Let's explore the cultural, historical, and religious reasons.
by Jews for Jesus | January 07 2021
Out of the 14 million Jewish people worldwide1, it’s fair to say that most of these do not believe that Jesus (Yeshua) is the Jewish Messiah. Statistics project that at least 175,000 Messianic Jews in the U.S. alone believe in Jesus, while estimates worldwide range from 350,000 to 1.7 million.2 While it’s not new that Jewish people have been believing in Jesus since … well, Jesus … it’s certainly a rare thing to encounter.
When a Jewish person recognizes Jesus as the Messiah, most other Jewish people feel he or she is no longer Jewish. Why is this, and why do many Jewish people take exception to those who do follow Yeshua? Most of the reasons for not embracing Jesus can be grouped into three categories: cultural, historical, and religious.
Many Jewish people will explain quite simply that “Jewish people don’t believe in Jesus!” Much of today’s Jewish community headlines “inclusivity” as part of their worldview, but ironically, there is still one stigma that remains. For example, in a recent post from HeyAlma, the popular Jewish blog, boldly stated that the only thing the extremely diverse Jewish community could all agree on was that “Jews for Jesus aren’t Jewish.”3
This sentiment isn’t surprising. Growing up, most Jewish people are taught that Jesus is only for Gentiles. Moreover, if a Jewish person decides to follow Jesus, the Jewish community considers them converts to Christianity. At one point in history, such people were considered apostates—lost to the Jewish community, or even to their own families. For a Jewish person to consider faith in Jesus, he or she must consider the social stigma they will face from friends, family, and the larger Jewish community. Would a rabbi ever agree to marry them? Would they ever be allowed to make aliyah? Would they be prohibited from joining a synagogue? These are the implications many Jewish people face when considering Jesus.
It’s likely that one of the reasons why “Jewish people don’t believe in Jesus” is because the history between the church and the synagogue has been written in blood and punctuated with violence and antisemitism. As the church grew rapidly among Gentiles in the 200s-500s A.D. while receiving much resistance from the burgeoning Rabbinic Judaism movement, many Gentile Christian leaders came to think that God had rejected the Jewish people for not recognizing their Messiah and for killing the Son of God. Augustine wrote in the early 5th century C.E., “Jews have been scattered throughout all nations as witnesses to their own sin and to our truth.… Scatter them abroad, take away their strength. And bring them down O Lord.”4
Such inflammatory language was echoed throughout the centuries as Christian leaders maintained that the Jewish people were scattered and preserved in order to be punished for rejecting the Messiah. Down through the ages, atrocities, murders, and massacres were justified on this basis.
On May 27, 1096, over 600 Jewish people were massacred in Mainz at the start of the first Crusade.5 In 1492, King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella signed the order to banish the Jewish people from Spain unless they converted at sword point to Christianity. Even the Protestant Reformer Martin Luther was unreserved in his venomous language calling for the destruction of German Jewry: “First, set fire to their synagogues.… Second, I advise that their houses also be razed and destroyed.”6 Many historians maintain that 15 centuries of anti-Jewish sentiment laid the foundation of the worst atrocity that the Jewish people have ever endured—the Holocaust. Holocaust survivor Rose Price recalls when the camp guards struck her, they told her they were following Jesus’ orders.7
Understandably, this has led to many Jewish people believing that the goal of Christianity over the centuries has been to accomplish genocide, either through murder or conversion. These atrocities are not in keeping with the teachings of Jesus or the New Testament writers, and are, in fact, in direct opposition to them.
Many rabbis and religious leaders believe that Jesus cannot be the Messiah because he did not fulfill the job requirements: “Judaism does not believe that Jesus was the Messiah because he did not fulfill any messianic prophecies. ‘Nation shall not lift up sword against nation, nor shall they learn war anymore’” (Isaiah 2:4). Far from establishing world peace, Jesus himself said that he came to divide “father against son and son against father, mother against daughter and daughter against mother” (Luke 12:53). In fact, there has been more bloodshed in the name of Jesus rather than in the name of peace. How then can anyone argue that Jesus is the promised Messiah according to the Jewish Scriptures?
