Messianic Judaism: An Introduction

Messianic Judaism: An Introduction February 19, 2013

If you want to know what Messianic Judaism was (in the New Testament era) and what it is today, here’s the book: David Rudolph and Joel Willitts, Introduction to Messianic Judaism: Its Ecclesial Context and Biblical Foundations. The book is afloat with excellent studies about all the crucial topics — both today and in the 1st Century.

Over the years I’ve read a number of books on Messianic Judaism, including the important study of Daniel Cohn-Sherbok, but this book both “supersedes” (excuse me) that one and introduces us to a critical juncture in Messianic Judaism studies. In five or ten years this book may well need some new legs because MJ has become a serious field in itself and developments are happing rapidly. Decisive in all of this is the “Jewish Turn” in biblical and theological studies — that discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls in the aftermath of the Holocaust led to renewed scholarship bent on relearning how to examine the Bible in Jewish context, and then from EP Sanders (1977) on New Testament studies experienced a revival of interest in re-framing NT history and theology in light of the Jewish Turn. This book floats well in these waters.

A sampling of studies in the book: MJ synagogues, worship and prayer, Scripture, Jewish tradition, ethics, outreach, women, MJ in the Land of Israel, national organizations, MJ and the Jewish World, MJ and the Gentile World, Jewish-Christian dialogue. For the NT stuff: Matthew, Luke-Acts, James, interdependence and mutual blessing, Israel and the church, equality, mission-commitment, and the issue of supersessionism.

What then is Messianic Judaism? This statement, from the Union of Messianic Jewish Congregations, and found on p. 136 in Rudolph and Willitts, states the issues well in that it defines the Messianic Jewish community as “a distinct part of the Body of Messiah”:

Jewish life is life in a concrete, historical community. Thus, Messianic Jewish groups must be fully part of the Jewish people, sharing its history and its covenantal responsibility as a people chosen by God.

At the same time, faith in Yeshua also has a crucial communal dimension. This faith unites the Messianic Jewish community and the [Gentile] Christian Church, which is the assembly of the faithful from the nations who are joined to Israel through the Messiah.

Together the Messianic Jewish community and the Christian Church constitute the ekklesia, the one Body of Messiah, a community of Jews and Gentiles who in their ongoing distinction and mutual blessing anticipate the shalom of the world to come.

Do you think separable bodies — the Gentile Christian Church and the Messianic Jewish community — fractures the One Body? Do you think it is what Paul had in mind in his mission?

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  • Scot:

    Thanks for highlighting this book. It is a boon to our movement to have such an introduction so people can see who we are. I might note that many fringe groups use the label “Messianic” and so many Christian and Jewish leaders have a skewed idea of who we are. On my blog I address the issues raised in these fringe groups quite often.

    BTW, good inside joke with the “supersedes” thing, LOL.

  • My review here:

  • scotmcknight

    Joseph W, I want to be clear. You are welcome to comment here but it is bad form to drop links in order to draw people to your site and away from someone else’s site. If you want to comment, at an appropriate length, do so… but simply dropping links won’t happen here.

  • Okay Scot I understand your point and that’s definitely fair enough. It’s your website.

    This is a good book in many parts. There are some great points made about replacement theology, and about the role of Israel in the future. I loved your blog about the Pharisees the other day, and I’m sure you blessed this book in the same spirit.

    There are some things I disagree with. For example, I am a Jewish believer in Jesus, but I don’t agree that all Messianic Jews are bound to keep the Torah.

    I respect those who do, but I do not see it as binding myself. I think Hebrews ch 7-8 gives Jewish believers sound reason for believing there is a new law, as there is a new priesthood. I also would not recommend Wyschogrod, as he writes to dissuade Jews from believing in Jesus.

    I think David Rudolph is a great guy and obviously differences in opinions will occur.

  • John Frye

    I appreciate the scholarship on this issue and the new terrain MJ is opening for the whole church to discuss. Still, I have an unanchored suspicion that MJ and MG (Messianic Gentilism) rebuilds the wall that the Messiah allegedly tore down (Eph 2). Perhaps it is the sense of superiority I pickk up from fringe MJers who seem to intently stay cloistered in their MJ communities, away from their Christian *goyim.*

  • Hi Scot,

    As a Gentile Christian, I love what is happening at Denver Seminary through the work of Dr. Helene Dallaire and others with Messianic Judaism. It is a great example of integrating Messianic Judaism and Gentile Christians as the Body of Christ, each influencing and encouraging the other.

  • Hi John, “Messianic Jew” refers to Jews who believe in Jesus. It’s the term Israeli believers use to refer to themselves to. Messianic Jews meet together, for the same reason you get a men’s meeting or a women’s meeting in church, or a kids’ club. We have common interests, concerns and struggles and can support each other by meeting together. If it isn’t building up the middle wall of partition when you have a Hispanic meeting in church, why so with Jews? That’s how I would approach this issue if I were you. I am a Messianic Jew and do not consider myself better or worse than anyone else. But God choose to place us in different situations, we can celebrate this.

