Messianic Judaism, Gentile Church, and Supersessionism

Messianic Judaism, Gentile Church, and Supersessionism February 21, 2013

Yesterday I got my hands on my co-blogger Joel Willitts’ co-edited book Introduction to Messianic Judaism and it provides a near definitive treatment of the subject. A fantastic collection of essays on the topic of Jewish believers in Jesus and an incredible cast of contributors. Joel and David have done a superb job in putting this book together.

Scot McKnight praises the book and raises some good questions about Messianic Judaism and Supersessionism (see #1#2). A few things I have to say:

1. I delight in this wonderful book for both its theological acumen, ecumenical vision of Jewish and Gentile believers united in faith in Jesus, and its responsible approach Jewish-Christian relationships. Likewise important is the affirmation that one can keep a kosher lifestyle and still be a committed follower of Jesus. However, one thing that causes me angst is the premise that while Messianic Jews and Gentile Christians are part of the one ekklesia, still, there is assumption that they inhabit different socio-religious spaces, and Messianic Jews are not actually “Christians.”  The impression I get is that Messianic Judaism is presenting itself not simply as an ethnic church group or as a Christian denomination, it is touted as a separate species of Christ-believer, one more entrenched in its Jewish heritage and distinguishable from the Gentile Christians. To be honest – and Joel might push back on this – I think Galatians rules out precisely this kind of vision of believers in Jesus. First, when Paul says that in Christ there is “neither Jew nor Gentile,” he is creating a shared meta-identity where it is union with Christ that is determinative for our relationship with God and to each other, with the result that all walls between these groups are utterly broken down. What is more, Paul particularly wants to avoid any kind of ecclesiology that results in someone insisting on foreskins sit on the left and no-foreskins sit on the right. I think Paul knew of both mixed and parallel groups of Jewish/Gentile Christ-believers, but not two species of believers.  Second, despite the aversion to using the word “Christian,” I cannot help but note that Christianoi was originally used for mixed Jewish and Gentile groups in both Antioch (Acts 11:21) and in Asia Minor (1 Pet 5:13). Christianoi means “client or adherent of Christ.”

2. On supersessionism, I strongly recommend Bruce Longenecker’s excellent JTS piece on varieties of supersessionism, an important article on the subject.Now any notion that God has just written off ethnic/empirical Israel and has replaced them with the Gentile Church is ruled out by a straight forward reading of Romans 9-11. Still, we have to be careful to avoid the chief Dispensational error, that is, identifying the church as an entity separate from Israel. The fact is that the story of Israel culminates and continues in the story of the church. So while the church does not replace Israel, nonetheless, it is the church consisting of Jews and Gentiles, united in the Messiah, sealed in the Holy Spirit, which constitutes the Israel of the messianic age, with a concurrent hope that ethnic Israel will be roused to jealousy and will embrace their Messiah.

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  • Great comments. Both N.T. Wright and G.K. Beale’s NT theology has been helpful for me in this area as well.

    • Patrick

      Above, the #1 comment seems to me to disabuse us of the flawed view the ekklesia is Gentile replacing ancient Israel/Jews. It is not. It is a new creation, Jew and Gentile combined into a new creation, neither Gentile or Jew.

      There always have been ethnic Jews in Christ and there always will be according to Paul. Of course we haven’t acted that way .

      As for the question of supercessionism, the Church is the Israel of God, we(Jew and Gentile alike in Messiah/Christ) didn’t supercede Israel, we are authentic Israel, so were OT believers(including Gentiles , it’s right in Exodus they were to be considered the congregation of Israel) and unbelievers then and now were not. It surprises me this one is so difficult for the church to get.

      Paul stated this so many times he must have gotten arthritis from writing it and Jesus sort of made it clear when He said, “the kingdom will be taken from you and given to a nation that will bring forth the fruit of it”. Peter said the church was “that holy nation”.

