traditions.” “Angela is an extraordinary religious leader,” Rev. Katherine Henderson, Auburn’s president, told Hadassah. At a gathering for a Presbyterian group last year, Buchdahl “led worship that was completely authentic for her as a Jew and yet completely accessible for this group of Christians,” says Henderson. “We were all able to praise God together!”

But should Jewish writer Yanover be complaining? Shouldn’t we all be getting along as people of faith? And as a Christian, shouldn’t I delight to see Judaism and Christianity coming together, merging, forming a combined corporate identity? Isn’t this just one more step to converting Jews to Christians and becoming “one new man?”

In 1827, Czar Nicholas I decreed that all Jewish boys be forcibly conscripted into the Russian Army at age 12. Called “cantonists,” these boys were kidnapped from their parents’ home, and tortured repeatedly with the implication that conditions would improve if they’d accept Christianity. (Many died of their wounds.) The boys were indoctrinated in military prep school until age 18, and thereafter served 25 years in the army. The authorities saw it as a corrective, forced assimilation of stubborn Jews into Russian society, and as a way to undermine the authority of Jewish communal leaders. Some 50,000 Jewish boys were forced into Czar Nicholas’ army, and most never returned to the families they had left at age 12. The policy was abolished in 1855, with the death of Nicholas.

Day in Jewish History – Elul 15
Aish.com

gentile-jesusI was talking with another Christian recently and the topic of Jews being forced to convert to Christianity under torture came up. In the course of conversation, my companion said that the Jewish people ultimately need to accept Jesus as the Messiah and that it’s wrong for Jews to refuse to convert. Frankly, I could hardly believe my ears. Was this person saying that a Jewish person who felt that the blue-eyed, Goyishe Jesus was not the Jewish Messiah and who believed that Christianity embodied polytheism and idolatry should nevertheless accept conversion to Christianity while under torture as an act of obeying God?

That’s plain nuts. Yes, I believe that Jesus is the Jewish Messiah, but it is not “Christian” to torture someone to conversion. Further, if you force a “conversion,” how sincere can it be? Did Jesus advocate such monstrous acts? Did Paul routinely beat, starve, burn, and cut other Jews who refused to see his side of the story about Jesus? How can this be right? How is this uplifting the Name of God and keeping it Holy?

I’m not saying that Judaism trumps the Word of God or the message of Messiah anymore than Christianity does. We are all (or should all be) seeking an encounter with God, not blindly marching after a series of theologies, doctrines, and dogmas. But is being Jewish nothing to God? Didn’t He call Abraham as the first Hebrew? Didn’t He require that the Children of Israel set themselves apart from the nations as His treasured possession, a kingdom of priests, and a holy nation? (Exodus 19:5-6) And even on the “other side of the cross,” were not there many thousands of Jews who were all believers in Jesus as Messiah and all of them zealous for the Torah? (Acts 21:20)

It hardly seems as if God established the Jewish people and required them to be unique and set apart from the other nations and peoples of the world, and yet after the crucifixion, deleted them from any significance in the course of human history and the plan of the most Holy and One God.

Is God among the Jewish people who have not accepted Jesus as Messiah?

A commenter recently stated that he had no intention of reading anything by Abraham Joshua Heschel because he did not believe he could “grow spiritually” by reading “someone that doesn’t have the type of faith that’s required to be a born again believer in Yeshua.” I am not writing this response with the intention of casting aspersions on the commenter. I simply want to stand against this idea that we cannot learn from or grow spiritually by reading the ideas of people who do not share faith with us in Jesus.

I think the idea is baseless. I’d like to discuss it from various angles, not least of which is the observation that Christianity and Judaism both have long histories of believing otherwise. The theology behind the idea that spiritual truth can only be learned from people with Jesus-faith is not biblical, is not sound thinking about God and his ways, and has its basis in a spiritual triumphalism of the shallowest proportions. I am not saying that people who believe in the Jesus-believers-only theology are shallow, but they have been influenced by an arrogant religious culture.

-Derek Leman
“Can We Learn From ‘Unbelievers?'”
DerekLeman.com

Abraham-Joshua-HeschelI can’t imagine Abraham Joshua Heschel not being a man of God, and certainly his famed book God in Search of Man is a testimony to every man’s spiritual search for his Creator.

