Against Messianic Judaism
There is a small, but vocal, movement among Christians who wish to “restore” Christianity as a sect of Judaism. They primarily rely on Jewish converts to Christianity to bolster their claims to legitimacy, however, large numbers of people who claim to be Jewish in Messianic communities are not Jewish at all. Messianic Judaism is in fact a misnomer as their central beliefs and authoritative scriptures are Christian, not Jewish. A more accurate, and older, name would be Hebrew Christianity. As I will demonstrate, the Messianic movement is riddled with inconsistencies, contradictions, deceitful or incorrect terminology, and theological confusion. Messianic Judaism has the unique distinction of so thoroughly misunderstanding Christianity and Judaism that it is considered a heresy by both. While my criticisms will not likely sway a committed Christian in this movement to abandon their mistaken, anti-Semitic sect, I do hope that it will help to prevent anyone who may wish to join them from doing so. In this essay, I will bring forth arguments against Messianic Judaism, this will include criticism of Christianity itself. However, I do not wish this to be seen as an attack on Christianity. I respect committed, honest Christians and their right to practice their faith. My criticism of Christianity will only be for the sake of demonstrating why Judaism and Christianity cannot be joined in a syncretic religion and how Messianic Judaism disrespects both Judaism and Christianity.
Before going further, we must define what we mean by Messianic Judaism. Primarily, it must be kept in mind that this sect is not a sect of Judaism at all. All of its central beliefs, which can be found at mjaa.org, are Christian in nature. Their statement of faith is primarily concerned with the Christian Trinity and salvation from sin through faith in Jesus, who they identify as the Jewish messiah (a claim that will be examined later). They also accept the Christian New Testament as authoritative scripture which will prove problematic to their claims of practicing Judaism in any sense of the term. Another important aspect of their purpose in existing is a desire to not assimilate into the larger church and to “share this way, this truth, and this life with their Jewish brothers and sisters.” They simultaneously wish to remain separate from the goyische churches and convert other Jews to Christianity. Both of these goals will be analyzed below.
The fundamental problem with Messianic Judaism is their insistence on calling their religion Judaism. Despite their claims to be practicing a “complete” form of Judaism, they negate the entirety of Judaism. As the late Orthodox Rabbi Aryeh Kaplan wrote, “Christianity negates the fundamentals of Jewish faith, and one who accepts it rejects the very essence of Judaism. Even if he continues to keep all of the rituals, it is the same as if he abandoned Judaism completely.” Although Messianic Jews retain some Jewish rituals, their Christian beliefs, and the Christian New Testament itself, subvert and destroy the essentials of Jewish faith and practice.
The Christian New Testament explicitly claims that the Law (i.e. the Torah) is obsolete and believers in Jesus are free from both the Law and sin (Romans 7:6; Galatians 3: 23-29; Hebrews 8:13). In fact, Paul makes an explicit connection between sin and following the law, claiming, “Sin, seizing an opportunity in the commandment, deceived me and through it put me to death” (Romans 7:11). Considering that all Jewish religious rituals are grounded on the commandments of the Torah or Talmud, the Messianic insistence on holding to any of them places them in direct contradiction with their own scriptures that declare such rituals null and void. A perfect example would be the laws of kashrut, which are directly overturned in the book of Acts by one of the first church councils (Acts 15). Kashrut is an important part of traditional Jewish religious observance based on the Torah and Talmud; yet the Christian scriptures explicitly reject this Jewish practice and the argument made by some in the council to have gentile converts to Christianity “observe the Mosaic law” (Acts 15:5). And the rejection of Jewish law was not limited to gentile converts, but was practiced by Jewish Christians as well, as depicted in Acts 10. Throughout the Christian New Testament, Jewish law is rejected, the Torah is denigrated, and the essentials of the Jewish faith are subverted.
The rejection of Jewish law and practice in the Christian scriptures becomes important in later church history and church councils which explicitly forbade the “Judaizing” of Christianity as heresy (known as the Ebionite heresy). It was argued, based on the teaching of Paul, that “if justification comes through the law, then Christ died for nothing” (Galatians 2:21). The practices of the Jews were further tarred by the antisemitism of the gospels, which portray the Jews as obstinate children of the devil and the killers of Jesus (John 8:44; Matthew 27: 22-25). Jewish practice was even further tarred by the portrayal of the Pharisees in the gospels and their position in Judaism as the rabbis who established the Talmud as the authoritative interpretation of the Torah. The authority of the rabbis was rejected by Jesus himself, most explicitly in Mark 7:13, claiming that the Pharisees/rabbis “nullify the word of God in favor of tradition.” Because Jewish rituals are largely based on the interpretations of Jewish law given in the Talmud, and Jesus himself rejected the authority of the rabbis, the church also rejected Jewish rituals, traditions, practices, and interpretations. Messianic Judaism neglects this anti-Jewish aspect of Christian history, teaching, and scripture for ideological reasons, i.e. the conversion of Jews to Christianity and the desire for a Jewish aesthetic in their worship services.
