Messianic Judaism, or Hebrew Christianity, is just one big deception, designed to lure unsuspecting Jews into Christianity. Half of the people involved are not even Jewish. Most of those who are Jewish were Christian ministers who changed their names to sound more authentic.
Maybe a bad experience with a Messianic Jew has given you a wrong impression of the whole. Is it possible you have misjudged our hearts and motives without knowing the facts? Most Jews who have come to know Jesus as Messiah have experienced a deep reawakening of their Jewishness. Many have recovered aspects of the biblical Jewish lifestyle, while others have made aliyah (i.e., emigrated to Israel) for life.
In fact, their children now attend Israeli schools and fight in the Israeli army. It is because these people have so deeply recovered their Jewishness that some of them have changed their names—e.g., from Martin to Moishe. Others changed their names so as to refute the lie of past “Chris-tian” anti-Semitism, which said, “You can’t be Jewish and believe in Jesus.” As for the Gentile believers who have joined Messianic Jewish congregations, they have done so out of love for Israel and Jewish life. Is this wrong?
I’m a little surprised that you’re repeating the standard party line about Messianic Jews being deceptive. It would be one thing if, for example, we tried to lure newly emigrated Russian Jews into a “Jewish education program” without identifying ourselves as believers in Yeshua, or tried to present ourselves as traditional synagogues with a distinct approach to Torah and nothing more. Such practices would be deceptive, and I (along with all Messianic Jewish leaders whom I know personally) would never think of engaging in such dishonest activities.
But is it true that Jews who believe in Jesus call themselves Messianic Jews, Hebrew Christians, or Jews for Jesus because they don’t want other Jews to know they are really just Christians masquerading in Jewish garb? Are we merely trying to hide the fact that, in actuality, we have committed what Rabbi Aryeh Kaplan called “an act of religious treason”? Of course not! We put our cards right on the table for everyone to see. We say that we are Jewish followers of Jesus the Messiah because that is who we are. We find being Jewish and believing in the Jewish Messiah to be compatible (see above, 1.5). As a result, we make every effort to communicate this clearly.
Let me turn it around and ask you this: If you as a Jew discovered that Jesus was the Messiah predicted by Moses and the prophets and you believed in him, experiencing a glorious personal change, a renewed love for the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, a passion for the Hebrew Bible, and a fresh attachment to the people and land of Israel, would it occur to you to say, “I’m no longer Jewish”?
What if you came to realize that Christianity in its root form is actually Jewish, or, as some modern scholars have expressed, another of the first-century Judaisms? 10 As a brand-new follower of Jesus the Messiah, wouldn’t you feel deeply that as a Jew, you had really come home?
Even if you accept what I’m saying in general, you might still question specific Messianic Jewish practices. I want to address these issues honestly. First, however, as an “insider,” let me tell you that there is constant discussion among many Messianic Jews about subjects such as how to observe the Sabbath in light of the new covenant, the on-going relevance of the dietary laws (kashrut), or whether to incorporate some of the Rabbinic liturgy into weekly worship services. Such themes are discussed at our annual Messianic Jewish conferences as well as in Messianic periodicals and books. 11
Messianic Jewish leaders wrestle with these issues because they feel a responsibility to do so as Jews. They are not engaging in theological, biblical, and practical debates among themselves so as to win Jews to their faith. They would continue to deal with these issues even if there were not another Jew on the planet. I know this firsthand because I have often talked with Messianic Jewish leaders about these very things, telling them they are spending too much time on them. Loyalty to God, not deception, is their goal.
Here is a description of why many Messianic Jews do what they do, both in their corporate worship services as well as in their private and family lives. I do not necessarily agree or disagree with all the particulars but simply state the facts.
- We often use terms such as Messiah instead of Christ, or Yeshua instead of Jesus because for many Jews, Jesus Christ represents a non-Jewish religious figure, namely, the founder of the Catholic Church and the inspiration behind the Crusades. It is because we want Jews to think about the real Jesus—the one who came in fulfillment of the Hebrew prophets, the Jewish Redeemer, and the founder of the Messianic faith for all peoples—that we call him Yeshua the Messiah. It is done for the sake of clarity, not duplicity.
