Theology

Why I’m not a Messianic Jew

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It’s a struggle for some people to believe that “Christian with Jewish heritage” and “Messianic Jew” are not the same thing. I completely understand why; it wasn’t that long ago that I myself would have failed to see the difference.

I wish I could say I grew up with dual allegiances from having one Christian parent and one Jewish one, but that is not the case. No, I was nineteen years old when I converted, after years of quietly admiring Jesus and reading books about saints. More details about the “why” of conversion can be read about in my memoir.

Through my involvement with Campus Crusade for Christ, I was trained to view the Old Testament as nothing more than a precursor to the New. There, I was taught that the OT was an incomplete story filled with clues that pointed to the coming of a Savior, and to chop it short just before the start of Matthew was akin to driving a car with only three tires.

Friends in my bible study group would ask me for the “insider’s scoop” on how to evangelize to Jews. Little did they know I was not the ideal person to ask, since I wasn’t converted by any “Did you know it’s Jewish to believe in Jesus?” rhetoric.

In fact, I didn’t start reading the Bible much at all until after conversion. My fascination with Jesus began not just with the saints, but with the whole doctrine of Incarnation, which I’d then ask my Catholic friends about. A messiah who is simultaneously God and human is absolutely not a Jewish concept. Jews don’t unanimously agree on a lot of things, but they will affirm that much.

While it’s true that Jewish spiritual education is lacking as assimilation increases, Jews aren’t stupid. “Yeshua Ha’Moshiach” is still “Jesus the Messiah.” It’s factually wrong to tell a Jewish person that they can retain a spiritual Jewish identity when they place their faith in Jesus.

Now, they will always retain their Jewish ethnic and cultural identity, because Judaism is more than just a religion. Perhaps this is what Messianic Jews mean when they use that label. But I choose not to, because it implies an “add Jesus and stir” approach that isn’t logically possible — I’ll explain why in a moment.

My Christian friends seemed to pity the Jews for missing their own Messiah the way many of us can’t find the glasses that are sitting right on our noses, and I was “lucky” to realize the truth. There’s a disdainful attitude all too common in churches that Jews don’t know anything about their own Scriptures, and must be taught it by Christians: “Goy-splaining,” for lack of a better term.

What many Christians don’t realize is that it simply isn’t enough to convince a Jewish person that Jesus is God. The theological teachings of Christianity and Judaism have evolved in opposite directions over the last 2,000 years. Christians are quick to point out that Jesus intended to “fulfill” the Jewish law, so the two religions are theologically compatible as one, but that’s not what happened.

Jesus’ intentions aside, today we have two distinctly different religions that share origins in Abraham, but that’s where the similarities end. It’s intellectually dishonest to claim otherwise, and those that do indirectly tell me that they don’t know as much about Judaism as they think they do.

I started using the expression “Jew-ish” to describe myself, first as a joke, but now somewhat more seriously. My family is not religious but is steeped in Jewish culture. I still feel a sense of camaraderie when I meet other Jews because of a shared history (besides Bar/Bat Mitzvahs, sleepaway camps, and Purim parties, not many Christians can relate to having to convince their 5th grade teacher to excuse an absence to observe the New Year– in October). I’ve been able to continue making Jewish friendships by being honest about the fact that I converted. This would be a lot less likely if I identified as a Messianic Jew, because traditional Jews know that their messiah hasn’t come yet.

For more information on why I did not end up within Messianic Judaism, and why MJ theology is more compatible with evangelicalism than Judaism, please see these posts.

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26 thoughts on “Why I’m not a Messianic Jew”

  1. Sarahbeth, you write: “The theological teachings of Christianity and Judaism have evolved in opposite directions over the last 2,000 years. Original sin has never been a Jewish concept, and eternal punishment for lack of belief may be the least Jewish of them all (and if you’re curious, as many people are, I still have trouble swallowing this one). Christians are quick to point out that Jesus intended to ‘fulfill’ the Jewish law, so the two religions are theologically compatible as one, but that’s not what happened. Jesus’ intent aside, we now have two distinctly different religions that share origins in Abraham, but that’s where the similarities end. It’s intellectually dishonest to claim otherwise . . .”