Furthermore, the Messianic insistence on keeping themselves apart from the larger goyische church violates the teachings of the Christian New Testament. In Galatians 3:23-29, Paul states that there is “neither Jew nor Greek” and that all Christians are children of God and through Jesus they are all descendants of Abraham. Paul is essentially arguing that goyim have been grafted into the people of Israel through faith in Jesus. Ephesians 4:1-5 calls all Christians to live together in unity as “one body and one spirit […] one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all.” Paul further teaches in 1 Corinthians 12:13 that “in one spirit we were all baptized into one body, whether Jews or Greeks, slaves or free persons.” He gives this exhortation after lambasting the Corinthian church for having divisions and factions (1 Corinthians 11:18-19). The insistence on maintaining Jewish traditions not only doesn’t fit the theology of Christianity, it creates factions and divisions in the community which is also explicitly forbidden by Christian scriptures.
Moving away from the problems implicit in trying to make Christianity more Jewish, there is the problem of theology in Messianic Judaism. Theologically, they are Christian, not Jewish. In fact, their beliefs about the Trinity and Incarnation are remarkably orthodox for Christianity. They believe that there is one God in three persons: the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. They believe that Jesus is the son of God and God incarnate who died for the forgiveness of sins, and that the Holy Spirit dwells in the church and in the hearts of believers. These beliefs are adhered to by all mainstream Protestant, Catholic, and Eastern Orthodox churches. However, this creates problems for the sect in claiming to be an expression of Judaism because Judaism denies all of these beliefs. Furthermore, the entire religious paradigm of Judaism is different from that of Christianity. Judaism is not primarily concerned with salvation from sin, but in living according to the will of God as expressed through the Torah.
First and foremost, the divide between Judaism and Christianity has to do with the role of Jesus, not simply if he was the messiah, but whether or not he was a god. Judaism explicitly rejects Jesus as the messiah because of his failure to fulfill the requirements of the role. Judaism also rejects the idea that a human being can be God and on principle will not worship other gods. The Christian deification of Jesus violates both the concept of monotheism and the rejection of a human incarnation of God. Both principles can be found in the Bible. Furthermore, the Torah explicitly warns against false prophets, which by any rational standard Jesus (and the apostles) would fall into, even if we accepted the idea that he (they) performed miracles.
The Jewish commitment to monotheism can be found throughout the Bible. The first and second commandments state, “I the Lord am your God who brought you out of the land of Egypt, the house of bondage: You shall have no other gods besides Me. You shall not make for yourself a sculptured image […] You shall not bow down to them or serve them” (Exodus 20:2-5). The central statement of Jewish faith can be found in Deuteronomy 6:4-5, “Hear, O Israel! The Lord is our God, the Lord alone. You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might.” And finally, God declares his utter singularity in Isaiah 45:5, “I am the Lord and there is none else; beside Me there is no god.” These verses reveal the absolute unity of God in Jewish theology. God identifies himself as the savior of the Jews from Egyptian slavery, and declares that the Jews will worship no other gods, in fact that there are no gods beside (with) him. Jewish interpretations of these verses have led them to completely reject the Christian doctrine of the Trinity as having no basis in the Bible. Moses Maimonides, one the greatest and most authoritative Jewish legal scholars in history, included in his 13 principles of faith belief in the absolute unity of God. Divisions like those of the Trinity are rejected.
Maimonides also included a rejection of divine incarnation as one of his principles of Jewish faith, which he grounded in the Bible. The Jewish faith rejects the idea that God would have a physical body. The prophet Hosea quotes God as saying, “I am God and not a man” (Hosea 11:9). In the Torah, the idea that God could be a human being is explicitly rejected, “God is not a man to be capricious, or mortal to change his mind. Would he speak and not act, promise and not fulfill?” (Numbers 23:19). Moving away from the Bible there is also the logical inconsistency of the idea of an infinite, eternal God truly becoming a finite, contingent human being. The concept of God is inherently mutually exclusive from that of humanity. One cannot truly become the other without totally leaving behind the nature of the former being. I.e. if God were to truly become a human being, he would cease to be God. The Incarnation not only violates the fundamental teaching of Jewish theology, but also flies in the face of logic.