- We often use Hebrew songs and prayers in our services because many of the songs are taken directly from the Hebrew Bible and many of the prayers date from the days of Jesus and earlier (e.g., the Shema). These elements are not merely borrowed from later Rabbinic tradition. They serve to remind worshipers that our faith is indeed the continuation of the faith of our fathers—Abraham, Moses, David, and the Messiah. Also, while Christians frequently sing the same words from the Old Testament in English in their worship services, many Jewish believers enjoy singing them in Hebrew. One reason—among many—that Gentile Christians often form a large part of Messianic Jewish congregations is because they enjoy the Messianic Jewish style of worship.
- Some Messianic Jews also include later Rabbinic prayers in their services because they agree with the content of the prayers and find no reason to reject this part of their heritage. These Jewish believers in Yeshua do not believe they are part of a new, foreign religion but rather consider themselves to be part of the true Jewish remnant that is faithful to both their Jewish roots and their Jewish Messiah. Thus, some of them put on tefillin (phylacteries) for their private prayers, believing that Jesus prayed with them too, and wear the tallit (prayer shawl) and yarmulke (kipa, or skullcap)in their public services. (Some Messianic Jews wear a yarmulke all the time, just as Orthodox Jews do, and for similar reasons, namely, as a constant reminder that they walk before God.)
- The traditional Jewish calendar is followed because its general accuracy is accepted. 12 (We do not automatically reject everything Rabbinic.) Virtually all Jews worldwide follow the same calendar—regardless of whether they agree with traditional Judaism on other points of faith and practice—and so we participate in the same life cycle as does the rest of the Jewish community. Similarly, some Messianic Jewish congregations follow the same weekly Torah reading schedule as do traditional Jews (apparently, it was already established in the time of Jesus), likewise reading the synagogal portion from the Prophets, but adding a reading from the New Covenant Scriptures.
- Because the title “pastor” often sounds foreign to a Jew, and because many Jews are in the habit of calling their congregational leaders “rabbi,” there are some Messianic Jewish leaders who also call themselves “rabbi.” Since these leaders do not want to mislead people, however, they sometimes use the title “Messianic rabbi.” This way people know they are leaders of a Messianic congregation, i.e., a congregation that believes Jesus is the Jewish Messiah. I should point out, however, that many leaders refuse to use this title, calling themselves either “congregational leader,” “Messianic pastor,” or simply “pastor.” They understand that the title “rabbi” conveys something very specific to a Jewish person, and they want to stay clear of any charge of deception. While they want to communicate to interested Jews that they are not a traditional church, they also want to communicate that they are not a traditional (or Conservative or Reform) synagogue either. One reason many of these congregations use the term Messianic synagogues is because the Greek word synagoge is actually used in the New Testament to describe a meeting place of believers in Jesus. In James 2:2 (actually, Jacob 2:2 in its original Greek title), the word synagogue simply means “a place of assembly.”
- In a similar fashion, some Messianic Jewish Bible colleges or seminaries call themselves yeshivas, indicating to potential students that their emphasis is in Messianic Jewish studies and ministry. However, since it has been pointed out that only Orthodox Jews use the term yeshiva (other branches of Judaism generally avoid this term), many Messianic Jewish leaders prefer to abandon the term as well, lest it seem they are being intentionally misleading. (In my capacity as head of such a school from 1987 to 1993, I chose—with the unanimous approval of our Messianic Jewish board—to change our name from Messiah Yeshiva and Graduate School of Theology to Messiah Biblical Institute and Graduate School of Theology, for the very reasons in question. We wanted all Christians to know that this school was for them too.)
- The most famous change of names among Jewish believers in Jesus was that of Martin Rosen, an ordained Baptist minister, to Moishe Rosen, the founder and longtime leader of Jews for Jesus. But Moishe always put his cards on the table for all to see. While still holding to his basic Baptist beliefs, he recovered his Jewish roots and wanted everyone to know that being Jewish and believing in Jesus were compatible. (In fact, Moishe was the childhood name his mother called him.) Another famous Martin changed his name too. Martin Kahane (famous as Meir Kahane) was a militant rabbi assassinated for his political and religious views. Obviously, he recovered his Jewish roots too, only his were traditional and staunchly Zionistic. The question, therefore, is not whether such name changes are valid but whether Jesus is the Jewish Messiah and belief in him is something authentically Jewish. If it is, then changing one’s name to emphasize one’s Jewishness is hardly dishonest.
