Take a logical look at a question that is often controversial and confusing.
by Ruth Rosen | March 14 2018
If you find the question whether or not someone can be both Jewish and Christian controversial or confusing, you are not alone! Or maybe you are pretty sure of the answer, but don’t know how to explain it to others. Whether you are exploring for yourself or wanting to explain your beliefs to others, it helps to have objective and accurate definitions of both “Jewish” and “Christian.” Without those, it is easy to make assumptions—and assumptions can get in the way of understanding who is Jewish, who is Christian, and whether it is possible to be both.
For some, the question, “Can a person be Jewish and Christian” is not merely theoretical, but personal. You may be wondering, “Can I be Jewish and Christian?” Maybe you grew up hearing, “Jewish people don’t believe in Jesus!” Yet, you are not so sure if (or why) the two are incompatible.
Here we present a logical look at whether or not a Jewish person can also be a Christian.
Some say that being Jewish is merely a matter of religion. This definition excludes a huge percentage of people who identify as Jewish: atheistic Jewish people, agnostic Jewish people, and all other Jewish people who are either nonobservant or embrace ideas and beliefs that you won’t find in traditional Judaism.
Others argue that Jewish identity is determined by cultural and sociological (rather than religious) factors. Yet some who use this argument also say that Jewish people “who follow other religions” should be excluded. But how can one use a nonreligious definition to include some people, and then turn and use religion to exclude others? Definitions must be consistent.
The Hebrew Scriptures are a great place to start exploring Jewish identity. They explain exactly who the Jewish people are, including our origins, as well as how and why we exist.
Genesis 12:1–3 narrates the beginning of the birth of the Jewish people. To summarize: God told Abraham to leave his country and go to the land that God would show him. There, God promised, Abraham’s descendants would become a great and blessed nation, and through that nation, all the peoples of the earth would be blessed. That nation, of course, is the Jewish people descended from Abraham.
God reiterates this promise to Isaac (Genesis 26:2–5, 24) and again to Jacob (Genesis 28:13–15).
Biblically, if you’re Jewish, it’s because of God’s promise. That promise concerns the descendants of the people to whom it was made—the descendants of Abraham and Sarah, Isaac and Rebekah, Jacob and Leah and Rachel. No human being can revoke God’s promise to our ancestors. But though our Jewishness is inherited, being Jewish should be more than race, religion, or nationhood. We were meant to be not only a people of promise but also a people of purpose.1
That purpose was first outlined in Exodus 19:5–6. After God takes us out of Egypt, He explains that we are to keep His covenant and become a kingdom of priests, a holy nation. God describes His purpose for the Jewish people but allows us to decide if we want to obey Him and participate in that purpose.
Every Jewish person is part of the people of Israel to whom God made certain promises, but some do not know or care what that means. However, neither apathy nor even apostasy will change God’s promises or negate the Jewish identity of any descendant of that promise. The Jewish Scriptures cite case after case of both.
God warned our people of consequences should we step outside the boundaries He set, and the Bible records those consequences. Still, God never withdrew His promise or revoked peoplehood from the descendants of Jacob.
From the time of its inception to the digital age, halakhah (the Oral Law, that is, Jewish law that governs the life of religious Jewish people) recognizes that Jewish people never cease to be Jewish, regardless of what they believe or how they choose to live.
Even though a Jew undergoes the rites of admission to another religious faith and formally renounces the Jewish religion, he remains—as far as the halakhah is concerned—a Jew, albeit a sinner (Sanhedrin 44a). According to Nahmanides this attitude derives from the fact that the covenant between God and Israel was made “with him that standeth here with us today before the Lord our God and also with him that is not with us here today.”(Deuteronomy 29:14; Nahmanides ad loc.2)
Those who choose to hide their Jewishness are still Jewish people to God.
Aish.com points out that “a conversion to another religion is ineffective. According to Jewish law, a person is always Jewish—regardless of whether they reject their heritage, ignore it, or practice another religion.”3
As far as halakhah is concerned, there is no opting out of being Jewish. Yet for centuries, many religious as well as secular Jewish people have struggled to accept that this is true for Jewish people who believe the New Testament claims of Jesus.