Part of the response I posted on Derek’s blog states:

The whole idea of taking “sides of the cross,” so to speak, drives me nuts. In Scot McKnight’s book The King Jesus Gospel, McKnight tells a story about a chance meeting with another Pastor and McKnight asked in the course of the conversation if Jesus preached the gospel. The Pastor without hesitation said that it was impossible for Jesus to even have understood the gospel message because he was born on the wrong side of the cross! Apparently, this Pastor believed that no one understood the gospel message until Paul.

While Jesus changed a great deal in terms of non-Jewish covenant access to God, he didn’t revolutionize the universe and radically transform Judaism by eliminating any connection between Jewish people and God at the cross. Jesus, as the Jewish Messiah King, should be seen as both a continuation of Judaism across time and as an amplification of Judaism’s greatest gift to the Jewish people and the world.

I found the following Rabbinic stories at Aish.com and I encounter them elsewhere from time to time.

Rabbi Shimon ben Shatach once bought a donkey and found a gem in the carrying case which came with it. The rabbis congratulated him on the windfall with which he had been blessed. “No,” said Rabbi Shimon, “I bought a donkey, but I didn’t buy a diamond.” He proceeded to return the diamond to the donkey’s owner, an Arab, who remarked, “Blessed be the God of Shimon ben Shatach.”

A non-Jew once approached Rabbi Safra and offered him a sum of money to purchase an item. Since Rabbi Safra was in the midst of prayer at the time, he could not respond to the man, who interpreted the silence as a rejection of his offer and therefore told him that he would increase the price. When Rabbi Safra again did not respond, the man continued to raise his offer. When Rabbi Safra finished, he explained that he had been unable to interrupt his prayer, but had heard the initial amount offered and had silently consented to it in his heart. Therefore, the man could have the item for that first price. Here too, the astounded customer praised the God of Israel.

praying-at-the-kotelIn Judaism, kiddush Hashem means “sanctifying the Divine Name,” usually by some sort of behavior. While I can’t say that all Jewish people across the world and across time have always lived up to this principle, I know for a fact that not all Christians have, either. We can hardly point to the cross and the fact that we were born on the “right” side of it as evidence that we have the spiritual upper hand. We certainly can’t say that our efforts to delete Jewish people and Judaism over the last nearly 2,000 years, using tools ranging from torture and murder to assimilation and conversion, represents the highest standard of kiddush Hashem. Are we introducing the Jewish people to their Messiah who holds the message of the good news for Jews, Israel, and through them, the rest of the world, or are we trying to earn points in the church by bringing another one to the Gentile Christ?

In my conversation with my Pastor last week, we discussed the range of beliefs within overall Christianity from fundamental to liberal and where people fall off the “scale of Christianity” on both edges. Yoni Yanover believes such a thing is possible in Judaism as well.

This reporter is known to be flippant, so I very much want to avoid being flippant about this story. I don’t think we should denounce people like Angela Buchdahl, or condemn the Reform movement for its straying so far out of the Rabbinical Jewish tent. But we should remain steadfast in not calling any of these people and the nice things they do “Jewish” in any way at all. We’re already not permitted to set foot inside their houses of worship. We should probably stop calling their religious teachers “Rabbi” – perhaps “Reform Rabbi” will do. And we should look forward to the time when calling someone “Reform” would simply mean a really nice non-Jew.

I’ve written before about the fundamental, core beliefs a person must hold to authentically call themselves “Christian,” but how does our treatment of Jewish people figure in to those beliefs? Is it OK to treat Jewish people and their beliefs with contempt and still call ourselves disciples of the King of the Jews? Can we really say that God is never, ever among the Jewish people because of the cross? How do we know?

“Jerusalem, Jerusalem, who kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to her! How often I wanted to gather your children together, the way a hen gathers her chicks under her wings, and you were unwilling. Behold, your house is being left to you desolate! For I say to you, from now on you will not see Me until you say, ‘Blessed is He who comes in the name of the Lord!’”

Matthew 23:37-39 (NASB)

This set of verses is often used by Christians to condemn the Jewish people, but listen to the compassion and love in Messiah’s lament. He longs to gather his people to him. He begs them to open their eyes and see him. It breaks his heart knowing that Jerusalem will soon be ravaged by Roman armies and be left desolate of her exiled people. He knows that his people, the Jewish people, will see him when they say, Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord.

New Testament scholar Larry Hurtado just wrote a blog post called A Future for NT Studies?.

