Theology

Connecting to Jesus by strawmanning Judaism

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I understand the appeal of Messianic Judaism to Protestant Christians: it seems like a way to connect with the Jewish roots of Jesus. It helps provide context for Jesus’ parables. It also functions like an insider’s guide to evangelizing the Jewish people.

Unfortunately, MJ theology not only misrepresents ancient Judaism – it’s offensive to traditional Jews, and not in the expected way that Christianity is offensive to most people.

The gospel is offensive – but not like that

I’ll be the first to admit: the gospel is extremely offensive. Most people are either offended by who the “good news” says is allowed into the Kingdom, or by who it keeps out.

We need to let the gospel be offensive for the reasons it was intended to be offensive: because the state of the heart is more important to Jesus than our outward displays of piety. Because sin cannot be tolerated in God’s presence.

Let the gospel divide people for the reasons it was meant to divide: because it elevates the poor and downtrodden, and is not impressed by social status. Because the powerful on earth will be surprised when they see who is considered “first” in heaven.

These are all the right reasons to be offended by the gospel – not because it presents a strawman of Judaism.

What on earth am I talking about?

For intelligent, easily readable commentary about Judaism as it tends to be treated by modern Christians, I highly recommend Rabbi Danya Ruttenberg’s Twitter thread on the subject.

Here are some highlights:

My Christian friends who want to learn more about Judaism because you hope it might help you understand Jesus more, I want to say something that might be kind of unpopular.

While it’s true that the Judaism of the Mishnah and the Second Temple can illuminate your understanding of the New Testament, the tradition has evolved an awful lot since then.

Like 2000 years of a lot. Like the Temple was destroyed in 70CE a lot. What we do now is not “Jesus’ religion.” And though learning as a historian can, indeed, open up the NT for you, that appropriation line isn’t far and you have to be really careful.

In a separate thread, Ruttenberg writes:

Jesus was a (brown-skinned, Middle Eastern) Jew, but his followers were not. Jews changed their liturgy to be clear about that differentiation pretty early. And guess what? Judaism has continued to evolve since the Second Temple was destroyed!

It’s important for interfaith dialogue, coexistence, basic respect, and historical accuracy to not conflate Judaism and Christianity. Two different faiths, traditions, theologies, histories. The origin & relationship to text is overlapping in some cases, yes, but there’s no “Judeo-Christian” tradition. And that’s okay.

TL;DR version: in order for Messianic Judaism to work, Judaism must remain frozen in time. It is not allowed to advance and develop its own separate theology and tradition, which have nothing to do with Christianity. And the ancient form of Judaism that Jesus and his disciples knew must also be presented in a certain way – not for the complex, nuanced tradition that it actually was, and still is today.

How not to treat a marginalized people

I can tell you firsthand how frustrating it is to have had my own religion explained to me by Christians hoping to convert me. I can also tell you just how hurtful it is to try and explain the rich theology of Judaism on its own terms, only to be dismissed for defending an ancient and outdated set of “rules.” It’s an unfortunate reality that many Christians get their knowledge of Judaism in church, from other Christians – not from Jews themselves.

I hold on to the cultural markers of my Jewish heritage, as they helped shape the person I am today. But at a certain point in my spiritual journey, I had to accept that I had chosen a different path. I knew too much about Judaism to pretend otherwise.

It’s hurtful to the Jews to have their faith misrepresented as Christianity, the Prequel. And Christians, it’s nothing short of damaging to your witness to promote a tradition that Jews are telling you is harmful to them. This isn’t the only minority group we do this to, and it needs to stop.

Again, I admit that the gospel is offensive. The gospel excludes. But let the gospel be offensive on its own terms – not because it parodies a faith that’s already suffered enough.

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