  • You asked “Do you think separable bodies — the Gentile Christian Church and the Messianic Jewish community — fractures the One Body? Do you think it is what Paul had in mind in his mission?”

    Those are good questions. I do think having 2 separate bodies fractures the body. However we do find Paul starting churches that were all Gentiles except Romans.

  • JustforQuix

    Very interesting. We have a Messianic Jew (and a Cohenim no less) who participates via his Gentile believer wife in our local non-d church, and has led a number of Seder observances for us. However, as much as this has been interesting and enriching to our church, it is likely a very different picture of MJ than what this book advances, and I’m eager to read more about that.

    Nevertheless, to address the last question: Do I think this reality fractures the Body? No, unless one wants to confess the Body has been fractured from the outset of the Yeshua Movement i.e., The Way. The Jerusalem Church, the Syriac-Jacobite Church, the Antiochian Church, the Alexandrian Church, the Greek Church, the Constantinople Church, the Roman Church, et al., had different trajectories of manifestation, including nuances of Christology, in historical Christianity, including the reality that the most foreign, early, widespread, even “Islam-like” Christian expressions (like chant-singing, prostrations, etc.), predate much of what most people in America assume is historical Christianity by way of what they know of the Western church.

  • Oscar T

    I suspect that lots of Gentiles only think that the wall has been torn down and that MJs are not exuding a “sense of superiority” when the Jews look and act just like Gentile Protestants. That’s a big problem when a lack of difference between Jews and Gentiles is touted as ideal: the “difference” is ascribed to the Jews, whereas the Gentiles get to provide the norm for what the undivided church is supposed to look like.

  • I certainly don’t know on your last question, though I’m strongly inclined to see it in terms of Paul being a Jew to the Jews, one who is without the law to those without the law, etc. In terms of mission. I like the clear statement they make of their unity with the rest of the church.

  • EricW

    Over the years I’ve read a number of books on Messianic Judaism, including the important study of Daniel Cohn-Sherbok, but this book both “supersedes” (excuse me) that one and introduces us to a critical juncture in Messianic Judaism studies.

    I’m glad to know that. Cohn-Sherbok’s book seems to be out of print and copies are currently way overpriced, and I wish I had picked one up when it came out (since I’m Jewish and have had to deal with the question of whether or not I should be “Messianic” – I never felt compelled to do so and sometimes think it’s an erecting of an unscriptural division/distinction in the One body of Christ), but it sounds from the above that this new book means I needn’t regret not getting Cohn-Sherbok’s – who, by the way, has written a nice and easy to learn basic grammar on learning Biblical Hebrew for those who are intimidated by a real 1st-year course in the language, but want to be able to interact with the scholarly and analytical lexicons. It’s a bit overpriced for its size, but it’s worth it if you want to get your feet wet in Hebrew and want a small, convenient book for doing so.

  • norman

    Paul was an obvious “thorn in the flesh” to many Jews during the early days of Christian development. We see the signs within his writings of the tension that his teachings brought about and how he attempted to accommodate Jews steeped deeply in the traditions of Judaism. The actual rejection of Paul and the declaration that he was a false instructor took hold in developing sects of Jews who became known as the Ebionites during the first few centuries. There are some historians today who still think that pure Judaism was not Paul’s version and are attempting to discredit him anew.

    There was an obvious rejection and difference with Paul’s hermeneutic application of the OT contrasted to the way some Jews wanted to interpret how Christ was to be interpreted. This tension though was not new to Judaism as we know from Josephus that some of the various sects such as the Pharisees, Sadducees, Zealots and Essenes comprised various schools of thought. It’s no wonder that we still see splintering in interpretations of scripture even to this day.

    The various literature of each group reflects their peculiar hermeneutic approach and so it’s a difficult sorting out process that the early church and we have in filtering out the Cream from the chaff. We tend to think that this has been already accomplished historically in the church but a stepping back shows we are still wrestling with these issues in every generation.

  • norman

    I should have clarified “Christian Judaism” in the above discussion to distingush that I was examining that aspect of Judaism.

  • Norman, as a counterweight, remember all the prominent disciples, apostles and writers of the New Testament were Yeshua-believing Jews, with the possible exception of Luke. The letters to the Hebrews and 1/2 Peter were specifically written to Jewish congregations too.

  • Glenn Eun

    There may be a need for separate bodies. According to Dan Juster (newsletter 2012) Raleigh Washington, CEO of Promise Keepers, first points to his own identity as an African American and it’s importance to him. Then Raleigh notes Jewish identity in Yeshua is more important because it is mandated in scripture for world historic purposes. David Noel Freedman also made the case that the expression of Jewish identity facilitates the formulation and coherence of all other identities in relationship. The question is how does one best develop a community where Jewish believers in Yeshua develop their faith in the continuity of Israel from which Christianity itself grows?