But, to take a slightly different approach, let’s consider why there is (and should continue to be) a field of study, a discipline, of NT Studies. It’s not practical here to do more than state some things briefly. “Byron” claims that NT scholars are simply “chasing their own tails.” That may characterize some work(ers) perhaps, but as a generalization is an unfair, and uninformed, view of things.

bible_read_meIf, after nearly 2,000 years, our studies of the New Testament record have not produced an understanding of the Jewish Messiah, the Jewish Apostles, the Jewish disciples, and their interaction with and tutelage of the newly minted Gentile disciples who struggled to enter and maintain their presence in a Jewish religious venue, then we can only say that New Testament scholars and theologians are only “chasing their own tails” if they keep studying the same scriptures and coming up with the same conclusions that result in anti-Semitism, supersessionism, and (frankly) worship of the cross instead of the Jewish King who died on it.

As Gentile Christians, we should be provoking zealousness among the Jewish people as the means to emphasizing the need for them to return to the Torah and there, find the Messiah.

I apologize if this blog post has offended or upset anyone. I can’t imagine that I haven’t offended or upset practically everyone with today’s “extra meditation,” but we really, really need to stop worshiping Christianity, especially in a manner that must delete Judaism in order to ensure our continued existence. Seek God and His desires. If He continues to love and cherish the Jewish people, who are we as Christians in the church to do otherwise?

Jewish Identity in the Way

paul_trebilcoIn recent years a lot of scholarly effort has been given to questions about early Christian “identity,” how early and in what ways early believers in Jesus saw themselves and acted as distinct groups with their own identity. Major research projects continue to be devoted to this sort of question (e.g., the project on Prayer and Early Christian Identity, based in Oslo, with which I’m connected currently).

Paul Trebilco has now published an important study relevant to these questions: Self-designations and Group Identity in the New Testament (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2012). His new book comprises a further significant contribution to the study of earliest Christianity. Drawing on observations about how groups develop their own “social dialects” (“in-group” terms and expressions), he focuses on the key terms evidenced in NT writings that appear to have been used to refer to early Jesus-believers, each term given a chapter-length analysis.

-Larry Hurtado
“Trebilco on Early Christian Self-designations”
Larry Hurtado’s Blog

This sounds like a fabulous book but even the Kindle version costs over $63.00, so it’s deffo out of my price range. Hurtado is of the belief that Jesus was worshipped as God very early historically so he’s going to likely come down on the side of an early distinctiveness of identity of Christians as apart from Judaism, probably very soon after the ascension of Christ.

This is an important topic for me since in my readings, I regularly find that the early “Jewish Christians” continued to self-identify as Jews and understood “the Way” as a Jewish branch among the other “Judaisms” of their day.

When they heard it, they praised God. Then they said to him, “You see, brother, how many thousands of believers there are among the Jews, and they are all zealous for the Torah (emph. mine).

Acts 21:20 (NRSV)

I deliberately rendered the world “law” as it appears in the NRSV as “Torah” to communicate more how James and the elders in the apostolic council in Jerusalem would have understood the vital concept. There were thousands of Jewish believers in Moshiach who were all zealous for the Torah.

Sounds pretty Jewish to me.

Going back to Hurtado’s blog post, he praises Trebilco, referring to him as “a proven scholar in the field” and citing his earlier, important works.

Hurtado continues:

These terms = “the brothers” (αδελφοι), “the believers”, “the saints” (οι αγιοι), ”the church” (η εκκλησια), “disciples” (μαθηται), “the way” (η οδος), and “Christian” (Χριστιανος). Among his conclusions, he contends that “εκκλησια” originated among “Jewish Christian Hellenists” (“most likely in Jerusalem,” p. 301), but he further argues that this does not mean that they no longer considered themselves also part of the larger Jewish community. He judges the term “Christian” to have originated among outsiders/observers of early Jesus-believers, thereafter appropriated by believers, especially in the later period of persecutions.

As to the larger question about when and how believers saw themselves as a distinct group, Trebilco contends (rightly in my view) that the use of these terms indicates that “they were creating and shaping their identity” already before the time of our earliest texts. This means easily within the first couple of decades after Jesus’ execution. (I’d say likely within the first few months.) Trebilco again: “…these designations also involve the claim of a distinctive identity . . .” (p. 308), “have clear boundary-marking roles,” and “distinguish this new group from other Jews and from Gentiles” (309).

ancient_beit_dinWhat can we make of this? First, that the Jewish disciples of the Jewish Messiah continued to consider themselves Jews participating in a normative Judaism in their day. However, as “Messianics,” they also understood that their identity was unique and that they were, in some sense, distinct from their Jewish brothers who adhered to other streams of Judaism, because ultimately salvation and the realization of Israel’s redemption and restoration only comes through Messiah.