Having said all this, I should point out that there is a good deal of diversity among Jewish believers in Jesus regarding the above seven points. Some are happy to be in traditional churches, while not forgetting their solidarity with Israel and their Jewish people, while others are happy to be in Messianic congregations, while not forgetting they are part of the universal Christian faith.
Some are at home wearing yarmulke and tallit, while others are at home wearing a cross around their neck. Some prefer to be called Messianic Jews, others, Jewish Christians, others, Jewish believers, and some, just plain Christians. You see, what we call ourselves is not that important (although some of our detractors certainly make a big issue out of it). It is what we believe that is of central importance, and that is what we prefer to discuss.
I have just a few closing thoughts. First, I have met plenty of strange and even dishonest Orthodox and ultra-Orthodox Jews. Some yeshivas are famous for padding their attendance rolls with nonexistent students to get more money from the government, and they do it in the name of Talmud study. Yet they are totally devoted to their Talmud studies! It would be wrong, however, to judge all Rabbinic Jews by the bad example of a few.
In the same way, if you did have the unfortunate experience of meeting a dishonest Messianic Jew (or worse still, a misguided Gentile Christian posing as a Messianic Jew), don’t judge the rest of us by that encounter. And even among the sincere and honest, some errors have been made.
Second, 1 Corinthians 9:19–22 does not mandate deception as standard missionary practice—in spite of the statements of the anti-missionaries. 13 Paul wrote:
Though I am free and belong to no man, I make myself a slave to everyone, to win as many as possible. To the Jews I became like a Jew, to win the Jews. To those under the law I became like one under the law (though I myself am not under the law), so as to win those under the law. To those not having the law I became like one not having the law (though I am not free from God’s law but am under Christ’s law), so as to win those not having the law. To the weak I became weak, to win the weak. I have become all things to all men so that by all possible means I might save some.
What Paul was talking about—and what is standard practice for missionaries and Christian workers around the world, regardless of what people group they are trying to reach—was the issue of cultural sensitivity. Our goal is to present the good news of the Messiah to everyone—Jew and Gentile alike. That is why many Jewish believers in Jesus have sacrificially given their lives to reaching people in India, Africa, and China. (See below, 1.12, for a few examples.)
A missionary to China would learn the Chinese language and customs, adopt the dress of the people in the region, and take on as much of their lifestyle as possible (without compromising his faith). As a result, he would have more of an open door to tell them about the one true God and Jesus his Son. In the same way, a Jewish believer trying to reach Orthodox Jews might adopt the traditional food laws (kashrut) so as to be able to sit down at the same table with his Orthodox neighbors and tell them about Yeshua—without offending them over food issues.
Remember, the man who wrote, “To the Jews I became like a Jew, to win the Jews,” was a Jew—and no one questioned it for a second. 14 He was saying, “In order to reach some of my people, I will take on myself traditions and practices that I don’t have to—without violating my fundamental beliefs and convictions—rather than be looked on as an outsider. Is it a sacrifice? Sometimes it is, but I do it gladly because I feel I am obligated to reach everyone. I will submit myself to their customs and ways if I can help bring them into the knowledge of God.” Really now, what’s so terrible about this? When you look at it impartially, it’s quite commendable.
I leave you with this. Our Jewish friends and critics constantly remind us of the horrible history of “Christian” anti-Semitism (see below, 2.4–2.8). On our part, we distance ourselves from this ugly history, utterly repudiating its roots and its fruits, clearly separating ourselves from any hint of such religious, “Christian” hatred. And in the process of renouncing “Christian” anti-Semitism in any and every form, we clearly reaffirm our Jewish identity.
Is it fair then to call us deceptive for saying that we are still Jews, that we are not part of that church, and that we refuse to deny our solidarity with our people? Would our critics rather have us call ourselves modern-day Crusaders, burning down synagogues and persecuting Jews?