      Ephesians 2, Philippians 3, Romans 2, Romans 9 where Paul repeats Hosea’s prediction of this, Romans 11(which explains how “all Israel will be saved” by bringing in Gentiles into “Israel” like Ephesians 2 explained) and Galatians all over.

      Peter in Acts even did a midrash of Moses’ warning about listening to the prophet like me in Deut 18:15 from “God will hold you accountable” to “God will remove you out from among “the people” if you don’t believe Jesus is Messiah. “The people” always is a euphemism for “Jews” in the OT text.

      For whatever reason, we struggle with this doctrine. It should be easy, the OT text predicted this very thing fairly often.

      The Gentiles one day would flock to YHWH as “My People” who had not been called “My People”. “My People” in the OT text is Israel.

      Hosea,Isaiah,etc. Jeremiah 31:31-34 predicted a “new covenant” for Israel, don’t we agree the new covenant is about the church?

      Did Isaiah call the suffering servant “Israel”? Do we believe this is Christ? Are we “in Christ/Israel”?

      Does the Lukan text teach that Jesus will “save His people from their sins” and yet Isaiah told us the suffering servant would save “Israel from their sins”?

      On the other hand, NO, God has not rejected the Jewish people anymore than He rejected the Gentiles earlier, this is about who is God’s agent for evangelism and teaching.

      Gentiles & Jews were free to enter a relationship with God in the BC as Gentiles and Jews are now, the difference is who is God’s theological agent, ethnic Jews or the new creation which is both of us?

  • jwillitts

    Mike: first, thank you for your positive plug for the book. Second, as for #1, while there maybe MJ’s who think the way you suggest, my view is that most are uncomfortable with the term “Christian” not in the NT sense, which is how you are defining it, but what it has come to be defined, i.e., the gentile church. They usually like to speak of the ekklesia, leaving it untranslated for the same reason. I don’t have any problem with a shared identity in the Jewish Davidic Messiah. I would only point out that I think Galatians’ theological force is in the message of mutual interdependence between Jew and Gentile. Jew as Jew needs Gentile as Gentile and vise versa. What’s more, we should not overlook something that particularly Anders Runesson has been pointing out in various places that Paul’s communities were within the diaspora synagogue social space, thus a Jewish social space. And clearly this is evident in Galatians of all letters.

    As for #2, I think the real issue with this point is the continuing distinctive identities of Jew and Gentile within the church. The church is comprised of both Jew and Gentile in all their ethnic particularity both genealogical and practical.

    • Jeff Martin

      Dr Willitts,

      Now the question becomes should people create a Messianic Jewish congregation then. Is is not similar to someone creating a “Gentile” church?

  • Michael,

    As a Messianic Jew, I want to echo/affirm what Joel said about the term “Christian.” If I say, “I am a Christian,” the term as it is understood both historically and currently implies a near or full rejection of Jewish identity and Torah observance–not only within the wider Jewish world, but also in the Christian world as well. This becomes extremely problematic for my witness to Yeshua as Messiah of Israel, since identifying myself as a “Christian” immediately puts me at the disadvantage of having my hearers assume that I have “disregarded the way of Torah” (or, if I am keeping some of those ways, it is motivated by missionary expediency rather than covenantal fidelity in the way of Yeshua). If you can follow along with me for a moment in my reading of the NT, in which Yeshua in no way nullifies the Torah and it is still assumed that Jewish Yeshua-followers will honor and obey the Torah and the customs of the Jewish people, then perhaps you can see how I might feel that my witness to my fellow Jews is jeopardized by categorizing myself in this way.

    So, while in a technical discussion such as this one, I might assent to you applying the term “Christianoi” to Messianic Jews, in common parlance, I would argue that the meaning of the term “Christian” meaning has changed from the definition “client or adherent of Christ” to include a nullification of Torah, and that the Church has been complicit in this. (Since I don’t see a prescriptive command in the NT that one must identify by it, I am not agitating for Gentile Christians to redefine what they mean by Christian and what they associate with that name in terms of culture and history.)