More recently, the modern Jewish world has seen a shift regarding Messianic Jewish people—that is, people who were born Jewish and remain intentional about their Jewishness as they follow Jesus as the Jewish Messiah. Thought leaders and scholars have begun to recognize that Messianic Jewish people are indeed Jewish and are entitled to express their identity as such. Yaakov Ariel, professor of Jewish studies at UNC Chapel Hill calls attention to this turning tide:
Messianic Judaism grew and has turned into a permanent feature of the religious and cultural scene in Jewish population centers around the globe, and some Jews began looking at them in a new manner. Articles on Messianic Jews in Jewish periodicals … presented their case in a surprisingly impartial tone. In 2000, Dan Cohn-Sherbok, a Reform rabbi, published a book on Messianic Judaism, which in essence called for an inclusive definition of Judaism and the acceptance of the movement.4
Simon Rocker a journalist with The Jewish Chronicle, even goes so far as to recognize that we are not just ethnically and culturally Jewish but have also maintained our spiritual heritage. He reviewed The Jewish Gospels in which Daniel Boyarin explains that the concepts from the New Testament, such as the Trinity and divinity of Messiah, were already “deeply embedded” in first-century Judaism at the time of Jesus. This could challenge many in the Jewish community to consider faith in Jesus, not as a rejection of Jewish faith, but a continuation of it:
If Boyarin is right, then messianic Jews whose belief in Jesus as messiah puts them currently beyond the Jewish pale might have more claim to be an offshoot of Judaism than we think.5
Would it surprise you to know that someone who goes to a church all of his or her life is not necessarily a Christian? Jewish people are born Jewish because of a promise God made to our ancestors, but people become Christians because of what they believe about God’s promises, and specifically about Jesus as the fulfillment of those promises. One cannot be born a Christian since people aren’t born believing in anything. This is an important difference between Jewish people and Christians.
Some people might identify themselves as “Christian” because they grew up in a culture where church going is the norm, and because they do not identify with any other religion. But without an actual life-changing belief in Jesus, they are Christians in name only. The term sometimes used to describe such a person is “nominal Christian.” You might compare it to someone who registers as a member of a particular political party but has never voted or otherwise done anything else to show interest in or allegiance to that party or its candidates.
“Gentile” is the usual English translation of the Hebrew word goy, which means “nation,” and it is usually used to denote non-Jewish nations. A goy, or Gentile, is simply anyone who is not Jewish. As with being Jewish, being a Gentile is a matter of birth, as opposed to being a Christian, which is a matter of belief. To say that a Jewish person who believes in Jesus is no longer Jewish is the same as saying he or she became a Gentile—which is impossible. There are no formerly Jewish Gentiles. (Though a Gentile may choose to adopt the Jewish religion and be counted as part of the Jewish people.)
Some Jewish people grew up hearing the words “Christian” and “Gentile” used interchangeably. That mistaken use of words has contributed to the confusion over whether a person can be both Jewish and Christian. Many Messianic Jewish people avoid using the word “Christian” to describe their faith in Jesus for that very reason.
The first Christians were Jewish followers of Jesus, although they were not originally known by the term “Christians.” They described their belief in Jesus and his teachings as “the Way.”6 Others called them “Nazarenes,” after the town where Jesus and his family lived. These Jewish people saw Jesus as more than a religious idea or a good example; they viewed him as the promised Messiah predicted in Jewish Scriptures like Micah 5:1 and Isaiah 9:5 (JPS). Their faith in him affected how they saw their relationship with God and how they lived.
The first ones to be called “Christians” were probably mostly Gentiles who lived in Antioch. It was not a label they chose for themselves. They were called “Christians” (probably by other Gentiles) because they were always talking about and trying to live out the teaching of Jesus, the Messiah—or “Christ”—which is simply the Greek translation for Messiah. The name might well have been meant to mock them, but it became commonly understood as the term for anyone who followed the teachings of Jesus.
Christians are a diverse group; they are Jewish people and Gentiles who trust in Jesus as the Jewish Messiah, and the one who offered himself as a sacrifice for the sins of the world as predicted in Isaiah 53. In fact, Christians are about as diverse a group of people as you’ll ever find; there is plenty of diversity among Jewish believers in Jesus . . . and even more diversity among Gentile believers, since they represent all the nations of the world! God loves diversity, and the gospel welcomes people of all ethnicities.
John 3:16 has often been described as the best summary of Jesus’ message and the hope of those who believe in him. It reads: “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life.” Note the words world and whoever. These universal terms include Jewish people and Gentiles.