10 I assure you, when Edith Schaeffer wrote her popular book, Christianity Is Jewish (Wheaton: Tyndale, 1977), or when the Italian scholar Gabrielle Boccaccini argued that Christianity is actually a Judaism (see his Middle Judaism: Jewish Thought, 300 C.E. to 200 C.E. [Minneapolis: Fortress, 1991]), neither of them was trying to pull the wool over anyone’s eyes, nor did they write with any purposes of proselytizing. The former wrote her book to Christians, the latter to scholars of early Christianity and Judaism. See further the fine study of Marvin R. Wilson, Our Father Abraham: Jewish Roots of the Christian Faith (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1989), widely read by both Jews and Christians.
11 See, e.g., Daniel C. Juster, Jewish Roots (Rockville, Md.: Davar, 1986); David H. Stern, Messianic Jewish Manifesto (Jerusalem/Baltimore: Jewish New Testament Publications, 1988); Michael Schiffman, Return of the Remnant: The Rebirth of Messianic Judaism (Baltimore: Lederer, 1992); Arnold Fruchtenbaum, Israelology: The Missing Link in Systematic Theology (Tustin, Calif.: Ariel Ministries, 1993); see also the lively discussion on the use of Rabbinic literature by Messianic Jews in Mishkan 8, no. 9 (1988): 25–74, between Avner Boskey, Daniel C. Juster, Chaim Pearl, and Larry Brandt (see also Beth Messiah’s “Consensus Statement on Jewish Tradition,” in ibid., 75–78”). For a full-scale commentary on Romans from a Messianic Jewish perspective (and interacting thoroughly with Second Temple and Rabbinic Jewish literature), see Joseph Shulam with Hilary Le Cornu, Commentary on the Jewish Roots of Romans (Baltimore: Lederer, 1998).
12 Where we do have a difference with the Rabbinic calendar based on our interpretation of Scripture, we make changes accordingly. A good example would be our interpretation of the injunction to count fifty days from the “morrow of the Sabbath” after Passover (Lev. 23:11, 15). Most Messianic Jews interpret this to mean the first Sunday after the first day of Passover, whereas the rabbis understood the reference to “the Sabbath” to mean the first day of Passover, hence the “morrow of the Sabbath” would mean the second day of Passover.
In this case, traditional Judaism follows the understanding of the Pharisees, while Messianic Jews find themselves siding with the interpretation of the Sadducees, Samaritans, and Karaites, all of whom rejected the authority of the Rabbinic traditions when those traditions conflicted with the plain sense of Scripture. For discussion of Leviticus 23:11, cf. Baruch A. Levine, Leviticus, The JPS Torah Commentary (Philadelphia: Jewish Pub. Society, 1989), 158, who observes that, while the traditional “interpretation resolves a difficulty in the text, it does not convey its simple sense.” For the prophetic significance of First Fruits and Shavu‘ot, which are the holy days related to the text in Leviticus 23, see 2.1.
13 For typical anti-missionary rhetoric on this, cf., e.g., Beth Moshe, Judaism’s Truth, 212, who speaks of the need to “demonstrate the unreliability of the man [i.e., Paul] who actually formulated the break away from Judaism by the early Church. We have shown that Paul contradicted Jesus in important religious matters and made himself greater than his master. Now see who he is, by his own words [referring to 1 Cor. 9:20]. He admitted using trickery and deception to gain his ends. We can wonder whether his missionary effort was flawed with fiction throughout as well.”
According to Gerald Sigal, The Jew and the Christian Missionary: A Jewish Response to Missionary Christianity (New York: Ktav, 1981), 289–90, “By distorting the biblical word, Paul developed much of his teachings. How one came to faith, as he defined it, was of no importance. In fact, he considered deceit and pretense valid means for achieving his goal (1 Corinthians 9:20–22; Philippians 1:18).” Similarly, Michoel Drazin, Their Hollow Inheritance: A Comprehensive Refutation of the New Testament and Its Missionaries (Jerusalem: Gefen, 1990), 18, claims that, “The authors of the New Testament had a powerful personality to emulate in Saul of Tarsus (Paul), who openly advocated ‘pious fraud,’ ” with reference not only to 1 Cor. 9:20–23 and Phil. 1:18 but also, even more amazingly, to Rom 3:7–8 and 2 Cor 12:16.
14 For the view that Paul lived his entire life as a Pharisee, cf. most recently Brad H. Young, Paul the Jewish Theologian: A Pharisee among Christians, Jews, and Gentiles (Peabody, Mass.: Hendrickson, 1997); cf. also vol. 3, 5.26, 5.29.