  • Glenn Eun

    As a former member of a Korean church (PCUSA) and one who grew up in a very segregated southern town I’ve also discovered Messianic congregations have far more diversity than other ethnic churches I’ve attended.

  • norman

    Joseph W,

    I’m not really an apologist for Jews one direction or the other. However I am very comfortable with Paul’s interpretive method of OT scripture to illustrate that Judaism wasn’t biological in the pure sense of the term. Paul again reverts to a hermeneutic interpretation that doesn’t sit well with Jews by and large but he does an effective and consistent job of showing how it works in explaining who true Jews were in his contextual day.

    Rom 9:6 … For not all who are descended from Israel belong to Israel, and not all are children of Abraham because they are his offspring, but “Through Isaac shall your offspring be named.” This means that it is not the children of the flesh who are the children of God, but the children of the promise are counted as offspring.

    However Paul also said in Romans 14 that those who were weak (still holding to rituals such as special days and eating or non-eating of certain foods) should not be looked down upon because they are God’s servants just as he thought those who had moved past it (the strong) were as well. It also goes the other direction where the weak should be receptive to those who had moved beyond those institutions that were in play. I think we do well to continue that accommodation to each other today.

    I think we try to emulate too much of the ancient Jewish customs of the NT day and we end up with extreme cultural applications that run the gamut from strict Messianic Judaism to Quakers and Mennonites extremism. I understand how that happens because people come at the scriptures in various shades of application and therefore Essene and Nazarene methods with their display of piety seem worthy to replicate just as it did in their day.

    That is a question of degree that all of us wrestle with in one manner or another.

    Also I happen to believe that Paul either wrote or greatly influenced Hebrews as well.

  • EricW

    The one time I attended Dan Juster’s church in Maryland (1985 or 1986), Beth Messiah, at that time the country’s largest Messianic Congregation, I believe, he said that he felt it was important for Jewish believers in Jesus to wear a tallit/tallis (and perhaps a yarmulke as well)?

    I don’t agree. I didn’t then and I still don’t.

  • Hi Norman, no worries, I’m not saying you should be ideological one way or the other. I just say what I say as a Messianic Jew in Europe, where we hear a lot of negative theology about Jews, when there’s lots to be positive about. Yeshua was a Jew too! We forget this easily.

    EricW, I don’t wear a tallit and don’t see it is as necessary for faith in Yeshua, although if people want to, they have the freedom to wear one I think.

  • I don’t believe “distinction” equals “fracture”. The adopted son is no less part of the family, yet the first born, the natural child will be heir to certain inheritances that the adopted may not. When theNT teaches “there is no distinction between Jew and Gentile”, it is in the context of salvation. However,I personally believe that gentile believers who fully join their adoptive family (the Jewish people ) as Ruth did (I.e., conversion, including messianic) in their hearts and with their lives; having embraced God’s covenants with His people, have crossed over and become more than just recipients of the grace of salvation. They become carriers of the duties and blessings of their new family without distinction. As even orthodox Judaism teaches, once one becomes a convert, it is forever forbidden to refer to him as such. He is a Jew. Yet, it is not necessary for a gentile to go that distance to be saved. When his heart and soul compel him out of love for Israel and the God of Israel, though, I have to think that it blesses God’s heart.

  • norman

    A huge part of OT theological inference toward the time of the Messiah would be when the defective patterns of Law Keeping would be set aside to bring back into play the purity of right standing with God.

    In Ezekiel it is stated as putting aside the “heart of stone” for a “heart of flesh”. Paul follows up on that idea in 2 Cor 3.

    Eze 36:26 And I will give you a new heart, and a new spirit I will put within you. And I will remove the heart of stone from your flesh and give you a heart of flesh.

    2 Cor 3: 3 And you show that you are a letter from Christ delivered by us, written not with ink but with the Spirit of the living God, not on tablets of stone but on tablets of human hearts.

    Paul continues on but I must say he is not easy on those who continue to reside steadfast in Jewish law keeping.

    2 cor 3: Since we have such a hope, we are very bold, not like Moses, who would put a veil over his face so that the Israelites might not gaze at the outcome of what was being brought to an end. But their minds were hardened. For to this day, when they read the old covenant, that same veil remains unlifted, because only through Christ is it taken away. Yes, to this day whenever Moses is read a veil lies over their hearts.

    This is why it is so difficult to filter out the tension between Judaism and what Jesus, the Apostles and Paul appear to present. I think it is understandable but I’m not sure we are to emulate completely the same attitudes to those who are legalistic today. But perhaps we need to fight more for Grace like Paul appears to be.

  • Maddison Lavarack

    Nice Blog I must read your book on Messianic Judaism.

  • J.R. Sorrow

    If Messianic Jews believe and follow the teachings of Christ how do they deal with Matt. 21:43-44?

  • J.R. Sorrow

    How many churches does Christ have? I believe one made up of both believing Jews and Gentiles. It’s not race but grace. “Neither circumcision nor uncircumcision but a new creation.”