Moving away from these irreconcilable theological differences between Judaism and Christianity, there is the issue of the messiah. Christians, including Messianic Jews, believe that Jesus was the messiah, while Jews, in keeping with the teachings of halakha and the Bible, reject this claim. The reason for the rejection of the claim that Jesus was the messiah has to do with the standards which Jews have for the messiah. Primarily, the messiah will reestablish the Davidic line of kings, gather the Jewish exiles to Israel, and establish a world rule marked by world peace and mass recognition of the Jewish understanding of God as the correct one (Daniel 7:13-14; Isaiah 2:2-4; Micah 4:1-4; Ezekiel 39:9; Ezekiel 36:24; Isaiah 11:9; Jeremiah 31:31-34; Zechariah 8:23, 14:9,16). There are other, less dramatic requirements which I will not list here. None of these things have happened. Furthermore, Jesus failed to be properly descended from King David. The gospels state that Jesus was born of a virgin and did not have a human father. This in itself bars him from being the messiah if it is true because royal succession is passed through the father, not the mother. Assuming the validity of Jesus genealogy in the gospels, we must also take into account that he was not descended through the proper royal line. Luke shows Jesus as descended from Nathan, not Solomon, but the messiah must be descended from David through Solomon (Luke 3:31; II Samuel 7:12-17; I Chronicles 22:9-10). Because Jesus failed to have the proper pedigree and failed to fulfill the role of the messiah, Jews reject his claim to be the messiah.
There is one other problem with the Christian understanding of the messiah, i.e. that the messiah must suffer and die for the sins of humanity. This idea is completely foreign to Judaism which explicitly rejects human sacrifice. It is, however, completely at home in pagan understandings of a dying and rising savior god, like Osiris, Horus, or Mithra. The Bible repeatedly and consistently states that human sacrifice is abhorrent to God (Deuteronomy 12:30-31; Jeremiah 19:4-6; Psalm 106:37-38; Ezekiel 16:20). Nor does Judaism, or the Bible, teach that a blood sacrifice must be made for the forgiveness of sin (Leviticus 5:11-13; Jonah 3:10; Jeremiah 7:22-23; 2 Chronicles 7:14; Psalm 51:16-17; etc. etc.). Judaism is consistent in teaching that repentance is what God looks for to forgive sins, not sacrifice. Furthermore, Judaism does not teach that someone can atone for the sins of another, each person must atone for their own sins (Deuteronomy 24:16; Ezekiel 18:1-4, 20-24, 26-27; Jeremiah 31:29-30). For all these reasons the death of Jesus, a human sacrifice, has no place in Jewish theology, nor would the God of Judaism accept such a sacrifice.
And finally, there is the issue of false prophets. Deuteronomy 13:2-6 states in part, “If there appears a prophet or dream diviner and he gives you a sign or portent, saying, ‘let us follow and worship another god’ […] even if the sign […] comes true, do not heed the words of that prophet […] the Lord is testing you.” Jesus claimed to be the son of God (perhaps even God himself) in John 8, and Paul taught throughout the epistles that “Jesus is Lord.” Considering the Jewish adherence to strict monotheism, these proclamations amount to Jesus, Paul, and any other Jewish Christian falling under the label of a false prophet, someone claiming to speak for God while violating the Torah, specifically the commands to worship God alone and obey his commandments. When a Jewish Christian proselytizes another Jew and exhorts him or her to worship Jesus, they are explicitly violating the dictates of the Torah as laid out above, not “fulfilling” or “completing” their Jewish faith.
The Torah teaches that the Torah is binding on all Jews for all time (Deuteronomy 29:9-14). There is no escape clause in the Torah. Judaism also views the Torah as a blessing, not a curse. It is through observing the teachings of the Torah that Jews are able to obey and draw close to God and live a good life (Deuteronomy 30:11-20). Therefore, the Messianic/Christian claim that the Torah leads to sin and death and has been discarded or superseded by the “new covenant” established by a false messiah is fundamentally incompatible with Judaism. If the Messianic movement accepts the teachings of the Christian New Testament, then they are fundamentally opposed to the essential teachings of Judaism, and therefore, the religion that they practice is not Judaism at all. It is Christianity deceitfully calling itself Judaism and appropriated Jewish rituals for the sake of converting Jews to Christianity. Christianity and Judaism are not compatible religions to be syncretized. Each has its own internal rationale and belief system. While there may be Jewish Christians (people born Jewish who converted to Christianity), there is no such thing as Christian Judaism. It is a contradiction of terms.