    I also want to say, “Yes and not quite” to what you are sensing about Messianic Judaism’s claims regarding the ongoing significance of Jewish and Gentile identities in Christ: “yes” to your sense and “not quite” to the way you’ve expressed it above. You are right that MJ is presenting itself as more than another ethnic church group or denomination. However, I don’t think “species” is the right terminology (or accurately describes how we think of it). David Rudolph points out that Paul describes circumcision (and uncircumcision) as “callings” (κλῆσις) in Rom. 11:29 and 1 Cor 7:20 (here’s a blog comment from David on this).

    I do think the objection you’re raising here is an important one, though. Does MJ imply an ecclesiology where “foreskins sit on the left and no-foreskins sit on the right”? I agree with you that the apostolic example clearly shows mixed fellowship between Jews and Gentiles as an eschatalogical sign of the inbreaking of the kingdom of God. Do ongoing Jewish assemblies within the ekklesia jeopardize this fellowship? I don’t think they necessarily do. While spelling out why is probably best be left to a blog post of my own, the short of my reasoning includes:

    (a) pointing out what I think is a false dichotomy (Jews in Christ can either attend the synagogue or manifest their koinonia with the broader ekklesia…why not both? I think there is apostolic precedent for this…) and

    (b) questioning assumptions about the nature of this koinonia (i.e. koinonia defined primarily around common worship, prayer, and teaching, which all require a basic commonality of language and cultural expression, vs koinonia defined as table fellowship, which much more naturally supports an intercultural exchange).

    Of course the latter definition of koinonia immediately brings up the basic question of food and the nature of fellowship…and suddenly we find we’re much closer to the practical concerns of the New Testament (i.e. 1 Cor 8-10 and food sacrificed to idols, Gal 2 and the incident with Peter and Paul at Antioch)!


    • I perhaps should have reaffirmed that the motivation for “ongoing Jewish assemblies within the ekklesia” stems and springs from the conviction that God’s covenant with carnal Israel continues to have validity, despite Israel’s shortcomings within that covenant and her temporary stumbling with regards to the gospel. If we lose sight of this then I find it’s easy for people to think of this in terms of ethnocentrism, etc. In my view that is why the both/and approach I described in (a) and (b) above is needed.

      Thank you for your engagement with Joel and David’s book and for bringing out these important questions!

      • Yahnatan, Thank you so much for your excellent comments above explaining more of how we– Messianic Jews and Messianic Gentiles– interact in a healthy way with the rest of the Body of Messiah. A blessing on your head!

  • Glenn


    You said “we have to avoid the chief Dispensational error, identifying the church as an entity separate from Israel”. Don’t we also have to avoid the error of identifying the church as Israel? While there is overlap between the two, are there not areas in which there is difference? For example, nowhere is the church seen as an elect nation with specific covenant responsibilities before God in the New Testament except in the way of analogy. Messianic Jews seem to straddle both being members of the elect nation of Israel and the church.

  • Anastasios

    I’m surprised Eastern Orthodoxy isn’t more popular among the Messianic Jewish audience. Of all the branches of Christianity, Orthodoxy is arguably the one that remained the closest to its Jewish and Middle Eastern roots. Much of contemporary Messianic Judaism is just Rabbinic Judaism with Jesus grafted onto it. Orthodoxy, on the other hand, developed organically from those 1st century synagogues that accepted Jesus as the Christ. As such it has an unbroken line of succession back to ancient Israel even though it’s grown to encompass many Gentiles as well (Many Lebanese, Greeks, etc. are partially Jewish by ancestry, according to DNA tests, because in the early Church the distinction between Jew and Gentile was overcome and a new “third identity”, neither Jew nor Gentile, was embraced instead). Western Christians tend to think of themselves as Gentiles but that is a major departure from the earliest views.