    I think I understand the point; Judaism and Christianity diverged from one another. But if the truth is one, should we not try to study the history of Judaism and Christianity to see what happened: why they diverged, and who was right? You may find that Judaism and Christianity are more compatible than you think. Eastern Orthodoxy, for example, has never taught (and does not teach) “original sin” or “eternal punishment for lack of belief.”

    For more on this, you may be interested in A. James Bernstein’s book _Surprised by Christ: My Journey from Judaism to Orthodox Christianity_.

    The similarities between Judaism and Christianity do not end with their origins in Abraham.

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  2. Beth, you writes: “The theological teachings of Christianity and Judaism have evolved in opposite directions over the last 2,000 years. Original sin has never been a Jewish concept, and eternal punishment for lack of belief may be the least Jewish of them all (and if you’re curious, as many people are, I still have trouble swallowing this one). Christians are quick to point out that Jesus intended to ‘fulfill’ the Jewish law, so the two religions are theologically compatible as one, but that’s not what happened. Jesus’ intent aside, we now have two distinctly different religions that share origins in Abraham, but that’s where the similarities end. It’s intellectually dishonest to claim otherwise . . .”

    I think I understand the point; Judaism and Christianity diverged from one another. But if the truth is one, should we not try to study the history of Judaism and Christianity to see what happened: why they diverged, and who was right? You may find that Judaism and Christianity are more compatible than you think. Eastern Orthodoxy, for example, has never taught (and does not teach) “original sin” or “eternal punishment for lack of belief.”

    For more on this, you may be interested in A. James Bernstein’s book _Surprised by Christ: My Journey from Judaism to Orthodox Christianity.”

    The similarities between Judaism and Christianity do not end with their origins in Abraham (and I don’t think I am being intellectually dishonest).

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  3. Beautiful. I spent 25 years in a messianic congregation and came to many of the same conclusions. I guess it just took me longer. I left thinking I was to become a more authentic or at least less duplicitous Christian and instead ended up much closer to Judaism. I love it and have been stunned by the richness of what I have discovered in my ancestorial faith. The more I have studied the more I have seeen that what I appreciated in the New Testament is just straight Jewish theology. At the same time I deeply question core doctrines of Christianity such as the Trinity, hell, the devil, original sin and the overall soteriology. Have you come across Amy Jill Levine’s writings as the sole Jewish New Testament scholar functioning at a Christian Theology Department(Vanderbilt)?

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  4. Thanks for a great post, Beth. This leaves me hanging, a bit, though. How DO you relate your “Jew-ish”ness to your Christianity? I don’t think you’re alone at all in being a Jew with Christian faith who does not want the “messianic” label.

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  5. I laughed at this: “Friends in my bible study group would ask me for the “insider’s scoop” on how to evangelize to Jews. Little did they know I was not the ideal person to ask, since I wasn’t converted by any “Did you know it’s Jewish to believe in Jesus?” rhetoric.”

    And also at this: “Jews aren’t stupid. “Yeshua Ha’Moshiach” is still “Jesus the Messiah.”

    Also also also this is so good. “Whereas Christian tend to denounce differing viewpoints as heresy, Judaism has perfected the art of agreeing to disagree.”

    Mmmmmmmmmmmmmmmm so much good stuff here.

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  6. Fascinating, thought-provoking article. I just went to amazon and now have your memoir on my Kindle! I’m close to one of the types you mention 😉 I embrace my Jewish heritage, but my spiritual beliefs incorporate some parts of Judaism and Buddhism. I credit Judaism for my political beliefs: it’s major tenet is that it is our responsibility to work to generate a more just world. I know little of Messianic Jews—but I want to mention I am not a Zionist!

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  7. The last paragraph reminds me of something. A former Messianic rabbi I know (who still believes Jesus is the Messiah) attends a conservative Jewish synagogue, and it accepts him, even though it knows he’s a Messianic Jew. That’s somewhat surprising to me. I went to Jewish Theological Seminary in the early 2000s, and many Jewish students there did not have a high opinion of Messianic Judaism, or Jews converting to Christianity.

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    1. There’s been a rise of Reform Jews incorporating aspects of Eastern religious practices with Judaism, which I found surprising, but embracing Christianity feels more like betrayal, given the tragic history between Christians and Jews. When it comes down to it, my Jewish friends hold a “you do you, I’ll do me” attitude as long as they aren’t targets for conversion.

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