Because the current Jewish community is so focused on inclusion, it has compelled them to consider Jesus (and those who follow him) in a different light. Many recent studies show that this once-firm perspective is now shifting, both on paper, and in everyday Jewish life. A Barna study of Jewish Millennials carried out in 2017 found that 20% of Jewish Millennials surveyed responded that Jesus was “God in human form who lived among people in the 1st century.”8 A statistic like this indicates that emerging generations of Jewish people in their 20s and 30s are deciding for themselves who Jesus is.
While Jewish followers of Jesus acknowledge the cultural obstacles and painful historical facts surrounding his identity, there are still many reasons that drive them to believe that he is the Messiah. First and foremost, most people who come to follow Jesus, Jewish or not, have a personal encounter with God that changes their lives. As a result, Jewish people who have this experience can’t help but passionately embrace both their faith and their heritage.
They recognize that Jesus was born to Jewish parents, was raised in a Jewish home in Israel, observed the Torah, and taught the nation of Israel as a rabbi. His teachings were not an attack on Judaism, but rather an authoritative, intelligent interpretation of the Torah and a critique of a religious system that was corrupt during his day: “Do not think that I came to abolish the Torah or the Prophets! I did not come to abolish, but to fulfill … until heaven and earth pass away, not the smallest letter or serif shall ever pass away from the Torah … whoever keeps and teaches them, this one shall be called great in the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 5:17–19). Following his teachings is a continuation of the Jewish faith, not an abandonment of it.
It is important to understand all the prophecies describing the Messiah in the Jewish Scriptures and not just selected passages. The Hebrew Scriptures relate a complex picture of who this figure will be. In fact, we learn from them that he will first suffer and die an atoning death: “He was cut off out of the land of the living, stricken for the transgression of my people” (Isaiah 53:8).
It was necessary for the Messiah to first come, suffer, and die as an atonement for sin. By doing so, he brought peace between humanity and God. However, the Tanakh goes on to explain that he will return and at that time establish peace on earth. Jesus came to bring reconciliation with God, not violence and bloodshed, especially against his own people. He will return one day, and he offers peace with God for those who will embrace him, whether they are Jewish or Gentile.
While the actions taken in his name throughout history have been horrendous and inexcusable, anyone who has studied the New Testament knows that Jesus never would have condoned antisemitism in any form. He foretold the destruction of Jerusalem and was deeply grieved by it: “When he drew near and saw the city, he wept over it, saying, ‘Would that you, even you, had known on this day the things that make for peace! But now they are hidden from your eyes’” (Luke 19:41–42). Even if he had some frustrations and debates with some of the religious leaders in his time, he taught and practiced love for all people, including those who mistreated him (Matthew 5:43–48; 22:34–40; Luke 23:34). He never taught or would have approved of any prejudice or mistreatment towards the Jewish people.
Yes, you can be Jewish and believe in Jesus! Undoubtedly, there are some risks to take into consideration. Yeshua himself told us that we’d be ostracized and ridiculed for choosing to follow him. But if he really is the promised Jewish Messiah, recognizing him as such is ultimately worth whatever we might lose in the process. Are you open-minded enough to explore spiritual truth for yourself?
4. Robert Michael and Philip Rosen, Dictionary of Antisemitism: From the Earliest Times to the Present (Lanham: Scarecrow Press, 2007), 126. It’s noteworthy that Augustine was actually quoting Psalm 59 in that passage. That kind of criticism of the Jewish people was informed by words form the Bible and Jesus, which in their original contexts were cases of self-criticism among the Jewish community. Jesus openly criticized the Jewish religious leasers as a Jewish religious leader. But as the church became more Gentile-centric, that language from the pens of Gentile church leaders took on a different tone and lent itself too easily to blending with and encouraging the antisemitism of the broader Gentile culture.
5. D. B. Green, “This Day in Jewish History Crusaders Massacre the Jews of Mainz,” Haaretz, 2014.
7. B. F. Kenison, Forbidden Peace, 2004.
8. “Jewish millennials: the beliefs and behaviors shaping young jews in America,” Barna Group (Ventura: Barna Research Group, 2017).