Gentile converts of the first century didn’t become Jewish people in order to follow the Jewish Messiah, even though the majority of believers in Jesus then were Jewish. Likewise, Jewish followers of Jesus today don’t become Gentiles, even though the majority of believers now are Gentiles.
Many Jewish followers of Jesus will say “no” when asked if they have converted—because they understand that most people today are not using that word in its original, biblical Jewish sense, but rather, to refer to someone who has abandoned their Jewish identity.
According to Jesus, everyone who turns to God (converts) has a common experience:
Jesus answered him, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born again he cannot see the kingdom of God.” Nicodemus said to him, “How can a man be born when he is old? Can he enter a second time into his mother’s womb and be born?” Jesus answered, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God. That which is born of the flesh is flesh, and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit” (John 3:3–6).
Rebirth refers to a new life that comes from a different source—a spiritual source. The rebirth that Jesus describes offers a new promise, but does not revoke God’s original promises to the Jewish people; in fact, the new promise is predicted in the Hebrew Scriptures (Jeremiah 31:33ff.). And yet this new promise, first made to the Jewish people, has been offered to Gentiles as well. Since the promise of peace with God that Jesus gives cannot be received at birth, but only by rebirth, being born Jewish or Gentile has no bearing on whether one receives that promise.
The answer is simple: we value our Jewishness; it is part of our past, present, and future. We see no reason to ignore or deny such an important part of who we are. And we believe that every living Jewish person is a testimony to God’s promise-keeping power. As mentioned, some Jewish believers in Jesus do not identify with the term “Christian” because some people misunderstand it as synonymous with Gentile. Most of us who use the term are quick to clarify that we are Jewish and Christian.
Maybe a better question would be, Why would anyone prefer that Jewish believers in Jesus renounce or ignore our Jewish identity? Perhaps some are concerned that if we are seen as Jewish people it might remove a barrier that prevents other Jewish people from considering Jesus. But anyone who wants to label us “no longer Jewish” to protect others from considering Jesus might be overextending themselves. There is plenty of disagreement within the Jewish community about how, or even if, one can know God. Plans to protect people from opposing ideas about knowing God often backfire. Everyone has a right and a responsibility to ask God to show them how to have a relationship with Him. Asking God whether Jesus is the way to that relationship is a personal choice that anyone, Jewish or not, has a right to make.
Being Jewish or Gentile is an unchangeable fact of birth. Being a Christian is a matter of belief and choice. If Jesus really is who he claimed to be—the Jewish Messiah—becoming his follower would strengthen our Jewish identity, not destroy it.
It may sound obvious, but it’s always best to believe the truth. In order to do that, we need to question assumptions. That can be uncomfortable, but many people who have done so discovered that their beliefs were built on what others thought or felt, or even on their own preferences. As important as other people are, and as strongly as we may feel about what we prefer to believe, it takes something more to find the prize: the truth about a relationship with God. If you are willing to explore the claims of Jesus out of a real desire to know whether he truly is the Messiah, the same God who you ask to guide your search for truth will also guard the Jewish identity that He has given you. We believe that through faith in Jesus, we become the kind of Jewish people God always intended us to be: forgiven of sin, believing in the Messiah, being a light to the world.
Maybe you have already looked into this matter and find yourself believing that Jesus probably is the Messiah, but you are holding back. You may have your reasons, and those reasons may weigh heavily on you. If you’d like to discuss them, we are ready to listen.
Or maybe what you just read has settled your last doubt, and you are ready to believe, but wondering how to navigate that as a Jewish person. If so, please let us know so we can connect with you.
This content was adapted from an earlier Jews for Jesus article.
1. “When Jews Were Proselytizers,” Issues, vol. 9:10.
2. Encyclopedia Judaica, vol. 3 (Jerusalem: Keter Publishing House, 1972) 211, 212.
4. Yaakov Ariel, “A Different Kind of Dialogue? Messianic Judaism and Jewish-Christian Relations,” Crosscurrents, September, 2012, 321–22.
5. Simon Rocker, “Why a ‘Divine’ Messiah Was Not Beyond Belief: A New Book by a Leading Jewish Scholar Turns Some of Our Preconceptions about Jesus and the Origins of Christianity on Their Head,” The Jewish Chronicle, April 22, 2013 [review of Daniel Boyarin, The Jewish Gospels].
6. See Acts 9:2, 19:9, 23, 24:14, 22.