I have great sorrow and unceasing anguish in my heart. For I could wish that I myself were accursed and cut off from Christ for the sake of my own people, my kindred according to the flesh.

Romans 9:2-3 (NRSV)

In stating this, Paul is saying that Jews outside the framework of “the Way” are also outside of salvation, and the anguish at this thought drives Paul to declare he would be willing to be accursed by God and cut off from Messiah if only it would save the Jewish people who do not know Messiah.

But it also continues to establish that the identity of a first century Jewish disciple of Messiah is as a Jew operating within a Jewish religious framework. This is opposed to Paul assuming a non-Jewish identity in a non-Jewish religious movement as many modern Christians currently believe. Being a “Messianic” (Christian) for a Jew was then both an exercise in normative Jewish religious worship and a unique Jewish identity because of adherence to Messiah, the living embodiment of Torah, Israel, and God’s gracious redemption.

The limits of Hurtado’s blog post allows for a minimal exploration of Gentile identity but that’s not my main point at the moment (though I do touch in it below). My primary point is to affirm for my Gentile Christian brothers and sisters, as well as any Jewish readers, that the historic worship of Jesus by Jews is not an aberration within Judaism or an abandonment of Judaism and the Torah. It was and is the highest expression of devotion to God both within the first century context and within what some have called modern “Bilateral Ecclesiology” Messianic Judaism.

It’s important to note though, that at least one Jewish scholar has a different idea as Hurtado points out:

I mean no criticism in saying that this all seems rather obvious to me, but in view of the nature of recent scholarly discussion (e.g., Boyarin’s claim that we don’t have “Christianity” as such before the fourth century CE), I’m very grateful to Trebilco for this fine evidence-based study, which will further confirm his status as a noteworthy figure in NT/Christian Origins.

Without reading “Boyarin’s claim” in full, I have no context upon which to comment, but I would have to guess that Boyarin may be stating that the “Jewishness” of Christianity extended much further forward into history than Hurtado or Trebilco believe. If, based on Trebilco’s book, Hurtado believes that the Christian identity replaced the Jewish identity of Jews in “the Way” in the first century forward, then I’m going to have to strenuously disagree. As long as Jews participated in the worship of Yeshua as Messiah, I can’t see them self-identifying as anything other than Jewish, and certainly I don’t believe they would ever abandon the Torah and a Jewish identity for the sake of Messiah. I say this because it is totally contrary to the Jewish Messiah himself to request that devotion to him should require abandoning the Torah and Israel.

I will split a hair and say that Jewish identity was not imposed on the Gentiles being admitted into the Jewish “Way” (see Acts 15:22-35, Acts 21:25), thus the Gentile “Christians” would have established an identity that, while initially contained within a Jewish religious framework, made them distinct not only from their Jewish mentors relative to Torah-observance, but also distinct from the pagan people and religions in their world.

In addition, we’ve already seen Hurtado quote Trebilco as saying:

“distinguish this new group from other Jews and from Gentiles” (emph. mine)

jewish-davening-by-waterI’m going to argue, based on the above-statement, that the distinctiveness of first century “Messianic Jews” was in relation to the Gentiles in “the Way.” By definition, all Jews were distinct from all Gentiles, so it would be redundant of Trebilco to say that it was “Christian Jewish” identity that distinguished them from pagan Gentiles. It makes more sense for him to make this statement if he is defining a distinctiveness of Jewish identity within “the Way” that identified the Jewish disciples uniquely both within the context of larger Judaism and as compared to believing Gentiles.

Of course, I’d have to read Trebilco’s book to actually confirm this, but what I can gather from Hurtado’s blog post certainly suggests it.

In summary, Gentile Christian identity distinctiveness as a religious stream wholly separate from paganism would have occurred very early, probably within Paul’s lifetime. Jewish discipleship in Messiah would have continued to be Jewish in every sense and yet, would still have distinguished Jewish members of “the Way” from other Jewish streams by virtue of Messianic redemption and the promise of national restoration upon Messiah’s return.

Here then, we see a template for the modern Messianic Jewish movement, a model for how Jews today can view adherence to Yeshua (Jesus) the Messiah as truly and completely Jewish, and unlike the vast majority of Christian history otherwise indicates, as a movement which does not require a Jew to abandon Jewish identity or the Torah in order to be a disciple of the Master.

112 days.